The Straight Dope has a motto: “Fighting ignorance since 1973. (It’s taking longer than we thought.)”
Alas, the motto could work as well for people who understand science, who understand chemistry and biology, and who urge sanity in discussions about DDT, malaria prevention and control, and Rachel Carson.
DDT sprayed on a crowded beach -- photo from an unidentified 1950s publication. Caption in the photo: "This machine is spreading a kind of fog of DDT spray to see if it will kill the mosquitoes and other insects on the beach. Outdoors, the spray soon spreads and does not harm people."
The meme that “Rachel Carson caused millions of deaths” and prompted the disappearance of DDT is factually in error, but popular, and still spreading. It doesn’t help that there are well-funded groups that work hard to spread the disinformation.
As Ben Franklin noted, in a fair fight, truth wins. The difficulty is that the fight for truth about DDT and Rachel Carson has never been fair, and the anti-sense forces have a 25-year head start on wise people like Bug Girl, Deltoid, Rep. Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, and even dunderheads like me.
How widespread is the damage? Well, how many editorial pieces were there slamming Rachel Carson, falsely, on the event of the 100th anniversary of her birth? Has Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., lifted his holds on naming a post office for her?
The damage continues to spread.
For example, these blogs have fallen victim to the malaria/DDT/Rachel Carson hoax:
a. London Fog, ostensibly about government in London, Ontario, goes off half-cocked on DDT
b. Irrational Optimism, about a Georgian transplanted to Utah, picks up the misunderstandings of DDT
c. The Squamata Report, a general diatribe, accepts at face value all the falsehoods about DDT, especially those that cast scientists and environmentally-concerned politicians in a light where they can be ridiculed
d. PoliPundit.com — not the most bizarre view there, so of course it also accepts the false myths as good data
e. Boots and Sabers, sort of a frat party for young military guys, makes the gung-ho gonzo claim that it would have been worth it to sacrifice bald eagles because DDT could have saved African kids
d. Even Forbes Magazine’s blogs put out the faulty version of the story
e. Red State includes an artless and caustic piece here (repeated during what appears to be a brain power failure at PowerLine)
f. The famous column at the Wall Street Journal, marking a premature end of fact checking at that newspaper’s opinion columns
g. “Rachel Carson’s Genocide,” hysteria at a Ron Paul site misnamed Rational Review
h. Even Nobel Prize winning economists and distinguished federal judges get sucked into the vortex of specious information if they are not scrupulously careful — as Becker and Posner did here, and again here. (See final installment,too.)
And even while fighting ignorance and generally rebutting the wild claims about Rachel Carson, even Cecil Adams at Straight Dope gets suckered in by some of the myths. (In “moderate amounts,” DDT concentrates up to 10 million times in the wild, poisoning birds of prey and predator fishes, especially; DDT is deadly to mosquito-eating birds and bats, and pest-eating lizards; EPA’s hearings on DDT were overwhelmingly in favor of banning the substance — a court suit cited EPA for not moving fast enough to ban such a dangerous substance, and evidence in such trials is not made up; the cause of egg-shell thinning in birds is pretty solidly established to be DDT and its breakdown substances, only the exact process is not well understood; the international treaty against POPs has a specific out-clause for DDT to be used to prevent malaria; and so on).
So, there’s a lot of work to be done, and little time. Stay tuned.
Update: The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, had a wonderful feature on the 1970 hearings in that state to ban DDT,[alternate URL here] and the subsequent success with the spectacular return of the bald eagle to local waterways. In comments, early in the process, the junk science about DDT and malaria appear. It’s everywhere.
P.S. — Here’s a reading for a lecture at Purdue University that neatly summarizes Carson’s life and work, accurately. (In fact, the entire lecture series, by Jules Janick, should prove interesting to people interested in horticulture.)