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Date posted: June 16th 2017

Book Title: Merchants of Doubt (continued)

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The attack on Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson was a total badass! She was the scientist who showed the entire world how dangerous pesticides can be with her book Silent Spring. She published the book in 1962, and by 1972 DDT pesticides were banned in the US. It was an indisputable victory for science and environmental consciousness. But in 2007 she made the headlines again, now being accused of killing millions of people; because the DDT ban allowed malaria to infest vast regions in Africa. For conservative enterprises and think tanks, this was a perfect way to show the world that environmentalists were “evil”, and they soon summarized Rachel Carson’s case as “millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm”.

Like most of the claims by the merchants of doubt, this is very easy to say but very difficult to refute. Which is why it resonates so much with the uninformed. But allow to explain what happened.

Rachel Carson author Silent Spring

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring.

Image under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

First of all, it is easy to make DDT look good. It killed insects instantly, it was cheap, it was easy to spray, and it seemed to have no adverse effects on humans. Moreover it saved many lives during World War II—and it was well on its way to eradicate malaria in many poor countries in the 1950s. It also helped farmers increase their productivity significantly after the war. It was a miracle chemical!

But there is no such thing as a free meal… In the 1940s and 1950s Rachel Carson started noticing that the DDT would travel through the food chain and increase its concentration as it moved from insects to birds, to fish, and even mammals. We were poisoning the insects we hate yes, but incidentally we were also poisoning the animals who ate those insects. And although their tolerance was higher, the poisoning effects were starting to be noticed by the early 1960s.

Silent Spring (Rachel Carson’s book) exposed all of this, and was incredibly effective at making the public aware of the dangers of pesticides. But the pesticide companies were not going to let that happen; they called her hysterical and emotional, and threatened her with lawsuits. In the end, through the president’s advisory committee during the Kennedy administration, the ban on DDT was made effective thanks to the weight of evidence and Rachel’s logical explanation of why it was bad. No weapons of doubt were used and the story had a happy ending. In fact, this issue started a very strong bipartisan environmental movement that facilitated the formation of the EPA, and the clean air act under Nixon, as well as the National Institute for environmental health and sciences. Both science and democracy acted hand in hand and everything was rosy!

Silent Spring Rachel Carson penguin

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

Image by Frank Hebbert under Creative Commons license BY 2.0 via Flickr

As we have seen, the bipartisan support for the environment didn’t survive the Reagan years. Back in the 1980s the merchants of doubt made it very clear that environmentalists were their enemy, and fought them for years with an outstanding success (given the small size of their team). Fortunately the environmentalists always won in the long run, but in 2007 the merchants had found an ace of spades in the history books: the Rachel Carson case. If somehow they could prove that this seemingly successful environmentalist movement could be linked to a catastrophe, they would be able to dismiss ALL environmentalism as a mistake. Long live capitalism!!!

That is precisely what they did to Rachel Carson. The attacks were mostly done by Danish economist Bjørn Lomborg who published a very famous book called “The Skeptical Environmentalist” in which he said that “there has not been a mass murderer executed in the past half century who has been responsible for as many deaths of human beings as the sainted Rachel Carson” and the message echoed all over the media.

Bjørn Lomborg Danish author environmental skeptic

Bjørn Lomborg.

Image by Simon Wedege under Creative Commons CC BY 3.0 license via Wikimedia Commons

So, was Rachel wrong? Was she really responsible for all of this? Well the short answer is no, but it is more complicated than that. You see, spraying DDT alone was not the reason for its success. DDT’s success was also owed to the educational campaigns encouraging people to look out for mosquito breeding water, and to the indoor DDT use (which was more expensive and time consuming to implement on a large scale).

These two campaigns, along with DDT outdoor spraying were very effective in developed countries, and eradicated malaria completely in places like the US and Europe. But that was not the case in sub‑saharan Africa and other underdeveloped areas. In most of these places, the educational campaigns were not enforced, and indoor use wasn’t done mainly because outdoor spraying was cheaper and easier.

The problem with outdoor spraying alone, is that it helps the mosquitoes develop immunity. It does so because when such a large population is affected, the few survivors have more chances to pass down their genes to the next generation—increasing their chances of survival despite being a smaller population.

This is what happened in underdeveloped countries, the mosquitoes got stronger and DDT became ineffective. In fact, this ineffectiveness also happened in the US (later on) when DDT was being used not as disease control but as a food crop pesticide.

But in sub‑saharan africa and other underdeveloped palces where malaria was not fully eradicated, the mosquito immunity had more damaging consequences. The malaria cases started to spike again, and DDT was simply not effective anymore. Eventually they stopped using it altogether.

So it was NOT Rachel Carson’s fault. The DDT ban was not the cause of all the malaria deaths in the past few decades, it was the fact that these countries lost their window of DDT effectiveness and malaria arose again. Besides, what the hell does a ban in the US have to do with what happened in africa and southeast asia?

History shows that the attack on Rachel Carson was unjustified, but for the uninformed, her guilt makes perfect sense—and for the free market defenders it was an excellent card to play.

