TCS Daily

...The State of Frogs

By Alex Avery - January 19, 2005 12:00 AM

Author Michael Crichton has enraged environmentalists and left-leaning commentators with his new page turner, State of Fear. The novel cleverly exposes the semi-fictitious conspiracy to hoodwink the public into believing human activity is causing catastrophic global warming and the completely fictitious "scientific consensus" on this point.

In response, environmentalists declare that Crichton is a "coin-operated nickelodeon" for corporate puppet master Rupert Murdock whose mission is to use "silly science" to distract the public from a real and growing crisis. Never mind the peer-reviewed scientific research Crichton accurately cites. Never mind that Crichton is already a hugely successful guy.

There is no better sign that you have a strong argument than when your opponents attack your motives rather than your evidence. I'm hoping for the same response to my new report exposing the massive waste of time and money spent chasing chemical phantoms in the so-called "global amphibian crisis."

Ecologists have been stuck in a pesticide rut ever since DDT was railroaded out of polite society by a Rachel Carson-led media manipulation campaign eerily similar to today's global warming "debate." Science was ignored in favor of emotion and dogma. After DDT, every time something has appeared to go wrong in nature, ecologists have leaped to pesticide conclusions.

When a rash of deformed frogs occurred in Minnesota in the mid-1990s, ecologists naturally started looking for a pesticide scapegoat. Mountain yellow-legged frogs disappearing from the Sierra Nevada Mountains? Must be pesticides. The declining Ozarks hellbender salamander? Let's blame pesticides.

Most recently, a Berkeley scientist has even been making headlines without any real-world frog problems. All he has are lab experiments showing subtle frog developmental quirks after trace herbicide exposure.

The media have lapped up the pesticide accusations every time. Hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and several books have been published in the past decade. Yet none have bothered to tell the public that there is virtually no evidence against pesticides and plenty pointing to more mundane causes.

Take the case of the deformed frogs in Minnesota. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency held a press conference in 1997 -- covered by ABC News Nightline -- saying that they had "proof" that a chemical in the water was causing the frog deformities. Within months, other researchers (including Environmental Protection Agency scientists) would embarrassingly demonstrate the MPCA had instead flubbed the tests. The true culprit turned out to be a natural parasitic worm - although you'll not find many frog scientists publicizing this. Nor have any newspaper or magazine articles been written to tell the public that pesticides are off the hook.

The case of the mountain yellow-legged frogs is even better. They started disappearing from the Sierras 30 years ago and are now absent from most high-altitude lakes where they once thrived. Several groups of ecologists have searched for a pesticide scapegoat for years. Their best evidence is wind patterns showing pesticides from California's heavily farmed Central Valley could be blown into the Sierra Nevada and, therefore, might play a role -- even though they can barely detect any pesticide traces at all in the mountains.

Shoddy environmental reporting has twisted this wispy speculative thread into "pesticides and herbicides drifting into the mountains from Central Valley farmlands are a known cause of declining frog populations." Eco-groups are using it to sue the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and federal EPA for failure to fully protect a threatened species. The researchers aren't dissuading any of it.

In the meantime, a decade of evidence-driven field research has just shown that the frogs' tadpoles are simply being eaten by hungry trout. Thirty years ago we began stocking these naturally fishless lakes literally by the planeload. Dr. Vance Vredenburg removed the trout from five separate lakes in the late 1990s and saw frog "population explosions" in each over the following years. As he told the San Francisco Chronicle, "There are at least 10,000 lakes in the High Sierra. Ninety percent to 95 percent of them hold introduced species of trout but no more frogs at all. And there may be 200 lakes that have plenty of frogs, but few or no fish. So the answer is pretty straightforward, and it doesn't get much simpler: with no trout you get an immediate and dramatic response."

One of Crichton's most important insights in State of Fear is his discussion of politicized science in the appendix. He notes several high-profile examples where politics trumped science leading to incredible wastes of time and money. The clearest example is the now-discredited "science" of eugenics (the need to purge "inferior" people from the gene pool), once funded by the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations and practiced at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins.

Today we have global warming and Rachel Carson syndrome in ecology. When I talked to Dr. Vredenburg, this untenured young scientist was quick to say that his research didn't necessarily negate the pesticide theory. Why should he risk angering peers who might one day sit on a tenure or grant review committee? Besides, the pesticide hype is generating much needed funding for frog research.

Crichton keenly notes that "many of the outspoken critics of global warming are retired professors. These individuals are no longer seeking grants, and no longer have to face colleagues whose grant applications and career advancement may be jeopardized by their criticisms. ... As Alston Chase put it, 'when the search for truth is confused with political advocacy, the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to the quest for power.' That is the danger we now face."

Amen, Dr. Crichton. Let's get the politics out of science, so science can once again be about truth not power. It is likely that the environment will fare better if we do.

Alex Avery is Director of Research at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues in Churchville, Va.


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