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A Blight on Society

Irrationality seems to be everywhere. In many cases it’s not a big deal if someone is irrational or not, for example I don’t really care about people who have crazy religious beliefs as long as they keep it to themselves… actually, who am I kidding! I do care because I just don’t like people having silly, irrational, superstitious beliefs, even if they superficially appear to be doing no harm!

But a greater problem arises when people’s irrationality does cause direct harm, as it often does in both obvious and in more subtle ways. There are so many places where obvious harm is caused that I don’t really know where to start, but climate change denial, anti-vaccination activism, and anti-fluoridation activism would be a few good examples. And that last one is the subject for this blog entry.

The issue of fluoridation has come to the surface here in New Zealand thanks to the initially successful action taken by a group in Hamilton. They actually persuaded the local council to remove fluoride from the water supply until medical professionals – especially the local district health board – and the results of a public referendum caused that decision to be reversed.

At the end of last year the Hamilton City Council ran a referendum on community water fluoridation which lead to the result of 23,000 voting yes and 10,000 voting no (on a 70 per cent turnout of voters). But even such a clear majority doesn’t make fluoridation the right decision, and neither does the fact that the majority of medical professionals support it. But, as I pointed out in previous blog entries, that does represent really strong support and if you want to contradict it you had better have really good evidence against it. And, of course, the anti-fluoridation activists don’t. Just like the anti-vaccination people don’t, and the global warming deniers don’t, and the anti-evolution nuts don’t.

So OK, debate is good, but there has to be a point where views which contradict established science are ignored unless something new and compelling is presented. But again, that never happens, because these groups just recycle the same old discredited propaganda over and over, and that wastes time and resources and often leads to bad outcomes for the majority.

In this case the District Health Board had to spend about $50,000 supporting its side of the debate, that side being the established scientific facts. And what were they defending against? Nothing with any merit, just the same old logical fallacies and deliberately misleading evidence (such as quoting the negative effects of fluoride many orders of magnitude higher than what is actually used). In a situation where health is so underfunded it seems a clear case of negative consequences caused by taking people with irrational beliefs too seriously.

The head of the DHB, who has just left the job, has said that the anti-fluoride group will never give up because they don’t look at the evidence, they have already decided what they want to believe and cherry pick the evidence (or what might be called pseudo-evidence) to suit. Their beliefs are based on an emotional attachment rather than a rational evaluation of the facts.

So what are the facts? First, fluoride is completely safe in the doses used in water supplies, and even in much larger doses the negative effects are largely cosmetic only. Like anything else, there is a level where major health problems will occur, but that is the same with everything and those levels are never approached in actual water supplies. Second, the support for fluoride leading to much better dental health is overwhelming and few experts disagree that it is very effective. Finally, sufficient levels of fluoride can be gained from toothpaste and tablets but many people (especially those in lower socio-economic groups) don’t get sufficient doses from these sources for various reasons.

So there is no real debate here (just like there is no real debate over climate change, evolution, or vaccination) and these people should just shut the hell up and go away. They really are a blight on society. If they come up with real evidence then they should have it published in reputable medical and dental journals and have policy changed that way. Oh, they can’t get their views published? I wonder why!

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