21 Jun 2012: Opinion

Fifty Years After Silent Spring,
Assault on Science Continues

When Silent Spring was published in 1962, author Rachel Carson was subjected to vicious personal assaults that had nothing do with the science or the merits of pesticide use. Those attacks find a troubling parallel today in the campaigns against climate scientists who point to evidence of a rapidly warming world.

by frank graham jr.

Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. More than a century and a half after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species appeared, nearly half the adults in the United States still don’t believe that evolution happens. And 50 years after the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, naysayers still rage from long-entrenched positions of ignorance at Rachel Carson and her ground-breaking critique of pesticide use.

The parallels with today’s assault on climate science are striking. The personal, vitriolic attacks that were leveled at Carson are echoed today in the organized assault on the scientists who bring us uncontroverted evidence that greenhouse gases are rapidly warming the planet. But Carson savored a victory that today’s climate scientists have yet to taste — her book spurred concrete action to curtail the use of pesticides that were causing widespread harm.

Silent Spring Rachel Carson
Yale Collection of American Literature/Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Rachel Carson was the first female biologist ever hired at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.
I came to Carson’s book from a special angle. Several years after her death in 1964, her editor at Houghton Mifflin asked me to bring the history of the book’s publication up to date, and my work appeared in 1970 under the sibilant title, Since Silent Spring. Carson, I knew, was an unlikely target of controversy. She had been a marine biologist employed by what is now the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As the author of several beautifully written and highly acclaimed books about the sea, she was probably the best-known science writer in the world.

But by the late 1950s, Carson had grown uneasy about the poisoning of land and sea by the massive and indiscriminate post-war barrage of new pesticides against gypsy moths, cotton boll weevils, and other pest insects. A very private person, she was reluctant to speak out and, in fact, urged several other persuasive writers, including E. B. White, to take on the task of spreading the bad tidings.

Carson was already suffering from the cancer that would kill her. Yet, with her science background, she stepped in and labored for four years documenting how chemicals were destroying birds, fish, and other wildlife and tracking the mounting evidence of their long-term threats to living things. In style and content, she designed her book to reveal to the public the misuse of those poisons. She pointed out the failures to grasp biological principles that encouraged the spread of deadly chemicals through the open environment and described the resulting fiascoes and disasters. She suggested alternatives and called for intensive research into the effects of these chemicals on all forms of life, including humans.

In June 1962, The New Yorker published the first of three excerpts from her book, and Houghton Mifflin brought out Silent Spring itself in September. She had expected an attack on its content by representatives of the chemical industry and their political allies, but not the kind of virulence and personal animosity that materialized. In almost every case, the attacks were barren of scientific substance.

An official of the Nutrition Foundation contended that “publicists and the author’s adherents among the food faddists, health quacks and special interest groups are promoting her book as if it were scientifically irreproachable and written by a scientist.” Wrote the director of the New
I thought she was a spinster,’ one critic said of Carson. ‘What’s she so worried about genetics for?’
Jersey Department of Agriculture, “In any large scale pest program, we are immediately confronted with the objection of a vociferous, misinformed group of nature-balancing, organic gardening, bird-loving, unreasonable citizenry that has not been convinced of the important place of agricultural chemicals in our economy.” Other literature accused Carson variously of being “a priestess of nature,” “a bird-lover,” and a member of some mystical cult. An official with the Federal Pest Control Review Board drew laughter from his audience when he remarked, “I thought she was a spinster. What’s she so worried about genetics for?"

Such vitriol is much in evidence today as global warming skeptics and deniers ridicule, harass, and even threaten prominent climate scientists like Penn State’s Michael Mann. The scientifically groundless, magical thinking exhibited by Carson’s critics is repeated by the likes of the North Carolina state Senate, which recently passed a coastal management bill that prohibits even considering the possibility of future sea level rise.

