[This is a guest post by Jamie Foley, a blogger and student in Oakland, CA, who writes for SkepticalVegan.com]
From its very beginning, sectors of the American public have expressed concerns over the practice of community water fluoridation, despite it being celebrated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “one of 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century” and “a classic example of clinical observation leading to epidemiologic investigation and community-based public health intervention.”
These concerns include fears that public water fluoridation is a conspiracy by the government to make Americans more susceptible to thought-control, to reduce their intelligence, to shorten their life-spans, to cause forced sterility, or deliberately to cause disease such as arthritis, bone cancer, various mental illnesses, or reduced thyroid function. While some concerns may be understandable in light of widespread misinformation on the topic, the evidence shows that the anti-fluoridation movement is built on a history of fringe claims and conspiracy theories.
Last Friday afternoon marked the beginning of a local effort to stop the fluoridation of the Bay Area’s water supply, when a group calling themselves “Get The F Out” (with the “F” standing for fluoride) held a march and symposium in San Francisco. The participants gathered at Union square at 3pm and then marched to the public library in all black clothing to sounds of their very own marching band.
Once at the library, Terecita Dean, a “holistic dentist,” was the first speaker. She presented some spurious ideas about physiology that sounded like body mapping for dentistry, not dissimilar to reflexology but focused on the teeth instead of feet or hands. For example, she claimed that individual teeth are connected to certain organs so that damage to #8 or #9 (your upper front teeth) can cause kidney problems, or that a broken #14 (first molar on the upper left) could cause breast cancer. The rest of her talk consisted primarily of a series of repeated asserts that fluoride is bad.
After Dean’s short speech came a presentation from Paul Connett. As director of the Fluoride Action Network, he is the premier “anti-fluoridationist” in the country, so I was interested to hear what he had to say. Connett hit all the classic notes of the anti-fluoridation movement; “it’s forced medication”, “it’s toxic waste”, “it doesn’t even work”, ect. While I can see how someone unfamiliar with the arguments might be concerned over some of the issues he raised, it was nothing new to me.*
Connett did however steer away from the more outlandish conspiracy theories, only going as far to give his supposition that public health authorities view attacks on fluoridation as threats to public health programs in general, particularly the “multimillion dollar” industry built up around vaccination and immunization. Not all in the crowd, however, were on board with Connett’s dismissal of the more extreme conspiracy theories. At one point, an audience member interrupted and claimed to have evidence of nefarious uses of fluoride by Nazi scientists on prisoners at death camps during World War II.
This odd conspiracy theory dates back to the early days of fluoridation opposition and is closely connected to the much more recognizable mass fears of communist plots to drug the American population into submission. The belief in this latter conspiracy theory was pervasive throughout much of the early far-right opposition to fluoridation. This should not surprise many who are familiar with the Red Scare of the 1940’s and 1950’s, when fears of communist infiltration of the United States’ government and public institutions were rampant. And while new conspiracy theories and arguments have popped up over the decades, this belief still persists to some extent in the echo-chambers of the online anti-fluoridation community.
Ultimately the fluoridation as a communist conspiracy claim (or, conversely, a Nazi connection) rests on the testimony of three colorful characters: Charles E Perkins, George Racey Jordan, and Kenneth Goff. It should suffice for now to say that their claims are backed by no compelling evidence, though I have exhaustively detailed their individual stories in a separate post. This myth, so often merely asserted as documented fact, is entirely absent from the works of any credible World War II historian and is little more than the product of a small number of questionable conspiracy theorists.
Since the 1950’s, the claims of the fluoridation conspiracy theory have evolved, often reflecting the fears of the day. Instead of shadowy networks of communist infiltrators, the finger was later pointed at the military-industrial complex. Claims of poisoning and cover up were hurled at both the atom bomb program and the aluminum industry, who utilized large amounts of fluoride compounds in their various industrial and manufacturing processes. Fluoridation opponents claimed that the promotion of fluoride in drinking water was a smoke screen for then-rampant fluorine pollution. They also claimed that fluoridation was simply a way for the aluminum industry to get paid to dump its toxic waste.
