Audubon Christmas Bird Count issue: Eagles did not prosper during the ‘time of DDT’

August 26, 2015

Still photo captured from the film,

Still photo captured from the film, “Christmas Bird Count,” by Chan Robbins; photo shows a group counting birds, probably in the 1940s or 1950s. Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count got its start in 1900.

In the notoriously wrong and misleading “100 things you should know about DDT” posted by pro-DDT, anti-wildlife Steven Milloy of “Competitive Enterprise Institute” and Fox News fame, based on the foggy rant of Dr. Gordon Edwards, we get these two misleading claims:

69. After 15 years of heavy and widespread usage of DDT, Audubon Society ornithologists counted 25 percent more eagles per observer in 1960 than during the pre-DDT 1941 bird census. [Marvin, PH. 1964 Birds on the rise. Bull Entomol Soc Amer 10(3):184-186; Wurster, CF. 1969 Congressional Record S4599, May 5, 1969; Anon. 1942. The 42nd Annual Christmas Bird Census. Audubon Magazine 44:1-75 (Jan/Feb 1942; Cruickshank, AD (Editor). 1961. The 61st Annual Christmas Bird Census. Audubon Field Notes 15(2):84-300; White-Stevens, R.. 1972. Statistical analyses of Audubon Christmas Bird censuses. Letter to New York Times, August 15, 1972]

99. The Audubon Society’s annual bird census in 1960 reported that at least 26 kinds of birds became more numerous during 1941 – 1960. [See Anon. 1942. The 42nd annual Christmas bird census.” Audubon Magazine 44;1-75 (Jan/Feb 1942), and Cruicjshank, AD (editor) 1961. The 61st annual Christmas bird census. Audubon Field Notes 15(2); 84-300]

100. Statistical analysis of the Audubon data bore out the perceived increases. [White-Stevens, R. 1972. Statistical analyses of Audubon Christmas bird censuses. Letter to New York Times, August 15, 1972]

Those claims are false with regard to bald eagles.

The careful citations offered by Milloy and Edwards simply do not exist; if the source exists, the source does not say what is claimed by these guys.  (Don’t take my word for it; go see for yourself.)

Audubon never suggested, in any forum, that their famous Christmas Bird Count had shown increases in eagles. Most other species showed no increases, either. I spent a couple of days at the library of Southern Methodist University reviewing every issue of Audubon Magazine from 1941 through 1974, and found not a single article suggesting anything other than declining eagle populations in the lower 48 states (Alaska eagles were not untouched by DDT, but were not so seriously affected; and as you will see below, the first counts of Alaska’s eagles did not occur until after 1950, so the addition of numbers from Alaska counts do not indicate an increase in U.S. population of eagles.)

I also reviewed each bird count, usually published in a separate booklet with the March issue of Audubon in that time. While raw numbers increased, that was clearly due to increases in people observing. At no point did any ornithologist or Audubon member suggest eagles were in recovery, from 1941 through 1972.

That’s a long explanation, unsuitable for quick discussion on blogs, and wholly too much for a 140-character Tweet. My experience with Milloy and his followers is that they will say my analysis somehow errs, though they cannot offer any real analysis from any other source that isn’t just a misreading of the raw bird count.

I wrote the Audubon Society, and asked them to respond to the claim. At first the press office thought the claims so bizarre that they didn’t think a reply necessary.  I sent them a half-dozen links to other documents that cited Milloy and Edwards.  Delta Willis at Audubon took the claims to officials of the bird count.

Geoff LeBaron, Director of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count sent the following reply (posted without correction).

See also the footnote from Audubon Chief Scientist Gary Langham appended to the end of the e-mail.

LeBaron, Geoff
Sent: Friday, May 10, 2013 10:21 AM
To: Willis, Delta; Langham, Gary; Dale, Kathy
Subject: RE: DDT and effects on birds, and Audubon Christmas bird count

Hello Delta,

From the 1930s through 1970s there was a tremendous growth in the number of Christmas Bird Counts, from 203 total counts in the 30th CBC to 1320 counts in 80th CBC.  The number of observers on those counts rose from 679 in 30th to 32,322 in the 80th Count.  That is a tremendous increase in effort as well as geographic coverage, and more people in more areas are going to count more Bald Eagles, even if the populations are [were] declining.

A second major factor is that during that period many CBCs were started with the specific goal of censusing wintering Bald Eagles.  Thus we were targeting the areas where eagles were wintering, and thus tallying a much greater percentage of the total population.

Thirdly, there were only two individual CBCs conducted in Alaska prior to the late 1950s.  Bald Eagle populations never suffered dramatically in Alaska [from DDT?], and their numbers were always much higher there.  Since the late 1950s there has been a tremendous growth in the number of counts in Alaska—again, with some of these counts targeting areas where wintering eagles congregate even in the thousands.  These counts added in Alaska can contribute greatly to the total number of Bald Eagles in each season’s CBC.

Thus even while Bald Eagle populations were plummeting in the lower 48 states (outside of Florida) CBC [Citizen Science] efforts were greatly increasing, and in fact targeting monitoring Bald Eagles.  That is why both the raw number of eagles and the numbers when weighted for observer effort went up when you pull CBC data for Bald Eagle during the decades of heavy DDT use.

It’s still educational to look at raptor numbers in CBC data in the years following the banning of the use of DDT in the US.  Many species of raptors show a rapid rebound in numbers after the mid-1970s…and Bald Eagles also dramatically increased.

