Ignoratio elenchi: when anti-science argues that 2+2=5

It’s a trick that works wonderfully on an uncritical mind. In the analysis of anti-science communication, we saw how much of the case brought against fluoride was irrelevant to its safe or ability to reduce tooth decay.

Over the past few days of silence, I’ve noticed a lot of traffic towards fluoride and so searched the news for the latest activity in the anti-fluoridation world only to spot a few new cases ignoratio elenchi; that is, making one case and insisting another conclusion.

A faceless sleight of hand

One article in the North West Star, Water board worker’s fluoride fears, paints the entire discussion in Mt Isa regarding water fluoridation inappropriately… “safety concerns surrounding the substance continue to grow.”

In essence the article is bias. It is not an argument against the safety of fluoride in water (it dissolved completely, with fluoride becoming free ionic fluoride), nor is it anything related to how well fluoride works to prevent tooth decay. The main argument against fluoridation is about safe handling!

There are numerous industries where workers face hazards – in fact most jobs have need for Operational Health and Safety policies (OH&S) and risk assessments. I’ve have to create a number myself for my roles. This doesn’t automatically deem to job better left undone – imagine what would happen if we deems sewerage plants too unsafe – but rather that safe measures need to be in place to ensure safe working environments for all involved.

This unnamed employee at best argues that more rigorous OH&S and risk assessments need to be undertaken if current practices are not good enough. Take a leaf out of the book of any given water authority in the capitals cities of the other states, which have all safely administered fluoride to water supplies for decades!

Interestingly, the vote in Mt Isa drew less than 10% of the locals out, most of which chose “no”. While the anti-fluoride campaign would consider this a success, I see it differently. I think the only people who voted are those who have strong opinions on the subject. The rest reflect disinterest or simply being unaware of the subject. With such bad reporting and the high level of public engagement by anti-fluoride groups in Qld, sprout bogus claims to incite fear, it’s not surprising that “no” was the majority call from such a small group.

White with… sugar?

I also noticed a spike in articles, with a tabloid “shock” flair to them, reporting on fluoride levels in tea – as those this was something new.

I can refer to a paper that’s 17yrs old that illustrates these reporters are pretty slow to catch on.

Furthermore, this does not question the safety or efficacy of water fluoridation. It raises valid concerns about the quality of a product that in turn may lead to a consumer having higher than recommended intakes of fluoride. The cheap product may not be living up to desired consumer safety guidelines in Australia and so merits further discussions, but not water fluoridation itself.

_____

Just as with climate change denial, the argument is never really challenging the science that these anti-science communicators pretend to challenge, but rather confuse, distort and attempt to win an argument on ignorance and typical fallacies.

Three simple questions are useful when presented with such arguments;

      1. Does the article in question refer solely to genuine scientific material? (if so – check the source).
      2. Does this material genuinely bring into question the validity of given conclusions held in the highest certainty within the scientific community? (this is not, as seen above, to take the report’s “word of it” but to look at the source in relation to the key points – eg, fluoride; safe and effective in current practices in affluent communities / climate change; happening and due to human activity etc)*
      3. What have other genuine scientific material made of this conclusion? (ie. check where the paper has been cited and how it was cited)

Quality information is only sourced through scientific investigation, just as much as you learn mechanics from engineers, not in a pastry kitchen. If the report fails to cite scientific literature, ignore it. If the literature doesn’t back up the claims, ignore the claims. If the paper is old and/or brought into question on its methodologies / results and/or in a little known paper and not cited elsewhere, ignore it.

Quick and simple steps to avoid the woolly blindfold.

Read more: Anti-Science Communication: It does not deserve to be placed with non-fiction

* Two examples of checking what the actual scientific literature says can be provided in reply to the osteosarcoma claim and IQ claim which I have previously debunked.

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One response to “Ignoratio elenchi: when anti-science argues that 2+2=5

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