Christopher Bryson and the Problem of Political Science

Fluoridation of water has long been a “political science” issue, with radical libertarians and anarchists viewing fluoridation as the high-water mark of state paternalism.  The motive to misstate and misrepresent the science may at times be obvious, but individual statements, standing alone, may be difficult to judge.

Fluorine chemistry and toxicology are sufficiently advanced that misrepresentations should be easy to detect.  Fluorine is a halogen; the lightest in the series.  As a gas, fluorine is extremely reactive and toxic, as are other halogen gases, such as chlorine.  Fluorine gas was used for uranium enrichment in the Manhattan project, and project scientists conducted research on fluorine toxicity to help them set exposure limits in a new manufacturing process.

As devotees of Breaking Bad no doubt have learned, hydrogen fluoride is extremely toxic and corrosive.  Other halogen-based acids are, of course, toxic and corrosive, such as hydrogen chloride.

Compounds of fluorine are generically fluorides, and the properties of the salts and compounds varies considerably with the cation and the chemical structures involved.  Many modern medications, such as atorvastatin and fluoxetine contain fluorine in their chemical structures.  The toxicology of the fluorine compounds must, therefore, take into account the variability of structure and function of fluorine.  Toxicity of fluorine gas or of hydrogen fluoride cannot be “extrapolated” to a simple sodium salt, and more than the toxicity of chlorine gas can be imply the toxicity or ordinary table salt, sodium chloride.  The allergenicity of a compound such as potassium aluminumtetrafluoride cannot be the basis for asserting the immunogenicity of a simple alkali salt.

Recently, I came across a YouTube video of a journalist, Christopher Bryson, holding forth on his perception of a vast conspiracy to poison people by the fluoridation of drinking water.  Bryson’s passion and selectivity in making his case resembles the deep flaws of our tort system, which allows lawyers and expert witnesses to overwhelm judges and juries with emotion, selectivity, and overstatement.  Bryson refers to all fluorine chemicals, whether the elemental gas, the acid, or the many complex and variable salts as “fluoride.”  Occupational and environmental exposures to hydrogen fluoride are equated with micromolar levels of sodium fluoride in drinking water. Never once does he actually quantitate the exposures he labels as “toxic.” Largely, Bryson proceeds by ad hominems, ad nauseam.  If scientists have industry connections, they are bad, and their science is corrupt.  If a scientist has ever done something productive (e.g., George L. Waldbott), and he opines that water fluoridation is bad, then that scientist must be correct.  Apparently, Bryson has never heard of Linus Pauling and his Vitamin C fiasco.  See K. Frank Austen, M. Dworetzky, Richard S. Farr, G.B. Logan, S. Malkiel, E. Middleton Jr., M.M. Miller, Roy Patterson, C.E. Reed, S.C. Siegel, and P.P. Van Arsdel Jr., “A statement on the question of allergy to fluoride as used in the fluoridation of community water supplies,” 47 J. Allergy & Clinical Immunology 347 (1971) (“no”).

Bryson makes for an interesting case study in hysteria.  He is also very much a public example of the tone and substance of many of the plaintiffs’ theories that clog the civil dockets of our court system.  Bryson’s passion and intensity — heat without illumination  — are reminiscent of the courtroom antics in many a so-called “toxic tort” case.  Bryson’s video is thus a good place to start to try to understand science in the courtroom, and the need for strong gatekeeping.  The potential for inflammatory advocacy, distortion, and misrepresentation have always been part of legal proceedings, but when it comes to advocacy about claims that turn on “scientific” evidence, there is a difference.  Juries in common law cases, in 1789, were not confronted with the abuses of the sort that Bryson so well exemplifies.

The Bryson video led me to look at Bryson’s book, The Fluoride Deception.  The book starts with “Notes on Terminology,” which warns that

“THE TERMS fluorine and fluoride should not be confused in a book about chemical toxicity.”

* * *

“In these pages I’ve tried to be clear when I’m referring to the element fluorine or to a compound, a fluoride. And because different fluoride compounds often have unique toxicities, where relevant or possible, I have also given the compound’s specific name.”

So far so good, but then Bryson, having baited, switches:

“Mostly, however, for simplicity’s sake, I have followed convention and used the shorthand fluoride when referring to the element and its multiple manifestations, a procedure approved and used by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.”

Christopher Bryson, The Fluoride Deception at xi (2004).

Fluoride deception indeed Mr. Bryson.  The cited source for the indiscriminate use of fluoride makes clear that it uses “fluoride” as a general term when differentiation is not necessary for its discussion.  It is not, however, a basis for conflating or confusing the toxicities of fluorine species or doses.  National Research Council, Biological Effects of Atmospheric Pollutants: Fluorides 3 (1971).  Bryson provides an apt example of how science communication works in politicized contexts, such as the courtroom or the legislature.

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