As I began work on my follow-up to Carson’s book, I was puzzled at first by the luke-warm response, and sometimes the outright hostility, shown to Silent Spring by some legitimate scientists. I soon realized the practitioners of entomology at the time were largely predetermined defenders of lavish pesticide use. A big step in that process had taken place in the early 1950s, when the American Entomological Society consolidated with the American Association of Economic Entomologists.

Although the enlarged group included many biologists, they felt outnumbered by chemists, toxicologists, and others whose mission was simply to destroy insects. (“These people loathe insects,” a research biologist told me. “Their life is a crusade against them.”) By the time of Silent Spring’s publication, the American Entomological Society listed Velsicol, Monsanto, Shell Chemical Company, and other chemical corporations among their “sustaining associates.” The society’s criticisms of Carson closely paralleled those of their associates in industry.

University biologists themselves became vulnerable to the pressure. Robert L. Rudd, a zoologist at the University of California, was writing a book about the effects of pesticides on the environment at the same time Carson
Carson’s book is a carefully researched argument for what she passionately believed to be the public good.
was writing hers. The two scientists held similar ideas about the dangers posed by unrestrained chemical use. Impeccably scientific in his approach, Rudd nonetheless ran into trouble publishing his book (Pesticides and the Living Landscape). The manuscript went through endless reviews, before finally seeing publication in 1964. But at a price for Rudd: He lost a promotion, and was removed from his position at the California Agricultural Experiment Station.

In researching my book, I wrote to a prominent ecologist I knew at one of the country’s land grant colleges, which are closely associated with the agricultural industry. I asked him to expand on a paper he had published about the harmful effects of long-lasting pesticides on birds. He replied that he was too busy at the time to answer my queries in any detail. When I met him again several years later, he apologized for the brushoff, and sheepishly explained that he hadn’t wanted to jeopardize the position of his co-author (or himself, of course) by directly associating himself with a book about Rachel Carson.

For some scientists, it seems, Silent Spring was a polemic, a diatribe. It did not give both sides of the argument — as a scientist, her critics insisted, she ought to have presented both the pros and cons of extensive pesticide use. But that was just her point. Carson saw no reason to praise pesticide use as it was carried out at the time, for such promotional arguments had appeared for years in a stream of literature from chemical companies and associations, agricultural experiment stations, and the big land grant universities.

Silent Spring Rachel Carson
So Carson took up her cudgels. Her book is not a mathematical theorem. It is a carefully researched, precisely reasoned, and elegantly written argument for what she passionately believed to be the public good. It is a product of her social conscience, but not the diatribe that her critics complained about. She did not call for a ban on all pesticides, but mostly for the long-lasting chlorinated hydrocarbons such as DDT whose movement through the environment cannot be contained and whose residues, being fat soluble, are stored in animal tissues and recycled through food chains.

“It is not my contention that chemical insecticides should never be used,” she wrote. “I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potential for harm... I contend, furthermore, that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effects on soil, water, wildlife, or man himself.”

Despite a few minor errors in Carson’s work (for instance, that American robins faced extinction from pesticide use), leading biologists found Silent Spring persuasive. In the decade following her death, the U.S. banned DDT and some other chemicals for most uses, on the basis not only of her book but also of much subsequent research. Yet curiously the sniping at her continues today, sometimes with fierce intensity.

An ironic aspect of the assault on Carson’s legacy in recent years has been that it is no longer focused on science. Critics have replaced the old chestnuts attacking her professional competence with a new tack — political correctness. The more hysterical of her opponents, including notable climate change deniers such as the late novelist Michael Crichton, have even branded Carson “a mass murderess,” responsible for the deaths of millions of African children from malaria because her work led to a ban on DDT. They portray a white elite, careless of African lives.

