The other day I got a message from someone asking what I thought about water fluoridation. I knew there are conspiracy theories on fluoridation, but this guy had heard specific concerns about the safety of fluoride, from sources that seemed credible. “There are people on both sides saying totally different things,” he wrote. “But there does seem to be a lot of evidence that fluoride can be harmful to your brain. I don't know what to believe.”
I really appreciated the letter, because it seems that more and more, people are latching on to claims that are disturbing, perhaps just because they are disturbing and memorable. But this person wanted to dig deeper and find out what is actually true. It made me ask: What can a thinking person do when there’s a controversy (or a claimed controversy), and they want to know whether one side is just spinning B.S. that contradicts true and actual fact?
Believe it or not, your best bet is to go to Wikipedia. There is a right way and a wrong way to do this. Wikipedia gets a lot of flak about reliability (I’ll get to that in a minute), but certainly one of its strengths, and a core principle that editors try to follow, is neutrality and balance. If an issue is controversial, the article devotes space to both sides, with claims referenced to reliable sources such as major newspapers and peer-reviewed studies. A good example is the article on pink slime, the beef filler that made news this year. There are well-sourced sections on the controversy as well as specific consumer concerns. By checking out the references listed at the bottom of the article, you can actually get the facts, and learn who’s putting them out. (My opinion on pink slime: It’s a non-issue. If you don’t want to ingest a safe-to-eat, protein-rich filler that reduces meat-industry waste and lowers costs — because you think it’s “disgusting” or whatever — then become a vegetarian!)
Then there are pseudo-controversies, where a small group of detractors want to create the impression of a scientific controversy; think creationism or “9/11 Truth.” In these cases, the Wikipedia article will devote less space to the minority view, and perhaps link to a separate article. Wikipedia has a “due and undue weight” guideline, which states that recognized minority viewpoints should be covered, but they should not get special treatment. In the case of the Moon landing, for example, there is an appropriately short section at the bottom called “hoax accusations,” with a link to the Moon landing conspiracy theories article. Even from the latter (and its sources), it’s obvious that this made-up controversy is baseless.
To check out the claims about fluoridation, I went to the water fluoridation article. There is no mention of potential harm to the brain from fluoride. There’s a link to an article called water fluoridation controversy, but this is largely about ethics and effectiveness, with some discussion about mild discoloration of teeth (fluorosis). I saw no reliable sources with evidence that fluoride is unsafe, except at unusually high levels (for example naturally occurring fluoride from well water).
So, the claim that fluoridation damages your brain appears to be another example of baseless B.S.
Of course, some will say that Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information. Yes — it’s always a bad idea to assume that any individual fact on Wikipedia is true. If you’re researching a political candidate, don’t write that he has four children because Wikipedia said so. Use the article as a springboard and look at its sources to get the information you need. But for a broader question, such as the existence or merit of a claimed controversy, Wikipedia is an excellent resource. Articles have long histories, are constantly being updated and improved, and are “watched” by an army of volunteers looking out for biased viewpoints and foul play. If you have doubts about an article’s balance, (1) check the sources, (2) click on the “view history” tab to see how the article has changed over time, or (3) click on “talk” to read discussions among editors. The merits of controversies are often discussed on the “talk” page, with editors providing useful (or not so useful) links to back up their claims.
Some say Wikipedia is unreliable because it is just a mouthpiece for the establishment. Conspiracy types will say that their views are routinely scrubbed from Wikipedia by government agents and their shills (this wretched piece of trash is a classic example). So, I guess Wikipedia is part of the conspiracy, too — even though anyone can edit its articles, and nothing on Planet Earth is more democratic or transparent. Sigh. If Big Brother really did maintain all of this “disinfo,” why would there be articles on the conspiracies at all? And so on. Don’t get me started.
Everyone in the world wants you to believe their point of view, and people are getting better and better at producing startlingly convincing media to get you to believe (YouTube videos being the absolute worst in this regard). Wikipedia is one place where you are safe from that kind of manipulation — and, there’s an article on everything. So, when you need to know whether something really is controversial, try going there. As always, though, don’t forget to bring a functioning brain with you.