Remembering Rachel Carson: Coburn’s attack on ‘Silent Spring’ is political, misguided

An Oklahoma senator has dismissed the work of one of America’s most important researchers as “junk science.”

What is the truth about the science generated by Rachel Carson in “Silent Spring,” her landmark book about chemical pesticides that gave birth to the environmental movement?

It’s an appropriate question, because an Oklahoma senator is holding up a resolution that would honor Ms. Carson on the 100th anniversary of her birth. Republican Tom Coburn, who is a physician (and prefers to be addressed as “Dr. Coburn” on his Senate Web site), says he will block the bill. Carson’s work amounted to “junk science” that unfairly and inaccurately pooh-poohed what he calls lifesaving pesticides, he says.

“Junk science”? This is the same Sen., er, Dr. Coburn who put on his scientist’s smock and said in The Washington Post:

You know, I immediately thought about silicone breast implants and the legal wrangling and the class-action suits off that. And I thought I would just share with you what science says today about silicone breast implants. If you have them, you’re healthier than if you don’t. That is what the ultimate science shows. … In fact, there’s no science that shows that silicone breast implants are detrimental and, in fact, they make you healthier.

And he has other firmly grounded, strident opinions as well. Dr. Coburn told Fox TV 23 in Oklahoma: “I favor the death penalty for abortionists and other people who take life.” [N.B.: Fox story no longer posted on its Web site; only secondary sources available.]

It’s the same Dr. Coburn who, with a firm grasp of demographic and sociological data, told Republicans in 2004:

The gay community has infiltrated the very centers of power in every area across this country and they wield extreme power. That agenda is the greatest threat to our freedom we face today. Why do you think we see the rationalization for abortion and multiple sexual partners? That’s a gay agenda.

He’s continually ranked among the most conservative members of Congress. He has staunchly anti-environmental politics. His fellow Oklahoma senator is global-warming denier James Inhofe. And, apparently, Dr. Coburn views science that does not fit his politics with disdain. So he has issues with Rachel Carson’s science.

In an e-mail to Raw Story, Coburn spokesman John Hart wrote:

Dr. Coburn believes the tremendous harm Carson’s junk science claims about DDT did to the developing world overshadow her other contributions. Millions of people in the developing world, particularly children under five, died because governments bought into Carson’s junk science claims about DDT. To put it in language the Left understands, her ‘intelligence’ was wrong and it had deadly consequences.

Aside from the wisecrack about “the Left” and language it can understand, how valid is Coburn’s attitude toward Rachel Carson’s science and her use of its findings?

Critics of her work abound.

J. Gordon Edwards and Steven Milloy at Junkscience.com argue Ms. Carson misrepresented others’ work:

Carson wrote “Dr. DeWitt’s now classic experiments [on quail and pheasants] have now established the fact that exposure to DDT, even when doing no observable harm to the birds, may seriously affect reproduction. Quail into whose diet DDT was introduced throughout the breeding season survived and even produced normal numbers of fertile eggs. But few of the eggs hatched.” DeWitt’s 1956 article (in Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry) actually yielded a very different conclusion. Quail were fed 200 parts per million of DDT in all of their food throughout the breeding season. DeWitt reports that 80% of their eggs hatched, compared with the “control” birds which hatched 83.9% of their eggs. Carson also omitted mention of DeWitt’s report that “control” pheasants hatched only 57 percent of their eggs, while those that were fed high levels of DDT in all of their food for an entire year hatched more than 80% of their eggs.

Ronald Bailey, on the book’s 40th anniversary, wrote at Reason Online:

Carson improperly cited cases of acute exposures to the chemical as proof of its cancer-causing ability. For example, she told the story of a woman who sprayed DDT for spiders in her basement and died a month later of leukemia. … [similar examples omitted] Today cancer specialists would dismiss out of hand the implied claims that these patients’ cancers could be traced to such specific pesticide exposures. The plain fact is that DDT has never been shown to be a human carcinogen even after four decades of intense scientific scrutiny.

Bailey also argued that Ms. Carson discussed childhood cancer statistics inaccurately and without proper context.

Rachel Carson, a marine biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, had a master’s in zoology from Johns Hopkins University and was chief editor of all publications for the agency. Time magazine listed her as one of the “Time 100” of the 20th century. As early as 1945, her citation notes, she became concerned about the widespread application of chemical pesticides in “predator-and-pest” control programs without regard to consequences of their use. That led to years of research and publication, culminating in “Silent Spring.” She died in 1964.

