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Flame retardants, fluoride, and your lack of skepticism

This article slid across my desk this morning:

It turns out that our furniture first became full of flame retardants because of the tobacco industry, according to internal cigarette company documents examined by The Tribune. A generation ago, tobacco companies were facing growing pressure to produce fire-safe cigarettes, because so many house fires started with smoldering cigarettes. So tobacco companies mounted a surreptitious campaign for flame retardant furniture, rather than safe cigarettes, as the best way to reduce house fires.

The documents show that cigarette lobbyists secretly organized the National Association of State Fire Marshals and then guided its agenda so that it pushed for flame retardants in furniture. The fire marshals seem to have been well intentioned, but utterly manipulated.

An advocacy group called Citizens for Fire Safety later pushed for laws requiring fire retardants in furniture. It describes itself as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.”

But Citizens for Fire Safety has only three members, which also happen to be the three major companies that manufacture flame retardants: Albemarle Corporation, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura Corporation.

Let me first point out that I am taking Mr. Kristof’s facts as real and genuine.  This is called an assumption.  When people make assumptions, they should know when they are doing it, and be ready to admit it–to themselves.  It is not the making of the assumption that is the problem, but the conflation of the assumption as indisputable fact, without even knowing one has done it, that is an issue.  Bear this in mind as we go forward.

When I read this article, I immediately thought of Edward Bernays and the acceptance of community water fluoridation.  Bernays is someone you don’t know, who knew you very well.  So well, he was able to manipulate you into accepting things that normally you wouldn’t have accepted.  Here is the best part:  after you came to accept whatever he was selling (and fluoridation is a notable example), you did not adopt a position so much as the attitude he wanted you to acquire.  That is, if you had an argument at all, it was this:  “You idiot.  All the smart people think fluoride at ‘optimal’ levels is safe and effective.  You must be a conspiracy nut-job.”

When I meet people who are pro-fluoride, they typically are completely ignorant… of anything having to do with fluoride.  But they can tell you that the CDC and American Dental Association and your local public health director supports it.  And who are you to have a different opinion than all the smart people?  Are you an expert, like them?

Don’t laugh.  I helped organize the drive to end fluoridation in my community and I can tell you from experience that this is indeed what they say… and all they say.

But of course, after you study fluoride, and the process by which it became accepted in America, you discover that Bernays was a shrewd fellow, and tactics such as what the tobacco company did above were employed.  Of course, it doesn’t fall all on one man.  But corporate interests and big government folks worked together to build support for fluoridation in much the same manner, forming organizations and lobbying groups that were chiefly composed of those with financial and other interests, but not the public interest.

Bernays came on my radar not because of fluoridation, but while investigating how various other ideologies came to be adopted (ie, were foisted upon) by the American public.  Things you wouldn’t expect.  Things you take for granted.  Things you’ve never thought about.  Positions you have that you did not come by research, contemplation, analysis.  In the main, you believe them because you saw them on the television, or in a news article.  You thought it was the ‘compassionate’ view, or the most socially conscious view, or the scientific view… and maybe it is all these things, but its not like you know any better.  You saw headline in the newspaper, that’s all.  Fine.  You’re welcome to be gullible.  But when you step into the real world and expect to have your position considered, some of us expect something a little better than “But all the smart people say…”

In fact, I think that the smart people are the most susceptible to being manipulated in this way.  Being literate, combined with a desire to be fashionable and accepted into the ‘smart people’ club, runs into harsh realities:  to really know what you’re talking about, you actually have to do some research.  You need to crack open some books.  You need to stop sitting on your brain, and use it for its intended purpose.  And that takes work.

Too much work, as it happens.  If we did this about every position we held, we’d probably never come to any conclusions.  We certainly wouldn’t have any time left in the day to act on any of them.  So, we take short cuts.  Top of the list:  we adopt wholesale whatever positions are being presented to us by people that, by appearances, share our values and letters behind their names.

Of course, we might not exactly know that’s how we are getting our views.  If Mr. Kirstof is correct, flame retardant sofas came about largely because average, well meaning fire marshals accepted the ‘science’ they were being presented–that is, the fire fighters adopted the positions of the PhDs, not knowing they were bought and paid for by corporate interests.  The folks on the street in turn made their decision based on the words of the fire marshals, etc.  And who can be against whatever the fire marshal says?  Or the local sheriff?  Or the local public health director?  Or the local … you get the idea.  There is one word for all of them:  DUPES.

And you are in danger of being among them if you don’t get your head out of that place that don’t shine and start thinking for yourself, and quick.

