In praise of Rachel Carson

by John Q on May 13, 2008

Tim Lambert and I have a piece in the online edition of Prospect, defending Rachel Carson against the tobacco/DDT lobby. It was cut down for publication from a much longer article, which I’ve appended over the fold. The article shows how the legend that Carson caused the banning of DDT, just as it was about to wipe out malaria, was invented and popularised by tobacco lobbyists, most notably Steven Milloy, who wanted to mount a flank attack on tobacco’s archenemy, the World Health Organization.




Stuart 05.13.08 at 7:45 am

In the second sentence, shouldn’t she have been posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom?

Nice article though.


Ciarán 05.13.08 at 8:34 am

Good article. I wonder, though – and sincerely, not as an attempt at needling – why choose the word myth to describe the Carson = child-killer story? Would ‘lie’ not be more accurate?


Naadir Jeewa 05.13.08 at 9:10 am

Thanks for that roller coaster ride.

It was despair, more despair, oh god the world is coming to an end, hope.


bernarda 05.13.08 at 9:19 am

One blogger who has written a lot on defending Carson on DDT is at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.

Look up his articles in his archives.


foolishmortal 05.13.08 at 11:01 am

Godwin as the lead in your second paragraph? Without a proper setup? Kick your editor in the ass. If you must, deploy it as a rhetorical flourish, as in “Yet, her accusers hold her responsible for a ban on the use of the insecticide DDT, which allegedly halted a campaign that was about to eradicate malaria, and blame her for millions of deaths from malaria in the Third World. Carson is [thus]/[somehow] regularly accused of killing more people than Hitler.” This puts the facts of the matter first, and the Hitler comparison squarely on the DDT enthusiasts, rather than starting with the Godwin, and following with the argument. A minor matter, perhaps, but in the second paragraph it seriously affects the appeal of your argument. Like I said, kick your editor in the ass. Already done it? Another one couldn’t hurt.


Matt Weiner 05.13.08 at 12:01 pm

foolishmortal, you’re committing what I call a wartsman argument. It would be a Godwin violation if John and Tim introduced Hitler into the conversation — if they were attacking a straw man when they said that Carson’s detractors say she’s killed more people than Hitler. But it’s not a straw man: some of Carson’s detractors do indeed say that she’s killed more people than Hitler. (Note that James Inhofe invited Crichton to testify on DDT before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, so his views aren’t exactly marginal.)

Or, it isn’t a violation of Godwin’s law when the other side started talking about Hitler first.

Accordingly, it’s entirely justified for John and Tim to say “Carson is regularly accused of killing more people of Hitler” — they could even have added “in so many words” — highlighting the absurdity of the accusation first, and following with the bad argument.


foolishmortal 05.13.08 at 12:44 pm

Guilty as charged. But my objection is not that the authors invoke Mr. Hitler, but rather how they do so. It’s a stylistic rather than a substantive argument that I’m trying to make.


