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Pearson discovers DDT

January 24th, 2004

This piece by Christopher Pearson in today’s Oz, denouncing green opposition to DDT, encapsulates everything that’s wrong with Australia’s right-wing commentariat. Not only is almost everything in the article either false or grossly misleading, but it’s a fourth-hand recycling of points that have been flogged to death in the blogosphere.

Pearson’s source is an article in Quadrant, which in turn relies on such authorities as Bjorn Lomborg, Michael Crichton and junkscience.com (Steven Milloy), none of whom have any scientific qualifications more advanced than Milloy’s master’s degree in health sciences, and none of whom have done any research on this topic.

Having accused the green movement of being responsible for millions of deaths as a result of DDT, Pearson’s sources come up with three specific claims.

First that the ban on agricultural use of DDT in the US was unjustified by the health risks. Whether or not this is true, widespread agricultural use of DDT was a major contributor to the rapid increase in resistance that rendered anti-malarial use of DDT largely ineffective in many countries. Illegal agricultural use is still a major problem.

Second, that Greenpeace is campaigning to close the factory in India that is the sole source of DDT. Greenpeace’s official position, easily discovered is that it supports a phase-out of DDT, and its replacement by safer, but more costly substitutes, to be funded by industrialised countries. More precisely

Financial and administrative mechanisms be included in the UNEP POPs treaty to assist less industrialised countries eliminate DDT production and use

Third, that aid agencies in Scandinavia refused to fund programs using DDT. This claim isn’t supported in enough detail to check it, but it’s scarcely much of a basis for alleging a global conspiracy, especially since there are equally effective and safe, but more expensive, substitutes which the Scandinavians may well have preferred to fund.

I’ve written more on DDT, indicating just how thoroughly Pearson is engaged in recycling, and how fundamentally the case he presents is undermined by consideration of resistance.

Meanwhile, shouldn’t journalistic and magazine ethics be extended to include some kind of Google rule, prohibiting the publication of articles that can be replicated by less than an hour’s Googling, or at least the payment of more than an hour’s casual rates for such pieces.

Update Various commentators have pointed out that this kind of thing is not confined to the right wing of the commentariat. Still, the DDT story is a particularly egregious example. And I can put my hand on my heart and say I’ve never signed my name to a recycled piece like this. I do occasionally repeat myself, but that’s because not enough people listened the first time I said it.

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  1. January 24th, 2004 at 08:56 | #1

    recylcing is good for you (at least for pearson’s workload) I’d do it my self if I had his job

  2. January 24th, 2004 at 11:18 | #2

    true, a lot of commentators are bludging! they better look smart cos they’re run ragged by the best bloggers

  3. January 24th, 2004 at 12:05 | #3

    It’s amazing. The far right hates recycling, but they keep repeating the same tired old arguments, whle acting like they have discoverd the wheel.

  4. January 24th, 2004 at 17:13 | #4

    Its amazing how these right wing guys preach philosophy with the same passion as a extreme left winger.

  5. January 24th, 2004 at 18:15 | #5

    Why should right wing commentators be held to any higher standard than left wingers? This is a sound criticism of journalists in general, not specifically of right wingers.

  6. PK
    January 24th, 2004 at 19:04 | #6

    I agree with your comments about lazy journos.

    This is a bit snobby though : “none of whom have any scientific qualifications more advanced than Milloy’s master’s degree in health sciences, and none of whom have done any research on this topic.”

    By that reckoning, Einstein was not a credible authority on physics when he began publishing. He only had a teaching diploma and had conducted only thought-expirements.

  7. January 24th, 2004 at 20:14 | #7

    I propose an additional Google law: if it can be demonstrated within one hour’s Googling that a column or article is incorrect or misinformed, the writer forfeits payment for said article to the individual Googler.

    Hand over the cash, Phil, Alan, and Mike!

    And Margo may as well just surrender her entire annual salary.

  8. January 24th, 2004 at 20:21 | #8

    Oh, and considering the above, Professor, what might you say it encapsulates about Australia’s left-wing commentariat? That it not only recycles, but it recycles complete crap?

  9. Me No No
    January 24th, 2004 at 20:43 | #9

    I have a sneaking suspicion the smelly Blair would be handing back the odd arse-licking pay cheque as well.

  10. John
    January 24th, 2004 at 21:36 | #10

    PK, which one of Lomborg, Crichton and Milloy do you see as a budding Einstein?

    To be more serious, Einstein was not an authority when he first started publishing. No-one would then have quoted his opinions as if the fact that they were Einstein’sĀ opinions made any difference, though they might have quoted his arguemnts. The only difference is that Einstein became an authority – Lomborg, Crichton and Milloy will never do so.

  11. eric bloodaxe
    January 24th, 2004 at 22:54 | #11

    I didn’t know DDT was still being made!

    And as any fule noe the iraqis invented the wheel.

