Tag Archives: environmentalism

Tom Fuller and Malaria – A Case Study of Denialism and the Backfire Effect

[I'm going to assume that most people who visit this blog are familiar with denialism and its hallmarks. If not, check out a good rundown from Denialism blog.]

Longtime readers are already familiar with Tom Fuller’s denialism on climate, e.g. here and here. Lately, Fuller has decided to throw his lot in with the DDT-holocaust lie.

The meme that anti-science environmentalist hysteria resulted in a ban on DDT use, resulting in millions of deaths from malaria, is fairly prevalent among the fringe American right wing but few places elsewhere. It’s championed by anti-regulatory front groups (e.g. CEI), climate denialists (e.g. Roy Spencer), and more recently rubbish journalist Fred Pearce.

It is of course demonstrably false. Make no mistake, there was indeed a resurgence of malaria after some decades of relative success in suppressing it. This resurgence had nothing to do with anti-science environmentalist hysteria. The reasons for it are not shrouded in mystery, but are rather mundane and (unfortunately for those looking to smear environmentalists) pretty much what a sane person would expect: financial problems, complacency, political instability, growing resistance, cost-benefit tradeoffs with alternatives due to scientific, economic, and practical concerns, and the like (Nájera et al., 2011; Cohen et al., 2012).

This was pointed out to Fuller. But Fuller tends to think with his gut, so he was not about to let pesky little things like reality stand in the way of a good blood libel. So he attempts to marshal some “evidence” in support of Pearce’s use of the lie. His first attempt is to blame the 1972 domestic ban on DDT use in the US- that had explicit exemptions for public health needs such as disease vector control- for a decline in DDT use in Sri Lanka that began in 1964. This is, to put it mildly, rank idiocy. Its nonsensical nature is pointed out.

Unsteadied, Fuller spends the next few comments telling people like myself that we “suck”, we’re on acid, and that environmentalists are like skinheads.

You might think this invective is the dawning of a realization of defeat. But the human psyche is a funny thing. When someone is shown that their position is stupidly, laughably wrong, if the position is tied to their ideological beliefs, it will have some interesting effects. Rather than accept their wrongness, they will actually discount the the refuting evidence and reaffirm their position even more strongly (Nyhan and Reifler, 2010). So after the brief period of insults free of any actual arguments, Fuller goes casting about for something else that will justify the DDT-holocaust lie. And look what happens along the way:

Fuller starts out just trying to justify Pearce’s use of the word “arguably”, and says that, well “[t]here are a substantial number of people who sincerely believe” in the DDT-holocaust lie, so Pearce is okay [October 23rd, 2012 at 12:16 pm]. His attempts to defend Pearce are shown to be wrong and he goes looking for other ones. As he does, he becomes more and more invested in the idea not just that Pearce was okay to spread the lie because he said it was “arguably” true, but that it is in fact absolutely true [October 24th, 2012 at 4:45 pm; October 24th, 2012 at 4:52 pm], and then goes still further and claims Pearce was really understating (!) the case [October 24th, 2012 at 9:28 pm]:

If Pearce is guilty of anything, it appears to be understatement.

This is the backfire effect on full, magnificent display.

And of course, denialism is nothing if not predictable, so Fuller’s evidence included the following: citing a four year hiatus of DDT use in South Africa that actually had nothing to do with anti-science environmentalist hysteria related to Silent Spring and was, it should go without saying, not responsible for “millions of deaths” (Mnzava, 2001; Cliff et al., 2010). Claiming that a 1999 ban on DDT caused an increase in malaria infections in Malaysia- this is what the trend in malaria infection actually is:

Citing the science, economic, and logistics-based decisions of the World Health Organization as anti-science environmentalist hysteria. Copypasta’ing walls of text from Senate testimony-fudger and all-around innumerate DDT evangelist Donald Roberts. And claiming that DDT was “stopped several decades [before the year 2000 in Mozambique], because 80% of the country’s health budget came from donor funds, and donors refused to allow the use of DDT” , despite DDT being the main method of malarial control until 1993. Claiming this, I should add, hours after it was pointed out as a falsehood in response to another commenter.

