Monday, January 14, 2013

Pounding On The Shell Around Bizarro-World

As I wrote yesterday, I'm still trying to come to grips with the whole matter of the suicide of Aaron Swartz.  Not because I knew him well, as I also made clear.  On the contrary, part of my own sadness is that I didn't even recognize the name, or know even one of the many contributions he made in his too-short life.

In this remembrance, economist John Quiggin mentions Swartz's role in Quiggin's own work debunking something I had no idea existed!  Apparently, for a couple decades, there was a concerted effort to create this alternate universe where DDT was a harmless chemical whose use was moving us toward a world without malaria; this near-utopia was foiled by the evil Rachel Carson and her junk science, which resulted in a worldwide ban on the use of DDT, resulting in the deaths of millions of children, particularly in poor countries.  Since we all know that liberals are the real racists, it is obvious this was her plan all along - to kill little black and brown babies through the evil machinations of her fake, alleged "science".

Apparently, there's even a web site with a "malaria death clock", with Rachel Carson's image right next to it. Some writers have said she is responsible for more deaths than Hitler (yeah, I always love it when they drag that failed Austrian artist's name into their arguments).

In 2003, Quiggin published a piece on his own website outlining the history of DDT's use and overuse, and the resultant multiple problems that arose.  It was a response to an alleged "balanced approach" that did not call out junk science as junk science.  Even ten years ago, Quiggin was clear enough that DDT was being phased out even before Carson's Silent Spring was published because its overuse had resulted in a noticeable lack of effectiveness.  The other hazards from DDT - the near-extinction of several species of raptors who fed on DDT-infected fish, resulting in weakened egg shells; it correlation with certain cancers when ingested by humans - were only beginning to come to light, and added impetus for the drive to end its use.

