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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