A double disaster for science and public health (updated)

by John Q on February 16, 2017

Zombies never die, and that’s even more true of zombie ideas. One of the most thoroughly killed zombies, the myth that Rachel Carson is responsible for millions of deaths from DDT, has recently re-emerged from the rightwing nethersphere where it has continued to circulate despite repeated refutation. That wouldn’t be worth yet another long post except for the source: Dr Paul Offit, a prominent pediatrician and leading pro-vaccination campaigner, writing in the Daily Beast. Offit’s revival of the DDT ban myth is a double disaster for science and public health.

The myth that a (non-existent) global ban on DDT, inspired by Rachel Carson, led to the death of millions, has been refuted about as conclusively as it can possibly be. The late Aaron Swartz did a good job, and his points have been amplified by others. Tim Lambert and I showed how the idea had been pushed by tobacco hacks like Stephen Milloy, in his days at Cato. These days, anyone who wants the facts can check Wikipedia. Milloy, who was pushed out of Cato when his tobacco links were exposed, has long since lost his subsequent role as “science expert” for Fox, and was (last I saw) flacking for a coal company.

The good news is that the global struggle against malaria is succeeding. That’s not due to DDT. Although the WHO made a widely publicised statement in 2006, endorsing the use of DDT, this was essentially a restatement of existing policy, phrased in a way that placated the US political right. Under that policy, the phaseout of DDT has continued. India, the only remaining producer and biggest consumer of DDT has agreed to end its use by 2020.

So, it was pretty disappointing to see the Daily Beast running the myth almost unchanged from the version Milloy was pushing a decade ago. What was far worse though, was the author, not one of the usual rightwing hacks but Dr Paul Offit, a much respected pediatrician who’s been a leader in the fight against anti-vaccination myths.

Looking at some of Offit’s previous work, I note favorable references to Milloy. This is unsurprising, though regrettable. Milloy’s attacks on “junk science”, designed as cover for his attempts to undermine research on the health effects of passive smoking, fooled many. And in the early 2000s, antivaxerism was seen as leftwing position, so Milloy attacked it with gusto. (By contrast, he was very soft on creationism). Presumably, Offit regarded Milloy as an ally and took an uncritical view of his lies on DDT.

This is a disaster in two respects. First, Offitt’s credibility will help to give the zombie DDT myth another boost. Second, and far worse, Offitt is on the way to destroying his own credibility. The antivaxers at Age of Autism are already on to the case, and now they finally have a convincing argument to use.

The best hope for salvaging something from this mess is that science is a self-correcting process. If Offit were to acknowledge his error, and restate his scientifically based support for vaccination, he would show a sharp contrast with the anti-vaxers, who never respond to evidence.

I wrote to the Daily Beast, offering a correction, and got no reply. So, I’ve now written directly to Offit, alerting him to his errors and hoping for the bst.

Update 21/2/17: I received a fairly terse reply to my email, reiterating a number of spurious claims about Carson. My email in response went unanswered, as did a followup. This is disappointing, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in 15 years of blogging it’s that changing anybody’s mind is very difficult. I’ve done my best to apply this lesson to myself and be more open to new evidence – long term readers can judge if that’s been successful.



Anarcissie 02.16.17 at 4:23 am

Seems to be hard pro-vax is stylistically consistent with DDT. No?


Sandwichman 02.16.17 at 6:46 am

Thanks for writing to Dr. Offit, John. Very disturbing that reputable people repeat utterly groundless claims without checking.


Kevin Donoghue 02.16.17 at 9:00 am

Thanks. BTW you’ve given “Offit” a double-t in your 4th paragraph.


John Quiggin 02.16.17 at 9:08 am

@1 Too many negatives in that for me to make sense of it.
@2 & @3 Thanks


Phil 02.16.17 at 9:19 am

Milloy’s attacks on “junk science”, designed as cover for his attempts to undermine research on the health effects of passive smoking, fooled many.

Link? What I’ve seen of the science supporting the health effects of passive smoking has looked pretty junk-y. But maybe I’m just one of the many who have been fooled.


Eli rabett 02.16.17 at 11:05 am

Google Roger Bate and Rabett to find the link. Bate sold the idea that the lie about DDT could be used against the WMO to distract it from fighting tobacco


Ben Alpers 02.16.17 at 2:13 pm

Offit seems to be pretty committed to the DDT lie. It appears to be one of the “stories of science gone wrong” in his forthcoming book Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong. It’s published by National Geographic Books, which is a Murdoch company these days, right?


