Anger In Debating Of Health Issues

August 7, 2009 at 9:14 pm (Miscellaneous, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

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
homeopathy/CAM. [PDF]

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.

More

*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.

13 Comments

  1. David Colquhoun said,

    I’ve had my share of abusive (and usually semi-literate) abuse. I suspect that the anger from alternative medicine advocates is a result of their realisation that the halcyon days are over for those who make false health claims. They are slowly but surely losing the battle, and their incomes. And much of the credit for that must go to bloggers. It’s all rather heartening.

  2. Warhelmet said,

    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Brian Jackson said,

    The evidence of the harmful effects of fluoride continues to grow year by year, highlighting, dental and skeletal fluorosis, thyroid damage, bone cancer and even reduction of IQ. Meanwhile what little evidence to support fluoride and fluoridation is very limited and usually completely out of date. Opposing fluoride by making death threats and being purely abusive is of course unacceptable but this alone does not make fluoride a good or safe thing. Read ALL the evidence rather than only that which you think supports your view and make up your mind using common sense and the adoption of the precautionary principle. Cigarettes, Asbestos and lead in petrol were all at one time considered safe and fluoride comes from the same misguided era. If you want fluoride then by all means take as much as you want if it pleases you but please dont even think about foisting it on me. I wont tolerate it and i certainly wont pay for it and line the pockets of a small minority of people in government and industry who make fortunes out of disposing of this toxic waste.

  4. Neuroskeptic said,

    It’s good to see someone who’s able to talk seriously about this. What would you say was the most compelling piece of evidence that fluoridation is harmful?

  5. jdc325 said,

    @Brian: I’ve written about fluoridation before and it’s probably worth my clarifying a couple of points. It seems to me that the benefits of fluoridation are often overstated; there is also the issue of informed consent where fluoridation of water is up for debate. I would also argue that in order for people to be able to make an informed choice regarding fluoridation they need to know what the evidence shows.

    The Centre for Reviews and Dissemination at York University conducted a review of the evidence regarding flouridation and stated that it was difficult to find reliable evidence regarding fluoridation. They also reported their concern about the misrepresentation of their work. They concluded that: “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.”

    If you can provide links to new evidence that was not available at the time of the York review, I would like to see it.

  6. Nash said,

  7. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for that Nash. I like the “Argument over. Atheists zero, homeopathy won.” but can’t help but wonder if that’s what he meant to write.

    There’s some really angry, weird comments in there too:

    “The arguments against homeopathy are going down in flames! Go run and tell your Randi master, you heard it here first.” ; “The author of this article is to be congratulated for his exhaustive research, before he suffers a slow painful death, which I believe is where he’s headed with such a pack full of anti-science and lies. It is a well known psychiatric fact that the mental process of atheists is suicidal, and definitely this article is self destructive..”

  8. George said,

    Hi

    I have added a link to you at:

    http://slob30days.blogspot.com/

    You may be interested in my recent posts on Dr Groves. Have you found anything in his book Trick and treat or his website that you can categorically disprove? and back it up with peer-reviewed research?

  9. jdc325 said,

    I haven’t found anything in Dr* Groves’ book that I can categorically disprove. One reason for that is that I haven’t actually read it. Is it any good?

    *I note that an article in the Oxford Mail states that Dr Groves received his PhD from Trinity College and University (which I think is now known as Bronte International University).

    http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/3803318.Author_says__eat_fat_rather_than_fruit/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bronte_International_University

  10. George said,

    The book is…interesting, yes.

    This is the website: http://www.second-opinions.co.uk/

    If what he says is right then most of us eating a healthy diet are eating ‘unhealthily’; those of us exercising ‘healthily’ may well be exercising ‘unhealthily’

    If both of those are true then my (and your) taxes will continue to be spent on ‘healthy’ people getting ill.

    I knew about the PhD stuff – I’m not interested in the person or his qualifications as he references virtually every point he makes. That means I can check the papers quoted.

    That makes it interesting.

  11. saravana said,

    Hi,

    Came across your website and immediately liked it. I have been trying to understand what laws govern websites/blogs that promote alternative health and how they are allowed to hawk/sell these unverified cures?

    This particular website is new:www.breakthroughhealthsolutions.com and makes some very incredulous claims about the pharmaceutical industry as a whole.

    Have you come across this site?

  12. jdc325 said,

    That’s a remarkable website saravana. Thanks for the link (and for your kind words about my blog).

  13. Online Debate And Criticism « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] minimizing harm and considering the feelings of others: I’ve written before about anger in debating of health issues and I would hate to think that those arguing in favour of public health interventions or against […]

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