You might begin, not by sorting out the evidences and arguments for the positions you currently have.  Don’t you see?  If you are a ‘smart person’, these very well could have been manufactured.  You need to revisit the issue of short cuts, first.  I said:  we tend to give credibility to those organizations and individuals that seem to share our values and have the appearance of credibility.

But what if even the values were manufactured?

Oh dear.

Better get to work.

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31 Responses to Flame retardants, fluoride, and your lack of skepticism

  1. Flouride is tops! We have it in our water in Australia and we’re all normal. I mean… look at cricket!

  2. Is it the same kind of flouride? Is it in the same amounts? Does being “normal” indicate it makes no discernable impact, and you’re just getting ripped off?

  3. To be honest, I have absolutely no idea. But I can’t remember it ever being an issue. That doesn’t, of course, mean it isn’t ‘bad’ (whatever that means), but it certainly increases the likelihood.

  4. That is, the likelihood that it’s not ‘bad’.

  5. It doesn’t mean it’s “tops” either. But thanks for proving SJ’s point.

  6. The first comment was tongue in cheek, you nitwit.

    And I didn’t prove his point at all.

  7. “The first comment was tongue in cheek, you nitwit.”

    The second one clearly wasn’t.

    “And I didn’t prove his point at all.”

    “To be honest, I have absolutely no idea. But I can’t remember it ever being an issue.”

  8. “The second one clearly wasn’t.”

    Congratulations!

    And how does that prove his point? Why don’t you go ahead and astonish me.

  9. Perhaps you could start with what you think his point is.

  10. His point being that most people are lead by the nose of sentimentality and flowery soundbytes from those who are presumably “experts” or authority figures, and aren’t really informed or knowledgible about social policies.

    And here you come in, being mildly favorable to a policy you freely admit you don’t know much about.

  11. I just want you both to know: I love you both.

  12. Haha, thanks Tony.

    “His point being that most people are lead [sic] by the nose of sentimentality and flowery soundbytes [sic] from those who are presumably ‘experts’ or authority figures, and aren’t really informed or knowledgible [sic] about social policies.”

    Well that is certainly true. Or at least, almost true. I don’t think sentimentality has anything to do with it. I think it has more to do with reasoned apathy, and the fact that ‘experts’ are called ‘experts’ for a reason.

    But that’s an observation, not a point. The point is actually that Tony believes people should investigate matters for themselves. And my observation that flouridation in Australia has, to my knowledge, never been an issue, proves that point not a bit. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    Tony – so we can actually progress this conversation… I’m curious. You quite rightly point out that “If we did this about every position we held, we’d probably never come to any conclusions”, but you don’t really propose a solution.

    Surely a solution, for the species as a whole, is to have experts?

  13. “The point is actually that Tony believes people should investigate matters for themselves. And my observation that flouridation in Australia has, to my knowledge, never been an issue, proves that point not a bit. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

    ….

    Your noninvestigated knowledge doesn’t prove the point that you haven’t really investigated the matter and so can’t really tell if there is in fact an issue or not?

    Riiiiiight.

    Anthony:

    “I just want you both to know: I love you both.”

    Way to go all political on us SJ. You’d think it was an election year or something. 😉

  14. First, take a look at:
    http://uncensored.co.nz/2009/12/07/why-i-changed-my-mind-about-water-fluoridation/

    I mention it because he’s Australian, although there are lots of ‘experts’ who have changed their minds.

    To your question, you might not be surprised to hear that I have invested a lot of thought into that very question. In fact, lately it has been in my head as something to put down into a blog post and I nearly sat down to do so several times. That blog post is coming, and it is probably the precursor to a book. Bear in mind that this is abbreviated.

    Surely a solution is to have experts, but is it the solution? It has been my own observation that most of the world’s problems and worst atrocities have happened at the instigation or under the watch of experts. Pick your tragedy, and we can identify some set of ‘experts’ who were behind it. More importantly, perhaps, were the lowly saps like you and I who went along with whatever the experts spewed.

    This point is easily illustrated simply by identifying literally any topic that you wish to rest on, and begin researching various viewpoints. You will immediately discover that there are ‘experts’ on each side who flatly disagree. Moreover, in many cases, the experts, having mutually contradictory positions, have nothing but disdain for each other. An easy example would be in the case of evolution versus creationism or evolution versus intelligent design. More easy examples would be ‘climate change’ versus ‘climate change deniers.’ But it can be as something as arcane as what kinds of shoes pygmies ought to wear to best adapt to modern society.

