The Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) does great investigative work, but its editorials can best be ignored, unless one is looking for good examples of illogical and sloppy thinking.
A recent manifestation is the Times‘ crusade in favor of fluoridation. In its 18 March full-page editorial, “Reverse the decay of common sense” (a plea that ironically can be applied to how it composes its own editorials), the Times spewed out violations of reasoned analysis in a gusher of polluted newsprint:
1. The editorial starts with a blend of grade-school appeals to emotion and ad hominem attacks: “Defining moment,” “Midwestern sensibilities,” “extremism,” “tea party followers,” “conspiracy theorists,” and “tiny antifluoride group.” This pompous puffery is irrelevant to whether or not fluoride in our drinking water is beneficial.
2. The editorial then states: “The evidence that fluoridated drinking water is safe and prevents tooth decay is overwhelming and widely embraced,” followed by a list of two federal agencies, a state agency, and two dental associations.
This is a great example of the fallacy of naming an expert or two, or even a consensus of experts, to support a claim. Citing experts, however, neither supports nor refutes a claim. Experts make claims that are often wrong. Brilliant people, even Einstein, have said dumb things. Plus, experts can be biased or corrupt. It is the science and analysis presented by experts that are important, not the experts themselves.
Although the editorial listed pro-fluoride evidence (the flaws of which I will not dissect here), no informed contrary views were expressed. Not one, in the entire full page. Since it doesn’t take much digging to find some credible professional opinions opposed to fluoridation, this seems inexcusable if one expects a newspaper to hew to the journalistic standard of being fair and balanced.
3. Fallacious economic analysis: “The annual savings [of no fluoridation] per resident works out to 29 cents.” First, viewing the 29 cents in isolation makes it seem like a trivial sum, which is a fallacy of context: numerous government expenditures, when viewed individually, look like trivial sums, although they may accumulate into a mountain of headache for the taxpayer. Second, even assuming that fluoridation is not harmful and is beneficial (not proven anywhere in the editorial), the actual economic question is, is the expenditure of taxpayer money appropriate, particularly when individuals can obtain fluoridation via toothpaste or mouthwash? The Times seems to think that it is fine to force everyone to pay for those few who may not be able to afford fluoridated toothpaste. To properly determine the worthiness of fluoridation, however, would require a review of government spending priorities; e.g., perhaps that 29 cents would be better spent on community policing.
I could continue, but hopefully my point has been made. Also, although my research indicates that there are credible folks with anti-fluoridation viewpoints, please note that I am not taking a position one way or the other with regard to fluoridation. What I am doing is demonstrating that the Times editorial on the issue is rife with logical fallacies and devoid of a balanced scientific discussion. The editorial’s harsh attack on county commissioners opposed to fluoridation was therefore inappropriate.
How can this be? How can the Times crank out such shoddy work, while still claiming to be a clear-thinking community leader? I will try to answer that in a future post.