Per Dr. Gary Langham, Audubon Chief Scientist:   Audubon scientists are careful to include levels of participation and geographic coverage in all analyses. Fortunately, we have tracked both of these aspects since the CBC was started and so it is straightforward to adjust for their impacts.

Bird counts do not show that eagles were out of trouble during DDT years, roughly 1946 through 1972; especially they do not show that bald eagle populations increased.

More:

Explanation of the Christmas Bird Count in four minutes, by Chan Robbins.

Chandler Robbins, founder of the Audubon Christimas Bird Count, screen capture from Audubon film

Chandler Robbins, founder of the Audubon Christimas Bird Count, screen capture from Audubon film “Christmas Bird Count.”

Nota bene: Yes, this has sat in my “to be published” box for too long. It was scheduled for publication, but it appears I had not hit the “publish at scheduled time” button. My apologies to readers, and especially to Audubon’s scientists and press people.


89 years ago, May 23, 1926: Mencken confessed Fillmore bathtub hoax, “any facts . . . got there accidentally”

May 23, 2015

Reasons for my annual observance of a moment of silence, here on May 23, for the failed confession of Mr. Mencken should be obvious to even a sleepy reader.  Alas, annually the need grows to call attention to the dangers of hoaxing, as hoaxes particularly in the political life of the U.S. grow in number, in viciousness, and in the numbers of gullibles suckered.  Here, again, is our annual reading of the confession with a few photographs and new links thrown in for easy learning:

May 23, 1926, H. L. Mencken‘s newspaper column confessed his hoax of nine years earlier — he had made up whole cloth the story of Millard Fillmore‘s only accomplishment being the installation of a plumbed bathtub in the White House (in the 1850s known as the Executive Mansion).

H. L. Mencken, America's "wittiest defender of liberty," according to a story in the resurrected American Mercury. Image from American Mercury.

H. L. Mencken, America’s “wittiest defender of liberty,” according to a story in the resurrected American Mercury. Image from American Mercury.

Alas, the hoax cat was out of the bag, and the hoax information still pollutes the pool of history today.

Text of Mencken’s confession, from the Museum of Hoaxes:

Melancholy Reflections

On Dec. 28, 1917, I printed in the New York Evening Mail, a paper now extinct, an article purporting to give the history of the bathtub. This article, I may say at once, was a tissue of absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious…

This article, as I say, was planned as a piece of spoofing to relieve the strain of war days, and I confess that I regarded it, when it came out, with considerable satisfaction. It was reprinted by various great organs of the enlightenment, and after a while the usual letters began to reach me from readers. Then, suddenly, my satisfaction turned to consternation. For these readers, it appeared, all took my idle jocosities with complete seriousness. Some of them, of antiquarian tastes, asked for further light on this or that phase of the subject. Others actually offered me corroboration!

But the worst was to come. Pretty soon I began to encounter my preposterous “facts” in the writings of other men. They began to be used by chiropractors and other such quacks as evidence of the stupidity of medical men. They began to be cited by medical men as proof of the progress of public hygiene. They got into learned journals. They were alluded to on the floor of congress. They crossed the ocean, and were discussed solemnly in England and on the continent. Finally, I began to find them in standard works of reference. Today, I believe, they are accepted as gospel everywhere on earth. To question them becomes as hazardous as to question the Norman invasion.

* * *

And as rare. This is the first time, indeed, that they have ever been questioned, and I confess at once that even I myself, their author, feel a certain hesitancy about doing it. Once more, I suppose, I’ll be accused of taking the wrong side for the mere pleasure of standing in opposition. The Cincinnati boomers, who have made much of the boast that the bathtub industry, now running to $200,000,000 a year, was started in their town, will charge me with spreading lies against them. The chiropractors will damn me for blowing up their ammunition. The medical gents, having swallowed my quackery, will now denounce me as a quack for exposing them. And in the end, no doubt, the thing will simmer down to a general feeling that I have once more committed some vague and sinister crime against the United States, and there will be a renewal of the demand that I be deported to Russia.

I recite this history, not because it is singular, but because it is typical. It is out of just such frauds, I believe, that most of the so-called knowledge of humanity flows. What begins as a guess — or, perhaps, not infrequently, as a downright and deliberate lie — ends as a fact and is embalmed in the history books. One recalls the gaudy days of 1914-1918. How much that was then devoured by the newspaper readers of the world was actually true? Probably not 1 per cent. Ever since the war ended learned and laborious men have been at work examining and exposing its fictions. But every one of these fictions retains full faith and credit today. To question even the most palpably absurd of them, in most parts of the United States, is to invite denunciation as a bolshevik.

So with all other wars. For example, the revolution. For years past American historians have been investigating the orthodox legends. Almost all of them turn out to be blowsy nonsense. Yet they remain in the school history books and every effort to get them out causes a dreadful row, and those who make it are accused of all sorts of treasons and spoils. The truth, indeed, is something that mankind, for some mysterious reason, instinctively dislikes. Every man who tries to tell it is unpopular, and even when, by the sheer strength of his case, he prevails, he is put down as a scoundrel.

* * *

As a practicing journalist for many years, I have often had close contact with history in the making. I can recall no time or place when what actually occurred was afterward generally known and believed. Sometimes a part of the truth got out, but never all. And what actually got out was seldom clearly understood. Consider, for example, the legends that follow every national convention. A thousand newspaper correspondents are on the scene, all of them theoretically competent to see accurately and report honestly, but it is seldom that two of them agree perfectly, and after a month after the convention adjourns the accepted version of what occurred usually differs from the accounts of all of them.