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So, as with the global warming debate today, politics trumps science. In the byzantine mindset of right-wing think tanks, concerns about environmental health reflect a godless, anti-business, anti-American mind-set. These critics never mention the fact that DDT was banned in the U. S. and some other countries, but globally is still available; nor that, even when Silent Spring first appeared, DDT’s importance against malaria had been greatly diminished because mosquitoes were evolving resistance to the chemical; nor that alternative pesticides, as well as drugs that attack the malaria parasite and bug nets, are more feasible than using DDT. Ironically, many of Carson’s bitterest critics are creationists, who deny the existence of the same evolution that shapes those insects and makes them pesticide resistant.

Such critics would have felt right at home in 1859, arguing that Darwin’s grandpa may have been an ape, but they themselves never evolved. Yet today’s extremists in universities, state legislatures, and Congress have figured out that bad science can’t win against good science. So whether the issue is pesticides or climate change, they have sought a public relations victory by muddying key scientific issues with character attacks and politics.

POSTED ON 21 Jun 2012 IN Climate Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health North America North America 

COMMENTS


If Rachel Carson were alive today she would be speaking out about the careless over-use, and harmful effects of Monsanto's RoundUp.

Posted by nina moore on 21 Jun 2012


Excellent article. It's very important, I think, to connect our present issues with our past. Without history, political conservatives lose sight of their own values in conservation movements, while political liberals lack a sense of the traditions of social reform. Thank you.

Posted by Bill Kovarik on 21 Jun 2012


While we in the science field tend to see the attacks as being on a sequence of environmental issues, the linkage is probably at a more general level, being an objection to regulation of corporate behavior generally. It seems to me that we in the scientific community are responding on a battle by battle basis rather than formulating a more general response more focused on the need for a balance between the private sector focus on near-term actions and public sector representation for long-term sustainability. The pending presidential election could get us into a productive discussion of this fundamental matter, if only there were a greater likelihood of thoughtful discussion instead of negative criticism.

Posted by Mike MacCracken on 21 Jun 2012


Thank you, Nina Moore, for your very apt commentary. That was an incredibly succinct description of a very big problem with politics today.

Posted by Caitlin Reid on 21 Jun 2012


While the author certainly makes some good points and there are certainly those who cross the line in criticizing the work of scientists, it seems odd to try and cast it as a organized anti-science conspiracy. I am sure the detractors of evolution and global warming are not all from the same camp or social circle. Certainly they approach these subjects with different perspectives and motives. Linking the two as if some segment of society simply walks around despising all things related to science is a bit juvenile. I do not know anyone who fits that description. Scientists need to have their views challenged and it is not a bad thing for theories to fall under the scrutiny of average men. We know much about the scientific world because of the work of average men. It seems as if science wants only to be evaluated by scientists and any public rejection is due to profound ignorance.

Even the authors comments about evolution smack of profound arrogance. Often when I read articles like this it gives me the impression that those in the field of science would just prefer if the average person simply accept what they say blindly and move along. This is not good for humanity and it is certainly not good for science.

Posted by Jesse Sewell on 21 Jun 2012


"Ironically, many of Carson’s bitterest critics are creationists, who deny the existence of the same evolution that shapes those insects"

"Ironically"? How so, exactly?

The casual essayist needs to learn how to eschew such Hamburger Helper phrasing as using "Ironically" for a reflexive/default transitional. Such use depletes the word, the concept of its meaning. "Ironically" in this case would suggest that the group whose response is described as "ironic" would be a group normally (logically?) expected to support the conclusions Carson argued. Clearly, “Creationists” do not, as a general category, meet that particular criteria. Indeed, it is IOTTCO that there is no :”irony” in creationists rejecting Carson’s evidence, argument and conclusions it is, rather, the expected - even the inevitable.

"As might be expected", would have been a better way to put it - or “Of course”, or “Naturally”, or ... well, any number of alternatives.

Of which “Ironically” is the by far the most clearly wrong choice.