It is true that as one of the largest producers of sodium fluoride at the time (as it was needed in the smelting process), the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) was well set to be an early supplier for community fluoridation. However, sales of sodium fluoride hardly amounted to much money in those early days, and finding itself out-priced by the phosphate fertilizer industry, the aluminum industry soon shifted from being a major producer of fluoride compounds to a major consumer.
Described by opponents as “toxic waste”, fluoride compounds recovered from processing apatite into phosphate fertilizer can be actually be seen as by-products or co-products. There is nothing wrong with an industry recovering a useful by-product of their manufacturing processes, and in fact such business practices can benefit both the business and society. And while opponent raise concerns over the impact of possible impurities in fluoridation chemicals, these fears are unfounded. Fluoridation chemicals are subject to regulatory oversight and safety standards. Despite this, the toxic waste argument has remained a favorite of fluoridation opponents (and was a key point in Connett’s presentation).
Connett ended his presentation with a challenge, which to date he claims no one has ever met: he wants to find any medical professional who will debate the merits of fluoridation with him in a public forum. The lack of willing challengers should not be surprising to those familiar with demands by creationists or anti-vaccinationists for public debate (such public engagement of conspiracy theorists has been discussed before on this site). I would argue that in the time it takes a science advocate to clear up a single distortion or misconception, his or her opponent can rattle off fifty more baseless and misinformed assertions. A public debate simply is not an ideal forum for complex scientific issues; science gets done in the lab and in peer-reviewed journals, not from a podium.
I urge my fellow skeptics to learn more about the issue of community water fluoridation and the use of fluoride in dental practice, such as as an additive in toothpastes. It may not seem as sensationalistic as UFO’s or Bigfoot, and it may not be a hot button issue like vaccination, but it is an important area of public health that deserves our attention, especially considering how widespread the belief in such conspiracy theories are.
Notes: * I only took brief notes and the issues raised were too numerous to be reiterated here, however Get The F Out have promised to post video or audio of the event.
A meaty discussion from a few years ago by David Aaronovitch, author of Voodoo Histories, with British libertarian journalist James Delingpole, just published online a few months ago by The Frontline Club, a nonprofit that promotes independent journalism in the UK.
They discuss the psychology behind why conspiracy theories are so attractive, why so many people believe them, and the qualities that conspiracy theories tend to share, whether they are about topics as diverse as the death of Princess Diana, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, or the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
John Cook, who maintains the great skeptical resource skepticalscience.com, at a piece at HuffPost Green entitled Conspiracy Theorists Respond to Evidence They’re Conspiracy Theorists With More Conspiracy Theories. He is reporting on the same paper that Conspiracy Check covered earlier this week, the paper by Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues that analyzed conspiracy theory reaction they received to an earlier paper they published on conspiracy theories. It is conspiracy theories all the way down.
The New York Times Green Blog, in a piece called Unlocking the Conspiracy Mind-Set, surveys two academic papers on conspiracy theories, including “NASA Faked the Moon Landings – Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax” which, among other things, suggests that people who oppose market regulation are more likely to believe that climate change is a hoax, and “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation,” which reports on conspiracy theorists’ reactions to the former paper. Both papers are by Stephan Lewandowsky and other academics, and were blogged about at Conspiracy Check earlier this week.
Last month, Fairleigh Dickinson pollsters revealed that according to their survey data, a whopping “Sixty-three percent of registered voters in the U.S. buy into at least one political conspiracy theory,” including beliefs that President Obama probably stole the election, that President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, and that Obama is was not born in the U.S. The pollsters concluded that actual knowledge of current events does not necessarily decrease belief in various conspiracy theories, and may actually increase such beliefs.
Earlier this month, The Atlantic debunked the conspiracy theory that that President Obama’s nominee for CIA director, John Brennan, is secretly a Muslim.
Last week, the Atlantic also did a great survey of various “ridiculous” conspiracy theories surrounding Pope Benedict stepping down; including that it is the fulfillment of a prophecy, that it was a preemptive political maneuver to protect him from a new damning documentary coming out about sex abuse and the Papacy, or because of new information that may be revealed about his Nazi past. Most of the conspiracy theories reported on in the post came from social media.
