John Tierney’s Bad Science

While the New York Times has some great reporting on science (eg Carl Zimmer and Andrew Revkin it also has some poor quality reporting (eg William Broad and Tina Rosenberg. John Tierney’s latest column fits into the second category, with the usual ill-supported claims that Carson killed many many people.

Tierney quotes from a review of Silent Spring by Ira Baldwin:

[Baldwin] complained that “Silent Spring” was not a scientific balancing of costs and benefits but rather a “prosecuting attorney’s impassioned plea for action.”

But it is Tierney’s column that lacks balance and is a prosecuting attorney’s case against Carson.

Tierney relies heavily on Baldwin’s 1962 review of Silent Spring and tries to make it look as if all the science was on Baldwin’s side and Carson won with rhetoric:

But scientists like him were no match for Ms. Carson’s rhetoric. DDT became taboo even though there wasn’t evidence that it was carcinogenic (and subsequent studies repeatedly failed to prove harm to humans).

But what Tierney doesn’t mention is that after Silent Spring was published a special panel of President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee was convened to examine Carson’s claims. The result? According to Science (the same Science that published Baldwin’s review):

“The long-awaited pesticide report of the President’s Science Advisory Committee was issued last week, and though it is a temperate document, even in tone, and carefully balanced in its assessment of risks versus benefits, it adds up to a fairly thorough-going vindication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring thesis.”

Tierney also gets basic stuff wrong. For instance:

An important clue emerged in the 1980s when the biochemist Bruce Ames tested thousands of chemicals and found that natural compounds were as likely to be carcinogenic as synthetic ones. Dr. Ames found that 99.99 percent of the carcinogens in our diet were natural, which doesn’t mean that we are being poisoned by the natural pesticides in spinach and lettuce.

Ames did not find that 99.99% of dietary carcinogens were natural. When 60 minutes attributed a similar claim to him, he protested that it was a fabrication meant to discredit him:

Bradley: “Dr. Lijinsky disputes Ames’ claim that 99.9% of all
carcinogens come from natural foods.”

This obviously incorrect claim was never made by me.
Gelber/Bradley made it up. What I stated was that 99.9% of
chemicals we ingest are natural. It is well known that 30% of
human cancer is due to smoking and another large percentage of
cancer is due to viruses, hormones, sunlight, alcohol, dietary
imbalances, radon, and occupational causes. Thus, Lijinsky
rebutted a statement made up by Gelber/Bradley, and, as a
consequence, publicly discredited me. When I asked Gelber where
he got that statement from, he couldn’t come up with an answer.

Back to Tierney:

The human costs have been horrific in the poor countries where malaria returned after DDT spraying was abandoned. Malariologists have made a little headway recently in restoring this weapon against the disease, but they’ve had to fight against Ms. Carson’s disciples who still divide the world into good and bad chemicals, with DDT in their fearsome “dirty dozen.”

Ms. Carson didn’t urge an outright ban on DDT, but she tried to downplay its effectiveness against malaria and refused to acknowledge what it had accomplished.

But look at what Carson wrote about DDT and malaria:

No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story – the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting. …

What is the measure of this setback? The list of resistant species now includes practically all of the insect groups of medical importance. … Malaria programmes are threatened by resistance among mosquitoes. …

Practical advice should be ‘Spray as little as you possibly can’ rather than ‘Spray to the limit of your capacity’ …, Pressure on the pest population should always be as slight as possible.

And she was right. Because DDT was widely used, mosquitoes evolved resistance. In Sri Lanka, for example, this lead to a worsening epidemic and hundreds of thousands of cases of malaria as DDT became ineffective. Tierney, of course, doesn’t even mention resistance. Nor does he mention that the Stockholm convention that banned the ‘dirty dozen’ exempted DDT for vector control from the ban. And that the ban on other uses of DDT will save lives by slowing the development of resistance.

How did Tierney manage to get it so wrong? Well, look at his references. Katherine Mangu-Ward, who wrote that Carson was indirectly responsible for millions of malaria deaths. John Berlau, who lied about what Carson wrote and who claims that not only did environmentalist kill all those people, but that it was a deliberate plan. Tina Rosenberg, who reckons that Silent Spring is killing African children. Steve Milloy and Gordon Edwards at junkscience.com, who write how DDT is harmless to birds. Ronald Bailey, who blames Carson for millions of deaths from malaria. And Gregg Easterbrook‘s A Moment of Earth. Entomology professor Jack Schultz reviewed it:

Part I contains some of the most egregious cases of misunderstood, misstated, misinterpreted, and plainly incorrect “science” writing I’ve ever encountered. The abuse of the concept of natural selection here could turn Darwin in his grave, were it worthy of contemplation. In his own time, Darwin refuted Easterbrook’s bastardized version of evolutionary theory, called progressivism, because it asserts that evolution constantly improves organisms according to some human standard. Seeing Easterbrook twist one of my professional specialties–plant chemistry–to show that plants need not suffer increasing ultraviolet light levels gave me something worse than sunburn. The section-ending list of “Nature’s Values” had me laughing out loud. Examples: “cooperation is better than competition”; “creatures, ecologies [sic], and people get better (evolutionarily) with the passage of time”; “most changes are good for living things”; “physical objects are not as…important as the lowliest living creature.” Easterbrook isn’t even consistent from chapter to chapter. The supreme value of the “lowliest” creature goes out the window when a property value is compromised, as in efforts to protect an endangered specis or any time the creature is an insect. He appears to have a severe case of entomophobia (protecting beetles is “nonsense”).

