Fred Pearce continues to be rubbish

Image courtesy of Flickr user “Editor B”, used under Creative Commons.

Not content with lying about positions scientists don’t actually hold, passing off his opinions as reporting, engaging in the kind of “he said, she said” false equivalency that has been so toxic in media coverage of climate, and just generally getting things wrong, here’s Pearce perpetuating the free market/anti-regulation think tank lie about DDT bans causing millions of deaths:

When Rachel Carson’s sound case against the mass application of DDT as an agricultural pesticide morphed into blanket opposition to much smaller indoor applications to fight malaria, it arguably resulted in millions of deaths as the diseases resurged.

[Although there was a big push to do away with agricultural DDT spraying, its use to fight malaria was not banned. DDT use continued apace in some countries and declined in others for top down reasons rather than environmentalist-driven anti-science hysteria, including resistance in mosquitoes, political instability, preferences for pyrethroids (which also killed cockroaches) or netting (which didn’t involve coating one’s walls with a sticky unpleasant substance), and genuine-science-based health concerns of governments.]

But hey, it’s totally fine to say something that egregiously, hideously untrue as long as you mumble “arguably” into your sleeve, at least according to Pearce’s cheerleaders.

Pearce’s lie comes in the context of the latest hippie punching fad, which is to equate environmentalist fears about GMOs, nuclear power, and fracking with evolution denial, climate denialism, and other hallmarks of the anti-science right. This is approaching something of a cottage industry among people who seem to be garnering fewer eyeballs on topics like climate change than they once did.

There are three facts of relevance here, in my opinion:

  1. There are unquestionably environmentalists who have and promote fears about certain technologies that are unsupported or in contradiction to the balance of scientific evidence.
  2. This anti-science vein is in no way equivalent to, in terms of political legitimacy at the levers of governmental power, that right wing anti-science beliefs enjoy.
  3. The actual, problematic anti-science beliefs of environmentalists are often conflated with issues that have nothing to do with science in order to make the problem seem larger than it is. This is counterproductive.

I think point number 1 is hugely important. The work of Dan Kahan and others (e.g. Kahan et al., 2011) has shown pretty convincingly that egalitarian-communitarians interpret scientific evidence in a way that conforms to their preexisting worldviews just as hierarchal-individualists do. I would like to see anti-science fears about GMOs and nuclear power either marginalized or preferably reversed by effective messaging and education. I vehemently believe that GMOs and nuclear power are going to be necessary tools in dealing with our energy and agricultural needs in the future, and that climate change probably increases their importance.

Point 2 is something that I trust is not in any way controversial or requires further discussion.

For those of us who believe point 1 is a legitimate problem, point 3 effectively knee caps efforts to ameliorate it. When people conflate issues that enjoy no clear scientific consensus, such as the environmental impacts of fracking, with denial of evolution or the reality of anthropogenic climate change, they are injecting a false equivalency that muddies the waters of discourse and prevents positive movement on the issue. The same goes for conflating dislike of business practices of certain agricultural companies and economic/national security concerns over nuclear power with denial of evolution or climate change.

If Pearce or the others who have taken up this latest meme stuck to what actually was equivalent, their complaints would look a great deal less serious. So they have to over-egg the pudding. This not only gives the appearance of more substance, it also generates more acrimony and page views. Whether the latter is intentional or not, it’s certainly not productive in actually addressing the problem, which requires understanding the actual scope and potential strategies for overcoming what environmental anti-science exists. And make no mistake, there are people doing just that.

But Fred Pearce is not one of them.

UPDATE: Some folks over at Collide-a-scape are trying to pin the decline in DDT use in some countries in the 60s against malaria on a 1971 US domestic ban. Yes, something in the 60s is being attributed to something that happened in the 70s.

Setting aside the timeline idiocy, as I stated previously, actual examination of the causes of malaria resurgence simply does not bear this out. Nor does it support in any way Pearce’s ghoulish lie that environmentalists are somehow to blame for it or millions of deaths. In the course of providing others with some references, I came across some additional reasons for malarial resurgence. It turns out that weakening of programs due to financial shortfalls, premature complacency, and intentional expiration of short term programs- in addition to aforementioned factors like resistance and political instability- are responsible not just for a decline in DDT use, but a decline in malarial-eradication programs generally (Cohen et al., 2011;  Nájera et al., 2011). Both papers should be accessible without a subscription.


