Home > Environment, Metablogging > Fabricated or recycled ?

Fabricated or recycled ?

February 13th, 2006

For reasons that aren’t clear to me, Tim Blair seems eager to remind everyone about an article on DDT by Miranda Devine in which virtually every significant statement was both easily checkable and obviously wrong. You can check, point by point and with extensive references at Wikipedia.[1]

In particular, Devine recycled an obviously bogus quote imputed to Rachel Carson, suggesting that we should learn to live with malarial mosquitoes. The quote had previously been published by Keith Lockitch of the Ayn Rand Institute in a piece in Murdoch’s Sun-Herald, and before that had been floating about the rightwing blogosphere in the manner of many such spurious “quotes”[2], commonly presented as a paraphrase. (The original source is a statement in which Carson wasn’t even talking about malaria, but about biological control in general).

In the process of tracking down the fraud, Tim Lambert and I briefly inferred that the shift from bogus paraphrase to bogus quote had been made by Devine rather than Lockitch, whose article was hard to find (Devine said it was in The Age). This minor (and quickly corrected) error is Blair’s great point.

Apparently, Blair believes that, if you read something in an opinion piece in the MSM, even something obviously self-serving and implausible, it’s OK to repeat it as fact without bothering to check. It’s startling to find this view being expressed by a journalist, but even more so by a blogger like Blair for whom factchecking the MSM is supposedly a core raison d’être.

The view that it’s OK to print defamatory allegations, as long as you lift them from another (unacknowledged) source, will come as news to the unfortunate Michael Warby, who lost his job at the IPA (scarcely the most pernickety of institutions when it comes to journalistic ethics) for just such an offence.

Still, Blair’s revival of the topic is a good occasion to reiterate the basic facts on DDT and malaria, and my Google rule of lazy journalism.

* DDT has never been banned in antimalarial use. The main reason for declining use of DDT as an antimalarial has been the development of resistance. Antimalarial uses have received specific exemptions from proposals to phase out DDT, until alternatives are developed. Bans on the use of DDT as an agricultural insecticide, promoted by Rachel Carson and others, have helped to slow the development of resistance, and therefore increased the effectiveness of DDT in antimalarial use.

After confidently spreading the DDT myth, then engaging in endless redefinition of the term “ban” to mean something other than “prohibit the use of”, most rightwing bloggers seem to have quietly conceded defeat on this one. But it never hurts to restate the facts.

fn1. I’ve made some minor edits to this article. None of them bear on points raised by Devine. In any case, what matters are the links to sources like USAID, which make it clear that claims about a ban on DDT are totally false.
fn2. “Quotes” in “quotes”! I like it.

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  1. Sinclair Davidson
    February 13th, 2006 at 18:54 | #1

    When pointing readers to the Wikipedia on DDT, shouldn’t you disclose that you have been a regular editor of that page? It’s hardly surprising the Wikipedia supports your view, when you youself wrote (much of) it?

  2. SJ
    February 13th, 2006 at 19:20 | #2

    There’s a subtle distinction, Sinkers. John didn’t say to just take Wikipedia as the authoritative source, he said “You can check, point by point and with extensive references at Wikipedia.”

    And you’re aware that other people are able to edit Wikipedia entries? And that out of the total of approximately 800 edits to the page, 7 belonged to John?

  3. SJ
    February 13th, 2006 at 19:28 | #3

    Sinclair Davidson Says:

    you youself wrote (much of) it

    The page has been there since 2002. John’s first edit was last month (14 Jan 2006). Without some additional supporting evidence from you, Sinkers, I’d have to conclude that you were just makin’ stuff up.

  4. SJ
    February 13th, 2006 at 20:09 | #4

    BTW, John, I think you may be misinterpreting Devine’s role. She’s not really there to provide opinion, she prints gossip.

    Yesterday’s piece on Sydney’s water fiasco was fact filled and to the point. I don’t believe for a minute that she wrote it herself, she’s just massaged something that someone fed to her.

    The quality of Devine’s finished article will always depend on the quality of the (anonymous) source. Sometimes it good, sometimes it’s rubbish.