There is no admission of being wrong about any of things Fuller tossed out that were demonstrably false. There is no attempt made to maintain coherence of evidence or narrative (science and logistics are conflated with anti-science hysteria; the World Bank and WHO are conflated with hippies; the “millions of deaths” are supposed to have taken place in Africa in the 60s, then the 90s, then in the Americas; etc.). Causality is, several times, thrown completely out the window. And the sillier and more contradictory the claims grow, the more convinced Fuller becomes that the DDT-holocast lie is true.

All of this behavior will seem irrational and bizarre to many onlookers. And it is bizarre, if we were really talking about a person who was legitimately interested in looking at the reality of the situation. But of course, that’s not at all what’s taking place. What’s taking place is very classic behavior associated with motivated reasoning. It’s certainly not rational, but it is all too familiar. Though the topic is different, the dynamics are the same with respect to the denial of the reality and seriousness of anthropogenic climate change. Some people are just not going to be reachable by reality-based arguments. Taking a fact-based approach will actually cause some of them to be even more committed to their incorrect beliefs. Fortunately, though, the same social science that has illuminated this irrational behavior offers us some ways to bypass it. Hopefully I will have more to say on that later.

Note: In comments, Fuller says he was not defending Pearce’s use of “arguably”.


  • Cliff, J., S. Lewin, G. Woelk, B. Fernandes, A. Mariano, E. Sevene, K. Daniels, S. Matinhure, A. Oxman, and J. Lavis (2010), Policy development in malaria vector management in Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Health Policy Plan, 25(5), 372–383, doi:10.1093/heapol/czq008.
  • Cohen, J., D. Smith, C. Cotter, A. Ward, G. Yamey, O. Sabot, and B. Moonen (2012), Malaria resurgence: a systematic review and assessment of its causes, Malaria Journal, 11(1), 122, doi:10.1186/1475-2875-11-122.
  • Mnzava, A. E., B. L. Sharp, D. J. Mthembu, D. le Sueur, S. S. Dlamini, J. K. Gumede, and I. Kleinschmidt (2001), Malaria control–two years’ use of insecticide-treated bednets compared with insecticide house spraying in KwaZulu-Natal, S. Afr. Med. J., 91(11), 978–983.
  • Nájera, J. A., M. González-Silva, and P. L. Alonso (2011), Some Lessons for the Future from the Global Malaria Eradication Programme (1955–1969), PLoS Med, 8(1), e1000412, doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000412.
  • Nyhan, B., and J. Reifler (2010), When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions, Political Behavior, 32(2), 303–330, doi:10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2.

Hey, look! It’s “Earth Hour”.

Still unforgivably stupid.

Stop blaming Rahm for Obama’s decisions

Taking a page from the Stoat playbook…

Obama is the President and as such it’s on him for deciding not to move on climate legislation before health care, for backing someone like Blanche Lincoln who is going to go on and vote against the Obama admin’s EPA’s authority to regulate GHGs. [UPDATE: On a positive note, the Murkoswki resolution failed 53-47.]

Progressive, liberals, and die hard environmentalists need to get it through their heads that Obama is a run of the mill corporatist Democrat, which would put him on the center right in any other Western democracy. He chose Rahm Emanuel to be his Chief of Staff. He did so knowing that Emanuel was instrumental in the creation of a block of votes antagonistic to progressive goals and was a vociferous advocate of Clinton’s triangulation/rightward lurch in the 90s.

You don’t choose someone like that for your CoS or even a senior advisor unless you believe that his insights and goals are sound. People using Emanuel as a scapegoat are in denial about the kind of politician Obama is. If you don’t agree, read his biography and hear it from the President himself.

And of course this makes the ravings of Tea Partiers and the ostensibly mainstream right about “socialism” and “radical agendas” even more absurd.

Obama understands that GHG emissions and climate change are a serious problem. But he believes that health care, and nuclear weapon proliferation, and Mideast destabilization are all serious problems as well. For the reality-based community, it was a breath of fresh air to see someone not regurgitate Heartland conference talking points from the Oval Office, but make no mistake- Obama decided, and decided early on, to sacrifice comprehensive climate legislation in order to move on health care. And as much as I’ve bad mouthed Nancy Pelosi in the past, her effort to push Waxman-Markey/ACES through when she knew she had the votes was both gutsy and prescient. If the White House had wanted to, it could have seized that remarkable opportunity.