  • 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.
  • Kahan, D. M., H. Jenkins‐Smith, and D. Braman (2011), Cultural cognition of scientific consensus, Journal of Risk Research, 14(2), 147–174, doi:10.1080/13669877.2010.511246.
  • 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.

12 responses to “Fred Pearce continues to be rubbish

  1. Good article, TB.

    I think Pearce’s article was also rubbish for other reasons and I have posted the following comment at Keith Kloor’s blog:

    It’s undoubtedly and trivially true that some of the more extreme environmentalists have views that are antithetical to consensus science. But to draw the conclusion that environmentalists generally are anti-science is absurd. For evidence, look again at Pearce’s article. He relies on statements from four individuals who strongly disagree with anti-science attitudes of some environmentalists. Who are these four? Brand, Lynas, Monbiot and Pope, environmentalists all of them and all of them people who changed their minds on the basis of the evidence. So much for environmentalists generally being politically-motivated rejecters of consensus science.

    And, yes, Mooney’s correct; there is an asymmetry here and loyalty seems to trump fairness as a virtue on the political right. Imagine writing an article criticizing the anti-science views of some on the anti-environmentalist right based around the views of prominent anti-environmentalists, pundits who have changed their minds because of the evidence and who have taken their fellow travellers publicly to task in the name of science.

    To be sure, there are a few reasonable people on the political right in the United States–and many in Europe– who have taken positions on climate change consistent with the scientific consensus. But among those who have been prominent in the campaign against what we might characterize as the IPCC view, I can think of none who have changed their minds or criticized their colleagues. Perhaps Keith [Kloor] can suggest some names and we can then see how their criticisms of their own side compare to those of Monbiot et al.

  2. I have worked (as a scientist) in the pest control.

    DDT was withdrawn (malaria) mainly because of the rapid generation resistance (and long-term – 30 years by mosquitoes. Mainly for this reason (wrongly), not used (legally) DDT in the countries of Sahel zone.
    DDT if is CORRECTLY APPLIED, however, for many years have an effective, cheap and safe – harmless (to the extent provided by the theory of risk) for humans and the environment – even though its metabolites do not degrade.

    I can say after reading – analyzing, several thousand scientific papers about DDT from the last 30 years.

    Despite many doubts DDT is still the cheapest. Furthermore, large companies producing pesticides “new generation” did not want and do not want a cheap DDT … Neonicotinoids, synthetic pyrethroids are cheap but not as cheap as DDT (and also have defects).

    Wikipedia write: “Criticisms of a DDT “ban” often specifically reference the 1972 US ban (with the erroneous implication that this constituted a worldwide ban and prohibited use of DDT in vector control).”
    But in real terms it was (for example, by prohibiting import of agricultural products from the remnants of DDT and its main metabolites).
    Well, that now by: “USAID’s Kent R. Hill states that the agency has been misrepresented: “USAID strongly supports spraying as a preventative measure for malaria and will support the use of DDT when it is scientifically sound and warranted.”

    It’s so easy, however, you can not “absolve” scientists and organizations concerned with the environmental protection.
    It is to read and remember (despite some errors) of this book: The True Story of DDT, PCB and DIOXIN, 2005, by Przemysław Mastalerz – author of over 120 scientific papers ( – comments, and
    „The many tables of data are highly revelatory in so many different ways. For example, it is shown that fashion largely dictates the results that “scientists” get for their tests.”

    With malaria and climate is even worse than DDT: ( Climate change and the global malaria recession, Gething et al., 2010.:

    “First, widespread claims that rising mean temperatures have already led to increases in worldwide malaria morbidity and mortality are largely at odds with observed decreasing global trends in both its endemicity and geographic extent. Second, the proposed future effects of rising temperatures on endemicity are at least one order of magnitude smaller than changes observed since about 1900 and up to two orders of magnitude smaller than those that can be achieved by the effective scale-up of key control measures.”

    Therefore, although the biological control is overpriced but very effective and safe – it should be (in time) the only alternative (+ other non chemical methods).

    • If correctly applied is always the gotcha with pesticides. There has to be at least a modicum of fail safe, that modicum is often lacking in Africa, a most immoderate continent.

