During discussion of the recent Hastings Council fluoride presentations, Councillors O’Keefe and Cynthia Bowers asked the ultimate question – Who should we trust on this issue?

Standing before them were a highly-trained toxicologist who has done nothing but look at fluoride studies for fifteen years, and a responsible dentist/representative of the District Health Board and Health Ministry.

Councillor Bowers put the question to anti-fluoride advocate Paul Connett (“Why you?”); Councillor O’Keefe to health official Dr Robin Wyman (“Why you?”).

The issue of authoritativeness comes up time and again in area Council meetings – the issue could be freshwater quality, dangers from GMOs, engineering solutions for coastal erosion, financial projections, toxic waste, biological farming or, as in this case, efficacy of health-related interventions.

Councillors, rarely with firsthand expertise in the matter at hand (that’s not a criticism), often find themselves stuck in the middle of a battle between outside consultants (presumably experts). Or sometimes between their own staffs and well-informed members of the public, who too frequently tend to be dismissed – if not denigrated – by Councils’ professional staffs.

In the latter case, Councils – and other voices of authority – are confronted more and more these days by well-educated, Internet savvy, passionate and persistent citizen ‘experts’. And while a bit (even a large amount) of Google-enabled citizen research cannot be uncritically accepted or substituted for relevant professional expertise, it is both very unwise substantively and politically foolhardy for Councillors or staff to be disparaging of those citizen experts who take the trouble to weigh in … usually with no personal benefit to be gained.

Take the case of Larry Dallimore, who’s deeply troubled by beach erosion at Westshore.

Awhile back, I spent the morning on a ‘site visit’ with Dallimore, a Westshore resident, to hear his case as to why ‘beach renourishment’ — the current strategy of the Napier and Regional Councils for dealing with erosion at Westshore — would never work.

I discovered that Larry isn’t a dilettante on the issues involved, although he seems to be treated as a meddling nuisance by the powers-that-be. This is generally how Councils treat ‘average’ citizens who get in the way of business as usual. Here’s a guy who’s offered personally to pay for additional qualified assessment of the present Westshore approach, but has been told, effectively, to ‘get lost’.

Larry is a civil engineer who’s been directly involved in most of the earthwork projects at the Port and around Napier’s beaches. He just might be considerably more credible than the Councillors and bureaucrats who are making the decisions on our coastal erosion challenges.

I posted Larry’s Westshore critique earlier on the BayBuzz website – the article is called Who would you believe? And if you look here, you’ll find a quite robust online conversation going on. It touches upon the Haumoana/Te Awanga beach erosion situation as well.

Professional ‘authority’ no longer gets quite the same free ride – uncritical deference, if you prefer – as it did in the ‘old days’. Citizen experts are better informed than ever before and they’re not going to go away. Thank god for that!

By the way, civic engagement increases with age … and we all know the Bay’s population distribution is shifting to the elderly.

It’s bad enough when citizens are pitted against Council staffs and their (hardly independent) consultants – the latter being hired guns who know where their bread will be buttered year after year … so long as they don’t ruffle Council feathers.

But what really complicates matters is when institutional voices of authority – like ministries and universities and research institutes – that many presume to be independent, objective, evidence-based, and open-minded … are in fact not.

Of course, this is an age-old issue. High priests have always protected the status quo, which vests their standing and power, after all.

In replying to Hastings Council questioning, Dr Connett mused about why old paradigms persist against rising counter-evidence. He gave an example from his current visit to New Zealand, where he has been speaking for weeks around the country. He described how the deans of the medical and dentistry schools at Otago refused to allow his presentation at those institutions … and even rebuked medical students who sought to arrange a presentation for themselves. Mind you, Connett is a vastly experienced and super-credentialed academic.

That’s the sort of mentality that stifles individual intellectual and professional curiosity … to say nothing of innovation and advancement on a social scale.

Against that unfortunate example, at least the Hastings Council invited in Dr Connett – and the other side – for a discussion. Good on them for that.

More power to the citizen experts!

Tom Belford

P.S. Speaking of who to believe … have you taken the BayBuzz Fluoride Survey yet?

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6 Comments

  1. First, to speak briefly to the central point of this article -“authoritativeness". As is so often the reason for wrong outcomes out of complex issues (although I'm not sure what is complex about the fluoride issue), the debate is often argued on the logic fallacy of 'appeal to authority' where the credentials of those holding opposing views are compared (and for some reason never the agendas or conflicting interests), rather than wrestle with the facts of a matter. This employment of flawed reasoning is often accompanied by its fellow logic fallacy "ad hominem" where one side, rather than refute the opposing argument, instead opts to undermine the credibility of an opponent by character assassination. Even worse, the ad hominem criticism is often circular… "the opponent of fluoridation is a nut case"…why is he a nut case?…"because he opposes fluoridation."

    I attended the Paul Connett presentation at the community centre and the HDC hearing. After sitting through the very outdated, not to mention poorly time-managed presentation by health department officials, I was confident Prof. Connett would tear them apart, which of course he duly did. Their defence of fluoridation resting largely on the anecdotal observations of some dentists who noted the coincidental improvements in oral health with the introduction of fluoridation and the somewhat overstated explanation of their toxicologist (happy to confess he was 'new to the whole fluoride thing'-paraphrased), that epidemiological studies (suggesting problems with fluoridation), were a notoriously unreliable method of gathering conclusive data. I didn't hear him mention that it was the same epidemiological methods (or worse, anecdotal) that are referred to in support of fluoridation.

    It took me a day or two to realize why the DHB team seemed so contented with their unconvincing presentation. They don't need to win the debate. They merely need to win the battle of public opinion, and they have our money to win it with. A well timed media campaign leading up to any referendum to whip up panic rooted in fear and ignorance is all that is needed to draw a public backlash toward the members of council, who have to ask themselves if they really need the aggravation.

    In my personal view, I see only one antidote to this. The few of us who understand the significance of this issue need to prepare our neighbours, friends and family with knowledge. This battle has to be won at the grassroots. We can only be subjected to fluoridation with our consent. Support those who have dedicated themselves to the front lines. We need to ensure that a referendum takes place and that it is binding. Then if truth wins out and medical freedom of choice, the only reasonable outcome, is reinstated we should not rest until every nut and bolt of the machinery of fluoridation is disassembled and removed.

  2. Further to the “Who would you believe?” articles where the debate centers on whether a resident has the credentials to make comment on his or her environment. I would much prefer an open discussion on say “After 24 years of nourishment – is the condition of Westshore Beach acceptable”.

    I found the response to the HBRC question “What is the status of Westshore?” unreasonable and lacking even modest detail for a major problem at an important regional amenity.

    The HBRC staff answered Councillors as per Tom Belford’s article 29/03/11:

    “Recent reports in local newspapers that the renourishment project is failing are not well founded. Localised erosion has however occurred in the vicinity of a concrete ramp placed over the beach crest to enable the surf club to launch surfboats and IRBs. This is a normal effect in the vicinity of localised points of hard protection works.”

    The need to take time to answer such a simple question is of concern. Confining the answer to localised erosion around a concrete ramp that is above the HW mark is unreasonable. The problem covers 2.85kms of beach. The answer infers that a feeble beach access ramp could be compared to other hard protection works, such as a 3:1 sloping rock seawall. The HBRC are controlling the works so why not state that nourishing the beach is successful and the programme will continue for the long term.

    At least Mayor Arnott is prepared to state the unanimous position of the Napier Council. Quote: (Dominion Post 3/2/11) “Napier’s safest and busiest beach will be protected” and “The sandy beach in the 1970’s was a blip” and “The beach we have now is the same as the 1890’s”. Also stated (Napier Mail 9/2/11) “The Council is comfortable with the renourishment and is continuing the programme”.

    In my opinion, both Councils have got it wrong. It is a case of when, not if the Westshore domain suffers major and permanent damage from the next severe high seas. 1974 was the last severe storm with 5 extreme events in the meantime but due to unabated erosion the HW mark is now 30 odd meters closer to the Westshore Domain. The imported beach nourishment to counter the erosion loss from moderate swells needs to be increased threefold to even maintain the current poor state of the beach.

    The Councils chose to continue with the cheaper monitoring and management regime rather than the hard engineering solution as a recommended option in 1998. This proven seawall remedy was rejected because the NCC accepted a grossly inflated estimate for this capital cost project. This option was reviewed in 2003 and the $60M estimate was nonsense then, just as the CPI corrected $80M is nonsense in 2010.

    The shingle stopbank (seawall) should be replenished and fortified ready for the winter storm seas but unfortunately the beach is unprepared. The current state of the nourishment programme after a mere 10,500m3 of imported shingle is close to the “end of winter” condition. We can only wish and hope that we get through this coming winter with slight to mild offshore storms.

    The engineers confirm that we have serious permanent erosion at Westshore but continue with a soft engineering solution and recommend it as the long term remedy. The basic difference between hard and soft engineering is one protects land and the other allows progressive beach retreatment.

    It is a hard decision and I will have no satisfaction in saying “I told you so in 2009”.

  3. Councillors question: WHAT IS THE STATUS AT WESTSHORE?

    HBRC staff answer to Councillors per Tom Belford’s article 29/03/11.

    “Recent reports in local newspapers that the renourishment project is failing are not well founded. Localised erosion has however occurred in the vicinity of a concrete ramp placed over the beach crest to enable the surf club to launch surfboats and IRBs. This is a normal effect in the vicinity of localised points of hard protection works.”

    The creation of this answer is amazing – getting away with it is simply unbelieveable. This is just another example that helps to explain why Councillors and Engineers will not discuss erosion and engineering issues.

    "REPORTS THAT THE NOURISHMENT PROJECT IS FAILING ARE NOT WELL FOUNDED – HBRC Staff"

    See photo here: http://westshore.webs.com/gallery.htm

    The first pre-winter nourishment top-up will be removed during high seas on Weds and Thurs this week. Readers interested in this regional amenity should visit the beach at the Surf Club and Kiwi Beach to judge the "project NOT failing" for themselves. Maybe, talk to a local or just witness the waste of ratepayer funds. The beach has not been prepared to defend even moderate winter swells.

    If the ramp was responsible for this erosion, it would scour out an isolated area of the the upper beach on the northern side. The ramp is above the beachhead and mainly above the high tide mark. This is not normal beach damage for a minor shoreline structure. If it was, then it should be removed without delay and an alternative access should be found.

    Please comment – questions welcomed here or on our website.

    We will maintain an album of convincing photos on our gallery page.

    A comprehensive and disturbing "Power Point" presentation will be available for downloading shortly. Also photos before and after Weds high seas will be posted.

  4. I lived at 5Charles st Westshore (right on the beach) from 1959 till 1972 with my parents, my mum still lives there. In all that time it was a lovely sandy beach with a narrow shingle strip along the top, behind that there used to be sand dunes coverd in various beach grasses . These dunes extended all the way up to the houses. On my last visit to Mums (feb 2011) I took a walk along the beach and was amazed to see how far the old rusty boiler was protruding from the sand, about 1.5m more than it used to by my estimation. I disagree with Mayor Arnot when she says the '' the sandy beach was just a blip'' . My personal belief is that the extention to the breakwater and the dredging of the deepwater channel at the Port of Napier has a lot to do with the erosion of Westshore beach. Regards Knut S Jenssen.

  5. LET LARRY SPEND (Invest ) HIS MONEY.

    Now I have known Larry a few years – He does not offer any of his personal dollars with out good reason.

    Why will the Council not allow an open review of the information on the table. If they so DEEPLY believe in their view they have NOTHING to lose.

    Come on Democracy paid for by Larry, doesnt get any better than that.

  6. Recent storm and debris washed up on grass further evidence of seawall NEEDED, profiling not WANTED.

    And that was a mild storm.

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