Michael Crichton hysterical for DDT

Ever notice how hysteric people claim they are normal, and everyone around them is hysterical? Case in point: Michael Crichton promoting DDT to students while taking leave of his science sense, at Cleveland High School in Reseda, California, in 2005:

Crichton surely knows better.

1. DDT is a known carcinogen for animals. Denialists’ wishes to the contrary, serious cancer fighters list DDT as a suspected human carcinogen.

2. Rachel Carson’s citations are solid, and stand up well today. Nothing Crichton publishes in his novels is so carefully footnoted. Carson offered more than 50 pages of references to the scientific publications that provided the evidence for what she wrote. President Kennedy appointed a panel of top scientists to investigate her claims, the President’s Science Advisory Committee. The headline in The Christian Science Monitor for their report, in May 1963, was “Rachel Carson vindicated.” The panel recommended limiting the use of DDT, much as it is limited today. It’s completely unacceptable for Crichton to claim against all the evidence that Carson’s science was bad. Repeated studies and new studies since 1962 confirm her science firmly.  [Update for World Malaria Day 2015:  That State Department document has gone missing; see press reports of the PSAC Committee here, and the full text of the report, “Use of Pesticides,” here.  A version of MIchael J. Friedman’s article on Rachel Carson, referred to in the first link in this paragraph, can be found here.]

3. Every “ban” on DDT, since the first in 1970 in Europe, has included an out clause to allow use to fight malaria. Crichton seems to have missed out on the facts: DDT ceased to be effective due to the rise of immunity and resistance in targeted mosquito populations, and DDT was never implemented against mosquitoes in other places, due to political reasons unrelated to any environmental concern.

4. DDT was never the panacea against malaria, since it does nothing to cure the disease in humans and it does nothing to fight the parasites themselves. DDT can’t make up for poverty that prevents people from building suitable homes or putting screens in windows, or buying mosquito netting for their children. DDT can’t work if people don’t drain mosquito breeding places around their homes.

5. Eggshell thinning studies were repeated dozens hundreds of times, and DDT and its daughter products are clearly implicated as the culprits in the fatal thinning of eggshells. It is telling that eggshell thicknesses have increased as DDT levels in residual form in tissues of birds has decreased. Crichton also omits more damning evidence: Studies showed that DDT affected the viability of eggs wholly apart from the eggshell problems. DDT kills chicks in the egg.

6. Malaria did not “explode” as a result of the discontinuation of DDT. Over more than a decade, malaria rates rose because the campaign to eradicate malaria aimed for an impossible goal, and overspraying of DDT and political instability hampered efforts to fight malaria.  Moreover, DDT was never banned for use against malaria In many nations where malaria exploded, DDT was the weapon of choice to fight it.  DDT often doesn’t work.  In Mexico, for example, DDT use was never stopped — DDT use has been constant since 1946.  And yet, Mexico has been fighting an increase in malaria for over a decade.  Only when Mexico adopted Rachel Carson’s recommendations did they begin to roll back the disease.

7. Crichton gets it right when he notes that the EPA “ban” on DDT included a waiver for use against malaria. But why does he forget that in every other paragraph?

8. Crichton mischaracterizes the Persistant Organic Pollutants (POPs) Treaty, saying that it bans DDT worldwide in the face of knowledge that such a ban was wrong. The treaty specifically allows continued production and use of DDT to fight disease. (Newer links to the POPs Treaty, also known as the Stockholm Convention, here.)

9. 30 million people may have died of malaria in a period Crichton doesn’t define, but it is incorrect to say they died as a result of DDT bans. DDT was still used in the countries where many of those people died (DDT has been in constant use in Mexico since 1946, for example, and malaria has come roaring back there as in other places). DDT was never used in several African nations where governmental instability prevented the creation of programs to fight disease. DDT can’t change governments. The global effort to “eradicate” malaria smashed into the parasites’ development of immunity to several drugs used to treat it in humans. DDT has never been effective in those cases. Crichton misattributes the deaths. (It’s nice he doesn’t cite the more absurd 500 million deaths figure that some people point to.)

10. Crichton’s claim that a lot of Americans “just don’t care” about malaria in Africa, because it harms people of color, is an interesting claim, but his implication that those people are environmentalists, and not the Bush administration which held up funding for malaria fighting, makes his concerns smell hypocritical.

While indicting hysteria against DDT, Crichton invokes hysteria in favor of the chemical. One wishes his science views were not so clouded by his politics.

11 Responses to Michael Crichton hysterical for DDT

  1. […] Nope.  Crichton’s still wrong; he hasn’t corrected his errors since he died. […]


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Technically, and pragmatically, WHO has always supported use of DDT for spraying indoors. The press release in late 2005 was no change in policy.

    And that’s one way of determining that Crichton’s position was not one based on reason. Environmental groups like Environmental Defense — which got its start opposing DDT spraying of swamps and estuaries on Long Island — endorse indoor residual spraying with DDT (IRS), in which very low amounts are applied in houses and huts, and where there is very little chance of the stuff getting into the wild.

