Several weeks ago I did a Skeptoid episode about the insecticide DDT. DDT has been banned in many places, though some question the wisdom of such bans. It's a great topic for Skeptoid, and people had been requesting it for some time. I went into it with enthusiasm, because I knew very little about the subject other than what most people have generally heard. But there was fallout. I get burned in effigy every week by somebody, usually kooks, but the criticism this time came from science web sites. The headlines were:
There may have been others. As of this writing, not a single person has contacted me directly with any corrections or heads-ups that I was being blogged about; I had to stumble across mentions of these on Twitter (to which I've had spotty access, having spent most of the intervening time in Australia with little or no free time).
I was befuddled, surprised, and actually quite shell shocked, since I thought I'd done a pretty good job and was proud of it. So let's cut straight to the chase and see what the blowback was all about.
The central criticism here was a wrong assumption over who I used as my main source for the episode, so I will come right out with the real source. My real source was actually Wikipedia. But before you knee-jerk and jump on me for that, let me explain. I often begin researching episodes with Wikipedia, as it's a great way to find out who are the major players in a subject, and you usually get a wealth of links to more authoritative sources, which is where I generally spend a lot of time, along with science journals and newspaper archives, to which I have many access accounts.
Whenever people ask me about Wikipedia's reliability, I always answer that it's great if you want to look up something about boron, but increasingly shaky if you look up 9/11 or something where there are lots of ideologically-charged cranks vandalizing articles with their own nonsense. This situation has been improving notably in the last year or so, but on a page-by-page basis. Some pages are protected against edits or vandalism, some are still automatically confirmed. It's easy to check a page's edit history, the log of its status changes, and the talk page. Looking at the DDT page and several related pages that I used as my launching points, there have been a number of minor changes reverted in recent months, but no major vandalism, and no changes to the references that were noteworthy. None of the content I used had any recent messiness. I'm not a complete newbie and I do know how to use Wikipedia responsibly.
Again, I stress, Wikipedia was my pointer to references, which were where content came from. I never use a Wiki factoid that's not footnoted to a source that I consider reliable; and then I always go to that source, whenever they're accessible.
This time around, Wikipedia's various articles on DDT and related topics proved to be so dense that there really wasn't room in a 1,750 word podcast to accommodate an additional primary source. The articles' references are thorough, numerous, and authoritative, and they gave me all I needed; indeed, more than I could squeeze in. You should find nearly everything I said in the episode in the references linked from Wikipedia's DDT page and related pages. I'm satisfied that most everything I said in the episode represents the consensus, with a few exceptions noted in my transcript. I could well be wrong about that, but I'm satisfied that I followed a responsible path. Infallible? Of course not. About as good as can be reasonably expected? I think so, others obviously disagree.
There are a few people (count them on one hand) with whom I've had direct email conversation about this DDT clusterfuck. Those with whom I've spoken all know that it made me quite angry. I shouldn't get angry, and almost never do, because you have to have a pretty thick skin as a science podcaster. I get accused of being a puppy murderer from some quarter every week. This week it was a little bit different, and I'm not entirely sure why. But yes, I was pissed off by the criticism. I think it was warranted.
It all seems to have started with Tim Lambert from ScienceBlogs, who wrongly believed that I used the often discredited libertarian pundit Steven Milloy of JunkScience.com as my primary source (Milloy was not a source at all, as stated above). Lambert then proceeded to write a lengthy critique of Milloy, oddly titling it a critique of Skeptoid, and offered two — exactly two — corrections to the episode (the birds who died in the Newcastle outbreak were chickens, not pelicans; and the theory of eggshell thinning was developed after author Rachel Carson's death, it was not in her book). I happily added both corrections to the online transcript.
