I read a lot of strange stuff on the internet. I mean, I’ve covered Extraterrestrial Cows and Mail-order public lice.  But I really don’t expect to run into silly conspiracy stuff in Forbes, of all places.

In an article entitled “The Black Death: Longing for the Good Old Days,” James Taylor ties together global warming denialism, DDT boosterism, Edgar Allen Poe, and the Black Death (i.e. Bubonic Plague) to make…a really big pile of something that steams.

He suggests that everything was hunky dory when the climate was hot, but when things got cold–OMGPLAGUE:

“What brought about the Black Death? A thousand years ago, Europe was experiencing a golden age. The fair climate of the Medieval Warm Period, with temperatures similar to or warmer than today’s climate, stimulated bountiful crop production, supported unprecedented population growth,….
Longer winters and cooler, shorter summers decimated crop production throughout Europe. The rains that fell were cold, persistent, and slow to dry up. Famine and plague, which had largely disappeared during the Medieval Warm Period, became the norm rather than the exception. And by 1350, the grim, cold climate brought about the dreaded Black Death.”

He goes on from this to imply that environmentalists want to curb global warming in order to kill us all by bringing back the Black Death. Oh, and malaria, but we’ll get to that part later.

I actually have spent a lot of time over the years researching Bubonic plague, and the 14th century European “Black Death” in particular. I have never read of climate being implicated as a cause for the European plagues.  Never.

I would also like to point out that the Little Ice Age actually occurred several hundred years AFTER the period of the bubonic plague outbreaks in Europe.  A recent review paper listed the start date around 1570.  So, the dots he’s trying to connect, in addition to being unrelated factually, are also unrelated chronologically.

The more interesting theories about why the Black Death was so devastating to Medieval Europe center on increasing urbanization and commerce.  In order to have a massive epidemic, you need populations of potential victims to be concentrated. If you get the plague in the middle of nowhere, you will die horribly…and that’s it.  There is no one to transmit the plague TO.

On the other hand, if you have concentrations of people in cities and towns; and you have movement of both people and animals between cities and towns, then you have a situation that is ripe for an outbreak.  If you add in poor sanitation, it’s a dream for a disease bacterium.

There is a well-documented timeline of outbreaks moving from Asia over to Italy, and then up through Europe.  Rats in grain and rats in ships moving from place to place for commerce were probably the primary movers of the disease.  (In case you’ve forgotten, fleas are the vector of plague between humans and other animals. In other words, fleas transmit the plague bacteria from infected people/rats to new victims.)

Mr. Taylor is a lawyer working for the Heartland Institute, which advocates for unregulated trade (and also says that cigarettes are harmless). Somehow he seems to have missed the obvious connection between free markets and plague.  Hmm.

So, what else? Oh, the Malaria–right.  From the article:

“Malaria was becoming a distant memory 50 years ago, but the World Health Organization now reports that over 200 million people contract the disease each year and nearly one million people die from the disease each year. A single, small application of DDT to the inside walls of a hut – in which malarial mosquitoes most frequently infect their victims – will keep malarial mosquitoes at bay for months, but environmental activists have forbidden this chemical infringement on The Natural Condition.”

Let’s start with that first sentence.  50 years ago, Malaria was becoming a memory for the US and Europe; they launched very successful campaigns to control mosquitoes. Malaria eradication was not, however, successful in Africa, Asia, or Latin America. In fact, some areas never were part of any Malarial control campaign.  It’s certainly correct to say that too many people die of malaria each year; but it is not correct to say  that more die now than in the past. If you look at WHO data for most regions, there is a clear downward trend.  Global control of malaria has been slowed by resistance to treatment drugs, as well as mosquito resistance to DDT.

Which brings us to his next claim.  In his second sentence, he claims that DDT can be applied to the walls of a “hut” and provide protection from malarial mosquitoes.  News flash–not everyone lives in huts–your imperialism is showing.  But, hey, let’s run with it.

This is an incorrect statement for a variety of reasons.  Indoor Residential Spraying (IRS) is actually not a preferred methodology for the World Health Organization Malaria group; they specifically recommend against using the same chemical year after year.  Increased resistance to pesticides is strongly tied to indoor sprays in the report I linked.  A quote: “it is unlikely that universal vector control coverage can be achieved in Africa by IRS alone.”   