(For a detailed account of all the stuff Easterbrook got wrong about Silent Spring see here.)

It’s pretty clear that Tierney just went and collected opinions that supported the conclusion he wanted to reach, resulting in a thoroughly misleading article. Merrill Goozner has more on what’s wrong with Tierney’s piece:

As I’ve written several times in this space, the New York Times has become the chief outlet for an ill-informed and unscientific campaign to boost DDT use to combat malaria. Today’s entry comes from John Tierney, a conservative columnist who even includes a link to corporate defender Steve Milloy’s “junkscience.com” website alongside his diatribe.

Comments

  1. #1 Hank Roberts
    June 6, 2007

    It’s no prosecutor’s case — a judge expects proof for claims made.

    No prosecutor who makes things up, or misquotes sources, or brings a case based on hearsay lasts long.

  2. #2 Zeno
    June 6, 2007

    Since Hank Roberts defends the honor of prosecutors in general by pointing out that no self-respecting prosecutor would bring a case on such flimsy grounds, let us instead say that Tierney’s article is like a bill of indictment brought by one of Bush’s favorite U.S. attorneys.

  3. #3 IanR
    June 6, 2007

    When I started reading Tierney’s piece this morning, I gave him the benefit of the doubt – after all, it wouldn’t surprise me if people still took what Carson said to be true and ignored the decades of work since. But once he got to DDT and malaria I realised he was just spouting right-wing talking points.

    It was good to see him taken down quite effectively in his blog (by Tim, among others), but sadly most people who read the article will never end up there (I only found the blog because I clicked on his name after asking myself “who is this idiot?”)

  4. #4 Robert Evans
    June 6, 2007

    The SCIENCE IN THE NEWS from Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society Daily news letter for 05 June 2007 referenced Tierney’s editorial — I went here and complained:

    http://www.americanscientist.org/template/Survey?catname=Feedback

    Cheers

  5. #5 Hank Roberts
    June 6, 2007

    Is there a Tim Lambert followup on Tierney’s blog? I read 55 postings just now and searched for it and didn’t find his name there.

  6. #6 Alaya
    June 6, 2007

    John Tierney is a complete moron. Years ago, when I was reporting for my college paper on gentrification in Harlem, I came across one of his NY Times “articles.” Let’s just say that his habit of quoting professors and severely deforming their findings in support of his propaganda is not new. In this case, the professor in question taught at my college, so it was easy enough to get a rebuttal.

  7. #8 Mel Visser
    June 6, 2007

    Rachel Carson’s 100th birthday remembrance certainly brought out a diversity of viewpoints. Was she a visionary who eliminated toxic chemicals from America’s environment, or was she a crack pot whose radical actions are responsible for millions of malarial deaths?

    I hope that the 200th anniversary of her birthday will put her accomplishments into proper perspective. In a day in which any chemical that could be safely manufactured and used was approved, she pointed out environmental and human health problems of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), chemicals designed to kill, occurring beyond their manufacture and use points. The process of democracy at its finest allowed the analysis, debate and banning of these chemicals over two decades. There is no other arena in history where man has reversed a technological course for environmental reasons. Yea human race!

    The use of PCB, DDT, toxaphene, chlordane, heptachlor, Lindane, Aldrin, Dieldrin, hexachlorocyclohexane and hexachlorobenzene were banned in the developed countries because they were suspected of causing cancer or were acutely toxic in the environment. Yea Rachel!

    As these bans were pursued in developing countries, argument focused upon malarial vector (mosquito) control. Why? The real battle should have been the use of DDT in general agriculture. When developing countries banned agricultural DDT, what did they use to control pests? Toxaphene? Banning DDT on grains and its discriminate use for mosquito control would avoid the spread of DDT in dangerous quantities and controlled mosquitoes. The DDT ban fight became a smokescreen for the use of all the other POPs.

    Now toxaphene, probably the most used pesticide on the planet, circulates through the air from its uses in developing countries and pollutes cold, clear waters from the northern Great Lakes to the Arctic. Lake Superior, a lake the size of the state of Maine with depths going to below sea level … its waters if spilled over the continental United States would cover the area to a depth of six feet … is frightfully polluted with foreign toxaphene. Its trout harbor 5 parts per million of toxaphene, ten times the level that would classify them as hazardous waste!

    Arctic polar bear and killer whales are on the edge of survival or decimated by “banned” pesticides and PCBs. PCBs and pesticides circulate through our air in hundreds of millions of molecules per breathful quantities … amounts that are now being connected to asthma, diabetes and cancer. Inuit ingest 15X a tolerable quantity of poisons.

    Rachel Carson was on the right track. Unfortunately, her work is not complete and the planet is still at risk.

    See more at coldclearanddeadly.com.

    Mel Visser, author of Cold, Clear, and Deadly: Unraveling a toxic legacy.

  8. #9 Joseph O'Sullivan
    June 6, 2007

    Tierney should not be a reporter. He is not trying to give facts he is trying to advance his extremist libertarian views.

    He was annoying as an op-ed columnist at the NY Times, but he is unacceptable as a reporter. His behavior is acceptable at Fox news but should not be acceptable at the NY Times.

