“Tick and Mosquito Infections Spreading Rapidly”, is not linked to ‘climate change’ by study, despite what the NYT says

Guest Commentary by Kip Hansen


tick_disease_actual_sizeScience News treated us to an interesting quip on 2 May titled “Tick-borne and mosquito-borne illnesses are on the rise in the United States” written by Roni Dengler.  Dengler writes:   “Warmer weather is a major cause for the explosion in these vector-transmitted diseases, The New York Times reports, as ticks thrive in areas once too cold, and mosquito populations mushroom during heat waves.”   Real news?   Fake news?  Or echo chamber reverberation?  Let’s see….

The New York Times once again pushed its Editorial Narrative on Climate Change ahead of scientific facts in a news article by Donald G. McNeil Jr.  published under the banner of Global Health on 1 May 2018.  The article, titled “Tick and Mosquito Infections Spreading Rapidly, C.D.C. Finds”.

The title is true enough, the C.D.C. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a U.S. federal agency under the Department of Health & Human Services) did in fact find that the incidence of mosquito and tick borne diseases are rising rapidly and laid out a well-founded scientific case as to Why and How and What To Do About It.  The study report is available in several forms:  a Briefing Sheet online, with a video; and in a full study report, “Vital Signs: Trends in Reported Vectorborne Disease Cases — United States and Territories, 2004–2016”.   Both are quite good.

The New York Times, however, insists (this is the correct word) that the cause of the increase and spread of vector-borne diseases is “warming” and/or ”climate  change”.  Our intrepid NY Times journalist states:

 “Warmer weather is an important cause of the surge, according to the lead author of a study published in the C.D.C.’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.”

This is a fascinating distortion of the facts….a very clever one.   Why?  Because the journalist, McNeil, is forced immediately to point out:

“But the author, Dr. Lyle R. Petersen, the agency’s director of vector-borne diseases, declined to link the increase to the politically fraught issue of climate change, and the report does not mention climate change or global warming. Many other factors are at work, he emphasized, including increased jet travel and a lack of vaccines.”

“The study did not delve into the reasons for the increase, but Dr. Petersen said it was probably caused by many factors, including two related to weather: ticks thriving in regions previously too cold for them, and hot spells triggering outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases.”

I often write about Science Journalism — and this article gives me an opportunity to point out one of the tricks that journalists use when they want to say the news is THIS when it is really THAT.

Here is what McNeil has done:

  1. There is a C.D.C. study that says vector-borne diseases are on the rise and spreading — in this case, diseases spread by mosquitos, ticks, and fleas.
  2. The journalist wants to say, maybe because the NY Times has a strict Editorial Narrative on Climate Change, that this increase in incidence and geographical spread is caused by “warming weather caused by Climate Change.”
  3. He has a problem. The actual study from the C.D.C.  does not contain the word “climate”.  It does not contain the word “change”.  Naturally, it does not contain the two words  — “climate change” — together.  It does not contain the word “warming”.   It does not even contain the word “weather”.  The word “temperature” does appear in the paper — once — in this sentence: “The longevity, distribution, biting habits, and propagation of vectors, which ultimately affect the intensity of transmission, depend on environmental factors such as rainfall, temperature, and shelter.”  This sentence is found in the Introduction to lay some groundwork about biological disease vectors (in our case, mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas).   It is worth noting that almost all biological activity depends in part on temperature to some degree.
  4. What to do? The journalist is compelled to blame Climate Change, or at least “warming”, for the dangerous situation.

[Full Disclosure:  I have been a radio journalist and an amateur science journalist and have used this trick myself — benignly, I hope.]

Here’s the trick that is used to get around the fact that the study authors have not said what you — the journalist —  needed them to say:  You call them up (or, more modernly, email them) with a series of questions specifically designed to get them to say something, nearly anything, that you might be able to “validly” transmogrify into a sentence like this one from McNeil:

 “Warmer weather is an important cause of the surge, according to the lead author of a study published in the C.D.C.’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.”

How is this a journalists’ trick?  It is an easy thing to do — the journalist need only convince himself that the “lead author” said or wrote something in reply to the journalist’s leading questions that might be construed to say something enough like the sentence above to justify the claim.  Of course, the journalist does not actually quote the lead author — because he probably said no such thing.

Petersen, the study author attributed, did, I suspect, reel off a long list of potential contributing factors:   expanded human travel, suburban reforestation and a dearth of new vaccines to stop outbreaks.  Also in the list: Ticks and fleas need deer or rodents as their main blood hosts, and those have increased as forests in suburbs have gotten thicker, deer hunting has waned, and rodent predators like foxes have disappeared.   In this list, might have been the idea that some areas are seeing less-cold winters and longer warm seasons …. we won’t know because the NY Times journalist has not told us what Petersen actually said or wrote, nor did he supply any data to support the implied ‘fact’ that areas with less cold winters have increased tick and mosquito activity and vector- borne disease.

