Friday, June 26, 2009

Fluoride, Sagan, and Arguments from Authority

When looking up information on how to take care of a few new house plants, I learned that Dracaena plants, among others, don’t handle fluoride in their water that well. Not knowing if the water here in Montreal is in fact fluoridated and thus safe for my spiky new comrade, I figured that a quick Google search would help me determine what the story was. In short, I learned that no, the water in Montreal is not fluoridated.

The long part of the answer, however, was irritating:

In this Canada Free Press article, Dr. Jones goes through the common arguments against water fluoridation, quoting several doctors on their opinions and views on fluoridation, and comes to the conclusion that RARRWG FLUORIDE IS KILLING US ALL.

He then quotes a great scientist:

Carl Sagan, the noted astronomer, was right when discussing "authoritarian" judgments. He remarked that "arguments from authority do not count; too many authorities have been mistaken too often".

And finishing the article, the Canada Free Press tells us about the author:

W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of The Harvard Medical School. He's been a ship's surgeon, hotel physician and family doctor and later trained in surgery at McGill in Montreal, University of Rochester N.Y. and Harvard. His medical column is published by 60 Canadian newspapers and several in the U.S. He is the author of seven books. Dr. Walker has a medical practice in Toronto.

It’s enough to make Dr. Sagan turn in his grave. If I understand Dr. Jones’ argument, he says “Don’t listen to the scientific consensus about this issue, listen to me, I’m a doctor. But don’t listen to someone just because they have a title, people who do that are usually hiding behind their credentials.”


from plognark

I was going to try and refute some points that were made about fluoridation, but I’m finding it’s not worth the time an effort when I just don’t know enough about the issue. A full response has the potential to turn this initially small rant into a 10-page diatribe, and the article is a couple of years old, so any real relevance to anything I might say would be lost. I’ll just say that I’m not that worried. We have far more harmful toxins in our environment that we know for certain are hazardous, and still willingly put them into our bodies.

The point I make here is that invoking someone with credentials as if that makes their points more valid is sloppy reasoning, and in fact a fallacy: the argument from authority. Dr. Jones brings up this fallacy to support his point, but in fact a reader who pays attention will see that it in fact invalidates a large part of what he said. If only Carl Sagan were around to lay a slap down on the author for misusing his name…..

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