JimV 02.16.17 at 3:10 pm

Thanks for the effort. I hope it pays off. GOYM.


WLGR 02.16.17 at 3:14 pm

We have here an excellent example of what Philip Mirowski calls “the neoliberal thought collective” in action. I recommend Mirowski’s book Science-Mart for his analysis of how these kinds of propaganda campaigns aren’t just an expression of the short-term interests of one company/industry or another (or else why would it make sense for “respectable” general-purpose neoliberal institutions like Cato to stick their necks out on behalf of discredited struggles like Big Tobacco’s?) but in fact proceed logically from some of the most fundamental doctrines of neoliberalism: because knowledge like everything else is best treated in the manner of a commodity in the marketplace, and because market capitalism is structurally premised on the unequal accumulation of wealth and commodities, therefore a necessary condition for the production of knowledge by the market is for the majority of the population to be just as dispossessed and impoverished intellectually as it is materially. From this perspective, obscurantist movements like the pro-DDT campaign, tobacco/cancer denialism, climate denialism, and creationism are to be tolerated or perhaps even encouraged on principle, as a rebuke to the hubris of imagining that education of the masses on an individual level could ever compete with the superior aggregate cognitive ability of the market.


Raven Onthill 02.16.17 at 4:42 pm

For some people like, apparently, Offit any opposition to big-industry health policies must be anti-science. Some doctors are also quite greedy and will happily promote very wrong-headed views for money.

I know someone who quit a medical research career path because he couldn’t stand how unscientific medical education was, and the idea of seeing scientific incompetents as trusted principal investigators was more than he could stomach.

This doesn’t make me anti-vax; I am deeply unsympathetic to the idea of bring back the old plagues.



John Quiggin 02.16.17 at 9:00 pm

I got a reply from Offit, which was very defensive. Given that he has already committed this stuff to a book, that’s not surprising, but I’ll persevere. I didn’t know Murdoch owned National Geographic.


Mark Navin 02.16.17 at 10:18 pm

This is very troubling, since it reinforces an unfortunate narrative about Offit.

Offit made money from developing the rotavirus vaccine. His critics have labeled him ‘for-profit Offit’, and have claimed that his vaccine advocacy is economically motivated. It becomes harder to push back against that narrative — and to ask people to see Offit as a trustworthy source — when he embraces pseudo-scientific (or pseudo-historical?) myths about DDT that serve the interests of big corporations.

Paul Offit is the most prominent defender of vaccine safety and efficacy in the US. And it’s not just his books and media appearances. He and his colleagues at the Vaccine Education Center (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) provide some of the most widely used training and reference materials for medical personnel, e.g. to help them communicate with parents about immunizations. (Just this week, I interviewed public health nurses who emphasized how often they use Offit’s resources.) We cannot afford for Offit to inflict wounds on his own reputation, especially not in the contemporary political climate.


Kiwanda 02.17.17 at 12:40 am

Not really necessary, but here some refutations of particular statements in Offit’s Daily Beast article.

In May 1963, Rachel Carson …asked for a “Pesticide Commission” to regulate the untethered use of DDT. Ten years later, Carson’s “Pesticide Commission” became the Environmental Protection Agency, which immediately banned DDT.

According to the EPA’s own discussion of this, no. As Michael Hiltzick points out, manufacturing DDT in the U.S., and sales overseas, continued. Usage for specific needs was allowed on a case-by-case basis. All actions involved extensive hearings and studies.

After DDT was banned, malaria reemerged across the globe:
* In India, between 1952 and 1962, DDT caused a decrease in annual malaria cases from 100 million to 60,000. By the late 1970s, no longer able to use DDT, the number of cases increased to 6 million.

According to this study in Malaria Journal, the resurgence in India began in the mid-60’s following the end of limited-term USAID funding.

*In Sri Lanka, before the use of DDT, 2.8 million people suffered from malaria. When the spraying stopped, only 17 people suffered from the disease. Then, no longer able to use DDT, Sri Lanka suffered a massive malaria epidemic: 1.5 million people were infected by the parasite.

According to this other Malaria Journal study, Sri Lanka decided to stop using DDT in 1963 because they thought they were done, there were so few cases; however, when malaria came back, spraying was resumed, hindered by war. DDT-resistance was observed by 1969, and was significant enough by 1977 to prompt a change to malathion. Since 2000, incidence has come down markedly, with fewer than 1000 cases per year since 2006.

*In South Africa, after DDT became unavailable, the number of malaria cases increased from 8,500 to 42,000 and malaria deaths from 22 to 320.

