On Tuesday two weeks ago a comment appeared in my Facebook feed about an ad for a “debate” with a visiting US anti-fluoridation campaigner. It was sponsored by Fluoride Free WA, who are contesting this weekend’s election. Of course it wasn’t a “debate”; just him spruiking his
book ideas to people who want to believe.
The comment pointed this out, earning the swift reply that no-one will debate him, because he “destroys” any opponent. It was here that I entered, saying science works by evidence, not who has the Gishest gallop in a debate, and asking for theirs. Or, if they preferred, for their moral argument as I thought that there was one they could make.
The admins blustered a bit; I again asked for evidence. So they slapped down their trump card; The Lancet, the best journal, obviously, had identified fluoride as a neurotoxin. They were kind enough to give the doi and since I had half an hour on the bus, I read the paper.
It still amazes me that I can read journal articles instantly that used to take a week or more to come by post when I started at RPH. On my phone! On a bus! What a time to be alive.
Inevitably, it wasn’t what they claim. The Lancet of course never ‘identified’ anything, but did publish a review claiming to identify several new neurotoxins. For fluoride they cited one meta-analysis of Chinese reports, Choi et al. On first reading it’s a laudable effort. China has areas with naturally high fluoride levels, so Choi et al collated reports from the Chinese literature comparing IQ results from high & low fluoride areas. They found that the high fluoride groups was on average 7 IQ points lower. The methods looked reasonable, and it was bound to convince the fluoride free crowd, if they had ever read it.
But read closely, it is less than convincing. The original reports didn’t generally report the fluoride levels for their groups, although some were over 10 times our treated water, and some control groups had levels comparable to treated water. Nor did they control for differences in education or socio-economic status, which are known to have large effects on IQ. Much more than 7 points.
So I posted what I just wrote here. That got me called an anonymous coward (tricky, since my Facebook name is my real name) and a shill (for big fluoride maybe? who knows). The admins posted a list of supporters, with the bold challenge that there were “no quacks” on their side. My riposte was that about a quarter were indeed quacks, with no relevant training; Chiropracters, Naturopaths, Lawyers etc. Cue threats of insta-banning for name calling, despite my pointing out that they had invited the use of the term quack. Or maybe because I pointed it out, I forget exactly which.
I forget exactly, of course, because the whole thread mysteriously disappeared on the Sunday, as though it had never happened. I was also blocked from posting to their Facebook page. Six days of responses to my comments and others, a thread of 30 or 40 comments in all, rendered down to two “this debate looks great” responses.
Sadly, I had not copied the conversation. By the time I was at a proper computer where I could, I’d fallen into a parallel universe where Fluoride Free WA Party never has to face the awful prospect of a reality doesn’t match their beliefs.
So my whole story can be summed up in that sage internet epigram; pics or it didn’t happen.
Thus the Fluoride Fearers of WA can continue to float along in their comfortable bubble of mutual reinforcement, smugly decrying the rest of us sheep who can’t see the Truth.
And the book selling tour rolls on.
 I was quite proud of that phrase, and the saddest thing about this whole episode is that I can’t now point to my use of it. Maybe in my next letter to the Editor.
Grandjean P, Landrigan P. (2014)
Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity. Lancet 13(3):330-338
The Lancet is behind a paywall, Choi et al is Open Access. Leave a comment or email if you want to read either paper.
Choi A, Sun G, Zhang Y, Grandjean P. (2012)
Developmental Fluoride Neurotoxicity: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Environ Health Perspect 120(10)
Note that Choi’s et al includes the same Grandjean as the Lancet review.
 There were a couple of other topics. After repeated assertions that The Lancet had ‘identified’ fluoride as a toxin, and no response to the substance of my comments, I asked if they had even read Choi’s paper; I’m pretty sure none of them had.
I was told I had ignored their moral argument, so I asked them, for the second time, to make one. I even agreed that there could be a sound moral argument against widespread fluoridation.
I was accused of not knowing the difference between dose and level. I asked them to point out where I had confused to two.
Sadly, their witty and instructive replies to these comments must have been delivered in the alternate time–stream, as they never appeared in this one.
 Of course he is selling his books. They always have something to sell. Usually found on the right wing, but also on the left, there are plenty of people who “love low information voters”.
For an history of this in the context of US politics, see this excellent essay by Rick Perlstein.