Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt is a brilliant piece of science history equally well suited for the bedside tables of journalists, scientists, and politicians. Each chapter traces the influential work of handful of paranoid anti-communist, anti-regulation Cold War physics proteges through critical public health and science issues such as acid rain mitigation and the effects of secondhand smoke. Their frustrating stance is easily (and chillingly) summarized:
If you believed in capitalism, you had to attack science, because science had revealed the hazards that capitalism had brought in its wake. (167)
Each chapter is critical of disinformation and distortion, as you might expect. But Oreskes & Conway’s chapter defending Rachel Carson’s legacy is downright excoriating:
Was Carson wrong? What does real science– and real history– tell us? It tells us that Carson– and the President’s Science Advisory Committee and the [EPA] and President Richard Nixon– were not wrong about DDT.
After DDT’s demonstrated success in [WWII], the United States and the World Health Assembly launched a Global Malaria Eradication Campaign (1955-1969). It was not based on large outdoor spraying campaigns– the principal target of Carson’s indictment– but primarily on indoor spraying of household walls and surfaces with DDT (and dieldrin). The US Centers for Disease Control summarizes the results: “The campaign did not achieve its stated objective.” Endemic malaria was eliminated in developed nations, mainly in Europe and Australia, and sharply reduced in India and parts of Latin America, but the campaign failed in many less developed areas, especially sub-Saharan Africa. It was halted in 1969– four years before the US DDT ban– so whatever happened could not have been the result of the US ban. What did happen?
Malaria eradication failed in less developed nations because spraying alone didn’t work. Spraying along with good nutrition, resuction of insect breeding grounds, education, and health care did work, which explains why malaria was eradicated in developed nations like Italy and Australia, but not in sub-Saharan Africa. […]
But the most important reason that eradication was only partially successful was that mosquitoes were developing resistance. In the United States, DDT use peaked in 1959– thirteen years before the ban– because it was already beginning to fail. (223-24)
The painstaking work of scientists, the reasoned deliberations of [PSAC], and the bipartisan American agreement to ban DDT have been flushed down [Orwell’s] memory hole, along with the well-documented and easily found (but extremely inconvenient) fact that the most important reason that DDT failed to eliminate malaria was because insects evolved. That is the truth– a truth that those with blind faith in free markets and blind trust in technology simply refuse to see. (236)
From Oreskes, Naomi and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print.