Risk Perception, Psychological Heuristics and the Water Fluoridation Controversy

Authors: Andrea M.L Perrella, Simon Kiss

Published in the 2015 May/June edition of the Canadian Journal of Public Health

Abstract:  Objectives: Increasingly, support for water fluoridation has come under attack. We seek an explanation, focusing on the case of Waterloo, Ontario, where a 2010 referendum overturned its water fluoridation program. In particular, we test whether individuals perceive the risks of water fluoridation based not on ‘hard’ scientific evidence but on heuristics and cultural norms.

Methods: A sample of 376 residents in Waterloo were surveyed in June 2012 using random digit dialing. We use factor analysis, OLS regression, as well as t-tests to evaluate a survey experiment to test the credibility hypothesis.

Results: Perceptions of fluoride as a risk are lower among those who perceive fluoride’s benefits (B = .473, p < 0.001) and those whose cultural view is ‘egalitarian’ (B = .156, p < 0.05). The experiment shows a lower level of perception of fluoride’s benefits among respondents who are told that water fluoridation is opposed by a national advocacy group (Group A) compared to those who are told that the government and the World Health Organization support fluoridation (Group B) (t = 1.6547, p < 0.05), as well as compared to the control group (t = 1.8913, p < 0.05). There is no difference between Group B and the control, possibly because people’s already general support for fluoridation is less prone to change when told that other public organizations also support fluoridation.

Conclusion: Public health officials should take into account cultural norms and perceptions when individuals in a community appear to rise up against water fluoridation, with implications for other public health controversies.

Harper not the only one eager to criticize Wynne and Ontario’s pension plan as a ‘payroll tax hike’

Published on Aug. 11, 2015 in the National Post.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was so eager to lambaste Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s pension plan announcement Tuesday, he asked himself the question.

Opposition parties and interest groups were as quick as Harper to criticize Wynne’s plans, but Barry Kay, a professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, isn’t so sure the ORPP will matter much on election day.


Campaign’s length may not make much difference

Published on Aug. 17, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the world was innocent and young Mike Duffy was a humble reporter dreaming of the Senate, everyone agreed that federal election campaigns were too long, far too long.

The norm in those days was 60-61 days. Campaign managers argued then that voters did not start paying attention until the last two weeks. So the early weeks were largely empty – given over to photo ops, posturing and feeding the maw of the news media, which grew desperate to find something, anything, that would make the election more interesting than it really was.

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Sixty days! I covered a bunch of those eight-week affairs. I remember listening to Pierre Trudeau make the same little speech at, if memory serves, 34 stops in one campaign. That was torture!

Eventually, legislation was introduced to abbreviate campaigns. The big change was the elimination of the door-to-door enumeration of electors. That system, in which officials would visit every household, made the Canadian voters’ list the most accurate in the world.

According to experts of the day, its replacement by the current registration system may have disenfranchised up to 10 per cent of otherwise eligible voters, but that was deemed an acceptable price to pay to get campaigns down to today’s norm of 36-37 days.

The norm until now. Following the lead of British Columbia, Stephen Harper’s government in 2007 introduced a fixed election law that stipulated federal elections be held every four years on the third Monday in October. But (loophole alert!) it left the prime minister free to call the election later or earlier (as he did in 2011).

The so-called Fair Elections Act of 2014 introduced another loophole. It enabled the government to extend the writ period and to raise the spending ceiling for parties and candidates. In a 37-day campaign, each party would be allowed to spend about $24 million. By doubling this year’s campaign to 78 days, Harper made it possible for the parties to spend roughly $50 million, a move that theoretically benefits the party with the deepest pockets – to wit, Harper’s Conservatives.

So while the prime minister is off on his campaign jet, far away from the Mike Duffy-Nigel Wright follies in Ottawa, his opponents are, figuratively, left rummaging for bus fare.

I’m not sure this imbalance will make much difference. Impertinent questions about the Senate scandal will follow Harper wherever he goes as long as the trial is in the news. His superior spending power is allowing him to recycle attacks on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau  (“He’s just not ready”), but my sense is they have lost their impact. These ads may help a bit to shore up the Tory base,  but there is no evidence they are winning back estranged soft Conservatives or attracting erstwhile Liberal or NDP voters.

The opinion polls paint a very close picture. The NDP may be one or two points ahead of the Conservatives in the popular vote, while seat projections put the Tories either ahead, or behind,  by a few seats out of  338 seats in the next Parliament. Either way, they are roughly 45 seats short of a majority government.

The Liberals are clearly the spoilers, especially in Ontario, where the electorate seems prepared to move. With redistribution, Ontario will have 121 seats (up from 106). The Liberals ran a very weak third in the province in the 2011 election. Now, pollsters agree, they have moved into second ahead of the NDP.

