By now, virtually every public school student in the country has heard about the supposed environmental cata- strophe of deformed frogs.

Everywhere you look, it is said, there are frogs being born with severe disabilities: too few or too many limbs, misshapen eyes and toes. And the cause? Pesticides, pollution, and ultraviolet radiation, all synonyms for greedy businessmen, which in turn indicts capitalism.Hence, the free market is destroying nature.

And, hey, if the free market is causing frogs to be born with five legs, it can't be too long before the same thing happens to humans, right? Better act now to ban all pesticides, or better yet, overthrow the whole of the capitalist system, before we all grow an extra eye in the middle of our foreheads.

But it turns out that this morality play, seized on and relentlessly promoted by environmental activists, is a myth. A natural parasite, not pollution, is the source of the problem, according to the April 30 issue of Science. The hysteria illustrates, not the corruptions of capitalism, but the absurd lengths that environmentalists will go to manufacture a crisis in hopes of more government control.

The frog fraud began in August 1995 when students from a Minnesota middle school went on a nature walk to a local pond. Some of the kids noticed that quite a few frogs were missing limbs and had misshapen feet. The students, their heads swimming with green propaganda, thought bad businessmen must have been dumping chemicals in the pond.

A few days later, the local TV crew arrived, shooting long, loving shots of pitiful frogs dragging themselves from spot to spot and leaping in odd directions. They had everything but ''Will Work for Flies'' signs. An Associated Press story followed. Within a few weeks, there were more reporters on the scene than frogs.

Soon the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency jumped in. Then malformed frogs popped up in 34 other states. Without skipping a beat, Washington formed the North American Reporting Center for Amphibian Malformations, adding credibility to an incredulous cause.

We began hearing that the frog is the leading ''bio-indicator,'' providing an advance warning of the catastrophic fate about to befall mankind unless we change our ways. ''Friends of the Frog'' societies sprang up all over the country, with Web sites galore.

Next came televised specials, radio programs, environmental awards for the students, research grants to universities, investigations by state and federal environmental agencies and another round of massive green propaganda. For a while, you couldn't turn on the television without being greeted by odd-looking frogs and ominous warnings of the deformed future of the human race under capitalism.

Hobbled frogs became a national obsession. Surely, it was only a matter of time before Janet Reno insisted on wheelchair ramps at every pond in the country, and social therapy for boys and girls who discriminate in favor of so-called normal frogs when choosing a pet?

Thank goodness for Stanley K. Sessions of Hartwick College, the lead author of a new study that debunks the hysteria. It turns out that parasitic worms, known as trematodes, had been burrowing into the frogs' developing limbs before they could properly form.

The scientists found this out by discovering higher concentrations of the trematode Ribeiraoia in deformed frogs. Such parasites, and the deformities they bring about, are just as likely to exist in the wild as in a neighborhood pond. Why? Well, it just happens from time to time. On the whole, it turns out that a frog's life is just as difficult in poor, socialist countries as it is in rich, capitalist ones.

But already the Frog Project is a self-sustaining industry. After the Science article appeared, officials from the Minnesota Pollution Agency said we should take no comfort in the findings. ''It would be irresponsible to sit back now and say, 'Oh, no, it's not a chemical cause,' '' said Judy Helgen. Even after being shown otherwise, she says that ''for us, chemicals are the leading hypothesis.''

Dr. Helgen realizes that the frog fraud is the greatest thing to ever happen to her agency, and doesn't want the bonanza to end. So, too, with all the research institutes, media crews, regulators and environmental activists who saw the poster frogs as reinvigorating their discredited political cause.

It's a microcosm of how a thoroughly corrupt political industry works. It seizes on the plight of sympathetic creatures as a prelude to new controls on the economy. This movement has cost billions upon billions in lost productivity and innovation. It has led to government bans on perfectly wonderful chemicals, higher prices on thousands of consumer products, and myriad restrictions on freedom.

Environmentalists and their media allies have every incentive to misreport and even to lie to bring about public hysteria. That's why you can never believe the propaganda they dish out. Even after the evidence is in, we can't expect the environmentalists to recant. What drives them is not a genuine concern for nature, but a hatred of man and his civilization.

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