The fluoridation debate: why we all lose when we pretend it’s just about science

To the delight of almost no one, water fluoridation is in the news again. A fortnight ago, Lismore Council voted to remain part of the (shrinking) 4% minority of New South Wales with no fluoride in its public water supply, despite the area’s much higher than average rate of tooth decay. An article this week in local paper the Northern Star typifies the nature of the debate: with the headline ‘Listen to science in fluoride debate, local doctors say‘, it goes on to quote GP David Guest urging councils to ‘listen to the science as the only rational way to address this important health issue.’

And that’s the problem: on this issue, arguments based on science seem to be the only currency accepted in public debate. Similar situations arise when debating wind turbines, climate change, nuclear power and vaccinations. But while good science is absolutely vital in providing solid data, there’s a limit to how far it can take us before we also need values and ethics to guide our decision. If we try to take science too far, we damage both the ethical and the scientific debates.

That’s not to say the situations necessarily get murkier if ethics are involved. In the case of fluoridation (as indeed with vaccination), I believe the ethical decision for Lismore is nearly as clear-cut as the scientific findings. But by giving less credence to objections based on values – like questions of individual risk versus common good – we make science seem like it’s the only game in town. Is there any wonder fluoridation’s opponents clutch at pseudoscience – and worse?

Let’s take a look at the recent public debate about fluoridation in the Lismore region, and see why greater scrutiny of ethical statements – and not just of science – could help everyone, and improve the way science is discussed at the same time.

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Obeid and Macdonald: corrupt while in control of 5% of global carbon budget

2013-08-01_Obeid_sYesterday, Australia’s independent corruption watchdog found that former Labor party figures Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald had acted corruptly. Obeid, a former New South Wales Labor party powerbroker, and Macdonald, the former state energy minister, are now being referred to prosecutors to consider criminal charges. The men, together with several others, had misused inside knowledge from Macdonald’s position in office to make tens of millions of dollars by buying land before it was rezoned for coal mining.

The case has naturally received a lot of media coverage, not only due to the raw facts of the abuse of power, but also because of the show the Obeids put on along the way: son Moses Obeid claiming it could have been Jesus Christ who pencilled confidential zoning information onto a map; Eddie Obeid’s diary giving an entertaining glimpse into the enema schedules of the rich and powerful; and Mr Obeid’s ever-righteous harrassment of journalists: “[Kate] McClymont has been mixing with scum for so long that she no longer knows who is good and who is bad, what is real and what is made up.” The involvement of a prostitute called Tiffanie came as less a surprise than an inevitable trope. Many of us enjoyed sharing the jubilation (schadenfreude?) of the Sydney Morning Herald journalists yesterday as they wrote and tweeted about the ICAC findings that vindicated their work.

One important aspect of the case, though, hasn’t had much attention. It’s the fact that these politicians weren’t just abusing a position of power, but they were acting corruptly while having oversight of of vast coal reserves – fossil fuel resources whose future use will have huge global environmental significance. In fact, the Economic Demonstrated Reserves of black coal in NSW alone (those we currently know about and deem profitable to extract) make up over 5% of the total global carbon budget.*

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