A double disaster for science and public health

Zombies never die, and that’s even more true of zombie ideas. One of the most thoroughly killed zombies, the myth that Rachel Carson is responsible for millions of deaths from DDT, has recently re-emerged from the rightwing nethersphere where it has continued to circulate despite repeated refutation. That wouldn’t be worth yet another long post except for the source: Dr Paul Offit, a prominent pediatrician and leading pro-vaccination campaigner, writing in the Daily Beast. Offit’s revival of the DDT ban myth is a double disaster for science and public health.

The myth that a (non-existent) global ban on DDT, inspired by Rachel Carson, led to the death of millions, has been refuted about as conclusively as it can possibly be. The late Aaron Swartz did a good job, and his points have been amplified by others. Tim Lambert and I showed how the idea had been pushed by tobacco hacks like Stephen Milloy, in his days at Cato. These days, anyone who wants the facts can check Wikipedia. Milloy, who was pushed out of Cato when his tobacco links were exposed, has long since lost his subsequent role as “science expert” for Fox, and was (last I saw) flacking for a coal company.

The good news is that the global struggle against malaria is succeeding. That’s not due to DDT. Although the WHO made a widely publicised statement in 2006, endorsing the use of DDT, this was essentially a restatement of existing policy, phrased in a way that placated the US political right. Under that policy, the phaseout of DDT has continued. India, the only remaining producer and biggest consumer of DDT has agreed to end its use by 2020.

So, it was pretty disappointing to see the Daily Beast running the myth almost unchanged from the version Milloy was pushing a decade ago. What was far worse though, was the author, not one of the usual rightwing hacks but Dr Paul Offitt, a much respected pediatrician who’s been a leader in the fight against anti-vaccination myths.

Looking at some of Offit’s previous work, I note favorable references to Milloy. This is unsurprising, though regrettable. Milloy’s attacks on “junk science”, designed as cover for his attempts to undermine research on the health effects of passive smoking, fooled many. And in the early 2000s, antivaxerism was seen as leftwing position, so Milloy attacked it with gusto. (By contrast, he was very soft on creationism). Presumably, Offit regarded Milloy as an ally and took an uncritical view of his lies on DDT.

This is a disaster in two respects. First, Offitt’s credibility will help to give the zombie DDT myth another boost. Second, and far worse, Offitt is on the way to destroying his own credibility. The antivaxers at Age of Autism are already on to the case, and now they finally have a convincing argument to use.

The best hope for salvaging something from this mess is that science is a self-correcting process. If Offit were to acknowledge his error, and restate his scientifically based support for vaccination, he would show a sharp contrast with the anti-vaxers, who never respond to evidence.

I wrote to the Daily Beast, offering a correction, and got no reply. So, I will write directly to Offit, alerting him to his errors and hope for the bst.

31 thoughts on “A double disaster for science and public health

  1. Oh lord, this has the potential to be a real, first class, disaster.
    Good work on the fast response. Thanks.

    Let’s hope Offitt can do a fast retraction and extricate himself from from this mess.

    OTOH, as a North American rooting for Carson, we have a lot of bald eagles around relative to the 1960’s. And, as far as I am aware we have not had a case of malaria in the region since roughly 1835 so DDT was not a key issue here.

  2. Ocean biologists have found startlingly high concentrations of long-lived PCBs in worms living in mud at the bottom of the Mariana and Kermadec Trenches, the deepest there are. There is no sunlight in these cold places to speed up their breakdown. I suppose we can hope for eventual burial by the next layers of ooze (basically fish shit; whale shit floats, recycling nutrients upwards).

  3. The relentless seduction by narrative continues. In this case, sweeping someone who really should know better off their feet.

  4. Milloy’s attacks on “junk science”, designed as cover for his attempts to undermine research on the health effects of passive smoking, fooled many

    Including, for a little while, me. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

    The tiny sliver of already known (to me) truth that made me swallow the huge narrative of Milloy’s lies was that he was correct that the human toxicity of DDT was exaggerated by Carson. Of course that wasn’t the main thrust of her argument anyway (look at the book’s title). I shoulda known better and so should Offit who claims, after Milloy, that DDT fell into disuse because it was banned worldwide, and that it was banned because of alleged human toxicity (neither part being true).

