Fact-checking in the blogosphere

One of the benefits that ought to arise from the existence of the blogosphere is that of fact-checking. False claims can be refuted quickly, and, we might hope, not repeated thereafter. Sadly it doesn’t seem to work out that way, as the following examples show.

Tim Blair points to yet another repetition of the “plastic turkey” story, this time in Pravda. Not surprisingly he’s frustrated by this.

Meanwhile, the claim that bans on the use of DDT in anti-malaria campaigns have cost millions of lives, has been repeated yet again, by Miranda Devine in the SMH, and Rafe Champion at Catallaxy.

So in the interests of accuracy and bipartisanship, let’s get the facts straight

* In his visit to Iraq in November 2003, Bush did not pose with a plastic turkey, as has been often claimed, but with a decorative, real “show turkey” not intended for eating. The “show turkeyâ€? is a routine part of the presentation for the soldiers eating in the mess hall, so there’s nothing surprising about the fact that Bush posed with one.

* 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 ( links on this here

If Tim is willing to make the same points, maybe we’ll get somewhere on this (begins holding breath).

OK, I’m not really holding my breath, and I don’t suppose the SMH is going to apply the Google rule to lazy, sloppy and inaccurate work like Devine’s.

Devine scores just about all the points possible on this one, citing fiction writer Michael Crichton as a scientific authority, misrepresenting the easily checkable position of the WHO, and citing the ludicrous bookburners of Human Events.

More seriously, she recycles an unsourced and obviously fabricated quote imputed to Rachel Carson, that ”

We should seek not to eliminate malarial mosquitoes with pesticides,” wrote Carson, “but to find instead a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves

. It’s easy to find more unsourced versions of this quote at sites like Frontpage

However, a bit more searching reveals this quote (link is to a PDF file) from the end of Silent Spring

Through all these new, imaginative, and creative approaches to the problem of sharing our earth with other creatures there runs a constant theme, the awareness that we are dealing with life – with living populations and all their pressures and counter pressures, their surges and recessions. Only by taking account of such life forces and by cautiously seeking to guide them into channels favorable to ourselves can we hope to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves

Clearly we’re seeing the usual game of quote fabrication here, with the line about malarial mosquitos inserted into an unobjectionable statement of the desirability of what’s generally called integrated pest management as opposed to indiscriminate use of pesticides. Devine has been too lazy to check her third-hand or fourth-hand sources, and no doubt her editors won’t bother pulling her up.

No surprises here. But I’m a bit disappointed that Rafe Champion hasn’t bothered to correct his erroneous post, or to respond to comments pointing out his errors. Catallaxy generally holds to higher standards than this.

Update As Tim Lambert points out in comments, Devine has actually taken the critical step in the fabrication herself. Her apparent source, Keith Lockitch, doesn’t have quote marks around the first part of the statement, so he is passing it off as a paraphrase (though Carson never said anything about malarial mosquitoes in the relevant passage). Devine seems to be the one who added the quote marks.

Further update Miranda Devine has written to me, indicating that she will correct the spurious Carson quote, and saying that she took the quote from a republication of the Lockitch article in The Age, where it appeared as she quoted it. It’s therefore clear that she was not responsible for fabricating the quote, but merely reproduced it without checking.

Yet further update It was a mistake on my part to draw the conclusion that Miranda Devine was responsible for adding the quote marks, since I should have considered the possibility of an intermediate republication or reproduction of the quote. I apologise for this.

Final update (26/6) Devine’s column in today’s SMH includes the following:

Last week I inadvertently misquoted Rachel Carson by repeating a mistake from The Age of January 29. In an article by Keith Lockitch of the Ayn Rand Institute, Carson was quoted: “We should seek not to eliminate malarial mosquitoes with pesticides, but to find instead a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves.”
But in Lockitch’s original, published in FrontPage Magazine, the quote was part paraphrase: “We should seek, Carson wrote, not to eliminate malarial mosquitoes with pesticides, but to find instead, ‘a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves’. ” Apologies.

Absolutely final update (27/6)
Tim Lambert points out that Lockitch’s article did not, as claimed by Devine, appear in The Age on January 29 or, as far as can be determined from the public archive[1], any other date in any Fairfax paper. The Factiva database reveals that the piece was in fact published, with the incorrect quotation marks, in a Murdoch paper, the Melbourne Herald-Sun, on January 13, 2005 (access restricted to subscribers). This further error on Devine’s part isn’t particularly important compared to the others noted in the main post above, but it does make this post by Tim Blair look a bit silly.

fn1. I don’t have access to the internal Fairfax library, but it seems unlikely that a piece already reprinted by the Murdoch press would be recycled by a Fairfax paper.