According to this Biomedica article on the question of DDT use, cases of malaria in South Africa did increase when DDT use was stopped in 1995; but use of DDT resumed (on bednets and walls) in 2000, and better drugs for treating malaria have resulted in “near elimination” of malaria deaths.


Ebenezer Scrooge 02.17.17 at 11:41 am

As a long-recovered ex-neoliberal, I don’t get your reasoning. I would think that the neoliberal attitude to knowledge would be that it must be propertized to establish proper incentives for creating and curating it. (The curation point is important: it underlies the neolib rationale for the indefinite extension of copyright.) Once things are propertized, neolibs leave subsequent distribution to the vast wisdom of the market. I would think that neoliberals should be indifferent between mass ignorance and mass knowledge. It is conservatives of the Russell Kirk variety who prefer mass ignorance.


WLGR 02.17.17 at 3:48 pm

Once things are propertized, neolibs leave subsequent distribution to the vast wisdom of the market. I would think that neoliberals should be indifferent between mass ignorance and mass knowledge.

Scrooge @ 15: “Ex-neoliberal” could mean many things so it’s hard to know where exactly your past or current convictions would fit in relation to an ideological constellation like the one sketched by Mirowski. In any case, as far as the promotion of mass ignorance, I highly recommend his working paper linked above which concludes as follows:

The neoliberals believed that the market always knew better than any human being; but humans would never voluntarily capitulate to that truth. People would resist utter abjection to the demands of the market; they would never completely dissolve into undifferentiated ‘human capital’; they would flinch at the idea that the political franchise needed to be restricted rather than broadened; they would be revolted that the condition of being ‘free to choose’ only meant forgetting any political rights and giving up all pretense of being able to take charge of their own course through life. Neoliberal ideals would always be a hard sell; how much easier to avoid all that with simplistic stories that fogged the mind of the masses: government is always bad; everything you need to know is already in Adam Smith; you can be anything you want to be; there is no such thing as class or the dead hand of history; everything can be made better if you just express yourself on some social media platform; there is nothing wrong with you that a little shopping won’t fix.

In their heart of hearts, philosophically sophisticated neoliberals know that none of this is strictly true; and they even can concede this once in a while within internal discussions of neoliberal doctrine. They can’t go around saying in public that, “We must seize power and use all the tools of government to get the government to impose the ideal market on a recalcitrant populace.” Here they learned a lesson from the hard Marxist Left in the 20th century, who repeatedly insisted that they might temporarily have to bring about turbo-charged capitalism with enhanced exploitation as a necessary prelude to an eventual true socialism. Most political programs at some juncture must promise both A and not-A simultaneously in order to exert sovereignty. What is noteworthy about the neoliberals is that they forged a unified doctrine and institutional structure to do just that: they can reassure themselves that no human being is capable of second-guessing the Truth of the Market, and therefore spreading ignorance about their own true motives is not duplicity, but rather, foaming the runway for the bearers of real civilization to land and take over. There is no better modern exemplar of the core of the Straussian political doctrine of the noble lie.

The net result of the reconciliation of theory and practice has been a political movement that dares not speak its own name.


Anarcissie 02.17.17 at 4:13 pm

@4 —
‘Hard pro-vax’ (i.e. most or all vaccinations are good) can be derived from ‘science plus technology plus authority are unquestionably good.’ So also, at least initially, powerful pesticides broadly applied, nuclear power, GMOs, etc., etc. Same style.


Martin Bento 02.18.17 at 12:54 am

I suspect another unfortunate haunted by the ghost of the hippy. Environmentalism is hippy; call one of its leading figures an inadvertent mass murderer! Anti-vax is hippy – well, not really, but it’s anti-establishment, and that’s probably close enough at this late date.


Dr. Hilarius 02.18.17 at 2:31 am

Offit’s take on DDT fits in with a long-established right-wing position that environmentalism is a conceit of rich liberals that comes at a cost to working and poor people. To be fair, I’ve encountered self-described leftists who also endorse this view.


Guy Harris 02.18.17 at 3:04 am

(Grumble grumble this is why providing a post preview option is a good thing grumble grumble…. Please reject my previous posting and post this one instead.)


‘Hard pro-vax’ (i.e. most or all vaccinations are good) can be derived from ‘science plus technology plus authority are unquestionably good.’

If the evidence supports a belief that most if not all vaccinations are good, it’s also possible to derive “most or all vaccinations are good” from the evidence rather than from a belief that science plus technology plus authority are unquestionably good. I.e., stated as “most or all vaccinations are good” rather than as “most or all vaccinations are unquestionably good”, “hard pro-vax” can be derived from “science plus technology plus authority are unquestionably good” but doesn’t have to be derived from that.


John Quiggin 02.18.17 at 5:14 am

@17 What Guy Harris said

@18 & @19 Regrettably, this appears to be close to the mark, but I’m still hoping Offit will take a serious look at the evidence and reconsider


Anarcissie 02.18.17 at 4:17 pm

@20 — But the evidence can be cooked. Until rather recently, historically speaking, the only way most people could get any evidence was through institutions governed by the same authority as those who issued the doubted propositions. But many of these institutions have been shown to sometimes publish errors and falsehoods, especially when these are of service to their leaders. I probably don’t need to give examples.

@19 — See the class-war aspects of the plastic bag controversy in New York City.


Ebenezer Scrooge 02.18.17 at 7:15 pm

Okay, now I see what you mean. I came from a kinder, gentler clan of neoliberals–one that thought that its neoliberalism could be compatible with democracy. Silly me!


Guy Harris 02.18.17 at 10:00 pm


But the evidence can be cooked.

By people on more than one side of an issue. Which side are you going to trust? (If somebody says “question authority”, make sure you’re prepared to question the authority of the person who says that, in addition to other authorities – especially if there’s money to be made on more than one side of the controversy….)

“Science plus technology plus authority are unquestionably good” is not wise to believe. “Sometimes science plus technology has beneficial effects” is worth at least considering, however.


Sebastian H 02.18.17 at 11:08 pm

“Offit’s take on DDT fits in with a long-established right-wing position that environmentalism is a conceit of rich liberals that comes at a cost to working and poor people. To be fair, I’ve encountered self-described leftists who also endorse this view.”

This fits right back into the tribalism discussions of earlier. In the recent past, all sorts of ‘very important things’ have been revealed to be conceits of rich liberals that come at a cost to working and poor people. So rich liberals come to be seen as a ‘tribe’ of their own which many working and poor people think can’t be trusted with their interests. Once you decide that someone is of a different tribe than you, you automatically start looking at ALL their claims more skeptically than before. When they are part of your tribe you think “well they wouldn’t want to hurt us (including them), so I can probably trust them”. When they aren’t part of your tribe you worry “they (excluding us) have fucked with us in the past under the guise of good stuff, so I bet they are doing it again”.

That is what made it so unintentionally ironic when at the time of the Brexit vote, Chris Bertram wrote “A national political project requires people to think of themselves as being in some sense in community with their co-nationals and to recognize themselves as being under special obligations to those others, obligations that they don’t have to outsiders. But I now feel myself out of community with my co-nationals who voted differently.”

A large portion of the Brexit voters felt that they had been pushed out of the community of their co-nationals for decades, and that the special obligations that the Londoners and other EU-focused co-nationals ought to have felt toward them had been betrayed for decades.

This is why whenever possible we should work to keep things from having a deep tribal valence–it completely fucks up our ability to get to the truth of things.


Dr. Hilarius 02.19.17 at 2:35 am

Sebastian H at 25: While there may be some issues where “very important things” have been revealed as tribal interests of rich liberals, the portrayal of environmental concerns as liberal conceits is part of a deliberate, decades-long campaign by polluters, developers and right-wing astro-turf organizations. This is a process of concealment rather than revelation.


SomeClark 02.19.17 at 3:05 am

I once was referred by the head of infectious diseases at UCLA to look at an article in a prestigious journal that concluded that probiotics had no place in fighting c-diff. Not only did I read that conclusion, I went back into the article and found that the conclusion didn’t follow from the body, which said most probiotics don’t help. And the article cited in the body, which I looked up, actually said that one probiotic was very helpful. I know I shouldn’t use corruption to explain what could be explained by stupidity, but I’m sorely tempted. Probiotics are cheap, and can’t be patented.

I believe in AGW. But I don’t understand the science. I believe in the integrity of the scientists who are warning us about it.

I do not believe in the integrity of Pharma. Or Offit. Or the guy who did the Danish study that “proved” no link between vaccinations and autism, and is on the lam, fleeing financial fraud prosecution.

I suspect that most people are in favor of every vaccination that comes along reflexively, based on tradition, and that few know any more about the science behind vaccination than I do about the science behind the AGW theory. (Correct me if I’m wrong!) I don’t mean the broad theories of priming the individual immune system, and herd immunity; I also understand the broad theory of AGW– that we’re dumping lots of carbon into the atmosphere. I mean looking at the data to see if you think it says what they say it says.

It’s much easier with vaccinations than with climate science.

Consider the hep b vaccination. You get hep b by being an IV drug user, or having sex with one. Should my baby have gotten the vaccination at birth just in case? No! One in a million die. DIE! (It’s a big deal if you’re the one.) And I am not an IV drug user and I trust my wife. (I also didn’t let them use the anti-syphilis eye drops.)

Enough. That was low hanging fruit. The others are more complicated. But we should not uncritically accept the recommendations of the med-pharma-insurance complex about what is best.


John Quiggin 02.19.17 at 3:50 am

@27 Testing the science behind vaccination is much easier for an non-expert than testing AGW. Just talk to anyone old enough to remember the period before vaccines for polio, MMR and so on. The effectiveness of vaccines in general is obvious. And it’s also easy to check that “Big Pharma” makes hardly any money out of vaccines, which in turn provides the useful heuristic “distrust anyone writing about vaccines who uses the phrase ‘Big Pharma’ as a pejorative.


Dipper 02.19.17 at 10:23 am

@ SomeClark

I believe in AGW. But I don’t understand the science.

1. Take a look at this chart https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/1c/Carbon_Dioxide_400kyr.png/380px-Carbon_Dioxide_400kyr.png

it shows atmospheric CO2 levels being between 180 ppm and 270 ppm for half a million years, and now at 400ppm. The rise coincides with the start of the industrial revolution.

2. The greenhouse effect. Greenhouse gases warm the planet – this is known, not disputed by anyone, and is based on standard physics about absorbtion of heat at certain wavelengths. Increasing levels of CO2 will lead to the planet warming.

3. Is the rise due to human activity? The amount of human-generated CO2 since the start of the industrial revolution is roughly twice the observed increase in atmospheric CO2. So half has gone into plants or oceans, and the other half is still in the atmosphere.

4. In order for AGW to not be valid we have to have a mechanism that suddenly generates lots of CO2 to levels previously not seen at the same time as humans are generating the observed amount of CO2. There is no candidate for this increase other than human activity.

Much of the current argument is focussed on the temperature rise. It is currently quite low and the temperature rise is overlay with a lot of variability we don’t fully understand, but the trend is clear. The consequences of the warming on weather are not fully understood, so there is lots of room for debate. But on CO2 and the greenhouse effect, there is not much room for argument.


jackie 02.20.17 at 1:36 am

Do you know Andrew Gelman? Statistics prof at Columbia but spends a tremendous amount of time fighting bad research — in any discipline. His blog is andrewgelman.com though he seems happy to get email at his office. (I am a retired researcher and watching him over the years helped maintain my (limited) faith in the process.)


John Quiggin 02.20.17 at 2:22 am

@30 An excellent recommendation. I follow Andrew’s blog and visited him at Columbia a few years ago.


faustusnotes 02.20.17 at 5:20 am

Just for the record, in case anyone out there is reading this and unsure of SomeClark’s “facts”:

– the “guy who did” the Danish study and is “on the lam” for fraud was actually not the main author of the study, he was about 5th and not a major member of the team;
– a subsequent study released in 2013 confirmed that there was no increase in autism
– the main proponent of the autism theory, Andrew Wakefield, was disbarred from the medical register in England and is now working in the USA – he was responsible for direct fraud in his research (and unethical experiments on children)
– hepatitis B vaccine does not cause death
– there are other ways of getting hepatitis B than the two described by Someclark, and there are 2 million cases of chronic hepatitis B in the USA, it’s not a minor disease limited to injecting drug users
– we don’t uncritically accept recommendations from “big Pharma”, we have an extensive drug assessment process to ensure vaccines are safe and effective

I think SomeClark is a regular reader of crank blogs like AgeofAutism, which is where all his or her “facts” come from.


Anarcissie 02.20.17 at 4:59 pm

faustusnotes 02.20.17 at 5:20 am @ 32 —
‘we don’t uncritically accept recommendations from “big Pharma”, we have an extensive drug assessment process to ensure vaccines are safe and effective’

They certainly used to, back in the day (1940s and ’50s, when I was growing up). Not only from big Pharma but the whole medical industry. Science-technology-authority were like a religion. So when you wanted to advertise Anacin, you put a guy in a white coat on the tube.

I am old enough to remember when a pregnant relative was prescribed Thalidomide. She didn’t like the looks of the pills, so she threw them out instead of taking them.

Note that testing and validation of drugs again is governed by the same authority which is already (in the eyes of doubters) suspect.

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