Tag Archives: Tom Fuller

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.

Tom Fuller’s climate misdirection at WattsUpWithThat, Part II

Previously, Tom Fuller demonstrated why he isn’t a serious journalist by making a fool of himself on the issue of polar bears.Today, Fuller mixes it up with a little sea level rise (SLR) malarkey. I do love the little “Reality Wikipedia has a liberal climate alarmist bias” preface:

Wikipedia, which doesn’t always play fair when climate issues are discussed, has the chart everyone needs to see to provide perspective on sea level rise. Titled ‘Post Glacial Sea Level Rise, it shows a dramatic rise in sea levels that stopped dead 6,000 years ago and a very flat line since. You could balance a glass of water on the last 6,000 years of that graph.

So what? This means nothing without looking at the drivers of SLR over the same period. Assuming the best of Fuller and choosing to believe that he isn’t trying to be deliberately misleading, this is just a shocking demonstration of laziness or ignorance. SLR doesn’t just magically happen. The clear implication of Fuller’s reference in light of the rest of the post is: “SLR has basically flatlined since we melted out of the Last Glacial Maximum- what’s the big deal?” Of course, the big deal is that radiative forcing isn’t (and certainly won’t in the near future be) flat enough to “balance a glass of water on”. There is no reason to expect SLR to be either.

This hasn’t stopped the marketing gurus from trying to play to our ancestral horror stories and modern fears of flooding. Because there’s still enough ice left in Antarctica and Greenland to cause dramatic sea level rises, all they have to do is say that global warming will melt that ice and we’re in trouble. And so they do.

Fuller would have us believe that there is no actual basis for concern that the WAIS and GrIS could contribute to dramatic sea level rise. Any such claims are “hype” and not science:

Again, we are forced to separate the hype from the science. Remember that the IPCC projects sea level rise this century of 18-59 cm, unless dramatic loss of Greenland and/or Antarctic ice occurs. That’s from their AR4 report.

This isn’t actually what the AR4 says, though it’s not as screamingly wrong as some of Fuller’s other claims. The 18-59 cm range excludes any contribution from the GrIS and WAIS above the observed rate during 1993-2003. It doesn’t even assume a linear increase in their contribution alongside temperature increase- something that would increase the upper bound to 0.8m all by itself.

From the minute that AR4 was published, a string of papers, conferences, publicity events (such as parliamentary cabinet meetings held underwater) have been screaming from the headlines and news reports, drumming into us the message that dramatic loss of Greenland and/or Antarctic ice will in fact occur.

The audacity of researchers to continue working after the AR4! How dare they try to reduce the acknowledged uncertainty with regard to SLR by having conferences and publishing papers (a string of them even)? Have they no shame at all? And who do they think they’re fooling saying “that dramatic loss of Greenland and/or Antarctic ice will in fact occur”? Because this wasn’t explicitly included in the AR4 projections, we know that it can’t possibly occur- Q.E.D., no take-backs. Jeez!

Climate theory predicts that increased precipitation in the much larger middle of these ice caps will be in the form of snow, which will turn into ice and counterbalance some, most or all of the melt around the edges.

The “most or all” part is obviously where Fuller gets into trouble. This is a claim that he has made and failed to back up over at Michael Tobis’s, because a comprehensive look at the primary literature refutes it. There is a grain of truth to it, however. It was/is believed that Antarctica would accumulate snow in the interior due to increased precipitation. However, the possibility that Antarctica would still be a net source of SLR was certainly not ruled out. And moreover, the assertion that increased precipitation would result in an offset of “all” ice-sheet-related melt is simply, flatly unfounded.

It would take millenia [sic] to melt it all

Fuller picks up the goalposts of “dramatic loss of Greenland and/or Antarctic ice” and runs with them. Now we’re discussing melting every last bit of ice! My, oh my.