Matt Weiner 05.13.08 at 2:22 pm

OK, sorry for misinterpreting you on that. On the stylistic argument, I prefer the way John and Tim put it — but that’s mostly a matter of taste.


~~~~ 05.13.08 at 2:27 pm

Stylistically it works quite well, I think. Pointing out that she won various awards for her work, but that she has also been accused of having killed more people than Hitler is a good way to make people curious about her. It wasn’t until I read the name Milloy that I started to lose interest.


roger 05.13.08 at 2:39 pm

Excellent article. It should be noted for the libertarian crowd that protests against ddt spraying first arose as a property issue – Private property owners who did not want the government spraying their property with DDT protested the oversprays, and the government said tough luck, claiming it had something like a poison easement.

But then, to find out that big business + the government hates the small property holder is not hot news, I guess.

Rachel Carson is my hero. Although a lot of fuss is made about Orwell as the exemplary engaged intellectual, he really changed very little, and his prophetic powers sucked. Carson changed a lot. A graceful writer who suffered more attacks in her lifetime than Orwell ever had to endure, she is a model of grace. All Hail Carson!


roger 05.13.08 at 3:13 pm

She is, in fact, such a model of grace that she would have immediately scotched my last sentence, there: “A graceful writer who suffered more attacks in her lifetime than Orwell ever had to endure, she is a model of grace.” That’s quite enough grace for one comment.


foolishmortal 05.13.08 at 4:04 pm

Hail Carson, full of grace! Apparently the offending paragraph was not so universally awkward as I had first assumed. So, maybe the editor doesn’t necessarily deserve a kick in the ass. But I bet you could sneak one in.


Matt Weiner 05.13.08 at 6:35 pm

Isn’t this the unedited version anyway?


kharris 05.13.08 at 6:35 pm

So, if I understand this episode correctly, the attack on Carson over DDT was the model for the “junk science” movement. Yes?


foolishmortal 05.13.08 at 9:35 pm

I should, in fairness, add: if my concerns are bullshit, give me a kick in the ass, and hard.


JP Stormcrow 05.13.08 at 9:43 pm

The early mainstream push to marginalize Carson is evident in these excerpts from her obituary in Time in 1964:

To its author [Silent Spring] was more than a book; it became a crusade. And, despite her scientific training, she rejected facts that weakened her case, while using almost any material, regardless of authenticity, that seemed to support her thesis. Her critics, who included many eminent scientists, objected that the book’s exaggerations and emotional tone played on the vague fears of city dwellers, the bulk of the U.S. population, who have little contact with uncontrolled nature and do not know how unpleasantly hostile it generally is.


Laws were proposed on local, state and federal levels to put rigid restrictions on the use of pesticides. Some of them were so sweeping that if they had been passed and enforced, they might very well have caused serious harm. In advanced modern societies, agriculture and public health can no longer manage without chemical pesticides.


J F Beck 05.15.08 at 10:09 am

Messrs Quiggin and Lambert,

Can you please quote from and link to some of the many strident articles at Fox News and the WSJ claiming Rachel Carson is responsible “for a ban on the use of the insecticide DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane) which allegedly halted a campaign that was about to eradicate malaria, and blame her for millions of deaths from malaria in the Third World”? Since there are apparently lots of such articles the task should only a take a few minutes for experienced Googlers such as yourselves.

It would also be helpful if you could support your claim that the political right mounted a campaign, picked up by the MSM, that caused the World Health Organization “to replace the head of its antimalaria division and announce changes in policies”. Perhaps the WHO brought in new personnel hoping the anti-malaria program would start producing results.

You say DDT is currently used to “spray interior house walls or to impregnate bednets”. Is the impregnation of bednets a common practice?

How do you account for the following in non-right-wing sources – are the authors perhaps secretly funded by evil tobacco interests?

Fred Pearce, New Scientist:

“It seems millions of lives have been lost because health experts threw away their best weapon. Are environmentalists to blame? There is no doubt that DDT was misused as an agricultural pesticide and seriously damaged wildlife. In that sense Carson was right. But regulators did not recognise that spraying indoors was different. And an environmental outcry against DDT helped to ensure that the early fears about its effect on human health became entrenched dogma long after they had been proved unfounded.”

Apoorva Mandavilli, Nature Medicine:

“In theory, any country is free to use DDT. The Stockholm Convention of 2001 sought a global ban on DDT, but many countries and scientists argued against the ban, citing its value in malaria control. The final treaty made an exemption for DDT’s use in public health, but called for countries to gradually phase out the pesticide.

“Still, in places where malaria was still endemic, the treaty spelled disaster.

“Most African nations are heavily dependent on foreign aid and can ill afford to cross a line drawn by donor agencies.

“USAID never banned DDT outright, for instance, but nor did it fund DDT’s purchase – which amounts to the same thing.”

John Balbus of Environmental Defense to a USAID official:

