I was interviewed by Drunken Skeptics (Michigan Skeptics Association) about DDT, bed bugs, and my criticism of Brian Dunning for not doing proper research and posting a lot of incorrect stuff about DDT.

Listen to the podcast here!

I’m actually rather pleased with how it turned out, although you can clearly tell I had a cold.  I’m interested in feedback from some of my fellow bloggy entomologists about whether you think I represented the larger entomological community’s views on DDT correctly.

The biggest complaint I have about the whole manufactured controversy surrounding DDT is that it’s a waste of time and energy, and distracts from the real work we need to be doing.  DDT boosters like to frame the argument as:  “Which is worse, Malaria or DDT?”

They have framed that question so that there is only one possible choice.   A forced choice between Malaria and DDT is the WRONG QUESTION. I completely reject that false dichotomy as oversimplification. There are more than two choices.

The real discussion that needs to happen is about the best way to control malaria and improve human health in a particular situation.  Over 99 countries have a malaria problem. It is patently absurd to think that one chemical can solve a problem that is global in scope.  DDT is part of current WHO treatment guidelines. But it is only one piece of a huge, huge complicated problem.

What is the political, environmental, and socio-economic situation of a particular community struggling with malaria control?  What, if any, data do we have on the resistance of the parasite and mosquito vectors to drugs and insecticides? It is not a one-size-fits-all problem with one solution.

Because of the vitriol that is spewed, people like me (and probably a few politicians) are hesitant to talk about Malaria at all. It makes aid to the WHO and Africa a political football that is used to score points.   It’s not, really, about DDT at all.  It’s about tarring and feathering the environmental movement, and keeping people distrustful of science.

And that is sad.

I’d really like to type up a transcript for the podcast, but I still am under the weather health wise–hopefully I can do that next week.

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. Thanks for a great interview, and also for supporting a fledgling podcast with newbie hosts!

  2. Much to my surprise, I think I agree with almost everything you say above. But, as far as I can tell, reducing problems to simple dichotomies (and then picking sides and bashing their opponents) is the default human behaviour. Well, maybe second choice after ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away.

    The latter may actually work in many cases, but apparently not with DDT, which has again reared its hydra-head. Personally, I don’t see DDT as an insecticide any longer – it is a political tool. As long as malaria was almost entirely a third world problem, the first world could ban DDT and feel that they were on the side of the angels (and no Western country banned DDT until after malaria was controlled: e.g., Australia lagged the US by almost a decade because of malaria problems). Now that malaria, dengue, borrelioses, and other arthropod-borne diseases are making a comeback in the first world (where their economies are starting to look more than a bit third worldish) – and I think the resurgence of bedbugs [sic] especially terrifies the urban elites – people are looking desperately for a simple cure.

    Anyone who points out that there are no simple cures is likely to get bashed by both sides. That is the one thing I cannot understand in the DDT-malaria ‘debate’ and numerous other politicised scientific issues. I know people can approach problems with an open mind and look for solutions, and this is certainly how I understand the scientific method, but whenever they can join a howling mob, they prefer that approach to actually solving the problem. I suppose this behaviour must be (or perhaps, has been) selected for, but I can’t see its advantage when their is a more functional alternative.

  3. I was feeling pretty self-righteous until I noticed the ‘their is’ in the last sentence. But if my hypothesis has merit, I predict someone will bash me (at least in their mind) for not knowing the difference between their and there (and probably they’re) and not pay any attention to what I said.

  4. Q. What’s worse, DDT or malaria?
    A. A false dichotomy.

  5. “Which is worse, Malaria or DDT?”


    Though DrDave points to something potentially even worse.

  6. Dave–considering how much trouble I have with “lose” and “loose”, I will not be throwing any stones.
    I’m just happy we agree on something :)

  7. It is not at all absurd for a global problem to be solved by a single chemical. This is because the global problem can be merely a very widespread non-complex issue. The non-complex end of malaria control is spraying DDT indoors and not on crops. Simple, indoors and not on crops. That this problem exists in many, many places does not make it more complex, just more widespread.

  8. Ladies and Gentlemen: Exhibit A of “I am not interested in evidence, I want to flog my agenda.”

  9. But, but, Rutledge Taylor says that there is no bedbug on Earth resistant to DDT! Debbie Gibson’s boyfriend wouldn’t lie, would he?


  10. I thought his post was very sad. He did not address any of our criticisms. If anything, it makes me regret that I wasn’t meaner to him for saying this:

    “If we shelve our most effective tools hoping that something perfect will come along that has no potential downside, we’ll wait forever, and thousands will continue dying every day. These are the cases where wealthy environmental groups appear to do their best to justify their elitist stereotype, at the expense of brown people.”

    That is just about a quote of the DDT/Junkscience party line. It ignores 5o years of evidence about DDT, insecticide resistance, and the complex scientific and political realities I mentioned above.

