Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History, Volume III

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


This is Rachel Carson. She was a marine biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1940's and was a successful nature writer in the 1950's, publishing The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea, and Under the Sea Wind.

She's ill-behaved, though, because she was the mother of the modern conservation movement. Her 1962 book, Silent Spring brought environmental concerns to an unprecedented portion of the American public. It spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy—leading to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides—and the grassroots environmental movement it inspired led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

These accomplishments did not come without a price. The message of Silent Spring did not please the chemical companies, nor agribusiness. She was dismissed as a "hysterical woman," threatened with lawsuits, and attacked personally and professionally. She was forced to defend her science and her work while battling cancer and raising her orphaned nephew. She did it, though, because she felt the work was important, and wanted to ensure the natural world was not decimated through our ignorance.

While her work surrounding DDT and the subsequent ban on the use of the chemical in the United States is still controversial, her work led to the serious study of the environmental effects of pesticides. She also recognized the value in using chemicals to control disease:

"No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story—the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting. ... What is the measure of this setback? The list of resistant species now includes practically all of the insect groups of medical importance. ... Malaria programmes are threatened by resistance among mosquitoes. ... Practical advice should be 'Spray as little as you possibly can' rather than 'Spray to the limit of your capacity' ..., Pressure on the pest population should always be as slight as possible."

At a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard, this woman chose to become a scientist, working in areas where women typically weren't permitted. Through her skill, intelligence and dedication, she brought to the forefront an issue that effects all of us, at great personal cost.

Ill-behaved, indeed. Well done, Rachel Carson.

12 comments:

John the Scientist said...

This is one where you and I are going to disagree strongly.

This article, whiel critical, is pretty easy on her within a historical context.

However, her use of anecdotal "evidence' (the plural of anecdote is not "data" and here failure to use the statistics behind Risk Ratios other, proper epidemiological methodology bordered on scientific fraud. She decided her conclusions and cherry-picked her evidence to support them, ignoring other evidence.

Example:

A quarter century ago, cancer in children was considered a medical rarity. Today, more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease [her emphasis]." In support of this claim, Carson reported that "twelve per cent of all deaths in children between the ages of one and fourteen are caused by cancer."

Although it sounds alarming, Carson's statistic is essentially meaningless unless it's given some context, which she failed to supply. It turns out that the percentage of children dying of cancer was rising because other causes of death, such as infectious diseases, were drastically declining.


More here:

While Silent Spring did contain a scientifically based call for more carefully controlled use of pesticides, it was for the most part a polemic: a book filled with alarmist statements, fraught with innuendo of what might happen and overflowing with overstatements on risk.

Fredrick J. Stare, Ph.D., M.D, founded the Harvard School of Public Health's Department of Nutrition before collaborating with ACSH. Writing of Carson in Nutrition Reviews, Stare pointed out that "The examples she cites to show the lethal effects of pesticides are all examples of improper use."


I'm of the opinion that the Western World was overusing synthetic pestcides at the time, but creating false hysteria to counteract that trend was not in the long term interest of science and public health.

Janiece Murphy said...

John, I suspected you'd disagree:

"In the 2000s, Carson and Silent Spring have come under increasing attack from some conservatives who argue that restrictions placed on DDT have caused needless death, and more generally that environmental regulation unnecessarily restricts economic freedom. For example, the conservative magazine Human Events gave Silent Spring an honorable mention for the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries," and in 2002, to mark its 40 anniversary, Reason Magazine published an essay by economist Ronald Bailey, a former fellow with the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute. Both the Reason Foundation and the CEI have received substantial funding from corporations in regulated industries. Bailey argued that the book had a mixed legacy:

'The book did point to problems that had not been adequately addressed, such as the effects of DDT on some wildlife. And given the state of the science at the time she wrote, one might even make the case that Carson's concerns about the effects of synthetic chemicals on human health were not completely unwarranted. Along with other researchers, she was simply ignorant of the facts. But after four decades in which tens of billions of dollars have been wasted chasing imaginary risks without measurably improving American health, her intellectual descendants don't have the same excuse.'

Some environmentalists consider this latter day criticism of Silent Spring and Rachel Carson and concomitant push for DDT to be an industry sponsored strategy to discredit the environmental movement. For example, Monica Moore of Pesticide Action Network has argued that "Renewed promotion of DDT and attacks on those who would limit its use isn’t about malaria, or even DDT. It is a cynical “better living through chemistry” campaign intended to discredit the environmental health movement, with support from the Bush administration and others who seek nothing less than the dismantling of health and environmental protections."

I'm aware of the criticism, and I'm also aware of the controversy surrounding the use of DDT (I wrote a paper on it, which certainly doesn't make me expert, but I have done some research).

In spite of these reasonable criticisms, I still consider her a role model. She stepped out of the role assigned to her as a woman and as such, opened the way to women of my generation. Whether you agree with her science or not, she opened doors, and I respect that.

John the Scientist said...

I didn't even want to get into the DDT debate becuase you can argue that other chemicals are available. It is a bit amusing that on a tonnage basis we use more pestcide than would be required if we used DDT in the 3rd world, but I don't know enough about relative potencies, toxicities and environmental fates of those compounds to weigh in one way or another.

My objection to her legacy is philosophical over her misuse of data and distorting science in the name of a cause, however good.

Janiece Murphy said...

John, I understand and respect your point of view - I did hesitate before choosing her for this feature, due to the concerns you stated. I also have a problem with bad science, skeptic that I am.

However, for me, I consider her sacrifice and life's work worthy of my attention as a feminist in spite of her shortcomings, rather than because of them.

Does that make sense?

John the Scientist said...

Yes. I just don't agree becuase it's my profession she shat all over.

But she had her convictions and she ran with them, for which I have some grudging respect.

Janiece Murphy said...

I can see why it's hard not to take it personally, but I think we're both mature enough to agree to disagree on this one.

*Sticks tongue out and runs away*

Jeri said...

That's kind of how I feel about Margaret Thatcher. I admire her determination and success, without sharing her beliefs and politics in the slightest.

I like this series, Janiece. :)

Janiece Murphy said...

Jeri, me too. On both Margaret Thatcher and this series.

::Grin::

Janiece Murphy said...

John, just to be clear, I was kidding about the tongue-sticking-out thing.

John the Scientist said...

I knew that, I just thought if I added anything else I'd look like a troll who ahd to get in the last word.

Janiece Murphy said...

John, since you're a regular, you'd have to do something pretty darn bad to get the Shovel of Doom™. Getting the last word doesn't qualify.

John the Scientist said...

It would have qualified with me, and that's what counts. I think we stated our positions pretty thouroughly.