It was a close thing, (passed by 7 votes to 6) but today the Hamilton City Council decided to hold a referendum on fluoridation of its public water supply at the October elections (see Hamilton to go to referendum on fluoride).
This represents a backdown from their decision last month to stop fluoridation – – despite a previous referendum and all their polling showing citizens support for the treatment.
In my mind this local experience raised a number of questions.
1: The questionable validity of the hearings process held by the Hamilton City Council. This was swamped by anti-fluoridation activists with only a few speakers (mainly institutional) supporting fluoridation. (There are no activist pro-science groups, unfortunately). This appeared to sway councillors who were exposed to a lot of “sciency” sounding misinformation, often extensively but falsely referenced. Councillors also appeared to be taken in by quantity and not quality, and seeing it as an issue on which scientists didn’t agree. They were fooled into the false “balance” argument – placing the activists “experts” on the same, or often higher, level of credibility as the experts in the District Health Board and Ministry of Health,
2: Council just don’t have the skills for this job. In effect, councillors were put in a position of having to make scientific judgements for which they are just not trained. The Mayor more or less admitted this when she said councils should not be put in this position and the decisions should be made by central government.
While such hearings have often been preferred to referenda I think this example shows how easily they can be captured. At least a referendum represents the will of the people, even if that can be influenced by chemophobia and activist propaganda. At least most people do put value on expert opinion.
3: The foolishness of council ignoring public opinion. I find incredible that the council could have made that June decision knowing that their polling showed it would not be popular. Did they really think they had raised themselves to expert status and therefore could over-ride that public opinion as well as expert advice?
4: The anti-science sympathies within the council. I communicated with all the councillors asking them to support a referendum and was shocked at the response of a minority (3). This was rude (extreme in one case), accused me of being involved in some sort of internal political infighting, and discounted any reply I made to their claims on the science of fluoridaiton. In effect these 3 councillors seemed to think that the “science” stories they got from the activists groups was of higher value than any comment made by a scientist. Not just me but also other people expressing concern and those on the District Health Board and Ministry of Health teams.
For example a warning about misinformation in the activists’ submissions brought accusations of being “condescending, and even a bit offensive” and scientists comments were described as “designed to put down those involved, and are unscientific themselves.” No explanation of what they based the claim on given. Yet the anti-fluoridationsts have been making quite irresponsible claims about the science and scientists, as well as our health institutions, without a single complaint.
And let’s face it, concerns expressed in the letters to the councillors really only echoed those of the Minister of Health.
But I have learned something
This experience brought home to me that anti-science attitudes are relatively widespread, even extending into representative bodies like councils. This is a bit of a shock as Hamilton has a long history of scientific research institutes and the University of Waikato in or near the city. In recent years science based industries and innovation centres have also proliferated. I had thought this scientific presence had actually promoted good attitudes towards science in the local community.
I must say, I was also surprised at such a rude response from a few councillors just months before the local body elections. I would have thought they would not be silly enough to offend voters in such a silly way.
Oh well, the Council has given us a referendum and I also found the experience useful in another way. I now have some good information which will help me in my voting decisions next October.
debunking anti-fluoridation arguments
Fluoridation – topical confusion
Fluoridation and conspiracy theories
Fluoridation – the violation of rights argument.
Poisoning the well with a caricature of science
Fluoridation – it does reduce tooth decay
Getting a grip on the science behind claims about fluoridation
Is fluoride an essential dietary mineral?
Fluoridation – are we dumping toxic metals into our water supplies?
Tactics and common arguments of the anti-fluoridationists