The Arkansas online news portal maintained by the local Fayetteville Fox affiliate KFTA-TV posted a ranking last week week of the Top Five Conspiracy Theories, naming Mayan end of the world prophecies and other doomsday beliefs as the number one conspiracy theory of all time. I think there are other conspiracy theories worthy of the title.
Jamie Bartlett, director of the The Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, has a fascinating, if short, account of how, after writing a paper for the UK-based think-tank Demos, he had personal interactions and arguments directly with leading conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. He shares some important insights into the conspiracy theory mindset (such as that they can’t be “vanquished” with logic and facts alone), and argues why he thinks conspiracy theorists are not ill-informed or ignorant, but actually may “know more about the minutiae than any non-specialist.” He also gives some good advice for how to directly engage with conspiracy theorists.
In the late ’90’s, when I was an atheist/skeptic/humanist student activist and volunteer with the Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism, I met a fellow skeptic/humanist at a national conference. He was (and is) a really bright and sensible guy, and we largely share world views: we are both naturalists, rejecting supernaturalism; we are both atheists, and we are both skeptics. if I remember right, we both identified as “secular humanists.” But over the last year or so, as we have become reacquainted on the social networks, I’ve come to discover he believes in some bona fide conspiracy theories, and is especially skeptical of the mainstream account of the events that happened on 9-11-2001.
During a recent discussion of one of my posts from conspiracycheck.org, he and others wondered what a “conspiracy theorist” is, anyway. Since the term is often used merely to dismiss those with fringe views, I’ll offer my definition here.
Conspiracy theorist. noun. Someone who explains significant historical or current events as being the result of secret plots by the intellectual, financial or political elite in order to advance their own agendas that run counter to the public’s interest.
Important factors when understanding conspiracy theorists include that conspiracy theories, which are rarely tentative and are frequently presented with a lot of certainty, explain a complex and confusing world in much more emotionally satisfying ways than how mainstream historical or sociological analysis or scholarship does. Conversely, mainstream analysis of historical or current events is often open-ended, fuzzy, and subject to revision in the light of new evidence.
Conspiracy theories are also emotionally satisfying because they appeal to the intellectual vanities of those who hold them: that they are obviously smart enough to “get it,” to “wake up,” and to see the world for how it really is — a grand battle between the noble common man and the evil shadowy rulers who are actually in charge and up to no good, and who are actually responsible for so much of the evil in the world. In this way, conspiracy theorists often engage in stark Manichaen thinking, dividing the world into two simple categories: the good guys and the bad guys.
And conspiracy theories are satisfying because at least at the initial stages, much of what a conspiracy theorist says at first can be triumphantly and proudly shown to be factually accurate. Indeed, it is the conclusions of a conspiracy theory, but not always its premises, that are spectacularly wrong leaps of logic, as I have argued before. (As an aside, this reminds me of when I was in a cult as a young teenager. A major feature of this particular cult was arguing how evil mainstream Christianity had actually syncretically adopted so many non-Christian “pagan” rites and symbolism into its traditions, as if that being true also somehow proved the insane doctrines of the cult to be true.)
I think the most important characteristic of a conspiracy theorist, maybe the defining characteristic, is that her or his thinking is nearly impenetrable to most arguments and counterarguments. (I say almost, since I think there are some effective ways to directly engage with conspiracy theorists.) Conspiracy theories are generally not falsifiable, and are often not testable. There are often no set of hypothetical facts that would invalidate the conspiracy theory, and any bit of evidence to the contrary of a conspiracy theory can just be subsumed by the selfsame conspiracy theory as more evidence in support of it. (For example, any evidence that 9/11 was not an inside job is impressively offered as actual support that it was an inside job, that such evidence is just actually part of the cover-up, etc.)