  5. jquiggin
    February 13th, 2006 at 20:50 | #5

    Feel free to check the sources, Sinclair. If you think there’s an issue where Devine is right and the Wikipedia entry is wrong, point to it. Otherwise, if you can’t put up, shut up.

  6. Terje Petersen
    February 13th, 2006 at 21:01 | #6

    JQ, you seem much more hostile lately. Are you getting enough sleep?

  7. Terje Petersen
    February 13th, 2006 at 21:14 | #7

    Tim Blairs point does not seem to be about DDT in any way at all. It seems to be about the hostile way in which JQ implied that Miranda Devine had deliberately falsified a quote, when it seems that Miranda just made a mistake and trusted the wrong source. Tim Blair was just making a run of the mill ad hominem attack on JQ over style, not substance. Tim seems to object to the ad hominem attack that JQ launched against Miranda.

    A classic case of he said, she said.

  8. jquiggin
    February 13th, 2006 at 21:26 | #8

    “A classic case of he said, she said.”

    Remarkably postmodern of you, Terje. Some of us still think that claims are either true or false, and that with a bit of effort the two can be distinguished. Some of us go further and suggest that journalists are paid to make just such an effort.

  9. February 13th, 2006 at 22:35 | #9

    Maybe Tim Lame is also a fan of The WAiFS’ songwriting: Lies.

  10. February 13th, 2006 at 22:55 | #10

    A while back I wrote about Salman Rushdie’s excellent article in the SMH, and reproduced in here the whole lot (belated apologies to Terje for the length!). Definitely worth revisiting!

    And while I thought that was a very beautiful, outspoken and brave piece of writing, here’s a even more gutsy and polished one, a true masterclass: Pinter’s wise words of truth.

    Tools like Dubya, Blair (both the UK PM and the other lame1), hoWARd and all his apologists like Miranda DBlind, LooseBolt et al know perfectly well what they are all doing: its called Deceit.

    I don’t think they are just stupid or liars. Most probably they just honesty challenged when the end justifies their BS means.
    They should read Pinter, they might learn something!

    Art, Truth & Politics
    Harold Pinter – Nobel Lecture – © THE NOBEL FOUNDATION 2005
    http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/2005/pinter-lecture-e.html

    In 1958 I wrote the following:

    ‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.’

    I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?…

  11. February 13th, 2006 at 22:58 | #11

    Quiggin: “Tim Lambert and I briefly inferred that the shift from bogus paraphrase to bogus quote had been made by Devine …”

    Inferred? You didn’t infer nothin’, Professor. You wrote: “As Tim Lambert points out in comments, Devine has actually taken the critical step in the fabrication herself.”

    Interesting, too, that you think an outright claim of fakery is “minor”. I bet you wouldn’t think so if such a claim was made against you.

  12. February 13th, 2006 at 23:42 | #12

    …meanwhile, those withour honour continue to try and cloud the obvious with pathetic arguments and smoke and mirrors… so lame!

    Yet hoWARd’s biggest lie of all refuses to die and continues to drag us further into neverending shameful servitude of a corrupt empire in a “War without HONOUR”:

    PM: troops to stay in Iraq

    Australian troops could remain in Iraq beyond the expected withdrawal of the Japanese engineers they were sent to protect, Prime Minister John Howard says.

    Australia’s 460-member Al Muthanna Task Group is in southern Iraq protecting the Japanese contingent, thought to be returning home in May.

    Mr Howard said today he did not yet know when the Japanese engineers would leave Iraq, but hinted Australian troops might stay on in other roles.

    Mr Howard’s thoughts echoed those of new Defence Minister Brendan Nelson published in a Sunday newspaper interview.

    “We haven’t been told, although we are in regular discussions with the Japanese,” Mr Howard told the Nine Network today.

    “It should not be assumed that we would bring all of our forces home.

    “It may well be that the best thing for us to do is to remain and do other tasks in relation both to training and also maintaining security, essentially in the southern part of Iraq.”

    Labor has called for troops to be brought home at the end of their current deployment, suggesting the open chequebook approach was not working and the money could be better spent closer to home.

    But Mr Howard today ruled out setting any exit date: “This idea of setting an exit date irrespective of the circumstances is wrong and we’re not going to do that,” Mr Howard said.