  9. #10 Bendervish
    June 6, 2007

    In his criticism of Carson’s “Fable for Tomorrow,” and “Disneyfied version of Eden” John Tierney makes an engaging appeal for authenticity instead of fantasy. Why do extreme environmental critics appear to always have this upper hand in the modern narrative? It’s perversely inverted.

  10. #11 Hank Roberts
    June 6, 2007

    > authenticity

    Tierney made stuff up or relied on someone who did, he can’t have read the book himself because what he says doesn’t match what’s in the book. Look this up for yourself, don’t believe what people tell you other people said.

    You’ll find source references posted in earlier thread:
    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2007/06/raw_story_follows_the_money_on.php#comment-456323

  11. #12 Joel Shore
    June 6, 2007

    Re #9: Wow, I hadn’t realized that this was published as a regular science article. I had assumed it had appeared on the op-ed page. The NY Times should really be lambasted for allowing such garbage to appear as an article. An op-ed piece is one thing but a science article must be held to higher standards!!

  12. #13 a little night musing
    June 7, 2007

    Back in the 1990’2 sometime, Tierney published a column (?) in the Times Magazine that was a description of a “poll” he did to follow-up someone else’s study. Basically, the claim was that the more rushed New Yorkers feel, the happier they are. He did his polling by standing at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street in the middle of the day and snagging passers-by. I could go on. It was, in sum, a nearly textbook example of how not to do a scientific study. I used in for years as an instructive example in my statistics courses, having the students rip it apart.

    I knew nothing about Tierney at the time, and assumed that this was merely a light piece not intended to be taken seriously. Since then I have come to believe that the man really is a maroon. A malicious maroon, at that.

    It appalled me that he was sent over to the Science Times. What is going on at that place?

  13. #14 Ragout
    June 7, 2007

    Tierny’s summary of Ames’ research (“Dr. Ames found that 99.99 percent of the carcinogens in our diet were natural”) is entirely accurate, according to the like Tim provided. Tim quotes Ames as denying that 99.9% of carcinogens are from natural foods. But despite what Tim says, this is not at all a “similar claim.”

    The key concept here is “dietary.” Ames says that 99.9% of dietary carcinogens are from natural foods like lettuce, but denies the absurd claim that 99.9% of carcinogens are from natural foods.

    Just as Tierney says, Ames believes that pesticides in our diet cause very little cancer. In the link provides, he writes: “These results imply that synthetic chemicals, except in the case of high-dose occupational exposure, are unlikely to be responsible for much human cancer.”

  14. #15 Tim Lambert
    June 7, 2007

    No Ragout, Ames does not say that 99.9% of dietary carcinogens are from natural foods. If you think he does, let’s see an actual quote.

  15. #16 richard
    June 7, 2007

    I used to think (foolishly, as it turned out) that in organizations like the NY Times, the civil service and universities, one moved upwards in rank according to merit. I was terribly wrong, and Tierney is another example.

    Or is he? If Tierney was an op-ed columnist and is now a science reporter, that (in the eyes of the Times) is probably a huge step down. Perhaps Tierney is on the way out: op-ed—-science beat—mailboy—fired.

  16. #17 bug_girl
    June 7, 2007

    as an entomologist, I’ve been tracking this issue with increasing disbelief the last few weeks.

    Here’s my contribution: analysis of the bogus claims from a biological standpoint. Short version: what a bunch of wankers.

    http://membracid.wordpress.com/2007/06/07/ddt-junk-science-malaria-and-the-attack-on-rachel-carson/

  17. #18 Ragout
    June 7, 2007

    I’ve already provide a quote regarding Ames’ views on dietary carcinogens. For more, you might want to check out his article titled “Dietary Pesticides (99.99% All Natural).”

    Admit it: Tierney’s right and you’re wrong.

    Ames, B. N., Profet, M. and Gold, L. S. (1990) Dietary Pesticides (99.99% All Natural). Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 87, 7777-7781.

  18. #19 hip hip array
    June 7, 2007

    Hank and others–
    Tierney’s bio on his blog page includes this:

    John Tierney always wanted to be a scientist but went into journalism because its peer-review process was a great deal easier to sneak through.

    No surprise that he writes dreck.

  19. #20 Tim Lambert
    June 7, 2007

    Ragout, Ames says that 99.99% of dietary **pesticides** are natural. This is not the same as saying that 99.9% of dietary **carcinogens** are natural.

  20. #21 Dano
    June 7, 2007

    Boy, the environmentalist-haters cling on to any crank in order to justify their beliefs, don’t they? Gold’s a crank.

    Confirmation bias, its called, and all the usual noise-machine suspects play that trumpet.

    Best,

    D

  21. #22 Davis
    June 7, 2007

    Hmm, I just made a cursory reading of the comments on Tierney’s blog. What’s really remarkable to me is how the Tierney-fans characterize the arguments against his piece as “emotional” — ignoring the fact that most of them are based on evidence. I swear, some people wouldn’t recognize an argument if it bit them in the ass.

  22. #23 Dano
    June 7, 2007

    Davis, it’s projection. I find it useful to start from that point when looking at a conservatarian argument.

    Best,

    D

  23. #24 Ragout
    June 7, 2007

    Tim,

    You may disagree with Ames, but he argues that natural pesticides are about as likely to be carcinogenic as are synthetic pesticides (although most natural pesticides haven’t been tested so we can’t be sure). Hence, Ames is without question suggesting that 99.9% of dietary carcinogens are natural. You shouldn’t distort his views just to get in a cheap shot at Tierney.

