Many of you will have heard by now of the tragic death, by suicide, of Aaron Swartz, who was facing felony charges for an alleged attempt to distribute academic articles free of charge. It’s probably inevitable, as Henry Farrell says at Crooked Timber, that coverage of Aaron Swartz’ tragic death will focus narrowly on the story of Aaron as persecuted hacker. My main debt to him is almost entirely outside the tech sphere in which he made such big contributions. Early on in my blogging career, I came across the rightwing myth, that bans on DDT, inspired by Rachel Carson cost millions of lives. In fact, this was one of my first encounters with the rightwing parallel universe with which we are all familiar nowadays. At the time, most people hadn’t woken up to this, and the DDT myth was promulgated with great success. Tim Lambert and I spent years fighting the myth, ending up with this piece in Prospect. Along the way, we discovered the surprising fact that the myth was originally pushed by the tobacco industry, as a flank attack on public health bodies like WHO, which were trying to fight tobacco, and had (quite correctly) scaled back use of DDT, after early campaigns were defeated by the growth of resistance.
A crucial piece of the puzzle came from Aaron, who pointed out the central role of Roger Bate, an all-purpose anti-science activist based at the American Enterprise Institute (he’s largely moved on from DDT these days and is now fighting “counterfeit”, that is, unlicensed, versions of patented drugs). The DDT myth lives on in various corners of the blogosphere and still pops up from time to time in the mainstream media, but it’s now at least as easy to find refutations.
I honestly can’t imagine how someone could pack so much achievement into 26 years. Aaron’s loss is a tragedy for all of us, and the vindictive campaign against him by the Massachusetts prosecutors office (whose head, Carmen M. Ortiz, is regularly mentioned as being destined for higher office) was a crime.