    “I mean that is a shortsighted policy which is not based on leaving behind a long-term, secure situation in Iraq.”

    Mr Howard said he did not want to leave Australian troops in Iraq any longer than was necessary.

    But he would not commit to a policy which he said would leave the job unfinished and pass responsibility of completing it to one or two other countries.

    “I know that may not be a popular view and a lot of people will be critical of me,” he said. “But that is the view that I have and it is the view that I’ll be putting to my colleagues.”

    Opposition Defence spokesman Robert McClelland the government should instead be focusing on finding terrorist thugs in south-east Asia and enhancing regional security.

    “Australians have already footed a $1.2 billion bill on a war that has not made a single one of us any safer,” he said.

    “There is no reason why the current rotation of the Al Muthanna Task Group can’t be the last.”

    Mr McClelland said Dr Nelson should mark his arrival in the defence portfolio by telling his cabinet colleagues what former armed forces chief Peter Cosgrove acknowledged last year, that the presence of coalition troops in Iraq acts as a motivator for the insurgency.

    He said the confusion over when Australian troops would be coming home showed a lack of planning on the government’s behalf.

    “Competent military planning involves setting a clear mission and benchmarks for when that mission is achieved,” he said.

    “That has not happened in Iraq and there is a real risk we will simply be sucked along with the course of a very unpredictable conflict.” — AAP

  13. Merredin
    February 14th, 2006 at 01:44 | #13

    Whenever I read a comment like this about ddt and other unwisely used chemicals I am reminded of a comment by a (quite conservative) organic chemistry lecturer I had at uni. In short he said that DDT was a brilliant chemical (which in many ways it is), but it was the excessive way in which it was used and the belief that it was some mirracle chemical that was wrong (This is not an exact quote by the way as I was at uni 20 years ago… but it basically repeats what he said). Also, since then it has become clearer that DDT is not only a problem for the bald eagle (as it causes there eggs to thin), but is also a long term problem for us as it takes a long time to break down and hence remains in the environment and in us for a long time. This in turn can have health effects as is only beginning to be understood now.

    On a final point, it amazes me that writers can talk about pesticides without acknowledging just how good insects have been at evolving to them. Even my poorly educated (by modern standards) parents know this. They have told me that straight after the war (in Italy), these new chemicals arrived and did wonders to reduce the mosqito problems, but only in the short term. Within a few short years (according to them) the mozies were back with a vengence.

  14. jquiggin
    February 14th, 2006 at 05:53 | #14

    “Inferred? You didn’t infer nothin’, Professor.”

    Umm, Tim, maybe you should look up “infer” in the dictionary.

  15. Terje Petersen
    February 14th, 2006 at 06:37 | #15

    Remarkably postmodern of you, Terje. Some of us still think that claims are either true or false, and that with a bit of effort the two can be distinguished. Some of us go further and suggest that journalists are paid to make just such an effort.

    Let me see if I am any good at this TRUE or FALSE thing.

    Miranda attributed a quote to Rachel Carson. This attribution was FALSE. Rachel Carson did not say all the things that she was quoted as saying. Naughty, naught Miranda. Quite rightly it was pointed out by Quiggin and Co and she retracted the claim.

    John Quiggin and Co claimed that Miranda had deliberately (ie knowingly) fabricated the quote. But actually Miranda had used the Age newspaper as her source (ie media quoting media) rather than going to the source (Carlsons book), Any reasonable review of the circumstances would show that she did not set out to fabricate or mislead, she was just lazy. Claim of deliberate fabrication by John Quiggin and Co is hence FALSE.

    I don’t know why Tim Blair is racking over old coals. And I am not sure why JQ is giving it oxygen. Maybe he wants to tell us about DDT?

  16. Katz
    February 14th, 2006 at 07:41 | #16

    “But actually Miranda had used the Age newspaper as her source (ie media quoting media) rather than going to the source (Carlsons book), Any reasonable review of the circumstances would show that she did not set out to fabricate or mislead, she was just lazy.”

    And she compounded proof of that laziness by misattributing that misquote to the Melbourne Age. In fact, the misquote was first published in Australia in the Melbourne Sun.

