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. @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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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