In my article Poisoning the well with a caricature of science I mentioned the anti-fluoridation activists in the US using a conscious strategy of casting doubt on the science. It strikes me this is also a conscious strategy used by local activists on this subject.
They are dong this by making unjustified claims about the nature of the fluoridation chemicals, the possible toxic effects of fluoride and the efficacy of fluoridation in limiting tooth decay. In the series of articles I have written on this blog there are a number of clear examples where scientific findings have been distorted or completely misrepresent in the anti-fluoridation propaganda. See, for example: Is fluoride an essential dietary mineral?,
Fluoridation – are we dumping toxic metals into our water supplies?, Fluoridation – it does reduce tooth decay, Fluoridation – topical confusion, Fluoridation and conspiracy theories.
Internet, newspapers and local bodies
The outright distortions are being disseminated by a very active and organised letter writing campaign on the internet, to newspapers and to local bodies. Because of the responsibility of local bodies for water supply these activist organisations see them as a key target in their misinformation campaign. Soften them up with letters, get a hearing of submissions which they dominate (quantitatively but not qualitatively) and then get a decision to stop fluoridation. Hamilton was just such an example.
A short note on a recent posting at the Fluoride Action Networks Facebook page gives an idea of how this misinformation can work. This is a reply the network got from the Manawatu District Council:
“Thank you for your submission on the fluoridation of the Council’s water supply. Council is interested in your arguments and believe they warrant closer examination. Council also believes that the Ministry of Health’s pro-fluoride position should be reviewed. However, Council does not believe it has the expertise to evaluate the evidence itself.”
I think this is quote revealing for several reasons:
- The council recognises they do not have the expertise to check the evidence they are getting from the anti-fluoridation network (or anywhere else, presumably). Seems sensible – call in the experts.
- Despite this lack of expertise they have concluded that the Ministry of Health’s “pro-fluoride” position should be reviewed. (I can only imagine this was because of peroieved public pressure as they lack any expertise).
- There is an implication that perhaps the Ministry of Health’s expert advice should be discounted because they are “pro-fluoride.” Hence a false balance between the expert’s scientific advice and the activist’s misinformed and distorted “science.”
We saw all these factors in the Hamilton example.
The council and the Mayor admitted they did not have the expertise to judge the evidence. They even passed a resolution asking for these sorts of decisions to be made by central government.
Despite this acknowledgement they went ahead and set themselves up as a tribunal to review and make decisions on the science! Several councillors justified the decision by repeating some of the pseudoscience they had been dished up as if it were fact. They now consider themselves experts on the subject!
Some councillors also discounted correspondents who took issue with their interpretations, and the very bodies with the expertise – the Ministry of Health and the District Health Board. Some councillors have gone as far as suggesting that limitations should somehow be placed on the ability of these bodies to communicate with Hamiltonians during the buildup to the October fluoridation referendum!
I don’t necessarily blame members of councils for getting into this position. After all, they are given the responsibility to make the decision. And their concepts of community consultation can easily be distorted when activists groups with international backing come in from outside with a highly organised campaign to misinform them
But really the Hamilton experience should make other New Zealand councils suspicious of these campaigns. After all, this council did come out against the views of its citizens demonstrated in the 2006 referendum and in more recent polling. Consequently they came in for a certain amount of ridicule from local media and commenters for their anti-fluoridation decision.
The fight back
I hope councils will also take on board the warning of the Minister of Health about this issue. Tony Ryall warned councils and communities that:
“There will be people who come from out of town and tell all sorts of shock-horror stories around fluoridation.
“Communities need to know that that’s part of the strategy that these groups run, and they should look to their local district health boards, their local dentists and the evidence which shows that fluoridation in NZ is safe and does benefit families.”
This week’s NZ Listener editorial (The fluoride debate) described the anti-fluoridation campaign as “clever and bellicose” and warned “the anti-fluoridation lobby saw the win [in Hamilton] as a stepping stone to the likes of Auckland and Wellington.”
According to this editorial the Minister of Health has “ordered officials to marshal the strong scientific case for both the health benefits and safety of fluoridation in strengthening and protecting teeth against decay.” He sees an increased responsibility for the Ministry of Health, and probably district health boards, to counter the anti-fluoridation misinformation campaign.
Personally I think this is an important response – but it still suffers from being seen as a battle between institutions and grass-roots activists. There is a limit to the amount of initiative such institutions can take. We need more scientific and health experts to also be seen, by name, opposing and exposing this misinformation.