Thursday, May 30, 2013

Portland fluoride vote makes sense given limited information and time

Voters in Portland have for the umpteenth time stopped fluoridation of their water, not long after my water district voted to fund it here in Santa Clara County. I used to live in Portland and still visit regularly.

The city relies on a famous-to-Portland protected watershed for its water supply, the Bull Run watershed near Mount Hood. When I lived there in the 1990s, the Forest Service was still trying to log it. Portland voters of all stripes were generally up in arms. People knew that they had great water quality, and the attitude was it wasn't broken, so don't mess with it.

I've looked around the various news sites for exit polls explaining why Portlanders voted down fluoridation by around 60-40. There's plenty of activist reaction that doesn't tell you too much about the typical voter's reasoning, but my best guess is that it's the same reason they opposed logging their water source 20 years ago:  it ain't broke.

Maybe a typical Portlander sat down to mark the ballot with limited information beyond knowing that the water system is pretty good as is. With time ranging from five minutes to maybe one hour total over the previous several months, they learn that there are vicious arguments over fluoridation. At the upper range of that spectrum they might learn enough that there's a scientific consensus in favor of fluoridation, with only outlier experts in opposition.

For this amount of information about their water system, and for voters who put in only a few minutes to think about it, the vote against fluoridation isn't irrational. On the other hand, people who spend more than a few minutes on fluoridation should begin to see where the weight of scientific opinion is, and those people are acting irrationally when they overturn an unanimous decision by the city council that they had elected into office, reject what is the clear weight of scientific opinion and then don't put much time into examining the evidence themselves. I'll acknowledge that people who have put in a lot of time examining the evidence could often be anti-fluoride, but I suspect they began as anti-fluoride and then let that interest drive them into examining evidence and being biased in terms of what they accept.

If I'm right about this, the people who put very little time into considering the issue would be anti-fluoride, those who put a moderate amount of time would be somewhat more pro-fluoride, and those who put a lot of time would be all over the map, but quite possibly anti-fluoride and highly motivated.

As to its relevance to climate policy, the one advantage we have is that doing nothing seems like the conservative, do-no-harm option on fluoride, but climate activists have a strong argument against that. Still I think this indicates that we have to have a winning argument for people that spend five minutes thinking about the issue. My best nomination is

Climate change is real. Our modern weather isn't what our grandparents had, what we ourselves experienced in previous decades. You feel it in your bones to be true - that's why the other side is denying it so loudly, trying to overcome what we know is right.
Not the most scientific, but not completely unscientific, and maybe it works.


dhogaza said...

"When I lived there in the 1990s, the Forest Service was still trying to log it"

The USFS, with the approval of the Portland Water Bureau, *did* log the watershed in the 1960s and 70s, through the early 80s (my exact dates might be off).

This despite the fact that the federal legislation creating the watershed for Portland's use strictly forbade commercial logging.

The logging was kept secret from the public, of course. Portlanders wondered why, in some winters, our water ran muddy and "boil" orders were handed out, unaware that the old growth forest in the watershed was being logged in areas right down to Bull Run Lake, where heavy winter rains at times caused heavy sediment loads to end up in our drinking water supply.

You're probably remembering efforts to change the federal law to allow logging after the law was used to stop the USFS (the water bureau leadership also changed its stance, opposing logging).

One thing that particularly pissed off the public was the fact that sediment loads in winter had led the EPA to start pushing for an expensive filtration plant, and the cessation of logging had minimized the problem as bare slopes became covered with vegetation. Restarting logging would've led to the building of the filtration plant - paid for by taxpayers, not the timber companies getting the timber nor the USFS getting the timber revenue.

Nys Cof said...

Actually Portlanders put in a lot of time to reach a no vote. You should read

Anonymous said...

"Climate change is real. Our modern weather isn't what our grandparents had"

Thank gawd.

My grandparents had the Dust Bowl.


Brian said...

Nys - lots of propaganda in that link but no exit polls. People will say whatever they want from the winning side and the losing side in every election.

I'm not saying I have proof for my theory that lowest info voters shot down fluoridation, but I think it's as good or better than anything at the link.

Turboblocke said...

Reminds me a bit of opposition to wind power. Someone near me has put together a 30+ page file including every denier myth about wind power and is going door to door getting people to sign a petition against a proposed wind turbine. It's complete BS but it impresses people who don't have a technical background. What can you do? In a democracy the uninformed votes count just as much as the informed.

rpauli said...

That's why there is a hierarchical list of denialist rants. As if the PR machine just moved up a notch.

OK we now we can accept climate change because we feel it in our bones, but:

"the climate has always been changing" (translation: it is still not my fault)

This is just one of the defensive layers that protects the most dangerous truth - not just that it's human-caused by carbon combustion - but that it's from commercially produced and heavily promoted carbon energy products. Not only did we do it, but we agreed to it, we asked for more, we gladly paid money for it, and we actively denied complicity.

I guess I am saying that admitting to climate change is still a long ways away from a ruthless apprehension of the problem

John said...

It isn't just right right wingers who are opposed to fluoridation. Some environmental journalists have been acctively misleading the public.
For example, Mark Hertagaaard is overall a good journalist. But he has bought into the anti-fluoridation nonsense and actively propagates it.
For example, see his article on Salon in 1999.

Maybe he has changed his mind since 1999, but maybe not.

Anonymous said...

I really wish toxic waste pushing ignoramuses would stop associating climate science with fluoridationist nonsense. Climate change is extremely serious, and the science credible, unlike fluoridation "science". Thinking that everything which has had the label "science" slapped onto it is all the same is about as dumb as it gets. Fluoridation and the reckless burning of fossil fuels are both examples of grossly irresponsible pollution carried out to further corporate interests at the expense of the public, and in defiance of the best scientific knowledge and the precautionary principle. It is unlikely to just be a coincidence that America and Australia are especially guilty in relation to both. When a dentist supports industrial silicofluoride toxic waste pollution, it is similar to a geologist supporting carbon pollution, because they are both speaking outside their area of expertise. Whenever anyone speaks in favour of fluoridation they are just blowing hot air, because there is no high quality evidence they can cite, and because the whole idea of using public water supplies to medicate populations is ridiculous to everyone with at least a little common sense.
Dan Germouse