Celebrating Rachel Carson's 100th Anniversary—The Alternative Version


The 100th anniversary of the birth of Silent Spring author and environmentalist icon Rachel Carson is this Sunday. But not everyone wants to celebrate. Republican senatorial curmudgeon Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is blocking a congressional resolution by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) that aims to honor Carson's "legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility."

Since I have written a bit on Carson's legacy and her "scientific rigor," I was called by a reporter from an alternative news site, the Raw Story, for my thoughts on Carson and Coburn. My first thought was "oh please don't put me on the side of Coburn." I did tell him that while it might be OK to celebrate Carson's "poetic sensibility," her "scientific rigor" left something to be desired. Subsequent decades of research have conclusively shown that Carson was excessively alarmist about the environmental and health effects of trace exposures to man-made chemicals. Part of the explanation for Carson's mistakes is the primitive state of toxicology and cancer research 40 to 50 years ago. However, Carson's fault is that, like many of her ideological descendants today, whenever she encountered data she always chose to interpret it as exemplifying the worst possible case.

Now Coburn is a man with whom I fundamentally disagree on the policy implications of many scientific findings. Nevertheless, I outlined to the reporter my objections to the misleading science in Silent Spring. It turns out that I needn't have worried overmuch about the Coburn connection; the Raw Story article accurately quotes a couple of my throwaway lines in which I struggled to find something nice to say about Carson. To wit:

Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent for the libertarian magazine Reason, has been critical of the quality of Carson's scientific research and favors the limited use of DDT for anti-malaria purposes. He told RAW STORY in a phone interview Tuesday that there had nevertheless been some positive benefits from Silent Spring.

"To a certain extent, she launched a movement based on bad science that nevertheless had good results," Bailey argued, explaining that Carson had essentially become a 'myth.'

"Let's face it, Americans needed to be alerted to problems of pollution, and there's value in that," he added.

All true as far as it goes, but the quotations make me seem a bit more pollyanna-ish about Carson than I am. So as a way to join–in an alternative way–the 100th anniversary celebration of Carson's legacy, may I invite you to take a look at my analysis of Silent Spring on its 40th anniversary here. For more of my adventures in the war over DDT take a look at my article "DDT, Eggshells and Me" in which I comprehensively review the scientific papers on DDT and its effects on birds here.

In that article I conclude:

In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson asked, "Who has decided—who has the right to decide—for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power."

Banning DDT saved thousands of raptors over the past 30 years, but outright bans and misguided fears about the pesticide cost the lives of millions of people who died of insect-borne diseases like malaria. The 500 million people who come down with malaria every year might well wonder what authoritarian made that decision.

The good news is that 35 years after DDT was banned in the U.S. as a result, at least in part, of Carson's polemic, that the World Health Organization has approved it for use in controlling malaria mosquitoes again.

For more excellent reporting on the legacy of Rachel Carson, see my colleague Katherine Mangu-Ward's Wall Street Journal op/ed here.