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