Fumento "Rebunks" Flossing

Monday, May 01, 2017

Do you recall the "news" last year to the effect that flossing might be bunk because there weren't any strong scientific studies done about it? Michael Fumento made an excellent point about this being a non-problem around the same time:

A gazillion man-hours of observation by experts may not be particularly scientific, but nor does it deserve to be dismissed out-of-hand. Dentists don't tell patients to floss -- much less floss better than they have been -- just because of published guidelines. During their professional careers they observe the difference between flossers and non-flossers, notwithstanding that it turns out a lot of their patients' [sic] fib. In fact, dentist recommendation of flossing appears to go back to 1815, although it wasn't until 1898 that any large company, specifically Johnson & Johnson, cashed in on it. It's not a capitalist plot. [link in original]
Hearing these stories never caused me to consider not flossing, but I hadn't thought deeply about them, either. Fumento is right to note that not everything is so difficult to tease out that it requires a full-blown scientific study. We wouldn't need one to show, for example, that wandering around blindfolded on a freeway during rush hour is a bad idea, either. The issue with flossing, which even prehistoric humans did, is that most of the observations some might wish to dismiss as "merely" anecdotal, come from experts. This might make it seem like a scientific study is warranted, but that is hardly the case.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

I call this concept "physics envy": the idea that all science should be conducted in the manner in which physics is (or large-scale, FDA-mandated medical experiments are) conducted. Lots of runs under tightly controlled conditions where only one variable is examined.

This view treats all historical sciences as non-scientific. You can't re-run the Roman economy, or smack the Earth with progressively larger bolides, or cause the same star to go nova repeatedly; in such cases we take what evidence we can get, and compare these uncontrolled natural experiments with as many other, similar natural experiments as possible to factor out the variables. It's not always possible--singleton fossils are a nightmare to deal with, and black holes don't merge every day in the visible universe--but even then we can rely on principles derived from other observations in order to maximize the usefulness of the observed event.

From that perspective--ie, the one that fully half of science uses!!!--the observations of these dentists count as valid data. The dataset is enormous, certainly big enough for diet, culture, age, genetics, and other confounding factors to even out. The data are consistent. And, given the fact that they represent real-world data, the conclusions are immediately applicable.

The fact that we're even questioning this indicates how deplorable the state of scientific education is in our country. Decent scientific education would demonstrate quite clearly that observations outside of the lab are valid.

Steve D said...


I'm going to play the devils advocate here and point out that the comparison is not just regular flossing vs. nothing but given that a person may brush well and after every mean, drink tap water containing fluoride, goes to the dental hygienist for a cleaning twice a year (which removes the plaque), plus perhaps engages in additional possible teeth hygiene-related activities (e.g. mouthwash, irregular flossing), the question is what is the additional benefit from flossing? It's not surprising that that the benefits might be minor, especially if the measurement is actual tooth decay and not just plaque. In fact wouldn't you predict that?

Fluoride in tap water might be the most important factor. Cavities are almost unknown these days because of it - my son has never had a cavity but I had many before fluoride was brought in, but none after.

Gus Van Horn said...

Dinwar and Steve,

I have the good kind of problem of opposing comments on the same post. I think you each make good points. And I think they complement each other.

Dinwar's point, if I recall the press and commentary correctly, most acutely applies to the news media. It seemed as if, suddenly, some people were saying we didn't need to floss any more. Call that reaction "press release science meets physics envy." I'm betting, although I don't have the time to look into it, that a scientist somewhere was trying to make a point like Steve is, above and someone just ran with the most sensationalist interpretation possible.

The opposite happens all the time in reporting about diet and fitness, but in the other direction. People who try some dietary or fitness regimen tend to have motivation to do so and likely do more than one thing in an effort to improve their health, but if one of those things is trendy, it sucks up all the credit. (And, on top of that, this will get reinforced by everyone who attributes whatever success they are having to the same. People who aren't successful, for whatever reason, tend to be quiet.)


Anonymous said...

Gus Van Horn wrote;

People who aren't successful, for whatever reason, tend to be quiet.

If only 'journalists', talking heads, politicians, activists, Hollywood airheads, and narcissists (but I repeat myself) had enough self-awareness or shame to follow this like normal people do!

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...