A tale of two passions

By Grant Jacobs 06/06/2013 21


(Presenting science in a public debate.)

In a discussion following her post about the decision by the Hamilton city council to abandon fluorination of their water, Alison felt that scientists were disadvantaged in not showing passion in presenting their case. She writes from the view of those opposing what is considered sound science,

If you’re frightened by something, & those you associate with you also find it alarming, then it’s always going to be harder for a ‘contra-’ voice to be heard. Particularly if that contrarian [here, a scientist] doesn’t argue with some passion; they can come across as a bit mechanical & uncaring, which doesn’t help their case.

This probably follows on from Hilary’s comment after Helen’s post,

So maybe we need more passion from people in the science community on these issues? I think we do have scientists in this country with the charisma to achieve this in the public forum, but they need to bring more than information. They need to bring the kind of spirit that gets people behind them.

You might argue if scientists are better to present things calmly (in ‘just the facts’ style) or with some passion. I suspect that comes down to the circumstances. Let’s take the passionate view for a moment.

Two types of passion that scientists have.

First is the passion that gets them interested in a problem.

Second is that passion to test what we know about the thing and share what has been learnt.

The first is the same as that which gets anyone interested in a topic, scientist or not.

Children dying of a particular illness, cleaner fuels, pollution, saving wildlife and so on. Of course some of scientists’ choices are geekier than non-scientists might choose, but the spirit driving it is the same and that’s my point here.

When doing good science, the second passion is put foremost. In order to look to answers, you need to set aside your own bias, any feelings of outrage, fear and whatnot, and push a passion for sound investigation to the front.

One passion inspires researchers to go onto work on a topic, another is focused on when working on the topic.

The first passion is not gone (or was never there, as sometimes scientists come across as) – it’s what brought the interest in the topic. It’s just to progress a keenness to test and critique what possibilities there are is used to serve that initial passion, so that what can be established soundly will emerge.

The reason I’m belabouring this point is that the second can be shown as a ‘passion’ too, one that doesn’t raise the conflicts the first does. There’s no conflict in having a passion for the ‘truth’.*

Relevant to the fluorination discussion and choosing to express passion on a subject under debate, perhaps this approach is one some might take? – Show some of the first passion to remind others you share the same interests as them, then make clear that to hold true to that interest you need to set that bias aside and care deeply for, have a passion for, what can be said accurately.

As scientists we can see passion for sound information in patient accuracy and carefully-worded replies.

There may be occasions where a passion for the correct answer needs to be made more explicit. I’m not suggesting this passion should be ‘loud’ or disrespectful of other’s views, but that it may need to be seen.

After all, it’s not about opinions but about what is known.

Footnotes

Ken has also written on this issue and the SMC presented an expert‘s statement.

I agree with Pat Touhy (see comments after Helen’s post) that for this issue,

it’s the outrage factors such as loss of choice, its association with industrial waste, fear and distrust of authority etc which are the big issues here

(There also seem to be issues of political process.) These are the same issues I feel are underlying opposition on other issues, such as the few who oppose use of vaccines.

* One aspect that makes it harder to express ‘passion’ (and to write this post!) is that the answers are often more accurately stated as likelihoods. As Feynman said,

We find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known with different degrees of certainty: “It is very much more likely that so and so is true than that it is not true.”

Likelihoods are sometimes expressed as ranges of values, e.g. a range of a low to high value of concentration of fluorine in water that is considered safe to drink.

(Excuse the absence of anything here from me of late. If my diary isn’t misleading me, mid-June should see more time for writing.)


21 Responses to “A tale of two passions”

  • The Herald has put up a short ‘article’ collecting comments to drive a straw poll on the fluorination decision by the Hamilton CC:

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=10888759

    I note their brief introduction to the issue doesn’t point out that the decision was skewed by the council by disallowing votes from councillors who served on the district health board, nor that there is a previous binding referendum in 2006 voted by the public for continued fluorination that the councillors are effectively voting to overturn.

    (At the time of writing, more comments by those that oppose the decision.)

  • To balance my previous comment, whereas the earlier brief piece did not mention the political moves that are part of this articles does:

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10887881

    Reading it, you come away thinking a rather ‘bent’ form of democracy exists in that council. (e.g. “were warned by the council’s lawyers to withdraw from the tribunal hearings because they were elected to the Waikato District Health Board”)

  • It’s the ‘previous binding referendum’ bit that gets me. What part of ‘binding’ did the 7 councillors not understand? What’s more, they had clear evidence from 2 recent polls that a majority of Hamilton citizens want fluoridation continued. Also, the mayor, who voted in favour of removing fluoride, was reported on the radio as saying councils shouldnt have to make such decisions! So why did they! Iwould like to think they’ll be punished for this in the polls…

  • Sticking with the politics, on the face of it the process looks so badly done you can’t but wonder if whoever is behind this mess (the mayor?) should be given the boot. In addition to the binding referendum and polls there’s the legal ‘pushing’ of councillors out of the vote, which to me raises some serious questions. The skew of the submissions raises a few questions, too, given it’s the extent they differ from the results of the polls and referendum.