    For example, Ames writes “The levels of these 27 rodent carcinogens [naturally occurring] in the above plants are commonly thousands of times higher than the levels of synthetic pesticides.” See PNAS, p. 7778

  24. #25 Dano
    June 7, 2007

    Sigh…this paper is old enough to be requiring college tuition.

    The larger issue is that the chemical industry apologists and dupes still trot out this paper occasionally to justify the amount of chemicals in the environment. And let me tell you, since 1990 we may have learned a thing or two about the chemicals we dump on the planet and their relationship to human health and wellbeing.

    Christ. Is it really that difficult?

    Best,

    D

  25. #26 davidp
    June 7, 2007

    I have read a good history of DDT resistance in Sri Lanka and its effects on malaria control, but when someone said “it didn’t happen like that elsewhere” i didn’t have knowledge of another area’s history. [Of course the other guy didn't thave any evidence either, just a single assertion.] Does anyone know the history of mosquito DDT control and resistance in some other region, and preferably a reputable documented source for it?

  26. #27 Ragout
    June 7, 2007

    Dano,

    Ames hasn’t changed his views. Here’s a more recent discussion.

    But thanks for being honest enough not to defend Tim’s misrepresentation of Ames’ research.

  27. #28 Munin
    June 7, 2007

    _Hence, Ames is without question suggesting that 99.9% of dietary carcinogens are natural_

    Only if all dietary carcinogens are pesticides. Which they [are not](http://ezinearticles.com/?Dietary-Carcinogens-that-Increase-the-Risk-of-Cancer&id=39749).

  28. #29 elspi
    June 7, 2007

    Ragout,
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venn_diagram

    Draw a circle and label the interior Carcinogens.
    Now draw another circle of the same size that passes through the center of the first circle, and label the interior of the second circle Pesticides. Stare at the picture until you can find your ass with both hands.
    Repeat as necessary.

  29. #30 Steve Reuland
    June 7, 2007

    This part of Tierney’s article really raised an eyebrow:

    We ingest most carcinogens, natural or synthetic, in such small quantities that they don’t hurt us. Dosage matters, not whether a chemical is natural, just as Dr. Baldwin realized.

    As I understand it, an ever increasing dosage was exactly the problem with DDT, and exactly why it was finally banned. There are three basic problems with DTT in this regard: First, DDT and its toxic break-down products are highly persistent, and last out in the environment for many, many years. Second, thanks to increasing resistance among insect pests, farmers were dumping ever larger amounts on their fields. And third, thanks to the process of biomagnification, non-harmful doses found in water or soil increase by orders of magnitude as you go up the food chain. That’s exactly why predatory birds were being hardest hit.

    Put all this together and the levels of DDT that people were being exposed to were increasing on a very steep trajectory by the time it was finally phased out in 1972. Had DDT not been phased out, concentrations would have kept increasing indefinitely, because the rate at which it was being applied vastly outpaced the rate at which it was being broken-down. Whether or not this would have caused a cancer epidemic, or some other vast harm, I couldn’t say. But it stands to reason that you can’t increase the concentration of a pollutant forever and not have it cause problems.

    Either way, given that dosage is the issue at stake, Tierney should have at least been honest enough to address that issue — he should have explained to his audience exactly how it is that you can keep increasing the dose of a toxic chemical and not have it cause harm.

  30. #31 Ragout
    June 7, 2007

    Munin & elspi, you make a good point, but you’ve only demonstrated that I’ve made an error, not that Tierney or Ames are wrong.

    In fact, in the links I’ve provided, Ames also discusses other synthetic carcinogens. He shows that basically the same story holds as with pesticides. For example, he shows that a cup of coffee is 4 orders of magnitude more carcinogenic than the level of additives, pesticides or whatever that would ordinarily trigger regulation by the FDA. If anything, this finding is stronger than the claim that Tierney made (99.99% of dietary carcinogens are naturally occurring).

    Ames shows that Americans consume 1.5 grams of natural pesticides (of which maybe half are carcinogenic) and 2 grams of char (a carcinogen) per day on average. If you add in alcohol (a carcinogen) at maybe 10 grams per day that’s another order of magnitude. So, to falsify the claim that 99.99% of dietary carcinogens are naturally occurring, you’d have to show that Americans consume more than 1 mg of synthetic carcinogens per day. It’s pretty clear from the data Ames presents (table 38.5 of his toxicology handbook chapter) that this we’re below this level. Synthetic dietary carcinogens are measured in micrograms and nanograms, not milligrams.

  31. #32 jack strocchi
    June 8, 2007

    Tim L. again shows his ideological slip:

    While the New York Times has some great reporting on science (eg Carl Zimmer and Andrew Revkin

    Arent you forgetting Nicholas Wade, the pre-eminent NYT science journalist. Oh wait, he pokes holes in the Cultural Left’s un-scientific “blank slate” model of human nature. So not even a blip on Tim L.’s radar.

    BTW not to sound to much petulance in one comment, but I believe another despickable identity is owed a hat-tip for pointing this blog in the direction of Tierney’s unfortunate article.

  32. #33 Jeff Harvey
    June 8, 2007

    Isn’t tis the same Ames who is n thr Board of Directors at the George C. Marshall Institute? Do these guys have no shame?

