Another Megan McArdle post — but only a little one

Not the promised mountainous tome, but via Sadly No, I find that the Divine Ms. MM has taken up comedy writing.

Her attempt at humor?

…it’s kind of funny that Al Gore’s speeches and summits like Copenhagen seem to have an unfortunate tendency to be beset by cold snaps and blizzards.

Ah yes.  Snow in Denmark in December is funny as long as it falls on that notorious meanie, Al Gore.  It does provide a chuckle, I guess — if you’re sense of humor never made it past a third grade playground.  My son, in fourth, is already beyond this kind of stuff.  He’d never attempt the following dialogue:

“It’s cold today.”

[Editor’s note:  this is a true fact.  17 F, – 6.3 C as I dropped my kid off today at school]

“Yeah.  But yesterday we were talking about how the earth is getting warmer in our Communist-conspiracy dominated third grade science lesson.”

“Teachers are dumb.”

“Yeah. Do you want to be Jedi or Sith this time?”

[Alright.  He’d ask that last question.  Not the rest, though.– ed.]

I mean, seriously.  Did McArdle not get enough mean-girl action in high school?  Or was she in an out clique, perhaps, and is getting her revenge now by being willfully stupid through a big megaphone? (Call this the Joe Lieberman theory of the diaper-brigade of modern right wing bloviators.  Too much disdain thrown their way in their teens turns into a flattery-by-imitation style and a deep, insatiable hunger for revenge.)

The best part is that in the comments thread someone actually goes to say it’s all Rachel Carson’s fault — and environmentalists have killed lots of people because they outlawed DDT for malaria control.

Except, of course, they didn’t.*

Which is the point:  a lot of McArdle’s stuff, to the extent that I can hold my nose and read it, has about that level of intellectual rigor.  She is a lazy writer, as I’ve documented before at tedious length.

Most of the time, the consequences of such sloth are negligible.  There are lots of bad writers in the world,but almost all don’t get read enough to matter.  But if you are sloppy in useful ways — and there never much more useful idiots than Ms. McArdle — and you can write with superficial polish, then you can find a platform in which you can do real harm.

How much harm?

I don’t know.

I’ve come to think that McArdle is in fact rather like a high school in-group kid.

She’s risen as her talent, such as it is, and certain kinds of luck have taken her.  But she persuades only the persuaded, as far as I can tell, and if the above is any indication of her grace with language and the native bite of her wit…I’m coming to think that she resembles no one so much as Plankton in my son’s favorite show, SpongeBob SquarePants.

(For those of you unitiated in the ways of Bikini Bottom, know only that Plankton is loud,  ever-certain and always wrong —  the butt rather than the bearer of the joke.)

*The DDT/malaria story is complicated, as you might expect (though you would never learn from McArdle or her claque), but the very short form is that what was outlawed was the use of DDT as an agricultural pesticide, for reasons that I know of no one disputing today.

However, DDT has remained in constant if debated use in an indoor application to defend against malaria-bearing mosquitos where it counts, and there is considerable evidence that it has real value in that venue.

At the same time, as critics of the use of this known human toxin have pointed out, some countries,  have achieved even better anti-malaria results through the comprehensive use of coordinated public health approaches emphasizing bed nets and targetted in home spraying with non-DDT insecticides. Vietnam is the poster child for such approaches, but anti malarial success stories are not limited to that nation.

So, to the off repeated lie that Rachel Carson killed millions, with her anti-DDT Birkenstock-wearing zealot-hippie followers wielding the knife of a DDT ban, wrong on all counts:  DDT wasn’t banned as an anti-malarial tool; and DDT is not the without-which-die weapon in the malaria wars its Curtis LeMay-like proponents would have you believe.

In fact, if you see a kind of “bomb the village/kill a million Iraqis” in order to save them mentality here, I sure wouldn’t say you were wrong.  Some people out there can only tolerate the simplest of solutions to complex problems, and some others make too good a living off feeding their fantasies.  (Are you listening, Thomas Friedman?)

Image:  Vincent van Gogh “Snow-covered field with a harrow (after Millet),” 1889

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6 Comments on “Another Megan McArdle post — but only a little one”


  1. Oh, so glad you took the time to refute the DDT bullshit more thoroughly. I found the most amusing part of that thread the claim that the fall of the Berlin wall was responsible for the environmentalist movement.

    It’s also really funny that McArdle claims to believe in AGW, so apparently these “snowing on Al Gore” jokes appeal to her solely for their incredible cleverness.