In this sense, I would argue that someone may be a skeptic about the official account of things like 9/11 without necessarily being a conspiracy theorist, as long as his conclusions are tentative, and open to revision in the light of new evidence. I personally think that it is an understandable position to doubt official accounts about 9/11 unless and until one does the research into various conspiracy theories surrounding the terrorist attack, in order to see why they do not hold water, just like it is understandable why someone who knows nothing about our cognitive biases or about probability may come to the conclusion that psychic powers are real simply because of seemingly experiencing psychic phenomena in her own life (things like thinking of a friend and then the phone rings and it is him, etc.). Similarly, someone may be skeptical of anthropogenic global warming without concluding that AGW is a conspiracy or a hoax perpetrated by pro-regulation Big Government “globalists” bent on world domination through the implementation of a universal carbon tax — instead, the global warming skepticism may just be a result of scientific illiteracy about climate change, which is easy enough to rectify — and this accounts for how many notable former global warming skeptics having changed their minds after learning more about the topic.
So to my old skeptic and humanist buddy wondering what my definition of a conspiracy theorist is, I hope this gets at it. And for the record, I don’t consider him a conspiracy theorist. But I am certainly willing to change that view in the light of any new evidence.
Mark Hoofnagle, the influential blogger who is one of the folks who came up with the concept of “denialism,” and who writes at National Geographic’s Science Blog on the topic, has an interesting post about what happens when conspiracy theorists turn their attention to those who theorize about conspiracy theorists. He reports on the paper by Stephan Lewandowsky et. al. in the journal Frontiers in Psychology about how conspiracy theorists react to being the focus of academic and journalistic scrutiny, coming up with new conspiracy theories in the process.
Lewandowsky, and his coauthors John Cook, Klaus Oberauer, Michael Hubble, studied how conspiracy theorists reacted to a previous paper that some of them authored on conspiracy theories, “NASA faked the moon landing|Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science“.They used Google searches and other methods to catalogue responses to the paper, and organized the responses into six categories. Responses demonstrated:
- an assumption of nefarious intent on the part of the authors of the paper
- delusions of persecution
- a “nihilistic degree of skepticism”, paranoia, what I’d call “hyper-skepticism”
- an inability to believe in mere coincidence
- a toleration of inconsistencies and contradictions in their own counter-hypotheses as long as they challenge the “official” version
- the incorporation of contrary evidence as further evidence of a conspiracy thus “self-sealing” their hypothesis
All six of these types of responses are the standard fare for any conspiracy theorist as he or she deals with scrutiny or criticism. These responses could easily turn into a Conspiracy Theory Bingo game to make listening to Alex Jones even more fun.
Hoofnagle summarizes the paper:
For the meat of the study, the authors then go through the evolution of reactions to their paper, and it’s fascinating. Starting with lots of allegations of “scamming” (must be wrong) and a smear to make them look like nutters (persecution victimization) the conspiracy theories then evolved about everything to whether or not the authors didn’t actually contact skeptic blogs (amazingly the blogs they did contact came out and appear to have lied about not being contacted), persecutorial delusions about the authors blocking individual skeptics IP addresses from accessing the paper (and further conspiracies that when they are being unblocked it’s just to make them look paranoid), conspiracies about it being a ploy by the Australian government (nefarious intent), and it gets crazier and crazier from there.
The most important part of this paper is when the authors explore the implications of their research on these conspiracy theorist responses to their previous paper for science communication in general. They essentially argue that because of the nature of conspiracy theories, and how they are seemingly immune to criticism and disconfirmatory evidence, that it is a waste of time for science educators to even engage them and treat them seriously. Hoofnagle seems to agree with Lewandowsky et. al. here. The argument goes that if conspiracy theorists are ridiculed and exposed as the “defective brains that they are,” to use Hoofnagle’s phrase, instead of directly challenging them “as if they’re honest brokers,” then their influence and numbers will wane.
This is not completely unlike the argument that scientists should not debate creationists, a position that leading science educators like National Center for Science Education‘s Eugenie Scott have made over the years, and that scientists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen J Gould have also expounded.
