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12 May 2010

Brockie's passion counter-productive


DomPost science columnist Bob Brockie writes a great column. He sieves through a mountain of potential material to provide readers with intriguing items written with a wry wit.

Except, that is, when he selects a topic that involves the denizens of the anti-science underworld. The arguments and practices of homeopaths, antifluoride campaigners and those opposed to the use of 1080 are skewered on the nib of Brockie's contemptuous pen.

It's easy to understand where he's coming from. There's a gross editorial imbalance in the mass and women's media in the way environmental, food production and health issues are treated.

In the minds of many reporters, the virtues of organic food, homeopathy, bach flower therapy and Greenpeace are self-evident.  The evils of conventional medicine, dairy farming, mining, chemicals, and meat eating equally so.

Brockie is justified in trying to redress this failure of reason. But his full frontal attacks on people's dearly held beliefs - however irrational - are hardly likely to win hearts and minds. Just how did he expect anti-1080 campaigners to respond when he described them as, "ill-informed, hand-wringing, paranoid chemo-phobes, fear-mongers and eco-freaks"?

This week the anti-fluoride lobby took its turn at being impaled. But what Brockie neglected to say in his column is that the persistence of the opposition to fluoridation may well be due to the tactics of pro-fluoride lobbyists, including much of the medico-scientific establishment, in years gone by.

In the decades following World War 2, pro-fluoride lobbyists rode roughshod over those who were worried about the ethics of mass medication using the water supply and those who had legitimate concerns about the adequacy of the research justifying fluoridation.

Opponents, regardless of their scientific credentials (and many were either research scientists or physicians), were labelled as cranks and crackpots. In the United States, images like the right-wing lunatic General Jack D. Ripper in "Dr Strangelove," were used to discredit the very idea of opposition to fluoridation.

Those scientists who did openly oppose fluoridation were often subjected to personal attacks and professional reprisals. For decades, mainstream scientific journals would reject for publication any paper that did not articulate a strictly pro-fluoridation position on risk and benefit questions.

These tactics were seriously counterproductive. By refusing to debate the scientific issues, proponents substituted dogmatism for open-mindedness and weakened their own scientific credibility. Their scorched-earth attacks on their opponents further polarised the debate, redoubled the determination of the antis, and made them appear to be the underdogs.

Sixty years after it began, the fluoridation debate persists largely unchanged. Despite half a century of official approval and promotion, only about 60 percent of American public water supplies are fluoridated. In New Zealand, most of the larger cities, except Christchurch, are fluoridated whereas many smaller communities - including most of the South Island - are not.

When local health officials propose fluoridation, grass-roots opposition almost always crops up. Risk concerns, much like those raised 50 years ago, are still raised today, but the science backing up those concerns is now accessible on the internet.

The lesson for Brockie and others in the scientific community is that controversial public issues must be addressed in ways that allows for two-way dialogue with concerned members of the public. Excoriating critics for their irrational beliefs gets you nowhere.

While science and biotechnology advocates may feel the urge to sweep aside risk issues and crush their critics with propaganda and ad hominem attacks, all that approach really accomplished for the pro-fluoridation movement was to create an entrenched, undying opposition.

A good topic for a future Brockie column might be the science of why people in wealthy societies respond to perceived risk in the way they do.

Sources: The Dominion Post, Consumers Union

For more information about how three controversial public issues - fluoridation, nuclear energy and pesticide use - were mishandled by the business and scientific communities, click here.


- Trevor Walton

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