Skeptoid fact check part 2

In part 1 of this fact check I examined Brian Dunning’s assertions that DDT did not thin eggshells. Responses from Orac: “Dunning should know better”, Bug Girl: “Dunning clearly got his information second-hand. And it was bad information.”, and Dunning:

I think I’ve repeated that Milloy was not one of my sources enough times. I hadn’t even heard of him.

which is a rather odd thing to say, because in comments on his podcast Dunning responded to this comment:

Yeah, the very fact that you would consider Junk Science a source worthy of citing frankly is enough to treat the entire article with extreme skepticism. Junk Science is nothing more than an anti-science ideologically driven libertarian/industry front group.

with this, where he says that junkscience was one of his sources:

I’m not sure your political disagreement with one of my sources constitutes a valid correction to anything in the episode.

Dunning has so far made two small corrections to his podcast. Many more are needed.

On to part 2 of the fact check. Dunning:

Silent Spring’s legacy may have been good for the birds, but not so much for human populations in the third world. DDT is one of the most effective pesticides ever discovered for fighting malaria. Although DDT remains legal for insecticide use in most areas where malaria is a major killer, the money for fighting the mosquitos often comes from donors in wealthy countries like the United States. Such wealthy donors have often had little personal exposure to the issues, and can sometimes have a skewed perspective when it comes to bald eagle eggshells in the United States versus the deaths of children in Mozambique.

This is ridiculous. No donor thinks that DDT use in Mozambique will harm bald eagles in the US. Some donors have insisted that their money funds insecticides other than DDT, but that’s not because of concerns about birds — it’s because of concerns that DDT is harmful to human health.

Dunning continues:

Writing in the Nature Medicine journal, malaria advocate Prof. Amir Attaran criticized American environmental groups for opposing the public health exceptions of DDT bans:

“Environmentalists in rich, developed countries gain nothing from DDT, and thus small risks felt at home loom larger than health benefits for the poor tropics. More than 200 environmental groups, including Greenpeace, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the World Wildlife Fund, actively condemn DDT.”

Dunning has truncated the quote from Attaran. The sentence doesn’t end there, but continues.

actively condemn DDT for being “a current source of significant injury to…humans.”[6]

The full quote makes it clear the environmentalists were concerned about the danger to human health, not birds. And if you check the document that Attaran cites, you will see that Attaran hasn’t represented it fairly. They do want to phase out the use of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) (including DDT), but only when “alternatives are made available” and

Special efforts must be made to ensure that health and safety are not compromised while a POP is being phased out and eliminated (particularly in the area of infectious disease control, …

Environmentalist groups do not oppose the public health exception for DDT. For example, Greenpeace says:

We support the continued use of DDT in malaria control programmes where there are no effective alternatives.

Dunning continues:

As a result of these pressures, many donations now coming from wealthy nations are now contingent upon DDT not being used, which leaves the poor nations with fewer options, often too expensive and less effective, and children die.

Let’s check the biggest one, USAID:

USAID supports indoor residual spraying (IRS) with DDT as an effective malaria prevention strategy in tropical Africa in those specific situations where it is judged to be the best insecticide for IRS both epidemiologically and entomologically and based on host-country policy.

And if you check USAID’s plans for 2010 you’ll see that they are planning to spray DDT in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, five of the fifteen countries they are operating in. In the other ten countries other insecticides are better choices for IRS.

Dunning continues:

If we shelve our most effective tools hoping that something perfect will come along that has no potential downside, we’ll wait forever, and thousands will continue dying every day. These are the cases where wealthy environmental groups appear to do their best to justify their elitist stereotype, at the expense of brown people.

DDT isn’t the most effective tool against malaria and it hasn’t been shelved. And since those environmental groups don’t oppose the use of DDT, it’s not so much a case of them living up to “their elitist stereotype” as Dunning revealing his prejudices against environmentalists.

Dunning concedes that DDT resistance is a problem but then argues:

Moreover, we’ve since learned that it is still effective against resistant mosquitos, only a little less so. Susceptibility in resistant strains goes down to 63%, as opposed to 87% in non-resistant strains.

Dunning doesn’t give a cite for this, so we don’t know what he is referring to, but it’s probably this 2007 study, which found that 73% of DDT-resistant mosquitoes were repelled or killed by DDT, but 92% were repelled or killed by dieldrin (which they were not resistant to). First, you can’t generalize this result — local conditions and the nature of resistance in the mosquito population could make a big difference,. The mosquito species studied, Aedes aegypti, doesn’t even transmit malaria. Second, even if DDT is still somewhat effective, that doesn’t mean you should use it — this experiment found that an insecticide that the mosquitoes were not resistant to was much more effective. (More comments on this paper here). Third, the repellent effect of DDT can actual hinder the effectiveness of vector control. Fourth, the disastrous experience of Sri Lanka in the 60s proves that DDT resistance can render it ineffective against malaria. DDT spraying had reduced malaria by so much in 1963 that there weren’t enough cases to justify spraying against malaria (though DDT continued to be used in agriculture). Unfortunately, malaria returned and when they resumed anti-malaria spraying DDT had lost much of its effectiveness because the mosquitoes had evolved resistance. By 1975, DDT was pretty much useless and they were only able to get malaria back under control by switching to the more expensive malathion.