    Moreover, comparing ‘natural’ pesticides – by which we are talking about plant allelochemicals at least in part – with synthetics is like comparing apples and oranges. Most plant produced toxins are highly volatile and thus very short lived in the environment. By contrast, chlorine based compounds in man-made pesticides are bioaccumulative and thus build up towards the temrinal end of the foodchain. Thus, an array of plant-produced toxins: coumarins, glycosides, alkaloids, glucosinolates etc. break do not persist but break down very quickly in the environment.

  33. #34 Tim Lambert
    June 8, 2007

    ragout, you seem to have taken the statement that half of the natural pesticides were rodent carcinogens to assuming that half of natural pesticides were rodent carcinogens. Unless you know that the ones tested were randomly chosen, the conclusion does not follow. It seems likely that the ones chosen for testing were the ones whose chemical properties suggested that they might be harmful.

  34. #35 Tim Lambert
    June 8, 2007

    Jack, when are you going to admit that it was Chomsky who shattered the Blank Slate?

    And you don’t get the hat tip because I read his piece before you posted your comment.

  35. #36 richard
    June 8, 2007

    “Most plant produced toxins are highly volatile….. By contrast, chlorine based compounds in man-made pesticides are bioaccumulative and thus build up towards the temrinal end of the foodchain.”

    I am not sure it is correct to say that most plant toxins are highly volatile. In any event, as these toxins are ingested when we eat the produce, it wouldn’t matter matter (with respect to carcinogenicity factors in food) whether they are volatile or not. I expect Ames is right, and that most of the carcinogens we ingest are naturally produced. Does it matter if the % is 51 or 99? Given that there are some extremely toxic natural compounds produced (e.g. Amanita toxins), it isn’t much of a stretch to suppose that there might be nmany natural carcinogens as well.

    And most of the recently released pesticides do not appear to be bioaccumulative.

  36. #37 Ragout
    June 8, 2007

    Tim,

    Yes I do assume that the pesticides that have been tested are roughly a random sample rather than having been selected as the ones most likely to be carcinogenic. Ames discusses selection bias and argues that the bias is small (p. 803 of the handbook chapter).

    In any event, we consume such a large amount of natural carcinogens that Tierney’s statement holds even if all the untested pesticides are noncarcinogenic.

  37. #38 Joel Shore
    June 8, 2007

    Re: comment #26, you may want to look at this paper: Georgeanne Chapin & Robert Wasserstrom, “Agricultural production and malaria resurgence in Central America and India”, Nature, Vol. 293, 1981, pages 181 to 185. It documents how in India and I believe some Central American country, malaria deaths skyrocketed as the usage of DDT continued to increase. (I think that Tim did a post on this paper sometime back…but it may have been before Deltoid moved to Scienceblogs.com as I couldn’t find it in a quick half-hearted search for it.)

  38. #39 Tim Lambert
    June 8, 2007

    You can get to Chapin and Wasserstrom pretty quickly if you enter “chapin” in the search old postings box.

    [Here it is](http://timlambert.org/2005/10/chapin/).

  39. #40 Hank Roberts
    June 8, 2007

    > In any event, we consume such a large amount of natural carcinogens that Tierney’s statement …

    Remains false because natural selection takes a while to work. Tierney apparently doesn’t believe in evolution, or doesn’t stop to think about how it works over time — else he couldn’t make that mistake.

    Same fundamental lack of knowledge as the whole chemical industry — unaware of how evolution works.

  40. #41 Keith Schneider
    June 8, 2007

    I’m pleased to see so many people step up to challenge John Tierney’s off-the-mark broadside against Rachel Carson. My own assessment is here at http://www.modeshift.org.

  41. #42 Tim Lambert
    June 8, 2007

    Tierny also doesn’t seem to have read *Silent Spring*:

    >Over the aeons of unhurried time that is nature’s, life reached an adjustment with destructive forces as selection weeded out the less adaptable and only the most resistant survived. These natural cancer-causing agents are still a factor in producing malignancy; however, they are few in number and they belong to that ancient array of forces to which life has been accustomed from the beginning.

  42. #43 Tim Lambert
    June 8, 2007

    Oh, and ragout, how come when we are estimating deaths in Iraq, a random sample isn’t good enough because you reckon it is none the less biased, but when testing chemicals you think you will get a random sample without even trying to make it random and with an obvious bias towards testing suspected carcinogens?

  43. #44 richard
    June 8, 2007

    “These natural cancer-causing agents are still a factor in producing malignancy; however, they are few in number and they belong to that ancient array of forces to which life has been accustomed from the beginning.”

    Well, that’s an observation, but so what? If you are descended from Europeans, would you be likely to have inherited ‘resistance’ to carcinogens in, say mangos, or peppers? Especially given that most cancers develop fairly slowly, and, until recently, you would have died from other causes before the cancer manifested itself?

    And, Hank, rest assured that scientists in the pesticide industry (no, I’m not one of them) know quite a bit about evolution. They have to deal with pest resistance to their products on a regular basis.

  44. #45 Crust
    June 8, 2007

    Spelling: It’s Tierney (you started out right, but then dropped the second “e”).

  45. #46 Tim Lambert
    June 8, 2007

    Thanks Crust, I fixed it.

