Weird Internet Ideas: DDT

This is a compilation of comments I made in reply to a comment on File770 here:

‘Bring back DDT. “The ban on DDT,” says Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, “may have killed 20 million children.” Who was more dangerous, Rachel Carson or Pol Pot?’

The answer is Pol Pot.
 Rachel Carson killed nobody that I’m aware of. Pol Pot was responsible for the deaths of an unknown number of Cambodians – but 3 million is a plausible figure.

So, the first questions is WHY somebody would compare a woman science writer to a murderous communist/nationalist with a murderous fixation on an agrarian utopia and a hatred of urban intellectuals?Because that is what you’ve been told to think.

By whom?

By some definitely non-communists but who are also nationalists and also seem to have a persistent hatred of urban intellectuals.‘But, but’ you might say ‘the ban on DDT has killed millions because of malaria and that’s all Rachel Carson’s fault!’

But, but, that is what is known as ‘bullshit’. It is wrong encased in more wrong and built up from wrong.

The evil brilliance of this argument is that it works like the opposite of a Gish Gallop – instead of a whole series of wrong that the debunker has to debunk in multiple directions, this argument uses the BIG SIMPLE LIE instead – to mislead and distract. The lie being – the “ban’ on DDT.

How is the ‘ban’ a lie?
 Well, there are many kinds of things that could be called ‘bans’ on DDT.
 The ‘ban’ that could be ascribed to Rachel Carson’s book ‘The Silent Spring’ is the ban on the use of DDT in the United States of America.
 Of course, THAT ban has not led to millions of deaths in the Third World because it was a ban on the use of DDT in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, not the world.

Even THAT ban (essentially the EPA limiting its permitted uses) included public health exemptions. So the ban that could be linked to the political pressure from people being convinced by Carson’s book definitely led to zero deaths in the USA – the country that the ‘ban’ applied to.

‘Yeah, yeah, but’ you might say ‘The US ban led to other bans’.

This is true after all DDT is a dangerous substance with real environmental impact. It is well researched.

‘Yeah, but Silent Spring was wrong on these points…’ irrelevant. No restriction on the use of DDT has ever been enacted on the strength of whatever Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring alone. She could have written that DDT was haunted by tiny demons from Gloucestershire and it wouldn’t prove anything about the validity of restrictions on DDT. Of course, her arguments were much better than that but they were simply a start of an inquiry – not the foundation of a case. Attempts to disprove ‘Silent Spring’ are just a way to divert from modern evidence on DDT. Of course, Silent Spring didn’t have every fact right – so what? It is like saying we shouldn’t treat cancer because a 1950’s medical manual has errors in it.

‘Yeah but the worldwide ban’…no the ‘worldwide ban’ doesn’t exist. There are worldwide (effectively) limitations on its use. However, the most notable one is the World Health Organisation’s. Yet THAT ‘ban’ ALSO has exemptions for health programs.
So what ARE the bans? The bans have substantially reduced the use of DDT for AGRICULTURAL use.


Well have you heard of evolution?

Evolution – animals change. Mosquitos can become resistant to pesticides. Indeed, fighting malaria, whether it is mosquitos or the nasty creature that actually causes the disease, has been a constant arms race between us and the nasty bastards.So wide scale DDT use for AGRICULTURE means lots of bad news for animals further up the food chain but that kind of uncontrolled use means exposure of malaria carrying mosquitos to DDT in an uncontrolled way. That means more survivors, more resistance and hence LESS EFFECTIVENESS of DDT as a tool of disease control.

So wide scale DDT use for AGRICULTURE means lots of bad news for animals further up the food chain but that kind of uncontrolled use means exposure of malaria carrying mosquitos to DDT in an uncontrolled way. That means more survivors, more resistance and hence LESS EFFECTIVENESS of DDT as a tool of disease control.

Anybody who believes that DDT is the best way of eliminating malaria-carrying mosquitoes should be absolutely in favour of a ban on DDT for agricultural use. Interesting that the people pushing the lie about Rachel Carson *aren’t* in favour of the ban on agriculture.

Of course, whether DDT is effective for public health uses is another question. But, I’ll leave that one. As the key lie has been identified already. Even if DDT is effective for public health campaigns then the bans that are ascribed to Carson definitely SAVED lives rather than resulted in deaths. Without those bans, DDT would have become increasingly ineffective.

Yet, people fall for this glib lie.

Forgive me, but I’ve seen enough of those recently.

