Silent Spring

I’m reading Silent Spring. Has anyone here read it before?

Would someone fact check some random citations from Silent Spring? Thanks.

Does anyone know of any criticism of Silent Spring that they think is correct?

I tried cite-checking two random cites from Silent Spring. It turns out some of her sources from ~1960 or earlier are really hard to find now. Like she cites papers that just aren’t on Google Scholar at all. It’s actually really bad that no one bothered to save copies of the sources for such a popular, influential book. And the source I was searching for is apparently not mentioned on any websites by anyone in all the commentary about Carson. And Google didn’t even go through her cites and add them as citation-only entries in Google Scholar.

I did manage to get a book she cited and confirm that her short quote was accurate and the book seemed to be saying what she said it said. That had nothing to do with DDT and didn’t seem controversial though.

Anyway, most of her cites are difficult to check so I’d like to minimize how many I try to check.

So I’d like to find some criticism by her opponents. What do they claim she was wrong about? So then I could check relevant cites for that. Does she have any critics who ever accused her of getting citations wrong and failing fact checking?

I’ve looked at some criticism but it’s been non-specific crap. I haven’t yet found any specific factual or scientific thing Carson actually said, which critics deny, which I could check Carson’s cites for.

There are two separate potential issues. Maybe Carson was wrong at the time, e.g. she misrepresented her sources. Alternatively, maybe Carson made reasonable claims given the knowledge available at the time, but we later found out some of those scientific ideas were wrong. I’m interested in either of those scenarios. The first scenario is mainly what I could cite check about.

Does anyone have any defense to offer of the Ayn Rand Institute or Alex Epstein? Does anyone agree with them and want to talk about it?

I think these articles are very bad.


For Carson, et al., the dosage level of DDT was irrelevant, as was the reality that alternative pesticides were equally toxic to other wildlife.

This is simply lying. Carson says in the book that dose matters and that toxicity levels vary and matter. Alternative pesticides were not all equally toxic to wildlife – some were much more toxic than DDT, as Carson says in the book (which doesn’t actually demonize DDT in particular).

A decade ago, I didn’t know that The Story of DDT was bad. I now feel lied to. I didn’t realize how egregiously they would lie. I should have been more skeptical. I did have higher scholarship standards than them back then which is one of the major reasons I stopped working with Epstein (another big issue was his lack of Paths Forward). Today I have higher standards and am more skeptical than before.

I recently saw Rachel Carson mentioned positively in a couple places. The places weren’t good (IMO) and didn’t give arguments. But it reminded me that I didn’t actually know enough about Silent Spring to judge it. I updated my opinion to be uncertain. Then I read the book. I think it’s good and it doesn’t say what its haters say that it says. I’m not saying that the pro-Silent Spring tribe is good or that all the political policies influenced by the book were good; just the single book Silent Spring is good. I think Epstein and some others may have been misled by secondary sources without actually reading it.

Silent Spring isn’t primarily about malaria and DDT. It’s primarily about stupid government programs to spray insecticides within the U.S. for non-health reasons (Canada gets some attention too, and other countries get occasional mentions). It reads in some way as a libertarian book (government is the biggest villain) but it seems to be hated by libertarians. Cato Institute’s book flaming Silent Spring is really bad: I only read a few parts and I thought it was too bad to read. It says Carson was bad at science but after some skimming I couldn’t find what science she got wrong, and in general found a lack of quotes+criticism of Carson. Another big theme is saying Carson advocates the Precautionary Principle (PP). There’s a straw man definition of PP and (when skimming I saw) no evidence or arguments that Carson advocated any version of PP. And Silent Spring doesn’t have any section openly advocating any kind of PP…

I looked at some other critical stuff too. The best things I found were linked from The Story of DDT. They’re both from the same author:

I went through all the detailed criticisms in the first link and read a bit of the second. I say they’re the best because they actually make some effort to give detailed criticism of things Carson said. They use more quotes from Carson than other sources and sometimes give direct criticisms about those quotes. There are also a bunch of page numbers for stuff Carson talked about. However, most of the criticisms are dumb, some wouldn’t matter even if they were true, some are just flaming, some are dishonest, and the scholarship standards are bad. After reviewing his stuff, it seems Carson made like 2-3 factual errors that don’t affect her conclusions at all which could be fixed by editing one sentence of the book. I had to do my own research to figure that out because the critical fact checker guy didn’t give nearly enough information for anyone to see he was actually right (and in some other cases I checked, he was not right). He also often makes unsourced claims or occasionally gives sources incorrectly, like the journal name and the date without the title and sometimes without the author.

I have some more detailed notes and some draft writing about Silent Spring stuff but I’m not sure what if anything I’m going to do with it. BTW, I didn’t really like the start of Silent Spring but it gets better in chapter 2 or 3 (just starting at chapter 2 shouldn’t be confusing IIRC, but I’m not sure about starting at 3). It started out kinda vague and tribalist, but then later it started giving more detailed arguments and science and being less tribalist.