The projections indicate the Conservatives stand to lose 20 seats in Ontario, notwithstanding the addition of 15 new seats in the province. It is difficult to see where in the country the Conservatives could gain enough momentum to overcome their loss of seats in Ontario.

A minority government, Conservative, NDP or conceivably Liberal, seems inevitable. But these are very early days, only two weeks into an interminable 11-week election. At some point, the public will tune in.

Élections fédérales: les conservateurs pourraient perdre des plumes au N.-B

Published on Aug. 14, 2015, in the Acadie Nouvelle

Si les élections fédérales avaient lieu aujourd’hui, le Parti conservateur du Canada au Nouveau-Brunswick en prendrait probablement pour son rhume, selon la projection de sièges du Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy.

Les conservateurs de Stephen Harper ont presque tout raflé au Nouveau-Brunswick en 2011 en ne laissant au Parti libéral et au Nouveau Parti démocratique qu’une circonscription chacun parmi les dix que compte la province.

Même s’il fera probablement mieux au Nouveau-Brunswcik qu’ailleurs en Atlantique, le parti du gouvernement sortant risque de perdre une partie de ses sièges lors du scrutin du 19 octobre.

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NDP lead continues to hold across Canada, according to latest seat projections

Published Aug. 13, 2015, in the Global News Toronto

It’s been a little over a week since the start of Canada’s federal election campaign and the latest seat projections continue to show a tight race with the NDP, led by Tom Mulcair, holding a small lead over Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

“Public opinion isn’t always changing dramatically. Now we have had two months where things haven’t changed,” said Barry Kay, a politics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. “It’s really a pick in between the NDP and the Conservatives in terms of seats.”

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The polls are bad – their accuracy, that is

Published on Aug. 13, 2015 in the University Affairs

Barry Kay, a member of the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy, or LISPOP, has been doing seat projections for upcoming elections for the past 35 years. But, he warns, “People should understand I do not have a crystal ball. The fact is the model is only as good as the polls it is based on. If the polls are off, it will be off.” And, the bad news is that the polls are getting worse, he says.

Seat projections, as opposed to party popularity, were a novelty when Dr. Kay first started out but have attracted greater interest over the past decade or so. An associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, where LISPOP resides, Dr. Kay says his model has been accurate to within four seats per party over the past 15 federal elections.

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Canada election 2015: Strategic voting campaign targets Kitchener Centre riding

Published on Aug. 12, 2015, in CBC News Kitchener-Waterloo.

A group called Vote Together has started a strategic voting campaign in the Kitchener Centre riding, which the group says is an important battleground in the upcoming election.

Vote Together is targeting Kitchener Centre to ask people to vote against incumbent Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth, because they say the area is a swing riding that saw a close result in the last federal election.

“Generally in voting we tend to think people should vote for the candidate or the party they like the best. Strategic voting sort of turns that on its head, and suggests that you vote against the party you least want to see win,” said Barry Kay, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, in an interview with Craig Norris on The Morning Edition Wednesday.

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Longtime Tories in an election quandary

Published on Aug. 9, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

A good many long-time Conservative voters find themselves in a quandary in this election: How can they support the policies of the Conservative government without endorsing the continued rule of Stephen Harper?

Many of these Tories are older and comfortable financially. They were reinvigorated in 2006 when their party ended the 13-year regime of the Liberal party. They approved of the general approach promised by the new administration: smaller government: lower taxes; incentives to business to stimulate growth; emphasis on law enforcement and national defence; and now income-splitting, which offers disproportionate financial benefit to taxpayers in higher brackets.

A reader in Kitchener, who asked that his name not be published, told me that he and his wife – he is retired and she is still working – have been able to build a very nice nest egg thanks to pension income-splitting and the increase (from $5,500 to $10,000) in the annual contribution limit for tax-free savings accounts (a “windfall,” as the reader calls it). “The Conservatives know that financially comfortable, articulate and well-informed seniors are both aware and appreciative of this benefit, and that this voter base will reward them with their loyalty at the polls,” he says. Continue reading

Even so, this voter is torn. He calls it a conundrum. He doesn’t like Harper and his style of politics. He worries about ethical issues: the way the Conservatives have abused election spending rules; the deliberate misleading of voters in the robocall scandal of the 2011 election; the ramming through of Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism legislation; the effort of the Prime Minister’s Office to cover up the Senate expense scandal in the Mike Duffy affair; and the cynical way the Conservative tried to buy votes by issuing fat retroactive child-care cheques on the eve of this election call.

Another Conservative reader,  in Guelph, who is a devoted admirer of the late John Diefenbaker, has similar concerns. “Stephen Harper is a nasty man,” he says.

