Flossing and the Art of Scientific Investigation


It’s bad enough that expertise is under attack these days from populist political movements that dismiss specialist opinion as just another establishment ruse. But lately expertise is being criticized from another direction, too — from would-be defenders of science.

Consider the recent controversy over flossing. In August, a widely read Associated Press report suggested that, contrary to the advice of dentists everywhere, flossing didn’t necessarily foster good oral health. The report looked at 25 studies that had generally compared toothbrushing and flossing with toothbrushing alone and concluded that the evidence for the benefits of flossing was weak.

In response, the Department of Health and Human services, the American Dental Association and the Academy of General Dentistry reaffirmed the importance of interdental cleaning. But confusion persists: A lot of people now mistakenly think that “science” doesn’t support flossing.

What explains this confusion? Misconceptions about the relation between scientific research, evidence and expertise.

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