  12. PK
    January 24th, 2004 at 23:54 | #12

    John – it’s just an example. You’re taking the authority is truth position. Einstein wasn’t an authority, but his opinion was worth more than those who were at the time.

    The authority (or in this case qualification) is truth argument has a pretty dubious history.

    That you, and others in your camp, have to keep coming back to this point makes me suspect your factual basis is shaky.

    Pick up a copy of the Wizard of Oz sometime.

  13. Grant
    January 25th, 2004 at 12:21 | #13

    John,

    Your criticism of Pearson is interesting. Is there something radically new to report on the DDT issue? If not I assume that this item of yours is offering much the same criticism of Pearson’s piece as it would do for articles about GM crops and “global warming” (or, more currently, “climate change”) which also seem to repeat the same phrases as if having the intent to induce torpor in the reader.

    If an old established issue is still an issue why should someone not write about it?

    Looking at the works you reference, tracing back through your previous observations of course, whilst the style of the “balanced” and “junk science” pieces are very different, the conclusion seem pretty much the same. So if the science is junk for one it must be junk for the other. Perhaps you meant to comment on the writing style?

    The Greenpeace report referenced mentions “detectable levels” of various chemicals. They don’t report what the levels are. The original report from 1999, linked at the bottom of the page, seems not to be available.

    But I did find this using the internal (fairly useless) Google search on the Greenpeace web site.

    (Greenpeace)

    33) The Independent (London) December 3, 2000, Pg. 22, 639

    words, BANNED DDT ‘BEST HOPE FOR MALARIA’ BY: Alex Duval

    Smith BODY: GREENPEACE AND other global environment

    campaigners will this week take the drastic step of

    sanctioning the use of the notorious banned chemical DDT,

    after admitting that it remains the most effective tool for

    So, 3 years on I wonder what is happening? There seems to be remarkably little reported – except some recycling of the previous documents.

    From your comments should we assume that you support the concept of population control by natural methods, such as disease proliferation, and the right of multi-national chemical companies to influence the methods of such controls according to profit projections?

    If not, why have a go at a commentator commenting on a subject as a followup to another person’s piece a few days previously? Heck, if that becomes a target for criticism where does it leave blogging?

    Grant

  14. S Whiplash
    January 25th, 2004 at 18:58 | #14

    How Good Intentions Kill

    Dec 8, 2000

    BY BANNING THE USE OF DDT WOULD COST LIVES AND WEALTH IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD, SAYS ROGER BATE

    Since 1995 the United Nations Environment Programme has been negotiating a legal treaty under which a dozen chemicals will be eliminated or restricted by international agreement. The fifth and final negotiations, where the delegates are to decide on the final treaty text, take place in South Africa this week.

    The UNEP and its green supporters feel they are making the world a safer place by eliminating chemicals that they consider are not only dangerous and environmentally damaging but also unnecessary. However, for many people – mostly poor and living in developing countries – these good intentions are in effect a death sentence. DDT, the pesticide reviled by so many people throughout the world, is one of the 12 chemicals to be listed.

    DDT is safe and cheap – and it saves lives.

    http://www.malaria.org/

  15. January 25th, 2004 at 20:02 | #15

    Seen any plastic turkeys lately?

  16. TN
    January 27th, 2004 at 01:09 | #16

    John seems to think that, unless you possess at least a PhD, you are not a credible source.

    Where I work (a public research agency), the smart cookies get jobs straight after completing their honours or masters degrees. It is the relatively low intellectual achievers who need to spend another three or so years in university attempting to get more academic stripes on their shoulders so that employers will select them. Moreover, in my assessment researchers in my agency learn close to as much through on-the-job experience as those PhD graduates do on campus: in some respects less but in other respects more.

    Of course, other things constant, I’d rather have a PhD and a couple of journal articles than not. Even so, the point remains that one should be cautious before ascribing any great significance to high-level academic qualifications (or a lack thereof) when seeking to determine the veracity of particular pieces of research.

  17. January 28th, 2004 at 02:52 | #17

    I note that Einstein and Lomborg had rather different experiences of peer review.

  18. February 3rd, 2004 at 08:13 | #18

    Dr. Alan Lymbery has written a great responce to Pearson, posted on Ken Miles blog:

    http://kenethmiles.blogspot.com/2004_02_01_kenethmiles_archive.html#107570569615970184

  19. d
    February 3rd, 2004 at 11:56 | #19

    Attan’s nature medicine article explains how malarial resistance to ddt DOES NOT prevent it being useful in protecting huts that people live in. even resistant mosqities stay away from the huts.Quiggens line of argument is a red herring

  20. February 3rd, 2004 at 16:52 | #20

    d, the resistance point, is still very important. DDT loses it’s effectiveness over time, as resistance builds. It just doesn’t drop to zero.

  21. d
    February 4th, 2004 at 10:12 | #21

    Iain, are you referring to the fact that anti-Lomborg activists continue to claim his book wasn’t peer reviewed, when if you check with the publisher, Cambridge university Press, you find it was?

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