From time to time people make big discoveries while surfing the web. For example, I have stumbled upon the provocative ideas that global warming is not real (or at least is not related to human activities in any important way), vaccination causes autism, the world is only 6,000 years old, condensation trails from aircraft are really a method to manipulate weather patterns, and that people are adding fluoride to drinking water in order to poison me. While the ideas may seem strange and surprising, when I click on the links in the page or google some of the names mentioned, I discover a massive, interconnected set of pages of information, youtube videos, and links to books by experts. All of these are entirely consistent with the main claim. For the prepared mind, a new sense of purpose arises. For a certain percentage of people who have this experience, they are spurred to get the word out to others, to join with the similarly enlightened few, and to stop vaccination, contrails, water fluoridation, etc.
At some point in this process of transformation from discovery to activism, the thoughtful person learns that there is another, entirely separate, body of claims, just as internally consistent and mutually referential. This is the set of claims embodied in peer-reviewed scientific literature. This literature contains a variety of different types of information from experiments, measurements of associations between things, reviews of observational studies, statistics, reasonable arguments, and so on. I will refer to all this sort of stuff as “evidence”. Most of this evidence directly contradicts your discovery and implies that your activism is misguided. Fortunately, vanishingly few people are in close contact with the evidence, but among those few you will find that some will directly and publicly contradict you and some may even resort to mockery, apparently to thwart you and your friends in your good work. Sometimes evidence can undermine all of your efforts. Thus, evidence can have clear adverse effects.
Fortunately, there are tested and effective methods to prevent these adverse effects from evidence. I call this approach, the Fighting Evidence And Reason (FEAR) strategy.
To make the virtues of this strategy concrete I will use examples from the illuminating program of opposing water fluoridation in our community. Many of you in Lethbridge have discovered that water fluoridation poisons us from before birth until our untimely deaths (not to mention that Jesus is mad about this). It is a campaign to enrich an evil few by undermining our health and eventually killing us, all of this masquerading as a benign public health measure to prevent dental decay, mainly in children.
First, FEAR requires that you develop at least three or four different emotionally-charged big points in your favour. If you have only one or two, you may generate anxiety in your audience, but your enemies who are using evidence and reason can focus their arguments and communicate very damaging messages within the attention span of the audience. Their messages can allay the anxiety you provoked. With at least a couple more big points you can always come back with unanswered ones, generating fresh anxiety. Rest assured that few in the audience will be able to listen to a Nay-saying Evidence and Reason Devotee (NERD) get all the way through dispelling the anxiety from four of your big points at once. The local anti-fluoridation program has four good ones, just the right number. Four is enough to confound NERDs, but not too many to exceed the long-term memory capacity of the diligent activist. Fluoride is a toxic waste, fluoride causes diseases and death, fluoridation violates human rights, and fluoride has no benefit. Imagine how satisfying it feels after a NERD clearly outlines how the evidence supports claims of dental benefits and does not support claims of toxicity, to come back with “That is all well and good, but you are avoiding the big point of the immorality of involuntary medication!” or, after a NERD has gone through the argument undermining your big human rights point, you say, “But you are avoiding the big fact that it has no benefit!” You can almost see the heads of readers nodding in agreement as you exclaim “gotcha again”. With the right number of big points you can play this game of conceptual “whack-a-mole” for years, safely knowing that most people will not catch on.
Second, evidence can be annoyingly persistent, sticking in the mind of the listener and inoculating him/her against later persuasion. Be proactive, get some evidence of your own. In this regard the best way to get your own evidence is to cherry-pick through the scientific literature. For example, the World Health Organization has commissioned many large-scale international studies to evaluate if water fluoridation works. Ignore their attempt to apply reason and “scientific methodology”, sift through the numbers and find a way to present them to make your point. Even the best science cannot hide support for your view. You can present WHO data in such a way as to hide the fluoridation benefit, just because other public health measures, like preventative dentistry, milk and salt fluoridation, improvements in diet and food preparation can all reduce dental caries. Your signal is their noise. Often cherry-picking papers is easier than having to rummage through other people’s data. If there are 20 or more papers examining the possibility of a specific adverse health effect of water fluoridation, say bone brittleness, one of them is bound to show the expected linkage. Stick to that one. NERDs might talk about meta-analyses showing the opposite, that there were multiple failures to replicate or that the “statistics” were not done properly in the paper you like. Who do they think they are? That is just their opinion and you are entitled to yours. The paper found a link between water fluoridation and bone breakages. Move on.
