By Ken Perrott 11/09/2018

New Zealand last week saw another “debate challenge” from anti-fluoride activists. But are their regular challenges serious? And do gladiatorial “debates” before partisan audiences have any value in science anyway?

These people often back away when their bluff is called. Their challenges have more to do with political tactics than any elaboration or clarification of the science. They appeal to the macho and combative attitudes of the intended audience.

One thing for sure, such “debates” do not advance scientific knowledge one iota – nor are they meant to.

The anti-fluoride hero is always victorious in the eyes of the partisan and faithful audience. Image credit: The Real Lives of the Gladiators of Rome – The Unfathomable Sport of Life and Death

Three Wise Men – the anti-fluoride activists Paul Connett, Declan Waugh and Vivyian Howard – visited New Zealand last week. Fluoride Free NZ (FFNZ) advertised these activists as “international experts . . .  “sharing the latest research.” Of course, the implications that these activists actually do any original research on fluoridation or what they were sharing was their own research were completely false.

This was just another one of those annual visits from Paul Connett (head of the US Fluoride Action Network) and his mates with the aim of misrepresenting and distorting the science so as to promote the political campaigns of the local anti-fluoridation brigade.

Anti-fluoride campaign puts all its eggs in the IQ basket

New Zealanders are rather tired of this sort of activism but the visit does represent an escalation. This year Three Wise Men, a few years back Two Wise men (Paul Connett and  Bill Hirzy) and before that just one wise man (Paul Connett). Is this a sign of increasing desperation as New Zealand moves ever so slowly to handing over decisions on community water fluoridation to District Health Boards? Or is it a sign of increased funding of the Fluoride Action Network and associated activist groups by the “natural”/alternative health industry? After all, it must cost a bit to send three spokespersons around the globe for just two meetings.

One thing I take from this activity is that the anti-fluoride movement has decided to put all its eggs in one basket – the IQ story. They won’t stop blaming fluoridation for all the ills of the world – from obesity to gender confusion. But they are deliberately making a determined effort to bring their IQ story onto centre stage.

The real experts and all the research indicate the main possible negative health effect which must be considered when planning introduction of fluoridation is mild forms of dental fluorosis. In contrast, anti-fluoride activists in the USA and NZ are attempting to present the main health effect that must be considered is a claimed decline in IQ.

The FFNZ advert shows this is the message the Three Wise Men were promoting in New Zealand. But the “latest research” they were “sharing” was not theirs but that of Basash et al., (2016). Or, rather, they were sharing a misrepresentation and distortion of that research to fit their scaremongering claims.

I won’t repeat my analysis of the Bashash et al., (2016) paper and its misrepresentation here – readers can refer back to my articles:

A draft of my article critiquing the Bashash et al., (2016) paper, “Predictive accuracy of a model for child IQ based on maternal prenatal urinary fluoride concentration” is also available online.

The predictable debate challenge

No visit by Paul Connett would be complete without a challenge to debate the science with him. He is frustrated with the fact that his audiences are almost completely faithful anti-fluoride activists. The academics, experts and health authorities did not turn up to his meeting at Otago University so he claims “they don’t feel any obligation whatsoever to debate the science” and ”to simply ignore us is unacceptable” (see Anti-fluoride campaigner invites university debate).

Similarly, he blamed others and claimed his anti-fluoride message was being ignored when only three MPs turned up for his meeting at the NZ Parliament Building last February. That was disingenuous as he had been given plenty of time for a presentation to the Health Committee during the consultations on the Fluoridation Bill last year. And MPs are regularly bombarded with huge amounts of propaganda from anti-fluoride activists. Obviously, MPs feel so inundated with such propaganda that they see no need to attend yet another meeting to hear the same old message.

Connett’s challenges to “debate the science” in front of a partisan audience have more to do with political propaganda and enthusing activists than with science. He knows scientific knowledge does not progress by holding gladiatorial circuses. It progresses by long, careful and detailed research, publication and peer review.

Neither of these Three Wise Men has performed any original research on community water fluoridation but they can still make their input via the peer review process – which includes post-publication peer review via critiques of published papers.

To be fair, Connett and other members of the Fluoride Action network have occasionally presented such critiques. Two examples come to mind – the studies of  McLaren et al., (2016) and of Broadbent et al., (2015). These were critiqued in responses published in these same journals by a number of opponents of fluoridation. The original authors responded in the same journals. Arguments and extra data were presented in the responses and the science is better off for those critiques.

But science does not gain one iota from Connett’s attacks on the New Zealander Broadbent and other researchers in the media or in his meetings with the faithful. Such attacks and macho comments, often bordering on ad hominem, only discredit the attacker. They are not the way to discuss science and yet Paul Connett and his supporters challenge genuine scientists to participate in such “debates’ which are nothing more than testosterone-laden slanging matches.

A farcical example of a debate challenge

This time around I got personally involved because I called the bluff of activists making yet another debate challenge. It came out of an online discussion where I was attempting to correct some mistaken claims made by anti-fluoride activists. Here is the challenge:

Screenshot of my invite – just as well a have this as this Facebook page subsequently deleted the invitation and all comments I had made. I am officially a nonperson there.

A game of chicken followed where I attempted to get Fluoride Free NZ (FFNZ) and Paul Connett to formally stand behind the challenge. Chicken because I recognised it was a game. I had a scientific exchange (“debate”) with Paul four years ago – I think it was useful and I believe this is how good faith scientific discussions should take place (see Connett & Perrott, 2014: The Fluoride Debate for the full exchange). But Paul had made clear to me some time ago that he wanted no further contact with me.

Sure enough, FFNZ very quickly retreated from the possibility they had offered of a one on one debate. I emailed FFNZ:

“I think a one on one exchange would be best and as Paul and I have similar expertise he would be the logical discussion partner.”

Their response:

“No we will only agree to two on two.”

Paul confirmed that he would not debate one on one with me. I accepted a two on two “debate” but pointed out it was their responsibility, not mine, to organise the speakers. If they were not prepared to do that I suggested a two on one “debate” (especially as being the only speaker on one side this would give me extra presentation time) but made clear that I would effectively ignore Vyvyan Howard because our expertise did not cross over. (Vivyan agree with me that as he is a pathologist “you are correct that a direct discussion between us would be unbalanced.”)

I also made clear I would not tolerate any attempt to use that format to argue that I was isolated and could not find anyone else in New Zealand to support my arguments (an implication Paul made in our email exchange, and, of course, a claim being parroted by his supporters on social media).

Paul then formally withdrew. A pity as I love Wellington and was looking forward to a visit at someone else’s cost.

So a farce, But wait. there is more. The Facebook page, Rethink Fluoride, deleted their invitation to this “debate”. They then followed by deleting all my comments on their posts. Rather ironic as I had a few days before congratulated them by allowing open comments, and in particular allowing scientific comments – something all other anti-fluoride Facebook pages refused to allow.


Debate challenges by anti-fluoride activists are never genuine. They do not wish to discuss the science – they are simply using the challenges to enthuse their true-believing supporters. It is a form of attack on genuine researchers and health experts.

There is a time and place for good faith scientific exchange – post-publication peer review, for example, can give a genuine avenue for any real critiques to appear and be considered. Testosterone-laden gladiatorial debates before partisan audiences do not.

Anti-fluoride activists are disingenuously using these “debate challenges” to imply that experts and researchers have no confidence in their science and are afraid. It’s simply a macho tactic which often descends into ad hominem attacks.

How the anti-fluoride activist envisages their debate challenge – their hero standing up against the might of the health authorities. Image credit: From the Coliseum to the Cage