The Science March in Palmerston North. Credit: Erin Wilson, Twitter.
This last week has certainly raised the profile of the “science debate” in New Zealand. Most importantly we saw big turnouts for the Science March in several major cities – a demonstration that lots of scientists and supporters of science feel that science could be threatened – or at least that it is unappreciated by the politicians and other decision-makers. Maybe even by a section of the public.
And at the other end of importance, we saw a childish spat by local anti-fluoride activists who had attempted to use a member of Parliament’s experience of miscarriages to make the scaremongering claim that these were caused by community water fluoridation. Then they attempted to divert attention from the embarrassing (for them) widespread condemnation by promoting, through their own press releases, the fake news they had organised a “TV debate” on fluoridation with a local scientist.
The Science March
The Science March was many things to many people. I saw it as a general demonstration of support for science and opposition to attempts to discredit science – examples being the science around climate change, vaccinations, evolution – and yes even fluoridation. Some of the media presented it as a demonstration against US president Trump and his policies – and there may have been many in the US Science Marches who had these motivations. But every country and every region have examples where politicians have downplayed scientific evidence or even attempted to discredit that evidence and the scientists who produced it. These sort of struggles went on long before Trump and they will go on after Trump.
For example, in New Zealand, we have some specific issues over water quality and climate change which are quite unconnected to the US and its politicians. We have to fight out those issues here. Scientists, anyway, strongly resist linking their issues to politics and political movements. We have had a few bad experiences from that. This resistance and the silly intervention of identity politics into the organisation of the US Science Marches did make many scientists wary of participation.
But, in the end, the Science Marches around the world had good turnouts and my impression is that participants felt they had been both worthwhile for science and good experiences personally.
Of course, the Science March will not make the problems go away. There is still a need for the day to day struggle on issues like climate change, water and environmental quality and even fluoridation. This is one of the points I attempted to make in my article Trump didn’t invent the problems – and his opponents didn’t invent protest.
And this is where a continuing debate around science issues is important. To be clear – I am not using the word “debate” in the formal sense (more on that later) but in its most general sense. And not necessarily debate involving specific contact between adversaries.
Issues about water quality and the environment come up continually in New Zealand. In the media, in local body and parliamentary considerations, and in government statements. A lot of the commentary may downplay the science on the issue or overplay economic and financial aspects. Some of the commentaries may be outright anti-science – or present misinformation, even distortions, about the science. Activist claims about the “dangers” of the use of 1080 to control predator pests are an example.
The misinformation and downplay of scientific information cannot be allowed free passage – it must be challenged. Hence there is a debate – again not a formal debate, but a debate, nevertheless. The public is exposed to various claims and counterclaims via the media and the internet. Regional bodies and parliamentary committees are deluged with submissions and scientists and supporters of science have a role to play there too.
Scientists and supporters of science should not stand aside and let the opposition win by default – simply because they abhor the political process or ego-driven participation in media reports. But they need to choose their battles – and they need to consider the effectiveness or otherwise of different forms of participation in public debate.
Problems with formal debates
So what about formal debates of the sort the Fluoride Free New Zealand (FFNZ – the local anti-fluoride organisation) claimed via their press releases to have organised? A TV debate between New Zealand Scientist Professor Michelle Dickinson from Auckland University, and Dr. Paul Connett – chief guru at the US Fluoride Action Network. This proved to be a kickback from FFNZ, a diversion from the bad publicity that came their way when Dickinson publicly criticised their use of scaremongering tactics in an email sent to a Green member of parliament. Public commenters were disgusted at the FFNZ claim the miscarriages she had suffered were caused by community water fluoridation.
Professor Dickinson pointed out she had not agreed to a TV debate (which FFNZ then childishly used in another press release to claim she had reneged). And Dr. Paul Connett did not even publicly respond – indicating that while the debate challenge had been made in his name he knew nothing about it.