I ended up liking it and I think it wasn’t perfect but was way better than most books. I think it was correctly criticizing important problems and it didn’t actually talk about or oppose using DDT to fight malaria. It also wasn’t about eggshell thinning and didn’t make cancer a main point (those are some of the main topics people complain about, while the complainers rarely seem to discuss or acknowledge the main stuff the book actually talked about). After reviewing criticism of it, I still think it’s good. If it’s actually junk science I’d like to know with specifics.

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I was hoping to use Silent Spring for some examples of how to analyze complex, controversial issues, construct trees about the objective state of the debate, untangle the arguments, etc. But the critical literature is so bad it’s not really suitable to engage with. It’s hard to find arguments in it that are good enough to engage with in a direct way instead of with meta criticisms about why they’re unreasonable things to say. Most of the complaints attack things the book doesn’t say… Most of my rebuttals would just be repetitive comments like “you didn’t even try to give any quotes of Carson and then criticize what she said”.

I think this is a wider problem. E.g. the AI alignment literature is so bad it’s hard to find anything to engage with and make trees from. (E.g. the book Superintelligence doesn’t really define “intelligence” or analyze what it is. This makes it hard to engage with since so many of its claims depend on what intelligence is and it just assumes a bunch stuff about intelligence without doing much to communicate or analyze those assumptions.) For many issues, the literature for one or more sides is so bad there’s barely anything to analyze besides the kinda tangential, off-topic meta issue of the literature being bad.

Even when a side has good literature, that’s often just a special exception. E.g. I haven’t really checked but I suspect most pro-Carson literature isn’t good. It’s like how most pro-Popper, pro-Rand or pro-Goldratt literature by other authors besides Popper, Rand or Goldratt is either mediocre or bad, not good.

BTW, the idea of critically engaging with what people actually said is not new and it’s not my idea. It’s an old idea that just isn’t very popular. But here’s a 1959 book which does it. Failure of the 'New Economics' | Henry Hazlitt Similarly, this book doesn’t have much criticism, but it does have a lot of actual Burke quotes and is far better than any other book about Burke I read. It connects its claims about Burke with quotes of what Burke said, just like good critics connect their criticisms to quotes.

@JustinCEO said:

If there are cites you’re particularly interested in having checked, I have easy access to a library with an unusually large collection of materials.

And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring says:

The National Agricultural Chemical Association led the attack, committing a quarter of a million dollars to improving the image of the industry and refuting Carson’s case against the indiscriminate use of chemical insecticides (Brooks 294); the Manufacturing Chemists’ Association also attacked the book (Lear, Rachel Carson 413).

I’d like to see those (or other) prominent, well-funded refutations of Carson from back when her book was published. I’m curious if opponents ever wrote some actual arguments or it was mud-slinging. I’m also curious if the criticisms were the same ones being made today, e.g. if they immediately pretended Silent Spring was all about DDT or if that came later.

I’ve seen so many people talk about SS being refuted and claim it received tons of criticism, but usually without details. I’ve read way more claims that criticism exists (without citations or summaries) than actual criticism. That is maybe partly because I’m reading newer stuff; they hopefully couldn’t have just said “already refuted” as their first response… This seems like a good lead on either finding some kind of criticism or confirming that there was never any serious, good criticism.

I don’t know how hard to find this is. I haven’t searched because it looks like a likely rabbit hole and I already did a lot of research.

I believe the Brooks reference is House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work by Paul Brooks and the Lear reference is Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature by Linda Lear (who wrote an introduction for a later edition of Silent Spring).

Continuing the discussion from Silent Spring:

If there are cites you’re particularly interested in having checked, I have easy access to a library with an unusually large collection of materials.

Continuing the discussion from Silent Spring:

Looking through the Linda Lear book, chapter 18. Here are a couple of early selections:

The industry-led attack on Carson began early. Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson is credited by some for framing it in its crudest terms in a letter to Dwight Eisenhower, but the remark was repeated so many times that its origin became inconsequential. Referring to Carson’s articles in The New Yorker, Benson supposedly wondered “Why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics?” His explanation was that she was “probably a Communist.”

Ok that’s disgusting.

News magazines, reflecting the dominant business culture, generally took a much dimmer view of Silent Spring than biologists, conservationists, book critics, and literary reviewers. A lengthy review in Time magazine’s science section the day after the book’s publication established the tenor of popular reports: “Miss Carson has taken up her pen in alarm and anger, putting literary skill second to the task of frightening and arousing her readers.” Alluding to errors, oversimplifications, and scary generalizations, the Time correspondent concluded, “Many scientists sympathize with Miss Carson’s love of wildlife, and even with her mystical attachment to the balance of nature. But they fear that her emotional and inaccurate outburst in Silent Spring may do harm by alarming the nontechnical public, while doing no good for the things that she loves.”[5]