  3. “WHO (2004): “Under pressure from environmentalists, South Africa suspended DDT for IRS in 1996 after five decades of use and switched to another class of insecticide known as pyrethroids. But the 1999-2000 malaria epidemic in KwaZulu-Natal and neighboring provinces prompted the government to revert to DDT for prevention.”

    (More than 50,000 people in that region were infected by malaria in 1999. insecticides. Between 1996 and 1999 reported malaria cases increased from an average of 600 cases per month to over 2 000 cases per month (Department of Health – unpublished data, 2000). However, after DDT use was reintroduced in March 2000 there was a huge ecrease in the number of cases from approximately 42 000 in 2000 to less than 2 100 in 2002. [Impact of DDT Reintroduction on Malarial Transmission in KwaZulu-Natal, R Maharaj et al, SAMJ 200]).)

    • So, from causing a global resurgence in malaria beginning in the mid-60s and causing millions of deaths, the dread environmentalist assault on DDT has been reduced now to a single country switching in 1996 before switching back in 2000?

      Wow, those goal posts are a-movin’! But let’s not pop any champagne bottles yet, fellas. There’s a difference between phasing out DDT due to scientifically-grounded environmentalist pressure and phasing DDT due to antiscience environmentalist pressure. I’d like to see someone show his work.

      There are real environmental and health drawbacks to using DDT. Alternatives to DDT had been viewed as desirous for this reason for decades. In situations where DDT was not necessary, alternatives were preferred by the science and health community, not just hippies.

      DDT spraying indoors was also very unpopular at the local level for reasons that had nothing to do with DDT’s health impacts that Carson was concerned about. People didn’t like getting their walls sprayed (DDT discolored and smelled bad). Additionally, DDT did not kill bed bugs, but rather (from the public’s perspective) stimulated them. So people often painted over or replastered their walls, rendering the spraying ineffective:

      Another concern was that DDT doesn’t kill bedbugs. In fact, it stimulates them so that they feed more and they lay more eggs. So the spraying of DDT is generally followed by an outbreak of bedbugs. So it’s not popular in the community. As soon as it’s sprayed we have people just replastering over it because it is preferable to have the mosquitoes than the bedbugs… So the community doesn’t like it. And anything that the community doesn’t like will not work.

      A 1995 study of a malaria-prone area in South Africa revealed that almost half of residents were replastering their walls after spraying, which completely negated DDT’s effectiveness. The smell, the staining, and the bedbugs are all “environmental” concerns that had nothing to do with greens Silent Spring.

      [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.]

      And it is these “environmental” concerns that are explicitly identified as the cause of South Africa switching to pyrethroid in the literature, e.g.:

      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.

      It’s amazing what happens when you do even a cursory investigation of these claims, isn’t fellas? They just vanish in a puff of smoke.

      I look forward to the next goalpost move, which no doubt will point to a single town banning DDT in 2009 for a week and claiming that justifies Pearce’s laying millions of deaths at environmentalism’s feet.

  4. ““Countries are banning or reducing the use of DDT because of continuous international and national pressures against DDT (e.g., the International Pesticide Action Network is “…working to stop the production, sale, and use…” of DDT [14]) and aggressive marketing tactics of producers of more expensive alternative insecticides.”

    and, “It is an irrefutable fact that for over two decades WHO, bilateral and multilateral donors, and other international agencies have been pressing countries to abandon indoor spray programs. The world has already paid an enormous price in lost life, lost economic vitality, and lost human welfare as a result of those practices.”

    and, “ Government officials told me that they wanted to use DDT, because it still worked well in Vietnam, but Vietnam had long ago used most of its DDT stocks. The government had been trying to get DDT for several years. However international agencies and foreign donors refused to help the government make those purchases.”

    and, “In 1979, the World Health Organization strategy for malaria control changed to de-emphasize indoor spraying. In 1985 WHO further distanced itself from indoor spraying in a World Health Assembly resolution (38.24) that directed countries to decentralize malaria control programs.Those changes in global strategies brought most effective spraying programs to an end.”

    and, “…For years, the rich, developed nations that no longer have malaria have pressured tropical countries which do into giving up DDT.”

    and, “January 29, 1999: “The World Wildlife Fund Wednesday called for a global ban on the production and use of DDT by 2007.”

