Science

Fluoridation and the public understanding of science

Context

Just to give some context, I wrote this in response to this tweet by Simon Singh:

"Leadership means making decisions based on available evidence, especially on emotive issues"eg fluoridation @drg1985 http://t.co/xtZt9eB9Bk— Simon Singh (@SLSingh) April 4, 2014

He is referring to is this Guardian article. You can read the responses yourself, but I responded that I thought I should have the right to choose what goes in my water.

What annoyed me about the article was it's conflation of anti-vaccination and anti-fluoridation: two issues with massively different risk profiles, and the idea that we should blindly submit ourselves to the authority of science.

I'm a huge advocate of science and reason for solving the world's problems, so I found it a little strange to see people claiming to advocate reason, whilst simultaneously lambasting anyone who dares to actually do it for themself. And worse, that their objections should be overruled with force instead of reason. In anycase, it inspired me to write a short article discussing the responsibility of scientists in communicating with the public. TLDR: the burden of proof doesn't stop at the peer review board.

The burden is on you

In professing an understanding of science the scientist carries a great burden.

The human condition is in the majority governed by emotion and we would be fools to throw this understanding away. Are not love and compassion emotional qualities? Do we wish to throw away all emotion in a desperate attempt to fortify the vanguard of reason?

It is clear that emotions are inseparable aspects of the human condition, and thus a profession of knowledge that aims to be complete cannot deny them.

What is the ideal situation? If the person against whom you levy a reasoned argument can be wholly convinced and can see for himself that the suggested action is necessary, then there shall be no conflict. The person will carry out the action for himself with full conviction and an enthusiasm that carries his brothers along in the same. Your objective will be fulfilled.

But should the person feel coerced or ultimately forced into having the action carried out on his behalf, against his will, we will have reached a situation which speaks more of force and a lack of consent, that it does of the original benevolent and reasoned aims of the scientist.

Thus on the one hand our scientist is driven by benevolence and compassion, with a desire to reduce suffering, in this case that caused by tooth decay, by his action of fluoridating the water. But on the other, it seems he is willing to submit to his own emotions of domination, and invoke tyranny to enforce the efforts of his reason and fluoridate the water against the will of those who oppose him.

At what point does the will of the benevolent scientist stop? And at what point does he admit his benevolence has descended into wrongdoing? Is he willing to forcibly brush everyone's teeth for them in order to enforce the "public good"? I expect, and I hope, that we can all agree that such a conclusion would be absurd.

But there is a line, and we cannot blithely ignore that it exists, whilst at the same time stamping our feet on it.

The politically shrewd may argue the case from the perspective of cost and only cost. If we concede that there is no harm from fluoridation, then the scales of cost are presented with the one side being weighted by the cost of the fluoridation process, and the other being weighted by the cost of public dentistry, which our reason tells us will be increased if fluoridation is not carried out.

In which case the argument for Fluoride seems compelling. But this argument is naive and neglects all the consequences of the action and fails to account for intangible costs. The religion of money is invoked, and reason appears to evaporate.

Consider this, what is the cost to society in creating a perception of science that ignores the feelings of people?

What is the cost to democracy in advocating force to impose the outputs of reason?

What is the cost to reason itself in advocating force, rather than relying on the force of reason itself?

Does the scientist lack that much faith in the ability of reason to convince? If he is not convinced of reason enough to trust in it completely, why should the uninitiated be?

Isn't it a strange state of affairs, when those who hold the virtues of reason the dearest, poison the chalice of reason by eschewing it in favour of force?

Seeing the whole picture

The proponents of reason in this case seem to be blind to their own shortcomings in it. Their reasoning has excluded the emotional aspects of humanity and is therefore less complete than a reasoning which considers them.

Surely if you wish to espouse the virtues of reason, you should stick by your conviction and let reason encompass the totality of the problem?

Human beings are emotional creatures and how we are treated emotionally affects our health. If we are to prosper as a nation we cannot neglect the impact this has on the health of society as a whole.

If you care about health at all, then you will understand that mental health plays a central role, and that emotion cannot be excised from the problem so readily.

If you wish to uphold your pledge to reason, then you should accept that emotion plays a vital role in the health of our nation. And in accepting this you should resolve, not to blindly swing your scythe against the people who's trust you hope to engender, but address their concerns until they are convinced.

If the decisions you make do not account for their emotion then you have failed in both your comprehension of the problem, and in your job in resolving it as a scientist. You have resorted to force instead.

It is your job as a scientist to convince yourself and your peers that your hypothesis is consistent with observation and that the causal agents you apportion to effect are really those responsible. You do this in wilfully submitting your publications to peer review and understand the process well.

Although the wider public are not your peers in science, you should not be so arrogant as to believe that the burden of proof you shoulder is any lighter when you carry it for them as it is for the review board. If you cannot convince the public that your suggested actions are necessary, this is not because of shortcomings in your opponent, it is because of shortcomings in you.

I implore you, do not abase yourself by abandoning the strength of the very thing you claim so vehemently to espouse: reason.