120 thoughts on “Fact-checking in the blogosphere

  1. I’ m glad to see that you realise the position on DDT taken by the Green groups prior to Joburg is morally wrong, but dont expect me to believe that after Joburg the zealots suddenly made a 180 turn and became converts to proactive and responsible use of DDT, as the evidence is otherwise.

    I’d suggest you go back and re-read Attaran’s papers before you dismiss DDT as a minor anti-malaria tool in Africa. The BBC URL I posted also shows convincingly that its a significant tool.

    Your reference to “hysterical statements” by journalists and lobbyists is interesting. You seem to be saying that no issue should be considered to have any merit if someone somewhere has made an over the top claim about it.

    To me, thats just a clumsy red herring to distract attention from one very serious issue where the Green have made grave moral errors. The fact that they continue to make grave moral errors that harm the poor, and continually avoid thinking about these harmful consequences is justification enough for my comments.

    As far as your remark about bodies actually working on malaria, the ones I know arn’t impressed with your argument. Besides that, in print, medical people arnt going to rock the boat too much.

  2. PS But I agree, quite likely the commentaters you call as hyping things up are probably exaggerating a bit (not necessarlity intentionally), but gosh, what does that mean about other exaggerations; should we dismiss global warming because some people exaggerate it…

  3. As it happens, d, Tim Lambert has two more excellent posts up on this topic, one on the role of agricultural spraying in the development of resistance and one demolishing yet another restatement of the absurd right-wing line on this topic. I’d suggest that you follow up there.

    The role of DDT in an optimal program is one on which reasonable people can disagree. Attaran and Roberts are at one end of a spectrum of opinion on this: I take their opinion seriously, but I don’t regard it as authorative. Bate & Tren are another matter. They are no more qualified than I am (Tren in fact is an environmental economist like me) and are partisan hacks. Yet most of the DDT stories rely on them.

    Coming back to my own views, I see no need to condemn those who advocated a faster phaseout of DDT in the leadup to Joburg as immoral. It was perfectly reasonable to suggest (as they did) that DDT could be replaced by safer alternatives – after all it has been replaced in developed countries and we don’t have malaria. The problem was that the alternatives cost money and, as it turned out, no-one was willing to pay.

    If anyone insisted that, even in the absence of alternatives, DDT should not be used, I condemn them. But I haven’t seen any evidence that any group took this position.

  4. Its good to see Tim has posted details of a solid review on DTT. It is a bit out of date and could nicely be continued to include the story of how continued development of integrated pest management has occured in the cotton industry, with dramatic improvements in pesticide management world wide using biotechnology, especially these last two years.

    Ill see if I can find a few extra good links, and maybe ferrit out some left-wing loonyness to balance out the right wing stuff you seem to hve a penchant for.

  5. Why doesn’t the Green Left just come clean? They keep insisting there was no ‘ban’ on the use of DDT. How come the government of South Africa didn’t know there was no “ban”. See the documents from the North West Provincial Government and also the health department of the central government.

    “Poisons which are still used illegally are organophosphates such as Fenitrothion, Diazinon; organochlorines such as gamma-BHC, Dieldrin (banned), DDT (banned) and Aldrin Arsenic compounds (banned). Large quantities of these illegal chemicals are still stored on farms, in government stores and at co-ops and pose a real threat to the environment, especially as in many cases they are still being used.”


    “There was action on all three counts in 2001/2. This included:
    · Changing the insecticide used for spraying inside houses in malaria endemic areas. DDT was reintroduced as a consequence of a specific relaxation on the ban on its use. ”


  6. Sinclair, this looks like a list of banned agricultural chemicals to me. Go and read Tim’s post on this topic.

    In general, I am stunned by the unwillingness of the right to give up when they are proved wrong. Sinclair and others have gone from claiming millions of deaths due to the 1972 US ban (the exact opposite of the truth, as Tim points out) to quibbling over the details of policy in South Africa for a few years in the late 1990s. It’s weapons of mass destruction all over again.

    But I’m willing to compromise here. If d and Sinclair will agree that agricultural (mis)use of DDT has been the main factor in destroying its usefulness as an antimalarial agent (as pointed otu by Rachel Carson), I’ll agree there have been occasions when opportunities to use it in antimalarial campaigns have been missed because of its bad reputation.

  7. When will the anti-environment blood libel propagators realise that articles describing DDT bneing used tend to rather undercut their claims that DDT is banned?

    Go down to the local chemist and try to buy a course of penicillin without a prescription. I guess the greens must have banned that too as part of their genocidal rampage.