Political boss Harry M. Daugherty (later Attor...

Political boss Harry M. Daugherty (later Attorney General of the United States), left, with Senator Warren G. Harding (later President of the United States) at Harding’s home in Marion, Ohio during the 1920 presidential campaign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I point to the Republican convention of 1920, which nominated the eminent and lamented Harding. A week after the delegates adjourned the whole country believed that Harding had been put through by Col. George Harvey: Harvey himself admitted it. Then other claimants to the honor arose, and after a year or two it was generally held that the trick had been turned by the distinguished Harry M. Daugherty, by that time a salient light of the Harding cabinet. The story began to acquire corroborative detail. Delegates and correspondents began to remember things that they had not noticed on the spot. What the orthodox tale is today with Daugherty in eclipse, I don’t know, but you may be sure that it is full of mysterious intrigue and bold adventure.

Ambassador Myron T. Herrick was part of the U....

Ambassador Myron T. Herrick was part of the U.S. delegation to the International Chamber of Commerce which sailed on Kroonland in 1920. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are the facts? The facts are that Harvey had little more to do with the nomination of Harding than I did, and that Daugherty was immensely surprised when good Warren won. The nomination was really due to the intense heat, and to that alone. The delegates, torn by the savage three cornered fight between Lowden, Johnson, and Wood, came to Saturday morning in despair. The temperature in the convention hall was at least 120 degrees. They were eager to get home. When it became apparent that the leaders could not break the deadlock they ran amuck and nominated Harding, as the one aspirant who had no enemies. If any individual managed the business it was not Harvey or Daugherty, but Myron T. Herrick. But so far as I know Herrick’s hand in it has never been mentioned.

* * *

English: Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier i...

Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier in arena before fight at Boyle’s Thirty Acres. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I turn to a more pleasant field — that of sport in the grand manner. On July 2, 1921, in the great bowl at Jersey City, the Hon. Jack Dempsey met M. Carpentier, the gallant frog. The sympathy of the crowd was overwhelmingly with M. Carpentier and every time he struck a blow he got a round of applause, even if it didn’t land. I had an excellent seat, very near the ring, and saw every move of the two men. From the first moment Dr. Dempsey had it all his own way. He could have knocked out M. Carpentier in the first half of the first round. After that first half he simply waited his chance to do it politely and humanely.

Yet certain great newspapers reported the next morning that M. Carpentier had delivered an appalling wallop in the second round and that Dr. Dempsey had narrowly escaped going out. Others told the truth, but what chance had the truth against that romantic lie? It is believed in to this day by at least 99.99 per cent of all the boxing fans in Christendom. Carpentier himself, when he recovered from his beating, admitted categorically that it was nonsense, but even Carpentier could make no headway against the almost universal human tendency to cherish what is not true. A thousand years hence schoolboys will be taught that the frog had Dempsey going. It may become in time a religious dogma, like the doctrine that Jonah swallowed the whale. Scoffers who doubt it will be damned to hell.

The moral, if any, I leave to psycho-pathologists, if competent ones can be found. All I care to do today is to reiterate, in the most solemn and awful terms, that my history of the bathtub, printed on Dec. 28, 1917, was pure buncombe. If there were any facts in it they got there accidentally and against my design. But today the tale is in the encyclopedias. History, said a great American soothsayer, is bunk.

[Emphasis in that last paragraph added here.]

Mencken’s confession gets much less attention than it deserves.  In a just world, this essay would be part of every AP U.S. history text, and would be available for printing for students to read individually in class and to discuss, debate and ponder.  Quite to the contrary, state legislatures today debate whether to require teaching of the hoax that disastrous climate change is not occurring, only 45% of Americans claim to know better for certain; more legislatures work hard to devise ways to insert hoaxes against biology (evolution and human reproduction, notably), astronomy and physics (Big Bang), history and even education (Islam is a root of socialist thought, President Obama is not Christian, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, teachers are socialists).

In 2013, the governing body of the Boy Scouts of America voted on whether to allow homosexual boys to be Scouts — as if an 8-year-old kid joining Cub Scouts knows enough about sex and love, and sex predation, to threaten the Constitution of the U.S. if we allow him to learn how to put alphabet macaroni onto a board spelling out “Mom,” or to learn how to carve an automobile out of a block of wood and race it on a closed-course track.  The so-called Family Research Council (FRC) has conducted a campaign of vicious hoaxes against the measure, even going so far as to purloin official logos of the Boy Scouts to suggest they speak for BSA.  The hoax has millions of victims, they claim.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., GOP Members of Congress call for investigations into wrongdoing evidenced in e-mails between the White House and State Department and CIA, over the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens.  To hear the GOP describe it, you’d never know that the GOP opposed President Obama’s actions to save the city of Benghazi from destruction by dictator Muammar Gadhafy a few months before, that the GOP slashed the security budget for all U.S. diplomatic missions, leaving Ambassador Stevens underprotected, that the GOP was opposed to much of the work of Ambassador Stevens, or that the incriminating e-mails were hoaxed up by GOP Congressional staff.  [This paragraph was written two years ago; still oddly valid in 2015.]

