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.