Now, all this is history and science, which as most folks know, are things certain quarters of the American Political Right are actively hostile toward.  In 2007, Swartz wrote a slightly longer piece, outlining much the same historical facts, as well as the rather loud and boisterous media campaign aiming to brand Rachel Carson as some kind of anti-human criminal.  Toward the end, Swartz did something very clever: he showed that he had heard Deep Throat in All The President's Men and had followed the money.
Perhaps the most vocal group spreading this story is Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM). Founded in 2000 by Roger Bate, an economist at various right-wing think tanks, AFM has run a major PR campaign to push the pro-DDT story, publishing scores of op-eds and appearing in dozens of articles each year. Bate and his partner Richard Tren even published a book laying out their alternate history of DDT: When Politics Kills: Malaria and the DDT Story.
A funding pitch uncovered by blogger Eli Rabbett shows Bate's thinking when he first started the project. "The environmental movement has been successful in most of its campaigns as it has been 'politically correct,'" he explained (Tobacco Archives, 09/98). What the anti-environmental movement needs is something with "the correct blend of political correctness (...oppressed blacks) and arguments (eco-imperialism [is] undermining their future)." That something, Bate proposed, was DDT.
In an interview, Bate said that his motivation had changed after years of working on the issue of malaria. "I think my position has mellowed, perhaps with age," he told Extra!. "[I have] gone from being probably historically anti-environmental to being very much pro-combating malaria now." He pointed to the work he'd done making sure money to fight malaria was spent properly, including a study he co-authored in the respected medical journal the Lancet(7/15/06) on dishonest accounting at the World Bank. He insisted that he wasn't simply pro-DDT, but instead was willing to support whatever the evidence showed worked. And he flatly denied that AFM had ever received money from tobacco, pharmaceutical or chemical companies.
Still, AFM has very much followed the plan Bate laid out in his original funding pitch to corporations: First, create "the intellectual arguments to make our case," then "disseminate these arguments to people in [developing countries]" who can make convincing spokespeople, and then "promote these arguments ... in the West." The penultimate page gives another hint that stopping malaria isn't the primary goal: "Is the DDT problem still relevant?" is listed as an "intellectual issue to be resolved"--once they got funding. (When asked for comment on this, Bate became upset and changed the subject.)
 Quiggin, who is both clever and tenacious, published a piece in the Prospect  with co-author Tim Lambert the next year.  As he makes clear in his remembrance written over the weekend, it was Swartz who brought to his attention this link between the junk-science of the pro-DDT crowd and the tobacco lobby, in particular Roger Bates.
By 1990, it seemed that the public health issues surrounding DDT had been largely resolved. In developed countries, DDT had been replaced by less environmentally damaging alternatives. But soon the situation changed radically. The tobacco industry, faced with the prospect of bans on smoking in public places, sought to cast doubt on the science behind the mooted ban. But a campaign focused on tobacco alone was doomed to failure. So the industry tried a different tack, an across-the-board attack on what it called “junk science.” Its primary vehicle was the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a body set up by PR firm APCO in the early 1990s and secretly funded by Philip Morris. . . .
Tobacco companies created a European version of TASSC, the European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF), led by Roger Bate, another tobacco lobbyist. In the late 1990s, Bate established “Africa Fighting Malaria,” a so-called “astroturf” organisation based in Washington DC. His aim was to drive a wedge between public health and the environment by suggesting that by banning DDT to protect birds, environmentalists were causing many people to die from malaria. Between them, Milloy’s TASSC and Bate’s Africa Fighting Malaria convinced many that DDT was a panacea for malaria, denied to the third world by the machinations of rich environmentalists. 
 Bate responded, and while Quiggin's reply was polite, his co-author pulled no punches.  The first part of Tim Lambert's reply made extensive use of the trail first laid down by Aaron Swartz the year before.
Bate implies that all he did for tobacco interests was a little consulting on “international health” and that the money did not influence his opinions because it was paid after he wrote the two articles and because Philip Morris approached him. Unfortunately for Bate, the Tobacco Documents are available online, and Bate and the ESEF feature in many of them.
What follows is an extensive citation list from the online Tobacco archive, demonstrating that Bate's role in the pro-DDT business was in fact part of a far larger public relations campaign to discredit anti-tobacco science to prevent regulation.  The whole thing is worth a look, if for no other reason than to demonstrate two things I find fascinating in our digital age: First, don't misrepresent yourself online, because it's just way too easy to find out just how disingenuous you are; second, the sheer quantity of information available online does make it difficult to find a place to land if one is trying to do research.  Lambert does an excellent job culling through the thousands of pages of documents to demonstrate just how intertwined Bate was with the tobacco companies.

Lambert's second reply deals specifically with the ways Bate has misrepresented the history of DDT.  Again - don't lie online!  It's just way too easy for someone to find it out.

Now, this little bit of internet history may seem marginal.  In fact, however, it is not.  First, and most important, it demonstrates the way nonsense can go viral on the internet.  As Swartz's 2007 piece demonstrated, the claims against Carson were getting wide play in mainstream publications, without the reporters making clear how wrong they were.  Second, it demonstrates the way the "war on science" is actually an attempt by large corporations to protect their financial interests by creating  a climate of doubt in a public that is just way too willing to pretend there might be another side to any story.  The pro-DDT campaign wasn't important for the tobacco company in and for itself; it was a way for them to test the effectiveness of a media campaign waged against public health organizations on what was thought to be long-settled public policy and well-documented science.  That there are still right-bloggers out there who push nonsense like this is irrelevant; that they have no idea how they've been used by large corporations to push an entirely different agenda is kind of sad.

Finally, Swartz's role in this whole story is important because he was central in pointing out the role large corporations were playing in our seemingly never-ending fight to remind people that science is a legitimate enterprise.  This is a big deal.  Using online sources to point people in the direction of generous contributions from corporate entities to groups doing particular lobbying and PR campaigns can be daunting; Swartz did it easily, and presented his case clearly.

Remember this.  He did this at 21.  Imagine, given support and time, rather than harassment, indictment, and suicide, what else Aaron Swartz could have helped uncover.  Cracking the shell around right-wing Crazy Town is always commendable; doing it in a way that exposes the role of corporate money in manipulating both the public and policy makers is an enormous contribution to our common life.  The guy deserved a medal instead of prosecution.

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