    We are then left with a curious problem: apparently, we can marshal ‘experts’ to support virtually any position that we wish to entertain on any topic we might imagine, and they basically hate each other. So how do we decide which experts we’ll actually give credibility to?

    That’s the crux of the problem, and I am convinced that the number one determinant for most people on who they will find credible is who is espousing positions they already hold or are sympathetic to. If you REALLY want to believe we are frequently being abducted by space aliens, you can find a PhD to support the notion. If you want to believe that space aliens planted life on earth, you can find a PhD to support that notion, too (Richard Dawkins and Francis Crick; Directed Panspermia.) If you want to find a person who thinks that notion is nuts, you can find an expert who will agree (Sagan, perhaps).

    So, as part of a solution, I would suggest that any real skeptic who is cognizant about our inclination to believe people who tell us what we already want to hear, is to be honest with one’s self about it, and apply a HIGHER standard to our ‘friends’ than our enemies. You can’t do that to full measure. That is, you can’t test a ‘friend’ over and over and over and over again on everything, because it is not practical (and it would end with YOU being the expert), but you can test him robustly on 5-10 points, taking things to the nitty grritty. If they represent the facts fairly and draw correct conclusions consistently on those, then one can give him some slack on points 11-20.

    Remember, I am of the school of thought that says those who believe that “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.” Why? Because I am the judge of what is ‘extraordinary,’ and this is fertile ground for my own preconceived notions to enter in. Moreover, all claims are ultimately proved by perfectly ordinary evidence. It would be ‘extraordinary’ to believe that Obama killed a man, but it would be demonstrated the way any murder is proved: hair samples, witness testimony, etc, etc. In short, whilst holding a higher standard for things we believe are ‘extraordinary’ we automatically lean towards having LOWER standards for the things we find ‘ordinary’, that is, the things we were already prepared to believe. It is in the realm of the ‘ordinary’ that we are most likely to be deceived and self-deceived, not the extraordinary.

    The other thing that I would do is draw a sharp distinction between the production of facts and the interpretation of facts and then again how those facts are to be applied, if at all.

    Now, there is absolutely no rational reason to believe that just because a specialist is able to ascertain facts that he is able to interpret those facts, or that he knows how best to apply them.

    Someone who is an expert in ballistics may be able to tell us precisely the trajectory of a bullet, but it is to the jury to determine the significance of that information, and then consequently whether or not a person should be found guilty based on that information.

    I find it interesting how people who practically worship ‘experts’ still allow simple laymen to be on juries. Surely the solution is to try every court case by experts? Right?

    Especially with the depth of specialization that we see in our society these days, there is every reason to suspect that any given expert is not equally expert in interpreting and applying data. What I mean is that just because someone can determine how much fluoride is in water, it doesn’t follow that he is an expert in logic, let alone ethics. Do we require our experts in fluoride to also be experts in logic and experts in ethics and in public policy and in municipal law and in osteosarcoma and in….? No; our experts are forced to rely on yet OTHER experts, and since they are nonetheless humans like the rest of us, they are subject to the same kinds of blinders and preconceptions the rest of us are.

    Does this mean we are back to the problem of how to proceed withotu experts? No. What it means is that we must give our experts only as much of a leash as they warrant.

    For example, I am perfectly happy to let any expert tell me how much fluoride is in water, and how much fluoride the CDC has (presumably) determined is safe, but neither of these answer the basic question: SHOULD we put fluoride in water? The ‘SHOULD’ question is not a matter for experts. The SHOULD question is something we decide individually and implement (here in the states, anyway) locally.

    The minute any expert tells us, from the facts, what the best interpretation of those facts are and how we should apply them, I am instantly wary. Logic and reason is not the exclusive domain of the 1,000 expert logicians who theoretically exist in the world. Logic and reason is something that belongs to all of us, and some of us at least have taken the time to refine our reasoning abilities, and do not feel in the slightest any deference to some public health official who is as likely my inferior as far as logic goes, as he is my equal or superior. In other words, said public health official is actually going to have to make his ARGUMENT, and if it SUCKS it will STILL SUCK, even though he is an expert.

    A fallacy is a fallacy, no matter who spouts it. Even if they have a bunch of letters at the end of their names.

    So, to put it bluntly, I rely heavily on ‘experts’ to produce facts for me to evaluate, but I reserve to myself the right to interpret them and the right to have my own opinions, based on my own values and ethical system, how those facts are to be applied.