Other hoaxes that plague our nation, national security, and freedom from fear:

  • Texans fret that President Obama will invade Texas and annex it into the United States of America.
  • Many business lobbyists scream that rogue scientists cooked up global warming, and tell us that all of us frogs will know when the water is too warm, and can leap to safety later.
  • Any Google or Bing search turns up high dudgeon ne’er-do-gooders who scream that we need to bring back DDT to beat malaria, Ebola, West Nile virus and tooth decay, though DDT has always been available to fight disease-carrying insects, and it won’t work against Ebola, and it’s inappropriate against West Nile.
  • Et cetera.
  • Et cetera.
  • Et cetera.

If you see pale faces among the GOP Congressional staff or the FRC this morning, it may be because the ghost of H. L. Mencken appeared to them last night to give them hell.  We could hope.

More:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience, and repetition of the facts.


No, Earth Day does not celebrate Lenin, who was anti-environmentalist – 2015 debunking of the annual Earth Day/Lenin hoax

April 20, 2015

This is mostly an encore post, repeated each year on April 22 and Earth Day — sad that it needs repeating; anti-environmentalists don’t appear to learn much, year to year.  (Yes, some of the links may be dated; if you find one not working, please let me know in comments.)

You could write it off to pareidolia, once.

Like faces in clouds, some people claimed to see a link. The first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, coincided with Lenin’s birthday. There was no link — Earth Day was scheduled for a spring Wednesday, when the greatest number of college students would be on campus.

Link to permanent Earth Day site, at EarthDay.org

Link to permanent Earth Day site, at EarthDay.org

Now, years later, with almost-annual repeats of the claim from the braying right wing, it’s just a cruel hoax.  It’s as much a hoax on the ill-informed of the right, as anyone else. Many of them believe it.

No, there’s no link between Earth Day and the birthday of V. I. Lenin:

One surefire way to tell an Earth Day post is done by an Earth Day denialist: They’ll note that the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, was an anniversary of the birth of Lenin.

Coincidentally, yes, Lenin was born on April 22 (new style calendar; it was April 10 on the calendar when he was born — one might accurately note that Lenin’s mother always said he was born on April 10).

It’s a hoax. There is no meaning to the first Earth Day’s falling on Lenin’s birthday — Lenin was not prescient enough to plan his birthday to fall in the middle of Earth Week, a hundred years before Earth Week was even planned.

About.com explains why the idea of a link between Earth Day and Lenin is silly:

Does Earth Day Promote Communism?
Earth Day 1970 was initially conceived as a teach-in, modeled on the teach-ins used successfully by Vietnam War protesters to spread their message and generate support on U.S. college campuses. It is generally believed that April 22 was chosen for Earth Day because it was a Wednesday that fell between spring break and final exams—a day when a majority of college students would be able to participate.

U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the guy who dreamed up the nationwide teach-in that became Earth Day, once tried to put the whole “Earth Day as communist plot” idea into perspective.

“On any given day, a lot of both good and bad people were born,” Nelson said. “A person many consider the world’s first environmentalist, Saint Francis of Assisi, was born on April 22. So was Queen Isabella. More importantly, so was my Aunt Tillie.”

April 22 is also the birthday of J. Sterling Morton, the Nebraska newspaper editor who founded Arbor Day (a national holiday devoted to planting trees) on April 22, 1872, when Lenin was still in diapers. Maybe April 22 was chosen to honor Morton and nobody knew. Maybe environmentalists were trying to send a subliminal message to the national subconscious that would transform people into tree-planting zombies. One birthday “plot” seems just about as likely as the other. What’s the chance that one person in a thousand could tell you when either of these guys were born.

My guess is that only a few really wacko conservatives know that April 22 is Lenin’s birthday (was it ever celebrated in the Soviet Union?). No one else bothers to think about it, or say anything about it, nor especially, to celebrate it.

Certainly, the Soviet Union never celebrated Earth Day. Nor was Lenin any great friend of the environment.  He stood instead with the oil-drillers-without-clean-up, with the strip-miners-without-reclamation, with the dirty-smokestack guys.  You’d think someone with a bit of logic and a rudimentary knowledge of history could put that together.

Gaylord Nelson, Living Green image

Inventor of Earth Day teach-ins, former Wisconsin Governor and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson

The REAL founder of Earth Day, Wisconsin’s U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, usually recognized as the founder and father of Earth Day, told how and why the organizers came to pick April 22:

Senator Nelson chose the date in order to maximize participation on college campuses for what he conceived as an “environmental teach-in.” He determined the week of April 19–25 was the best bet; it did not fall during exams or spring breaks, did not conflict with religious holidays such as Easter or Passover, and was late enough in spring to have decent weather. More students were likely to be in class, and there would be less competition with other mid-week events—so he chose Wednesday, April 22.

In his own words, Nelson spoke of what he was trying to do:

After President Kennedy’s [conservation] tour, I still hoped for some idea that would thrust the environment into the political mainstream. Six years would pass before the idea that became Earth Day occurred to me while on a conservation speaking tour out West in the summer of 1969. At the time, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, called “teach-ins,” had spread to college campuses all across the nation. Suddenly, the idea occurred to me – why not organize a huge grassroots protest over what was happening to our environment?

I was satisfied that if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the political agenda. It was a big gamble, but worth a try.

At a conference in Seattle in September 1969, I announced that in the spring of 1970 there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment and invited everyone to participate. The wire services carried the story from coast to coast. The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air – and they did so with spectacular exuberance. For the next four months, two members of my Senate staff, Linda Billings and John Heritage, managed Earth Day affairs out of my Senate office.