Posted by JOHN THOMAS GILLICK on 21 Jun 2012


"The personal, vitriolic attacks that were leveled at Carson are echoed today in the organized assault on the scientists who bring us uncontroverted evidence that greenhouse gases are rapidly warming the planet."

What evidence?

The output of models do not constitute evidence. The output of models programmed with the assumption of the result looked for do not constitute even a sound argument. The results of models that were proved significantly wrong 15 years ago, and are still being proved wrong against new metrics today the results of climate models that perform worse at predicting local climate than a random walk are laughable.

There isn't any evidence at all that "greenhouse gases are rapidly warming the planet", let alone uncontroverted [sic] evidence. For greenhouse gases to rapidly warm the planet (given "rapid" means to cause significant harm) there must be positive feedback in temperature. This is assumed in all the models that scientists use instead of evidence.

The mechanism for positive feedback assumed was proved incorrect when the warming in the upper troposphere at low latitudes predicted by all the models as a direct consequence of water-vapour feedback was shown not to have occurred. There is no evidence whatever for any positive feedback. There is some evidence for negative feedback, although it is not conclusive.

Posted by Doubting Rich on 22 Jun 2012


Unfortunately, she was wrong about DDT and the over-hyped, activist-motivated bannings subsequently cost millions of lives in Africa and SE Asia. These facts are not controversial and are know to anyone with even a casual acquaintance with the subject.

The "DDT causes birds egg shells to thin and break" was known to be scientifically incorrect even as she wrote her famous book.

DDT *was* being overused and particularly, over-applied in many areas. Especially in areas where technical training was entirely lacking and when used by persons not trained in the mixing of chemicals and the setting on applicators. The correct response would have been to insist on the types of regulations we have now for pesticide applicators — training and certification, record keeping, etc.

Like many activist-scientists, Carson used the same method to forward her ideas that are in use for similarly flawed movements today — she over-hyped the threat, exaggerated the consequences, mis-stated and spun the science until it said what she wanted to say, without regard to actual factual findings.

Thus, you are correct with your parallel to many of today's climate 'scientists'.

Posted by Kip Hansen on 22 Jun 2012


Great piece.

Her book was pivotal for me early on and has influenced my lifestyle choices since the early 70's.

How sad that reason must constantly take low blows from personal attacks.

We all suffer the consequences.

Posted by Linda Brunner on 22 Jun 2012


Jesse Sewell debunked Mr. Graham’s assumption that creationists and climate deniers come from the same population. This assumption was nothing more than an ad hominem argument about the scientific acumen of those who doubt anthropogenic climate change (AGW), which added nothing to the strength of his argument.

Doubting Rich showed (and provided specific evidence) that there is no scientific basis for the belief that AGW is occurring, and certainly no evidence that AGW will be catastrophic.

Kip Hansen demonstrated, again with evidence, that Mr. Graham was correct in putting today’s climate change deniers in the same category with those who pointed out that Rachel Carson was wrong and should have known that she was wrong before she published her book. However, because Mr. Graham is no more familiar with the science of DDT than he is with the science of AGW, he drew an incorrect conclusion from his analogy.

Yet Bill Kovarik and Linda Brunner say that Mr. Graham’s article is wonderful. I do not understand.

Posted by Dennis Falgout on 22 Jun 2012


How ironic that environmentalists citing Rachel Carson would promote reducing global warming by: Increasing intensive farming of tens of millions of acres of marginal farmland to grow biofuel feedstock, which requires considerable irrigation, fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide.

Mandating ethanol into fuel that increases ground level ozone to the point where the American Heart Association claims over 500 more Americans will die from respiratory illness.

Subsidizing wind turbines which each require about 4,000 pounds of Chinese monopolized rare earth elements (REE), the mining and refining of which emits vast quantities of radioactive thorium and other pollutants into the air and the Pacific Ocean.

Got HFCs banned to protect ozone, only to promote HCFC-22a which is thousands of times worse than CO2 as a global warming gas.