  • The comments on the Herald web page are depressing, for example,

    “Fluoride was tested and found to block certain glands in the brain, scientifically proven and used by the Nazis to make the population submissive.”

    Where do people get this sort of tripe? What “certain brains in the gland”
    It is this sort of made up rubbish touted as “facts” that gets me.
    (And Nazis, seriously!)

  • I think it is absolutely outrageous that the members of the Health Board were told not to vote. Everyone on council will bring some bias to the vote – at least the Health Board members would be more likely to have had the science explained to them.
    Could some sort of public petition require another referendum.
    I agree with what Alison wrote in her piece – what part of a “binding referendum” did they not understand? Indeed, does this mean the vote could be challenged?
    We need to get some scientifically literate people onto Councils!

  • @Michael, I saw that comment on the herald website, and the one that said “It’s scientifically controversial. Get rid of it.” and made my own comments regarding evidence and confusing politically controversial and scientifically controversial.
    Haven’t made it through moderation yet.

  • Michael Edmonds,

    I have to admit I thought the Herald’s choice of pull-quote was, well, choice. There does seem to be some very odd political moves in this affair; it’ll be interesting to see the full story broken down.

    Apparently there’s a Campbell Live take on this issue. I haven’t time to view it to verify if it’s up and what it says, but a video of the session should be on-line today sometime, if not already.

  • Now the Herald are running two articles, one for, one against

    For: Dr Jonathon Broadbank (Senior lecturer in preventive and restorative dentistry, University of Otago and president Otago branch of NZ Dental Association.)

    Against: Mary Byrne (National co-ordinator of the Fluoride Action Network NZ)

    (Can’t help thinking that if anyone is getting something out of this, the Herald is.)

  • Loose thought* :-

    Several sources suggest children from poorer families benefit more from fluoridation than those from better-off families. If true in NZ, an understanding of this might help. (Knowing the extent of difference in income groups would help too.) If you were to suggest some other approach than water fluoridation might better tackle this, you’d ideally want to know the underlying cause – as well as what are options at this time for New Zealand and how might they fare.

    Either way, the approach taken by the council seems to have issues of political process, etc., and the offerings of the Fluoride Action Network NZ are unhelpful, having errors and being inflammatory rather than constructive.

    —-
    * Seeing as comments here are unlikely to come to the topic of the post I might just as well…

  • Passion works well for people who don’t have (or deliberately misuse) evidence. It’s a little more difficult if you do have evidence, because evidence isn’t nearly as exciting. When you don’t have evidence, you can skip right to causation arguments.

    People don’t get excited about relative risks or statistical significance, or studies that cover a larger population. Tell them that putting a *chemical* in *their* water is almost *certainly* going to make *their* children sick, and then you’ll see excitement.

    When I moved to my current home, I heard all kinds of horror stories about the cancer clusters from the water pollution, and everyone asked me if I was worried. As it turns out, the people who were in the “cluster” had been fetuses at the time that their mothers were drinking the well water that had been tainted with benzene. So an actual risk had been conflated into something much easier to get worked up about (the water in town causes cancer!!!) and no amount of critical thinking could compete with that. Ironically, the local water company, whose water was never an issue, puts extra chlorine in to make it smell “cleaner,” which is the actual reason we use bottled water in our house. You can’t make good coffee with pool water.

  • Thanks for the thoughts, Alison (‘M’).

    Passion works well for people who don’t have (or deliberately misuse) evidence.”

    You’re right, of course, but over and above that I was hoping to argue that you might try use a passion for testing ideas and finding out what’s actually right as a way to engage people. Sort-of the distinction between (‘empty’) assertion, ‘I say it’s like –’, and showing (not telling) what is right through examining tests that have been done.

  • That’s an excellent strategy, but unfortunately not one that works terribly well at government-run meetings. In that situation, you’re trying to compensate for a pre-existing passion that’s already fueled with lack of understanding. Not only would you need to instill the passion for knowing, but you’d have to figure out a way of tamping down the passion that’s already there and getting people to admit they were wrong without making them dig their heels in even deeper. . .in five minutes or less!

    Being passionate can definitely be inspiring. You can teach an old dog new tricks (I developed a sudden interest in science in my 40s) but it’s better to target younger people. I’ve inspired three young people that I know of to pursue higher education in science just through my own passion, but I believe that’s partly because they’re not yet so heavily invested in defending their beliefs against contradictory information.