Five months before Earth Day, on Sunday, November 30, 1969, The New York Times carried a lengthy article by Gladwin Hill reporting on the astonishing proliferation of environmental events:

“Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam…a national day of observance of environmental problems…is being planned for next spring…when a nationwide environmental ‘teach-in’…coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned….”

Nelson, a veteran of the U.S. armed services (Okinawa campaign), flag-waving ex-governor of Wisconsin (Sen. Joe McCarthy’s home state, but also the home of Aldo Leopold and birthplace of John Muir), was working to raise America’s consciousness and conscience about environmental issues.

Lenin on the environment? Think of the Aral Sea disaster, the horrible pollution from Soviet mines and mills, and the dreadful record of the Soviet Union on protecting any resource. Lenin believed in exploiting resources and leaving the spoils to rot in the sun, not conservation; in practice there was no environmental protection, but instead a war on nature, in the Soviet Union.

So, why are all these conservative denialists claiming, against history and politics, that Lenin’s birthday has anything to do with Earth Day?

Can you say “propaganda?” Can you say “political smear?”

2015 Resources and Good News:

2014 Resources and Good News:

2013 Resources and Good News:

Good information for 2012:

Good information from 2011:

Good information from 2010:

2014’s Wall of Shame:

2013 Wall of Shame:

Wall of Lenin’s Birthday Propaganda Shame from 2012:

Wall of Lenin’s Birthday Propaganda Shame from 2011:

Wall of Lenin’s Birthday Propaganda Shame from 2010:

Spread the word. Have you found someone spreading the hoax, claiming Earth Day honors Lenin instead? Give us the link in comments.


Close one: Turns out Obama’s not the antichrist

February 16, 2015

In case you were worried:

That appeared in the Lexington Dispatch, in Lexington, North Carolina.  Wish they had that paper at my newsstand.

Read the rest of this entry »


Best editorial quote ever: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” It must be so, it was in the New York Sun

December 23, 2014

“Papa says, ‘If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.'”

Do we, you and I in 2014, stand as witnesses to the end of newspapers in America?  In recent months we’ve seen body blows to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the San Diego Union, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and others.

It’s been a grand history. Newspapering gave us great leaders like Benjamin Franklin. Newspapering gave us wars, like the Spanish-American War. Newspapering gave us Charlie Brown, Ann Landers, the Yellow Kid, Jim Murray, Red Smith, Thomas Nast (and Santa Claus), the Federalist Papers, Watergate, Herblock, news of Vietnam and Pearl Harbor, Neil Armstrong on the Moon, the Pentagon Papers, and coupons to save money on laundry soap.

It’s been a curious history, too. An 1897 editorial vouching for Santa Claus rates as the most popular editorial of all time, according to the Newseum in Washington, D.C.  That’s 115 years ago, and that’s quite some staying power.

Francis Pharcellus Church, probably about 1860

The man who saved Christmas, at least for Virginia O’Hanlon, Francis Pharcellus Church, probably about 1860 – Wikipedia image

In autumn, 1897, 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon of 115 West 95th Street in New York, wrote to the New York Sun with this simple question:

“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

In the age of Yellow Journalism, the fiercely competitive Sun‘s editors turned the letter to Francis Pharcellus. He responded to little Virginia on September 21, 1897:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Church’s brother, William Conant Church, owned and published the newspaper. Both had followed their father into the news business. They co-founded The Army-Navy Journal in 1863, and went on to a series of journalistic collaborations. Francis was 58 years old when he answered Virginia’s letter. (He died at age 67, in 1906.)

The New York Sun held down the conservative corner in New York journalism at the time, versus the New York Times and the New York Herald-Tribune. But it also had an interesting history, to a blogger intrigued by hoaxes. In 1835 the paper published a series of six newspaper stories falsely attributed to Sir John Herschel, a well-known astronomer, claiming to describe a civilization on the Moon — the Great Moon Hoax. The discovery was credited to a new, very powerful telescope.

In 1844 the paper published a hoax written by Edgar Allen Poe, the Balloon Hoax. Under a pseudonym, Poe wrote that a gas balloon had crossed the Atlantic in three days.

The Sun also featured outstanding reporting. A 1947 and 1948 series about crime on the docks of New York City won a Pulitzer Prize for writer Malcolm Johnson. That series inspired Elia Kazan’s 1954 movie On the Waterfront starring Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb.

The New York Sun ceased publication in 1950.

For all of its history, the Sun and the Churches are most remembered for that defense of belief in Santa Claus.

Virginia O'Hanlon, about the age of 8

Virginia O’Hanlon, about the age of 8, when she wrote to The New York Sun’s editors to inquire about the veracity of the Santa Claus story.

Virginia O’Hanlon grew up, graduated from Hunter College, got a masters at Columbia, and earned a Ph.D. from Fordham Univeresity. She taught in the New York City Public School system, from which she retired in 1959. She died in 1971.

Birth of tradition

Columbia University was Church’s alma mater, as well as O’Hanlon’s. Her letter and his response get a reading each year at the Yule Log Ceremony at Columbia College, along with the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Animated, live-acting, and other television productions have been mounted in 1974, 1991, and 2009.

Is there a Santa Claus? Did Church write a credible defense? The text of the letter and answer, below the fold.

More:  

Read the rest of this entry »


Oh, look: EPA ordered DDT to be used to fight malaria in 1972!

October 29, 2014

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not start a “worldwide ban” on using DDT to fight malaria. EPA instead lifted a court imposed ban on use of the pesticide to fight disease.

At least a couple of times a week I run into someone who claims that environmentalists are evil people, led by Rachel Carson (who, they say, may be as evil as Stalin, Hitler and Mao put together), and that their hysteria-and-n0t-fact-based “worldwide ban” on DDT use led to tens of millions of people dying from malaria.

Each point of the rant is false.

air pollution control activities in the Four Corners area of the U.S., in the 1970s -- soon after the agency completed its hearings and rule making on the pesticide DDT.  EPA photo.

EPA Administrator William Rucklshaus during an airplane tour of air pollution control activities in the Four Corners area of the U.S., in the 1970s — soon after the agency completed its hearings and rule making on the pesticide DDT. EPA photo.

But lack of truth to claims doesn’t stop them from being made.

Serious students of history know better, of course.  Federal agencies, like EPA, cannot issue orders on science-based topics, without enough hard science behind the order to justify it.  That’s the rule given by courts, inscribed in law for all agencies in the Administrative Procedure Act (5 USC Chapter 5), and required of EPA specifically in the various laws delegating authority to EPA for clean air, clean water, toxics clean up, pesticides, etc.   Were an agency to issue a rule based on whim, the courts overturn it on the basis that it is “arbitrary and capricious.”  EPA’s 1972 ban on DDT use on certain crops was challenged in court, in fact — and the courts said the science behind the ban is sufficient.  None of that science has been found faulty, or the DDT manufacturers and users would have been back in court to get the EPA order overturned.

Reading the actual documents, you may discover something else, too:  Not only did the EPA order apply only to certain crop uses, not only was the order restricted to the jurisdiction of the EPA (which is to say, the U.S., and not Africa, Asia, nor any area outside U.S. jurisdiction), but the order in fact specifically overturned a previously-imposed court ruling that stopped DDT use to fight malaria.

That’s right: Bill Ruckelshaus ordered that use of DDT fight malaria is okay, in the U.S., or anywhere else in the world.

Quite the opposite of the claimed “worldwide ban on DDT to fight malaria,” it was, and is, an order to allow DDT to be used in any disease vector tussle.

How did the ranters miss that?

Here are the relevant clauses from the 1972 order, from a short order following a few pages of explanation and justification:

Administrator’s Order Regarding DDT

Order. Before the Environmental Protection Agency. In regard: Stevens Industries, Inc., et al. (Consolidated DDT Hearings). I.F.&R. Docket No. 83 et al.

In accordance with the foregoing opinion, findings and conclusions of law, use of DDT on cotton, beans (snap, lima and dry), peanuts, cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, tomatoes, fresh market corn, garlic, pimentos, in commercial greenhouses, for moth-proofing and control of bats and rodents are hereby canceled as of December 31, 1972.

Use of DDT for control of weevils on stored sweet potatoes, green peppers in the Del Marva Peninsula and cutworms on onions are canceled unless without 30 days users or registrants move to supplement the record in accordance with Part V of my opinion of today. In such event the order shall be stayed, pending the completion of the record, on terms and conditions set by the Hearing Examiner: Provided, That this stay may be dissolved if interested users or registrants do not present the required evidence in an expeditious fashion. At the conclusion of such proceedings, the issue of cancellation shall be resolved in accordance with my opinion today.

Cancellation for uses of DDT by public health officials in disease control programs and by USDA and the military for health quarantine and use in prescription drugs is lifted. [emphasis added]

In order to implement this decision no DDT shall be shipped in interstate commerce or within the District of Columbia or any American territory after December 31, 1972, unless its label bears in a prominent fashion in bold type and capital letters, in a manner satisfactory to the Pesticides Regulation Division, the following language:

  1. For use by and distribution to only U.S. Public Health Service Officials or for distribution by or on approval by the U.S. Public Health Service to other Health Service Officials for control of vector diseases;
  2. For use by and distribution to the USDA or Military for Health Quarantine Use;
  3. For use in the formulation for prescription drugs for controlling body lice;
  4. Or in drug; for use in controlling body lice – to be dispensed only by physicians. [emphasis added]

Use by or distribution to unauthorized users or use for a purpose not specified hereon or not in accordance with directions is disapproved by the Federal Government; This substance is harmful to the environment.

The Pesticides Regulation Division may require such other language as it considers appropriate.

This label may be adjusted to reflect the terms and conditions for shipment for use on green peppers in Del Marva, cutworms on onions, and weevils on sweet potatoes if a stay is in effect.

Dated: June 2, 1972

William D. Ruckelshaus

[FR Doc.72-10340 Filed 7-6-72; 8:50 am]
Federal Register, Vol. 37, No. 131 – Friday, July 7, 1972 pp. 13375-13376

Here is the entire order, in an image .pdf format.

More:


Peppered moths, evidence for natural selection and evolution

September 20, 2014

In 2007, as part of the continuing series explaining evolution and how it should be taught in public schools, I wrote this piece on the controversy over peppered moths as part of the basic information pages for this blog.  With modest edits, I repeat it here, both to re-emphasize the importance of the examples, and to make it easier for internet search engines to index the material.

Among creationists, in the past decade or so it has become popular to claim that much of evolution is less than sound science. In order to support that claim, specific points of evolution theory are often distorted, and specific evidence that strongly supports the theory are questioned and denied.

In a famous hoax, Jonathan Wells wrote a book, Icons of Evolution, in which he claimed ten popular stories about evolution were false.

Wells spent a chapter denying the work of H. B. Kettlewell — the famous peppered moth research, in which Kettlewell discovered a classic case of natural selection at work over a 150-year period in England. When air pollution darkened the bark of trees, peppered moths in industrialized areas with the darkened trunks, also darkened. Kettlewell ran several experiments to see whether predation by birds might be a driver of this selection event, and concluded that the lighter moths stood out on darkened tree bark, and that it was likely that predation by birds or other moth predators pushed the rise of the darker moths.

Kettlewell’s conclusions were spectacularly borne out when cleaner air lightened the trunks of the trees, and lighter moths reappeared. The selective pressure ran back toward lighter moths.

The two most common variants of the peppered moth, the one on the left showing how it got is name, and the one on the right showing the variant that became more common when air pollution darkened the bark on trees where the moth rests.  BBC image

The two most common variants of the peppered moth, the one on the left showing how it got is name, and the one on the right showing the variant that became more common when air pollution darkened the bark on trees where the moth rests. BBC image

Kettlewell’s research was groundbreaking in its pioneering of new ways to study evolution in the wild. But because he was at the cutting edge, questions arose about the exact nature of his conclusions. Kettlewell tried several different methods to count moth predation, finally settling on a system of release and recapture, and counting the moths that were not recaptured as casualties to the predator. Kettlewell released moths in the presence of English titmice, who promptly found moths colored wrongly to hide, and ate them. Tits are not the chief predators of these moths, some argue, and critics wondered whether Kettlewell could accurately conclude what the predator was. Ultimately, it has become clear that Kettlewell’s conclusions are accurate regardless the predator. Scientists like Majerus and Jerry Coyne — fierce rivals now, showing the unanimity of science support for Kettlewell’s conclusions across the spectrum of science views — urge more research to refine what we know about the moths.

Critics claimed some of the steps in some of the experiments as faulty, and extrapolated that the entire conclusions are faulty. In reality, because Kettlewell got similar results with different methods, his conclusions are more robust.

When I took Wells’ chapter on moths and tracked down the citations, I discovered that each person he cited disputed Wells’ conclusions — some quite violently.  The hoax, it turns out, is Wells’s claim that the story is false.

Over the past decade, while Wells and the Discovery Institute have continued their assault on science, some of the refutations of his work have fallen by the wayside.

In this page, I hope to preserve the arguments showing Wells’ work’s problems, and preserve some of the publications that have become difficult to find.

Creationism controversy in Pratt, Kansas

In 1999 the school board in Pratt, Kansas, considered biology curriculum and book changes. In what now appears to be practice for future fights, the Discovery Institute of Seattle, Washington, descended on Pratt with Jonathan Wells and others , urging the school board to dilute evolution in the curriculum or eliminate it, and using a variety of unusual arguments on the science to buttress their claims that the science of evolution was somehow in question.

Specifically, Wells introduced his claims on Kettlewell’s work. When they heard of the incident, some researchers scrambled to present the view of science. Bruce Grant of William and Mary College, and Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, wrote letters to the local newspaper, The Pratt Tribune, defending Kettlewell’s work and questioning Wells’ tactics and conclusions. Evolution is solid science, they said, and should be taught undiluted to students.

These letters were available on the internet at the time, but have recently become difficult to find. I reproduce them here:

Dr. Jerry Coyne is professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago.

The Pratt Tribune, December 06, 2000

Original:
http://www.pratttribune.com/archives/index.inn?loc=detail&doc=/2000/December/06-663-news91.txt Accessed in 2003

Jerry A. Coyne: Criticism of moth study no challenge to evolution

I have learned that the Pratt school board, apparently responding to creationist pressure, has recently revised its tenth-grade biology curriculum to include material that encourages students to question the theory of evolution. In reading the standards, I see that one of my articles – an article constantly misrepresented by creationists – is included as a supplementary reading used to cast doubt on evolution.

Dr. Jerry Coyne's Skeptic Trump card.  He is a professor at the University of Chicago.

Dr. Jerry Coyne’s Skeptic Trump card. He is a professor at the University of Chicago.

Except for a few creationist dissenters, the community of professional biologists has long accepted evolution as an essential theory supported by innumerable pieces of evidence. To make students think otherwise is as harmful as urging them to question the value of antibiotics because there are a few people who believe in spiritual healing.

My article appended to the Pratt standards is a re-evaluation of a classic evolutionary story in which rapid changes in the proportions of color forms of peppered moths occurred in only about 100 years. This evolutionary change is thought to be a response to air pollution, changes in the colors of trees, and increased bird predation. My only problem with the peppered-moth story is that I am not certain whether scientists have identified the precise agent causing the natural selection and evolutionary change. It may well be bird predators, but the experiments leave room for doubt.

Creationists such as Jonathan Wells claim that my criticism of these experiments casts strong doubt on Darwinism. But this characterization is false. All of us in the peppered moth debate agree that the moth story is a sound example of evolution produced by natural selection. My call for additional research on the moths has been wrongly characterized by creationists as revealing some fatal flaw in the theory of evolution.

In reality, the debate over what causes natural selection on moths is absolutely normal in our field. It is not uncommon for scientists to reexamine previous work and find it incomplete, or even wrong. This is the normal self-correcting mechanism of science. Textbook examples may be altered as additional data are found. Creationists, on the other hand, neither air their disagreements in public or admit that they were wrong. This is because their goal is not to achieve scientific truth, but to expel evolution from the public schools.

It is a classic creationist tactic (as exemplified in Wells’ book, “Icons of Evolution”) to assert that healthy scientific debate is really a sign that evolutionists are either committing fraud or buttressing a crumbling theory. In reality, evolution and natural selection are alive and well, with new supporting evidence arriving daily.

I strongly object to the use of my article by the Pratt school board to cast doubt on Darwinism. And I feel sorry for the students who are being misled by creationists into doubting one of the most vigorous and well-supported theories in biology.

Jerry A. Coyne
Professor of Ecology & Evolution
The University of Chicago

Dr. Bruce Grant was professor of biology at William and Mary University, now emeritus.

The Pratt Tribune, December 13, 2000
Original:
http://www.pratttribune.com/archives/index.inn?loc=detail&doc=/2000/December/13-653-news92.txt
Accessed 2003

Bruce Grant: Charges of fraud misleading

In recent weeks your newspaper has printed letters debating revisions in high school biology curricula. Some of the correspondents have leveled charges of fraud directed at evolutionists for attributing changes in the colors of peppered moths to natural selection. As I am one of the evolutionary biologists who study peppered moths, I feel obliged to comment. Charges of fraud cannot be left unchallenged.

Some background about peppered moths is necessary. The common form of this moth species is pale gray. About 150 years ago, a black specimen was discovered near an industrial city in England. Over the years, the black (melanic) form became ever more common as the pale form became rare. By 1900 the black form exceeded 90 percent in peppered moth populations throughout the industrialized regions of England. The phenomenon was dubbed industrial melanism.

Bruce Grant, Professor of Biology, Emeritus, College of William and Mary

Bruce Grant, Professor of Biology, Emeritus, College of William and Mary

Because people knew that birds eat insects, scientists as early as 1896 suspected that birds were eating the different color forms of peppered moths selectively based on their degree of conspicuousness in habitats variously blackened by industrial soot. Extensive experimental work supports this view, although questions remain. Other scientists proposed that moths responded to the presence of pollutants by developing darker body colors. We now know from genetic analysis that the colors of adult peppered moths are determined by genes; thus, the changes in the percentages of pale to black moths over generations reflect changes in the genetic makeup of moth populations.

As industrial practices have changed in many regions, we have observed black moths plummet from 90 percent to 10 percent in the just the past few decades. Once again, we have observed significant genetic changes occur in moth populations. Evolution is defined at the operational level as genetic change over time, so this is evolution. Of the several factors known to produce evolutionary change, only natural selection is consistent with the patterns of the changes we see occurring in moth populations. Evolution examined at this level is as well established as any fact in science.

We still have work to do. We do not all agree about the relative roles of contributing factors, such as the flow of genes between moth populations in different regions, the importance of lichens on trees, where on trees moths might hide from predators, how important is differential predation, and so on. As in any branch of science, participants endlessly debate interpretations. Such wrangling is the norm, and it stimulates additional research. That is how we make progress.

Our debates have never been secret. For recent overviews of the controversies, please see http://www.wm.edu/biology/melanism.pdf [now at http://bsgran.people.wm.edu/melanism.pdf] or www.els.net/elsonline/html/A0001788.html [ now http://mrw.interscience.wiley.com/emrw/9780470015902/els/article/a0001788/current/abstract, subscription required]. Yet, unwarranted charges of fraud, fakery and cover-ups repeatedly appear in letters printed in newspapers. In your paper, Ms. Katrina Rider “asserts” the peppered moth story is a hoax. She conveys the impression that dead moths were glued to trees as part of a conspiracy of deception. She seems unaware that moths were glued to trees in an experiment to assess the effect of the density (numbers) of moths on the foraging practices of birds. Taken out of the context of the purpose of the experiment, the procedure does sound ludicrous.

But, should we blame Ms. Rider for her outrage upon learning that moths were glued to trees? No. Instead, I blame Dr. Jonathan Wells, who wrote the article she cites as her source of information. While he has done no work on industrial melanism, he has written opinion about the work. To one outside the field, he passes as a scholar, complete with Ph.D. Unfortunately, Dr. Wells is intellectually dishonest. When I first encountered his attempts at journalism, I thought he might be a woefully deficient scholar because his critiques about peppered moth research were full of errors, but soon it became clear that he was intentionally distorting the literature in my field. He lavishly dresses his essays in quotations from experts (including some from me) which are generally taken out of context, and he systematically omits relevant details to make our conclusions seem ill founded, flawed, or fraudulent. Why does he do this? Is his goal to correct science through constructive criticism, or does he a have a different agenda? He never mentions creationism in any form. To be sure, he sticks to the scientific literature, but he misrepresents it. Perhaps it might be kinder to suggest that Wells is simply incompetent, but I think his errors are by intelligent design.

Bruce Grant
Professor of Biology
College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, Virginia

_____________

Update, September 2012: Creationists appear never to learn. The hoaxed “controversy” on peppered moths continued well after these exchanges back in 2000, which I collected when creationists tried to block science in textbooks in the great Texas State Board of Education Wars of 2003. Even after losing that fight, creationists continued to carp.

Publication of Of Moths and Men, nominally a history of Kettlewell and his experiments, revived the creationist claims of error — without evidence, as the author of the book noted, but since when have creationists ever changed course because of evidence?

In the midst of the flap, Michael Majerus went back to basics. He re-ran Kettlewell’s experiments, essentially. Of course, he discovered Kettlewell was right. I blogged about it earlier, but I failed to update this post. See these other posts at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:

Also, WordPress has improved since 2007; it finds relevant links, and related stories through Zemanta. I’ve added links above, and related articles below.

More, and Further Reading:


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