Posted by randydutton on 22 Jun 2012


The EPA STILL won't regulate volatile corrosion inhibitors (VCI) despite years of my documenting the hazards and deaths these purposely volatilized chemicals cause to industrial workers.

OSHA went as far as to protect one VCI chemical company by invalidating OSHA's own technical center study that had declared VCIs hazardous.

I brought all this to Sen. Patty Murray's office years ago. (she was ranking member of the DOL oversight committee). Her office refused to take action. Why? Because they didn't want anything bad to point to Clinton.

Posted by randydutton on 22 Jun 2012


While in the field of science tend to see the attacks as being in a sequence of environmental issues, the link is probably a more general level, being an exception to the regulation of corporate behavior in general. http://www.12monthloanspayday.co.uk/

I think that the scientific community is responding in a battle for the base of the battle rather than making a more general, more focused on the need for balance between the private sector approach in short-term actions and representation of public sector long-term sustainability. The presidential election hopes could lead to a productive discussion of this fundamental issue, if only there were a greater chance of serious discussion rather than negative criticism.

Posted by Glenn Tomb on 23 Jun 2012


Rachel Carson was not the unbiased saint of science that the author would have us believe. She made a number of errors in her research and deliberately published those errors in her book to advance her anti-humanist philosophy. The ban on DDT was singularly responsible for the re-emergence of malaria that was on the verge of extinction. There are no peer reviewed papers that support the authors claim of resistance to DDT by malaria carrying mosquitos. That is was effective is shown by lack of any cases of locally contracted malaria in the U.S. since the late 1940's. There is evidence of the quantum spread of malaria however immediately after the ban on DDT throughout the world. This debunks the idea that there are other pesticides as effective. The attacks on Carson are warranted as she used sloppy science to advance an agenda. She blamed pesticides and chemical for her cancer despite a family history of predisposition.

Posted by Edward Gallagher on 23 Jun 2012


Regarding the "irony of environmentalists supporting big-agriculture", I think you need to
reassess your facts here.

Most people who care about the ecological services and intrinsic values of ecosystems do not support a transition to bio-fuels. Rather, there is a movement away from bio-fuels for the very reasons you cite.

When yelling fire, first check that there is a fire.

Posted by Trevor on 23 Jun 2012


Of course creationists hate Carson and Silent Spring, the entire book is an argument for evolution by insects requiring ever more massive applications of pesticides, which in turn, etc.

Posted by Eli Rabett on 24 Jun 2012


Actually, we do know where the three minute DDT hate against Carson came from, the tobacco industry, in an attempt to deflect WHO programs against tobacco, and we know whose bright idea it was, Roger Bate.

http://rabett.blogspot.co.uk/2007/05/who-ordered-that-hundred-year-wingnuts.html

Posted by Eli Rabett on 25 Jun 2012


I wrote this for Dr. David Suzuki personally when I knew I was going to see him!! I was told I could not hand it personally but I did sneak a handshake!!

One Story About The Birds and the Bees
Inspired by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring

Let me tell you one story about the birds and the bees.
It started with love for the flowers and the trees.
A horror story now but I can tell it with ease.
A biologist, my hero, Rachel Carson agrees.
Man met a beetle then his toxic sprays came down.
It killed lots of things and the elms all turned brown.
Bad business decided to let some life drown,
In pesticides, which are toxic. Does it not make you frown?
Honey bees, earthworms and birds pesticided.
Dandelions, clover, and trees herbicided.
Sadly, young lungs and livers toxi-cided.
Has man* thought it through? Has his GOD been confided?
Why poison annoying but such tasty bugs?
Why kill nature's plants? To prescribe legal drugs?
How can we take down these immoral thugs?
We must stop them or die. No more life. No more hugs.
Mankind struggles with such a deadly habit.
He likes to destroy it. He likes to pollute it.
He exercises for ego, not to keep the earth fit,
For all children, who deserve their future on it.
Why spray to destroy, to abuse or to kill?
Is it just for the wealth, or for love of a thrill?
The left and the right fight a battle of will.
Most of us want to preserve the bird twill!
All of those able to damage with ease.
Make me sick to my senses and I want to cry 'FREEZE!
We must save all the birds and the meek bumble bees!
For children's sake. Please save them! Please! Pretty please!

