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Yet more zombies — Crooked Timber

November 7th, 2010

After finishing Zombie Economics, and confident that it would soar to the top of the best-seller lists, I had the idea of a franchise-style list of sequels – Vampire Econ (on the financial sector), Cyborg Econ (the market and the mixed economy) and so on. Now, though, I’m thinking I could spend a lifetime on the zombie ideas that dominate the political right.

One of the most tenacious has been the DDT myth, that the writings of Rachel Carson led to a global ban on the use of DDT[1], bringing to an end a program that was on the verge of eradicating malaria[2], and causing the death of millions[3]. I thought that Tim Lambert and I had finally administered the coup de grace with this piece in Prospect a while back, after which some of the leading promoters of the myth (such as [[Roger Bate]] and his [[Africa Fighting Malaria]] group) appeared to have given up and moved on to other projects.

But zombies are hard to kill, especially for such reliable sources of misinformation as Britain’s Channel Four. C4 has just run a documentary by Stewart Brand, entitled What the Green Movement Got Wrong in which the DDT myth was repeated in its full glory. Amusingly, Brand made the plea ‘I want to see an environment movement that can admit when it’s wrong’. When challenged by George Monbiot on his glaring errors of fact, Brand exhibited the familiar pattern of weasel words and blame-shifting, followed by silence.

Meanwhile, two of the AFM crew, Richard Tren and Donald Roberts have published a pro-DDT book. The Reuters report on the book says that it comes Six years after the insect killer DDT was globally outlawed on grounds of environmental damage. This is confusing to say the least, given that claims about the dire effects of the supposed ban were around long before this and that the same groups were celebrating the supposed reversal of the ban by WHO in 2006. Actually, both the Stockholm Convention which came into effect in 2004 and the “new” WHO position were little more than different spins on the long-standing consensus that DDT should be banned in agricultural use but retained in anti-malarial use until it can be replaced by cost-effective alternatives. The Reuters report notes that “Tren is a “free market lobbyist who has previously criticised tobacco control”.
Update The original version of this post referred to Richard Tren as a “tobacco lobbyist”. This claim was false. I withdraw it and apologise to Mr Tren.

fn1. DDT has never been banned in anti-malarial use
fn2. The attempt to eradicate malaria through DDT failed because of the development of resistance, long before environmentalist concerns about DDT
fn3. The DDT ban myth was largely popularised by the tobacco industry, seeking to pressure WHO out of anti-smoking campaigns in poor industry. Those pushing the myths are the active agents or unwitting dupes of an industry that has indeed killed millions

An even more durable zombie than the efficient markets hypothesis

Posted via email from John’s posterous

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  1. FMark
    November 7th, 2010 at 16:38 | #1

    fn3. The DDT ban myth was largely popularised by the tobacco industry, seeking to pressure WHO out of anti-smoking campaigns in poor industry. Those pushing the myths are the active agents or unwitting dupes of an industry that has indeed killed millions

    Maybe I’m a little thick, but why would anyone expect this tactic to work?

  2. jquiggin
    November 7th, 2010 at 17:02 | #2

    It has been surprisingly effective in creating trouble for WHO and even more so for the environment movement and for science. General anti-science propaganda and its acceptance by the political right helps to bolster resistance to restrictions on passive smoking.

    That worked pretty well for a fair while, as witness the fact that virtually every rightwing thinktank in the English-speaking world, along with legions of commentators and experts was on the tobacco drip, even when their core concerns appeared to be a long way from tobacco.

  3. robert (not from UK)
    November 7th, 2010 at 18:19 | #3

    For details of how the alleged “moral philosopher” Roger Scruton was exposed back in 2002 as a hired gun of Big Tobacco (an exposure that appears to have done his wider career no harm at all, it must be said), see here:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/scruton-sacked-by-second-newspaper-for-tobacco-links-659541.html

    To get sacked by one newspaper for being a shill might be a misfortune; to get sacked by two newspapers seems, as Lady Bracknell might have put it, like carelessness.

  4. Alice
    November 7th, 2010 at 21:22 | #4

    It seems to me the major mistake has been leaving too many profits in the hands of large corporations. They only put the excess to further advertising and lobbying for yet more freedom from regulation and perhaps speculation and self reward of executives. It is, in effect a takeover of a democratically elected government by stealth, backslapping and fraternisation. If these large firms can waste money on lobbying, thinktanks and peddling lies and spin using charlatans and “latest tasteless expert” television performers, they could simply pay more tax and heelp reduce the deficit.