    Let’s face it, most public health officials are secular humanists, which means our values and ethical systems are at odds. I’m not saying that to diminish any expertise they may have, but to point out that values and ethics are not the exclusive domain of experts. Obviously, their recommendations from the facts will reflect their values; that doesn’t make their recommendations good, proper, or true. They are essentially just their own informed position based on their own ethical system, which I do not share. I may grant them the facts, I do not therefore concede they have any expertise in interpreting or applying those facts. The latter two will obviously not be colored by the facts (which are neutral) but by their worldview. Since we do not know the worldview of so many of the ‘expert’ statements we hear, it is all the more important to be prepared to interpret and apply facts and evidences for ourselves.

    Essentially, what I’m saying is that it is vitally important that we become deeply concerned whenever any expert proceeds from the facts to tell us what those facts mean.

    These would be the first steps towards a solution. It doesn’t do away with experts, but it puts them in their place. Now, if only they’d stay there. 🙂

    I can give you lots of examples of ‘experts gone wild.’ Here is one that hits home to me for reasons I think you will instantly recognize:

    http://www.bioethicsanddisability.org/itcan.html

    You can guess from this latter example that I take what I’m saying on this matter very seriously. I consider it a matter of life and death, and the few specialists that have tried to pull out the expert card on me can’t have enjoyed the resulting experience.

  15. Oh, and I should also add that it helps if you don’t give a rat’s ass what people think about you.

    I find an awful lot of people flocking to some set of experts because they reflect a view that you can take that won’t have people make fun of you, or, even better, will get you counted among the ‘smart’ people.

    I have often talked on this blog about the ‘argument from ridicule.’ This argument works on a lot of people, I’m afraid to say. But it won’t work on the one who is willing to follow the evidence wherever it goes and doesn’t give a lick what other people think.

  16. “Your noninvestigated knowledge doesn’t prove the point that you haven’t really investigated the matter and so can’t really tell if there is in fact an issue or not?”

    How many double negatives don’t you not want to not exclude from a single sentence?

    Tony is saying we need to apply a more skeptical eye over the expert claims we are exposed to every day. He also admits that there are too many claims, and we can’t evaluate them all.

    My point is that, regardless of what negative effects flouridation may have had in Australia, they haven’t been significant enough to generate any controversy. This doesn’t prove that it’s not harmful, but, again, it certainly greatly increases the likelihood that it has minimal negative effects, if any.

    That is, compared to the time it would take to become an expert in flouridation, you’re better off just drinking some tap water, and heading to the beach instead.

    Tell me, EB… why are you (apparently) against flouridation?

  17. “My point is that, regardless of what negative effects flouridation may have had in Australia, they haven’t been significant enough to generate any controversy. This doesn’t prove that it’s not harmful, but, again, it certainly greatly increases the likelihood that it has minimal negative effects, if any.”

    Or it just means people can be duped and remain docile if negative effects aren’t readily apparent.

    “That is, compared to the time it would take to become an expert in flouridation, you’re better off just drinking some tap water, and heading to the beach instead.”

    By that logic, high schools and college’s should be shut down because of the time and work it would take to be educated about anything.

    “Tell me, EB… why are you (apparently) against flouridation?”

    I’m actually totally open to being persuaded on this issue, since I haven’t personally looked into the matter with any depth. Which is why I was genuinely asking if you knew any facts or such that would stand up to SJ’s conclusion. But if ‘It’s already happening and it’s not in-your-face enough to penetrate my dense shell of awareness.’ is all you have, I’m not likely to be persuaded. At least by you.

    But I trust SJ, and in the years I’ve followed his blogs, I’ve never known him to feel strongly enough to post about an issue unless he’s actually done the leg-work. So while I’m not dead-set about fluoridation than I am about things like evolution and climate change (because I have personally looked into those subjects), I’m leaning towards ‘against’, because I trust Sj not to have screwed up in his research.

    But I’m always open to the possibility. 😉

  18. See? What’s not to love about you two? It almost makes me as warm and tingly as watching EB and Dannyboy play around. 🙂 Actually, DB would probably have some things to say about this because he has actually become one of these experts! He’s now got a degree in public health or something. Maybe I’ll drop him a note, seeking his expert analysis. 🙂

    Tim, I’m confused about your criteria: “If there doesn’t seem to be any controversy or obvious problem, there probably isn’t an issue to be concerned about.”

    Do I have that right?

    I can only think: Bernays would be proud. (He’s linked in the OP). The WHOLE strategy of propagandists in Bernays’ flavor is to normalize behaviors or attitudes that had been previously abnormal, and do this without people noticing their attitudes or behaviors are changing.