    A professional who is under attack for misattribution would check and double-check her sources.

    Miranda didn’t. The woman has further undermined her own credibility.

    And in his misconceived attack on JQ Blair has provided a perfect opportunity to remind the world of the inadequaceis of Miranda Devine.

  17. jquiggin
    February 14th, 2006 at 08:00 | #17

    “Let me see if I am any good at this TRUE or FALSE thing.”

    Not too good, unfortunately. As Katz has noted, you got Devine’s source wrong. More significantly, the idea that it’s OK to recycle (without attribution or checking) quotes you found in an opinion piece somewhere is not generally accepted. As I mentioned, it’s one of the things that got Michael Warby sacked from the IPA.

    Moroever, Devine’s “retraction” compounded the initial offence, since she claimed that the quote was a paraphrase of Carson, which it was not: it was a bogus reading of a statement Carson had made that was unconnected with malaria or DDT, and referrred in general terms to the desirability of using biological control rather than relying on broad-spectrum application of pesticides.

    But, as you say, I’m happy to take the opportunity to remind everyone about the falsity of the DDT story propounded by Devine and many others in recent years.

  18. Peter2
    February 14th, 2006 at 08:50 | #18

    Oh come on people. What’s this thread about?

    Can we just say that Miranda, as a poor journalist, and lazy to boot, ending up telling lots of porkies. Whether or not these were intentional or not may be important to some, but it’s not worth bringing up the whole issue again to argue about such details, since most everyone agrees the article was a stinker, full of holes. Let it decompose in peace.

    Right. Glad we got that sorted.

    Now move along people, nothing to see here.

  19. Terje Petersen
    February 14th, 2006 at 08:50 | #19

    QUOTE: In fact, the misquote was first published in Australia in the Melbourne Sun.

    RESPONSE: That does not mean it was not published in the Age.

  20. Katz
    February 14th, 2006 at 08:55 | #20

    RESPONSE: That does not mean it was not published in the Age.

    Yes.

  21. Albert Newton
    February 14th, 2006 at 09:07 | #21

    “Umm, Tim, maybe you should look up “inferâ€? in the dictionary.”

    Tim has confused “inferred” with “implied”. It is a common error.

  22. February 14th, 2006 at 09:08 | #22

    Oh come on people. What’s this thread about?
    …it’s not worth bringing up the whole issue again to argue about such details, since most everyone agrees the article was a stinker, full of holes. Let it decompose in peace.
    ….Now move along people, nothing to see here.

    The problem, Peter, is that these “self evident truths” like “Greenies banned DDT so they’re responsible for millions of deaths in the third world” live on and get recycled. There are still people out there peddling this therefore the counter arguments still have to be recycled sometimes.

  23. Peter2
    February 14th, 2006 at 09:28 | #23

    The problem, Peter, is that these “self evident truths� like “Greenies banned DDT so they’re responsible for millions of deaths in the third world� live on and get recycled. There are still people out there peddling this therefore the counter arguments still have to be recycled sometimes.

    If that is the aim, then fine, but the thread has descended into a game of semantic nick-picking. Word games about inferring and implying and fabrication and journalistic sources.

  24. Hal9000
    February 14th, 2006 at 09:35 | #24

    Actually, I thought the thread was about Tim Blair’s accusation that Prof Q is a ‘loser’ because he falsely accused Divine of what she’s self-evidently guilty of – laziness, fabrication, selective quotation etc. (You really can’t say those things enough about Divine). So Tim, we may safely say, is an even more egregious offender, or to use his preferred language, LOSER. And that can’t be said often enough either.

  25. Katz
    February 14th, 2006 at 09:57 | #25

    “If that is the aim, then fine, but the thread has descended into a game of semantic nick-picking. Word games about inferring and implying and fabrication and journalistic sources.”

    This is just one small skirmish in the wider culture wars.

    The Right has gained the upper hand in recent years by having its lies accepted as the truth.

    The list is too long to allow exhaustiveness, but start with: Children Overboard, WMDs, Niger Uranium, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth …

    There are two broad counterattacks for the Left:

    1. expose the lies

    2. tell better lies

    In the US Bush will be punished for his lies, but too late. Ditto Blair. In Australia Howard still rides high. The problem is voters want to believe the lies. That signifies considerable skill on the part of the Right Wing fabricators.

