Your Opinion ≠ Public Policy
In an opinion piece published on May 1 in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson, a former senior policy advisor to President George W. Bush, wrote about the difference between opinions that are wrong and those that are wrong and dangerous. He was referring to the issue of childhood vaccines, but he just as easily could have been discussing community water fluoridation (CWF).
People oppose CWF for a variety of reasons. Some distrust government, which recommends the level and controls the process of adding fluoride to the water supply. Others prefer the natural to the artificial, believing that water additives should be avoided. Increasingly, however, the argument goes to the concept of choice.
Habituated to a culture of made-to-order coffee at drive-thru speeds, we have become increasingly accustomed to having our way. And as a society of consumers, the internet – for better or for worse – allows us all to be hyper-informed. Emboldened by our proven ability to multi-task and still determine for ourselves what is best, why shouldn’t our right to choose extend to matters beyond our personal sphere? Shouldn’t the consumer be able to decide whether or not he wants fluoride in his water?
The answer, resoundingly, is no. And there are at least two reasons why. Gerson points out that as members of a community, we have a social responsibility – a duty – to others. When communities succumb to pressure to remove or forgo fluoride, the “choice” of a few is effectively imposed on many, in this case denying entire communities the protective benefits of fluoridated water.
Then there is the problem of just how well informed we are, or what Gerson refers to as the “problem of information and authority in the digital age.” The internet is a highly effective vehicle for freedom of speech, but a very poor arbiter of what is said. Anyone can post anything, and many websites lie with impunity. In our search for information, there is little guarantee of objectivity, which is why consumers must rely on credible, authoritative sources.
We are all entitled to our opinions, but some opinions are based on information that is wrong. And some of those that are wrong become very dangerous when they threaten sound public policy and the public’s health.