Kane Titchener, the Auckland FFNZ organiser who made the challenge to Michelle Dickinson, is a bit of a Walter Mitty character and often makes debate challenges in Paul Connett’s name, but without his authorisation. These challenges are his way of avoiding the discussion of the science when he is outgunned. He made a similar challenge to me four years ago – I called his bluff and nothing happened. The debate I did eventually have with Paul Connett was arranged through Vinny Eastwood (a local conspiracy theorist who promote anti-fluoride propaganda), not Kane Titchener – who was probably not even in contact with Connett.
But, in general, scientists are unwilling to take part in the sort of formal debates Kane Titchener was proposing. There are often similar challenges made to evolutionary scientists by creationists and religious apologists, and to climate scientists by climate change deniers. Scientists generally feel their opposition make these challenges in an attempt to gain recognition or status they do not deserve. (I think in this particular case Kane Titchener may have naively thought he could use Michelle Dickinson’s connections with TV personalities to get Connett on TV – something he has found impossible on his recent visits to NZ).
Another, more important, reason is that such formal debates are usually more entertainment than information. In fact, debating is a recognised form of entertainment often driven by egos and aimed at ‘scoring points’ which appeal to a biased and motivated audience. They are rarely a way of providing information and using reasoning to come to conclusions – which is the normal and accepted process of scientific discussion.
Good faith discussion
Don’t get me wrong – I am not opposed to all forms of one-on-one “debate” or discussion. These can be useful – especially when the audience is not stacked by biased activists. An exchange of scientific views or information in front of an interested but unbiased audience can be a useful and good experience.
Similarly on-line, written debates or discussion of the sort I had with Paul Connett in 2013/2014 can also be useful (see Connett & Perrott, 2014. The Fluoride Debate). In this format, ego and debating or entertainment skills are less effective. Participants need to produce information – and back it up with evidence, citations or logic. And one’s discussion partner always has the opportunity to critically comment on that information.
I feel that debate was successful – it enabled both sides to prevent information in a calm way without put downs or ego problems. I often use that debate when I want to check out citations and claims. Interestingly, though, Paul Connett behaves as if the debate never happened – claiming that no-one in New Zealand has been prepared to debate him. The FFNZ activists do the same thing. Ever since that debate, I have been blocked from commenting on any anti-fluoride website or Facebook page in New Zealand and internationally. It’s almost as if some sort of Stalinist order went out to treat me like a “non-person.”
A challenge to anti-fluoridation activists
If these activists are so keen on debating the issue then why don’t they allow it to happen? Why do they block pro-science people from commenting on their Facebook pages? Why do they ignore open letters and offers of rights of reply of the sort I sent to Stan Litras and other anti-fluoride activists (see A challenge to anti-fluoridationers to justify their misrepresentation of New Zealand research). Why did Lisa Hansen – the solicitor for the NZ Health Trust who has been making incorrect scientific claims in her High Court cases opposing fluoridation ignore my offer of a right of reply (see Open letter to Lisa Hansen on NZ Fluoridation Review)? Even the “great helmsman” himself, the man who Kane Titchener seems to think will answer all the questions, refuses to respond to offers of right of reply (see Misrepresenting fluoride science – an open letter to Paul Connett).
Why do these people ignore such opportunities?
One thing I noticed about the submission made by opponents of community water fluoridation to the recent parliamentary Health Committee consideration of the Fluoridation Bill was the overwhelming reliance on scientific claims in almost all their submissions. Claims that fluoridation causes IQ loss, fluorosis and a whole host of sicknesses. Many of the submitters actually used citations to scientific journals or attached copies of scientific papers.
These people claim they have science on their side – yet they seem to be extremely shy about discussing that science in any open way. Why is that?
No, it’s not a matter of Walter Mitty types making debate challenges in the name of Paul Connett. Why don’t Kane Titchener, Mary Byrne, Stan Litras, Lynn Jordan (alias Penelope Paisley on Facebook) and similar activists who love to make “authoritative” scientific claims in submissions or behind the protection of a ring-fenced Facebook page or website participate in an honest open debate?
For a start – what about stopping these silly”challenges” in Paul Connett’s name. Then they could remove restrictions on the discussion on the websites and Facebook pages they control.
And, yes, I would be happy for them to participate in good faith scientific discussion in articles on this blog. That is what my offers of the right of reply to my articles were all about.