The Debasement of Science

| Wed Nov. 16, 2011 2:30 PM EST

Jonathan Zimmerman notes today that opposition to fluoride in drinking water is back on the rise. But he says there's good news: this time it's based on medical evidence, not kooky conspiracy theories. Fairbanks, Alaska, for example, stopped fluoridating its water this year:

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.

This provides Zimmerman with an opportunity to regale us with the history of these kooks, which is certainly good clean fun. Unfortunately, I think he's off base on his wider point. Fluoride aside, it's true that most crackpot arguments these days take on the veneer of science. Creationism has become Intelligent Design. Global warming deniers write lengthy statistical critiques of climate change research. Tax cutters produce Greek-letter-laden academic papers demonstrating that lower rates on rich people will supercharge the economy. Toxin manufacturers of all kinds rely, as they always have, on blizzards of industry-supported research showing that their products are safe. Even abortion activists turn to science to "prove" that human life begins at conception.

There's no question about it: science reigns supreme today. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that we collectively take empirical evidence more seriously than we used to. What it means is that science has become increasingly debased, just another partisan tool that an increasing number of people take no more seriously than advertising claims about who has the best pizza. Scientists have their version of science and everyone else has theirs. And that version is decidedly not the same as the "elitist" version practiced by the guys in white lab coats.

Reality-based opposition to fluoride may be something to smile about, as Zimmerman says. But if so, it's the exception, not the rule. More generally, the crackpots have simply learned that their arguments sound better when they're wrapped in the language of science. As a result, the public now seems to view science as little more than a flag of convenience for whichever side they sympathize with most. And that's not anything to smile about.

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