    and, “It has also been alleged that donor governments and agencies have refused to fund DDT spraying, or made aid contingent upon not using DDT. According to a report in the British Medical Journal, use of DDT in Mozambique ”was stopped several decades ago, because 80% of the country’s health budget came from donor funds, and donors refused to allow the use of DDT.”[122] Roger Bate asserts, “many countries have been coming under pressure from international health and environment agencies to give up DDT or face losing aid grants: Belize and Bolivia are on record admitting they gave in to pressure on this issue from [USAID].”[123]” (thanks Tom Scharf)

    and, ““WHO (2004): “Under pressure from environmentalists, South Africa suspended DDT for IRS in 1996 after five decades of use and switched to another class of insecticide known as pyrethroids. But the 1999-2000 malaria epidemic in KwaZulu-Natal and neighboring provinces prompted the government to revert to DDT for prevention.”

    Pearce did not lie. Thingsbreak and Lambert did.

    • Tom,

      Producing demonstrably false claims in bulk does not increase their truth value.

      As but one example:

      use of DDT in Mozambique ”was stopped several decades ago, because 80% of the country’s health budget came from donor funds, and donors refused to allow the use of DDT.”

      This is completely, unequivocally false. DDT was the primary means of malarial control in Mozambique until 1993. That quote either refers to agricultural spraying, or the author is wrong/lying. And you already knew this because I pointed it to out hours before you copypasta’d it.

      If you continue to post claims that you know beforehand are false, I will start cutting them. You’re free to be as gloriously wrong as you want to be, but you’re not free to knowingly spread falsehoods.

  5. Pingback: Tom Fuller and Malaria – A Case Study of Denialism and the Backfire Effect | The Way Things Break

  6. Pingback: Making an honest hack out of Fred Pearce in five easy steps | The Way Things Break

  7. You’re well on the right track. It helps to get all the facts straight, and keep the timeline straight, too.

    First, DDT has never been banned in Asia nor Africa. Even under the 2001 Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty (POPs), any nation may use DDT, simply by sending a letter to WHO saying it intends to use it.

    Second, indoor residual spraying (IRS) has never gone out of style. Not sure who is claiming environmentalists opposed it, but that’s not accurate. In fact, EDF, the group that first sued to stop DDT applications anywhere, has long endorsed use of DDT in Africa and Asia for IRS.

    Third, WHO’s ambitious campaign to eradicate malaria was discontinued in 1965, and then officially closed down in 1969. Malcolm Gladwell’s fine profile of super malaria-fighter Fred Soper, in The New Yorker, has the details. The campaign had difficulty moving into Central and Subsaharan Africa. Some nations simply did not have government structures required to carry out the highly coordinated program, which required certain and regular treatments of at least 80% of homes in an area; those problems perhaps could have been overcome, but while working on them Soper’s teams discovered that mosquitoes in Africa had already developed resistance and immunity to DDT, due to abuse and overuse of the stuff in other enterprises.

    Notice those years: 1965 was just three years after Rachel Carson’s prediction that overuse of DDT would render it less effective or useless in fighting malaria (one of the key reasons she said use had to be curtailed); but it was seven years BEFORE EPA ordered DDT out of over-the-counter sales in the U.S.

    Fourth, EPA’s order banned ONLY use of DDT on crops, out of doors. Of course, EPA’s jurisdiction ends at the U.S. border, and did not ban DDT from use in foreign nations.

    Fifth, EPA’s order specifically allowed DDT manufacture to continue in the U.S., dedicating all production of DDT to export. So the EPA “ban” on DDT effectively multiplied the amount of DDT available to use against malaria in Africa and Asia, had anyone cared to do so. Manufacture of DDT in the U.S. continued at least until 1984 (up to the implementation of the Superfund law).

    Sixth, malaria infections and deaths continued to decline, especially after DDT use to fight the disease fell off. At peak DDT use, in 1959 and 1960, malaria infections worldwide numbered about 500 million, and 4 million of those people died. Infections and deaths have declined, year by year including those years of “resurgence,” so that by 2010, according to WHO, infections had fallen by 50%, to 250 million; deaths were cut more than 75%, to fewer than 800,000.

    There are a couple of other facts to remember about the science and law, when we get sucked into stupid discussions about Silent Spring by people hell bent on smearing Carson’s reputation.