Dunning’s final paragraph:

DDT does have its place, and its current usage is probably not too far off of what it should be. The exception is Africa where DDT’s upside far outweighs the down, and my opinion is that donors should relax their restrictions against it, and leave those decisions to the experts on the front lines in Africa. For much of the rest of the world, DDT has largely been supplanted by newer and better agricultural pesticides, and there’s insufficient reason to put collateral species under pressure. A scientific review nearly always produces better focused policy, and our DDT policy is definitely due for a tuneup.

Dunning’s proposed policy is, in fact, the current policy. Donors like USAID will fund DDT use and they let the experts decide where it will be used. That’s why, although it’s still used in some places, in most places other insecticides are used for IRS and the primary tool is long-lasting insecticide treated nets. These last for years, while DDT has to be resprayed every six months.

So what went wrong with Dunning’s podcast? I think the problem was that he was insufficiently skeptical and was taken in by a PR campaign designed to put environmentalists on the defensive by falsely accusing them of killing babies. My article with John Quiggin covers some of the history of this campaign, as does Oreskes and Conway’s excellent book, Merchants of Doubt.

If you do a podcast every week on a wide variety of topics, there will inevitably be errors and I don’t think that people will hold that against Dunning. But digging in and not making appropriate corrections will mean that people lose confidence in him. I think a good model is the the way Bob Carroll made corrections to his newsletter about second-hand smoke (Carrol was also taken in Milloy!).

Comments

  1. #1 rdb
    November 26, 2010

    Typos

    s/DDT concedes that DDT/Dunning concedes that DDT/

    s/an insecticide that the mosquitoes were resistant to was much more/an insecticide that the mosquitoes weren’t resistant to was much more/ (I think)

  2. #2 SocraticGadfly
    November 26, 2010

    Tim:

    First, on Bob Carroll – it was Penn/Teller taking him in, too, and I gave him the heads-up on that.

    Second, it’s hypocritical for a wingnut libertarian like Dunning to create straw men of how folks no more white than he is allegedly don’t care about darker skins. It’s almost as hypocritical as claims that abortion is black genocide. In reality, I’ll bet Dunning is a racialist like Frank Miele is (and Shermer may be, the way he fawns over Miele’s evolutionary biology cred).

    Third, I want to ask Dunning this:

    Have you contacted Milloy yet to ask him to explain away how, although it **seems** secondhand smoke kills 600,000 a year: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-11844169 this isn’t really true?

    Please, let us know what he says on your next “skeptical” podcast, Brian.

    But, Dunning won’t; he got busted this time, so he’ll just be more careful next time.

  3. #3 G.Shelley
    November 27, 2010

    Pretty appalling by Dunning. Either he is being intentionally dishonest, or just plain lazy. He really needs to admit his mistakes and stop setting up straw men of his opponents in order to dismiss their criticisms.

    Yeah, the very fact that you would consider Junk Science a source worthy of citing frankly is enough to treat the entire article with extreme skepticism. Junk Science is nothing more than an anti-science ideologically driven libertarian/industry front group.

    He somehow manages to miss the “anti science” and “ideologically driven’ parts of the statement and only respond to the “libertarian” part of it.
    Perhaps if he covers the moon hoax, he might add that people wouldn’t even have risked going to the moon in the 1960s as scientists thought that any craft that landed would sink in the many feet of accumulated moon dust, citing Kent Hovind, then when someone says:
    “Kent Hovind is a convicted criminal whose web site is full of easily demonstrable distortions and outright lies, even other Creationists sites argue against using many of them”

    Dunning can reply:
    “Just because a person has a conviction for something totally unrelated does not weaken their arguments, it is the science they present I am interested in, not ad hominem attacks”

  4. #4 bug_girl
    November 27, 2010

    BTW, we can’t know what Dunning has added to his show notes since he blocks the Internet Archive from saving his pages:
    http://web.archive.org/web/20091029041345/skeptoid.com/robots.txt

    I find this odd.

  5. #5 Daganstein
    November 27, 2010

    Thanks for doing these factchecks. The skeptical movement is a powerful force and I think there’s room for them to work with environmentalists and scientists who are working on problems like this and are often fighting misinformation from polluting industries.