And the failure to do so rests with President Obama alone.

QotD, Likely Death of US Climate Legislation Edition

Copyright by World Economic Forum; Photo by Michael Wuertenberg

Upon hearing the news that Lindsey Graham is going to oppose his own climate legislation, over at The Economist’s Democracy in America, MS writes [bold mine, italics original]:

I’VE got two kids, aged five and seven. Pretty much every week, they come home from school talking about saving the planet in various ways. A couple of months ago my five-year-old, as I was leaving the kids’ bedroom after story time, tried to gain a few extra seconds before lights-out by asking: “Dad? Dad? How does the ozone layer protect the earth from the sun?” The kids bug me when I drive to the neighbourhood store rather than walking, because it “poisons the atmosphere”. They bug me about not recycling enough. They bug me about making sure our tuna fish doesn’t contain bluefin. We don’t even buy tuna fish; the kids don’t like the taste. I’ve thought about asking the teachers at school whether they can tone down the environmental curriculum a bit because it’s creating expectations I can’t live up to, but then I remember the Ranger Rick stuff I had in my classroom, as America was gearing up the huge, successful behaviour-change communication campaigns that essentially eliminated littering in the 1970s. (If you don’t think America has eliminated littering: visit the third world. America has eliminated littering.) And I think, let the teachers do their jobs.

So, yesterday Lindsay [sic] Graham announced he would vote against the current version of the climate-change legislation he initially helped author, now known as the Kerry-Lieberman amendment…

I really just wanted to add a caveat to Mr Drum’s final sentence: “We are, in this case, getting exactly the government we deserve. A government of children.” As far as I can see, that’s not the problem. The children seem to be obsessed with reducing CO2 emissions. If they were running the joint, we’d be doing fine. The problem is the grown-ups. We suck. I’m aware that it’s a weepy cliche to say you’re trying to figure out how to explain something to your kids, but I am quite literally trying to figure out how to explain this to my kids, who will, if experience is any guide, be asking about it.

Also worth reading, Ezra Klein on the failed “Lone Republican” strategy.

UPDATE: Also, Bradford Plumer (nice pic, BTW) notes Graham’s flip flop into denialism:

[O]nce upon a time, Graham was saying stuff like this: “All the cars and trucks and plants that have been in existence since the Industrial Revolution, spewing out carbon day-in and day-out, will never convince me that’s a good thing for your children and the future of the planet.” But never say never. Here’s Graham today: “We can have a debate about global warming, and I’m not in the camp that believes man-made emissions are contributing overwhelmingly to global climate change, but I do believe the planet is heating up.” That was fast.

Videobreak: More recent science-related interviews from the Colbert Report

[You know, he has a lot of science-related guests when you think about it.]

The ever-popular Neil deGrasse Tyson

Bob Park on unmanned space exploration.

Cosmologist Mark Devlin

Environmentalist Bill McKibben on the 350 Campaign

Videobreak: Earth Days

[The Denis Hayes clip seems to have been removed from YouTube]

And the official trailer:

Website here. Screening locations and dates here.

[h/t Quark Soup]

An Earth Day post to chew on

I don’t agree 100% with everything here [he seems to be vastly overestimating nuclear's current ability to safely fill the gaps of a non-carbon intensive energy infrastructure, and I think he may be overreaching himself in the other direction on organic food (for the record I'm agnostic on the nutritional merits)]- but I think the broad strokes bear repeating:

It seems that every year, the environmental ethic becomes more and more mired in the pseudo-scientific woo that Rachel Carson would have found absurd. Complementary and alternative ‘medicine’, organic food, consumer product branding, anti-pharm, anti-business, anti-government fear mongering. Forgive the incorrigible pun, but we no longer see the forests for the trees, and the environment is dying because of it…

… Somewhere between 1962 and today, this became an us against them movement. We are fighting to save the world from polluters, big business, big industry. We’re the planeteers, they are the bad guys. But guess what? That’s not the way it is. We’re all the bad guys, we’re all the polluters. We’re big business, big industry. We are all in this together. We live or die by our ability to come together as a species and decide yes, we value the planet we live on. We value it for many different reasons, but we all find value in it.

[Via Observations of a Nerd]