    To me, this is a case in point of the vulnerability of accepting presumably ‘ordinary’ things and getting burned by them. They can slip anything by you so long as the folks advocating for it declare it normal and healthy and they have letters behind their names; never mind that they are wholly funded by corporations whose interests are served by your acceptance.

    I think I could probably produce 3-5 examples of how we have gotten screwed because we’ve accepted your criteria. Fluoride would be one that I am most familiar with at present that I could defend rigorously, but I have uncovered quite a few others that I have made note of for further research.

  19. PS, your criteria is very close to what researchers know about human inclination towards the status quo, whatever the status quo happens to be. This inclination is well known by certain groups of individuals, who use it against us. I recently encountered it explicitly referenced in Cass Sunstein’s book “Nudge.” (Sunstein is a prominent official in the Obama administration who has the job of implementing the tens of thousands of new pages of legislation.) Based on knowing our preferences for maintaining the status quo, he discusses how to gently ‘nudge’ us in the direction he wants to go.

  20. “See? What’s not to love about you two? It almost makes me as warm and tingly as watching EB and Dannyboy play around.”

    I’m sensing a common denominator somewhere in here.

  21. lol. Cue Stathei.

  22. “Or it just means people can be duped and remain docile if negative effects aren’t readily apparent.”

    Yes, that could also be true.

    “By that logic, high schools and college’s [sic] should be shut down because of the time and work it would take to be educated about anything.”

    You keep using this word “logic”. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    It’s actually your logic that says that. I’m saying we should place a reasonable amount of trust in the collective knowledge of academia. You’re saying we should investigate everything ourselves. Think about how your school day would go under my proposal, compared to yours. I will have learned 100 things before lunchtime. You’ll still be there, 10 years later, trying to establish whether the teacher spelled his name correctly.

    “But I trust SJ, and in the years I’ve followed his blogs, I’ve never known him to feel strongly enough to post about an issue unless he’s actually done the leg-work.”

    My irony meter just exploded.

  23. If there doesn’t seem to be any controversy or obvious problem, there probably isn’t an issue to be concerned about.

    Correct. Or, more precisely, the probability that there is an issue to be concerned about is reduced.

    Now, I’m sure you can provide hundreds of examples where it has turned out that there was, in fact, an issue to be concerned about (either because the issue was discovered and then hidden from the public, or because new information has come to light). But for every 100 you provide to highlight your point, I can provide 1,000,000 to highlight mine.

    I’m not saying that experts don’t get it wrong. They clearly do. But surely you have to admit that those armed with more knowledge on a subject are more likely to be correct about that subject?

    Otherwise, why would you have researched flouridation?

    The issue for you, it seems, is vested interests. And that’s a massive issue for me, too. You should always question how someone might profit from winning you over to their side of the argument. Sometimes you can find this out, sometimes not.

    But the solution can’t be to go around investigating everything yourself.

  24. Correct about what?

    The scientists that created the A-bomb showed technical ability and correctly predicted what devastation an a-bomb would produce, but were they correct about whether or not the bomb should have been deployed? Actually, they disagreed amongst themselves about it, which speaks to one aspect of my point. But to the other point: their ability to make nuclear bombs did not and does not extend to their ability to decide how best to use them.

    On your view, we should just get rid of democracy altogether and turn everything over to experts. You didn’t speak to my observation about juries being a collection of average laymen rather than experts (at least here in the US). On your view, shouldn’t we turn over to experts the trying of criminal and civil cases alike? After all, no layperson knows as much about ballistics as a forensic scientist. And no layperson knows as much about ethics as an expert in ethics. So, get rid of the layperson, and create a panel of experts. Shouldn’t that be your view? Is it your view?

    The problem, I think, is that I’ve met and interacted with a lot of experts, and I haven’t been all that impressed with many of them. They weren’t any smarter than me. They weren’t smarter than the rest of the population. Anyone can master the facts of just about any topic provided they have time to invest in it, and ‘experts’ tend to have that time. Granted, I’ve met some brilliant ‘experts.’ But I’ve met brilliant laypeople, too. This alone cannot be the measure of credibility, and expertise alone cannot serve as an epistemological short-cut.

    I’ll give you a concrete example of the kinds of scenarios that the real world creates when deference to experts on all things is the norm. The next morning after my daughter was born, with spina bifida, as the ultrasound had indicated, I was driving to a university hospital where she was going to have back and brain surgery. We were going to the university hospital because my local pediatric neurosurgeon had been on vacation. So, I get a call while on the road, and I hear that my daughter is ON the table, and the pediatric neurosurgeon calls me on my cell, seeking my permission for a somewhat experimental surgical technique on my daughters brain. As I said, she’s ON the table.