Taylor’s pollyanna approach ignores the the reality of DDT and malaria in the world today.  A hundred countries currently have a malaria problem. It is patently absurd to think that one single chemical (and methodology) can solve a problem that is global in scope.

There isn’t only ONE species of malaria mosquito–there are dozens (And they don’t all bite you when you are inside). There is not just ONE kind of ecosystem in which people and malaria interact. Designing a malaria control methodology has to take into account  the political, environmental, and socio-economic situation of a particular community.  What, if any, data do we have on the resistance of the mosquitoes to insecticides? It is not a one-size-fits-all problem with one solution.

His last sentence is also untrue.  DDT is part of current WHO treatment guidelines. It is not “forbidden”.  But DDT is only one piece of a huge, huge complicated problem, and over-reliance on it can actually make things worse by leading to greater insecticide  resistance.

What I want to know now is–Why did Forbes let this douche write an article full of BS that was VERIFIABLY FALSE?  And what are they going to do about it?

Posted by Gwen Pearson

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


  1. All the sudden, my hut feels too small.

  2. I don’t know Bug Girl, expecting anything scientific in any discussion of climate seems a bit of a Golden Age Fantasy to me,or at least I have given up expecting it. Facts are fungible and only as good as the polemics that they can support. It’s not just lame rants in Forbes, it is everywhere including pretty much every establishment science journal and scientific society with a stake in big research bucks and research press release. Editors at Forbes and elsewhere are there to promote the party line, not check facts.

    Forgive the cynicism. It’s been raining for a week and doesn’t look to be stopping any time soon. Could be another year without a summer, like last ‘summer’. And now the solar scientists are press-releasing about an extended solar funk. Could be the cusp of another global warming-new ice age meme-flip. My psyche is much less resistant to ice-age hype, because if everything is going to freeze, Canada will freeze first. Your rant took my mind off my impending doom long enough for my shoes to almost dry. Thanks!

  3. Wow. I thought Forbes was respectable. I guess not, if it’s promoting conspiracy theories.

  4. Given that rats helped spread the Plague, I can’t see why cold weather would have been a bonus for the Plague bacterium. Surely rats would have bred more rapidly in what he calls the ‘medieval warm period’ of bountiful crops for them to eat. As you point out, nothing he says makes any sense. He has his own agenda which mere facts are not going to sway him from!

  5. Yeah, I simplified the full flea-vector transmission cycle here, since I didn’t want to distract from Taylor’s really bizarre attempt to link all these different things.

  6. Brilliant response. Very sad that it needs to be done at all — one wonders just what hallucinogens they smoke or ingest over at the Heartland Institute that makes them forget all about free markets and international trade, doesn’t one?

    I’ll confess. I laughed at several of your rebuttals.

    Forbes will do nothing, by the way. They’ve been far eclipsed by Business Week. You may have hit upon why they’ve been so eclipsed.

  7. Dave, down here in Texas we’re in the 7th or 12th year of a drought, depending on exactly where you are and how you count it. 100 degrees every day this week so far, and we’re only halfway through June.

    Can you send a few Exxon Valdez-size tankers full of that extra rain and cool you’ve got?

    Odd how the weather seems pushed to extremes, all over the world, all at the same time.

  8. I did some checking on the Little Ice Age, and although the coldest periods were much later than the ‘first’ (ignoring the Justinian etc.) Black Death in Europe, the end of the Medieval Warm Period and the decline into a cold, wet, and miserable one are consistent with the Taylor claim. From Wikipedia (never reliable, but convenient):
    1250 for when Atlantic pack ice began to grow
    1300 for when warm summers stopped being dependable in Northern Europe
    1315 for the rains and Great Famine of 1315-1317
    1550 for theorized beginning of worldwide glacial expansion
    1650 for the first climatic minimum.
    So, guilty of hyperbole, but not completely false – and wasn’t the last large plague outbreak in London after the 1st climatic minimum? That would tend to falsify cold=plague.

    Of course, malaria used to extend well above the Arctic Circle, e.g. where Anopheles overwintered in Finnish homes, and some of the largest epidemics have been in far north latitudes as in the famous Siberian outbreak. As long as you have a reservoir, a competent vector, a susceptible population, and the minimum temperature required for a few weeks, the only thing preventing an outbreak of malaria is a good public health system. I don’t know why so many people equate one chemical (DDT) with malaria. It is stupid.