So Time seems to be denouncing her as an hysterical woman, essentially (they actually use the word “hysterically” in the article, the entirety of which is online in 4 parts). Here’s a sample of their argument (from their article, not the book):

Scientists, physicians, and other technically informed people will also be shocked by Silent Spring—but for a different reason. They recognize Miss Carson’s skill in building her frightening case; but they consider that case unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic. Many of the scary generalizations—and there are lots of them—are patently unsound. “It is not possible,” says Miss Carson, “to add pesticides to water anywhere without threatening the purity of water everywhere.” It takes only a moment of reflection to show that this is nonsense. Again she says: “Each insecticide is used for the simple reason that it is a deadly poison. It therefore poisons all life with which it comes in contact.” Any housewife who has sprayed flies with a bug bomb and managed to survive without poisoning should spot at least part of the error in that statement.

They also seem to make a big deal of DDT (I only skimmed).

One more:

In the review, which reached thousands of garden club members, Westcott took particular exception to Carson’s evidence of a chemical threat to human health, arguing that it “can only be conjecture; no proof has yet been offered of any link with human cancer or other ailments.” In addition to her monthly columns, in 1963 Westcott produced three bulletins critical of Carson’s ideas for garden writers and club leaders. Along with her review, they were published and distributed by the Manufacturing Chemists Association. Westcott appeared regularly on public television, gardening shows, and produced a “Guide” for readers of House and Garden magazine, all belittling Carson’s concerns. Westcott was bright, convivial, and well connected, exhibiting a sort of Julia Child affability. She always acknowledged Rachel Carson’s service in jolting the public out of its complacency but adopted the NACA line that what was required was a balanced point of view and that Carson was •an alarmist. “Throughout ‘Silent Spring,’” Westcott wrote, “we are given pills of half truth, definitely not tranquilizing, and the facts are carefully selected to tell only one side of the story.”22

Saying Carson hasn’t proven anything yet doesn’t seem like a good rebuttal.

Westcott made a careful distinction between herself as “Dr.” Westcott, a scientist with a degree, and “Miss” Carson. She deliberately misstated Carson’s position, telling her readers that without pesticides the American housewife would find it difficult to feed her family and warned that “unchecked” pests would bring “starvation and death.”

I don’t know enough about Carson’s position to know whether Westcott was mischaracterizing her.

The Federation of State Garden Clubs of Pennsylvania, among other affiliates, endorsed Westcott’s “unemotional and informative answers” to Carson’s claims and praised her column in The National Gardener. There Westcott urged members not to be alarmed by Carson’s unproven examples of chemical harm and admonished them to give “equal time to considering the good results of present programs of pest control.”

I think the default position was that pesticides are good? Arguing for considering the good results of a thing can be a legit point if there’s some bias against the thing, but seems like an evasion if people are already for it and you’re just trying to not address criticism.

Continuing the discussion from Silent Spring:

The Brooks book can be borrowed in 1 hour increments at the Internet Archive. The scanned images are a bit dark but readable.

Here’s a large quote:

Some of the least temperate reactions came from the agricul-
tural jourals and the state institutions whose agricultural re-
search was heavily financed by the chemical industry. An edito-
rial in the American Agriculturist presented a parody of the
future in which a young boy and his grandfather “sat on opposite
ends of a log in a forest clearing, cracking acorns and eating them
greedily.” Gramps explained that a book had come out called
Quiet Summer expressing the views of “a number of people who
believed that no chemical material should be used in agricul-
ture . . . So now we live naturally. Your mother died naturally
from malaria that mosquitoes gave her; your Dad passed away
naturally in that terrible famine when the grasshoppers ate up
everything; now we are starving naturally, because the blight
killed those potatoes we planted last spring. I only wish the
author of that book had stayed around to share the joys of living
'naturally - but she made so much money as an author that she
moved to a country where her book was banned. Farming there
is still ‘unnatural.’ Please pass the acorns!”

Another magazine, County Agent and Vo-Ag Teacher, ran an
article entitled, “How to Answer Rachel Carson.” “We hope,”
wrote the editor, “you will use this information in talks before groups on TV or radio, or in newspaper articles.” The article
refers the reader to “a kit of valuable information from the Na-
tional Agricultural Chemicals Association” and “a devastating
satire, written in the manner of Rachel Carson’s book, describing
a world in which no pesticides were allowed, titled The Desolate
Year.” On conclusion, it quotes the “chief horticulturist at
Michigan State University” as saying: “Her book is more poi
sonous than the pesticides she condemns.”
In short, the pesticide industry treated the challenge of Silent
Spring as a problem in public relations, to be met by any means
at hand. Yet not all the trade papers ignored the substance of
the book while searching for clever ways to discredit it. For in-
stance, Agricultural Chemicals, despite its orientation toward
the industry, quoted Professor Moody Trevett of the University
of Maine: “Miss Carson has posed some unanswerable questions
as to what may happen to us in the next twenty years and this
may be the time to sit down and do some serious thinking about
the answers.”