    These days I take the position that if it becomes a Republican talking point then it is bulls**t usually based on someone’s self-interested lies. Bulls**t is of course common across the political spectrum – politicians do it as a fish swims – but deliberate and systematic lie-ing generally comes from those paid to deliberately and systematically lie – which means people funded with big money.

  5. John, we were both at high school in the 70s.

    I do not know if you were assigned to read I can jump puddles which is about getting polio at the turn-of-the-century. I know what all this polio business was about. who has polio?

    Yet a few years before I was born it was an absolute terror. Remember, 95% of people who have polio are asymptomatic but contagious which is why they used to close public swimming pool during polio epidemics.

    I remember a story my older brother told me a few years ago. He was born in the mid 1940s.

    My brother finally realised what this morning ritual my dad used to do to him. My dad was a doctor and he was checking his children for signs of polio every morning.

    You only have to look at the reaction of the public to the polio vaccine. Mothers queued up instantly.

    Doctor Sark discovered it and became the first medical celebrity. If he is on a plane, the pilot would announce that and there would be spontaneous applause. When he checked into a hotel, he would be always upgraded to the best suite available.

  6. In the US, and no doubt elsewhere, the argument has been put forward and repeated often, that the benefits of eating fresh and wholesome food outweigh the negatives of pesticides. There are a whole lot of scientific studies/opinions published in so called journals supporting this.

    This is important to growers and onsellers as they need to be able to regularly produce food of a consistent quality.

    On the other hand the EPA has been lowering allowable levels of chemicals, in some instances banning them. Clearly the EPA could be seen as a barrier to agribusiness.

    Cue Trump.


  7. rog, it was the famous molecular biologist Mike Ames who popularised that argument, and it is indeed true that in the 80s it had some good econometric and epidemiologic support. And indeed that’s why I still get impatient with the organic food movement.

    But the EPA has long adopted a proper cost-benefit approach (like drug regulation) that includes these benefits. If they’re lowering them its because they believe current levels of the specific pesticide are causing more problems than they are indirectly preventing, not because they are ignoring the benefits.

  8. Happy to find Dr. Quiggin on the case. He’s much more calm about it than I can ever be, and as usual, he’s absolutely correct.

    I take issue with the claim that Carson exaggerated human toxicity of DDT. I can find no place she ever did that, nor did the commission of scientists (including entomologists) asked by President Kennedy to look at Carson’s book to see if it is accurate. The President’s Science Advisory Council released a thorough fact-check of Silent Spring in May 1963. The ONLY thing the scientists took issue with was Carson’s emotion-charging writing (she got people concerned). PSAC came down on DDT much harder than Carson did, recommending cessation of government use of the stuff.

    I find that each and every one of Carson’s scientific notes is still valid in 2017, 55 years after the book was published. (There were 53 pages of notes.) That is a degree of careful citation that may be a record in any science writing in popular circulation.

    Carson did not say that DDT is toxic to humans. She said the issue was unstudied, as it was; she asked whether it was a good idea to promote use of a substance known to be so highly toxic to almost all other life, without knowing its effects on humans.

    I hope Dr. Offit will listen to you.

    In other news, American Experience on the PBS network in the US has an excellent story on Rachel Carson, out this month, and available for streaming (I hope around the world; somebody holler if you can’t get it).

  9. @derrida derider

    Exactly, when you see the right spouting some sort of “gotcha”, you can be almost certain it is a lie, an attack on a straw man, or meaningless. Of course you must beware of the same from your own side. I saw on FB the other day, “Trump supporter kicks Muslim woman pregnant with twins to death”. Didn’t bother to read – so obviously not a reflection of any reality.

