Saturday, 12 January 2013

Who was worse, Rachel Carson or Mao?

If there were an SI unit of evil, we'd probably call it the Mao, because the single syllable of the Chairman's name is quicker to enunciate than its two-syllable competitors 'Stalin', 'Hitler' and 'Pol Pot'. Historians will doubtless quibble endlessly about exactly how many deaths are directly attributable to Mao, but let's agree, for the sake of argument, to set one Mao equal to 45 million deaths. On this basis, assuming a linear scale, Hitler registers 1.2 Mao on the Genocide Scale, if you attribute every death in World War II to his actions, or 0.25 Mao, if only civilian deaths are included. Stalin registers about 0.2 Mao, depending whose statistics you believe and Pol Pot comes in at a risible 0.04 Mao.

'Yada, yada, yada', I hear you say, what about Rachel Carson? Her book, Silent Spring, arguably led to DDT being banned almost everywhere in the world and, as a result, millions of poor, voiceless human beings have died unnecessarily of malaria. According to the WHO, about 655,000 people, 90% of them Africans, die annually from malaria. Assuming that DDT was banned in 1980, on average, Carson scores nearly 0.5 Mao, a very respectable effort for a lesbian environmentalist.

The British politician Dick Taverne must have been reasoning along these lines when he wrote:

'Rachel Carson is a warning to us all of the dangers of neglecting the evidence-based approach and the need to weight potential risk against benefit: it can be argued that the anti-DDT campaign she inspired was responsible for almost as many deaths as some of the worst dictators of the last century.'

It is difficult to dislike Taverne, not least because, according to Wikipedia, 'he is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and ...on 15 September 2010... along with 54 other public figures, signed an open letter published in The Guardian, stating their opposition to Pope Benedict XVI's state visit to the UK.' Any enemy of the Kiddie-Fucker in Chief (KFC) is my friend. Submitting, however, to a lecture by a Liberal Democrat politician arguing for the evidence-based approach is a bit like consulting with the Bush Administration on best practice in obtaining evidence from suspected terrorists. Neglecting unfavourable evidence is what politicians do, usually in the service of advancing their own careers. If it's evidence I want, I'll go to the scientific journals responsible for publishing studies in the relevant field, not to my MP.

Alerted by - who else - my friend Spike to the minor industry that exists to discredit Rachel Carson, I was curious enough to read the post he sent me (see here). The author of this essay argues that Carson was a fraud, deliberately overstating the risks and understating the benefits of DDT; she ignored contrary evidence and, to the limited extent she was right at all, she wasn't original. The blog on which the essay was posted makes the following claim for itself:  

'spiked is an independent online phenomenon dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms. spiked is endorsed by free-thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, and hated by the narrow-minded such as Torquemada and Stalin. Or it would be, if they were lucky enough to be around to read it.'

Wonderful aspirations. A quick dig around the site unearthed several essays that I'd wholeheartedly endorse, for example this entertaining celebration of insobriety and this exceptionally sensible comment on the child abuse witch hunt currently in vogue among stupid people. I think, tentatively, therefore that the essay analysed below is an aberration.

The author, Pierre Desrochers is, according to a footnote, co-editor, with Roger Meiners and Andrew Morriss, of Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson, published by the Cato Institute in 2012. The Cato Institute aims 'to increase the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace. The Institute will use the most effective means to originate, advocate, promote, and disseminate applicable policy proposals that create free, open, and civil societies in the United States and throughout the world.' The story heading its home page currently begins: 'The policy landscape is strewn with proposals for stricter gun control in the wake of the tragedy at Newtown. Would any be effective, or able to survive a court challenge?' Some relevant articles linked to immediately below are: 'Homicide rate was already declining'; 'Why I still support the right to bear arms' and 'Face it: guns are here to stay'. These claims are all arguably true and deserve serious debate but this is not the time or place. For the minute, it is enough to point out that Desrochers is affiliated with a self-avowed pressure group that does not obviously embrace the evidence-based approach; that, indeed, says it will use the 'most effective means' to achieve its ends. Fair enough, but let's not make the mistake of expecting balance.

Desrochers characterises Silent Spring thus:

'Even by popular-literature standards, Silent Spring can be legitimately characterised as vintage technophobic muckraking in quality literary clothing.'

It's difficult to see how 'quality literary clothing' is a vice, even in 'popular literature'. Would Desrochers have had fewer problems with Silent Spring had it been rendered in atrocious prose? One is reminded of the bleeding hearts who bewail the fate of animals shot with 'high-powered rifles'. Would they rather the rifles were low-powered? Quality literary muckraking, Silent Spring certainly is - muckraking is the entire purpose of the book. Carson assembled evidence that DDT is soluble in adipose tissue and therefore accumulates in predators at the top of their food chains. Famously, the eggs of Peregrine Falcons became too thin to bear the weight of incubating parents and their populations collapsed. Controversially, she claimed, on the basis of insufficient evidence, that DDT is carcinogenic. What Desrochers presumably finds most objectionable is that she further claimed that many individuals and companies with a vested interest in DDT's commercial success downplayed the evidence for these problems with its widespread use. The evidence-based approach is a wonderful thing, when the evidence suits your ends but, when it inconveniently suggests that your product might be a dangerous, persistent poison, evidence becomes a dirty word.

Carson did not publish Silent Spring in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Had she done so, she would have been held, by her reviewers and the journal's editor to a higher standard of evidence. Statistics are thin on the ground in Silent Spring, as they are in the Bible ('the meek shall inherit the earth, p<0.05), Hansard (vote Liberal Democrat, make the world a fairer place, p<0.05) and other works of advocacy. Carson was making a case, not a scientific argument and she did so spectacularly successfully. Even, or especially, her strongest critics are keen to point out that she successfully inspired the campaign that eventually led to DDT being banned in most countries around the world, though she herself was long dead before it came to pass (she died in 1964; DDT was banned in the USA in 1972 and in most other countries by the early 1980s). Unless you are prepared to subject your own claims to the rigours of peer review, you had better stop whining - Desrochers - that your ideological opponents have better arguments and go on a creative writing course, or something.

It is amusing to note that Desrochers castigates Carson for relying on 'anecdotes claiming bird populations were collapsing', while seeming to place great store by the results of the annual Audubon Society bird count and the musings of 'US Brigadier General James Stevens Simmons', writing in 1945 in the Saturday Evening Post. With great respect to the amateur birders of 1950s North America, drawing any reliable inferences about trends in bird populations from the sparse data available is fraught with difficulties as this piece of bona fide science (that's stuff published in a peer-reviewed journal, chaps, not the Saturday Evening Post) makes clear. The current consensus among researchers in the relevant fields is that Carson was absolutely correct to assert that DDT accumulates in adipose tissue (indeed there are several molecules in each and every one of you and in your children); DDT was indeed responsible for declines in raptor populations; some studies suggest that DDT is carcinogenic in humans at levels actually prevalent in the environment whereas other studies find the opposite. On this last point the jury remains out.

Was Silent Spring technophobic? Personally, I agree with Desrochers that it was. As he says, 'Besides, she further argued that, because they were ‘man-made’, synthetic insecticides ‘differ sharply from the simpler insecticides of prewar days [that] were derived from naturally occurring minerals and plant products’, and, because of their ‘enormous biological potency’, they had ‘immense power not merely to poison but to enter into the most vital processes of the body and change them in sinister and often deadly ways'. It is genuinely feeble to argue that an insecticide derived from plants is somehow 'better' than one derived from crude oil. The environmental movement makes this absurd mistake every time it claims that 'organic' food is better than the alternative (unless you are prepared to publicly sanction compulsory sterilisation, why don't you shut up until you can explain how to feed the current and forecast world population using 'organic' farming methods) or that GM is a terrifying technology, with unpredictable consequences, that we must avoid at all costs.

Luddites can, and I hope will, go hang. But in what possible sense is it technophobic or 'anti-modern' to argue that new technologies be evaluated on their merits? Every time a pharmaceutical company seeks permission to launch a new drug, it is required to jump through an incredibly expensive series of hoops, demonstrating that its product is safe. No doubt there would be many more drugs on the market, more cheaply, if this regulatory oversight were abandoned. But who seriously advocates that? If you are a woman, would you take Thalidomide to control your morning sickness?

If we can agree that creating a few paraplegics is a price worth paying for freedom from all government interference then we can probably also agree that DDT should be reintroduced. I'd like to see Desrochers and Lord Taverner outside the House of Commons, under a banner proclaiming their faith in the evidence-based approach, advocating the reintroduction of DDT. After all, think of all those lives that would be saved. Isn't it morally equivalent to allow an evil by avoiding taking action to prevent it and actively enacting the evil? While they are at it, perhaps they could agitate for resuming manufacture of PCBs? Although I suspect they wouldn't need my help, they might consider citing this recent review study, which even-handedly concludes that DDT may or may not be carcinogenic. Desrochers is particularly annoyed at Carson's espousal of the precautionary principle ('Indeed, her outlook paved the way to the ‘precautionary principle’ that helps to retard the adoption of superior (or at least less damaging) technologies that would have benefited people and the environment.'). It's a good point. I don't know whether Desrochers has children or not but I wonder whether he'd agree that it is anti-modern to argue that I'd rather not let a maybe/maybe-not carcinogen accumulate in the liver cells of my children, while we conduct further research.

Coming back to the central claim of Desrochers' feeble article and Taverner's embarrassing outburst: Carson is a sinner or possibly even a monster, because single-handedly she brought about the banning of DDT and therefore millions of avoidable deaths from malaria. Is this true?

It is surely a point too obvious to need labouring that the most effective insecticide on the planet was not banned virtually globally because some tree-hugger wrote a book but because the evidence suggested DDT is dangerous. The most one can possibly claim for (or against) Silent Spring is that its author discussed the evidence in a way that made it impossible to ignore. Interestingly, Desrochers devotes most of the first half of his essay to the claim that Carson wasn't original and doesn't deserve her status as an icon of the environmental movement. He needs to make up his mind - was her message powerful and influential, or was she a plagiarist, without an original bone in her body? If the latter, why are libertarians getting so excited about the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring? If the former, please stop wasting our time with infantile attempts to claim that someone else was first.

Assuming - a large assumption - that Carson was indeed original and is indeed uniquely responsible for the banning of DDT, does she really bear comparison with Mao and Hitler? It seems to me a moot point whether a life 'saved' (that is, obviously, a death deferred) in the current generation is worth a dozen (or even one) as-yet unborn child poisoned. If there are legitimate grounds for fearing the latter, is it not incumbent upon civilised human beings to consider the rights of unborn children? Whether DDT is carcinogenic or not is not known. If Desrochers and Taverner give a shit about evidence, they will at least admit that much. They could be devoting their energies to promoting less-toxic alternatives to DDT, other approaches to curing malaria and attempting to drape their writing in 'quality literary clothing', but I'm not holding my breath.

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