I guess I disagree, even while recognizing that Hoofnagle and Scott and Dawkins make some good points. Yes, debating denialists and peddlers of anti-science or conspiracy theories may seem to legitimize them. In the minds of a public undecided on the issues, whether we’re talking climate change or evolution or other consensus science challenged by the fringe, mainstream thinkers may lend credibility by giving them attention. But, indeed, I disagree that directly engaging the fringe is not useful. This is because, as a veteran of a few debates and a lot of direct engagement with creationists over the last 15+ years (and dozens of other debates and direct engagement on other interesting topics, like the proper role of religion in public schools, the existence of God, gay marriage, etc.), I have a pretty firm faith in public debate, in directly engaging my cultural competitors. I have to believe that the best ideas, argued well, will rise to the top. And shouldn’t science educators and science communicators and other professional truth-tellers be willing to engage their cultural competitors publicly, knowing that the best ideas will win if effectively communicated? Or should the destructive ideas of conspiracy theorists and others be ignored, ridiculed, or only addressed in the academy, unavailable to the wider, interested, low-information public.
Public argument and debate — direct engagement — even with the believing fringe, is an important antidote to the regrettable truth that throughout their lives, most people only interact with others who already share their central beliefs,whether about God, government, the paranormal, or issues like climate change, or important social issues. I used to run a program when I was at the Center for Inquiry called “Faith In College,” which were public events we put on at universities in cooperation with campus skeptics and freethought groups. These Faith in College events consisted essentially of panel discussions (often with much rigorous, if moderated, debate) among and by students of differing religious worldviews. It was always breathtaking to me to hear a student say publicly in front of an astonished audience that yes, he actually believed his good friend sitting next to him, well, was in fact going to burn in hell for eternity. Or to hear the atheist talk about why she lacked belief in God. Or to hear a Buddhist or Muslim or Sikh or Satanist share their experiences. Or to hear a secular humanist talk in front of the audience about where she gets her sense of right and wrong from, if not from God Almighty.
What was most spectacular, however, was to hear various perspectives rigorously challenged by other student panelists, in a public forum. That sort of direct scrutiny of belief happens far too infrequently, especially of fringe views. I may be too optimistic but I believe audiences left these and other similar events we put on asking important questions about why they believe what they believe. And I think we owe the same opportunity to conspiracy theorists and denialists by challenging them directly, and talking to them, not just only ever about them.
It is I think a tad too fatalistic or defeatist to hear arguments that people of strongly different views, even on very important issues like climate change or the grand suspicions that fuel conspiracy theories, have insurmountable differences that cannot be bridged by direct debate and engagement. Such fatalism, such rejection of any attempt to directly challenge conspiracy theorists of all stripes in public debate, seems to foreclose any meaningful opportunity for mutual understanding, and seems too acquiescent to the view that those who have fringe and unsupportable views will never be able to change their minds. Instead, I say Let The Best Ideas Win.
ABC News Nightline did a piece on Alex Jones last month, calling him America’s “premiere purveyor of paranoia porn.” I think it was a fair piece on him.
They discuss his claims that FEMA is planning concentration camps for US citizens, 911 being an “inside job,” the governments work to “dumb down” the population by putting fluoride in the water, and other arguments he makes about the “scientific dictatorship controlling the planet.”
The ABC News correspondent, Dan Harris, effectively challenged Jones but in a fair-minded way, and detailed how even if some of his facts are right, his conclusions are wrong. This piece was not completely unlike another feature on Jones ABC news did in 2010, except that it offered more of a glimpse into Alex Jones’s personality and private life, including mention of his family and smart young son, who has appeared on The Alex Jones Show in the past.
Jon Ronson, a skeptic who has spoken at TAM London, did a documentary back in 2001 on David Icke entitled “David Icke, The Lizards and The Jews.” It is a must-watch for anyone interested in the topic of conspiracy theories.
Alex Jones is quoted in the documentary, and says about Icke:
He’s either a smart opportunist conman, or he’s completely insane, or he’s working for them directly. But I tend to think he’s just a conman who understands how things work and is just a real opportunist.
Interestingly, many people say the same about Alex Jones. I tend to think Jones is completely sincere, if not completely sane, and an opportunist only to the extent that he takes every opportunity to advance his agenda, which is to warn the masses about a conspiracy of the evil global elite to kill them.