  10. It was no doubt right for John to focus his challenge to Offit on the particular false claim. But it’s worth thinking about the reasons for the comparative neglect of malaria in research.
    -Malaria is difficult. The target is not a simple bacterium or virus, but a protozoon with very sophisticated immune defences.
    -It’s a tropical disease of poor brown people, who cannot generate the market signals to for-profit pharmaceutical companies to spend money on it.
    -Vaccines are unprofitable compared to treatments.
    – Drug research has moved from scattershot screening – which always had a chance of turning up something for orphan diseases – to more targeted methods, which reinforces the bias to diseases if the wealthy.

    Malaria research therefore relies on philanthropists like the Gates’ and on government.

    Because of the first point, there is a long-shot hope that a breakthrough on malaria could benefit diseases if the immune system like HIV and rheumatism.

  11. “It’s a tropical disease of poor brown people, who cannot generate the market signals…”

    Not always, malaria had been prevalent in the US and other countries, like Italy. Eradication has been largely successful and DDT was one agent used to eradicate the disease.

    What has been forgotten is that the repeated use of DDT led to vector resistance making it unviable while it continued to pollute the environment.

    It’s been found that modern farming practices has encouraged the spread of malarial mosquitoes.

  12. @Ed Darrell

    Offit has written back, rather discouragingly. In his reply, he invites me to comment on the statement that “In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson claimed that DDT caused leukemia, aplastic anemia, infertility, uterine cancer, and chromosomal abnormalities, like Down Syndrome, among others”

    I plan to send him the following, very cautiously worded quote from Silent Spring, reprinted in The New Yorker

    Some of the many new chemicals we are exposed to are also proving to be carcinogenic—by no means only pesticides, to be sure, though pesticides are prominent among them. In laboratory tests on animal subjects, DDT has produced suspicious liver tumors. Scientists of the Food and Drug Administration, who reported the discovery of these tumors, were uncertain how to classify them but felt that there was some “justification for considering them low grade hepatic cell carcinomas.” Dr. Hueper now definitely rates DDT as a “chemical carcinogen.”

    Do you recognised the list quoted by Offit? Is it sourced from Milloy?

  13. Did Rachel Carson ever promote a ban on DDT? AFAIK she advocated that its use be regulated and as such it is still being used for anti malarial programs.

    In general the profligate use of pesticides has been affected by both resistance, cost and effectiveness hence the evolvement of IPM (integrated pest management) programs.

    This sounds like a tribal right talking point.

  14. @John Quiggin

    Is there any point in asking Offit whether he’s actually read ‘Silent Spring’ ? Taking what you’ve quoted from him, I’d guess he’s never been anywhere near Carson’s work and is just repeating 3rd hand agitprop.

  15. Did Rachel Carson ever promote a ban on DDT?
    No she didn’t. And there never was a global ban on DDT. And the reason it became disused was not bans, global or otherwise, but resistant strains bred by inappropriate use.

    Those are exactly the main points and the ones on which Milloy et al lied. The claims about exaggeration of human toxicity are very much a subsidiary and US specific question, on which Ed Darrell and I differ. I do concede, however, that the health scare (useful in getting politicians to save birds and fish from DDT, but dishonest just the same) wasn’t all Carson’s doing.

    Always suspect arguments of the form “well no one has proved X doesn’t cause Y so lets assume it does”, because it can be used for an awful lot of Xs and Ys. And its the form of argument Carson used about human health and DDT.

  16. @derrida derider

    Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

    I was going to say, in response to your #5 that, as some computer salesmen I once worked with used to say, “You can hang an awful lot of bullshut off one small fact”. And you still can, though kudos to you for seeing through it later..


    “well no one has proved X doesn’t cause Y so lets assume it does”

    Yeah, but is it any more rational to otherwise assume it doesn’t ? Which is generally the higher risk: consuming something we haven’t shown isn’t harmful, or not consuming something we haven’t shown is safe ?

  17. Na, GrueBleen, there’s an asymmetry here. You cannot prove a negative so if someone asserts something is harmful ask them for positive evidence that it is so, rather than just accepting that absence of negative evidence shows it is so.

    And I’ll remember your computer salesman’s aphorism – it is a good one.

