NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 6, 2007

For Rachel Carson admirers, it has not been a silent spring.  They've been celebrating the centennial of her birthday with paeans to her saintliness.  A new generation is reading her book in school -- and mostly learning the wrong lesson from it, says New York Times columnist John Tierney.

Published in 1962, Carson's "Silent Spring," was a hodgepodge of science and junk science.  Nature was good; traditional agriculture was all right; modern pesticides were an unprecedented evil: 

  • Carson used dubious statistics and anecdotes (like the improbable story of a woman who instantly developed cancer after spraying her basement with DDT) to warn of a cancer epidemic that never came to pass. 
  • She rightly noted threats to some birds, like eagles and other raptors, but she wildly imagined a mass "biocide." 
  • She warned that one of the most common American birds, the robin, was "on the verge of extinction" -- an especially odd claim given the large numbers of robins recorded in Audubon bird counts before her book.

Dr. I. L. Baldwin led a committee at the National Academy of Sciences studying the impact of pesticides on wildlife.  In his review, also published in 1962, he wrote, "Mankind has been engaged in the process of upsetting the balance of nature since the dawn of civilization."

  • While Carson imagined life in harmony before DDT, Dr. Baldwin saw that civilization depended on farmers and doctors fighting "an unrelenting war" against insects, parasites and disease.
  • Carson presented DDT as a dangerous human carcinogen, but Dr. Baldwin said the question was open and noted that most scientists "feel that the danger of damage is slight."
  • He acknowledged that pesticides were sometimes badly misused, but he also quoted an adage: "There are no harmless chemicals, only harmless use of chemicals."

Source: John Tierney, "Fateful Voice of a Generation Still Drowns Out Real Science," New York Times, June 5, 2007.

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