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October 19th 2009 print

J.F. Beck

Left’s War on Science

The Left should call a halt to their ongoing war on DDT and thereby on science; the collateral damage – mostly third-world children, pregnant women and the old, claimed by malaria – is unacceptable.

Religious adherents do not take criticisms of their holy scriptures lightly. Thus Leftists swiftly and viciously attacked my Quadrant Online essay exposing flaws in the most holy of holy, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The response is typical of the way dissent is dealt with by true believers who do not tolerate any questioning of their faith. 

There is much truth in Silent Spring but the book is often anything but scientific. Carson, nominally a scientist – marine biology – made her living writing. To stimulate sales she added spice to her story by taking liberties with the truth: 

For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death. 

This outlandishly unscientific claim on its own discredits the whole book – the natural environment is awash with dangerous chemicals. 

As I noted, Carson further misled readers in suggesting that DDT was a product of chemical weapons research. Even worse, she describes DDT as a carcinogen of unsurpassed potency, able to cause leukemia in a matter of months. 

Beck is lying! Quadrant is waging a war on science! yelp the Left. Our beloved Rachel did not say that DDT causes leukemia; rather, she was talking about the highly toxic benzene in the carrier solvent in which the DDT was dissolved. This argument conveniently ignores that the book’s index references the horrific tale in question under “Leukemia, DDT and case histories of”. 

My assertion that DDT poses little threat to health is attacked by referencing research showing that “DDT and its breakdown product DDE may be associated with adverse health outcomes”. Carrying that logic further, perhaps we should all start showering out on the lawn under the hose to preclude a possibly fatal fall we may someday suffer in the bathroom – statistically, a good possibility. 

Research studies “proving” DDT causes genital defects in newborns are paraded for the edification of those who already “know” how harmful DDT is. Unfortunately, the cited studies are unscientific, having been conducted with a stringency approximately equal to that applied to high school science experiments. 

The acute toxicity of DDT is “confirmed” by citing the unfortunate death of a child “who ingested one ounce of a 5% DDT:kerosene solution”. The cause of death is not specified, however, perhaps resulting from the ingestion (or aspiration) of the poisonous kerosene. If DDT were proven to be the causative factor this would be the one and only documented DDT fatality. 

From the fringe Left comes the absurd assertion that eminent cancer researcher and developer of the Ames test for identifying possible carcinogens, Bruce Ames, was involved “in secret testing by tobacco companies” presumably aiming to prove tobacco is harmless. This supposed tobacco connection discrediting Ames’ view that the threat posed by synthetic insecticides is overstated. In reality, Ames is not linked in any way to tobacco companies and identifies smoking as a prime cause of cancer. This attempt to discredit a renowned scientist is ludicrous. 

Having restated Ames’ view that “The amount of potentially carcinogenic pesticide residues consumed in a year is less than the amount known of rodent carcinogens in a cup of coffee.” I am bogusly accused of saying “DDT is harmless” and that “a splash of ddt [sic] is safer than a morning coffee”. When unable to refute an argument just make something up – a classic Lefty tactic. 

Two Australian academics – economist John Quiggin, an Australian Research Council Federation fellow at the University of Queensland, and Tim Lambert, a computer specialist at the University of New South Wales damn DDT and its advocates by tenuously linking them to tobacco. This is akin to the Left-promulgated smear that anyone not fully subscribing to manmade climate change theory is a denialist tool of “big oil”. Here’s how it works, in the fevered, right-wing-conspiracy-believing Lefty brain. The tobacco companies dearly wanted to shift attention away from the dangers of smoking onto some other health issue. It was decided that DDT’s use in the fight against malaria was the perfect distracter. Paid lobbyists were dispatched to blame malaria’s rising death toll on under use of DDT, simultaneously attacking the “science” underpinning Silent Spring. Everyone on the planet would be so occupied arguing about DDT and malaria that the dangers of smoking would be forgotten, and since DDT wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be, maybe the tobacco health threat was also overstated. 

To keep this issue alive the tobacco companies orchestrated a successful fear-based campaign to prevent a total worldwide DDT ban. So really, the only reason we’re having this DDT discussion is through the efforts of the big tobacco companies ­– without their financial support, DDT, a product that should have been banned, would have been banned. 

According to this bizarre conspiracy theory any person or organization supportive of even the highly restricted use of DDT in the fight against malaria is promoting smoking. Now since tobacco companies are obviously evil, as is their product, DDT advocates are evil, as is DDT. 

An elegantly simple but grotesque smear links Silent Spring critics to Lyndon LaRouche and associated organizations. It works like this. LaRouche and his various fronts operate beyond the fringes of reason (you can tick that as correct). A LaRouche front, 21st Century Science & Technology, published an anti-Silent Spring article by entomologist J. Gordon Edwards. Now since LaRouche is nutty, Edwards is also nutty, as are all Silent Spring critics. 

The thing is, Edwards’ 5,300-word dissection of Silent Spring – he wore himself out finding errors, stopping less than half way through the book – is largely valid. That’s why Carson supporters dismiss him as being as nutty as LaRouche: it’s a lot simpler to discredit the messenger than it is to refute his fact-based message. 

Finally, for having published my essay, Quadrant is accused of lacking “intellectual rigor”. This is pretty damn funny considering the source: Crikey’s less than rigorous Pure Poison blog. 

In attacking DDT, Carson’s acolytes are denying science. DDT, unique in its ability to both kill and repel mosquitoes, remains an effective tool in the fight against malaria; properly used, as in Eritrea and South Africa, for example, it saves many lives. 

DDT is not acutely toxic, having killed no one, ever, unlike Bendiocarb, which is no longer used as a surface spray in the U.S. because it is an acute poisoning threat, especially to children – no yelps of concern from the Left about this very real threat to third-world youngsters. 

DDT’s chronic toxicity is low. When used as part of a strictly controlled indoor spraying program it is not known to pose a significant threat to human health. If DDT is eventually shown to be significantly harmful, its benefits will have to be weighed against its risks; if it does more harm than good, stop using it. 

The Left should call a halt to their ongoing war on DDT and thereby on science; the collateral damage – mostly third-world children, pregnant women and the old, claimed by malaria – is unacceptable.