    On a brighter note it would be nice to see some really positive initatives such as making bank executives pay for their excesses in the global financial crisis. Ive long marvelled at the paltry fines handed to execs for things like insider trading when its blatantly obvious the fine wouldnt even be 5% of their ill gotten gains – ie a parking fine as this article notes. Yes we do need jail terms and we do need stronger regulations – how about confiscation of the entire proceeds from insider trading, how about massive fines for collusion and jail terms? How about fines or jail terms for actively funding information like that disseminated by stink tanks designed to deliberately mislead people so as to support narrow vested profit interest groups?

    Bring it on.

    http://rwer.wordpress.com/2010/11/06/stiglitz-joins-galbraith-in-calling-for-criminal-prosecution-of-bankers/

  5. Monkey’s Uncle
    November 7th, 2010 at 22:15 | #5

    Alice :

    How about fines or jail terms for actively funding information like that disseminated by stink tanks designed to deliberately mislead people so as to support narrow vested profit interest groups?
    Bring it on.

    Well, I have a few minor quibbles with this, centred on a quaint notion called “freedom of speech”. In a free society, people have a right to express views, however factually inaccurate they may be or appear to be to critics, and no matter how much they may benefit interests one views as unworthy.

    Do you really want judges deciding what opinion is acceptable and what isn’t?

  6. Alice
    November 8th, 2010 at 06:54 | #6

    @Monkey’s Uncle
    No MU – I want judges deciding what is a corporate crime. I want legislators to decide an appropriate level of punishment for corporate crimes. Nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with living under the rule of law, not the rule of free markets as we have been. Did you actually read my link?

  7. Alice
    November 8th, 2010 at 07:00 | #7

    @Monkey’s Uncle
    Also MU – if you think the output of right wing stink tanks is free speech and opinion, worthy of protection, you are so far off the mark. This is not free spreech – its paid for by companies and solicited with money for the sole purpose of influencing and misleading others, as in the case of “professor Roger “unscrupulous” Scruton. This is false and misleading advertising not free speech which in my books is also a crime.

  8. Jim Birch
    November 8th, 2010 at 10:20 | #8

    MU: Do you think advertisers should have the right to free speech, ie, the ability to claim anything about products? That seems to be a consequence what you are arguing.

    Personally, I’d like to see a situation where all political advertising was subject to a significant tax – like 30% – where it can be shown that the opposing position is not being put to the public and used to achieve a more balanced public argument. We periodically see highly funded disinformation campaigns by special interest groups, eg, the mining tax, where the opposing position is minimally present. This would be a little difficult to devise and administer but it would radically improve the level of debate: if you put out a balanced cost/benefit argument for you position that’s ok – and free – but if you present a one-sided or emotional argument some one gets to demonstrate the holes in your argument. Freedom of speech implies access to the channel.

  9. Monkey’s Uncle
    November 8th, 2010 at 19:54 | #9

    Jim Birch :
    MU: Do you think advertisers should have the right to free speech, ie, the ability to claim anything about products? That seems to be a consequence what you are arguing.

    Not necessarily. But I think this misses the point. I am not suggesting that free speech should be absolute. A certain amount of limitations on free speech can sometimes be necessary and beneficial to society. I am not one to argue that freedom of speech extends to shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre.

    But while a small amount of limitations on free speech may be necessary, these limitations should be kept to a minimum. The logic of your position seems to be that because we limit free speech in some areas, it does not matter if we extend those limitations somewhat. While some limitations are necessary, extending those limitations too much is dangerous.

    I think it is a bit of a stretch to compare misleading advertising with sponsoring scholarship and research or opinion that is more sympathetic to a certain cause. Misleading advertising is usually restricted because it is seen largely as a commercial issue, rather than about promoting ideas and opinions in themselves. Funding scholarship, research or advocacy opinion is a somewhat different kettle of fish, and restricting this borders too much on censoring intellectual and academic freedom.

  10. gregh
    November 8th, 2010 at 20:09 | #10

    Monkey’s Uncle :


    Well, I have a few minor quibbles with this, centred on a quaint notion called “freedom of speech”. In a free society, people have a right to express views, however factually inaccurate they may be or appear to be to critics, and no matter how much they may benefit interests one views as unworthy.
    Do you really want judges deciding what opinion is acceptable and what isn’t?

    I am very sympathetic with the idea that people have equal opportunity to express their views. However this is not possible under any system that in large part determines access to audiences through personal attributes such as wealth or social connections. Two obvious solutions are – external controls over expression (through the state apparatus) or constraints on the mechanisms that allow privileged access. Or a mix of the two

  11. Monkey’s Uncle
    November 8th, 2010 at 20:35 | #11

    Gregh, this all boils down to a simple problem. If you push things far enough, there will always be a fundamental conflict between “freedom” and “equality”. It seems many here want ‘rationed expression’ or ‘regulated speech’ rather than free speech.

