Calgary's city council voted earlier this month to discontinue the fluoridation of city water. Fluoride has been added to our water supply since 1989, when the practice was approved by referendum (and confirmed by another referendum in 1998).
Although fluoridation was not an issue in last fall's civic election, some councillors said they would move to end the practice. A committee held one day of hearings, dominated by anti-fluoridation zealots, and recommended discontinuance. Council rejected the offer of three professors from the University of Calgary's medical school to help interpret the scientific research, and refused to recommend the issue for a referendum. The whole process seemed rushed to give defenders of the status quo no time to organize.
Newly elected Mayor Naheed Nenshi did not exactly cover himself with glory. At first, he suggested that a public health decision of this importance required time for consideration, review of scientific evidence, public consultation. But when the final vote was taken, Mr. Nenshi was absent from Calgary, swanning around Toronto. (Memo to Naheed: If you want the big job, take on the big issues. You'll do better in the long run by fighting and losing than by ducking out the back door.)
Our politicians' performance was topped by the usually judicious Calgary Herald editorial board, which attacked our medical school and scientific research in general: "Calgary city council wisely decided not to refer the issue to University of Calgary medical experts who offered to educate them on the benefits of fluoridation. Judging from the public comments by some of those experts, the U of C review likely would have been a predictable reaffirmation of the benefits of fluoridation from the scientific establishment. Calgary aldermen showed they are quite capable, thank you very much, of reviewing the literature already widely available."
Indeed, medical experts would offer a "predictable reaffirmation" of fluoridation's benefits, because that's the almost universal conclusion of more than half a century of scientific research. Yes, too much fluoride can be a bad thing, causing occasional mottling of the teeth, but that undesirable side effect can be controlled by proper dosage. Other than that, the evidence is overwhelming that fluoridation reduces the incidence of cavities.
And I doubt very much that Calgary aldermen, or any other group of politicians, are capable of "reviewing the literature." It takes years of specialized study to master the scientific basis of modern medicine, to say nothing of research methodologies. How many politicians understand the difference between epidemiology and random clinical trials, or between analysis of variance and multiple regression as statistical ways of controlling for the influence of multiple causal factors?
Taken by itself, city council's decision isn't a catastrophe. There are other ways, albeit more inconvenient, to get the small amounts of fluoride teeth need. And dental caries, while potentially painful, is seldom fatal.
But this decision should not be taken by itself because it's part of an alarming and increasing rejection of modern medicine. It's only a couple of steps to the spectacle of scientifically illiterate but influential celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy telling parents not to vaccinate their children. Lethal diseases such as whooping cough are back again due to such fear-mongering.
When I was a teenager, I read A Canticle for Leibowitz, depicting a new Dark Ages of Simplification dominated by science-rejecting Simpletons. I thought it was science fiction, not futurology. Maybe I was wrong.
Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary.