New junk science movie: “Not evil, just wrong”

August 16, 2009

I warned you about it earlierCrank science sites across the internet feature news of another cheap hit on Rachel Carson and science in movie form.

“Not Evil, Just Wrong” is slated for release on October 18. This is the film that tried to intrude on the Rachel Carson film earlier this year, but managed to to get booked only at an elementary school in Seattle, Washington — Rachel Carson Elementary, a green school where the kids showed more sense than the film makers by voting to name the school after the famous scientist-author.

The film is both evil and wrong.

Errors just in the trailer:

  1. Claims that Al Gore said sea levels will rise catastrophically, “in the very near future.”  Not in his movie, not in his writings or speeches.  Not true.  That’s a simple misstatement of what Gore said, and Gore had the science right.
  2. ” . . . [I]t wouldn’t be a bad thing for this Earth to warm up.  In fact, ice is the enemy of life.”  “Bad” in this case is a value judgment — global warming isn’t bad if you’re a weed, a zebra mussel, one of the malaria parasites, a pine bark beetle, any other tropical disease, or a sadist.  But significant warming as climatologists, physicists and others project, would be disastrous to agriculture, major cities in many parts of the world, sea coasts, and most people who don’t live in the Taklamakan or Sahara, and much of the life in the ocean.  Annual weather cycles within long-established ranges, is required for life much as we know it.  “No ice” is also an enemy of life.
  3. “They want to raise our taxes.”  No, that’s pure, uncomposted bovine excrement.
  4. “They want to close our factories.”  That’s more effluent from the anus of male bovines.
  5. The trailer notes the usual claim made by Gore opponents that industry cannot exist if it is clean, that industry requires that we poison the planet.  Were that true, we’d have a need to halt industry now, lest we become like the yeast in the beer vat, or the champagne bottle, manufacturing alcohol until the alcohol kills the yeast.  Our experience with Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, the Clean Air Acts and the Clean Water Act is that cleaning the environment produces economic growth, not the other way around.  A city choked in pollution dies.  Los Angeles didn’t suffer when the air got cleaner.  Pittsburgh’s clean air became a way to attract new industries to the city, before the steel industry there collapsed.  Cleaning Lake Erie didn’t hurt industry.  The claim made by the film is fatuous, alarmist, and morally corrupt.

    When the human health, human welfare, and environmental effects which could be expressed in dollar terms were added up for the entire 20-year period, the total benefits of Clean Air Act programs were estimated to range from about $6 trillion to about $50 trillion, with a mean estimate of about $22 trillion. These estimated benefits represent the estimated value Americans place on avoiding the dire air quality conditions and dramatic increases in illness and premature death which would have prevailed without the 1970 and 1977 Clean Air Act and its associated state and local programs. By comparison, the actual costs of achieving the pollution reductions observed over the 20 year period were $523 billion, a small fraction of the estimated monetary benefits.

  6. “Some of the environmental activists have not come to accept that the human is also part of the environment.”  Fatuous claim.  Environmentalists note that humans uniquely possess the ability to change climate on a global scale, intentionally, for the good or bad; environmentalists choose to advocate for actions that reduce diseases like malaria, cholera and asthma.  We don’t have to sacrifice a million people a year to malaria, in order to be industrial and productive.  We don’t have to kill 700,000 kids with malaria every year just to keep cars.
  7. “They want to go back to the Dark Ages and the Black Plague.”  No, that would be the film makers.  Environmentalists advocate reducing filth and ignorance both.  Ignorance and lack of ability to read, coupled with religious fanaticism, caused the strife known as “the Dark Ages.”  It’s not environmentalists who advocate an end to cheap public schools.
  8. The trailer shows a kid playing in the surf on a beach.  Of course, without the Clean Water Act and other attempts to keep the oceans clean, such play would be impossible.  That we can play again on American beaches is a tribute to the environmental movement, and reason enough to grant credence to claims of smart people like Al Gore and the scientists whose work he promotes.
  9. “I cannot believe that Al Gore has great regard for people, real people.”  So, this is a film promoting the views of crabby, misanthropic anal orifices who don’t know Al Gore at all?  Shame on them.  And, why should anyone want to see such a film?  If I want to see senseless acts of stupidity, I can rent a film by Quentin Tarantino and get some art with the stupidity.  [Update, November 23, 2009: This may be one of the most egregiously false charges of the film.  Gore, you recall, is the guy who put his political career and presidential ambitions on hold indefinitely when his son was seriously injured in an auto-pedestrian accident; Gore was willing to sacrifice all his political capital in order to get his son healed.  My first dealings directly with Gore came on the Organ Transplant bill.  Gore didn’t need a transplant, didn’t have need for one in his family, and had absolutely nothing to gain from advocacy for the life-saving procedure.  It was opposed by the chairman of his committee, by a majority of members of his own party in both Houses of Congress, by many in the medical establishment, by many in the pharmaceutical industry, and by President Reagan, who didn’t drop his threat to veto the bill until he signed it, as I recall.   Gore is a man of deep, human-centered principles.  Saying “I can’t believe Al Gore has great regard for real people” only demonstrates the vast ignorance and perhaps crippling animus of the speaker.]

That’s a whopper about every 15 seconds in the trailer — the film itself may make heads spin if it comes close to that pace of error.

Where have we seen this before?  Producers of the film claim as “contributors” some of the people they try to lampoon — people like Ed Begley, Jr., and NASA’s James E. Hansen, people who don’t agree in any way with the hysterical claims of the film, and people who, I wager, would be surprised to be listed as “contributors.”

It’s easy to suppose these producers used the same ambush-the-scientist technique used earlier by the producers of the anti-science, anti-Darwin film “Expelled!

Here, see the hysteria, error and alarmism for yourself:

Ann McElhinney is one of the film’s producers.  Her past work includes other films against protecting environment and films for mining companies.  She appears to be affiliated with junk science purveyors at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an astro-turf organization in Washington, D.C., for whom she flacked earlier this year (video from Desmogblog):

Remember, too, that this film is already known to have gross inaccuracies about Rachel Carson and DDT, stuff that high school kids could get right easily.

Anyone have details on McElhinney and her colleague, Phelim McAlee?

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The article the British Chiropractic Association hopes you will not read

July 31, 2009

Science-based Medicine carried this article yesterday, and several other blogs have joined in.  Below is the article Simon Singh wrote for which he is being sued for libel by the professional association for British chiropractors.  It’s a good cause, so I’ll stretch it another little while.

Science-based Medicine introduced the article with this:

Last year Simon Singh wrote a piece for the Guardian that was critical of the modern practice of chiropractic. The core of his complaint was that chiropractors provide services and make claims that are not adequately backed by evidence – they are not evidence-based practitioners. In response to his criticism the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) sued Simon personally for libel. They refused offers to publish a rebuttal to his criticism, or to provide the evidence Simon said was lacking. After they were further criticized for this, the BCA eventually produced an anemic list of studies purported to support the questionable treatments, but really just demonstrating the truth of Simon’s criticism (as I discuss at length here).

In England suing for libel is an effective strategy for silencing critics. The burden of proof is on the one accused (guilty until proven innnocent) and the costs are ruinous. Simon has persisted, however, at great personal expense.

This is an issue of vital importance to science-based medicine. A very necessary feature of science is public debate and criticism – absolute transparency.This is also not an isolated incident. Some in the alternative medicine community are attempting to assert that criticism is unprofessional, and they have used accusations of both unprofessionalism and libel as a method of silencing criticism of their claims and practices. This has happened to David Colquhoun and Ben Goldacre, and others less prominent but who have communicated to me directly attempts at silencing their criticism.

This behavior is intolerable and is itself unprofessional, an assault on academic freedom and free speech, and anathema to science as science is dependent upon open and vigorous critical debate.

What those who will attempt to silence their critics through this type of bullying must understand is that such attempts will only result in the magnification of the criticism by several orders of magnitude. That is why we are reproducing Simon Singh’s original article (with a couple of minor alterations) on this site and many others. Enjoy.

Here it is:

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all but research suggests chiropractic therapy can be lethal

Simon Singh
The Guardian, Original version published Saturday April 19 2008
Edited version published July 29, 2009

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.


Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

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India accepts climate junk science; U.S. suffers

July 25, 2009

It would be good news were it not so bad:  India, usually considered a threat to U.S. dominance in science, has turned its back on climate science and instead, citing junk science claims, rejected overtures to reduce pollution that affects climate.  India appears to have fallen victim to the hoaxters who claim climate change is no big deal.

From the Financial Times:

A split between rich and poor nations in the run-up to climate-change talks widened on Thursday.

India rejected key scientific findings on global warming, while the European Union called for more action by developing states on greenhouse gas emissions.

Jairam Ramesh, the Indian environment minister, accused the developed world of needlessly raising alarm over melting Himalayan glaciers.

He dismissed scientists’ predictions that Himalayan glaciers might disappear within 40 years as a result of global warming.

“We have to get out of the preconceived notion, which is based on western media, and invest our scientific research and other capacities to study Himalayan atmosphere,” he said.

As if the atmosphere of the Himalayan range is unaffected by emissions from Europe or Asia.  As if the glaciers in the Himalayas, and the snowfall,  and the water to India’s great rivers, come independent from the rest of the world.

Deadly air pollution obscures the India Gate, New Delhi, India, November 2008 - NowPublic.com

Deadly air pollution obscures the India Gate, New Delhi, India, November 2008 - NowPublic.com

It’s interesting to see these issues play out politically.   India and China both understand that the U.S. and Europe have much more to lose from climate change than either of those nations.  Climate damage to the U.S. wheat belt, for example, would chiefly close off U.S. production of wheat for export, opening markets for others — like India and China.  Critically, such damage also hurts U.S. ability to offset balance of payments issues, providing economic and finance advantages to China’s banks.  U.S. ports are much more vulnerable to climate change damage, from increase storms and changing ocean levels, than are ports in India and China — and there are more ports that are vulnerable in the U.S. and Europe.

India’s inaction and recalcitrance should not be used as justification for the U.S. to do nothing, thereby slitting its own patriotic throat.

But watch:  Climate denialist blogs, “hate-America-first” outlets like World Net Daily, and Osama bin Laden will hail India’s inaction.

Let’s hope cooler heads prevail, lest we run out of cooler heads.

Shake of the old scrub brush to Brown Hell and Watt’s Up With That.

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Hoax exposed: “The Great Global Warming Swindle’s” swindle

July 14, 2009

Nicely done, too, I think; this is one more alarm bell to tell us why there will be no Nobel Peace Prize for global warming deniers.

From the same guy who so brilliantly brings us the Global Warming Crock of the Week:

Tip of the old scrub brush to Tim Lambert at Deltoid.


Encore post: Rebutting junk science, “100 things to know about DDT” point #6 (the “500 million saved” or “500 million died” errors)

June 22, 2009

Encore post — originally posted in August 2007.  Another in a continuing series, showing the errors in JunkScience.com’s list of “100 things you should know about DDT.” (No, these are not in order.)  In the summer of 2009, the denialists have trotted this error out again.

Steven Milloy and the ghost of entomologist J. Gordon Edwards listed this as point six in their list of “100 things you should know about DDT “[did Edwards really have anything to do with the list before he died?]:

6. “To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT… In little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million human deaths, due to malaria, that otherwise would have been inevitable.”

[National Academy of Sciences, Committee on Research in the Life Sciences of the Committee on Science and Public Policy. 1970. The Life Sciences; Recent Progress and Application to Human Affairs; The World of Biological Research; Requirements for the Future.]

In contrast to their citation for the Sweeney hearing record, which leads one away from the actual hearing record, for this citation, the publication actually exists, though it is no longer available in print. It’s available on-line, in an easily searchable format. [I urge you to check these sources out for yourself; I won’t jive you, but you should see for yourself how the critics of Rachel Carson and WHO distort the data — I think you’ll be concerned, if not outraged.] The quote, though troubled by the tell-tale ellipses of the science liar, is accurately stated so far as it goes.

The problems? It’s only part of the story as told in that publication.  The National Academy of Science calls for DDT to be replaced in that book; NAS is NOT calling for a rollback of any ban, nor is NAS defending DDT against the claims of harm. The book documents and agrees with the harms Rachel Carson wrote about eight years earlier.

Sign at the National Academy of Sciences building, Washington, D.C.

Sign at the National Academy of Sciences building, Washington, D.C.

Milloy (and Edwards, he claims), are trying to make a case that the National Academy of Sciences, one of the more reputable and authoritative groups of distinguished scientists in the world, thinks that DDT is just dandy, in contrast to the views of Rachel Carson and environmentalists (who are always cast as stupid and venal in Milloy’s accounts) who asked that DDT use be reduced to save eagles, robins and other songbirds, fish, and other wildlife, and to keep DDT useful against malaria.

First, there is no way that a ban on DDT could have been responsible for 500 million deaths due to malaria.  Calculate it yourself, the mathematics are simply impossible: At about 1 million deaths per year, if we assume DDT could have prevented all of the deaths (which is not so), and had we assumed usage started in 1939 instead of 1946 (a spot of 7 years and 7 million deaths), we would have 69 million deaths prevented by 2008. As best I can determine, the 500 million death figure is a misreading from an early WHO report that noted about 500 million people are annually exposed to malaria, I’m guessing a bit at that conclusion — that’s the nicest way to attribute it to simple error and not malicious lie. It was 500 million exposures to malaria, not 500 million deaths. It’s unfortunate that this erroneous figure found its way into a publication of the NAS — I suppose it’s the proof that anyone can err.

This error, “500 million deaths,” crops up in several publications after it was originally made near the end of the 1960s; honest researchers would get a good copy editor who would do the math and realize that 500 million people would not have died from malaria had there been no control at all, since 1939, when DDT was discovered to have insecticidal properties. Were Milloy and Edwards making a good faith case, I’d excuse it; but Edwards was a scientist and should have known better, Milloy has been spreading this falsehood long enough he could not fail to know better.

But the actual publication from the National Academy of Sciences suggests other issues that JunkScience.com would rather you not know about.

Importantly and specifically, the National Academy of Sciences is calling for broad research 1.) to avoid the problems that DDT presented (problems which Junk Science denies exist), and 2.) to combat the continuing evolution of the insect pests (evolution which Junk Science also denies), and 3.) to provide insecticides that hit specific targets to avoid the collateral damage of harming helpful insects, other animals and especially predators of the harmful insects (more problems that Junk Science pretends do not exist).

Three pages carry references to DDT in the book, The Life Sciences: Recent Progress and Application to Human Affairs — The World of Biological Research Requirements for the Future (National Academy of Sciences, 1970). This was a study of the state of science in several areas, with a survey of places particularly ripe for research considering human needs in the world. It was a sort of road map of where governments and other funders of research should spend their research monies in order to have the greatest beneficial effects.

The book suggests the need for extensive funding for research in biology over the following decade or two, or four. Were Milloy and Edwards correct that DDT was the panacea lifesaver, one might wonder why DDT was included in the book at all except to note a great success that precludes need for further research. That’s not what the book says at all.

Among the chief recommendations, NAS said research had to focus on rapidly biodegradable, closely targeted chemical pesticides to replace the DDT-style, long-lived, broad spectrum pesticides. NAS recognized the environmental dangers of DDT first and foremost in the introduction and statement of key recommendations:

It is imperative that new, degradable insecticides and pesticides with highly specific actions be devised and that their ecological consequences be understood, as it is imperative that the full ecological impact of the existing armamentarium of such agents be evaluated. Classical dose responses, evaluated only in terms of mortality or morbidity statistics, will not suffice; such data also must include an assessment in terms of modern knowledge of cell physiology, metabolism, and cytogenetics. [see page 11 of the book.]

These are exactly the things Milloy and Edwards ignore. This is a warning that simple toxicity tests on humans are not enough — pesticides need to be tested for downstream effects. That is what Rachel Carson called for in Silent Spring, research to understand the full effects of chemicals we use in the wild. This recommendation from NAS fully recognizes that chemicals like DDT, while they may offer significant benefits, can at the same time be significantly dangerous and damaging.

From the general introduction, the NAS authors point to three specific DDT-related issues. In general, the NAS view of DDT can be summarized like this: ‘DDT produced some great benefits fighting harmful insects, but its benefits need to be balanced against its great dangers and great potential for long-term damage. DDT is the poster child for beneficial chemicals that are also hazardous. We need to understand all the dangers as well as some of the benefits, in order to make wise decisions on chemical use. In the interim, where we have gaps in our knowledge, we should be careful.’

By carefully selecting only part of a statement by the NAS in one of the three areas of research, and leaving out all the qualifying statements, Milloy and the late Edwards misrepresent what NAS said. NAS was not calling for greater use of DDT. NAS was not calling for continued use of DDT. NAS was not criticizing any of the bans on DDT usage. NAS was saying we don’t know how great is the danger from DDT, and more study is needed; and use of DDT must be restricted in the interim.

Excerpt 1: Crop research

Increase research in rotating crops, herbicides and pesticides: In a section mentioning the need for alternative treatments, and commending organic methods of farming, on page 182 NAS notes the efficacy of crop rotation, and then talks about the need to have several different tools available to get rid of weeds and insect pests.

Similarly, recognition of the insecticidal properties of DDT in 1939, initially used against insects directly injurious to man, indicated the intelligent application of understanding of insect physiology, entomology, pharmacology, and the arts of the organic chemist could prevent crop destruction by insects. To date, the use of 2,4-D has increased yearly even though it has been replaced in part, and DDT is being withdrawn because of concern for its potentially adverse effects on man, transfer to the general environment, prolonged persistence, destruction of beneficial insects and possibly other wildlife, and stimulation of resistance in the target insects. These are now matters of broad general concern, and it is regrettable that public decisions must be made on the basis of our limited knowledge. But these compounds paved the way for modern agriculture. Without their equivalent, modern intensive agriculture is not possible, and, just as the continual breeding of new crop strains is imperative, so too is a continuing search for effective herbicides and pesticides, optimally with specific effects on offending organisms, degradable in the soil and nontoxic to man and animals. Attainment of these goals will require continuously increasing understanding of plant and insect physiology and life cycles.

Control of undesirable species by biological means is, in many ways, the most attractive possibility for future exploration. The notion is by no means new; attempts at such control began late in the nineteenth century. Indeed, some 650 species of beneficial insects have been deliberately introduced into the United States from overseas, of which perhaps 100 are established. These are now major factors in the control of aphids and a variety of scale insects and mealybugs. More recently, microbes and viruses have been considered for these purposes, a few of which are being used; for example, spores of the bacterium B. thuringiensis are used to control the cabbage looper and the alfalfa caterpillar. Some insects have been utilized for control of weeds — e.g., prickly pear in Australia and the Klamath weed in the western United States — while a combination of the cinnabar moth and the ragwort seed fly is required to keep down the population of the toxic range weed, the tansy ragwort.

There is no ringing endorsement for bringing back DDT, but rather a much more sophisticated understanding demonstrated that a variety of tools, some chemical and some living, need to brought to bear in agriculture and health — coupled with a clear understanding that non-beneficial effects need to be studied and understood, for all attempts to control pests for crops, and threats to humans. This is quite contrary to the general tone of Milloy’s and Edwards’s list, and far beyond the misleading snippet they offer.

Near the end of that first paragraph, the NAS call for pesticides that are pest specific, rapidly degradable once released, and nontoxic to humans and other beneficial creatures, targets and shoots directly at DDT, which is non-specific, long-lived in the soil, and toxic to almost everything.

That’s just the first of the three mentions of DDT.

Excerpt 2: Industrial technologies – Pesticide research

The second mention is in a discussion specific to pesticides. The NAS panel recommends research to find safe, short-lived alternatives that target specific pests. DDT is a long-lived toxin that has broad targets. This is a very long entry, but unlike the JunkScience.com guys, I think accuracy is more than one quote ripped out of context; in context, you see that NAS is not defending DDT as a safe, panacea against malaria.

I quote from the NAS publication at length, below; I want you to see that NAS is not contradicting Rachel Carson in any way; in fact, NAS is paying homage to Carson, adopting her calls to action in research and development, while updating the science which showed, in 1969, that Carson was right more than anyone could have known. Because it’s a long quote, I’ll put it in a different color, not boxing it where the formatting gets out of hand:

___________________________

From: The Life Sciences: Recent Progress and Application to Human Affairs — The World of Biological Research Requirements for the Future (National Academy of Sciences, 1970)

[Beginning on page 213]

Pesticides

As noted earlier, the properties of DDT and 2,4-D inaugurated a new era in management of our living resources and gave rise to a new industry. Each touched off a wave of research that continues to the present, seeking newer compounds that are species-specific, safe, and degradable. For the moment, the use of such compounds is indispensable; until superior means and materials are found, these compounds are essential to the success of our agriculture, while assisting in maintenance of our woodlands and protection of our health. It is the scale of this use, rather than their intrinsic toxicity, that has properly generated public concern over the effects of these chemicals on the public health. In 1966, total production of all pesticides in the U.S. was 1,012,598,000 pounds.

The rapid increase in use occurred because new pesticides have been developed that control hitherto uncontrolled pests, and broader use of pesticides in large-scale agriculture has increased crop yields significantly. Current trends in crop production involving large acreages, greater use of fertilizers, and intensive mechanized cultivation and harvesting offer particularly favorable opportunities for insect pests and would result in large crop losses to these pests unless control measures were applied.

The increased number of new pesticides in part reflects a second generation of pesticides with more appropriate persistence for economic control of specific pests, more complete control of the pest, less hazard for the applicator, or less hazardous residues on the crop. An additional impetus to the development of the pesticides comes from the fact that many insect pests have developed resistance to the older pesticides. The development of pest resistance does not necessarily entail the development of more dangerous pesticides; the new agent need only be chemically different to overcome resistance. The continuing search for new, more nearly ideal pesticides requires the joint effort of research teams composed of organic chemists, biochemists, pharmacologists, physiologists, entomologists, and botanists. The effort is managed much like the development of new drugs, each chemical entity being tested in a “screen” of a variety of insects.

About 73 percent of the total insecticide usage is in agriculture, and about 25 percent is used in urban areas by homeowners, industry, the military, and municipal authorities. The remaining 2 percent is applied to forest lands, grassland pasture, and on salt and fresh water for mosquito control. Over 50 percent of the insecticide used in agriculture is applied to cotton acreage alone.

When insect-control measures are not used in agriculture, insect pests take 10 to 50 percent of the crop, depending on local conditions. Losses of this magnitude are not readily tolerated in the United States in the face of a rapidly increasing population and a concomitant decrease in agricultural acreage. In this sense, the use of pesticides might be deemed essential at this time for the production and protection of an adequate food supply and an adequate supply of staple fiber. While alternative methods of pest control are under investigation and development, they are not yet ready to displace completely the chemical pesticides, and it appears that a pesticide industry will be required for some years to come.

Pesticides have been tremendously effective, but individual pesticides, like sulfa drugs and antibiotics, tend to lose their effectiveness as species resistance to them develops. Hence, there will be a continuing search for new pesticides as long as pesticides are considered to be required for the economy or the public health. This search will require the continuing participation of able biologists. As with drugs, new pesticides, optimally, should be selectively toxic for specific pests, rather than broadly toxic against a wide variety of pests with serious side-effects on nonpest species. Broad-spectrum pesticides affect an essential enzyme or system common to a wide variety of pests. A selective pesticide, on the other hand, either should affect an essential enzyme or system peculiar to a particular pest or should be applied in such a way that only the particular pest gains access to it.

An interesting example of a selective pesticide is the rodenticide norbormide, which is highly toxic for rats, particularly for the Norway rat. By contrast, the acute oral toxicity of norbormide for other species is much lower, the lethal dose for a great variety of birds and mammals, per kilogram of body weight, being more than 100 times greater. The mechanism of the selective toxic action of the norbormide for rats is not yet elucidated.

Achievement of target specificity requires a sophisticated knowledge of the anatomical, physiological, or biochemical peculiarities of the target pest as compared with other pests or vulnerable nonpests; a pesticide may then be developed that takes advantage of these peculiarities. This is obviously not easy to accomplish, and norbormide may prove to be unique for many years. An alternative is the introduction of a systemic pesticide into the host or preferred food of the target pest. Other pests or nonpests would not contact the pesticide unless they shared the same host or food supply. As an example, a suitable pesticide may be applied to the soil and imbibed by the root system of a plant on which the pest feeds. The pest feeding on the plant then receives a toxic dose. The application of attractants or repellents (for nontarget species) would increase the selectivity of the systemic pesticide. The use of systemic pesticides on plants used for food by humans or domestic animals poses an obvious residue problem.

There has been a strong public reaction against the continued use of pesticides on the grounds that such use poses a potential threat to the public health as well as being a hazard to wildlife. Careful investigations have so far failed to establish the magnitude of the threat to the public health; i.e., there are as yet few if any clear-cut instances of humans who have suffered injury clearly related to exposure to pesticides that have been used in the prescribed manner. Report No. 1379 of the 89th Congress (July 21, 1966)* concluded:

The testimony balanced the great benefits of disease control and food production against the risks of acute poisoning to applicators, occasional accidental food contamination and disruption of fish and wildlife. . . . The fact that no significant hazard has been detected to date does not constitute adequate proof that hazards will not be encountered in the future. No final answer is possible now, but we must proceed to get the answer. (Italics ours [NAS]).

Failure to establish such hazard does not mean that it does not exist. There are no living animals, including those in the Antarctic, that do not bear a body burden of DDT. Large fish kills and severe effects on bird populations have been demonstrated. The large-scale use of these agents has been practiced for less than two decades, and use has increased annually until this year (1969). Whereas the anticholinesterase compounds, which have high acute toxicity (and hence are highly hazardous to the applicator), are readily and rapidly degraded in nature, the halogenated hydrocarbons are not. With time, their concentration in the soil and in drainage basins, lakes, ponds and even the oceans must continue to increase, thereby assuring their buildup in plant and animal tissues. Over a sufficient time period, this is potentially disastrous. And should such a period pass without relief, the situation could not be reversed in less than a century. Because of the large economic benefit to the farmer, it is pointless to adjure him to be sparing; unless restrained by law, he will make his judgment in purely personal economics terms. But mankind badly needs the incremental food made possible by use of effective pesticides, and the enormous benefit to public health of greatly reducing the population of insects that are disease vectors is a self-evident boon to humanity. Thus it is imperative that alternative approaches to pest control be developed with all possible dispatch, while we learn to use available pesticides only where they are clearly necessary and desirable and to apply them in the minimal amounts adequate to the purpose.

A recent development in insect-pest control has been the possible use of juvenile hormone. This hormone, normally produced by insects and essential for their progress through the larval stages, must be absent from the insect eggs if the eggs are to undergo normal maturation. If juvenile hormone is applied to the eggs, it can either prevent hatching or result in the birth of immature and sterile offspring. There is evidence to suggest that juvenile hormone is much the same in different species of insects, and analogs have been prepared that are effective in killing many species of insects, both beneficial and destructive. There would, therefore, be great danger of upsetting the ecological balance if juvenile hormone were applied on a large scale.

What is needed, then, is development of chemical modifications of juvenile hormone that would act like juvenile hormone for specific pests but not for other insects. For example, a preparation from balsam fir, which appears to be such an analog, has been identified and is effective against a family of bugs that attack the cotton plant, but not against other species. If it proves possible to synthesize similar analogs specific for other pests, a new type of pesticide may emerge. If this happens, it will be extremely important to explore possible side-effects on other insect species and on warm-blooded animals before introduction of yet a new hazard into the biosphere.

We cannot rest with existing pesticides, both because of evolving resistance to specific compounds and because of the serious long-term threat posed by the halogenated hydrocarbons. While the search for new, reasonably safe pesticides continues, it is imperative that other avenues be explored. It is apparent that this exploration will be effective only if there is, simultaneously, ever-increasing understanding of the metabolism, physiology, and behavior of the unwanted organisms and of their roles in the precious ecosystems in which they and we dwell.

__________________

* U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Government Operations. Interagency Environmental Hazards Coordination, Pesticides and Public Policy (Senate Report 1379). Report of the Subcommittee on Reorganization and International Organizations (pursuant to S. R. 27, 88th Cong., as amended and extended by S. R. 288), 89th Cong., 2d sess., Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966.

________________________________

Anyone should be able to see from various parts of that excerpt that NAS was not defending DDT as harmless; that instead, NAS was saying that despite its great utility, DDT use needed to be extremely limited, and that substitutes for it needed to be found as quickly as possible — and then, the substitutes need to be researched to make sure they don’t have unintended bad effects, on other species, at other places, at other times.

Excerpt 3: The Great Hazards – Man and his environment

The third excerpt has the money quote — it contains an obvious error of fact, but an error that has been seized upon and trumpeted from one end of the world to the other: The 500 million dead miscalculation. Critics of environmental stewards like to trot this out, sometimes going so far as to accuse Carson and environmentalists of genocide, for the deaths of 500 million people that would have been prevented but for our concerns ‘for a few silly birds.’

I reiterate, the mathematics do not work. If we assumed 5 million deaths to malaria every year for the 20th century, we’d get 500 million deaths. Records indicate total deaths as high as 3 million in some years; since World War II, deaths have averaged about 1 million per year. So, even were it true that DDT bans unnecessarily caused all those deaths (and it’s not true), the total, between 1946 and 2006 would be about 50 million deaths. The “500 million deaths” figure is incorrect by a multiple of 10, at least, in addition to being absolutely in error historically. DDT never offered the realistic hope of eradicating malaria; by 1965, it was already failing where it was applied, and human institutional failures (not environmentalists) prevented its application in places where it might have helped.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) discusses hazards from chemistry and biochemistry, in one of its final chapters studying life sciences and their applications to human affairs. NAS authors write about the need to study causes of deaths and how to prevent them (including lung cancer and smoking), and there is discussion on the difficulty of getting clear answers to every question. In a section titled “Man and his environment,” NAS discusses environmental damage: Deforestation, pollution, and animal and plant extinctions. On page 430, there is an example given of supposedly beneficial chemicals turning toxic once released; DDT is the example:

Then NAS discusses DDT:

Large-scale use of pesticides can start a chain in which these substances concentrate in plant an animal tissues and, when ingested, accumulate in the adipose [fat] tissue of the human body. As an illustration of this process, consider the record of Clear Lake, California, where DDD (a breakdown product of DDT) entered the lake at 0.02 part per million (ppm). A year later, its concentration was 10 ppm in the plankton, 900 ppm in fish that eat the plankton, and 2,700 ppm in fish that eat fish that eat plankton. No data are available concerning people who ate such fish.

* * * * *

The effects of these changes in the environment on man himself are not known.

NAS notes that absence of proof of damage should not imply safety, and the article notes that small doses of pollutants, repeated over time, can cause serious health problems.

And then, on page 432, NAS discusses the harmful, latent effects of substances considered to be beneficial — using DDT as the example:

Until reliable evidence thus obtained becomes available, public health measures designed to minimize exposure to such pollutants are patently advisable. But surely a rule of reason should prevail. To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. It has contributed to the great increase in agricultural productivity, while sparing countless humanity from a host of diseases, most notably, perhaps, scrub typhus and malaria. Indeed, it is estimated that, in a little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million deaths due to malaria that would otherwise have been inevitable. Abandonment of this valuable insecticide should be undertaken only at such time and in such places as it is evident that the prospective gain to humanity exceeds the consequent losses. At this writing, all available substitutes for DDT are both more expensive per crop-year and decidedly more hazardous to those who manufacture and utilize them in crop treatment or for other, more general purposes.

The health problems engendered by undesirable contaminants of the environment may also be raised by substances that are intentionally ingested. Only large-scale, long-term epidemiological research will reveal whether the contraceptive pills, pain killers, sleeping pills, sweetener, and tranquilizers, now consumed on so great a scale, have any untoward long-range effects on their consumers.* Man has always been exposed to the hazards of his environment and it may well be that he has never been more safe than he is today in the developed nations. Food contamination is probably minimal as compared with that in any previous era, communal water supplies are cleaner, and, despite the smog problem, air is probably less polluted than in the era of soft coal or before central heating systems were the norm. Witness the fact that jungle dwelling natives of South America exhibit a considerably higher incidence of chromosomal aberrations in their somatic cells than does the American population. But modern man also increasingly exposes himself to the chemical products of his own technologies and has both the biological understanding to ascertain the extent of such hazards and the prospect of technological innovation to minimize them where they are demonstrated. To do less would be improvident and derelict.

__________________________

* This sentence was written in June 1969. Revelations of the untoward effects of both steroid contraceptives and cyclamates were made public months later.

__________________________

As presented by the “100 facts about DDT” list, all the qualifiers, warnings, and listed harms of DDT are left off. The numbers cited in the quoted section are in error, and considering that the NAS was calling for research into the harms of DDT, research to replace DDT with chemicals that were short-lived, more carefully targeted by species, and fully researched to avoid the collateral harms DDT caused, it seems dishonest to present that edited quote as an endorsement of DDT. It is no endorsement at all.

And so, it is dishonest to present the quote at all so grossly out of context.

Steven Milloy should strike #6 from his list of “100 things you should know about DDT.”

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Crankery under the microscope: Denialism as pathology

June 10, 2009

You can see it in this little-noted blog.  Someone drops by to tell me I’m in error, that Rachel Carson really did plot with Pol Pot to murder millions, and then they also show up in the creationism threads defending the view that dinosaurs never existed, or in a tangentially-related note on climate change, perhaps arguing that ocean levels rising are either not a problem, or the product of Atlantis’s rising from the depths (and therefore no problem, since the denizens of that city had better science than we do and will be able to fix things, never mind their being dead for 5,000 years).  [That last description is mostly fictional – mostly.]

What is it that makes one person deny reality on so many different fronts?

Mark Hoofnagle hit the research journals, listing results at denialism blog, demonstrating that crankery can be studied.  This raises in my mind the interesting little question of whether such crankery is a pathology, and perhaps treatable or curable.

Our recent discussions of HIV/AIDS denial and in particular Seth Kalichman’s book “Denying AIDS” has got me thinking more about the psychology of those who are susceptible to pseudoscientific belief. It’s an interesting topic, and Kalichman studies it briefly in his book mentioning the “suspicious minds”:

At its very core, denialism is deeply embedded in a sense of mistrust. Most obviously, we see suspicion in denialist conspiracy theories. Most conspiracy theories grow out of suspicions about corruptions in government, industry, science, and medicine, all working together in some grand sinister plot. Psychologically, suspicion is the central feature of paranoid personality, and it is not overreaching to say that some denialists demonstrate this extreme. Suspicious thinking can be understood as a filter through which the world is interpreted, where attention is driven towards those ideas and isolated anecdotes that confirm one’s preconceived notions of wrong doing. Suspicious thinkers are predisposed to see themselves as special or to hold some special knowledge. Psychotherapist David Shpairo in his classic book Neurotic Styles describes the suspicious thinker. Just as wee see in denialism, suspiciousness is not easily penetrated by facts or evidence that counter individuals’ preconceived worldview. Just as Shapiro describes in the suspicious personality, the denialist selectively attends to information that bolsters his or her own beliefs. Denialists exhibit suspicious thinking when they manipulate objective reality to fit within their beliefs. It is true that all people are prone to fit the world into their sense of reality, but the suspicious person distorts reality and does so with an uncommon rigidity. The parallel between the suspicious personality style and denialism is really quite compelling.