    The DDT revisionism on Carson and environmentalists is one of the more interesting polluter misinformation campaigns. It’s a classic story they’re trying to tell of hubris and unintended consequences, but it is not backed up by the facts.

    Unlike the front groups that peddle this stuff, however, Dunning and his brethren in the skeptical community, I’m sure, are much more likely to come around on this topic and respond to your fact-based analysis.

  6. #6 John Harrington
    November 27, 2010

    Your last paragraph is right on. I would put it more strongly. If Dunning goes through with his plan to simply “correct a few errors” and stands by his main conclusion that “environmentalists” are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, I humbly suggest that he has lost all credibility. It really is not a matter of how many podcasts he does. If he does so many that he propagates deliberate lies, he should close up shop.

  7. #7 Orac
    November 27, 2010

    Dunning looks as though he might also be getting his information from the ACSH as well:

    http://acsh.org/healthissues/newsID.1909/healthissue_detail.asp

    The ACSH is a pro-industry group that can be relied upon to attack any study that finds chemicals to cause disease, processed food to lead to obesity and disease, etc. The sole exception is that it accepts that tobacco causes lung cancer and heart disease, although lately it seems to be drifting more towards a view that secondhand smoke does not cause lung cancer.

  8. #8 frank -- Decoding SwiftHack
    November 27, 2010

    Why on earth does Dunning even treat Milloy’s web site as a reliable source? In what way is it supposedly “reliable”?

  9. #9 SocraticGadfly
    November 27, 2010

    Let’s STOP calling Dunning a skeptic, above all. Here’s why.

    BugGirl, thanks for noting his hiding his archives. Per both you, and Tim’s first column on this issue, you’ve both been too generous to Dunning so far.

    He did NOT get “snookered,” in my opinion.

    It’s pretty clear he deliberately went to Milloy, ASCH, etc. Nobody conned him.

    If you Google his name, you’ll find on his personal website nothing about being a skeptic, but plenty about being a venture capitalist. (There’s a mugshot, so you know it’s the same person.)

    Since he’s trolling for self-confirmation, he’s not engaging in a skeptical mindset.

    Therefore, let’s STOP calling him a skeptic. Not just on this issue, but any issue.

    Like Shermer, he now has a LONG burden of proof in my book.

    Shermer, in the last week or so, with multiple bad posts on Skepticblog, has violated the terms of his parole on this burden of proof.

    These folks (yes, generalizing) are slippery bastards. Especially with the recently changed American political climate.

  10. #10 wintermute
    November 27, 2010

    It’s reliably crap.

  11. #11 Pinko Punko
    November 27, 2010

    I think many of these “skeptics” are contrarians in the John Stossel mode (perhaps also with a touch of Freakonomics thrown in). Their skeptical careers I think will follow John Stossel’s.

    (Stossel had been an ABC(US) News reporter kind of started out as a critical/consumer advocate slowly moved into a contrarian/gov’t is always wrong kind of mode, now is extreme Randian libertarian). He is unsurprisingly at Fox now.)

  12. #12 Mike G
    November 27, 2010

    And not surprisingly, Stossel also did a “Give me a break” segment about how thousands of people in Africa could be saved if only the mean old environmentalists would let them spray DDT.

  13. #13 Jeff Harvey
    November 28, 2010

    Bravo Tim. You are doing an excellent job of countering Dunning’s utter drivel.

    The worst thing about Dunning’s appalling comments is that he appears to use the typical anti-environmental argument. This is that there must be a trade-off between what is good for the environment (in this case, birds) and what is good for humanity. Thus, in solving problems facing humanity, we must face the facts that natural systems must be sacrificed to secure human ‘progress’. It is as if the two are mutually exclusive. As a scientist working in the field of population ecology, I have to deal with this kind of asinine logic all of the time, and, quite frankly, I am getting fed up with up.

    Dunning’s logic is full of holes. The fact is that the effects of continually nickel and diming natural systems and the species that make them up to death will (in fact already is) rebound on humanity. Prices for natural resources become more expensive as they become more scarce, and the degredation of vital ecosystem services upon which civilization rests also has huge economic repercussions. I could run a long list of them off here, if people like Dunning would care to read and learn about them.

    The crux of the matter is that Dunning and his ilk appear to think that protecting populations of any species from human actions – whether it is through habitat loss, the physiological costs of bioaccumulative pesticides or a range of other threats – is primarily an issue of ethics. Its as if he thinks that birds have no useful function except where humans are concerned, and that this use is primarily based on the consumptive value of a species or on its value in generating tourist revenue. The idea that humanity derives much more than that from nature is beyond those whose vision of nature is shaped by a very limited set of values. I wonder if Dunning has ever heard ot the term ‘ecosystem services’ or read anything on the subject.

