Today in History – February 3, 1958 - Rachael Carson publishes the Silent Spring. Rachel Carson, a writer, scientist and ecologist, worked seventeen years for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, where she learned about the problems of pesticides on the environment. She is best known for her book called Silent Spring, which is often credited with shifting public consciousness about the environment and providing the foundation for today’s environmental movement. Carson faced much hostility from chemical companies due to her criticism of the over use of pesticides and the lack of scientific and public oversight.
The Engineering Pathway has a number of resources on Rachel Carson and environmental ethics. I am particularly impressed with the ethics module hosted by the National Academy of Engineering titled Rachel Carson – Silent Springs. For more educational resources, see our agricultural engineering education, environmental engineering education and chemical engineering education community pages. The Engineering Pathway also hosts Engineering Education communities in all ABET-accredited disciplines.
Carson was an engaging writer and some of her observations were hypotheses that did not stand the test of time after more thorough scientific analyses were conducted, making her the object of criticism even today. Yet one must understand that she was writing at a time that full scientific scrutiny was not available and it was “early days” of public disclosure of the effects of pesticides and other commonly used chemicals. I find John Tierney’s editorial in the New York Times, for example, to be unmindful of this context. He makes a good point that pesticides have had positive effects as well, such as greatly increasing yield of agricultural products and reducing the spread of diseases spread by insects; I agree, there are always tradeoffs in the implementation of any technology.
On the other hand, I find myself questioning Teirney’s own scientific integrity (no educational credentials in science that I know of) and have found his criticisms to often be out of context and misleading. I have been at the wrong end of his criticism for a report I co-authored with the National Academies titled: Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. I suppose it helps sell newspapers, but for someone claiming the scientific high ground, he really seems to miss the point and loves to blow up controversial subjects in misleading ways. The Presidents of the National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Science and The Institute of Medicine immediately wrote an excellent response to Tierney’s criticism. Interested readers might also be interested in the editorial by two of the report’s co-authors as well, Jo Handelsman and Robert Birgeneau. I can only imagine the attacks Carson must have lived through a half decade ago, with most of the chemical industry using their vast resources to discredit her and the environmental movement she inspired. Fortunately, these same companies have come to recognize the importance of the environmental impact and sustainability of their products, not to mention, the market sensitivities.