  46. #47 z
    June 8, 2007

    Noting that Ames is the father of using (cheap and easy) bacterial mutagenesis rather than animal testing as a first-line screen for carcinogenicity, which innovation led to the great increase in screening compounds over the past few decades and identifying previously unsuspected widely disseminated carcinogens (Japanese food preservative furylfuranamide being the poster child); I put him on the side of the good guys in the industrial profit vs individual safety wars.

    That said, it is not surprising that his opinion might err on the side of estimating hordes of natural “carcinogens” assailing us right and left, as there are indeed hordes of natural bacterial mutagens in the environment, and most of these can be shown to attack DNA and/or be mutagenic to mammalian cells, **in vitro**.

    What this analysis misses, however, is the greater complexity of the mammalian or human system compared to the bacterium or the individual eukaryotic cell, which allows for many detoxifying steps twixt cup and chromosome; such that many in vitro toxins prove to be safe in vivo. A fact, ironically, which the pro-chemical-industry folks like to remind us of quite frequently. Combine this with the (venturing into quasi-informed handwaving here) role of evolution in granting the surviving members of the species some degree of immunity to natural toxins frequently encountered over several million years, compared to the lack of said process with regard to synthetic compounds never seen on earth before the past century, and one can see that Ames’ concerns regarding natural carcinogens versus synthetic carcinogens are likely to be somewhat overstated.

  47. #48 z
    June 8, 2007

    Furylfuramide not furylfuranamide. Now I know why they just called it FF or AF-2 back when it was a cause celebre.

  48. #49 z
    June 8, 2007

    ” natural pesticides are about as likely to be carcinogenic as are synthetic pesticides ”
    Ignoring the very deliberate work done by industrial chemists to make synthetic pesticides more toxic (or potentiate the activity of drugs; same thing, really). If it’s a hydrocarbon, stick a chlorine atom into it so that the recipient, human or insect, can’t get rid of it. Compare my favorite insecticide, imidacloprid, to nicotine. If it’s water soluble, acetylate it so that you can at least prolong the activity before it finally gets excreted. Compare acetylsalicylic acid with chewing willow bark. Few of these techniques specifically spare the human organism at the expense of the intended target.

  49. #50 richard
    June 8, 2007

    “Ames’ concerns regarding natural carcinogens versus synthetic carcinogens are likely to be somewhat overstated.”

    Perhaps, perhaps not. Even if they are overstated, the list of natural chemicals in Ames handbook with carcinogenic activity is impressive. Given the volumes of food we ingest, even if only a small percentage of them are carcinogenic the threat from them (as carcinogens) would likely be greater than from synthetics.

    Not sure what your point is about imidacloprid is, tho. Are you saying it is a carcinogen to humans at typical exposure rates? You can compare LD50s in animal models and target insect models: they differ considerably do they not?

    Synthetic pesticides can (if designed or used improperly) be very damaging to environments or non-target species. But I don’t see much evidence that they are big players in human cancers.

  50. #51 z
    June 8, 2007

    “Not sure what your point is about imidacloprid is, tho. Are you saying it is a carcinogen to humans at typical exposure rates? ”

    Gawrsh no. Actually, I doubt “pesticides” as a class are the major factor in cancer, natural or synthetic, since they’re just plain toxic. The percentage of compounds which are carcinogenic is actually pretty small; but since industrial compounds are so frequently useful because of their chemical reactivity, which is exactly the kind of property which makes them munge up DNA, that’s where the problem lies. Vinyl monomers, for instance.

  51. #52 Ian Forrester
    June 8, 2007

    Does anyone know who Bruce Ames’ “science” buddies are? Well he was closely associated with Singer and Seitz in their tobacco fraud days. They are also involved in SEPP, the ISCE, Heidelberg Appeal and TASSC. They then moved on to AGW denial.

    Linkages between Singer, Seitz and Ames can be found here:

    http://www.ecosyn.us/adti/pix/06_Map_95_big.JPG

    If you search the tobacco fraud document data bases you will find many references to Bruce Ames.

    Unfortunately he is just another “scientist” who has succumbed to the almighty dollar thrown at him by large multi-national corporations to protect their businesses.

  52. #53 richard
    June 8, 2007

    “If you search the tobacco fraud document data bases you will find many references to Bruce Ames. ”

    So?

  53. #54 Hank Roberts
    June 9, 2007

    > … scientists in the pesticide industry (no, I’m not one of them) know quite
    > a bit about evolution. They have to deal with pest resistance to their products on a regular basis.
    > Posted by: richard

    Richard, that was exactly the point Dr. Carson was making in Silent Spring. Even then it was obvious that resistance to the pesticides was already developing on a regular basis, used as directed.

    It was a tragedy, then. Still is.

  54. #55 jack strocchi
    June 9, 2007

    Posted by: Tim Lambert | June 8, 2007 05:55 AM

    Jack, when are you going to admit that it was Chomsky who shattered the Blank Slate?

    To be fair I should ask you “at what time did you stop beating your wife?”. Save the leading questions and red herrings for genuine suspects.

    BTW whilst we are on the subject of intellectual stonewalling, when are you going to admit that Sailer shattered Levitt’s “abortion cuts crime” theory? Quite a few nails have been driven home in the coffin of that theory. But still deafening silence on the part of Levitt’s supposedly pro-scientific cheerleaders.

    To the topic, can you point to any passage where I have withheld credit to Chomsky for his excellent critique of Skinner’s version of the Blank Slate? I have never denied Chomsky’s biological conservatism trumped fashionable sociological constructivism. But that hardly makes him a leading light of the Cultural Left.

