Thursday, June 07, 2007

Defending Rachel Carson

I love the New York Times and rarely complain about it, but I admit to finding John Tierney's contrarianism tiresome, to say the least. I'm not a Rachel Carson student by any means and I knew when I read Tierney's column the other day in which he attacked her and Silent Spring, that I wasn't going to bother figuring out what was wrong with his argument. Thankfully other, better bloggers did that for me.

One of them is Keith Schneider, a former Times enviro reporter. Schneider begins and ends his post, here, by criticizing the big environmental groups for not challenging the Big Industry PR that has attacked Carson, presumably because her work led to the banning of DDT. Then he writes about his own experience as a reporter:

Pesticide use has resulted in mass killings of songbirds and wildlife, and the poisoning of farm and industrial workers. I personally reported on the consequences to production workers in Lathrop, California in the 1980s who were left sterile because of their exposure to the pesticide DBCP during its manufacture. I reported on the incidence of young children who’d been born deaf in a California community where the drinking water supply had been contamined by DBCP and other toxic farm chemicals.

I tracked through the forests of western North Carolina in the early 1980s, identifying uncommon rates of death and illness in communities exposed to the defoliants 2,4-D and picloram, which were used to kill broad-leafed trees. The mix of 2,4-D and picloram, by the way, was sprayed in Vietnam, was known as Agent White, and was used to clear forests where Agent Orange didn’t work. A military study of the effects of Agent White, which I found in the library of Auburn University in Alabama, said that Hmong tribes exposed to the defoliant displayed levels of cancer and birth defects far in excess of neighboring communities that weren’t exposed.

So you can’t tell me that Rachel Carson’s reporting inspired “chemophobia” as Tierney charges, or is exaggerated or untrue. What he does is focus the knife edge of an eloquent rhetorical attack on the outer membrane of Carson’s reporting, such as the predictions she made that haven’t come to pass — a big loss of robins, for instance. He doesn’t note that such a prediction might well have come to pass, and fortunately hasn’t, because several of the most toxic compounds she critiqued, especially DDT, have been banned for agricultural use.

Strong words, in my opinion, considering that Schneider and Tierney were colleagues.

Tim Lambert, who blogs for Science Blogs, asks here how Tierney got things so wrong:

Well, look at his references. Katherine Mangu-Ward, who wrote that Carson was indirectly responsible fro millions of malaria deaths. John Berlau, who lied about what Carson wrote and who claims that not only did environmentalist kill all those people, but that it was a deliberate plan. Tina Rosenberg, who reckons that Silent Spring is killing African children. Steve Milloy and Gordon Edwards at, who write how DDT is harmless to birds. Ronald Bailey, who blames Carson for millions of deaths from malaria. And Gregg Easterbrook's A Moment of Earth.

Mark Lytle, a professor up at Bard (about which more here) and author of a study of Carson and her life, points out at Oxford University Press's blog, here, that Carson was shining a light on risk that very few people were aware of:

The public had a right to know that these chemicals posed potential risks. She had no need to extol their virtues because the Department of Agriculture and agricultural chemical industry had spent tens of millions touting them as safe and beneficial. Tierney makes no mention of the hundreds of scientists who contributed to Silent Spring and vetted Carson’s chapters.



Anonymous robert said...

Thanks for summarizing the response to Tierney's smear of Rachel Carson so well.

There is a book by I forget who called "After Silent Spring" published I foreget when, which details just how viciously, duplicitiously and despicably the chemical industry attacked Carson. Tierney is just continuing that awful tradition. Even the chemical industry knows better now but the right wing accepts no science but the "dismal science"

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the things worth mentioning is that 35 years after the banning of DDT, it is still commonly found in the environment, including sediment in rivers, lakes, estuaries and in fish tissue.

one example p. 28

9:36 PM  
Blogger John said...

The thing about Tierney is that he's not really a contrarian. He is just a supporter of the dominant cultural and economic ideologies.

5:39 PM  

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