    The other point worth mentioning is that humans are at the terminal end of the food chain. Synthetic chlorine-based pesticides accumulate up the food chain, meaning that organisms at the top are most negatively affected by them over time. Those who think that we can spray bioaccumulate pesticides ad libitum into terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and that there will be no repercussions on humans are living in cloud cuckoo-land.

  14. #14 Doug
    November 28, 2010

    Facts? What does a Libertarian like Dunning need with facts? Ideology is all that is important. Dunning saw a Penn & Teller show which told him that DDT is super so he tows the party line. Dunning is nothing more than a creationist in his way of thinking.

  15. #15 DavidCOG
    November 28, 2010

    Sadly, anyone who self-describes as being a ‘sceptic’ often is anything but. They use the word as a smokescreen to hide behind. Scepticism is a default position for any thinking person – you don’t need to state it explicitly.

    And when “*I’m a sceptic*” is married to “*I’m a libertarian*”, the product is always ideologically-driven bullshit. At least all the wingnuts are good enough to label themselves clearly!

  16. #16 Militant Agnostic
    November 28, 2010

    I’ll bet Dunning is a racialist like Frank Miele is (and Shermer may be, the way he fawns over Miele’s evolutionary biology cred).

    Do you have any evidence for this allegation (regarding Dunning)? In his response to a student question about athletic ability and race Dunning was quite the opposite of a racialist.

    But, using Milloy as a source and claiming to be unaware of how bad a source that was – WTF. I have been aware of Milloy’s reputation for a long time and Dunning has no excuse for not knowing Milloy was a bad source.

  17. #17 Max
    November 28, 2010

    Tim,

    Brian’s claim that “Susceptibility in resistant strains goes down to 63%, as opposed to 87% in non-resistant strains” comes from Wikipedia, citing a 2002 study in one province of South Africa. The study concludes, “Finding DDT resistance in the vector An. arabiensis… indicates an urgent need to develop a strategy of insecticide resistance management for the malaria control programmes of southern Africa.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DDT#cite_note-Hargreaves-92
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14651656

  18. #18 Max
    November 28, 2010

    Orac is right that Brian gets his information from the ACSH as well.

    The Skeptoid episode on Organic Food Myths cites this:
    “Is Organic Food Better?”
    http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.228/news_detail.asp

    And again in response to Listener Feedback.

    The Skeptoid episode on the safety of plastic bottles cited PlasticsInfo.Org (“Better Living with Plastics”).

    Brian is also fond of the “no victims” canard:
    1. DDT: “DDT, while it does have environmental and health concerns like all pesticides, is not known to have ever killed anyone.”
    2. Pesticides: “Despite claims in the organic community, there’s never yet been a confirmed case of anyone becoming ill from consuming produce contaminated with residue from pesticides or herbicides, either organic or synthetic.”
    3. BPA: “The theory and the threat are certainly there: lab animal tests have proven the potential effects at high levels, and a few small studies find correlations (other studies fail to replicate these results); but so far, no victims.”
    4. Water fluoridation: Quoted someone saying, “They produced no victims, just lots of dubious statistics and horror stories with no provenance.”

  19. #19 Tim Lambert
    November 28, 2010

    Max, the numbers match and it’s about DDT resistance, but he got everything else wrong, so I would say no, except for the fact that he made so many other errors, so I think you’re right.

  20. #20 Area Man
    November 28, 2010

    As a result of these pressures, many donations now coming from wealthy nations are now contingent upon DDT not being used, which leaves the poor nations with fewer options, often too expensive and less effective, and children die.

    Am I the only one who thinks that the most risible part of all this is that conservatives and libertarians are lecturing us on how governments and NGOs should be allocating their funds to help poor people in foreign countries? This is about as credible as an arsonist telling the fire marshal that his standards are too lax.

  21. #21 SocraticGadfly
    November 29, 2010

    @Militant Agnostic #16: No, no proof on Dunning being a “hereditarian,” “racialist,” or whatever other term you prefer. Just an intuition that there’s more lurking behind the “methinks he doth protest on behalf of dark skins too much.”

    On Miele, OTOH? As my review of “Race” details, there’s plenty of evidence, albeit circumstantial, about him. That’s another reason, in addition to his libertarianism, I reject the idea that Shermer’s a skeptic, and will do so as long as someone like Miele’s on Skeptic mag’s staff.

    http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2005/03/race-is-it-bell-curve-light.html

    ===

    @Max 18: “Big Chem” on bisphenol-A is, IMO, deliberately singing from the Big Tobacco/Big Oil playbook.

