Portland Votes for Dark Age Myth: An illustration of the potency of anti-science in the modern “enlightened” world

I’ve had a couple comments to update me on the results of the Portland debate over water fluoridation. The vote stood at no 69,303 (61%); yes 44,946 (39%) with the fluoridation proponents conceding.

In reality, I don’t care too much. A society can decide what measures of healthcare they want or don’t want, provided the quality of life of the community – especially the most vulnerable – is maintained if not improved upon via other methods.

What I find disappointing however is that this wasn’t a victory for the community or common-sense, but nothing more than a celebration of ignorance and anti-science. My initial article on the question of fluoridation in Portland came about from stumbling upon an article by the local chapter of the Sierra Club which opposed water fluoridation. For evidence to support this position, they relied on many of the bunkum claims sprouted by the anti-fluoridation camp (click here to read though my growing list of replies to these claims).

The Sierra Club is one of the oldest environmental groups and with a large membership, they have potential to do real good for increasing the sustainability of communities, while simultaneously buttressing up surrounding environments. Yet this can only come about if they base their position on strong evidence. The best evidence comes from scientific rigour. This thus allows us to provide strong justification and potential methodologies in which we can have the greatest confidence will achieve such goals for long term prosperity.

In this case however, the Sierra Club chose to reject the science and substitute unsubstantiated conspiracy ideation it its place. The credibility of the organisation is thus brought into question, now that they have sided with paranoia dating back to the Cold War.

How much of the actual vote resulted from the Sierra Club? I’m not certain. Clearly they are just one influence which resulted in this outcome.

It simply illustrates the argument I have long made that we are not “enlightened” in the modern age of technological advancement and incredible medical achievements. Most people cannot even explain how a simple light and switch circuit works, let alone explain why soap is more effective than just water. Most are simply passengers – something academia is not immune from either.

“Super foods” and “anti-oxidants” printed on a label boost sales, but nothing more so than Oprah’s endorsement. And don’t get me started on our devotion to growth within a finite resource base and lust for increasingly inefficient and outdated technology or simply larger versions, serving as little more than peacock feathers.

Those whom celebrate the “win” in Portland against fluoridation do so based on junk science and ideology. All that has changed from the world prior to the enlightenment is that our ideologies have become secular.

No different to New Age or Natural “medicine” this is a celebration of myth akin to Dark Age thinking (or nonthinking, if the truth be told). That such positions defy debunking, not because they are good arguments, but only because their proponents are immune to criticism, only pushes us further from where we ought to be and presents a worrying trend for the future of our children.

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4 thoughts on “Portland Votes for Dark Age Myth: An illustration of the potency of anti-science in the modern “enlightened” world

  1. Ok, Moth, I can’t argue with what you have said above. However, in light of this result, we in Portland will need to take stock of what happened, and determine how to move on. It is uninformative to just state what some may think obvious: that the public is not very literate scientifically, thus are subject to misleading demagoguery, etc., etc. The question for supporters of dental health measures, including fluoridation will have to determine how, despite having the weight of science and widespread public health practice on their side, despite having huge support from the medical and dental health communities; despite having outspent the antis by at least two to one, they got clobbered at the polls. And thus, what will their strategy be moving forward? Any strategy must deal with the given that the antis will raise a raft of bogus arguments. The people who proposed fluoridation have some hard questions to answer about how they lost so badly with so many seeming advantages.

    The Oregonian had a good editorial this morning, “Moving on from fluoride vote” (http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2013/05/moving_on_from_fluoride_vote.html) “Moving on does not mean giving up, however. It means moving on to the next opportunity to do the right thing, in Portland and elsewhere. … After a suitable period — measured in years — public health advocates and city commissioners should take up fluoridation again in Portland. … Fluoridation, in other words, is not a dramatic step fraught with peril and justifying hyperventilation. It’s a common and common-sense method of improving dental health both safely and cheaply, and it makes just as much sense in smaller communities as it does in Portland.