What the lead author of the study did not do was blame climate change or warming weather for the problems of vector-borne diseases.

[More Disclosure:  When I have used this trick, I have always directly quoted both my exact question and the exact full reply to that specific question, as journalistic standards require.]

Side Note:   Forests have increased?   The meme is we have been cutting down all the trees.  Not true of course — McNeil  has been kind enough to include the historical actuality (parentheses his):  “(A century ago, the Northeast had fewer trees than it now does; forests made a comeback as farming shifted west and firewood for heating was replaced by coal, oil and gas.)”  Yes,  almost all of the forest in Northeast United States had been clear-cut  — at one time or another over the last century and a half —  to supply building materials, firewood and charcoal.  There are few remaining tracts of native, never-cut forests in the Northeastern states.  Connecticut, with an overall area of 3.5 million acres, has only 200 acres of true old growth forest.  New York does better at 210,000 acres (which oddly includes 50 acres in the New York Botanical Garden), out of a total of 35 million acres. We see a similar ratio in each state — about 0.0057%.

The “Illnesses On The Rise from mosquito, tick, and flea bites” factsheet from the C.D.C.’s Vitalsigns outreach, based in part on the study data,  lays the blame where it belongs:


More people at risk

  • Commerce moves mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas around the world.
  • Infected travelers can introduce and spread germs across the world.
  • Mosquitoes and ticks move germs into new areas of the US, causing more people to be at risk. “

Once again, the Vitalsigns factsheet contains no instances of the following words and word combinations:  temperature, warming, climate change.

The real causes of the increase in incidence and geographical spread of these vector-borne diseases are:

  • Commerce — international shipping — moving biological vectors to new areas — such as mosquito species and fleas.
  • The biological vectors shift locations or expand territories, they bring can diseases with them.
  • Renewing forests have expanded the ranges and numbers  of deer and other  vector-associated species — increasing human exposure
  • Localities, no longer faced with fighting malaria and yellow fever, cut back    on mosquito-control efforts.  Some of this cut-back can be blamed on anti-spraying efforts of environmentalists groups.
  • Humans have moved into the forests and previously unoccupied areas, bringing themselves into closer contact with disease vectors — the outdoor  movement (hiking, camping, trail-biking) also brings more people into contact with Nature.
  • The Lyme Disease epidemic has increased awareness of vector-borne disease and vastly stepped-up surveillance and reporting of these diseases, which could account for a very high percentage of the reported increases.

One of the largest complicating factors adding to the problem of human movement spreading diseases is the fact that many localities,as mentioned,  for varying reasons over the past decade,  have failed to maintain vector control efforts.   The C.D.C.  says “Critical to effectively preventing or responding to disease outbreaks is sensitive disease and vector surveillance, backed by well-organized, well-prepared, and sustained vector control operations.”   For mosquitoes, vector control means, among other things, local efforts of mosquito-control spraying.   Environmental groups across the country have been battling mosquito-spraying efforts for many years.  Vector control of ticks and fleas is more difficult as is it not easily approached on a community-wide basis and is best handled through public education efforts.

The C.D.C. is worried that with increasing human travel, which moves diseases around the world, and with existing local and state vector-borne-disease surveillance and control efforts not being fully up to the task, that either a natural or a bio-weapon vector-borne disease could cause a serious epidemic.  The C.D.C. calls for more Federal and State level effort and money to improve vector surveillance and control and increased efforts to develop vaccines for these diseases.  These are valid and important issues and do need to be addressed.  They are not, however, a looming disaster or existential threat to mankind.

And, they are not caused by Climate Change or Anthropogenic Global Warming byany of its many names.

Those interested should read the Vitalsigns factsheet available here.   It is evidence-based and good science.

Skip the Science News and NY Times pieces — they are badly Flawed News.

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Author’s Comment Policy:

It is a sad commentary that the once-proud “Gray Lady” — The New York Times — has allowed itself to be turned into a political-party-based yellow-journalism propaganda rag.  In my young years, when I studied a bit of journalism in University and hosted a radio news show with a couple of college friends,  the offenses committed daily by journalists at the NY Times were considered ‘firing offenses’ — misrepresenting a quote intentionally, slanting a story to match one’s personal bias or including a personal opinion in a news story.

That Science Magazine, as represented in this case by Science News, would allow something to be published under its masthead without even the pretense of fact-checking is equally sad.

This Commentary is about Science Journalism — not climate change or mosquitoes.

Always happy to read and respond to your comments here or you can email me at my first name at the domain i4 decimal net.

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via Watts Up With That?


May 4, 2018 at 12:29PM

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