  22. #22 Militant Agnostic
    November 29, 2010

    @21 – I decided Shermer was no skeptic after his posts on the Skeptologists blog regarding the sub-prime melt-down. His insistence that it was all the result of the government interfering in the marketplace was just pathetic, especially in light of the fact that the Canadian taxpayers didn’t have to bail out the heavily regulated Canadian Banks. His refusal to change his mind when confronted with evidence indicates he is no skeptic.

  23. #23 Treppenwitz
    November 29, 2010

    I’m suddenly uneasy about having occasionally cited Skeptoid in discussions over the past year or so. Are there any sites doing this kind of fact-checking on an episode-by-episode basis?

  24. #24 Max
    November 29, 2010

    Treppenwitz,

    I hope you didn’t take Brian’s advice to “take your snack to bed with you, and read in the dark.”

    Oh, and there’s another “no victim” fallacy in that episode:
    “Whatever you drink normally, in the form of coffee, juice, soft drinks, whatever, probably satisfies most people’s water requirements. The evidence for this is that we don’t see suited businesspeople laying around on the sidewalks of New York City dying of thirst, stretching out their hands in appeal to passersby.”

    So yeah, take the episodes on health, environment, and politics with a grain of salt, and read the episode’s comments.

  25. #25 Marion Delgado
    November 29, 2010

    Dunning is an anti-science dick, purely. The idea that diuretics are making a net contribution to hydration? That’s probably pre-19th century.

  26. #26 Pedro Homero
    December 5, 2010

    This saddens me to no end. Shermer, Dunning, Penn & Teller – what kind of ideological virus is this american-type “libertarianism”?

    Enemies within our own trenches. This is so sad.

  27. #27 bug_girl
    December 7, 2010

    The 2007 study was flawed–here’s my critique of the science
    http://membracid.wordpress.com/2007/08/09/an-odd-email-campaign-by-africa-fighting-malaria/

    Summary: Meh.

  28. #28 Slightly Off
    December 7, 2010

    Somehow all this antilibertarian fervour here makes me wonder how many posters are actually one and the same…

  29. #29 jakerman
    December 7, 2010

    >*Somehow all this antilibertarian fervour here makes me wonder how many posters are actually one and the same…*

    Yeah, maybe we’re all part of big government conspiracy?

    How would you test your hypothesis? Will you be skeptial or just adopt an unsupported narrative that fits with your ideology?

  30. #30 anon
    December 7, 2010

    The threat was not to American birds, but to the pretty wildlife of Africa that white environmentalists are so attached to. After all, the idea was that they were supposed to develop an eco-tourist economy instead of the icky industrialization of Asia.

  31. #31 Confused...
    December 9, 2010

    Dunning continues:


    If we shelve our most effective tools hoping that something perfect will come along that has no potential downside, we’ll wait forever, and thousands will continue dying every day. These are the cases where wealthy environmental groups appear to do their best to justify their elitist stereotype, at the expense of brown people.

    Then you say:


    DDT isn’t the most effective tool against malaria and it hasn’t been shelved. And since those environmental groups don’t oppose the use of DDT, it’s not so much a case of them living up to “their elitist stereotype” as Dunning revealing his prejudices against environmentalists.

    Do you know what “if” and “there are cases” mean in this context? Your response doesn’t contradict Brian’s stance. In fact you seem to agree with it while sounding like you disagree with it.

    If I say “there have been cases where Democrats have done ‘foo'” and you reply “but some Democrats haven’t done ‘foo’!” then we are probably in agreement. Exactly what do you disagree with? I haven’t found anything in your post that actually contradicts Brian. And for some reason when Brian says “junk science wasn’t my main source” followed by “you really shouldn’t consider my source, just the facts” you assume he *really* means “junk science was my main source” and then continue to attack what you assume was his source rather than what he actually said?

    ???

  32. #32 WScott
    December 9, 2010

    Dunning has a new post at Skepticblog. He still insists Malloy wasn’t his source; he still claims that only minor 2 errors that have been pointed out to him. I’m getting the feeling he was too angry & defensive to actually read either of your fact checks…

    http://skepticblog.org/2010/12/09/skeptoids-massive-ddt-fail/

  33. #33 Tim Lambert
    December 9, 2010

    Confused, Dunning did not say “there are cases”, he said “these are cases”, referring to their alleged opposition to the use of DDT against malaria. Which they don’t oppose, as I showed.

    Dunning said that junkscience was his source and then later denied it, even though it is obvious if you compare his podcast with what junkscience says.

  34. #34 Tim Lambert
    December 9, 2010

    My comment at skepticblog is in moderation, so I’m posting it here as well.

    Dunning pretends that I blind sided him with my post, but the history is rather different. As soon as his podcast went up he received comments criticising him for using junkscience as a source. Dunning’s response in full and not out of context as he claims:

    >”Feel free to point out any flaws you find, I’ll happily correct them.