    Ed – it is June 18 and it has rained 9 days this month so far. It’s pissing down too hard now to check the gauge, but as of 6 pm yesterday in the last two days we got over an inch and a half. Soon I’ll be on a ladder in the rain cleaning the gutters of sticky spruce buds again. Send up a tanker and you are welcome to all the the rainwater you can handle. While you are at it, send up the Jet Stream – that’s the only way we get good summer weather here and you all down south have been hogging it for the last three years. Looks like there are lots of places in the World where the weather is normal though – so we must just be lucky.

  9. Looks like there are lots of places in the World where the weather is normal though . . .

    Is there a single continent where such a statement is accurate? Where is the weather “normal,” meaning, about the 20th century average, for a period of as much as a month?

  10. I met a guy a couple of months back who was trying this new weight loss method. He claimed it to be backed by “real science” (I always wonder what non-real science is then…). The principles are “simple”…according to his “science” the reason we are obese is because we are too warm. Historically we would be able to sweat more and maintain a cooler body temperature, so by placing a specially-science-designed ice pack on your back, it cools you down and will help you to lose weight.


    I know this isn’t directly related, but one good turn of BS deserves another.

  11. Dave–I got my numbers from a recent review paper specifically on the Little Ice Age. The glaciers did start to get bigger in the 1300s, but *climatic* changes weren’t consistently seen until 1500.

  12. Hi Ed,

    I’m not sure what your point is. Climate meanders around continuously and there is no ‘normal’ except in the abstract. Maybe it was more stable during the last Ice Age, but it hasn’t been since then. If that is your point, then you are correct.

    For normal, I was thinking specifically of the last week’s weather in Brisbane, Qld, where I used to live and where recently it has been a pretty typical late autumn (6-20 C Saturday, 8-18 the last time I checked – like Edmonton’s late spring when it isn’t socked in by a stationary low). Of course, earlier this year Brisbane had abnormally high rainfall (not historically high, but well above average) and flooding (much of it caused by a bureaucratic blunder). In general, though, my experience of 10 years weather in Brisbane was that it was highly predictable and temperatures, for example, were rarely outside the range expected. Weather in Melbourne, where I lived for several years, was highly unpredictable.

    For Environment Canada a ‘normal’ daily high temperature refers to an average of the daily highs for a date over a period of years (e.g. it is 13 C at the moment, but normal would be 22 C).Overall Edmonton’s weather usually is determined by swings between Pacific lows and Arctic highs, so we rarely see ‘normal’ temperatures – it is usually several degrees or more higher or lower. The last couple of years the lower has been winning out and I’m just hoping it isn’t a trend. Edmonton doesn’t have much more than the 20th Century average to go on, and I think Env Can recognises that climate varies over time and use a 30-year moving average anyway, but things are rarely normal here. Even my clogged gutters weren’t normal – it was mostly roofing nails and debris from the new roof we had put on last fall catching the accumulated spruce needles that usually wash through.

  13. Of course, malaria used to extend well above the Arctic Circle, e.g. where Anopheles overwintered in Finnish homes, and some of the largest epidemics have been in far north latitudes as in the famous Siberian outbreak.

    Still could, but the medical care in most of the nations who have people around and near the Arctic Circle is good enough that malaria cannot overwinter in the humans. Anopheles still overwinters in Finnish homes, Canadian homes, Russian homes, etc., etc.

    See, malaria is a parasitic disease that spends part of its life cycle in humans, and part in certain species of mosquito. It may be possible for the disease to overwinter with the mosquitoes, but generally it overwinters in humans, and the mosquitoes catch it when they pop up in the spring. The elimination of malaria in temperate and Subarctic areas of the Northern Hemisphere has more to do with medical treatments and preventions of bites than it does with the range of the mosquitoes.

    That does not obtain necessarily in sub-temperate, subtropical and tropical regions, however. Where global warming extends rains to make the climate more attractive to the species of mosquito that transmit the disease from human to human, malaria spreads. It’s the rains, and the extension of the mosquito season that makes global warming a factor in spreading malaria in nations where medical care and housing cannot prevent the spread of the disease, and not the warming itself.