    I am sad that Dunning got suckered, and won’t admit it, and is now undermining what little credibility he has left.

    Also, I am grateful that when -I- screw up I have the other Skepchicks to tell me and talk me down.

  11. Because this idea is so simple there must be a good reason it’s never been implemented.

    That would be to use rain gutters or something similar to hold water instead of there normal purpose. Allow mosquitoes to use them to lay eggs monitor them closely, just about when the larva are going to turn into mosquitoes drain the gutters.

    If you could reduce breading success of the populations even by a small percentage (and that’s a big “if” I don’t know) next step would be to try to automate the process and do it on a very large scale.

  12. Uh, in a lot of the places where malaria is a problem people don’t have houses, much less rain gutters.

    Larval control is already part of most control programs, but on its own it’s not always effective. In some areas, just a muddy footprint can hold enough water for mosquitoes to complete development.
    That’s hard to fight, and since the eggs are laid *after* someone is bitten, it’s best to try to control both adult and immature stages.

  13. More history of DDT shows up on the web, and I try to find it. Eerily prescient article from Popular Science in 1946:


  14. >these reports of human deaths disappeared from research >reports rather quickly
    Well I didn’t die from it but this unfortunately happened to me also:

    Took almost 2 years of hounding to get them to put it in writing.

    This is a response I got from the epa:

    I am sure I was exposed to other things, herbicides, fungicides the guy didn’t just neglect to water the material in he also applied it many times the recommended dose in certain key areas to get better results and lusher growth. (it was mixed with granular fertilizers)
    About two years after the exposure I found the illness to be far more complicated than I thought. I found I was extremely sensitized to mold I found in my house of which I unfortunately had no shortage of:

    One could argue my pesticide exposure was coincidental but I kind of doubt it.

    I go into it, the way pesticides have destroyed my life in a little more detail in a thread titled “bugged by buggirl” posted to skeptoid forum 11/29/10. (how I found out about you)

    Brian also likes to make the assertion people who suffer from disorders like mine merely need psychiatric help which isn’t very well supported by the evidence especially when you use it with a broad brush and to the exclusion of all other possibilities.

    But this idea is ironically supported overwhelmingly by medical establishment as well as the skeptical community which I believe has led to a lot of ignorance surrounding pesticides and possible correlation to the illnesses they may pose:

    It was also used on Vietnam vets (phony diagnosis) until they could no longer deny anyway that is years later. Did any of the dr’s that used this phony diagnoses years later say sorry to any of there victims?

    I think not. Ahh “what’s the harm” I’m sure they (MD’S) got there information from the same types of people that run this 3b and counting website.

    Thanks Bug Girl it’s nice to see a skeptic fighting against those that promote this type of misinformation with pesticides. I can’t help but think it’s not just about ddt when they make these claims it gives people a false sense of security with other pesticides that are still in use generating lots and lots of cash and maybe no less safe. I understand the need for them just wish the industry would take responsibility for the damage they cause early rather than kicking and dragging their feet and getting out Scot-free in the end.

    I have suffered 14 years from this and it gets harder and harder as time goes by.

    I’ve posted on skeptics guide and Jref also just google “robert Christ” “mold” and also “antares4141” “mold” (“antares” “mold” for skeptics guide posts) If your interested in reading my other post’s on this subject that is.

    Robert Christ

  15. Um. Robert–

    If you were exposed to organophosphates, I’m not surprised you got ill. But not all pesticides are as dangerous as OPs. Ultimately, even the safe stuff is unsafe if applied incorrectly, though.
    It seems like the links you have here are combining several different issues–not all of which seem related to me.

    I wasn’t able to find that forum link you cited for skeptoid, either–darn!

  16. Unfortunately skeptoid forum isn’t web based, you get sent either individual emails or daily digest’s to your email address and you keep them on your email client. At one time Brian made an archive of all the post’s but I couldn’t find it with google.
    You can go to his website and join the form but you will only receive new emails (post’s) not any from the past 4 years or so it’s been around.

    He might have taken down the archive cause it was I imagine time consuming and difficult to maintain.

    I was just trying to make the point that injuries from pesticides are very difficult to quantify or diagnose, I believe most go unreported/undiagnosed and of course nobody is ever held accountable which gives little incentive by manufactures to assure their products safety.

    Worse part is where you have a false sense of safety surrounding a product (Ie supposedly no injuries) you almost undoubtedly are going to HAVE injury’s, and lots of them. It’s a vicious cycle.

    I appreciate your correcting Brian on DDT.


  17. Sorry, I didn’t mean that they were “related to me” in the sense that it’s all about me, really :)
    I meant that agent orange, and Organophosphates, and mold, didn’t seem like they were linked, IMHO.

    Now that I see your explanation, it makes more sense.

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