    Now, as it happens, THAT expert completely disagreed with the expert in my own area, who was against it. Later, I would find out that he thought the the procedure was too dangerous. The expert at the university failed to mention my daughter could DIE if conditions weren’t right. Ooops! So, I didn’t know about the risk while on the road, and didn’t have access to independent research. Had I that access, I would have found that pediatric neurosurgeons were divided on the technique, but like I said, I didn’t.

    What would you do? It’s your daughters VERY LIFE in your hand, and she’s on the table, already sedated. What would you do?

    That’s the problem with your assertion that experts are more likely to be correct about ‘that’ subject. As I already said you can find an expert taking EVERY side of an issue. Therefore, it is NOT POSSIBLE that they are more likely to be correct about that subject, because you can find another expert to contradict whatever any other expert says, on just about everything.

    You really need to give this fact its due weight. Where it leaves you, I don’t know, but it is an absolute fact that is easily verified. Pick a topic and research it long enough, and you’ll see that it is filled with experts differing with each other.

    To your other point, I don’t think you can give me 1,000,000 examples to highlight your point in contrast to mine. I have already said that I am willing to allow my experts to go out and get me facts. Your examples will be a simple recounting of facts. But can you give me 1,000,000 examples of interpretation and application of facts where these are indisputable by every expert? Outside of simple mathematics? I’d be interested to hear you give me just 5 examples so I can get a feel for what you mean.

    Realize that I’m going to immediately go out and check out one or two of them to see if its really as indisputable as you might say. 🙂

    I don’t understand: “Otherwise, why would you have researched flouridation?’

    Are you saying that I am an expert in fluoridation? Isn’t it the opposite–that I discovered that people ‘armed with more knowledge on a subject’ were actually wrong?

  25. SHOULD we put fluoride in water? The ‘SHOULD’ question is not a matter for experts.

    Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.

    Aside from the obvious question of ‘does it have any adverse medical effects?’… How much will it cost to add the flouride? What else could we have spent the money on? How many tooth cavities will it prevent? How affordable is dental care? What other options are available? Is it unethical to medicate the population without their explicit consent? How do we balance the common good with individual rights? Does it corrode our copper pipes…?!

    All of these questions have answers, and experts in medicine, chemical engineering, economics, public health, ethics and maybe even plumbers are in the best place to provide those answers.

    The ‘should’ question, which must distill those answers into a position, will usually come down to opinion, and is likely to come down to a probability statement rather than an outright statement of fact. For example, with flouridation, consider the answer to the ‘should’ question if:
    (a) flouridation costs $900bn, and will prevent one cavity per year; or
    (b) flouridation costs $500m, will save exactly the same amount in dental costs, and has no known negative side effects.

    (a) seems pretty clear cut.

    (b) may not even have an answer.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, there are some issues that no one has the capacity to answer, and your stance on this particular issue may just be one opinion amoung many.

    Which is fine.

  26. I actually think we’re mostly in agreement.

    Their ability to make nuclear bombs did not and does not extend to their ability to decide how best to use them.

    Agree with that completely. And many of the scientists who helped developed it are on record as saying they were horrified at the decision to use it. Our own Sir Mark Oliphont, for example – “[I was] sort of proud that the bomb had worked, and absolutely appalled at what it had done to human beings.”

    The thing is, though, in the context of this discussion, they weren’t the experts in the bomb’s deployment, so why would you have relied on their advice anyway?

  27. “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.”

    That’s your non-expert opinion. 🙂

    “All of these questions have answers, and experts in medicine, chemical engineering, economics, public health, ethics and maybe even plumbers are in the best place to provide those answers.”

    Huh, that’s interesting. So, the people who actually have to imbibe the stuff just have to sit back and wait for the ‘experts’ to sort it out, and run with whatever these people come up with?

    The only way such a scheme could possibly not be absurd beyond measure is if one actually has taken the time to make sure that these ‘experts’ deserve to be taken seriously. But why should they be taken seriously? To determine such entails putting yourself in judgement over them. By ‘yourself’ I suppose I mean the ignorant yokels that make up the rest of society. The credentialing process that such things as doctoral programs represent to society provide epistemological ‘short cuts’ but only because we have established amongst ourselves who we are going to find credible and why.

    I think your argument has lost sight of that fact.