  2. lichanos Says:

    On DDT, I was under the impression that it was not confirmed as a serious human toxin, and not being a toxicologist, the Wiki source you gave didn’t exactly clear this up for me. I know that one fellow, cited by the scientist-wannabee John Tierny of NYTimes, supposedly drinks a spoonful during lectures to prove his point.

    Anyway, as you say, the ban was on large-scale, indescriminate agricultural spraying, and I don’t know why the ‘conservatives’ don’t applaud that, since if it weren’t for Rachel Carson, our national emblem, the bald eagle, would be kaput! Moreover, I doubt the guys who are upset that we can’t sell lots more DDT abroad are willing to plunk down a few million to distribute free mosquito nets to everyone in Africa, which would probably have more of a benefit.

    And yes, the snowstorm stuff and Al Gore is ridiculous, but not any more than the AGW folks who point to every hot day and shout, “See, we told ya’!”

    Politics is the realm of untruth, and should be kept separate from science. And how to you make yourself read people like McArdle anyway? Why? Are you a masochist? That would be like me watching Jeff Beck on TV to “gather material” for my blog.

    • Tom Says:

      As to why I read Megan — I think you are right; it’s masochism, though I do think that she is a useful case study of more general pathologies.

      I don’t know about your DDT drinking lecturer; more power to him, I guess, though as a first thought I’d note that there is a very different set of biochemical events that take place for substances that get absorbed through the digestive tract compared with those that reach organ systems through skin or lung.

      Finally — I’ve never liked the trope you use here: that yes, a McArdle is bad for crying “snowstorm” but the other side does it too.

      No it doesn’t, not as any kind of central trope. The point that all serious arguments made about inferences from weather to climate on the AGW side is that the average warming predicted by AGW science will be experienced not as a two degree or whatever increase in every day’s weather…but as a range of events, often in the form of brief extreme weather, sometimes in shifts in weather pattern. In that context, local, daily events are exemplary, but not predictive…which is to say that the run of 90 degree plus days and 100 degree plus days in the summer in Houston a couple of years back provides an example of the kind of effect that global warming may induce over areas that have not in recent history experienced such things.

      That’s very different as a kind of argument than that which says “look its cold, ergo, global warming isn’t happening.

  3. lichanos Says:

    That’s very different as a kind of argument than that which says “look its cold, ergo, global warming isn’t happening.

    Well, I totally agree with your statement here, but I think you are comparing apples and oranges, as far as ‘messengers’ go. That is, there are plenty of rabid AGW folks, McArdle alter-egos who have used exactly that trope during the years I’ve been following this mess. Here’s one that comes to mind:

    http://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/2006/07/30/not-even-half-baked/

    And yes, scientists who support the AGW view don’t use that trope, though they don’t contradict Al Gore and others who do, but that’s politics…And scientific skeptics of AGW are clear on the distinction between weather and climate, though they like to tweak the AGW folks with recent cold-weather records.

    So, I guess it depends on who you hear when you decide what is the “central trope.” Which brings me back to my point that “politics is the realm of untruth.” You can spend all your time swatting down your allies! And believe me, do you think I LIKE finding myself on the same side of an issue with some of these right-wing yahoos? But facts are facts…

    Interesting point about DDT ingestion! That guy should jump in a bath of it, right?

  4. Downpuppy Says:

    Could a woman who parades her cleverness by confusing the Observer Effect with the Uncertainty principle really be expected to understand how the 2005 hurricane season was like Clemens 20K/0BB game – performances so far outside the range of expectations that they would be impossible with ordinary climate or pitcher?

    Her attempts as science humor, with no sense of humor or understanding of science, are surprisingly unfunny even as pratfalls.

  5. jre Says:

    DDT’s acute toxicity in humans is indeed low — that’s why it became popular as an all-purpose pesticide. However, neurological disorders have been observed in cases of long-term high-level exposure (workers doing spraying in Central America), and there are studies implicating DDT in pancreatic cancer, so I’d be careful about that teaspoon-a-day regime.

    The toxicology of DDT was fairly well understood even in 1972, when EPA curtailed its use in agriculture within the US. That order took pains to make clear that use of DDT for public health purposes would not be restricted, and stated that “this Agency will not presume to regulate the felt necessities of other countries.” WHO has never banned DDT for anti-malarial use, and the World Bank has even funded it.

    Hence, “Rachel Carson killed millions” = baloney.


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