Recently, more science has been done on the effects of DDT in humans, and (although difficult to spot) they are quite alarming. For example:

    Preterm births
    Low birth weight
    Short lactation period
    Low fertility (as it was seen in other mammals and birds)
    And, perhaps the biggest bomb of all: breast cancer

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Concluding remarks

It is hard not to be angry at this whole situation. Once all the stories and all the characters are placed side by side like this, it becomes very clear that the puppet masters of this entire anti‑environmentalist movement are the multimillion dollar corporations which ultimately benefit from deregulation. They are the ones funding the conservative think tanks and institutions whose foot soldiers are the merchants of doubt—and the merchants of doubt have proven extremely effective at delaying regulation.

However, the biggest problem (and the one that worries me the most) is that regulation is NOT the only thing these sons of bitches have had influence over. They have also had a negative impact on the credibility of science. And the implications of a culture that doesn’t trust science and denies facts are absolutely catastrophic. You see, science is not just something related to nature, something that belongs in laboratories, or that cool thing that makes your iPhone work; no, science is a way of thinking; is a method that exposes lies quite effectively, and therefore has the tendency to break traditional beliefs and disturb the status quo. It was created centuries ago as a method to find truth—even if we don’t like the truth. This is what the conservative think tanks and multimillion dollar corporations are so afraid of: the fact that science is exposing their misdoings, but most importantly, the fact that science is exposing the failures of capitalism and free market. So they chose to deny it.

But denying the science is not going to make the problem go away. What these corporations are doing (by delaying regulation), is actually increasing the likelihood of a more drastic regulation once the problem gets out of hand. It’s like a rubber band that environmentalists have been pulling (for decades!) asking for reasonable measures so we can put this rubber band around the issue and control it...How long until this rubber band snaps?

So what can we (the people) do about this? How can we stop the doubt from spreading? Well, in my opinion, we must become scientists ourselves. For all of our long‑term life decisions—or even in everyday situations—we should use the same mentality that scientists use whenever they find themselves in front of a new piece of information (or evidence):

    First of all, proceed with a healthy amount of skepticism. Let me give you a simple example (moving away from global issues and talking about a more mundane subject): if you read an article online about how eating burnt toast can increase your risk of cancer, well, the first thing you might want to do (before throwing your toaster away) is double checking the source and its references. Is it a trusted site? Does it have references of peer‑reviewed studies?
    Second, we must be willing to pay attention to the details and dig a little deeper when necessary. If you keep hearing such claim (still talking about the burnt toast) on the radio and in social media, well, take your time to learn more about it. Don’t just ignore it or say you don’t care. Nor follow blindly what you hear on your favorite news outlet. We need to stop being so fucking lazy and do our own research.
    And third (and most important of all), in the face of new evidence, we must be willing to adjust our points of view and change our habits. Hey, if burnt toast does cause cancer, well...dial that toaster setting down a little bit1.

That third step is particularly difficult. It is where the majority of us fail at being scientists.

Most of us don’t like to change our minds or our habits. In fact, changing our minds in today’s society is sometimes seen as a weakness. This is a huge problem! What can we expect of an individual that doesn’t want to adapt to changing times? An individual that holds firmly to the belief that the way things have been done should stay that way, or else you risk losing yourself. This is what happens to our grandparents, and who isn’t embarrassed about the outdated (and often close‑minded) views of our grandparents? In the same way, what can we expect of a society that doesn’t want to adapt to changing times? A society that holds firmly to the belief that the way things have been done should stay that way, or else society itself will collapse. This is what happened during the inquisition, but the enlightenment (in other words science) broke that belief, and brought us forward into an amazing age of discovery and change.

You see all of the issues here force us to change our habits: from quitting smoking to buying an electric car, and for many people these changes are often seen as accepting defeat or accepting we are wrong. Others simply don’t care. That resistance to change is the main barrier that sits between us and the solution to the free market issues that have arised in the last few decades. If we don’t change at the personal level, what can we expect of our politicians?

Think about meat eating for example. I’m sure ALL of you have seen at least one video showing the incredible animal cruelty happening behind closed doors in the meat and dairy industry. And our hearts sink whenever we see those poor chickens and cows having miserable lives and getting mistreated. Yet we chose to ignore that, and we still buy those crunchy chickn’ fingers or that juicy juicy steak. I’m not saying everyone should go vegan, I’m saying that we should try to be more aware of the issues of free market and be willing to adjust our habits even if they minor changes.

Eat less meat, ride your bike to work, get some solar panels installed on your roof, or simply stop buying so much shit you don’t need. Free market will inevitably get out of hand so long as we (the consumers) are blissfully unaware about the collateral damages of its accelerated growth. It is only a matter of raising awareness. That is precisely what science can do if we pay attention: expose the truth and raise awareness, and if we learn how to tell apart truth from doubt mongering at the individual level, free market will not even need regulation. It would simple be a conscious market.

  1. Turns out this whole toast thing is more complicated than a simple yes or no answer. See this article

Question!

My question has to do precisely with this last sentence. Is regulation something that will always exist in free markets? Or will there be a point in which all of us are conscious of all the misdoings of the free market their unintended consequences?

Thank you guys so much for reading, and don’t forget to read more. But don’t read books to say you did. Read them consciously! And write about them, for it is the only way for them to stay solid in the mind.

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