    “The ‘should’ question, which must distill those answers into a position, will usually come down to opinion, and is likely to come down to a probability statement rather than an outright statement of fact.”

    I can abide this to a degree, but it only speaks to what I’ve been saying. Our experts can go out and get us facts, but the minute they presume that the only valid opinion that is allowed any credibility, warning flags should go flying up. Because, you know what they say about opinions, right? 😉

    That’s why I’m drawing a distinction between the gathering of facts, which is important and crucial and often going to be the domain of specialists for purely pragmatic reasons, and the interpretation and application of those facts. There is little reason to think that experts put their pants on any differently than the rest of us.

    Now, it is quite true that not everyone has taken the time to think carefully about how to interpret and apply facts, and it may be true (we hope) that some experts have, but this is not a point in favor of utter deference to experts. It is a point against us, as argued in the OP. There are simply too many examples in history where experts have burned us, and burned us badly, not to pledge to ourselves and our countrymen to keep a watchful eye on our ‘experts.’ I have already given you examples. I could give you many more.

    This is about more than fluoride, but the fluoride issue is a good example. Because as it happens, experts HAVE shown that there are many good reasons to be very worried about the health impact of fluoride. Take a look at the 2006 NAS study on fluoride. I’ve actually read the thing and ‘tested’ it by checking through some of the research papers it cites, and such. Here it is yourself… note, none of it has been refuted, and very little of it has been addressed.

    http://dels.nas.edu/Report/Fluoride-Drinking-Water-Scientific/11571

    “The thing is, though, in the context of this discussion, they weren’t the experts in the bomb’s deployment, so why would you have relied on their advice anyway?”

    This doesn’t make sense to me. You seem to be making my point exactly. But are you aware somewhere of ‘experts’ in the deployment of A-bombs in 1944? 🙂

    The question of deploying, after the pragmatic side is addressed, comes down to ethics and morals. I trust I don’t have to remind you how contentious those are! And since none of them can agree, it is up to us, the average yokels, to be thinking through the issues for ourselves.

  28. You didn’t answer my question about what you would do if you had two brain surgeons giving you contradictory opinions about the best procedure for your daughter, while she is laying there on the table. How would YOU make your decision?

    I think this little (absolutely true) anecdote highlights the principle you are missing. If we were really going to do just whatever any expert said, we’d never be able to do anything, because they all contradict. In the face of this, we are compelled to set up in our own minds who we will trust and to what degree, and why. I say ‘compelled’ but in fact it is possible to never think about it at all, and remain blissfully unaware of all the important matters circulating around you being answered for you one way or another.

    What I have discovered, in the fluoride issue and elsewhere, is that the people who have succeeded in answering in a particular way did not necessarily have any of of our interests in mind. How many other things are like this?

    I can see why one would rather not think about it. 🙂

  29. This doesn’t make sense to me. You seem to be making my point exactly.

    Not really. You’re making a point about experts being good at gathering facts, but not necessarily good at making decisions based on those facts. I’m simply pointing out that the experts you have chosen in this particular example, the nuclear physicists, weren’t experts in warfare, or ethics, or strategy. That is, for a discussion on whether we should trust the advice of experts, a phycists opinion on whether or not we should drop a bomb can hardly be called ‘expert’.

    I don’t understand: “Otherwise, why would you have researched flouridation?’

    As I said, surely you have to admit that those armed with more knowledge on a subject are more likely to be correct about that subject? If that were not the case, why would you yourself have bothered arming yourself with more knowledge about flouridation?

    You didn’t answer my question about what you would do if you had two brain surgeons giving you contradictory opinions about the best procedure for your daughter, while she is laying there on the table.

    No, my apologies. I wanted to give it the attention it deserved, so thought I would hold off until I had more time. I will give a proper response when I get home from work, but in the meantime, I just wanted to note that:
    (a) I strongly suspect that the situation you describe is one of those “you won’t know until you get there” type of situations. I can sit here and say that I would theoretically end the life of my wife if she was in severe pain and asked me to… whether I would actually do it is another matter. Just bear that in mind when I do get around to answering.
    (b) The longer I think about it, the more questions I think I need you to answer before I can say what I would do. 🙂

    (and firstly, I’m very sorry that you had to go through that ordeal)
    1. How long had you known that she would need an operation?
    2. What was the purpose of the operation?
    3. What did the surgeon say were the possible benefits of the experimental technique?
    4. You said the other surgeon failed to mention that your daughter could die. I assume the first thing you did was to ask what the risks were, so do you mean you asked what the risks were, and he just left out the possibility of death?
    5. What was the operation that the surgeon actually performed (assuming you declined the experimental technique)? And what were its risks and benefits?