As a scientist of reason, you must persist as an educator, and as a human. You must work to build trust with the public and take the totality of the problem into account. The world of people is and never will be as clear cut as the results of a scientific study, and so you must not treat it as such.

Accept emotion, accept the difficulty, but persist anyway, and don't give up until you have your fellow humans convinced. Not as embittered enemies, grudgingly accepting their defeat and domination, but as allies fully won over to the cause. Only then will we truly progress.

Batteries are ridiculously crap

In the absence of advances in fusion energy, one of the most important technological outcomes of the next decade will be improvements in battery technology.

Battery technology has advanced at a snails pace compared to other kinds of technology. The basic lead-acid battery has an energy density between 30-40 Wh/kg whereas the best commercially available lithium ion batteries have energy densities between 100 and 250 Wh/kg. So being generous, let's say that battery energy densities have improved by a factor of 10.

Now consider other techological domains. Let's take CPU speed. To try and be fair, let's ignore really old machines like the Z1 with its 1Hz clock speed and take the 1982 Commodore 64 as a good example of a commercially popular system. The C64 had a clock speed of around 1Mhz. Whereas these days 3Ghz CPUs are common. That gives at least a factor 3000 improvement. But really, the improvements are much greater. If one considers that the AMD 6174 processor has 12 cores running at 2.2Ghz, this is something like an increase in processing power of 25000 for a single chip. Our servers at work have 4 of these beasts on one motherboard, which means that a single commercially available computer has 100,000 times the processing power.

How about RAM? Again taking the C64, it had 64kB RAM (obviously). Now 12GB in a home desktop is quite common these days: a factor 187500 increase in capacity. Considering individual modules, samsung make a 32GB DIMM, which is larger by the C64 by a factor of 1/2 million. Going bigger, server machines such as the Dell PowerEdge R910 can take 1TB of RAM, which is over 15 million times larger than the C64. Obviously there are some huge machines out there on the Top 500, but keeping things within reason we can say that RAM capacity improvements are at least a factor of a million.

And what about fixed storage? The 1980 Seagate Technology ST506 5.25 inch HD had a capacity of 5MB. These days single unit 3TB hard drives are available. So without needing to talk of specialist hardware, or to go back to even older hard drives, the capacity improvement easily hits a factor of a billion.

So processing power has improved by a factor of 100,000, RAM a factor of a million, and fixed storage a factor of a billion. Comparably, the increase in the energy density of batteries of x10 seems laughable.

Clearly battery technology has been lagging behind somewhat. The advent of high capacity, affordable batteries, with quick charging times would enable the green revolution to take hold. Electric cars and distributed storage are obvious beneficiaries. But simply being able to use a laptop for more than a few hours would be great too, imagine a laptop battery that lasts a week or more, wouldn't that be fantastic?

I don't want to go into future battery technologies, because I don't have time, but Graphene seems to be the hot material right now, and Graphene based super-capacitors seem promising.

OLED stuff

I love OLEDs. Be aware that OLED technology is not the same as the much hyped LED TVs on sale; the latter is only LED backlit, whereas the former generates the image directly using OLEDs. Here is a cool video describing how OLEDs work, using a pickle, yes, a pickle:

Here is another video, showing a transparent OLED:

Of course, I got this info from http://www.oled-info.com/, my favourite OLED info source. I'm soo excited about this technology, what a geek.

OLEDs

OLEDs (Organic Light Emitting Diodes) are a really cool technology. Cool in the literal sense since their luminous efficiency is so good, but cool in the vernacular sense too. Bacially an OLED is an LED that can be printed onto a surface so its super duper tiny. People are making displays out of them, which, being powered by LEDs, don't require backlights. Consequently the contrast ratio's they can realize are insane, like 1000000:1. Which means that black looks black, and white looks white, and everything in between looks as it should looks.

There are a few competing technologies, such as the Mitsubishi laservue (http://www.laservuetv.com) but OLED is my favourite. Sony make a 3mm thick 11" TV called the Xel-1 (http://www.sony.co.uk/product/tvp-oled-tv/xel-1) which has an OLED screen. I've seen this, actually seen a whole bunch of them in the same room, in the Sony building in Ginza district, Tokyo Japan (it is also in the normal electronic stores there). The thing looks fucking amazing, best picture quality I've ever seen.

I visit a blog regularly called OLED info (http://www.oled-info.com/) to keep track of developments in the technology. I was going to link to it ages ago under a blog entry like "blogs i visit" which never got written. But now I see I can win a free OLED keyboard with customizable keys (http://www.unitedkeys.com/order.php) if I link to the blog, so I guess that's enough motivation to mention it here. The guy that runs the site seems really cool: I sent him an email once asking him how he manages to blag free kit and basically he started the site out of enthusiasm for the technology and then it just devleoped to the point where it became a really popular source inside and out of industry for information on the technology , to the extent that he could start asking for demo tech!

Funny thing is, I hardly watch TV, but I use computer monitors all the time, probably 16 hours a day. But even discounting that, I just love technology anyway so find that kind of stuff interesting.

 

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