    In North America we have mosquitoes capable of spreading malaria, and dengue, and other diseases, from the Panama Canal all the way above the Arctic Circle. Warming may complicate the prevention of malaria here, but since we have people who generally can afford screens on windows, and we have medical care that has kept the pool of humans free of the disease since 1939 (essentially), warming won’t spread the diseases here quite so much.

    The spread of malaria is just one more complication of global warming in that vast area between the northern and southern temperate zones. If you’re paying attention, you’ll note that ice and snow don’t appear to be very great barriers to spreading the disease, and so it’s just foolishness to claim that anyone would wish to manipulate the weather to spread malaria in order to thin the population.

    In fact, it’s foolishness to claim anyone would argue that spreading an old disease might effectively thin the population. Smart people, like environmentalists, know that the best way to reduce population growth is to increase incomes of families, above the poverty level. Our experience is that when diseases ravage large populations, people tend to have more babies to make up for those they might lose.

    Now, there are a lot of people at the Heartland Institute who make the claim that we need cheap labor, that labor unions are bad because they increase the cost of labor (and raise incomes of poor people) — in short, people who have been making arguments for years that there will be hell to pay if we beat poverty. William F. Buckley used to say that very few people had thought through the issue of who will pick up the garbage when everybody has a college degree (though he stopped short of saying college degrees cause disease — he wasn’t that dishonest, or stupid, or evil). But it’s unlikely that a group with a heritage of improving life and lives of large populations especially using the tools of capitalism, like environmentalists, would conspire to change weather in order to spread disease in the hope that some miracle would happen to change human psychology, history, law and medicine, to make populations shrink. It’s more likely that a group of political misanthropes who wish to keep people in poverty to ensure their bananas stay cheap, would instead conspire to make a public relations campaign to convince other misanthropes and anyone who doesn’t know better than global warming should be allowed to continue, even though there’s not a shred of evidence the damage will make a low-wage worker population they’ve been clamoring for for 80 years.

    So, Bug Girl is right: This guy at Heartland is crazy, and stupid if he thinks his propaganda is a good thing for him, even if he can hornswoggle enough Daves in the world to go along with him.

  14. I found a really great comparison map that shows malaria in 1900 and 2007; will be the basis of a post next week :)

  15. I’m pretty sure the James Taylor who is alleged to have written the Forbes article isn’t the person of the same name known for his rather drab songs (although PBS seems to have taken a shine to them), but could he be the same as here?


    If so, then I would suggest that in vino veritas: rotting grains are so 14th Century – go for fermented grapes and you may find climate-human disease interactions easier to understand (and the loss of the wine industry in the British Isles, not to mention the Viking colonies in Greenland, more consistent with his preferred timing of the onset of the Little Ice Age).

    I can’t disagree with Ed’s rather extended exposition on malaria, I think I said the same in three sentences. However, Ed does raise a point that I agree with and was mute – “the best way to reduce population growth is to increase incomes of families, above the poverty level”. I think the data here are overwhelming – make people more wealthy, give them more control over their lives, and they will choose to have fewer children. I would disagree that people who call themselves ‘environmentalists’ know this though – that isn’t my experience. Quite the opposite in fact.

  16. I love this! I read the article after you tweeted it and was absolutely shocked by the comparisons the author was trying to make! I would have written something myself, but you’ve already done it. I’ll save myself the mental anguish or rereading the article and just direct people here. :)

  17. I would disagree that people who call themselves ‘environmentalists’ know this though – that isn’t my experience. Quite the opposite in fact.

    You should get to know some real environmentalists, then. Pick up a copy of Garrett Hardin’s essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Check out Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. Spend a month reading and mulling Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Get a copy of Thoreau’s Walden. See the human damage from environmental carelessness in Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time. Study the works of Paul Ehrlich, Norman Borlaug, Laurence Rockefeller . . .

    I can’t imagine who you’ve run into that you think was an environmentalist who would not make the case that population control through free choice is not the way to go. Ehrlich has been, over decades, among the most pessimistic that population growth can be slowed, and even he prefers the idea of raising incomes by improving the human condition.

  18. Oops. Should have been, “I can’t imagine who you’ve run into who you think was an environmentalist who would not make the case that population control through free choice IS the way to go.

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