Libertarians for Junk Science

Recently the climate science community suffered something of an embarrassment with “Climategate”:  the servers of the Climatic Research Unit were hacked, opening thousands of emails over a thirteen year period to scrutiny. Some of these emails, if not undermining the validity of all global warming research, at least shows some climate scientists in the unflattering light of spinning data to promote a politically predetermined outcome.

But global warming advocates don’t have a monopoly on the political abuse of science.

It’s funny how the same libertarians who gleefully pounce on “junk science” when it serves an agenda they regard as inimical, are so fond of it themselves when it confirms their own prejudices.

A good example is Rachel Carson’s alleged responsibility for millions of deaths from malaria, as a result of her role in banning DDT. The neocon FrontPage magazine accused her of “ecological genocide,” and a character in a Michael Crichton novel went so far as to say she killed more people than Hitler. The JunkScience.Com (!) website even has a malaria death clock featuring Rachel Carson’s face.

Unfortunately, it’s one of those things everybody knows that just ain’t so. Here are some of the holes in the received version of the story:

1)  The various national bans on DDT all left a loophole for mosquito eradication when other available means were inferior to DDT. Controlled use of DDT for mosquito eradication is entirely legal.

2)  DDT was already losing its effectiveness for mosquito eradication in the 1960s because mosquitoes were becoming resistant to it.

3)  DDT had numerous side-effects that outweighed its limited effectiveness as a pesticide. Most importantly, and like most synthetic pesticides, it also poisoned the rest of the food chain above the mosquitoes. This meant, among other things, that it killed off mosquitoes’ natural enemies, so that it took larger and larger amounts of DDT to achieve the same results as before. In the process, it also caused significant collateral damage. For example, by killing the parasitic wasps that previously kept down the population of thatch-eating caterpillars, DDT indirectly caused an epidemic of collapsing roofs. Another example:  it poisoned geckoes who ate the mosquitoes, and who in turn poisoned the cats who ate the geckoes, thus resulting in an epidemic of rats.

The canard can be traced back at least to a campaign by Roger Bate, a right-wing economist who worked for a variety of industry think tanks. He personally conducted funding pitches around the corporate world, selling his propaganda campaign as a stiletto between the ribs of the environmentalist movement. “The environmental movement, he said, “has been successful in most of its campaigns as it has been ‘politically correct.’” DDT offered the potential of using the environmental movement’s erstwhile advantages against it, he crowed:  “the correct blend of political correctness ( . . . oppressed blacks) and arguments (eco-imperialism [is] undermining their future).”

Reason magazine science reporter Ron Bailey was an early and enthusiastic adopter, regurgitating the urban legend in most of its particulars in 2002 (he linked to an article based almost entirely on Roger Bate’s work).

Picking and choosing evidence to believe based on what its truth would entail, rather than whether it’s valid or not, is a bad thing—regardless of which “side” it comes from.

In the case of anthropogenic global warming, the reflexive opposition of many libertarians is just as cavalier with the truth as the folks crowing over Climategate accuse global warming advocates of being.

That such libertarians feel compelled to take the strategic position they do in regard to global warming speaks volumes about their basic view of the world. It’s a view of the world that shares a lot in common, ironically, with that of the average liberal Democrat.

The reasoning process goes something like this:

If global warming is real, all is lost for libertarians, because the need for statism follows as a direct implication. If global warming is real, it will prove the liberal Democrats are right: the free market has led to disastrous results at least in one particular, and the state is necessary in at least this one case to correct market failure. In other words, given the premise of global warming, libertarians of this stripe see the big government argument as something that follows legitimately from it, as a matter of course. So global warming cannot be happening. QED.

Funny. I’m fairly friendly toward the anthropogenic global warming thesis, and I don’t see global warming as a market failure at all.  I see it as a government failure. If we removed all the government-created externalities that promote consumption of energy and transportation inputs, and protected the fossil fuels industry from full liability for torts committed in the course of its operations, global warming would never have arisen as an issue in the first place. The free market is not the problem, it’s the solution.

But maybe some libertarians see the free market as something that needs protection from the truth.

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