About flossing: A teachable moment for liberals
Your gut feeling rejection to emerging research about flossing is exactly how the right feels about climate change.
The reports this week that little to no evidence supports flossing came as a hard blow for many college educated, left leaning, dental dedicated enthusiasts. The values you hold closest were challenged by “science.” In response, many people outright rejected the evidence, the reporting, the government agenda. In passionate essays written in comment sections on news sites and social media posts, dedicated flossers vowed to ignore this so-called medical advice and continue to do what they know in their heart is right.
When Inside.com reported on the new findings, they received a big response from readers, entirely on the pro-flossing/anti-new evidence side:
Most rejected out of hand the idea that flossing doesn’t keep your teeth healthier, or that they should give up the practice. In fact, we didn’t hear from a single person who planned to give up flossing based on the Department of Health and Human Services decision.
Consider a broader view of this moment in history. While the experience itself is painful, these feelings offer a rare chance to stand in solidarity with a group of people with whom the left cannot otherwise find common ground: climate skeptics.
The change in recommendations about flossing stem from evidence collected by The Cochrane Review. This is a medical database-keeping institution that researches and publishes evidence that impacts “standing orders,” the course of action healthcare providers are taught to take in response to common illnesses. Doctors and nurses are encouraged to continue re-educating themselves throughout their careers because standing orders are always evolving based on growing and changing bodies of evidence. By regularly researching and reviewing published — and critically, unpublished (as many null results are kept private by researchers)—research, the Cochrane Review is able to recommend changes in medical practice over time. But change is hard.
As the new evidence-based changes in flossing practice have come out, flossing advocates responded by collecting scientists that refute the institution’s value and legitimacy. That this medical institution recommended the change in practice regarding flossing is tantamount to the scientific community agreeing by consensus that climate change is a) real, and b) manmade. That means the feelings you have about the new flossing evidence is just like the feelings of climate skeptics about that consensus.
This moment is a golden opportunity. Rarely can these two groups empathize with each other’s worldview. The shared feeling itself can function as what is called a change agent in the process of social change.
According to the Diffusion of Innovations, change agents share something in common between two groups who otherwise share no cultural traits or values. By representing everything that is normal and yet safely introducing a new idea, change agents make it possible for the otherwise-mutually exclusive groups to come together around the new idea. This newly created sense of expanded community could potentially be the early adopter stage of a movement that grows to make the new idea feel normal. The new idea could be washing hands or women voting. Or it could be reducing the animosity for people who hold the opposite of your political views. According to this theory, early adopters take the least effort to change their mind or try out an innovation. They build momentum that brings along the majority. Laggards never change.
Ours is an age when the divide between people who’s group affiliation could be marked by rejecting climate change and people who are marked by their affinity for flossing has become a dangerous chasm. From Brexit to refugee policies to economic wage gaps to dangerous proposals about nuclear weapons, the divide between us has fueled an increasing amount of social unrest that has begun to have real world impacts. Refusing to even try to understand the other side’s position has lead to refusing to try to work with the other side for solutions. The result is a competition for despotism, taking political control by force, masked inside once-democratic societies.
How can you capitalize on this golden moment and become an early adopter in this movement? Try to make everyday conversations that are typically divisive more bridging — or don’t say anything at all. As you read articles and social media points from the other side, consider that they are reflecting a feeling that you have also experienced, even if the causal agent for that feeling is something you could never agree with. Rather than dismissing people straight away, or worse, arguing with them in comments, you can quietly appreciate the shared human experience. Your silence does not promote the power of their message. Rather, it reduces the rage produced in the world on a daily basis.
At this year’s Thanksgiving table, as your conservative relative begins bashing so-called scientists who promote their agenda with climate change, you can calmly say you understand. Science has also been used to attack flossing and it felt awful to see the many news reports claiming consensus on something you knew in your heart was wrong.
The two of you can continue to talk about your shared feelings, how the media jumps on sensational bandwagons without considering the bigger picture and logic. Two sides, once divided, can be together for all of Thanksgiving dinner. And that is the beautiful seed of peace and progress.