    Of course any freedom is not always going to be equally shared and enjoyed. An able-bodied person will have a much greater ability to engage in exercise and various activities than one who is paralysed. Should we break the able-bodied person’s legs in order to create a more level playing field?

  12. Alice
    November 8th, 2010 at 21:17 | #12

    @Monkey’s Uncle
    Mechanisms like wealth or priviledge that alllow some to abuse that priviledge to bring misinformation and potential harm to other human beings should at least have their legs broken MU.

  13. Alice
    November 8th, 2010 at 21:18 | #13

    oh dear a dyslexic spelling error..

  14. Fran Barlow
    November 8th, 2010 at 21:46 | #14

    @Alice

    In theory, it would be nice if one could legislate for “good faith” claims but I see no means of ensuring compliance. Regrettably, the right to comment on public policy freely comes only within a package that allows some to lie outrageously in their own interests. One would not want the courts involved in settling what was and was not fair comment in public policy.

    That said, I imagine it might be possible to declare corporations liable to damages if they make or repeat fundamentally misleading claims about science realting to their interests. Thus, if some corporate employee or agent claims that a scientific study shows “A” when it shows “not A” and relying on “A” leads to a public policy that harms some group measurably then the corporation or its employee can be liable in tort and suffer punitive damages. Perhaps, in a way similar to the Sex Offenders Register, there could be an Egregious Liars Register and those associated with it could be placed on it for some years. To get there you’d need to be demonstrably guilty of bad faith representations. I note a British Labour politician has been thrown out of the commons on just these grounds.

    Public liars could continue to lie of course, in the interests of free speech, but a caveat would attach.

  15. gregh
    November 8th, 2010 at 21:50 | #15

    @Monkey’s Uncle

    not a very good analogy Monkey’s Uncle – I was not in any way advocating the surgical removal of someone’s ability to speak nor the removal of their physical ability to communicate in other ways.

    And I’d point out that it is possible to provide sporting and recreational acitivities for disabled people as well as the able bodied – for example inclusive sporting programs for schools are well developed if not always implemented.

  16. Monkey’s Uncle
    November 8th, 2010 at 22:35 | #16

    @Fran Barlow

    Fran, regarding the recent UK case where a Labour MP had his election overturned, it is no doubt true that the member in question behaved quite badly in peddling mischievous falsehoods against his opponent. But despite that, it is utterly preposterous to think that courts should be able to overturn election results on the basis that the result may have been influenced by misleading claims made by one candidate or other parties. On that basis, most election results could be challenged.

    It is one thing to regulate misleading advertising in a purely commercial sense. But it is impossible to do so in a political context without effectively turning more of the democratic process over to the hands of regulators or judges. In which case, why bother with democracy at all? And in a democracy, people have every right to vote for a liar to represent them if they wish.

  17. paul of albury
    November 9th, 2010 at 08:09 | #17

    monkey’s uncle, as long as there’s a fresh election I can’t see why not. Far worse to let people have election success which is tainted by deception. Letting them get away with it makes peddling mischievous falsehoods a winning strategy, banning them should be a useful deterrent.

  18. derrida derider
    November 9th, 2010 at 10:15 | #18

    I reckon the UK law is a good one, but only because the legal criteria for action under it are stringent. Basically, the plaintiff has to demonstrate that the polly said, or authorised the saying of, that which is demonstrably false, that the polly knew or ought to have known it was false, and that there was a good chance the lie affected the election result.

    Mere spin and smears should not be the subject of this, because one person’s spin is another person’s “perspective”. Trying to eliminate bad political behaviour, depressingly common as it is, would be a cure much worse than the disease.

  19. Fran Barlow
    November 9th, 2010 at 10:56 | #19

    Derrida Derrider’s line of argument on the UK matter is robust. One should set the bar high when one is adjudging ostensibly political claims. As he says, one would have to be able to show that the candidate could not reasonably have supposed that the claims (s)he was making were true, and further, have anticipated that the claims would secure her/him a measurable advantage, and to have received sufficient advantage to have altered the result in her/his favour.

    We had a similar matter arfise in Lindsay in 2007, but in that case the candidate lost anyway.

    Like MU I would be against preventing the candidate from recontesting because people are entitled to be represented by liars if they wish.

    In the end, the most important matter is to ensure everyone at least suspects if they overstep the bounds of the loose bounds defining good faith conduct, there may be ruinous consequences.

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