Lambert's wrong assumption was then picked up by a pseudonymous blogger called “Bug Girl” who did virtually the same thing, but with an especially condescending tone: criticized Milloy under the guise of criticizing Skeptoid (irrelevant), parroted that I used Milloy as my main source (wrong), and offered exactly one correction, a repeat of one of the two Lambert gave. She disingenuously portrayed my episode as a lazy “critique” of Rachel Carson's book, which I would never presume to do as I've never even read it, and threw in a gratuitous obscenity. And, of course, managed to flash the tired old charge that I'm just cherrypicking whatever agrees with my existing worldview. Bravely charged, Ms. Anonymous.
Then Orac [Name withdrawn by request] of Respectful Insolence and Science Based Medicine, who I well know to be a steadfast defender of good science and a powerful advocate of critical thinking, picked up the thread and basically summarized what Lambert and “Bug Girl” had said. Orac, however, offered no corrections at all, indeed he did not point out a single thing that was wrong. He simply said “Skeptoid Disappoints”, and repeated a few sentences of the already-given criticism of Milloy. Again, irrelevant to Skeptoid.
My responses, where I posted them, were generally of the form “Your dislike of Milloy, warranted or not, does not constitute a useful correction to my Skeptoid episode. Send a specific correction, I'll gladly use it.” That was badly received, but I think it's the right response. I'm not in charge of Steven Milloy.
I noted a post to Skeptalk, and it nicely summed up the way I felt about my episode and the responses of these blogs, by a poster who is by no means a yes-man to Skeptoid:
I am not sure exactly what was actually stated during the Skeptoid episode on DDT that made [Bug Girl] see red. I had to listen a second time, because I swear she couldn’t have listened to the same episode I did… I found nothing outrageous in Brian’s nuanced opinion. Are Bug Girl and Tim Lambert too personally invested in their personal blog wars against JunkScience.com?
Lambert wrote a Part II to his original post, and here he really lost me. He began by taking one sentence of mine out of context, flipped it around and tried to make it look like I'd “admitted” Steven Milloy was my source. I don't see how this could have been anything other than a deliberate distortion, but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the universe is geocentric.
Since there is continued misunderstanding of this in the comments below, let me put it another way:
Him – You're wrong because the sky is purple.
Me – Your dislike of the sky's color is not a criticism of my episode.
Him – Ha! You just admitted the sky's purple!
No, I really didn't. I restated what he'd said that's wrong.
Lambert also rightly points out that a number of things in my episode can also be found on Milloy's DDT page. Well, maybe some of them are true, Tim. There are many, many aspects of DDT and its usage that are not in dispute. I probably also butter my toast on the same side as Milloy.
Much of Lambert's Part II is devoted to confirming things I said in the episode, but somehow framing them as if they were wrong when I said them, but right when he said them. Some donors oppose DDT's usage only conditionally. It was wrong when I said that, but right when Lambert worded it differently. He gave my conclusion, that DDT's “current usage is probably not too far off of what it should be. The exception is Africa where DDT's upside far outweighs the down”, and then says:
Dunning's proposed policy is, in fact, the current policy… So what went wrong with Dunning's podcast?
There are nitpicks, like I trimmed one guy's quote to just the relevant part. Yeah, so does every writer. I do this in virtually every episode; it's necessary for a 10-minute podcast.
When I'd criticize “many” groups for doing this or that, Lambert would point out that some don't. Yeah, that's kind of what “many” means.
Maybe it's just me, but however I read his critique, it sounds like he's just desperate to make me look wrong, desperate to paint me as an enemy of the environment, even though I can find very little in his article that either I, or my episode, would have disagreed with. By and large, I look at the sources and snippets Lambert gives, and I agree with them. I see very few substantive discrepancies between my episode and Lambert's Part II facts. Yet my episode is being characterized as a calamity. I honestly don't see one thing from his Part II that I could take back to my transcript and post a [Correction: xxx]. Really all Lambert has done here is to provide additional information, and to throw in the occasional “Dunning's prejudices” and random attacks like that. Slow blogging day, Tim?
Why did all of this happen? How did I end up as Science Enemy #1? To my surprise (which shows my naivete) it seems to be all about party politics — a war raging between (presumably) democratic bloggers and a libertarian pundit. Somehow I ended up in the middle.