    >I’m not sure your political disagreement with one of my sources constitutes a valid correction to anything in the episode.”

    As well as more comments about Milloy, there were quite a few pointing out flaws. For example:

    >”Brian, PubMed indicates that eggshell thinning is significantly correlated with DDE levels (a DDT metabolite) in many bird species.”

    Others pointed that he was wrong about Newcastle disease causing pelicans to be culled and that scientific sources attribute pelican decline to DDT, that he was wrong about stress skewing experiments on eggshell thinning, that he was wrong about donors not funding DDT, that he was wrong about Greenpeace opposing the use of DDT against malaria and that he was wrtong about DDT being effective even when mosquitoes are resistant. (That last one was mine).

    We all sat back and waited for Dunning to make the promised corrections. Then he did the [Drunken Skeptics Podcast](http://www.miskeptics.org/2010/11/the-dunning-brian-effect-episode-4-of-the-drunken-skeptics-podcast/) where he made it clear that he wasn’t going to make any of those corrections and affirmed, again, that junkscience was one of his sources. Here’s a transcript:

    >”One of the many sources listed was form junkscience.com. I’d never heard of it before, the guy that writes it, Steve Milloy, I’d never heard of him before. This was a complete blind-side to me, this hail storm of guff that I got from people, saying ‘How on Earth could you ever list this guy as a reference? He’s a libertarian, he’s a Republican, he’s on Fox News, he’s therefore evil.’

    >”Well, that’s not the criteria I use for what sources I go to. I don’t check out their political voting backgrounds. His page that I used, “100 facts about DDT” was extremely thoroughly referenced. For two or three of the points that I made in the episode I went to some of the journal articles that he referenced. Now, in fairness, it was a mistake to list that page as a reference. Instead I should have listed the two or three journal articles I used separately.”

    So that’s when I decided that the only chance of getting a correction out of Dunning was to write detailed blog posts that he could not ignore. I invite everyone to look at them and see if I only offer two corrections as Dunning claims, or if there are a whole lot more. As well as Dunnings podcast, I do look at some of the papers cited by junkscience, but that is because Dunning SAID HE USED THEM. See transcript above.

    The Wikipedia article on DDT is pretty accurate. Here’s what it says:

    >”Most famously, it is a reproductive toxicant for certain birds species, and it is a major reason for the decline of the bald eagle,[6] brown pelican[35] peregrine falcon, and osprey.[1] Birds of prey, waterfowl, and song birds are more susceptible to eggshell thinning than chickens and related species, and DDE appears to be more potent than DDT.[1]”

    Compare Dunning:

    >”Whether DDT is used or not would probably not have a large impact on bird populations. … it was the Bald Eagle Protection Act and the bird’s 1967 placement on the endangered species list, combined with increased penalties for poaching, that ultimately led to the bald eagle’s successful return to remaining habitats. … Brown pelicans … would have dropped sharply whether DDT was in the picture or not.”

  35. #35 Mr Ashy
    December 9, 2010

    Anyone reading Dunning’s attempt to weasel out of what he said would think that your criticisms were limited to one or two minor points taken pretty much out of context. Still, at least he had the decency to link to your blog post, so that people can compare what you actually said with his version of it.

    Judging from some of the replies, many of his supporters didn’t do that, and are content to rely on his assertion that people were objecting to his alleged use of junkscience and claiming that has he used that, his entire podcast was suspect, rather that taking apart his claims one by one.

  36. #36 SocraticGadfly
    December 9, 2010

    @Tim 34 … I outright called Dunning a liar on that new Skepticblog. May have to go back for a follow-up.

  37. #37 Jansob
    December 9, 2010

    Is there any way we can begin to use politics as a litmus test? It’s obvious that anyone who is not left/liberal cannot be a skeptic and remain that way? We should publicly call on prominent skeptics to declare their politics, and tell the rightists to get lost.

  38. #38 Confused...
    December 10, 2010

    Man the people here are touchy – including you Mr. Lambert. Your “correction” reads so much like a Fox News rant about “libruls” that it’s difficult to tell what exactly you’re correcting. And the followers here screaming “he’s a libertarian!!!” are just nuts. Political affiliation is not the problem here.

    “These are the cases” is still a qualification. He’s not attacking all environmentalists. If you are so blind as to think that there are zero radical environmentalists then I suggest you spend some time giving this real thought. All groups have radicals.

    When I first read your article my reaction was “did he listen to the same episode I did?” Brian’s podcast wasn’t nearly as radical and anti-environmental as you seem to be thinking (to me at least).