    Thus, the discussion shouldn’t fizzle simply because voters in Oregon’s largest city said “no” Tuesday. It should continue elsewhere in the metro area and throughout the state. Portland will reconsider fluoridation again someday, and when it does city leaders and voters may be influenced by the strong support, and strong teeth, in evidence all around them.

    Until then, brush well, floss, get sealants and befriend a dentist. “

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    1. I totally agree.

      For me, it is the same as a great many subjects that I argue against here; clearly evidence alone has little to do with it. The public generally don’t understand it. What then?

      Look at the other side. Why are these self-appointed expert sceptics so good at winning people over? The answer is, for many reasons.

      Firstly, genuine experts get their status from years of experience within a field, academic acknowledgement etc etc etc. They are typically few and far between within the public debate and more often than not, not great public speakers. Lesser advocates can be dismissed as non-experts and are often made to distance themselves from academic association. For instance, I got in trouble for my Direct Action Plan analysis because the report ended up on The Conversation – where my employer was noted – because I am not an expert, regardless of the fact that I have worked in related analysis to carbon movement for more than 4yrs and largely undertook a basic sequestration analysis. In Australia, Merilyn Haines is the main anti-fluoride player and she is a retired individual with only a basic science background – but that’s enough for the people whom support the position. We’re out gunned.

      Secondly, they are selling a message designed in such a way that is obviously receptive to the viewer. With fluoridation, the science is written off as “tobacco science” and so they not only can avoid attempting to actually discrediting it, but can also poison the well. That’s why I turn to census data. They use a whole range of slurs; “marketing and spin” “toxic / industrial waste” “mass medication” etc etc etc. Before any real discussion can be had or any scientific evidence can be offered, people are already scaremongered into being move receptive to their message. “If in doubt, leave it out” is a popular anti-fluoridation motto. Of course, people are only in doubt because these groups have scared the hell out of them. On the other hand, as with most rebuttals to anti-science, we attempt to be cool, level headed and even dry. It is disconnected to the personal experience and falls on deaf ears. Not only are we out gunned, what we have is a squirt gun.

      Thirdly, look at the pace. Pro-science tends to be on the back foot all the time. This isn’t because it’s wrong, but because there’s no reason to get involved unless error presents itself. On the other hand, the anti-science movement can continue to pelt out the same bunkum because people tend to be already intuitively inclined to it. It’s far more human – very much like a “grass roots” movement against the “establishment”. It seems progressive, while clearly it’s very much the opposite. So reason is reactive and seems slow – it’s all part of the design of the “debate”. Not only are we out gunned, stuck with squirt guns, but they are also filled with honey.

      I could go on, but I needn’t. Rigorous evidence cannot be developed as quickly as BS.

      The only way forward, in my opinion, is more individuals that are deemed experts to be heavily involved in education, like Sagan, Attenborough, Hawking, but on medical science. Another approach is to dissect the anti-science movement and exposure their ludicrous core to the world. Much of it is paranoia, xenophobia, generational etc. If the truth is known about them, then their position becomes less tenable.

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      1. I don’t think science is as powerless as you portray above. The problem in the Portland election was that the fluoridation proponents failed to apply, or misapplied, two other sciences: public relations and political science. Jeff Mapes, in this morning’s Oregonian, had some interesting observations about the campaign and Portland’s quirky political traditions, “Portland and its aversion to fluoride reflects Oregon’s unusual politics”. http://www.oregonlive.com/mapes/index.ssf/2013/05/portland_and_its_aversion_to_f.html

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      2. Certainly my comments are not explicitly in regards to the situation in Portland, as I didn’t pay close attention to it, but more general in relation to the response to anti-science ideologs.

        Thanks for the link. What I took from it mostly is the power the anti-fluoridation camp had in a meme which covered a “chemicals in out pristine water” message. That, within an environmentally conscience community is a powerful one.

        I’d return to better education on fluoridation and successes elsewhere as well as comments on chemical treatment of Portland water already.

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