The commenters on Lambert's two blog entries have very little to offer other than “Dunning is obviously a libertarian” (or a “racialist” or my favorite, an “anti-science dick, purely”) which makes for entertaining reading but is not terribly interesting to the intelligent reader. Almost without exception, the comments (supposedly about Skeptoid) are critical of Michael Shermer's libertarian screeds, Penn & Teller's show, libertarians in general, and the “libertarian Dunning” (as if the words are synonymous). I'm not familiar with Lambert's blog, but its readers are clearly far more interested in anti-libertarianism than any other topic mentioned; so I'm much less concerned about having been criticized there. (I know Michael Shermer and Penn & Teller personally, and if you paint any of them as enemies of reason, you're going to lose; and that's got nothing to do with their politics.)
The funniest part is that I am not a libertarian, though I'm familiar with the routine, as I went through a phase for a while. I was a hardcore Reagan conservative in college, then flipped and was a radical Greenpeace liberal for a long time, then in my thirties I hated all government and espoused some strange blend of socialism, libertarianism, and communism. Finally I concluded it was all pointless and have been about the most apolitical person on the planet for the better part of a decade. So, name your philosophy: Been there, done that. I'm not new to this.
In Skeptoid, I try to offend and appeal to conservatives, liberals, and libertarians equally. This is a very deliberate marketing choice to attract to as broad an audience as possible. I'm careful about it. For anyone to be familiar with my work and get the idea that I'm here to promote a particular political agenda boggles the mind. One might possibly suspect … possibly … that those now accusing me of being an anti-science libertarian are motivated more by hatred of Milloy than by knowledge of any of my Skeptoid episodes.
Steven Milloy, however, is a libertarian. Bully for him. I'd never heard of him until this whole thing blew up, because I just don't follow Fox News or its pundits. Sorry, but I don't. Not really interested in any pundits. It's true that I'd listed his DDT page on JunkScience.com as a Further Reading suggestion for the episode, because it was the most comprehensive collection of pro-DDT links I found; the author's name simply didn't stick in my head because it wasn't really relevant and I didn't recognize it when I saw it. To represent the other end of the spectrum, I listed Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring. I try to do this on all Skeptoid episodes. When I do a conspiracy theory episode, someone like Alex Jones or David Icke is always listed to represent that viewpoint. When I do an episode on vaccines, you'll find there are always pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine references. I believe this is the best way to do what I do, and I plan to continue doing so. I do not remotely apologize for listing JunkScience.com's DDT page. I can't imagine a better source to represent the extreme pro-DDT perspective. To my way of thinking, my willingness to link to both pro-DDT and anti-DDT perspectives is a strength of Skeptoid, not a failure; and I stand by it.
I acknowledge that there is no differentiation in my online transcripts between what was a reference and what is a further reading suggestion. This is a weakness that I hope to eventually address. It's perfectly reasonable that someone could look at my further reading suggestion of JunkScience.com and mistake it for a source. My original intent was that anyone interested in the subject should look at everything listed, regardless of how it got there. Probably not the best idea, but that's why it is the way it is.
I'd like to close with one point. I do know Orac, and I don't know either “Bug Girl” or Tim Lambert, but I'll take it on the word of others that they are also allies to the cause of promoting critical thinking. All three of you have the same assurance from me that all of my friends and allies have. If I ever come across something you say that I find to be so wrong that it warrants a correction, I'll call you privately to see what's up before trumpeting what I perceive to be your failure to the public. It could be that you made an honest mistake, like James Randi did when he mentioned The Petition Project. It could also be that I'm the one who's wrong. Five minutes on the phone would sort it out. What's most important to me is that the public be given the best data we can collectively give them. None of you chose to extend that courtesy to me or to the public, probably under the excuse of “nobody should be immune to criticism”, which as you well know is not the point. With my “Things I'm Wrong About” episodes coming out as often as I can fill them, I don't think you can reasonably charge me with feeling I'm above criticism. I am always, always open to your corrections and will receive them with thanks and pass them on to our mutual audience.
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