    “I think the problem was that he was insufficiently skeptical and was taken in by a PR campaign designed to put environmentalists on the defensive by falsely accusing them of killing babies. “

    And from his conclusion:

    DDT does have its place, and its current usage is probably not too far off of what it should be. The exception is Africa where DDT’s upside far outweighs the down, and my opinion is that donors should relax their restrictions against it, and leave those decisions to the experts on the front lines in Africa. For much of the rest of the world, DDT has largely been supplanted by newer and better agricultural pesticides, and there’s insufficient reason to put collateral species under pressure. A scientific review nearly always produces better focused policy, and our DDT policy is definitely due for a tuneup.”

    This is radical anti-environmental PR? Brian may not be right – but he’s hardly shilling for “the man” here. Being wrong isn’t the same as lying.

    I’m going to go ahead and suggest that environmentalism is one of your sacred cows. You probably listened to Brian’s episode in a voice that sounded like it was personally attacking you (and at one point I’ll agree his tone was harsh). But the level of your outrage doesn’t match the level of your disagreements. I think reasoned argument and discussion would do better to further science and public knowledge, not claims of lying, weaseling, being a libertarian, etc.

    Brian has in the past posted corrections if they’re reasoned and backed by evidence. I’ve also heard him read other “letters of disagreement” but usually they’re from quacks and nuts. At the moment I’d put your writings in the latter category. Try to get them into the first mmmm?

  39. #39 frank -- Decoding SwiftHack
    December 10, 2010

    Mr. Confused, you truly are confused.

    Let me help you clear up the confusion:

    Brian Dunning gets his DDT ‘facts’ from Junk Science, a web site which is ‘reliable’ for its unreliability.

    In case you’re still confused, let me repeat that:

    Brian Dunning gets his DDT ‘facts’ from Junk Science, a web site which is ‘reliable’ for its unreliability.

    Dig?

    frank

  40. #40 Beelzebud
    December 10, 2010

    I see the Libertarians are taking this attack personally, and frankly, they should. At this point, there is no scientific debate about DDT. There is as much a debate about the effects of DDT, as their is about creationism vs. evolution.

    The ONLY reason this is a debate, is because Libertarian ideology says that private companies (like the one that manufactured DDT) should not be regulated. That is it. That’s the only reason there is any type of “debate” here.

    Libertarianism shouldn’t disqualify you from being a respected member of the skeptical community. However, when you ignoring solid science in favor of your Libertarian ideology, the line has been crossed and your political bias makes you entirely non-skeptical, and just a propagandist.

  41. #41 Yilloslime
    December 12, 2010

    I attempted to comment on [Dunning’s post responding to all this](http://skepticblog.org/2010/12/09/skeptoids-massive-ddt-fail/) but after almost2 days, my comments are still “awaiting moderation,” so I thought I post them here so that are not lost forever.

    ###

    December 10, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    Dunning,

    As a primary architect of the wikipedia you apparently relied upon, all I can say is that you’ve missed the forest from the trees. Sure, most of the factoids you’ve cited are correct, but the narrative that you’ve constructed from them is way off base. Your thesis regarding DDT’s role in malaria control seems to be that “If we shelve our most effective tools hoping that something perfect will come along that has no potential downside, we’ll wait forever, and thousands will continue dying every day.” What you’ve ignored is that DDT is rarely among “our most effective tools” anymore, and in most situations alternatives are more effective.

    Wikipedia’s DDT article naturally focuses on the debate over its use in malaria control, since the topic of the article is DDT. But to get a more holistic view of malaria control, you should have done some reading on malaria in general. The wikipedia article on malaria would have been good place to start. If you did that, you see you’ve overstated the importance of DDT. As malaria control experts Hans Herren and Charles Mbogo recently argued in a letter in Environmental Health Perspectives, framing the issue as a simple choice between DDT and malaria is the wrong way to think about the issue. There are other tools to fight malaria, and which tools are most appropriate vary across space and time.

    It all comes to down the take away message: The overall impression of your skeptoid episode is that DDT is a (near) silver bullet for malaria control, that it has been underused, and that it’s the fault of overzealous environmentalists. It’s hard to listen to the episode and think that your conclusion is something else. But unfortunately, this is impression doesn’t jive with history. And if you look at who is championing this version of history, you’ll see that by and large these folks come from a certain ideological perspective. Meanwhile, if you listen to what the professional malaria control community is saying, and if you read the historical literature on the history of malaria control, you’re left with a very different impression. These folks aren’t blaming environmentalist for the malaria burden, nor are they calling for increases in the use of DDT at the expense of other interventions.

    ###
    December 10, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    At the risk of getting lost among the trees, there are a few additional incorrect factoids in the transcript that Lambert and BugGirl haven’t pointed out.

    -”Up to three million people die of malaria each year, most of them in Africa”. The most authoritative source on malaria mortality is the WHO, and their most recent figures put the number at just under 900,000. Google “world malaria report.”

