Lush throw science out with the bath water
This week, Lush found themselves the subject of some controversy when they posted a message about an upcoming charity pot party supporting the Girl Against Fluoride. In an event that spanned Friday 24th to Sunday 26th, Aisling FitzGibbon, aka the Girl Against Fluoride, was to appear and discuss her opinions on water fluoridation, and potentially (as implied by the charity element) raise money for her campaign. When the event link appeared on Facebook, something really beautiful happened: people came, and almost unilaterally sent Lush a message – we support science, evidence, and reason, and if you don’t then we will take our business elsewhere.
It really cheered me up to see (especially in wake of Dublin City Council’s questionable decision regarding water fluoridation) that the large majority of the people commenting were shocked that Lush would support someone who appears to ignore science, and subscribe to a lot of dangerous, disproved, or just downright insulting beliefs. Not only is the Girl Against Fluoride against fluoride, but she’s also apparently not a fan of vaccines, real medicine, or gay people, and commenters took her, and Lush, to task over these points and more.
After a significant number of commenters both on Facebook and Twitter called for Lush to make a statement about the event, their charitable giving manager Rebecca Lush weighed in to ask for some evidence about the points that people had raised – but only about the homophobic comments made by Girl Against Fluoride’s creative manager and mother, Martha Brassil. Rebecca went as far as to say that she wasn’t looking for information on the science behind the anti-fluoride campaign, just evidence of the homophobia.
Several commenters obliged Rebecca and Lush with evidence of the homophobic comments, and we began a long wait for Lush to comment. With the start date of the event drawing closer, Lush would only say that they were close to releasing a statement, and that they wanted to get it right, and verify it with various internal groups before releasing it. On Thursday, a comment from Lush confirmed the outcome that many had hoped for. Lush would not be hosting or raising money to support the Girl Against Fluoride. However, as the saying goes, every silver lining has a cloud…
Lush may have cancelled the event, but not because they care about the bad science or scaremongering that characterises the anti-fluoridation campaigns, but because the homophobic comments made did not sit well with their commitment to gender equality and anti-homophobia stance. I commend Lush for standing up for LGBT rights and gender equality, two topics close to my heart, but this resolution leaves a lot to be desired. They may disagree with the homophobic comments, but they share the Girl Against Fluoride’s views on water fluoridation and apparently wish to have a reasoned debate about the issues surrounding it (without, to my knowledge, actually consulting any scientists about it). It’s good that Lush examined the homophobic comments made in the name of the Girl Against Fluoride, but the science matters too, and it should be just as important a reason to reconsider this event.
It’s becoming increasingly common to try and balance out scientific input with something fluffier but inaccurate, because people often perceive the “truths” of science as harsh. It seems cruel to tell someone “you’re wrong”, and easier and friendlier to tell someone “everyone will have time to express their equally valid opinion”. And if we were discussing fabric samples for the living room curtains, that would be lovely, but we’re not. We’re discussing a number of topics for which there is very well established information, and people who choose to ignore that information. The pill doesn’t cause women to have homosexual babies. Urine doesn’t cure cancer. Vaccines don’t cause autism. And water fluoridation is an important public health measure that is safe, effective, and considered one of the most important health measures of the 20th century. Maybe it’s not as sexy or interesting to discuss the facts like this, and perhaps it would be better received if I, too, posed in a bikini, but the really beautiful thing about facts is that they are true, whether or not you like them or believe in them.
I’ve discussed the problem with applying “balance” to these situations before, but it boils down to a very simple message: while everyone can have their own opinion, everyone can’t have their own facts, and when a group misrepresents facts (or just outright lies) and is given airtime the same as groups which actually represent the evidence for the sake of balance, it lends them a legitimacy that they do not deserve. The Girl Against Fluoride does not deserve this legitimacy. She believes a number of dangerous and damaging things, and actively spreads misinformation about fluoride (among other topics). Hosting her doesn’t encourage discussion of different points of view, it lends the support of a brand to her point of view and her point of view alone, especially when they host her alone (and not her in conjunction with any one of a number of qualified people who could provide the other side of that balance they seem eager to seek).
It might not be popular to stick up for science in a climate where words like “natural” are venerated, and words like “chemical” are decried (whatever their actual meanings!), but that doesn’t make the facts go away. When good, robust evidence shows me that it is better to remove fluoride from our water, I will support that change. Until then, I will continue to trust the overwhelming evidence in favour of water fluoridation, I will continue to be the Girl Not Against Fluoride*, and I will continue to promote science above populist scaremongering and misinformation.
*I still won’t pose in my bikini though.