The Rachel Carson telephone game

I think the employment contract at the CEI must include a clause requiring their hacks to write an article accusing Rachel Carson of killing millions of people. So far we've seen John Berlau, Angela Logomasni, Jeremy Lott and Erin Wildermuth, and Iain Murray.

The latest effort is from the CEI's Eli Lehrer (who we last encountered cherry-picking with John Lott). Lehrer seems to have based his piece on stuff from the rest of the CEI crew because their factoids (which were wrong or misleading in the first place) have gotten somewhat garbled, just like in the telephone game.

Lehrer opens with:

The Murderous Church of Rachel Carson

One hundred years after her birth in May of 1907, it's difficult to underestimate Rachel Carson's influence. Unfortunately, it's all bad. That hasn't stopped her from remaining an academic deity to the campus Left.

Oh, did I mention it's in FrontPage magazine and hence written in the house style of over-the-top crazy?

While DDT may harm certain types of wildlife, nobody has even come close to proving Carson's claim that "one in four" people might die from chemically caused cancers, her strong implication that the most pesticides were first developed as a chemical weapons, or her new-age speculation that human bodies build up enormous stores of dangerous environmental toxins.

So much wrong packed into just one sentence...

  1. Carson did not claim that "one in four" would die from chemically caused cancer. She correctly reported that the American Cancer Institute estimated the lifetime risk of developing (not dying from) cancer as one in four. That was in 1962. These days it is closer to one in two.

  2. Many pesticides were first developed as chemical weapons, just as Carson said.

  3. Bioaccumulation is not a "new-age speculation". It is a real phenomenon and there is a mountain of relevant scientific literature.

Back to Lehrer:

In the wake of the book, however, DDT faced a near-total worldwide ban. In the developed world, where alternatives were available, this ban had little consequence. For the world's truly poor, the ban on DDT proved a disaster. As a result, deaths from mosquito-borne malaria and other diseases that the pesticide had controlled skyrocketed.

Millions, most of them children under five living in the underdeveloped world, have died as a result. Clearly, the book had a negative influence.

The anti-malarial use of DDT was not banned. The ban on the agricultural use of DDT saved lives by slowing the development of resistance.

Lehrer then complains about the people who set Silent Spring as a text at college:

She's a favorite of people who with few real scientific credentials -- people who prefer a quasi-religion of environmentalism to serious intellectual inquiry or critical thought about environmental issues.

Which is a little ironic since Lehrer has a BA in English/medieval studies. And the CEI folks listed above who've attacked Carson claiming that she got the science wrong? They have BAs and MAs in areas like journalism, politics and economics.

A recent anthology of essays about Carson issued in honor of her 100th Birthday, Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson, includes only one piece by a bona fide research scientist (Harvard's E.O. Wilson.) Although a few authors do hold doctorates in the sciences, they are all professional writers or activists rather than researchers.

So, in other words, they are vastly better qualified to comment on Carson's science than the CEI crowd. Why doesn't Lehrer tells us what E.O. Wilson thinks about Carson's science and the impact of her work?

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Someone qualified should turn this into an op-ed piece to counteract all the propaganda being put out by right-wingers to discredit Carson. I think she's such a popular target for these attacks because of her great role in promoting enviromentalism. John Tierney, the NY Times pseudo-science columnist did this sort of attack last week. This kind of concentrated attack using misquotes and big-lie techniques (Carson killed millions!) tends to shift the debate on important issues -- it's the same technique that was used in to run up to the Iraq war, the Bush tax cuts, etc. etc. In the scientific sphere, it's a dangerous attack on the goals of environmental science and ultimately on funding of efforts to control environmental externalities produced by the pesticide and chemical industries.

By Albion Tourgee (not verified) on 12 Jun 2007 #permalink

Tim, did you see the WSJ today?

In this case there's a slight jab at Carson, but for the most part the facts are right. It's a Ugandan health minister advocating for continued use of DDT as an anti-malarial.

Interestingly he does mention that it should be specifically prohibited for agricultural use to prevent resistance, and that they've had it available (contrary to the DDT ban myth) - but now they're under pressure to abandon its use.

"Someone qualified should turn this into an op-ed piece to counteract all the propaganda being put out by right-wingers to discredit Carson. "

Perhaps what is needed is a one-stop URL (with a downloadable pdf) that deals with these lies one-by-one, much in the same way as New Scientist's climate change myth site.

I think the employment contract at the CEI must include a clause requiring their hacks to write an article accusing Rachel Carson of killing millions of people

Tim, you say that as if it's a joke rather than the most likely explanation.

MarkH: be very careful about the Ugandan health ministry - they have a lot of form in making strange statements about DDT (mainly because they are trying to distract attention from a pretty dismal public health performance over the last five years).

Can you provide more details about what "qualified" means, Albion?

My sense is that *nothing* that I say that is contrary to their opinions will be valid, simply because I don't agree.

Other than being a scientist, or an entomologist/epidemiologist, what more would be needed for validity?
(I'm asking seriously, not poking at you.)

I am happy to reformat my post as a PDF for download, although I'm not sure what that good it will do. I am very reluctant to "out myself" as a semi-anonymous blogger, because there are a few crazies that will make it their business to drag me down. My career has enough troubles!

Someone qualified should turn this into an op-ed piece

My irony meter just wrapped its needle around the end-stop.

'their factoids (which were wrong or misleading in the first place) have gotten somewhat garbled, just like in the telephone game.'

The people at CIE are like the telemarketers who interrupt your dinner to try to sell you hundreds of acres of ocean front property at the top of Mount Everest.

When you tell them "no thanks, I already own a hundred acres of ocean front property at the top of mount Everest", they ask you if you want to buy a Yacht to anchor out front of your property.

>Carson did not claim that "one in four" would die from chemically caused cancer. She correctly reported that the American Cancer Institute estimated the lifetime risk of developing (not dying from) cancer as one in four.

And why did she report that fact? Was it linked to chemicals in some way and therefore relevant to her book or was she just reporting some interesting trivia, literary small talk so to speak?

So, since I first noticed this bovine excrement controversy about a month ago, I've been in three different school's libraries -- two colleges, one enormous high school. None of them had a copy of Silent Spring. In two cases, the librarians had never heard of her.

It's amazing how a book that isn't read, and in fact is not even available to read in most cases, can have such an effect. Rachel Carson must have been a saint -- this is a miracle. Was she Catholic? Someone call the Pope, and let's get the canonization process started.