Tag Archives: Waikato Times

Anti-fluoride activists attempt to silence science

Roger Stratford, a local aspiring politician, wants scientist to shut up. He is campaigning against the fluoridation of Hamilton’s water supply (we have a referendum coming up) and is a member of Fluoride Free Hamilton. He is also campaigning for a seat on the Hamilton City Council.

But Roger seems to have a King Canute-like (or is it Walter Mitty-like) perception of his own powers. The Waikato Times this morning reports he wrote to the University of Waikato’s Chemistry Department requesting that it’s staff stop communicating their science (see Anti-fluoride campaigner tries to silence science). He objects to:

“the degree of casual support emanating from the chemistry department in local papers in support of the practice [of fluoridating water] . . . At Fluoride Free Hamilton we intend to limit the debate to the social science and public health aspects of fluoridation. . . . It would be appreciated if we could receive some confirmation from the chemistry department that it will remain publicly neutral on the matter. . . . Fluoride Free Hamilton does not have any issues with the chemistry department academically, it is the implications of modern science in which we differ.”

What a cheek – Fluoride Free Hamilton and Roger Stratford want a deal! They will talk only about social science and the chemists can STFU. Well, we all know that most of the issues around fluoridation are scientific, and mostly chemical. And the anti-fluoridation activists are spreading misinformation about that chemistry as fast and as widely as they possibly can.

What was Roger thinking?

My first whiff of Roger’s stupidity came with a comment of his on the Fluoride Free Hamilton Facebook page:

Facebook-before-2I contacted him asking if he had in fact written to the Chemistry Department. He Assured me in his reply:

“In my experience as a student the chemistry department doesn’t negotiate on anything, it was just a throwaway line of mine to get that Archer fellow from blogging. There is no reason to be alarmed.”

Well, I guess that’s a political answer – an implied but not a factual denial. Mind you, very quickly the comments on the Fluoride Free Hamilton Facebook page changed – see if you can guess what was deleted:

Facebook-after-2

Well, I suppose that is politics. It is really a bit much to expect honesty and integrity from politicians, or from political activists like the Fluoride Free groups.

But I object very strongly to politicians, and political activists, who will do their earnest best to spread misinformation about science – and then tell scientists they have no right to comment on the issues.

See also:

Similar articles on fluoridation
Making sense of fluoride Facebook page
New Zealanders for fluoridation Facebook page

Hamilton City Council reverses referendum fluoridation decision

Well, this morning’s news was a shock. The local council (Hamilton City Council) has decided to stop fluoridating our water supply (see Fluoride to be removed from Hamilton’s water supply).

(Note: If you are sufficiently interested that Waikato Times article has an attached poll where you can express your view. Early votes ran against the council decision, but subsequently the anti-fluoridators seem to have organised to fix that).

Yes, I know. I should have paid attention. But I am probably pretty typical in my apathy about local body politics.

I did know something was afoot – after all an old friend of mine had told me months ago he was part of a campaign to stop fluoridation. But as we had been through all that 7 years ago I thought the format would be the same.

In 2006 a citizen referendum decisively supported continuation of fluoridation in Hamilton’s water supply. That referendum was preceded by much public debate in which supporters and opponents actively presented their arguments.

So, I think I (and other Hamiltonians) can be excused for thinking we were running up to similar referendum held alongside the next local body elections. But we were mistaken. The Waikato Times tells us how it was done:

“The decision, just reached after less than an hours’ debate, followed a lengthy tribunal which heard the weight of public submissions, many from outside the city, argue for the removal of hydrofluorosilicic acid from the water supply.”

Well, I guess that is the price of apathy. But, given the history, I can’t help feeling rather duped. In my mind there are two issues:

Democracy

This time the issue seems to have taken place behind closed doors – at least figuratively. Apparently submissions are on the City Council web site (and I will certainly be perusing those as the Times article implies they were one-sided). But the public discussion has been pretty minimal – it certainly didn’t register with me. And as a chemist, with some background in researching carbonate apatites (and the role of fluoride in them) I should normally have noticed.

The vote seems rather funny – 7 to 1 to stop fluoridation. With five councillors withdrawing from the vote – 3 councillors “removed themselves after declaring a conflict with their district health board roles.” Bloody hell, one might have expected these three councillors to have a better understanding than the others.

And the question of understanding also raises issues. How informed were the 7 councillors who voted to stop fluoridation? How representative were the submissions they presumably took note of? And, considering the importance of health issues like this, shouldn’t they have done more to get advice from reliable professionals?

In fact, I really wonder if a local council is the right sort of body to consider such important health issues.

Science

In public discussion of these issues the science is often problematic. Both sides on the fluoridation issue will present sciency sounding arguments and these are often difficult for the layperson to consider objectively. Just like the climate change issue. However, given the importance of the fluoridation issue and the fact that a representative body is charged with making the decision it is important for public discussion to at least have the opportunity to be informed scientifically.

In this case I don’t believe the public was adequately informed – and I suspect that neither were the council members. (I really must check out the submissions they received).

The other aspect of these sort of public issues is the way that scientific knowledge gets used. Often pseudo scientific arguments are used. Strongly motivated people will cherry pick, search for information, misrepresent information, to support their firmly held views. Yes, I know – this is only human – we are all prone to confirmation bias. But that is why it is important to make sure there is adequate representation of views. And to make sure professional experts make submissions and give their comments on the submissions of others.

Finally, this is a health issue – and like most health issues it is the most vulnerable who have the most at stake, but usually have the least opportunity to take part in decisions. It will be the children of the economically most disadvantaged families who suffer the decline in dental health. Not only because of weakened dental enamel but also because they are also the people less likely to be receiving adequate dental care as they grow.

See also:

Fluoridation
Water Fluoridation – the emotional tail wags the dog in Hamilton
Waikato DHB ‘very disappointed’ with fluoride decision