“As the organization that led the successful campaign to ban use of DDT in the United States in the early 1970’s, we have read with concern recent reports that US AID is unwilling to consider even limited use of DDT in anti-malaria programs in developing countries. According to the New York Times Magazine, you recently stated that part of the reason US AID doesn’t finance DDT is that doing so would require a battle for public opinion. ‘You’d have to explain to everybody why this is really O.K. and safe every time you do it.’”

Michael Finkel, National Geographic:

“Soon after the program collapsed, mosquito control lost access to its crucial tool, DDT. The problem was overuse—not by malaria fighters but by farmers, especially cotton growers, trying to protect their crops. The spray was so cheap that many times the necessary doses were sometimes applied. The insecticide accumulated in the soil and tainted watercourses. Though nontoxic to humans, DDT harmed peregrine falcons, sea lions, and salmon. In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, documenting this abuse and painting so damning a picture that the chemical was eventually outlawed by most of the world for agricultural use. Exceptions were made for malaria control, but DDT became nearly impossible to procure. ‘The ban on DDT,’ says Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, ‘may have killed 20 million children.’”

Finally, Carson damned DDT as carcinogenic (in Silent Spring claiming a DDT user developed and died of cancer over a period of months having used DDT three times) and implied it was a product of chemical weapons development. Can you point to a single example of Carson advocating DDT use in any circumstance?


John Quiggin 05.15.08 at 2:01 pm

JFB, I stopped after the first rhetorical question

“an you please quote from and link to some of the many strident articles at Fox News and the WSJ claiming Rachel Carson”

As you say, it should be easy and it is, so easy that I wonder you didn’t try it yourself. First hit on WSJ+Rachel Carson+DDT Ban

write-off: Rachel Carson’s ideas are still popular, with deadly effect.


J F Beck 05.15.08 at 10:37 pm

John Quiggin,

From the “strident” WSJ article you link to (#18) but don’t quote:

“Carson cannot be blamed directly for these deaths. She didn’t urge total bans in “Silent Spring.” Instead, on the single page obliquely acknowledging DDT as an anti-malarial agent, she writes, “Practical advice should be ‘Spray as little as you possibly can’ rather than ‘Spray to the limit of your capacity.’

“In the National Archives exhibit, Carson is described as ‘a passionate voice for protecting the environment and human health.’ Her concerns about the effects of insect death on bird populations were well-founded. But threats to human health were central to her argument, and Carson was wrong about those. Despite massive exposure in many populations over several decades, there is no decisive evidence that DDT causes cancer in people, and it is unforgivable that she overlooked the enormous boon of DDT for malaria control in her own time.”

Surely among the many claimed WSJ articles you can find something that actually supports the claims made in your Prospect article.

Interestingly, I lodged essentially the same comment (#17) at your site and Lambert’s but the Crooked Timber comment is the only one to make it out of moderation. Funny that.

Your Prospect article is, like pretty much everything you write about DDT, close to right but filled with misrepresentations. It’s no wonder you choose not to defend it.


J F Beck 05.15.08 at 10:51 pm

Re #19: Lambert has now posted my comment having held it long enough that it doesn’t appear in “recent comments” in the sidebar.


Tim Lambert 05.16.08 at 6:57 am

Beck’s comment had been out of moderation for eight hours when he claimed that it was still in moderation. And it appeared in the sidebar when I approved it.

If anyone cares, I replied to his comment here.


J F Beck 05.16.08 at 9:56 am

Tim Lambert,

My comment was not up at 6:00 am WST today but appeared shortly thereafter. Like just about everything you write about DDT your response is rubbish. When I get a chance I’ll dismantle it.


Tim Lambert 05.16.08 at 10:17 am

I approved your comment around midnight, before I went to bed. That’s 10pm WST, eight hours before you claim not to have seen it. I think most people here are bored with your games.


J F Beck 05.16.08 at 10:31 am

If you posted the comment at 10 pm WST it made it out of moderation in near record time – much better than your recent 24 hours plus moderation efforts. Regardless, your Prospect article is rubbish, as is your response.

You should try Quiggin’s approach whereby he waits to respond here at CT until the page rolls over and refuses to post my comment at his own site because it’s silly. Funny how you guys don’t really want to discuss this.


J F Beck 05.16.08 at 2:54 pm

Rather than clutter up CT with stuff some will find objectionable, here’s the link:


John Quiggin 05.17.08 at 4:26 am

“You should try Quiggin’s approach whereby he waits to respond here at CT until the page rolls over ”

As anyone can see, the gap between comment and response was 4 hours. Moronic whinges like this are one of the many reasons I don’t bother with you, and regret it when I do.


J F Beck 05.17.08 at 4:56 am

Instead of having a whinge about my whinging why don’t you try addressing some of the issues?

How about supporting your claim that the political right mounted a campaign, picked up by the MSM, that caused the World Health Organization “to replace the head of its antimalaria division and announce changes in policies”?

And if I’m writing silly stuff as you claim why not address my points rather than refuse to post my comments? You’re scared to discuss DDT because you know damn near everything you write on the subject misrepresents the facts.


Ed Darrell 05.18.08 at 10:25 pm

Bate says AFM doesn’t get money from tobacco companies.

Okay. Where does AFM get funding from?

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