Go read it at denialism.

Denialism may be a little greater problem than is generally acknowledged, in my opinion.  When it infects policy makers it causes legislative and executive crackups, like Oklahoma’s Sen. Tom Coburn, who held up the naming of the Rachel Carson Post Office for a year under the bizarre misconception that she played a role in spreading malaria (ditto for Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, who shared the view but was unable to stop the bill in the House), or like the Bush administration officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development who kept refusing to authorize spending for pesticides in Africa, claiming environmental groups would oppose them while the environmental groups were lobbying the agency to spend the money on those pesticides.

Former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki denied that HIV causes AIDS.  Mbeki’s refusal to act on the best science available may have led to as many as 350,000 deaths, some accounts say.  Ashley Montagu told the story of Adolf Hitler’s odd views of heritage being spread by blood transfusions — to avoid any possibility of his soldiers’ being turned Jewish by a blood transfusion, Hitler forbade the use of blood banks.  Tens of thousands of German soldiers died unnecessarily from lack of blood for transfusing during World War II.  Partisans and scientists still debate whether  and how much Ronald Reagan’s belief that AIDS was a syndrome caused by sin rather than a virus early in the AIDS crisis created a cascade of actions that still frustrates the development of a vaccination or cure.

Denialism in high school students is interesting, but most often a classroom problem.  When kids take great issue with the course material the class can get derailed.  Even when a teacher is able to keep the class on track, the denialist student may feel marginalized.  A colleague reported a student had informed that historians now concur that George Washington was African-American.  She could not be dissuaded from the view.  I had a student who insisted well into the second semester than Adolf Hitler was a great leader, smart and humanitarian, framed for war crimes of the British and Americans.  Unfortunately, I could not put him in contact with the earlier student who believed Hitler had been framed by the Soviet Union, and that the Americans and British were victims of the cruel hoax.

As the nominal head of public relations in the old (Pleistocene?) office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, my crew and I got the brunt of denialists and crazies.  We had one woman in Salt Lake City, “Mrs. B,” who regularly called the Salt Lake office to complain about Hatch’s actions and what she assumed his beliefs must be.  For a while she complained that, as someone born outside of Utah, he could never appreciate the views of the Latter-day Saints in Utah.  When at last we persuaded her that he was also a Mormon, she began complaining that he ignored Utah’s non-Mormon population.  Her ability to switch sides in an argument so as always to remain on the opposite side of Sen. Hatch got noticed.

Near the end of a summer session just before the recess the Senate had a lot of late-night meetings.  The news of these sessions did not always make the morning papers.  On one issue of some Utah import, Hatch had suggested he would probably vote one way, because of some issue of agency direction that had him concerned.  In the end the agency agreed to amendments that assuaged all of Hatch’s concerns and he was happy to support the bill (I forget what it was — the issue is absolutely irrelevant to the story).

I had caught a late-night flight to Salt Lake, and arrived at the SLC office early enough to catch our Utah problem solver Jack Martin explaining to Mrs. B that Hatch did indeed care about Utah . . .   Jack and I could carry on a conversation with only his occasional remarks to Mrs. B keeping her going, a scene out of a Cary Grant comedy, perhaps.  “Yes, Mrs. B . . .  No, Mrs. B  . . . I think I see your point.”  What he said was unimportant.  I could hear her rant on the telephone, while I was on the other side of the room.  I finally asked Jack what her issue was, and he explained it was the bill that Hatch had reveresed his position on.  She was complaining at great length about his original position.  I explained to Jack that an accommodation had been reached and that Hatch changed his vote in the final tally.

Jack smiled broadly as he handed me the phone.  “You tell her!”  It took a long time to get her to stop talking so I could explain who I was and that I had new information.  Finally she fell silent and I explained that she should be happy because Hatch had come around to her position.  There was a silence of a few more seconds, and she started in again:  “Hatch is an idiot!  Only a fool would vote that way.”  And she was off again on a rant against Hatch, eviscerating the views that she herself had held less than a  minute earlier.

The issue wasn’t important to her.  Hatch was wrong, whatever he did, even when he supported her views.

That’s denialism in full force, a raw, unmitigated power of nature.

Hoofnagle concludes at denialism:

So what do these studies mean for our understanding of cranks? Well, in addition to providing explanations for crank magnetism, and cognitive deficits we see daily in our comments from cranks, it suggests the possibility that crankery and denialism may be preventable by better explanation of statistics. Much of what we’re dealing with is likely the development of shoddy intellectual shortcuts, and teaching people to avoid these shortcuts might go a long way towards the development and fixation on absurd conspiracy theories or paranormal beliefs.

Wouldn’t you love to see that study replicated on readers of Watt’s Up With That?, Texas Darlin’ , Junk Science, or one of the antivaxxer blogs?

You may also want to read:


Should the best high school students read Rachel Carson?

May 31, 2009

On the AP World History list-serv, a discussion on good books for a canon on 20th century stuff turned into a discussion on Rachel Carson, DDT and malaria.  That’s not the purpose of the list.

So, I offer this thread as a forum for that discussion, hoping some of the AP history teachers might participate.

Welcome, teachers!  Comments are open.


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