Sometimes you may have to be very literal in the way you pick through scientific papers to find some of your own evidence. A very clever example is the proof that anti-fluoridation activists have found that water fluoridation causes atherosclerosis. Click on the link to the “new study” . It clearly shows that fluoride “is associated” with atherosclerotic plaque. So what if the NERDs who wrote this paper interpret their results as showing a good way of imaging plaque by injecting radioactive fluoride while patients are scanned. Our good activists know how to use a study showing that fluoride and atherosclerotic plaque are “linked”, to the benefit of us all.
One final point about creating your own evidence. NERDs make a big deal out of things like dosage, concentration, molecular structure, and so on. Usually this is just another way of hiding your signal in their noise. For example, there are some excellent studies showing that fluoride causes brain damage. NERDs try to get out of the obvious conclusion from these studies by pointing out that the concentration of fluoride in our drinking water is in most cases orders of magnitude lower than in the studies. So what. Most people do not know what concentration or order of magnitude even mean and you have made your point. Same goes for what molecules do. What really is the point if hydrofluorosilicic acid when it is dissolved in water becomes regular old F ion plus some basically harmless stuff, hydrofluorosilicic acid is dangerous toxic waste – case closed. Don’t forget, if you are feeling a little cornered by a NERD, you still have the whack-a-mole tactic, remind them about the atherosclerosis link.
The third element of the FEAR strategy is repetition. NERDs go on and on about evidence and relative probabilities. You do not have to do that, that is their schtick. If you have read something pretty scary about fluoride some place, for example that the Soviets (or Nazis) used water fluoridation to pacify prisoners, repeat that. There must be some truth to it or people would not keep repeating it.
Fourth, you can always find at least one Nobel Prize winner who has affirmed a belief in anything you want. For example Nobel Prize winner Arvid Carlsson opposes water fluoridation, keep telling people that. It does not matter what his area of expertise might be, he won a frickin’ Nobel Prize! Sometimes you may not be able to google a Nobel Prize winner who has affirmed a specific thing. In that case google Hollywood celebrities. Lo and behold Martin Sheen opposes water fluoridation, he even played the US President on TV. This may even be better than discussing Nobel Prize winners because they are NERDs (usually), and people will like you when you say Martin Sheen supports you, because they like Martin Sheen.
Fifth, find really bad things to say about your NERD opponents and/or silence them. Now if you are in a position of power this is relatively easy because you can make it a rule that they will lose their job if they speak out against you. If you are the prime minister of Canada you can even make them look like enemies of democracy. This will not work for most of us, because Harper is bogarting that position. The best way to move forward here is to take advantage of your natural suspicion of the motives of your opponents. Trust that gut feeling. There must be some really good reason why these NERDs are thwarting your good fight. What is in it for them? Why are they trying so hard to suppress your truth? They must be in cahoots with the evil, rich few. The local anti-fluoridation activists have discovered the value of this simple tactic. They assert that NERDs like the Dean of Dentistry at the University of Saskatchewan who spoke out against the local anti-fluoridation campaign, are well-paid lobbyists for big fluoride and the same goes for local community members who have opposed them in the Lethbridge Herald. If you are unable to prove those claims, do not worry, you are still right. The difficulty in proving your point is more than likely due to the carefully developed, deep conspiracy that surrounds the evil machinations of NERDs.
Having seen this FEAR strategy play out in many areas, I can assure you that with diligent application and confidence, the day will be yours.