Yet both of them will, I suspect, stick with the Conservatives on Oct. 19. “Critics would call me selfish – and that would be true!” says the Kitchener reader. “Perhaps even shallow, and maybe that’s true, but there is a strong temptation to be ‘all right, Jack!’  I remember the dubious moniker of  ‘greed is good’ from a late 1980’s movie.”  (He was referring to the 1987 film, Wall Street, directed by Oliver Stone.)

These readers reflect a softening of the edges of the Conservative base, a softening that has contributed to the Tories being eight to 10 points below their support in the 2011 election. Firming up the base is clearly job one for the PM, and Harper did a decent job on that front in the first election debate, staged by Maclean’s magazine last week.

A digression: I thought it was an excellent debate, infinitely superior to the Republican circus – I think of it as “Donald Trump and the 16 Stooges” – that aired the same night on American television. All four Canadian leaders performed well, in my view, including Harper who had to fend off three attackers. His only problem came when he tried to deny, then had to admit (more or less), that Canada is experiencing its second recession on his watch.

The failure, or inability, of the Harper government to keep its implied promise of a steady hand on the nation’s economic tiller, will probably hurt the Conservatives more with their party faithful than any other issue (including whatever Harper’s former chief of staff  Nigel Wright testifies at the Duffy trial this week). Those soft Conservatives who feel alienated from Harper will not be reassured by repeated banal assurances that Canada is out-performing other G-7 nations.

The reader in Kitchener is looking for a way of his “moral conundrum.” He says: “I think I will need to revise my charitable donations upward, as I may hold my nose when I vote in October.”  I suppose that’s one way out of the Tory quandary.

The leadership debate and the must-see battleground ridings

Appeared Aug. 5, 2015, on AM 980 London News .

LISPOP Director Andrea Perrella appeared on AM 980 to discuss the initial strengths  different political parties have starting the election period, the real impact of the Canadian leader’s debate, and important electoral districts to watch this election.

 Listen here. (Starts at 20:54)

Canada 2015 election: Riding boundaries shift in Waterloo Region

Published on Aug. 5, 2015 in the CBC News KW

This federal election Waterloo Region has a new riding called Kitchener South-Hespeler, with the boundaries of Kitchener-Centre, Waterloo, Kitchener-Conestoga and Cambridge shifting to accommodate.

“What they’ve done is create a whole lot more competitive seats, whose determination on election day will be influenced by the trends at the moment,” said Kay in an interview with CBC News.

Read more. 

Spirit of community, responsibility needs restoration

Published Aug. 4, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Nothing much ever happens in Ottawa on a warm Sunday in midsummer. The political class either goes to sleep or abandons the capital for cottages or escapes to foreign climes. They roll up the streets on the annual Civic Holiday weekend.

Not this year. Two political events took over the town this past Sunday. In the morning, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper crossed Sussex Drive from his residence to pay his constitutionally mandated respects to Governor General David Johnston at Rideau Hall, there to secure the GG’s agreement to dissolve Parliament to launch the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history.

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Its length and record cost aside, this will not be an ordinary election. On Oct. 19, Canadian voters will render their verdict on the Harper era. You could regard it as the people’s judgment on the Conservative Revolution. Ever since coming to power in 2006, Harper has been remaking Canada’s political landscape, subtly and not-so subtly altering the balance between the government and Parliament, the cabinet and the courts, the political establishment and the aboriginal people, between Ottawa and the provinces, and between Canada and the rest of the world. This Unquiet Revolution has been the underlying text of Canadian politics for a decade now. Oct. 19 will determine whether the revolution is declared dead or given a new, indefinite lease on life.

The second event on Sunday was the gathering of mourners for the funeral of Flora MacDonald, 89, the woman who wanted to be prime minister but had to settle for supporting roles in the Tory governments of Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, as minister of foreign affairs, citizenship and immigration, and communications. As much as anyone from that era, Flora as she was known to all — came to represent the values of the progressive wing of the Progressive Conservative party, as it was then. They called themselves “Red Tories” in those days, and those who survive still do.

Although the Harper revolutionaries and the Red Tories have common political ancestry, they have precious little in common. It was revealing that Harper did not join the nearly 1,000 mourners — white-haired politicians, retired bureaucrats and foreign-aid workers — at Christ Church Anglican Cathedral on Sunday. He sent Kellie Leitch, his minister for the status of women. It was probably just as well. Flora never joined the Harper revolution; she made no secret of her distaste for confrontational politics, Harper style. Her later years, after leaving active politics, were devoted to humanitarian causes, in India, Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

As the Conservative party moved right under Harper, Flora looked left, identifying with (and voting for) the New Democrats. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and his wife were in the front pew at the funeral alongside Joe Clark and Maureen McTeer. Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent was there, as was Paul Dewar, the Ottawa MP who is being touted as the next foreign minister if Mulcair wins on Oct. 19.