Love and Awe, Lora B

*Note: Man=Mankind

Posted by lora on 29 Jun 2012


Great comments.

The short term impact of Silent Spring was big pendulum swing against DDT rather than dilution of DDT strength for same results with less over-use.

Long term impact may be that malaria is better understood now, as banning DDT made fighting it much more difficult (and perhaps many more died than otherwise.

Greed kills, and Rage can temporarily slow greed, but often has bad side effects, and long term greed gets sneakier, and hopefully operates with fewer side effects! We can only hope everyone gets smarter and regulations become more useful and enforceable. And of course that humans continue to have fewer children.

Posted by Mike Clayton on 29 Jun 2012


Kip Hansen is simply incorrect.

The scientific evidence is ample and has been documented in the literature that DDT causes
thinning of eggshells. A quick Google Scholar search revealed several papers from the 60's
and 70's that demonstrate this effect.

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/172/3986/955.full.pdf

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/168/3931/594.full.pdf

http://ac.els-cdn.com/001040357390013X/1-s2.0-001040357390013X-main.pdf?_tid=7b8fcc7a0a1ec60b229e8dcfa08b386d&acdnat=1341519602_f768b093f623fa5e70964d88ed647504

In addition, the resurgence of Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Osprey populations throughout North America since the DDT ban is ample evidence of the success of implementing this policy.

As for the ban of DDT causing the resurgence of Malaria in the developing world, what would
these commentors have us do? Eradicate the mosquito?

Posted by Ross Geredien on 05 Jul 2012


Excellent article (thanks) but with one puzzling omission which has, even more puzzlingly, not been addressed in any of the comments. That is, the article echoes and parallels "Merchants of Doubt" by Oreskes and Conway (review at http://www.theecologist.org/reviews/books/592288/merchants_of_doubt.html and home page at http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/) but no-one has mentioned the book or its author.

It answers the question of why "the sniping at [Carson] continues today," and where it comes from, and would have shown Jesse Sewell that there is indeed an "organized anti-science conspiracy" if Jesse had been minded to read it. Doubting Rich, Kip Hansen, Dennis Falgout and one or two other commenters also need to read it but I won't hold my breath waiting for them to do so.

Posted by Kim O'Hara on 15 Aug 2012


The parallels with climate science are quite wrong. It is the pro-warming supporters who have become the bullies. The chance of a proper scientific debate on global warming is killed off by political correctness. If you bother to do the research on Michael Mann's hockey stick, you will find that the vilified sceptics have found many things wrong with his work that leaders in Climate Science fail to openly acknowledge - because they fear to be vilified. Instead they do it subtlety while continuing to harangue the 'deniers'. For example Mann's hockey stick is downgraded by the IPCC from being 'reliable for the past 2000 years', to just the past 400 years, ie since coming out of the Little Ice Age (See AR4). The distortion of climate science is now the shame of the scientific establishment. Its ultimate 'cry wolf' effect will further damage the case for better environmental management. I am anonymous because I work in the environmental sector, but would be ostracised if I advocated proper scientific debate on the subject.

Posted by oakwood on 25 Sep 2012


Comments have been closed on this feature.
frank graham jr.ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Frank Graham, Jr. has been field editor for Audubon magazine for more than four decades. He is the author of several books, including Disaster by Default and Since Silent Spring, which documented the pesticide legislation and regulation that followed Rachel Carson’s seminal book. For a decade, he and his wife, Ada, wrote and edited Audubon Adventures, the Audubon Society’s newspaper for children.

 
 

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