  8. The government reports I have read do not suggest DDT became ineffective. They suggest the relacements became ineffective quite quickly. But anyway, I’m happy to concede that less DDT is needed to control malaria than the indiscriminate wide spraying that actually occured. There are two important points here. First, the government of South Africa should have a better idea of what is banned or not banned in that country. Second, I think this episode highlights the limits of our knowledge. A policy was intriduced before the full effects could be understood, at a very high human cost. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes, but we should admit they were made.

  9. “But anyway, I’m happy to concede that less DDT is needed to control malaria than the indiscriminate wide spraying that actually occured.’

    You’re missing the point Sinclair. The indiscriminate spraying was not to control malaria but as an agricultural pesticide – it was this use that was banned in the US in 1972.

    Anyway, I suggest you take this one up over at Tim Lambert’s. He has the patience to deal with this kind of thing.

  10. Q
    First, the madness of industrial scale use of DDT and problems of insect resistance from wide scale use goes without saying.

    It’s the mind set of the anti-DDT zealots and where it comes from that the issue.
    The stance that major Green groups have on DDT is deeply flawed, has caused harm, is based on ignorance of factual evidence, and is part of a dangerous utopian mind set which dismisses real problems. This is a mind set that started with Rachel Carson, is an outcome of Green advocacy, and carries over to other injustices such as Greenpeace’s attempts to block Golden Rice.

    This loony mindset (you would perhaps call it left-wing: I think that’s a gratuitous insult to genuine responsible caring left-wingers) only this morning was documented by one more press item:

    UN world food day – Asians call for ban on GE rice
    October 14, 2005

    containing yet again with the immortally shallow lines

    4. GE rice cannot be a solution to hunger since the causes of hunger are the lack of access to productive resources to produce food, or lack of income to buy food. Therefore GE cannot be an answer”.

    This illogical simplistic view is merely one symptom of the poor intellectual accountability and lack of concern for real world consequences that come from the mind set created by Rachel Carson – eg repeated misuse of evidence and selective quotation – and the way issues like DDT are communicated using propaganda by Green activists. Propaganda to, say eliminate all synthetic chlorine compounds, when in nature there are thousands of them and indeed, chlorinated phenols, play key roles in natural cycling of leaf litter by fungi.

    It’s the mind set that’s the problem, not just the particular DDT or the GE food issues. From your lack of ability to even start to analyze how DDT propaganda has interfered and delayed appropriate use of DDT as well explained by Attaran et al, or to concede that limited DDT availability by de facto bans and NGO institutional policies has been a problem both before and after Joburg, you have provided no evidence against my proposition.
    In my humble opinion, by your repeated high priority to defense of the reputations of Green groups against alleged exaggerations of their critics, and repeated and consistent denigration contrary opinion as “right wing� instead of dispassionate analysis of their errors , and the issue of whether the attempts to demonize DDT have caused harm, you are in fact adding to the problem by delaying sensitivity to the hazards of a utopian view point.
    Utopia has done harm before in France, Russia, and China and will do harm again until Utopian visionaries become more attentive to the limitations of their visions.
    Since the groups which are the target of my remarks constantly demonize those they disagree with, your attempts to focus only on alleged exaggerations of their protagonists (eg “right-wing� etc….) really carry little weight until you show the same care on the other side of the debate, which you clearly do not.
    These are the propositions I have
    1. Toxicology of DDT is exaggerated: there is no persuasive evidence that it causes cancer.
    2. Rachel Carson’s book is over the top exaggeration and in part based of misquotation and selective use of evidence. (eg the 1949 Letter to the editor of JAMA.; Citation of Macfarlane Burnet 1958) and scientific fallacy (“The balance of nature concept�.)
    3. The caveats and lessons posed by Rachel Carson’s errors, and the progress in toxicology since Carson (illustrated by Attaran and by Bruce Ames’s work) are ignored by millions of Green activists and the public in general.
    4. The anti- DDT stance of NGOs before and after Joburg has delayed and stymied interventions like that reported in the BBC link. For example Scandinavian AID agencies can deny AID to counties that manufacture DDT. Proactive but limited use of DDT would have saved lives the the 1990s African epidemics. 1980s scientific literature as quoted by Tim Lambert is besides the point.
    5. Similar mentality shows up in analogous pressure by Green NGOs to stop other activities they don’t like, and demonizing reputable science that undermines their power (eg Bruce Ames, Anthony Trewavas)
    6. This mind set causes real harm. Eg Just this last week another rejection of food aid in Africa in a time of famine.
    7. African countries reject GM food aid
    October 14, 2005
    CropBiotech Update
    Zimbabwe and Zambia have rejected genetically modified food donations intended to avert drought-induced food shortages. Wisdom Mdzungairi reports for Harare that participants to an international conference on genetic engineering and sustainable agriculture in Lusaka, Zambia commended the countries’ decision to mill some of the donated food instead.
    Dr. Luke Mumba, chairman of the Biosafety Council of Zambia and research of the University of Zambia, commented that while there was respect for the two countries’ decision, there was need to adopt safe biotechnological advances, and that the use of GM technology could contribute to the complex problems of alleviating poverty and malnutrition. Meanwhile, Zambian Minister of Science and Technology Judith Kapijimpanga said the problem of food insecurity in Africa was a result of complex issues that required an integrated approach for sustainability.
    See the article in http://allafrica.com/stories/200510110710.html
    8. Despite clear and direct harm caused by this mind set, but there is almost no self criticism or self-awareness of this harm within the Green movements. When the issue is raised it is dismissed without attention to the nub of the issue (eg this blog)
    9. In this context, honest self appraisal of policy errors on DDT would be a healthy start to better future policy formulation in other areas (eg GM, Gobal warming.

