fluoridation: those pesky facts

Reading the comments on a recent Stuff article,I was reminded of the aphorism attributed to Mark Twain: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

The original opinion piece was quite strongly worded; understandably, as this is an issue that’s stirred up strong feelings on both sides. However, there was a tendency for the vituperation in the comments section to be delivered by those who came across as ‘anti’. There was also a tendency from those in that camp to misrepresent facts to suit their point of view. Here’s an example: a commenter claimed that:

salmon are unaffected by natural 1ppm fluoride in ocean water where calcium is extremely high but are narcotized by industrial fluoride in soft water at only 0.3ppm (Damkaer and Dey [15].

That they included a citation number (the [15]) indicates that this was in fact a cut-&-paste from an article somewhere else. But then a colleague of mine pointed out that this was completely incorrect and Damkaer & Dey (1989) had said nothing of the sort (you’ll find the original paper here):

Damkaer and Dey say no such thing. They showed that some salmonid species are able to make a choice to avoid water at concentrations of fluoride at 0.5 ppm when swimming up a river with ambient fluoride concentrations of 0.1-0.2 ppm. There was no evidence, or even mention, of them being "narcotized". Salmonids show avoidance (or selection) for all sorts of chemicals, even at very low concentrations. Salmonids are particularly good at detecting chemicals at low concentrations in water – they use it as a mechanism to find their home streams, where they were spawned, as adults.

This comment promptly received 16 "dislikes". Interesting to see that response, rather than engagement with the actual information. Which leads me to wonder, if the case against fluoridation is so strong, why some of its proponents feel the need to resort to distortion & downright misrepresentation of facts in order to bolster it. As this excellent blog post on The Ruminator says, you’re entitled to your opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. (Go on, go & read the whole thing. And the comments.)

I was reminded of a discussion I had recently with a friend who had been on a team-building exercise: apparently the facilitator commented that people who think factually see the world in black-&-white, while those who rely more on intuition are "shades of grey" thinkers. But given the comments of those who just "know" that fluoridation’s bad for you, I’d have to disagree.

(I also wonder whether Hamilton’s councillors found the time to read the various papers cited – sometimes in quite a misleading way – in support of moves to drop fluoridation…) 


4 thoughts on “fluoridation: those pesky facts”

  • herr doktor bimler says:

    apparently the facilitator commented that people who think factually see the world in black-&-white, while those who rely more on intuition are “shades of grey” thinkers.
    I suspect that the facilitator was confusing cause-&-effect. People who are aware of the uncertainty of their beliefs call them ‘intuition’; people at the far end of Dunning-Kroger wrongness are absolutely certain that they’re RIGHT about EVERYTHING, and so describe their beliefs as factual.
    I also suspect that the facilitator was deeply imbued with Myers-Briggs woo…
    Then there are the ’50 shades of grey” thinkers but let’s not go there.

  • Matthew Skiffington says:

    I think perhaps the notions of orders of ignorance is a relevant concept here (www-plan.cs.colorado.edu/diwan/3308-s10/p17-armour.pdf‎). It was posited by some software engineers (brought to my attention by a friend at QUT). Software development is often an entire process of learning and discovery – after all, otherwise most software would be developed very quickly and efficiently, which (needless to say) is often far from the case.
    Additionally, where issues with an ethical slant arise in modern society, the trend is to present a two sided dichotomy with each side being equally valid. This is despite the usual deference of judgement on complex scientific issues by the public to formal organisations (e.g. the WHO, the Waikato DHB, Govt. committees etc.) The critical idea is where deference of judgement is weighed against (perhaps in perception only) the public’s’ fundamental right to democracy (though this brings into question the different types of democracy – i.e. referenda versus representation).
    I don’t do any formal psychology, but I agree with the notion that there are a class of people who instinctively “take a side” and that there exists another class of people who look at issues with an open mind and in an analytical and holistic fashion. However, applying the second form of logic can be perceived as a lack of integrity.
    Personally, I really couldn’t care less about fluoridation, apart from the interesting paradigm of scientific communication that it presents.

  • Alison, I have been slowly working through the list of objections to fluoridation on the FANNZ web site. There a 7 objections. I have written posts on 2 of them and in both cases they cite a paper claiming it says ewxzactly the opposite of what it actually does.
    The paper you refer to here is included in another of the objections on that same page – and again the paper doesn’t say what they claim!
    The Hamilton City Council should have provided time for someone to talk about critical thinking and the nature of science. Also, someone who could critically assess the anti-fluoridationist’s use of literature.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Yes, I noticed a letter to the editor in Friday’s paper (I think), claiming that the ‘Harvard study’ showed how bad fluoride is in our water. The author had a BSc in chemistry but I suspect had not read beyond the abstract of that particular document.
    As I’ve said before, if the case against fluoride is so strong, why do they feel it necessary to Make Stuff Up & tell fibs about the science?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *