There seems to be something about health that can make some people discussing issues relating to it become rather angry. There is a new example of this in the case of Dr Alan Dangour. The scientist who conducted research concluding that organic food is no healthier than conventional produce “told The Independent that hundreds of people had contacted him since his work was published, with many accusing him of dishonesty and incompetence in emails peppered with swear words”.
Apparently Dangour said that, although he was not upset by the correspondence, he was surprised by the strength of feeling on the issue.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have been.
I recall that blogger AP Gaylard once commented on a slide that made up part of a powerpoint presentation. This slide was in a presentation titled “Homeopathy and the new fundamentalism” and included the following text:
TIME TO ‘LOCK AND LOAD’.
• Time to get ANGRY; to get UNIFIED; to get BUSY DEFENDING
That exhortation to get angry, emphasised by its capitalisation*, is really rather mild compared to some of the examples of anger in debates about health issues.
For example, in June this year, an MP faced death threats after plans were announced to add fluoride to the water supply in Australia. The message read “Thanks for the poison bitch, ready to kill you slowly”. Anti-fluoride campaigners elsewhere have been very vociferous about the dangers of fluoridation (without going quite as far as those in Geelong). This despite a lack of good quality evidence indicating that fluoridation is harmful in the terms used by these campaigners: “The evidence of a benefit of a reduction in caries should be considered together with the increased prevalence of dental fluorosis. The research evidence is of insufficient quality to allow confident statements about other potential harms or whether there is an impact on social inequalities.” [PDF of the executive summary of the York fluoridation review.]
Another example of threats made against those involved in debate about health is that of Dr Paul Offit who, according to Wikipedia, has “attracted controversy and a substantial volume of hate mail and occasional death threats”. The Wikipedia entry includes links to stories in the New York Times and Philadelphia Enquirer. Some specific examples of threatening language being used in regard to Offit appear in a blog post on Left Brain/Right Brain. One quote is this, posted on a Yahoo group: “You have no idea how difficult it is for me not to slug him. Or worse.” LB/RB then looks at a blog post by this person which includes the following statement: “The people who make Gardasil……Someone should euthanize (sic) them. One at a time. So they can all take a number and take turns and watch.”
Given that the specific examples of death threats against people contributing to debates involving health issues have been in relation to opposition to public health initiatives such as fluoridation and vaccination, perhaps there is a common thread here. Maybe there is just something about the idea of government schemes to improve public health that people distrust. Maybe it is the idea that having schemes to introduce either a “foreign agent” (as in the case of vaccines) or a substance that can be toxic depending on the dose (as in the case of fluoride) is somehow sinister. Perhaps people believe that Brigadier General Jack D Ripper was onto something (and that the government wants to impurify our precious bodily fluids) and this could account for the strength of feeling in both the anti-vaccination and anti-fluoridation camps.
*It has been noted before that angry responses in discussions of alternative medicine (or topics popular with advocates of alternative medicine) often contain a number of tell-tale signs. Capitalisation of words for emphasis (or perhaps I should say vehemence) is not uncommon. You may also see unusual use of punctuation marks, with repeated exclamation marks or question marks. Accusations of competing interests or pressure being brought to bear are sometimes made (Dangour is quoted in the Independent as saying that “Some have questioned my integrity and independence; whether I am funded by big agriculture or industry. It’s professionally hurtful for people to say: ‘You must be funded by industry or otherwise you wouldn’t have come up with that finding’.”), although those making such accusations about those with opposing views are sometimes curiously reluctant to acknowledge their own competing interests. Through all these comments, the theme seems to be “the evidence disagrees with my opinion – there must be something wrong with the evidence” (or with the person providing the evidence). The inability to reconcile new evidence with prior opinions does seem to have the capacity to lead to frustration and anger.