    Chomsky’s basic scientific work on linguistics is independent of his left-wing critique of US foreign policy. Hehas demolished Michel Foucault’s cultural philosophy, absolute gospel amongst Cultural Leftists. So it is silly to push Chomsky forward as a counter-example of this idelogical type.

    Chomsky’s work does not weaken my point that Cultural Leftists who teem through the corridors of Humanities & Social Science faculties are generally wedded to this unscientific philosophy. I would have thought a person who likes to parade his statistical expertise would know that one (not orthodox Left-wing) exception does not negate this overall tendency. Which you continue to give a free pass, as evinced by overlooking Nicholas Wade’s work.

    In any case it is false to give Chomsky priority for the notion of the heritability and diversity of human nature. It was part of the intellectual heritage of mankind, from Plato to Darwin, until the Cultural Left ran amok. Every schoolboy, not to mention his mother, knows that. To paraphrase Orwell, the denial of this self-evident proposition “is an idea so stupid that only a [certain type of] intellectual would believe“.

  55. #56 Jeff Harvey
    June 9, 2007

    Richard,

    The thread is about DDT and other chlorine based pesticides which are bioaccumulative. Why deviate from the discussion? They don’t break down in the envrionment for many thousands of years and thus are ingested passively rather than actively. Natural plant toxins have evolved to resist attack from pathogens and herbivores. The fact is that these chemicals do not accumulate in organisms that ingest them but are taken up in small amounts then are broken down, or are excreted altogether. Some insects, such as the larvae of pierid butterflies, are able to convert harmful isothiocyanates into harmless nitriles metabolically. But the bottom line is that pesticides like DDT and their breakdown products are not excreted but accumulate in the bodies of recipient organisms. You don’t see glucosinoltaes or coumarins being stored in dangerous amounts up the food chain. In the case of glucosinolates, amounts actually decrease. But this is not the case with many of the human-manufactured synthetics. To argue that 99% of toxins consumed by humans are natural is a devious assertion: its not what we consume that matters so much but what happens to the toxins. I’ll bet that my metabolism contains a lot more stored residues of chlorine based pesticdes than glucosinolates, even though I eat cabbage regularly but have never knowlingly or willingly eaten a bowl of DDT.

  56. #57 Ian Gould
    June 9, 2007

    You know Jack your ability to inject your particuar hobby-horses into any discussion no more how completely unrelated to the topic at hand is almost admirable.

    Almost.

  57. #58 z
    June 9, 2007

    ” most of the carcinogens we ingest are naturally produced.”
    Well, it’s occurred to me since the start of this thread that “most” needs to be better defined. Does this mean most in terms of weight, or volume, or moles? Does it mean in terms of the number of different compounds? Does it mean the majority of the total carcinogenicity, i.e. weighted by potency? Does it mean the majority of the total exposure to carcinogenicity, i.e. weighted by both potency and length of exposure?

  58. #59 jack strocchi
    June 9, 2007

    Posted by: Ian Gould | June 9, 2007 08:54 AM

    You know Jack your ability to inject your particuar hobby-horses into any discussion no more how completely unrelated to the topic at hand is almost admirable.

    Almost.

    I think I have already said enough nasty things about John Tierney for one week. To labour the point, Tierney is a libertarian who believes in technological fixes for social problems. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but it does lead him to ignore the downside of technology.

    The premise of this blog, and most of its commenters, is that anti-scientific commentary is almost soley a province of the Right. This is ideologically lop-sided in the extreme.

    But you and Tim L. almost never cross ideological boundaries when the science offender is on the Left. That is a hobby-horse that is given free reign on this blog. “Friends to the Right” Oh no, we cant have that.

    The Science Wars of the nineties were mostly all about how the Humanities and Social Sciences depts of most uni faculties operate on an informal ban on scholarship that points out the hereditary conservation of diverse human biological characteristics.

    For sure, during the naughties the Science War initiatives were mostly on the Right. I do not deny, and do applaud, Tim L.’s efforts to expose Right wing unscientific irratrionalism. But by the same token, the point is to be pro-science, not anti-Right wing.

    The left wing anti-science plague infests the academy. The Right wing anti-science plauge is now ravages the polity. No doubt the latter is more dangerous in the short-run. But voters eventually tumble to the con. It is more difficult to protect impressionable undergraduates.

    Any one without ideological investments can see that the Lefts partially anti-Darwinian attitude towards sub-special evolution is arresting the development of the human sciencees. This massive offence against science gets a free pass from Tim L., you et al.

  59. #60 jack strocchi
    June 9, 2007

    Posted by: Tim Lambert | June 8, 2007 05:55 AM

    And you don’t get the hat tip because I read his piece before you posted your comment.

    Fair enough. But in the process of criticising NYT science coverage you neglect to mention its best science journalist (Wade) and its worst science journalist (Tierney). Jus trying to fill in your gaps, as always.

  60. #61 frankis
    June 9, 2007

    There’s the alternative z that it may be a meaningless talking point people have been sucked into accepting, contrary to their usual better judgment :)

    At the very least and as was mentioned somewhere above, we’re all here today despite natural toxins and carcinogens having always been along for the evolutionary ride with us.