In the real world, nonlinear decay of ice sheets contributing to rapid, multimeter sea level rise on sub-millennial timescales is not only possible, it has already happened. Meltwater Pulse 1A (MWP-1A) is an event that took place ~14.6 thousand years ago involving sea level rise of ~20m in less than 500 years, with several meters of SLR coming from the Northern Hemisphere’s Laurentide Ice Sheet and the remainder from the Antarctic. The paleoclimatic evidence is unambiguous: dynamic ice sheet collapse is not a purely theoretical concern- it can and has happened. We have provisional observational evidence of the mechanisms that make such rapid collapses possible. As such they must be considered in any policy or economic analysis of mitigation. This isn’t environmentalist fearmongering, it’s how CBAs are done.

But even excluding hyper-abrupt events like MWP-1A, concern over 1 meter or more sea level rise is well-justified by the scientific evidence. Using a semiempirical approach to derive the relationship between SLR and temperature change, Vermeer and Rahmstorf find more realistic current (and in turn higher future) values than the IPCC numbers:

Projection of sea-level rise from 1990 to 2100, based on IPCC temperature projections for three different emission scenarios. The sea-level range projected in the IPCC AR4 for these scenarios is shown for comparison in the bars on the bottom right. Also shown is the observations-based annual global sea-level data (red) including artificial reservoir correction.

Fuller continues:

But, in a scenario that many will find sadly familiar, those with a political agenda have grabbed on to some straws, such as the GRACE studies we looked at yesterday, and are busy hyping possible mechanical changes to the ice sheets (which do happen) and are simultaneously trying to blame those mechanical changes on global warming. They hijacked the science and spun it. (It’s not the scientists–not in this case.)

Here Fuller refers to recent GRACE satellite studies showing that not only are the GrIS and WAIS showing net losses of ice, but that these losses are in fact accelerating- exhibiting exactly the kind of behavior that gives you SLR higher than the 18-59cm Fuller “believes in”. Predictably, Fuller doesn’t accept that evidence, despite its agreement with other sources of data, such as ICESat.

(While there has been no shortage of denialist keystrokes spent hyping a recent paper revising the net losses downward due to a revision in isostatic rebound numbers, the existence of the net negative mass balances and acceleration themselves remain unchallenged.)

In short, Fuller ignores the paleoclimatic and observational evidence that tells us that sea level rise under unchecked warming can receive significant contributions from the nonlinear decay of the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets- and exceed 1m or more- on sub-millennial timescales without either collapsing entirely.

When the evidence is alarming, to the uninformed those describing that evidence sound like alarmists.

Tom Fuller’s climate misdirection at WattsUpWithThat, Part I

It seems that Anthony Watts has decided to give Tom Fuller the reigns at his denialist propaganda outlet, WUWT. Tom obliges with some retreads of “skeptic” arguments we’ve all seen before.

Yesterday, Fuller treated us to a little “polar bears aren’t threatened by anthropogenic warming” nonsense:

The polar bear has recovered strongly from the 1960s, and there are now about 25,000 of them. They congregate in subgroups geographically, and the status of those subgroups is not uniform–some are growing, some are declining some are staying the same.

But the bears are robust enough that the indigenous tribes of the North say that they have completely recovered, and want hunting restrictions lifted. Indeed, about 1,000 polar bears a year are killed by hunting, according to The Polar Bear Specialist Group. And simple arithmetic showed that polar bears survived warmer periods than today that almost certainly included eras when Arctic ice was completely gone.

So the issue is ultimately an unfortunate distraction. The Arctic is warming. Polar bears are doing okay. And the point is?

I’ve addressed this canard previously in “The Age of Polar Bears”. Fuller’s argument amounts to little more than cherry picking and non sequitur. Polar bear populations have recovered somewhat from overharvesting since the 1960s, but remain threatened by numerous environmental stressors (harvest [hunting], contaminants, oil and gas development, and additional interactions with humans). Anthropogenic warming-induced loss of the sea ice from which these bears hunt- in combination with other stressors- presents a genuine threat. This is not the opinion of cynical environmentalists intent on “selling” the problem of global warming- this is the finding of the relevant scientific and regulatory communities.