I say ‘lie’ because we know who and why this lie was invented.

So why would somebody say something both absurd and also a bit nasty?

Well, I’ll start with something a bit more current. Ladies and gentlemen the next Vice-President of the United Sates, Mike Pence:

“Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill. In fact, 2 out of every three smokers does not die from a smoking related illness and 9 out of ten smokers do not contract lung cancer. This is not to say that smoking is good for you…. news flash: smoking is not good for you. If you are reading this article through the blue haze of cigarette smoke you should quit. The relevant question is, what is more harmful to the nation, second hand smoke or back handed big government disguised in do-gooder healthcare rhetoric.”

Smoking? What’s smoking got to do with it?

The Advancement of Sound Science Center was established as a front for the tobacco industry – specifically Philip Morris. Cigarettes, as we all know (except VP elect Mike Pence) smoking kills. As a business model, killing your customers has some drawbacks, not least of which is a kind of selective pressure which ensures that people in charge of such an industry have to have an almost pathological disregard for the welfare of others.
Of course, the TASSC couldn’t just leap in and do a Mike Pence and say smoking doesn’t kill. Nope. A more clever and cynical strategy was employed.

The idea was this: attack science. Throw doubt on notions of expertise and scientific authority. That is not an idea invented by the right – its most excessive expression was during Mao’s cultural revolution in China.

If enough doubt could be seeded in people’s minds about scientific claims of harm – particularly those based on indirect chains of causality or complex statistical evidence – then moves against smoking could be hampered. After all, lung cancer is capricious and the connection between any one cigarette and a malignant tumour in your lungs is hard to establish. The harm is found in broad net effects that grow over time. It is a matter of statistical preponderance.

To make this kind of attack another target could be used.
We’ve had one villain in this story already (Pol Pot) but it is time for another.

Steve Milloy.

Milloy, locked onto the DDT issue as a way of sowing doubt about science-based environmental policy. The brief was to help limit legislation on secondhand smoking but to do that a broader strategy of creating FEAR UNCERTAINTY DOUBT around science policy was being employed. This was not new – a long-term approach to hamper moves on environmental and public health issues was the application of FUD.

It’s why if you are a right-leaning American you probably think that global warming is dubious. For any industry that unfortunately poisons people as a by-product, there are only a few PR gambits you can employ – making people doubt reality is going to be the main one.

In 2001 the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants  was used by TASSC and Milloy to create a set of enduring myths about DDT. While the convention overtly did NOT ‘ban’ DDT for use in vector control, the surrounding discussion was exploited to imply that first-world environmentalists were trying to stop struggling third-world nations from fighting malaria. The claim was false on many levels and had only a limited long-term impact on policy. But that wasn’t the point.

The point was to create a stick with which to attack science-based activism and policy.

Some years ago I was standing in a long Hindu temple that sat on a precipitous cliff edge and below me was all of Cambodia.
The temple is on a disputed piece of territory between Thailand and Cambodia. It lies in Cambodia but is really only accessible from Thailand. For political reasons it isn’t always accessible but at the time it was. Well worth a visit if the border is open. Exquisite. I think it is more impressive than Angkor Wat, although the scale is smaller.

After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and put an end to Pol Pot’s murderous regime, the Khmer Rouge retreated to various places.One of these was Preah Vihear Temple because of its strategic command of the surrounding territory.

There were stern warnings about minefields, a partly destroyed Russian helicopter, some small artillery pieces (possibly there just for tourists) and Buddhist monk  who treated me as a tourist attraction for a group of visiting Thais because I was the biggest, most obviously Western (‘Farang’) person there.

One of those places which had just way too much history concentrated in one spot.

Now you just can’t help but try and get into the heads of the Khmer Rouge standing in a place like that. It wasn’t just the genocide – and it pointless to try and draw levels of awful when it comes to murder on those levels – but the extent to which it was a kind of self-genocide. During Pol Pot’s reign, he and the Khmer Rouge essentially tried to make Cambodia murder itself. It is nigh on incomprehensible.

Ideology doesn’t explain it. After all, it was another brutal communist regime that eventually brought the mass murder to an end. Some kind of mass traumatic syndrome from the horrors of the decades of war in former French-IndoChina goes someway to explaining it I suppose.

Pol Pot literally wanted to make Cambodia great again. It was nationalism and communism and Maoist obsession with agrarian living that formed a truly appalling mix that led to horrors that should chill every one of us.