    Carson’s science was, and is, rock solid. Not a single study she cited in 1962 has ever been retracted or countermanded or rebutted by peer-reviewed research. It’s important to remember that a panel of the nation’s best biology and pesticide scientists studied Carson’s book, at the order of President Kennedy. The President’s Science Advisory Council issued its report on May 15, 1963, and it found Carson’s book completely accurate, scientifically. The panel recommended that the government immediately act to cut DDT use, something Carson did not recommend, because the panel found dangers of the stuff to be acute.

    Much of what is cited against Carson is pure fiction. Audubon did NOT count more eagles in DDT years; no science study ever found DDT not harmful to birds; DDT remains a toxic poison that kills entire ecosystems.

    DDT advocates also hope you don’t understand how the law works. EPA was reluctant to act against DDT, and the agency undertook the regulatory hearings on DDT only after two separate federal courts had found DDT to be an uncontrollable poison in the wild, and had ordered DDT use and production completely banned, under then-existing pesticides laws. Those orders were stayed so EPA could conduct hearings on new label instruction proposed by the DDT industry. The new label, incidentally, proposed that labeled uses include only IRS spraying for health reasons; but had that label been approved, DDT would have been available over the counter. Abuses would be the fault of the purchaser of the stuff.

    The 9,000-plus page hearing record fully confirmed the harmful effects of DDT on wildlife, when DDT was used outdoors. On that basis, EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus ordered the manufacturer-suggested label instead be made a regulation, which would stop over-the-counter sales, and end any possibility of abuse in the U.S. Under U.S. law, and under EPA’s organic act, such a regulation can only be issued if the science backing the regulation is sufficient (we do not allow government regulation by whim). Two cases were brought to challenge EPA’s rule, one by DDT manufacturers who said the rule was too tough, and one by environmental groups who said the rule was too lax. Both cases were decided in favor of EPA, both cases stating that the science record was sound and clear, and EPA’s regulation was justified on the record.

    This is important. If the science had been bad, or had later been discovered to be bad, had the wildlife effects been found to be exaggerated, any party wishing to use DDT could challenge the regulation in court and get it overturned. Since 1972, to the best of my knowledge, no one has challenged the regulation.

    In 1970 the National Academy of Sciences did a review of DDT and few other chemicals, and offered policy advice on regulation. NAS said DDT was one of the most beneficial chemicals ever synthesized, but it found that the harms outweighed the benefits. In 1970, NAS called for a rapid phase-out of DDT. (There was an unfortunate editing error, in which NAS listed the annual infection rate, 500 million cases, as the number of lives saved by DDT; at 4 million deaths per year, however, if we assumed DDT use had started in 1942, and stopped ALL malaria deaths until 1970, there would be 112 million lives saved; but we know that the impact on malaria deaths did not really bite until after 1960, and 112 million is somewhat short of 500 million. Alas, NAS has never sent out an erratum not that I have found.)

    Today, bednets tend to be two or three times more effective than IRS with DDT in preventing malaria infections. Some bednets are DDT impregnated, in areas where local populations of mosquitoes are determined to be susceptible to the poison; but rotation of pesticides is used to try to prevent resistance to pesticides in the insects.

    Great success against malaria since 2000 is obtained through the use of Integrated Vector Management (IVM, or IPM in the U.S.) — the methods Rachel Carson urged to be used to fight malaria, in 1962. Had we listened to Carson in 1962, and acted then, DDT might still be a great tool to fight malaria, and millions more lives might have been saved. Regardless, millions of lives are being saved due to the work and writings of Rachel Carson, and anyone who argues otherwise is absolutely, completely dead wrong.

    Come on over to Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub if you want citations.

    Keep up the campaign against anti-science, please.

  8. Pingback: Friendly Reminder: The DDT-Holocaust Hoax promoters don’t actually care about malaria deaths | The Way Things Break

  9. What “surge” of malaria? Malaria infections and malaria deaths have continued to plunge since the U.S. “ban” on DDT on cotton in the U.S. Today, malaria infection rates and death totals are as low as they have ever been in human history.

    If we’re making Rachel Carson accountable, she should get credit for the millions of lives saved, the 50% reduction in infection totals, and 75% reduction in death totals.

    Can we call a decline, “a resurgence?”

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