    So, when Crichton says that WHO and “environmentalists” are being unreasonable, either he means that he wants to spray a lot more DDT, which everyone with 8 working neurons knows is detrimental, or he fails to understand what he’s saying, or he doesn’t know the facts of who says what. In any of those three cases, his attacks on Rachel Carson, who advocated integrated pest management (which is what IRS is), are completely wrong.

    Crichton died yesterday, of course. He died much too young. We’ll miss his books. I won’t miss his scientific misadventures, though.


  3. Brian says:


    its interesting that int he bottom where there’s ‘related posts’ theres one for how WHO supports DDT spraying indoors.


  4. […] Maybe someone will hit this post of mine for Digg; Crichton’s using the literary equivalent of name calling.  Surely there’s a […]


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Yeah, you’re right. We can resort to a dictionary, but that may not capture what people actually take away from a word. No apology necessary, as I noted earlier. This is a great question and a good discussion.

    Crichton’s a big boy. He can take it.


  6. cuvintu says:

    You know, I believe I must stand a bit corrected when you present the definition you were using in titling your piece. I apologize if it seemed I was mis-characterizing what you said. Your definition does clear up exactly what you meant…thank you for your response. I will leave you with this thought, however (If I may): both I and the post-er before me took the word “hysterical” to mean a more…unhinged state of being closely related to some degree of lack of physical control. While I do sincerely apologize for mistaking your meaning, does that not somehow imply that the common working definition is somewhat different from your intended definition? In an instance such as this, which definition is the more powerful for the word being read by those who aren’t fortunate enough to have a discussion such as this over the original intended meaning? If I am somewhat correct (and I concede the possibility my thought is misguided) doesn’t it still create the possibility for polarization? Just a thought. But I do want to say again, very well written post for an issue that is obviously being put through the disinformation cycle, as so many are these days.


  7. Ed Darrell says:

    Not offended, just trying to figure out how to accurately headline the thing.

    Noting and refusing the sexist implications from the word’s origin, “hysteria” generally means a neurosis characterized by calm periods interrupted by periods of “hallucination, somnambulism, amnesia or other mental aberration.” A second definition offered by The American Heritage Dictionary is “excessive or uncontrollable fear or other strong emotion.”

    I think that accurately describes Crichton’s flight from reason here. If he thinks DDT is not harmful and deadly, if he thinks Carson’s work not top notch and accurate, if he thinks DDT an easy and cheap answer to malaria, he’s hallucinating. He may look calm, but he’s hallucinating.


  8. cuvintu says:

    You know what…I have a difficult time standing at odds with what you wrote because, the fact of the matter is, I agree with everything you said. To indict Carson’s research and findings and to include misleading (or at least mis-read) information the way he did makes him close to the Anne Coulter of DDT. My issue isn’t with your findings, points, or even your passion with the issue (which is very apparent in your writing)…in point of fact, for all of the listed I say “Well Done!” My point in what I wrote was that the word “hysterical” sets up responders to be polarized into the categories of agreer or themselves hysterical. I enjoyed your post very much. I just happened to read it after I read a TRULY polarizing blog and saw the connection. I don’t mean to offend by any measure…it just got me thinking.


  9. […] another example of this polarization, read this post about Michael Crichton and DDT. While I happen to agree with the blogger about DDT and the facts […]


  10. Ed Darrell says:

    Anybody who calls Rachel Carson “hysterical” is hysterical.

    If Crichton wants only to spray interior wall of homes in endemic regions, he’s on Rachel Carson’s side — no need, then, to indict her reporting, since that’s what she urged based on good science.

    Obviously, Crichton has something else in mind that involves using a lot more DDT in a lot more places.

    DDT’s ineffectiveness against the parasite is only critical because it wasn’t failing to spray DDT that caused the resurgence of malaria — the chief cause was one of the parasite’s becoming resistant to malaria drugs. More DDT can’t fix that, and Carson’s research again was right, and in no need of indictment.

    Almost every factual claim Crichton makes is in error. He hysterically — much more hysterical than Rachel Carson’s gentle case against abuse of DDT at any rate — calls for more spraying of ineffective poisons, and hysterically and erroneously blames Carson and environmentalists for deaths they tried to prevent. This is the classic hysteric response, leaving Crichton in a position of blaming others not at fault, so he comfortably can sit back and call for the wrong action.

    If it sounds well reasoned, please check out what I wrote, and chase down all the references. When people talk erroneous fantasy like Crichton’s speech here, it shouldn’t sound reasonable to anyone given the facts. Now you have them.


  11. George says:

    where’s the “hysteria” here. sounds like a well reasoned response to the student’s question to me.

    the lack of DDT’s effectiveness against the parasite would appear to be irrelevant, since its purpose is to kill the carriers of the parasite.

    Most agree that it’s best not to broadcast spray DDT, but spraying the interior walls of homes in endemic regions protects people from the mosquito without undergoing undo risk from the chemical. Put another way, saving lives trumps the other possible consequences of the chemical’s use.


Please play nice in the Bathtub -- splash no soap in anyone's eyes. While your e-mail will not show with comments, note that it is our policy not to allow false e-mail addresses. Comments with non-working e-mail addresses may be deleted.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: