Pandering to anti-fluoridation campaigners

By Ken Perrott 07/04/2014


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Twitter time-line from an anti-fluoride propagandist – Click to enlarge

Social media can be bloody frustrating at times.

I do find Twitter useful for identifying interesting newspaper reports, scientific articles and videos – often long before I would see them myself on other sources. But, boy, there is loads of rubbish – especially when following a search term rather than people you trust.

Take search terms like #fluoride and #fluoridation – most of the time these are a complete waste because they are dominated by crazies who are using Twitter as a political propaganda tool. Click on the image to the left to see just a small part of the timeline from one of these propagandists.

But there are exceptions. Over the weekend these search terms went crazy with links to a great article in the Guardian by David Robert Grimes –  Politicians should stop pandering to anti-fluoridation campaigners. I recommend you read this if you haven’t already.

Sound and fury of opposing ideology

Grimes

David Robert Grimes

Grimes is commenting on the irrational backlash against fluoridation in the Republic of Ireland – and expecting a similar backlash to last week’s report from Public Health England urging more councils to consider fluoridating their water supplies. He said “as with so many public health interventions, the sound and fury of opposing ideology often trumps rational analysis.”

“Fluoride has been added to water in Ireland since the 1960s and has substantially improved the nation’s dental health, even in the era of fluoridated toothpaste. Despite this, a small but highly vocal opposition repeatedly pops up to claim fluoridation is harmful to health. These claims have been debunked time and time again.

The current incarnation of the opposition relies heavily on a report by self-proclaimed “fluoridation scientist” Declan Waugh, who blames fluoride for a range of illnesses. The report has been roundly dismissed by the Irish Expert Board on Fluoridation and Health, its chairman Dr Seamus O’Hickey concluding that … in spite of its presentation, its content is decidedly unscientific … the allegations of ill-health effects are based on a misreading of laboratory experiments and human health studies, and also on an unfounded personal theory of the author’s.”

Despite this, clever use of social media and strong lobbying has gained fluoridation naysayers considerable political traction, prompting the Irish government to promise yet another full review of the practice.”

Appeasing politicians

And this is his concern –  appeasement by politicians:

“perhaps the ugliest facet of the Irish debate is how elected representatives have given such outlandish fringe assertions a sense of legitimacy. One Irish politician has claimed that fluoridation causes cancer and Down’s syndrome; others have demanded an end to the practice, parroting claims that would have taken all of three minutes on Wikipedia to expose as utter nonsense.

The Irish government’s response is appeasement, and a waste of time and public money. Not only is there already an Irish body that routinely reviews the safety of fluoridation, this is a Sisyphean task because anti-fluoride groups have already reached their conclusion, and will trust no expert body unless it agrees with their assertions. Almost certainly fluoride will get yet another clean bill of health, campaigners will reject the findings and the same tedious cycle will repeat again, in much the same way parents who oppose vaccination are impervious to the scientific literature undermining their position.

It is irresponsible for politicians to show such contempt for science that they’re willing to take the lead from pseudoscientists and conspiracy theorists rather than experts. Leadership should be about making the best decisions based on the data available, even on emotive issues such as fluoridation and vaccination.”

Hear, hear – that is exactly how I felt about the Hamilton City Council politicians who gave far more weight to “pseudoscientists and conspiracy theorists rather than experts” in their deliberations on fluoridation last year.

A quirk of human psychology?

Grimes makes an interesting observation that the sort of irrationality, conformation bias, motivated reasoning and conspiracy theories we see in the anti-fluoridation and similar movements is really just part of human nature.

“That such beliefs persist in the face of strong evidence may be a quirk of human psychology. Campaigners may see themselves as enlightened crusaders, so when their assertions are questioned or contradicted by the data, this is viewed not as a useful correction of error but rather an attack on their identity and narrative. Conspiratorial thinking is endemic in such groups with critics being regarded as agents of some ominous interest group – big pharma is a common bogeyman – that wants to conceal the truth. This becomes a defence mechanism to protect beliefs that are incompatible with the evidence.

If all else fails, attacking the messenger may be easier than accepting that your whole raison d’être is misguided.

Motivated rejection of evidence is often a symptom of cognitive dissonance, a psychological phenomenon that occurs when individuals are challenged by information inconsistent with their beliefs. They may reject unwelcome information, seek confirmation from those who already share their beleaguered viewpoint, and try to convince others of the veracity of their world view. This may explain why some people proselytise even more vigorously after their beliefs have been debunked.”

So, perhaps we can understand the psychological motivations of people promoting pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. But, as Grimes says,” this does note excuse the fact that “elected representatives have given such outlandish fringe assertions a sense of legitimacy.” That goes for Hamilton as well as Ireland.

Grimes finishes with a message to the politicians:

“what is crucial is that decisions are based on scientific research, not misinformation and fear. The cost of such folly is clear to anyone who remembers the human suffering in the wake of the misinformed panic over the MMR vaccine just a decade ago.”

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