I recently heard the tail end of a radio debate about the fluoridation of water, a perennial American controversy that has spiked once again. One speaker said fluoride guarded against cavities; another said it injured our teeth in the guise of protecting them.
Then the calls started coming in. To one outraged listener, the latest attacks on fluoridation reflected a deeply anti-intellectual strain in American public life. "These people just don't believe in science," the caller complained.
Actually, they do. Unlike earlier generations of anti-fluoridation campaigners, "these people" staked their claims squarely on scientific evidence and argument. That doesn't make them correct, of course. But it does represent a huge victory for science itself.
Across the country, science seems mired in disrepute. Most of the Republican candidates for president, for example, either flatly reject or doubt man-made causes of climate change. And at least three of them have publicly doubted or rejected human evolution.
By contrast, present-day critics of fluoridation embrace scientific rules, methods and practices. Consider Fairbanks, Alaska, one of about 200 jurisdictions that have stopped adding fluoride to their water over the last four years. Following an extensive review by doctors, dentists and scientists, Fairbanks officials decided there simply wasn't enough data to support fluoridation.
About three-quarters of Americans still drink water that has been treated with fluoride. But some experts claim that fluoridation is also responsible for an increase in dental fluorosis, which causes yellow or white spots on teeth. They also warn that too much fluoride can weaken bones, leading to increased risk of fracture.
Most of these critics also acknowledge that limited amounts of fluoride can improve long-term dental hygiene. But they say that people already get enough fluoride from toothpaste, mouthwash and other sources. Are they right? I doubt it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Dental Assn. continue to recommend water fluoridation, which they say reduces tooth decay by 25%. And I'm inclined to follow the lead of the leading professional organizations on matters involving their own vocations.
But I'm also glad that the anti-fluoridators are resting their case on science, which provides a shared framework for dialogue and understanding. And that makes them very different from the nation's first critics who were — to put it mildly — paranoid kooks.
Starting in the late 1940s, opponents charged that fluoridation was leading America toward socialism or communism. "Totalitarian government is not confined to forcing everyone to vote for the same dictator, or go to the same church," one wrote. "It involves also the elimination of liberty to choose your food and drink." Others claimed that fluoridation was a Red plot devised by the Soviet Union, which would use spies to introduce lethal levels of fluoride into our water. That would be "better THAN USING THE ATOM BOMB," one critic warned, because bombs must be built and transported to their targets. By contrast, fluoride "has been placed right beside the water supplies by the Americans themselves," he said, "ready to be dumped into the water mains whenever a Communist desires!"
Similar charges of fluoridation as a communist plot would be revived in the early 1960s by the far-right John Birch Society.
But fluoridation attracted its share of left-wing conspiracy theorists too. Some charged that the aluminum industry had promoted the practice to dispose of fluoride, one of its waste products. Others suspected sugar companies, which supposedly supported fluoridation so that people could keep consuming their product without incurring as much tooth decay.
By comparison, today's opponents of fluoridation are beacons of reason, deliberation and coherence. There will always be outliers, such as the tea party activist at a recent Pinellas County, Fla., hearing who charged that fluoridation was "part of an agenda that's being pushed forth by the so-called globalists … to keep the people stupid." But Judson Phillips, one of the founders of Tea Party Nation, quickly distanced his organization from this remark and the anti-fluoridation movement. "It's not a hot-button tea party issue," Phillips said.
Last month, Pinellas County commissioners voted 4 to 3 to stop putting fluoride in their water. They might have made the wrong call. But they did it after collecting extensive data and testimony from scientists. That paves the way for others to introduce their own data, if they want to overturn the decision.
And that's exactly how science — and democracy — are supposed to work. In the long history of this dispute, this is one of the few cases in which knowledge and information are trumping ideology and paranoia. No matter what we believe about fluoridation and its effect on our teeth, that's something all of us have good reason to smile about.
Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory."