About five years ago, I was talking to my father’s girlfriend Louise. She was a big Glenn Beck fan who died shortly before his implosion, so she never found out that the revolution would not, in fact, be televised. Obviously, I was used to some strange ideas coming out of her mouth. But one day she blew my mind by ranting about the evils of water fluoridation. Louise, of course, did not get this idea from Beck. He has long maintained that this issue is a joke—even ridiculing callers about it.
Louise had a friend who listened to Coast to Coast AM religiously. Its stock and trade is these kinds of quack theories. Another one I remembered was the idea that we were all being poisoned by aircraft contrails. (In graduate school, I did some work on the gases in these things; there is nothing to it, except that it can release large amounts of water into the high atmosphere.)
Conspiracy theories are not a right-left kind of thing. Most people who are very into them tend to live in a vague political world that is simultaneously left and right. But because most conspiracies depend either directly or indirectly on the government, there is an intense anti-authoritarian aspect to such people. I value that! Unfortunately, most of these people are easily manipulated. Look at the Tea Party groups: in the early days, they were definitely of this type. But over time, they found a very natural place in the Republican Party. Conspiracy theorists on the left don’t find a nice spot in the Democratic Party. Instead, they are socialists or much more commonly anarchists. But regardless of which side, there is a fair amount of crossover. For example, those on the right are often skeptical of corporations; those on the left are often skeptical about government actions like gun background checks.
This all comes to mind because today Portland, Oregon is voting whether to fluoridate their drinking water. Sadly, it is almost certainly going to lose. The Center for Disease Control has named fluoridated drinking water one of the Ten Great Public Health Achievements of the last century. So why is it going to lose? After all, Portland’s a fairly liberal city. Well, the truth is that when fluoridation is on a ballot, it usually loses. The 1990s is considered a great time for fluoridation advocates and they only won a bit more than half their fights then.
I think the problem is that most people don’t really care. They don’t have strongly held opinions on the matter. They don’t even know if their water is fluoridated or not. And they will never have direct knowledge of its benefits. How are they to know that their kids had half as many cavities as they would have had without it? On the other side, things are quite different. The anti-fluoridation folks are almost hysterical. So I think most people look at the situation and think: on the one hand, I don’t care; what’s more, the pro-fluoridation people don’t make major claims for it; on the other hand, the anti-fluoridation people think this is really terrible; so I’ll go along with them because there is a minor upside and potentially a very big downside.
This begs the question of why these anti-fluoridation people are so freaked out. There are actual concerns about fluoridation. There are health risks when it is taken at high levels. It is costly in a direct way (although the cost benefits far outweigh these). But these are primarily post hoc concerns. The anti-fluoridation forces are mostly concerned about the government forcing them to take medicines they don’t want. This is ridiculous, of course. You could as easily claim that the government is forcing you to drink clean water with all its nefarious sewage facilities.
If you look at the history of the anti-fluoridation movement, it is directly linked to the anti-communist movement. Dr. Stangelove lampooned this idea of an obsession with “precious bodily fluids.” But the fact is that there was (And is!) an obsession on the political margins with the idea of purity and the fear that evil forces are trying to pollute us. Interestingly, most of these people are not at all interested in real pollution threats. In Dr. Strangelove, Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper is not worried about nuclear fallout, but he only drinks distilled water:
Sandra Guerard is quoted over at Wonk Blog. She was a school teacher in the 1960s in Connecticut. She writes that, “During that period, opponents of fluoride painted swastikas on the doors of homes of physicians who supported adding fluoride to the water.” That is not rational behavior for what is, after all, just a public health debate.
If there are problems with concentration variation in fluoridated water, people could call for that to be fixed. If the current concentration is too high (it isn’t), people could call for it to be lowered. If fluoridation costs more than it saves, that should be demonstrated. But none of that is going on. Instead, we hear that fluoridation is bad and we just can’t have it. And that leads me to believe that although the public arguments have changed (No more: “Communist plot!”) the real arguments have not. It is still about purity and our “precious bodily fluids.”
But like Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, I have to admit that I’ve never seen a communist drink water.