Hamilton councillors are just the latest folk to fall prey to fear-raising arguments against 'mass medication' and in favour of individual choice, while ignoring science. What's going on?
Judith Collins once introduced me to one of her staff members saying, "Tim writes mean things about me on his blog". It was a jokey dig done with a wonderfully straight face and it charmed me. So I'm going to take this chance to applaud her no-nonsense response to Hamilton City Council's daft decision on fluoride this week.
The Justice Minister described the decision variously as "gutless", "a cop-out" and "bollocks". Which sums it up nicely. The move will cost millions of dollars and thousands of teeth in the years to come. And how refreshing to have a minister give a non-partisan and unambiguous view.
The only case you can make in defence of the decision is that it's democratic. On one level you can strongly argue that if people don't want something in their water, they should have the right to say so and the power to make changes.
However as anyone who's read the news this week knows, the 2006 referendum on fluoridation held in the city gave majority support to continuing the practice, so that's not much of an argument.
The science -- the proper science, that is -- seems pretty clear that we have low fluoridation levels in our water and bumping it up a little helps our oral care en masse. Health agencies from WHO down say it helps dental hygiene and is a human right. There is no proof of fluoride poisoning, if that's what you'd call it, in the New Zealand population over recent generations and every reason to think a significant number of New Zealanders will have more teeth problems as a result of less fluoride in the water. Just about everything becomes a poison at the right dose, but at a lower dose it's fine, even beneficial.
As the Herald writes today, it defies all logic.
I mean, if we're going to take the 'mass medication' line to its ultimate conclusion, surely you go along with the raw food argument and add nothing artificial to your diet. And presumably you'd be opposed to all fertiliser, because that's mass medication of animals and crops and, ultimately, us. Of course that would re-introduce animal diseases and lower yields, but hey, who are those farmers to force those fertilisers on us, eh? They're just like those Nazis.
But it's indicative of a wider trend in these modern times, which is worrying, and that's the rise of the instant expert and the 'I know better than the majority of scientists' brigade.
There's an odd dynamic going on within our society in terms of our relationship to authority. New Zealanders have long been suspicious of people who tried to tell them how to live their lives - especially politicians and self-declared experts. But there was a reverance for the doctor and, by extension, the scientist. That seems to have been turned on its head.
Now we trust John Key despite the brain fades, because our instinct says he's a decent bloke and we trust that. We trust the celebrities (even people who front ads) because, well, we wish we were like them and had their lives. We trust Willie Apiata - because he's brave and good at killing people?
Yet in contrast, well, those sneaky scientists are to be doubted first and only believed if we can prove it ourselves on the internet. Look at the climate change debate, for example.
Frankly, we've got it back to front. We've ascribed self-interest to the most detached and objective group and assumed the biggest self-promoters are the ones to be believed. Is it because we've witnessed the healthy scepticism within science debates and interpreted it as uncertainty or even deviousness? Or have we become so self-helpified that we think we just know better? Are we so wed to 'balance' and 'fairness' that we suspend judgment and give the same credit to the scientist and the pseudo-scientist alike?
The other problem is that we've made choice a holy grail. The biggest reaction against public health initiative such as fluoridation, folic acid in bread and vaccinations are that they're forced on the many whether we want it or not. They are - horror - "mass medication". And that's always and only a pejorative term because it denies individual choice.
Of course it never does completely deny choice, as there is bottled water, there would have been non-foliced loaves and no-one can compel an injection on you by law. But the fear is there and that's enough to turn people against what is typically in the greater public good.
Each of those 'mass medication' debates are issues, to greater and lesser degrees, of the community good coming up against individual choice. And it's about time we started paying more attention to the community good.
Many kids living in poverty, for example, don't have the choice - for all kinds of complex reasons - to get enough fluoride and will suffer as a result of this decision by the council in Hamilton, and those in other cities. So what about the choice of them all?
And as we holler in favour of choice, we conveniently ignore all the times we put the community good first -- look at the road rules, for example. So why not on these medical occasions?
I'd be interested to know what you think's going on.