  61. #62 Tim Lambert
    June 10, 2007

    Jack, the premise of this blog is that I write about stuff that I find interesting and where I think I can make an intelligent contribution. Nowhere do I say that right-wingers are the only offenders and I wrote about Cockburn, who is, I believe, a left-winger, a few days ago.

    Gross, Levitt and Sokol have moved on from the Science Wars and all three think the main threats to science come from the Right these days.

  62. #63 richard
    June 10, 2007

    “The thread is about DDT and other chlorine based pesticides which are bioaccumulative. Why deviate from the discussion? ”

    Come on, Jeff. You are the one changing the subject. You seem to have misread some previous posts; now you are trying to backtrack. The thread is not just about DDT; its also about natural vs synthetic pesticides.

  63. #64 richard
    June 10, 2007

    “Richard, that was exactly the point Dr. Carson was making in Silent Spring. Even then it was obvious that resistance to the pesticides was already developing on a regular basis, used as directed.”

    Yes, well, I agree with Dr. Carson. I am just saying that her point is widely accepted among pesticide scientists.

  64. #65 jack strocchi
    June 11, 2007

    Posted by: Tim Lambert | June 10, 2007 11:39 AM

    >Nowhere do I say that right-wingers are the only offenders and I wrote about Cockburn, who is, I believe, a left-winger, a few days ago.

    >

    You are confusing criticism of the odd Left wing intellectual with criticism of the broad Cultural Left ideological position. Since Cockburn is an anomalous relative to his ideological milieu we can take this as, like Chomsky, the exception that proves my rule.

    Tim L. says:

    >Gross, Levitt and Sokol have moved on from the Science Wars and all three think the main threats to science come from the Right these days.

    >

    Without abandoning their Cultural Left-crtitical positions. I agree that the main threat to science comes from the political Right. But a major threat from science comes from the Cultural Left.

    That trio do not exactly exhaust the class of scientists critical of the Cultural Left’s anti-scientific program. YOu have repeatedly dropped hints about your statistical expertise and non-ideological pretentions. I cant help noticing that the emperor unform is in dissaray when he only patrols one side of the street.

  65. #66 Jeff Harvey
    June 11, 2007

    No Richard, the debate is about the recent abuse heaped at Rachel Carson and her seminal and groundbreaking book, ‘Silent Spring’, and about the issue of DDT. Or are you coming in here cold?

    And you haven’t answered my points. The argument over natural versus synthetic toxins is bogus. Meaningless. Humans aren’t the only animals around, at least the last time I looked, and all terrestrial consumers (second trophic level and above) to some extent are confronted by the challenge posed by plant secondary compounds (allelochemicals). Herbivores have adapted in various ways: detoxification pathways, excretion, sequestration. Higher trophic levels are usually less challenged because these toxins have been reduced by the time they get higher up the food chain. But that doesn’t happen with chlorine-based synthetics. They accumulate up the food chain. They don’t readily break down in the environment. They are colloquially a ‘completely different kettle of fish’ with many man-made synthetics. I don’t know what on earth your point is, but please elucidate.

    I work with wild plants and study interactions between secondary plant compounds and consumers up to the fourth trophic level. When I see statements like the one made by Ames I cringe. They are partial truths bt ignore a huge wealth of empirical data.

  66. #67 richard
    June 11, 2007

    “No Richard, the debate is about the recent abuse heaped at Rachel Carson and her seminal and groundbreaking book, ‘Silent Spring’, and about the issue of DDT. Or are you coming in here cold?”

    Actually its about Tierney and his lousy reporting. Gee, I am glad I am not a graduate student in the laboratory of Jeff “I Am Never Wrong” Harvey. Must be suffocating!

    I think most of us have agreed that Carson was correct. Is Ames criticizing Carson? I think he has simply claimed that there are many natural carcinogens and that they are at least as big a threat re cancer in humans as synthetics. Its a debatable point and one well worth discussion in my view. Nothing to do with persistence in the environment or food chain accumulation of chlorine-based compounds. See above.

  67. #68 Jeff Harvey
    June 11, 2007

    Richard said,

    “Actually its about Tierney and his lousy reporting. Gee, I am glad I am not a graduate student in the laboratory of Jeff “I Am Never Wrong” Harvey. Must be suffocating!”.

    You should ask them. But I think I’d come out quite OK, thank you very much. Besides, when did I ever say that “I am never wrong”? You first waded in arguing that my point about bioaccumulation was incorrect, using the current crop of pesticides as an example. But I was discussing the DDT issue, that is all. I do think that we over-rely on pesticides even today, without fully understanding how they effect naturally occurring food webs and the pest control services they provide. But I just wanted to say that I think the comparison of natural versus man-made toxins is not a fair one. Our species has probably co-existed (and evolved) with all kinds of natural toxins but, as I said earlier, these break down very quickly in the environment. Many of the man-made synthetics don’t, and pose a much greater longer term threat to human health. I am sure that many working in the field would agree with that. Moreover, as I stated, we are only talking about direct effects on human health. What about a myriad of indirect effects caused by the overuse of herbicides and insecticides as these affect ecological communities, systems, and the services that emerge from them? These effects might rebound on civilization too, but it is an issue that is largely ignored.

    I

  68. #69 Eli Rabett
    June 11, 2007

    Jack, please send me the memo with the cultural left position on pesticides. Remember please that the cultural left includes industrially obsessed Marxists and the cultural right used to include the Sierra Club types until they were driven out

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