If Harper had been there, he would have had to sit through tributes from former ministers David MacDonald and Lowell Murray, as well as Clark, about Flora’s compassion and humanitarianism. He would have heard accounts of her leadership in helping to rescue the American diplomats in Tehran and how she made it possible for 60,000 refugees — the boat people — to come to Canada after the Vietnam War.

Harper would surely not have joined in the applause that swept through the cathedral after Joe Clark said, pointedly: “Part of the reason she is so admired is because she represents a spirit of community and responsibility which many Canadians believe represents the best qualities of Canada and which many of us feel is on the wane, and deeply needs to be restored.”

And why are these qualities on the wane and need to be restored? If Harper had been there, the old Tories who admired Flora’s ethics and her compassion and commitment to others, might have told him. He would not have been amused.

Longer election campaign poses risks

Appeared July 30, 2015, in the Guelph Mercury.

LISPOP Director Andrea Perrella was interviewed for a news story related to a possible election call and it’s unusually long duration:

Andrea Perrella, an associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, said a longer campaign leaves more time for candidates to make mistakes on the public stage.

“A misstep or a gaffe or something that could make a leader look foolish; can mar the rest of the campaign,” he said.

Read more…


P.T. Barnum would delight in Trump’s White House run

Published on July 31, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The metaphor most frequently applied to Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential candidacy is that it sucks up all the oxygen, denying other candidates media attention for their own campaigns.

The media obsession with the self-promoting billionaire and reality show host seems to be having an enormous impact upon the Republican contest, despite hardly anyone taking Trump’s prospects seriously as the eventual winner.

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Flora MacDonald was an exceptional Canadian

Published July 27, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Please forgive me if today’s column becomes personal.

A great woman, a great Canadian and a great figure in Canadian public life died early Sunday morning. Flora Isabel MacDonald – “Flora” to millions of Canadians even if they had never met her – died early Sunday morning in Ottawa. She was 89 and had suffered from multiple illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, in recent years.

Flora and I worked together to write her memoirs, which for a variety of reasons we were not quite able to finish. Hers is quite a story – quite a life.

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Born and raised in Cape Breton, Flora was the daughter of a Western Union telegrapher, Fred MacDonald, who decoded top-secret messages sent by cable between London and Washington during the Second World War. There was no money to send Flora to university, so after high school she went to business college.

I first encountered Flora in the 1960s when she was working as a secretary at Progressive Conservative headquarters in Ottawa. She had become the liaison between rank and file Tories across the county and the party’s headquarters and leadership. She knew everyone. The grassroots loved her, the leader – John Diefenbaker – not so much. He fired Flora (for suspected disloyalty), which may have been the worst mistake he ever made.

Her dismissal was the flashpoint that ignited a “dump Diefenbaker” movement. A canny Scot, she took a copy of the party membership list with her when she left headquarters and delivered it to Dalton Camp, the party’s national president who would lead the movement to choose a new leader. The drama played out at the PC national conference in Ottawa in the fall of 1966. Camp won re-election as party president, delegates voted to hold a leadership convention – and Flora was elected national secretary of the party.

She went to work to help make Bob Stanfield, then premier of Nova Scotia, national leader in September 1967. Flora took an administrative job at Queen’s University; in 1972, she won the Conservative nomination and was elected to Parliament in the Liberal seat of Kingston and the Islands.

It’s hard to realize today, but she was the only woman in a Tory caucus of 100-plus MPs. As she wrote in her memoirs: “Politics was then (and to a considerable degree still is) a man’s world. Women were tolerated as candidates and as members of Parliament, but the encouragement they received from their male peers was often half-hearted. … [T]hey did not see any compelling reason to go out of their way to enlist more female players.”

The promotion of women in all walks of public life became one of Flora’s passions. In 1976, following Stanfield’s resignation, she decided to run for the leadership herself.

She knew she faced three obstacles. The first was her gender. Although Margaret Thatcher had become Conservative leader in Britain the year before, most Canadian Tories had never contemplated being led by a woman. Second, she did not have what she called a “conventional political résumé.” She was not a lawyer, businessman or professor; she did not even have a university degree. Third, she was a “Red Tory, and proud of it.” She campaigned against capital punishment ; on abortion, she championed a woman’s right to choose – both radical positions to most Conservatives in the 1970s.

Flora did not win the leadership. After the second ballot, she threw her support to the other Red Tory, Joe Clark, who made her his foreign affairs minister when he became prime minister in 1979. Later, she served in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet as, among other things, immigration minister. Her signal accomplishment in that post was persuading a reluctant Conservative cabinet to admit tens of thousands of Southeast Asian boat people to Canada following the Vietnam War.

That grand humanitarian gesture was perhaps Flora finest moment. Yes, she could be stubborn – and she needed to be in the man’s world she set out to conquer. We have lost an exceptional Canadian.