But also denial. Denial of learning. Denial that people from the cities had anything to contribute. Denial of learning. Denial of expertise.

When things didn’t go to plan, when the agricultural revolution instead brought starvation, the killing only intensified. When eventually the Khmer Rouge was toppled, the die hards didn’t stop and think ‘we really messed up’ but dug in and kept fighting for decades afterwards UTTERLY CONVINCED that they had done the right thing. To the extent that they would carry on fighting and dying for their beliefs that were so factually and morally wrong.

So who killed more? Pol Pot or people’s capacity to fool themselves with cynical lies? Pol Pot personally could have only ever killed a few people. To kill on the scale that he did required people who would believe and spread cynical lies and CONTINUE TO DO SO in the face of reality demonstrating that what they believed was wrong.

I’ve typed a lot in reply now. Some of what I’ve typed will be incorrect, misleading, inaccurate or exaggerated. Infallibility is not achievable.

Rachel Carson killed nobody by not being 100% correct.
The followers of Pol Pot killed millions by not accepting that he could be anything other than 100% correct.
I know which is a better example for any human regardless of their ideology.

Has the Tor Boycott Ended?

The answer is probably not because a Puppy of one kind or another will read this post and insist that actually the boycott is going full strength and even now they have enlisted the power of the heat death of the universe to destroy Tor books using the inevitable outcomes of thermodynamics.

However, has it ended as a ‘thing’? Apparently so. There is no fixed date and I doubt we’ll be seeing any gushing reviews of a Tor published book or story from a major Puppy outlet anytime soon but it does seem like the Tor Boycott has been quietly retired.

For example: Look at the masthead here August13 2016

and then here on August 26 :

The other major promoter of the Tor Boycott was Peter Grant, a Sad Puppy supporter and now Castalia House/Vox Day published author. His last mention of the Tor Boycott was in September while spruiking Declan Finn

Aside from that, it would seem that the mighty Tor boycott fell victim to a lack of steam and short attention spans. That isn’t news, of course. I think everybody but Peter Grant knew that it would fizzle away into nothing.

Review: Star Trek Beyond

I wish I had seen this earlier. Not a startlingly brilliant movie nor does it push the edges of what a Star Trek movie can be. However, of the current sequence, it is the one that gets closest to the story aesthetic of Trek.

The villain (played by Iris Elba in heavy prosthetics) is interesting. His motivations are largely left unexplored until very late in the film  but he is convincingly ruthless. As with his motivations, other aspects of the plot are revealed gradually in a story that trusts that the viewer will along.

Importantly, good use is made of the core crew members. Everybody helps and everybody contributes. The relatively slow lead-in to the main story helps give a sense that the Enterprise crew do actually spend time in space doing Star Fleet stuff.

The visuals are excellent. There is a very nicely imagined starbase that looks more like something Bank’s Culture would have made but works as an upgraded vision of what a spacefaring society might build. Likewise, the key alien planet location strikes a good bargain between convincing location shots and not-Earth-looking.

Yes, the science is stupid. Star Trek doesn’t work if it tried to make more sense than this. Nebulas now have big crashy rocks and nice habitable planets. However, the J.J.Abrams metric of distance is determined by plot is marginally less egregious than the last film thanks to a different director.

Fun action. Scratches a Star Trek itch.

Review: Class Ep5 Detained

A low-budget ‘bottle episode’ that really plays well to the strengths of Class.

The Scooby gang are all placed in detention by Ms Quill (whose parallel adventure is the subject of next week’s episode). Unfortunately, a random encounter between the rift and a freaky asteroid leads to the whole room being pulled into a prison dimension. One by one the cast are forced to confess secrets…

The young cast are all excellent actors and they pull off some great performances here. The jealousies and emotions between each of them are played out well and convincingly. In particular, Tanya (Vivian Oparah) brilliantly demonstrates that she would be the default leader of the group but the dynamics of age and the group’s own insecurities prevent it.

Nice that Matteusz seems to be now regarded as one of the group but there are further hints that he’ll get killed off to create extra angst for Charlie the alien prince.

Review: Night Without Stars – Chronicle of the Fallers part 2

Technically, this is the second part of a longer story but in many ways it is structured as a stand-alone novel. This is seventh of Hamilton’s Commonwealth set novels, part of a second set of novels set around the ‘void’ – a mysterious space anomaly inside of which humans are both trapped and have access to psychic powers but outside of which is a star consuming threat.

