Thursday, June 07, 2007

Sometimes I Just Want to Scream: John Tierney enlists in the right's anti-Rachel Carson rampage.

Although Silent Spring author Rachel Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, the attacks on her did not stop. Carson, whose centennial was celebrated recently, has long been the target of rightwing and corporate interests. They hope to discredit environmental regulation in general by discrediting and demonizing her and her book. That's where NYT science columnist John Tierney comes in, propping up the right's totally discredited memes by burnishing them to a fine, pseudo-respectable glow in the pages of the NYT. The former conservative Op-Ed columnist is described this way in the jokey bio blurb on his blog, TierneyLab:
John Tierney always wanted to be a scientist but went into journalism because its peer-review process was a great deal easier to sneak through...
Obviously. Or he would never have gotten away with such an ill-informed, malicious rant as his NYT column about Rachel Carson, "Fateful Voice of a Generation Still Drowns Out Real Science."
“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings,” she wrote, extolling the peace that had reigned “since the first settlers raised their houses.” Lately, though, a “strange blight” had cast an “evil spell” that killed the flora and fauna, sickened humans and “silenced the rebirth of new life.”

This “Fable for Tomorrow,” as she called it, set the tone for the hodgepodge of science and junk science in the rest of the book. Nature was good; traditional agriculture was all right; modern pesticides were an unprecedented evil. It was a Disneyfied version of Eden.
The phrase "hodgepodge of science and junk science" might be better employed to describe Tierney's own column, filled with distortions that are ably dissected by science blogger Tim Lambert in "John Tierney's Bad Science." For me, two things stand out:

1. Tierney revives the old rightwing canard that Carson was indirectly responsible for countless Third World malaria deaths, due to the DDT bans her work inspired. But as Lambert notes, Carson never opposed all pesticide use. And one of her main arguments against overuse of DDT was that it would only cause disease microorganisms to become more and DDT-resistant. And that's exactly what happened.

2. With distorting rhetoric like this, Tierney makes Carson out to be an alarmist about cancer.
But scientists like him were no match for Ms. Carson’s rhetoric. DDT became taboo even though there wasn’t evidence that it was carcinogenic (and subsequent studies repeatedly failed to prove harm to humans).
Carcinogens were not the main focus of the book, what Carson wrote about them was pretty mainstream for the time, and in any case, DDT was not banned as a carcinogen, but due to its impact on the entire ecostructure. And in any case, accusing someone of being an alarmist about cancer who fought a brave, losing battle against it while finishing her book just seems creepy.

Sometimes I just want to scream.

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