  11. Q
    I do not agree that agricultural use of DDT “has destroyed ” the value of it as an anti- malarial intervention. In almost every post I have made on this I have repeated acknowledged the problems created by massive overuse, which was indeed lunacy, well documented by Tim Lambert, mainly to forestall mis-respresentation by you of my position. I did this in my last post before finding your most recent challenge.
    As my critera for argument is whether I am telling the truth,or follwing clear logic, I care little for the exaggerations of others who follow a similar clain, and even less for political labels. In truth I think they are signals of week logic.

    You keep on suggestion people re-read your citations.
    Why dont you yourself reread Attaran, Roberts and the BBC post and remind yourself that DDT is useful for house spraying because the insect DONT LIKE ITS SMELL and stay away from the inside of the house . Paradoxically, It’s even possible they dont like its smell because of evolutionary selection caused by massive over use, but in any case it retains at least some utility in in spite of the problem of resistance

  12. “You’re missing the point Sinclair. The indiscriminate spraying was not to control malaria but as an agricultural pesticide – it was this use that was banned in the US in 1972.”

    Whether of not Sinclair is missing your point Q remains too be seen. However you are missing the point about rsurgence of DDT problems in Africa.

    As to whether all DDT dissenters should tarred with the blood libel slur, this descent into the gutter does rather prove my point. Slurs are a signal of a weak case from the utterer of the slur.

  13. “As it happens, d, Tim Lambert has two more excellent posts up on this topic, one on the role of agricultural spraying in the development of resistance and one demolishing yet another restatement of the absurd right-wing line on this topic. I’d suggest that you follow up there.”

    Theres only one link here Q, and no comment on”absurd right-wing line’s”

  14. “Slurs are a signal of a weak case from the utterer of the slur.”

    The initial slur here is the claim that DDT is banned and that this has led to millions od deaths.

    This claim is still being repeated in the mainstream media on a regular basis.

  15. “irst, the madness of industrial scale use of DDT and problems of insect resistance from wide scale use goes without saying.”

    Unfortunately not. Most of the anti-DDT libel literature focuses on the 1972 ban of just such uses.

    “Theres only one link here Q, and no comment onâ€?absurd right-wing line’sâ€?”

    Here’s a recent instance at Tim Lambert’s. I’m not going to link all of his posts though. Go there, read them, and argue it out with Tim if you want to.

  16. Yes, now that I find them, Tim Lamberts other Posts are quite relevant, and yes there’s some clear over the top hype about DDT.

    I can understand why Green lobbyists feel threatened by this, but at least it serves to show how their own Green hype campaigns seem to those who are victims their adverse consequences.

    The whole anti-DDT hype issue is rather similar to standard Greenpeace and Paul Erhlich level treatment of environmental issues: its a bit of pot calling the kettle black.
    For over the top hype what can what were those memorable quotes from Paul Erhlich – death of the oceans in 1985. Mass famines? Even Silent Spring? All of that hype was apparently justified

    I’ d be more impressed if I also saw real honest efforts of the Greens getting their own house in order.

  17. d, this is an issue to take up with Tim.

    Similarly, as regards Ehrlich, a search of my site produces only one reference

    “He [Jevons] was wrong, as were a series of subsequent prophets of resource exhaustion, most notably Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome in the 1970s. ”

    If you want to comment specifically on my posts, feel free. But I don’t feel obligated to defend or condemn every action or statement ever made by someone assocaited with the Green movement, or every post by another blogger.

  18. “2. Rachel Carson’s book is over the top exaggeration …”

    Including the section where she specifically endorses the use of DDT for malaria control?

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