As David Graeber explains in his book ‘The Democracy Project‘, the word democracy is used to mean two very different things; a system of government where representatives gain a mandate to rule an area by being elected by popular vote, and a system where everyone directly participates in making decisions which affect their lives. Representative government, in practice is often less democracy than ‘technocracy’, the idea that an educated elite, with specialist knowledge of science and technology, can make better decisions for the benefit of the public than the public themselves. Technocracy is essentially the same as theocracy, just with science used as justification in place of religion.

This month, Water New Zealand issued a press release about water fluoridation, in which CEO John Pfahlert claimed that because “the science is settled” the government should make a law obliging councils to fluoridate all public water supplies. This is classic technocracy. Even accepting Pfahlert’s claims about the science at face value, what he ignores is that just as people can choose to eat unhealthy food, or smoke, or drive cars (all of which kill a *lot* of people unlike dental cavities), they can also legitimately choose not to fluoridate their drinking water.

At present, each city and district council makes this decision for the water supplies it manages, which allows the communities who drink that water a much greater influence over whether it should be fluoridated than they would if it was mandated by central government. Whether or not you agree with Water New Zealand isn’t just about whether you are pro, anti, or on the fence about the pros and cons of fluoridation. In some ways, it’s more about whether you support parliaments centralizing decision-making power, and reducing people’s ability to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

There are a number of things about the pro-fluoride campaign that make me profoundly uncomfortable. One is Ken Perrott, a retired fertilizer chemist whose prolific writing on fluoridation is about as neutral as retired petroleum geologist Ian Plimer’s writing on climate change. Another is the sock puppets, with names like “Cedric Katesby” and “Debz Whipple Chris Price“, who pop up wherever the subject of fluoridation is being discussed online to reiterate one of a handful of empty rhetorical claims, laced with heavy doses of scorn and mockery. The most common of their claims are:

  • fluoride is a naturally occurring element
  • there is no evidence of harm to humans from fluoride dissolved in water at concentrations under 2ppm (part per million)
  • the science is settled, and water fluoridation is normal
  • therefore, opposing fluoridation is a form of “science denialism” and anti-fluoridationists are “anti-science
  • questioning the science of fluoridation is akin to questioning the scientific consensus on climate change, or arguing that the Earth is flat
  • for these reasons, the public should pay not attention to activists groups who oppose fluoridation

The more I see them, the more the constant chanting of these mantra starts to look suspiciously like the sort of key messages cooked up by the Hollow Men and their PR strategists. What these claims distort or ignore is:

  • As clarified on the D4T page on fluoride, fluorine is an element, whereas fluorides are compounds containing fluorine. While some fluorides occur naturally, pro-fluoridationist have publicly admitted that the fluoride compounds used in water fluoridation schemes are industrial byproducts. An Official Information Act request I made through FYI.org.nz shows some chemicals used in fluoridation are made by fertilizer companies, and when independently tested, contained a number of dangerous elements which are bioaccumulative (they build up in the body over time and can’t be eliminated), and therefore dangerous at *any* level.
  • Focusing on a claimed lack of evidence of harm when fluoride levels in water are under 2ppm cleverly avoids discussing the well known, and serious human harm caused by levels higher than 2ppm.
  • The science on fluoridation is far from settled. Epidemiologist Ben Goldacre, in his ‘Bad Science’ column in the Guardian, said, “the reality is that anybody making any confident statement about fluoride – positive or negative – is speaking way beyond the evidence“. Highly esteemed science reviewers the Cochrane Collaboration recently put out a detailed review of the scientific literature on fluoride which stated that much of the research on fluoridation uses flawed methodology, or has an obvious bias, or both. What these highly respected scientists are saying, is that the evidence for benefits is far from clear, which makes any potential risk to public health hard to justify.
  • Once the “science is settled” claim is debunked, the “anti-science” trope and the parallels with climate change don’t stick, and the rest of the house of cards just falls to pieces.

Most importantly, all of these claims about “The Science TM” carefully avoid addressing the ethical objections I mentioned last time fluoridation came up in this blog. The ethical aspect was addressed by Perrot and Price, along with one David Fierstien, when they set up accounts on FYI specifically to troll an anti-fluoridationist who had made an (admittedly poorly worded) OIA request. What their argument boils down to is that because fluoridation chemicals are not “drugs”, making people drink them in their water to prevent dental disease is not a “medical” treatment, so medical ethics involving the need for informed consent from patients don’t apply. This is a clever argument too, because it appears to address this issue, but it’s painfully self-contradictory. Giving people a substance (”drug” or not) to prevent disease is, by definition, a medical treament. Medical ethics apply. On that basis alone, I agree with Water NZ that the government should make a law about water fluoridation - one that bans it.

Filed August 12th, 2015 under Uncategorized

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