I say ‘set around’ but in this case, the setting is actually a planet that has been expelled from the Void and anyway the Void was eliminated in an earlier series and…look, there is an AWFUL lot of back-story here. So while the book mainly deals with a new(ish) setting and mainly new characters, it would be a weird read for anybody who hadn’t read the previous volumes.

And that is sort of a shame but understandable. The previous Commonwealth books amount to a lot of universe building. The Void allowed Hamilton to embedded a more unusual fantasy like story within a space-opera in his Void trilogy and The Abyss Beyond Dreams let him revisit that with a story of a revolution in a quasi-Victorian society with a surrounding threat of invasion-of-the-body-snatchers like aliens. Having built a big shared universe, Hamilton is having fun finding different stories to tell.

So you have to wade through back-story at the start – reminders about his central Commonwealth characters first (unflappable investigator Paula Myo and physicist/plutocrat Nigel Sheldon) and then a return to the characters on the planet Bienviedo shortly after the end of the previous book. Then (mercifully) the story leaps forward…

The planet Bienviedo is stuck in a star system, deep in intergalactic space. The population are all descendants of a colony ship from the technologically advanced Commonwealth but time, the Void and vast distances mean that they have no hope of contacting the Commonwealth. They are ruled by a Soviet-like quasi-socialist government which has become paranoid about social change. The paranoia and social control are also fed by the existential threat of ‘Fallers’. The Fallers are another alien species that assimilates, mimics and often eats other lifeforms. Bienviedo is surrounded by Faller Trees – spaceship-factories that periodically eject eggs onto the planet below which spawn more fallers. Using the remnants of Commonwealth technology and records the government has built its Soyuz-like programme, which periodically sends up ships to fire nuclear missiles at the alien trees. Within this society are also a minority population who have inherited some of the more advanced genetic modifications of their Commonwealth ancestors – including a kind of built-in internet access – a fact that only further fuels the government’s paranoia.

Hamilton has taken a convoluted path to this set-up but I like the place it ends up in. A kind of Cold-War zombie-monster thriller with a side serving of cyberpunk rebels. Also, there are alien fish people – who are nice.

As the pace increases and the threat from the Fallers mounts, the setting and characters give way to more running about and blowing things up. Also, the connections to previous Commonwealth stories becomes more overt.

Fun, but a really bad place to start if you haven’t read a Hamilton book before.

Margins of error

I suspect most people who read this blog know all this already but I’ve met the same misunderstanding at work recently and also in the context of the opinion polls around the POTUS election. So here is a simplified explanation.

Imagine I have a great big jar of jelly beans, which are the favoured confectionary of probability explanations. There are exactly 500 red jelly beans and 500 blue jelly beans and nothing else – no Jill Stien jelly beans or exotic Even McMulberry flavours. A jelly bean pollster doesn’t know this, though. The pollster wants to estimate the proportion of red and blue jelly beans in the jar BUT is only allowed to look at some of the jelly beans.

The pollster grabs a handful of jelly beans from the jar and looks at the relative proportion of jelly beans. Naturally, I don’t want the pollster to do this very often because they’ll put their germ-ridden hands all over my beautiful jelly beans. So pollster only has this handful to look at. They have to make a key assumption – that the jelly beans were well mixed so that their handful is a random pick of jelly beans in the jar.

The pollster looks at the proportion of red to blue jelly beans. Let’s say they have 5 red and 8 blue jelly beans. The pollster says that the proportion of red to blue is 38% to 62% BUT they also report a margin of error that is quite large. They can’t be sure this figure is right because they know they may have been unlucky. With only 13 jelly beans in their handful, it isn’t wholly impossible that they could pick out nothing but blue jelly beans if the true proportion was 50-50. Now note if they did pick out nothing but blue, this could happen by chance.

Margins of error address only this aspect of errors in polling – that the proportion in the sample was to some extent an ‘unlucky’ pick. Both the reported figure and the margin of error BOTH assume that the picking was done correctly. In our jelly bean example the assumption that the beans were well mixed together.

Now it so happens that I didn’t mix the jelly beans well (although the pollster can’t tell)*. There are actually MORE red towards the top and fewer red towards the bottom of the jar. So the pollster’s assumption was wrong. A clever pollster might try to find ways to deal with this methodologically (e.g. by grabbing beans from both the top and the bottom) but the principle still applies: the reported estimate and the margin of error assume that the sampling methodology was valid. The margin of error doesn’t (and can’t) account for the probability of what in common parlance would be called an ‘error’ (i.e. a mistake).