Scientists’ methods and conclusions can be critiqued. That’s the nature of science and the habitue of scientists. Theorize, test, verify, repeat. Some critiques of Ms. Carson’s work are probably valid because they result from rigorous inspection of her methods and conclusions. Peer review has an important function in science.

But a politician wielding the “junk science” club is no peer. Dr. Coburn does more to draw attention to Ms. Carson’s work with his antics than debunk it. His attachment of “junk” to science is a linguistic device designed to label science as untrustworthy, especially in the determination of public policy. That’s bull.

As Nobel Prize winner and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote, “Science is actually one of the most moral, one of the most honest disciplines around – because science would completely collapse if it weren’t for a scrupulous adherence to honesty in the reporting of evidence.”

But the truths of politics often trumps the truth of science. How often in recent years have scientists been ridiculed, rewritten and rejected by public policymakers like Dr. Coburn? Think NASA: James Hansen, a leading scientist on global warning, complains to CBS’ “60 Minutes” of White House restrictions on his work and its dissemination. Think NOAA: Climate scientist Tom Knutson said he has faced “unreasonable levels of interference with my communication with the media.” And this from Rep. Peter Welch, a Democratic member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee:

There was a story about a scientist who got authorized to speak at a conference. He was prohibited from using the phrase ‘global warming.’ He was allowed to say ‘global,’ and he could say ‘warming,’ but he couldn’t put them next to each other. It became a charade.

Dr. Coburn’s conservative and shortsighted fit of pique will not obscure the legacy of Ms. Carson’s life and work – the birth of the environmental movement, the regulation of polluting industries through the Clean Air and Clean Water acts and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ms. Carson did not call for a ban on all chemical pesticides, as many critics allege. She opposed “indiscriminate use.” Her book served for us as a mine canary regarding pesticides. “Silent Spring” asked us to reconsider our role in the natural world.

Ms. Carson gets the last word here. The New York Times, in its obituary, quotes Ms. Carson from a “CBS Reports” piece:

It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks that the insect controllers calculate. The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts.

We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature.

But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself. The rains have become an instrument to bring down from the atmosphere the deadly products of atomic explosions. Water, which is probably our most important natural resource, is now used and re-used with incredible recklessness.

Now, I truly believe, that we in this generation, must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.

Challenge Ms. Carson’s science if you wish. But her intent and her impact are unassailable – and worthy of recognition by the U.S. Senate.


4 replies »

  1. Denying Rachel Carson recognition on her 100th birthday anniversary is a political ploy – it’s part and parcel of a strategy to refute any science that does not meet the political standards of people who would deny climate change, environmental degradation, and, quite likely scientific theory such as evolution.
    A guy who can defend silicone breast implants as “healthy” and who grouses about a “gay agenda” is no man of science – he’s an idiot
    – er, ideologue….

  2. I would refer to the “doctor” as an idiotolgue. It’s down right scary that these are the kind of nitwits that are in charge of our government. Of course, it goes a long way toward explaining why our government completely fails to make sensible policy.

    The scientifically impossible I do right away
    The spiritually miraculous takes a bit longer

  3. Wow, this “doctor” is a piece of work, isn’t he? Now tell me, how does a person like that gets elected? That is the scariest part. I bet he still believes that “communists eat children””…. Ms. Carsons’s report was brave and inspired, especially at a time where women did not speak up that much about what was considered a “man’s world”. And if her report caused a ripple effect, the consequences of that ripple are not her responsibility. If banning DDT caused death of children by malaria, then shame on those that followed up on her research and did not do their homework properly. Instead of simply banning it, why didn’t the “so called experts” come up with alternative and SAFE solutions? Probably because it did not make money? … Anyhow, kudos to Rachel Carson and belated happy birthday. May her soul be forever remembered and cherised among us.

  4. I was at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, in Brewster Massachusetts last week. There is an impressive exhibit on display about Rachel Carson and her impact on environmentalism. So I went to the little on-site library and sat down with a copy of “Silent Spring.”

    One of the quotes in the book struck me with great profundity: “Fifty years ago, childhood cancer was considered a medical rarity. Today it is among the leading causes of childhood death.”

    This statement had its intended affect upon me (as it has upon countless previous readers.)

    I internalized the message without giving it a second thought. The message was, of course, that the pesticides Rachel Carson was warning us about was somehow responsible for an increase in children getting cancer.

    I woke up last weekend thinking about this, so I did a little google search. (Thank God for the Internet.) It turns out that the incidence rates of childhood cancer had not increased significantly from 1912 to 1962. And the only reason that cancer had gone from a “rarity” to a leading cause of childhood death is because other childhood maladies had either been cured or erradicated by 1962.

    In short, I was misled. And I am steamed about it.