Fluoride Paranoia and Betteridge’s Law

By George Johnson | February 15, 2013 5:48 pm

Crystals of fluorite. Wikimedia Commons.

I’m already dreading the orchestrated wave of emails I’m bound to receive after writing here about fluoridation. I’ve been through this before.

It was just last summer when I picked up the local newspaper and learned that my hometown was planning to end the longstanding practice of fluoridating its water supply. Fluorite crystals and other minerals containing fluoride ions occur naturally in the earth. By adding a few tenths of a milligram per liter of drinking water, Santa Fe — like cities across the country — was bringing the fluoride level up to the threshold recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for preventing cavities in children. Why would anyone object to that?

At first I thought this was just some weird Santa Fe thing. In addition to having a strong scientific community — with institutions like the Santa Fe Institute and the School for Advanced Research — the town has a small core of New Age followers who are quick to embrace all the latest obsessions. It took years to get wifi in the public library, and cell phone reception suffers because every proposed new microwave tower is delayed by citizens who fear the invisible waves.

But I quickly found that we were not alone. One of the largest counties in Florida had recently stopped fluoridating its water after demands from Tea Party enthusiasts who insisted that fluoridation was “part of an agenda that’s being pushed forth by the so-called globalists in our government and the world government to keep the people stupid so they don’t realize what’s going on.” Anti-fluoridation testimonials could be heard on TV evangelist Pat Robertson’s “700 Club,” along with endorsements for miraculous vitamin supplements and prophecies about the coming End Times.

When you get far enough out on the edges, the political spectrum takes a half twist and becomes a Möbius strip. The editor of a publication called Natural News thinks fluoridation is part of a sneaky plan by the government to help chemical corporations dispose of their toxic waste. Just dump it in the drinking water and tell people it fights cavities. That may sound like a parody on the Colbert Report, but this factoid continues to circulate. At a hearing in Santa Fe, a resident blamed fluoridation for her grandson’s autism. Another woman called it “one of the greatest scientific frauds done to the unsuspecting public.”

It seemed like a bad dream, as if the country had been transported back to the 1960s when fears of fluoridation were part of the mindset of the far right — along with a certainty that the Federal Reserve System is controlled by the Illuminati, that the Universal Product Code is the Mark of the Beast, and that laetrile (suppressed by an unholy alliance between the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA) is a miracle cure for cancer. Fluoridation was one more tool in a Strangelovian plot to scramble our minds and pollute our precious bodily fluids.

I began writing about the phenomenon in my online journal, The Santa Fe Review. That is when the emails started filling my inbox. They came from people who get their information not from the Centers for Disease Control, which considers fluoridation to be one of the Ten Great Public Health Achievements of the 20th century or from the American Dental Association or the American Public Health Association. All three institutions unequivocally support maintaining a measured amount of fluoride in drinking water. The readers I was hearing from put their faith instead in a propaganda website called The Fluoride Action Network. Search the Intenret for the word “fluoride” and that is one of the first items to pop up.

I suspect that Melinda Wenner Moyer is hearing from the same people after the publication of her piece this week in Slate called Does Fluoride Make Your Kids Dumb? Since my post yesterday, Medusa’s Stare, I’ve learned that my rule of thumb about rhetorical question headlines (that the answer is almost always no) is sometimes called Betteridge’s Law, after Ian Betteridge, a British technology journalist. Here is another case where it applies. (The subhed of the Slate story is “Don’t trust the influential doctor who says yes.”)

That leaves what to me is the more interesting question: why is this reaction to fluoridation, smoldering for so long, experiencing a resurgence? Is it entirely a matter of extremist politics and New Age paranoia? Or is there the hint of a scientific basis? Ms. Moyer suggested the possibility toward the end of her article. I’ll be thinking and reading about that over the weekend and then reporting back.

__________

This is part 1 of what has become three posts:

Fluoride Paranoia and Betteridge’s Law

Fluoride Paranoia, Part 2

Truthiness with Numbers

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Fire in the Mind

Whether a subtle new pattern shows up in an experiment on the Higgs boson, an epidemiological report about a suspected cancer cluster, or a double-blind trial purporting to demonstrate ESP, it can be maddeningly difficult to distinguish between what we see and what we think we see. "Fire in the Mind" takes a look at the big questions behind today’s science news.

About George Johnson

George Johnson writes about science for the New York Times, National Geographic Magazine, Slate, and other publications. His nine books include The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery (August 2013), The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, A Shortcut Through Time, and Fire in the Mind. He is a winner of the AAAS Science Journalism Award and has twice been a finalist for the Royal Society science book prize. Co-founder and director of the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, he can be found on the Web at talaya.net. Twitter @byGeorgeJohnson.

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