    -”with production increasing today in India, China, and North Korea, for both agricultural and anti-malaria uses.” Currently, DDT is only being produced in India. (Granted, the wikipedia article on DDT is out of date on this one. Mea culpa.)

    -”but it also doesn’t get dissolved away by them and diluted into virtual nothingness, so it hangs around for a long time.” This doesn’t really explain its persistence.

    -”In the end, it was the Bald Eagle Protection Act and the bird’s 1967 placement on the endangered species list, combined with increased penalties for poaching, that ultimately led to the bald eagle’s successful return to remaining habitats.” Most ecologists and ornithologists would also include the domestic DDT ban in this list.

    Perhaps nit picky but:

    -In the first para: “DDT has now been banned for the most part in many countries.” This sentence comes in the middle of paragraph focused mostly on DDT’s antimalarial use, so most readers/listeners would conclude that the ban is on its use against malaria. In fact, most malarial countries have not banned it for use against malaria. This conflating of agriculture bans with public health use bans and actions taken in developed countries with those taken in developing countries happens in a few other places in the episode, contributing to the impression that DDT is unavailable to countries that could benefit from it.

    -”As a result of these pressures, many donations now coming from wealthy nations are now contingent upon DDT not being used, which leaves the poor nations with fewer options, often too expensive and less effective, and children die.” It would be interesting to see a source (other than Amir Attaran) for this statement.

  42. #42 WScott
    December 13, 2010

    However, when you ignoring solid science in favor of your Libertarian ideology, the line has been crossed and your political bias makes you entirely non-skeptical, and just a propagandist.

    Take out the word Libertarian altogether, and this statement works just as well if not better. The problem isn’t the flavor of your ideology; the problem is when you let your ideology blind your judgment.

  43. #43 SocraticGadfly
    December 14, 2010

    Here’s a full story on DDT as long-term farmland residue.

    http://www.hcn.org/issues/42.21/farmings-toxic-legacy

    It’s subscription-walled, so I’ll give a brief summary and quotes:

    >Unfortunately, the very thing that made organochlorine pesticides like DDT effective for a long period of time also makes them hard to get rid of. Because chlorine binds strongly to other elements, the compounds are stable and do not break down easily. Organochlorines also bind to organic matter in soil, and to the fat cells of the organisms that consume it. When they eventually do degrade, they can break down into other toxic compounds. Lead arsenate, meanwhile, is composed of lead and arsenic, the party lingerers of the elements. Neither breaks down over time. They also bind to organic matter in the soil and don’t dissolve readily in water, so rain can’t easily wash them away. All of these chemicals can remain in the top 12 to 18 inches of the ground for decades — perhaps even hundreds of years.

    >Though no one has comprehensively sampled Western soils for legacy pesticides, during the 1990s, the U.S. Geological Survey looked at streambeds and fish across the nation, including every Western state. In watersheds where more than 50 percent of the land was in agriculture, DDT and its breakdown products, DDD and DDE, were present in sediment at half the sampled sites as well as in the tissue of 90 percent of sampled fish. Dieldrin was present in sediment in 17 percent of the sampled sites and in 63 percent of the fish. And while levels of both pesticides in fish tissue have dropped by 50 percent since they were banned for agricultural use in the ’70s, research published in the past five years shows that this trend has flat-lined for DDT in some lakes. It could be that a certain amount of the compound is not degrading, or there may be continuing input of DDT from the atmosphere or watershed.
    The fact that these chemicals persist in the environment means they’re still finding their way into our bodies. DDT, dieldrin and other organochlorine pesticides are commonly found in the fatty tissues, and even in the breast milk, of people throughout the country, including those born decades after the compounds were banned.

    The U.S. EPA does not require sampling of former orchards or other farmland when converted to schools, residential neighborhoods, etc. A couple of Western U.S. states do state level testing, including Washington and California. Findings for one Yakima, Washington family?

    >A composite of five soil samples taken from the Comptons’ yard by High Country News revealed levels of DDE, a DDT breakdown product, at 0.6 parts per million — roughly half of the EPA’s cancer risk threshold — and arsenic at 4.7 ppm, seven times the safe level in Washington and 67 times the levels recommended by California’s environmental health agency. This is fairly normal in central Washington, where background levels of naturally-occurring arsenic are 5 ppm. Still, that’s not much consolation for a pregnant mother. And because the samples taken were combined and tested as one owing to the cost, the pesticide levels are only an average of the sampled sites. So now the Comptons have new questions: Are there hotspots in their yard where pesticides exceed safe levels, perhaps due to a spill or an old storage area? Or is most of the yard relatively clean?

    Steve Snyder
    socraticgadfly.blogspot.com

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