  18. @derrida derider

    You cannot prove a negative

    Ok, point taken. But then, if the proposition is “this substance is harmless’ then that is just the negative of “this subject is not harmless” and a negative, as you say, can’t be proven. Essentially, every positive proposition is just the negative of its opposite. So all things considered, I still prefer not to ingest things that have been treated with DDT. If I can.

    I’ll remember your computer salesman’s aphorism – it is a good one.

    They thought so too – it helped them to sell a lot of computers.

  19. @rog

    Not sure that would get a useful response, rog; I think Offit’s reply is a fairly classic ‘backfire effect’ response.

    Apart from which, a major problem is the assumption (which ProfQ has, as usual, made) of unbounded rationalism: if Offit is rational about vaccination/MMR then he will be rational about Rachel Carson. But that’s a faulty assumption I find: human rationality is almost always compartmentalised, so we’re rational about some things (hopefully) but clearly not about all things.

    Much (most ?) of what we think we know doesn’t originate in any way from ourselves, we get a lot of it from human testimony. So, for example, I know from personal experience that there’s something that tries to prevent us from leaving the surface of the Earth, but otherwise, everything I know about ‘gravity’ comes from the testimony of teachers, uni lecturers and scientists. So, can I in any way be ‘rational’ about gravity ?

    Hence, if whoever gave Offit testimony about vaccination/etc. was basically rational about it, then Offit will project rationality on that subject. But if whoever gave him testimony about Carson was just your usual screwball, then Offit is going to be screwball about Carson.

    Well that’s how I read it, anyway.

  20. I do it all the time, but what prompts people to venture well outside their field of expertise? As a paediatrician Offit is pretty well qualified to talk about vaccination. But DDT?

    Incidentally, it seems that if there was any disaster in DDT, it was the widespread agricultural use, resulting in resistance building more quickly. The sort of disaster that we seem quite willing to risk with antibiotics in animal husbandry today. If you want to point fingers anywhere, aim at inadequate regulation of people in the pursuit of money.

  21. Pesticide resistance in the Anopheles mosquitoes along with antibiotic resistance in the parasite is well documented and of global concern. Other mosquito borne diseases include dengue and zika and all exist in the US.

    Offit only needs to consult with his peers on the CDC to be better informed.

  22. Just a thought. How long before crocodiles, box jelly fish and anopheles mosquitoes reach Moreton Bay and environs? Of course, this is just me worrying about my own backyard; just being a regional NIMBY. Crocodiles and box jelly fish are not dangerous to humans with traps and guns who also give up swimming and boating. The anopheles and what they carry will be a different matter. It’s the little things that get us in the end.

    Our world (our home, our region and our world) is going to be changed so radically by climate change that basically, if we could personally live longer by one extra generation, we oldies would not recognise the world we created by our careless neglect of negative externality effects.

  23. @rog

    Offit only needs to consult with his peers on the CDC to be better informed.

    Ah, so you agree that Offit should seek a more rational source for testimony about Carson. Good. But in order to do so, he will have to overcome his epistemic closure and override his backfire effect reflex.

    As do we all, from time to time.

  24. Ikonoclast, a warmer world will make little difference to whether Anopheles reaches Moreton Bay because they do not need much warmth. Any old swamp that doesn’t freeze in winter will do – that’s why malaria was once widespread in Europe, and was probably at Moreton Bay before Brisbane was developed.

    Of course there are plenty of other, truly tropical, diseases that might spread further south providing it rains enough.

  25. derrida derider,

    With Anopheles, maybe our main danger is from the tropical species north of us spreading south? This would be my main thought but I am no expert.

  26. Ikonoclast, anopheles is already in Brisbane. I have slapped them many times. There are several varieties, but just how effective they are at spreading malaria we don’t know. Fortunately, as a rich nation with a currently functioning public health system, malaria incidence is unlikely to ever reach proportions where it can be maintained by mosquito transmission.

  27. Japan eliminated malaria in 1961 through public health measures despite having the malaria carrying anopheles sinensis. Of course, just because Australia could control malaria doesn’t mean the country isn’t safe from changes in disease vectors that result from climate change.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s