    Devine, Bolt, Blair are mouthpieces of the Right in Australia. Howard invented a demographic for them: Howard’s Battlers.

    The Left still hasn’t found the means to undermine the influence of these Rightist mouthpieces over these “Battlers”.

    This is an extraordinary achievement because very recently these “Battlers” were habitually reflexively sympathetic to the Left.

    Interestingly, these Rightist mouthpieces parade the enmity of elites as a badge of honour, as if this were proof positive of the correctness of their positions.

    The Left therefore faces an uphill task winning back the reflexive sympathies of the “Battler” demographic, especially when the Left appears to be its own worst enemy.

  26. jquiggin
    February 14th, 2006 at 10:38 | #26

    Peter2, most threads descend into semantic nitpicking, not to mention meta-criticism like yours.

    What might be more constructive would be suggestions on better ways of refuting the DDT myht and similar falsehoods that seem to circulate both through the blogosphere and via opinion columns.

  27. Terje Petersen
    February 14th, 2006 at 10:48 | #27

    The Right has gained the upper hand in recent years by having its lies accepted as the truth.

    The list is too long to allow exhaustiveness, but start with: Children Overboard, WMDs, Niger Uranium, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth …

    Do you think that without “Children Overboard, WMDs, Niger Uranium, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” the right would be in retreat?

    I get tagged as right wing (due to my economic liberalism). I argued consistently before the Iraq War that WMD would not be found.

    Many voters know that they have been lied to. They have just decided to stick with the devil they know. I voted for a Latham led ALP government. I would not vote for a Beazley one.

  28. Katz
    February 14th, 2006 at 11:34 | #28

    “Do you think that without “Children Overboard, WMDs, Niger Uranium, Swift Boat Veterans for Truthâ€? the right would be in retreat?”

    You question is somewhat ambiguous. I’ll try to respond to both readings.

    1. If you mean “if the Right hadn’t concocted these lies”, then YES they would be in retreat because they wouldn’t have the necessary legitimacy to carry its policies. This is the predicament that Bush finds himself in at the moment. Politically, he’s pretty close to dead in the water, a political corpse.

    2. If you mean “if the Right’s depictions of these events had proven to be true” then NO, they may not be in retreat because their legitimacy as representatives of a decent, civil society would not be under attack.

    3. If you mean that “if these events never became a matter for public debate” then MAYBE, many people might have accepted naked self-interest as a sufficient justification for toppling Saddam, preventing the arrival of Boat People, etc.

  29. Chris Dodds
    February 14th, 2006 at 15:55 | #29

    The fundamental mistake in this article is the assumption that Miranda Devine is a journalist. Nothing of hers that I have read has lead me to that conclusion.

  30. Paul Kelly from News Ltd
    February 14th, 2006 at 21:16 | #30

    Yes, poor Tim confuses infer with imply, the poor fellow. Lucky the Bulletin employs sub-editors.

  31. Peter Evans
    February 14th, 2006 at 22:47 | #31

    I’m very sympathetic to what Katz has said, but I think there may be a tail and dog wagging problem here. I suppose, broadly speaking, you could summarise the success of the “right” (in quotes because they are mostly neither conservative nor status quo, but do represent large private wealth accumulating enterprises) is due to the following maxim: you can get away with lies if it’s what the people want to hear – and they’ll appreciate you for it even if in their guts they know its bull. I don’t think that has always been the case to the extent it is now, and what makes it possible now. Has idealism been eroded by 60 years of more-or-less econominc good times? Is life more complex and overwhelming for most folks now to care much in the abstract, or was it ever thus? I dunno. So who’s wagging whom – the pollies or the people?

  32. Terje Petersen
    February 15th, 2006 at 05:34 | #32

    The fundamental mistake in this article is the assumption that Miranda Devine is a journalist.

    Articles written by Miranda Devine are typically published in the Opinon section of the newspaper. I don’t think I have ever seen her published outside that section, but I could be mistaken.

    I would expect an opinon writer (like any writer) to still be subject to criticism for getting stuff wrong.

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