Of mosquitos and men

John Tierney picks up his mighty pen to write his own centennial birthday tribute to Rachel Carson. Most of the column compares today's science with that of the 60s in a sort of raised finger "be wary of overreaction" sort of way. And it's probably OK to point that out every so often, and it's Tierney's schtick. But throughout most of the article, the DDT "ban" is always just below the surface, you can feel it wants to poke its head out at any moment and it's hard for Tierney to keep it down and...oh, man...uh geez, he can't stop himself:
It’s often asserted that the severe restrictions on DDT and other pesticides were justified in rich countries like America simply to protect wildlife. But even that is debatable (see www.tierneylab.com), and in any case, the chemophobia inspired by Ms. Carson’s book has been harmful in various ways. The obsession with eliminating minute risks from synthetic chemicals has wasted vast sums of money: environmental experts complain that the billions spent cleaning up Superfund sites would be better spent on more serious dangers.

The human costs have been horrific in the poor countries where malaria returned after DDT spraying was abandoned. Malariologists have made a little headway recently in restoring this weapon against the disease, but they’ve had to fight against Ms. Carson’s disciples who still divide the world into good and bad chemicals, with DDT in their fearsome “dirty dozen.”

Ms. Carson didn’t urge an outright ban on DDT, but she tried to downplay its effectiveness against malaria and refused to acknowledge what it had accomplished. As Dr. Baldwin wrote, “No estimates are made of the countless lives that have been saved because of the destruction of insect vectors of disease.” He predicted correctly that people in poor countries would suffer from hunger and disease if they were denied the pesticides that had enabled wealthy nations to increase food production and eliminate scourges.
So even though there was never an outright ban on DDT, just the mere threat of thinking about maybe limiting its use--not to mention the latter discovery of mosquito resistance to DDT--has contributed to many deaths and billions of wasted dollars. In the name of science, therefore, we shouldn't act on any currently available information since industry usually does the right thing from the beginning without any sort of guidance or knowledge of the consequences of its actions.

It's a minor point, really, but in his accompanying blog post he goes so far as to suggest that eco-freaks are in part responsible for the West Nile Virus that's killing robins and such. Of course he does not condone "massive bombardments of DDT" but the suggestion is fairly clear: had we not stopped those massive bombardments we may also have staved off West Nile Virus.

My major beef with this is that there's a rank ordering of science. The science that brings us wonderous chemicals is good. The science that examines what effects those chemicals might have and what mitigating actions we can take is bad. Doesn't seem reasonable.