  30. That’s the problem with your assertion that experts are more likely to be correct about ‘that’ subject. As I already said you can find an expert taking EVERY side of an issue. Therefore, it is NOT POSSIBLE that they are more likely to be correct about that subject, because you can find another expert to contradict whatever any other expert says, on just about everything.

    Agree with all of this… except “it is NOT POSSIBLE that they are more likely to be correct about that subject”.

    More likely than whom? We’re talking about whether we should trust experts, or decide for ourselves. Any two experts who disagree are still far more knowledgeable on their subject than we are.

    If there are only two atrophysicists in the world, and one says there are multi-verses and the other says there aren’t, the solution isn’t to believe the guy who just flicked through a year 6 science textbook… is it?

  31. I have to wrap this up.

    “That is, for a discussion on whether we should trust the advice of experts, a phycists opinion on whether or not we should drop a bomb can hardly be called ‘expert’.”

    I think this plays into my point, but because you miss the point. ‘Whether or not we should drop a bomb’ is a matter of ethics and morality. The moral decision will hinge upon facts which will be supplied by others, but all men are capable of forming a decision on the matter without becoming ‘experts’ in ethics. To extend your dependency on experts here, we’d have to bring in the expert on morality, which is precisely the area I am saying experts aren’t required. Or: by a ‘good’ decision, I don’t mean one that is pragmatically good, but one that is morally good.

    “As I said, surely you have to admit that those armed with more knowledge on a subject are more likely to be correct about that subject?”

    Ok, I get you now. I think this is again a confusion on ‘correct.’ I am talking about the morality of the thing, ought it be done, is doing it the ‘correct’ thing? Naturally, I expect those who have studied the subject to have a greater mastery of the facts and issues involved. This mastery does not automatically extend to areas of ethics and morality.

    “(b) The longer I think about it, the more questions I think I need you to answer before I can say what I would do. :-)”

    Those would be fun and interesting questions to answer but I raised the scenario to illustrate the point that when it is your OWN KID, or when something impacts YOU SPECIFICALLY, you by NECESSITY move the ‘expert’ into a subordinate position. All of your questions assume that you are going to gather up enough facts to allow you to stand ‘over’ the contradicting experts and make your own decision, based on your evaluation of their credentials, the persuasiveness of their argument, the risks and benefits.

    And most experts of this sort (ie, doctors) fully expect you to ask such questions and understand that you as the patient have every moral right to put the doctors in a subordinate position because it is YOU that is specifically affected. It is the evil doctor indeed who presents facts and figures and says he’s going to cut open your daughter’s skull because in his judgement and his judgment alone, it is the ‘correct thing to do.’

    Fluoride is something that does impact YOU and entails the same kind of scrutiny and possesses the same kind of moral ‘high ground’ for you to stand ‘over’ the experts. There are many such examples.

    “Agree with all of this… except “it is NOT POSSIBLE that they are more likely to be correct about that subject”.”

    Doctor X says that Proposition A is True.
    Doctor Y says that Proposition A is False.

    The laws of logic and reality conspire to assure us that it is NOT POSSIBLE that they are both correct.

    “If there are only two atrophysicists in the world, and one says there are multi-verses and the other says there aren’t, the solution isn’t to believe the guy who just flicked through a year 6 science textbook… is it?”

    My posts have reflected on the universal right and ability of any person to have a well thought out moral system and it is the sort of thing that no ‘expert’ can supersede. You don’t need a PhD to be morally grounded, or equipped to make moral judgements. Similarly, there is a universal right and ability to think logically and intelligently. You don’t need a PhD to understand the law of non-contradiction. If there are only two astrophysicists in the world, and one says there are multi-verses and the other says there aren’t, the guy who just flicked through a 6 year science text book knows at least this, with 100% certainty and absolute correctness: they both can’t be right.

    In the face of such contradictions which permeate human existence, our stance should be one of skepticism across the board. Not just on the things we are inclined to distrust, but even on the things we find easy to trust.

    And I would add this, sort of as a final statement: at the very least, if the whole basis for your position is a mind-numbing trust of some set of experts, at least admit it to yourself, and don’t go around half-cocked asserting that YOU actually know that something is ‘correct.’ You ought to be agnostic on its correctness, even if you do what they say. This isn’t directed at you when I say you and your. I’m speaking generally here of a class of people whose sole and only argument is: “Are you as smart as X?”

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