What We Can Learn From Silent Spring

Samuel Johnson, the crusty English literary critic, once defined a “classic” as any book that readers are still reading 50 years after its publication. We are now approaching the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and it is still in print, still selling, still frequently quoted, still assigned in college courses. Like any other classic, it has been studied intensively by PhDs. For instance, Priscilla Coit Murphy’s What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring details the campaign waged by the chemical industry and agribusiness to discredit Carson and squelch her book. I recently assigned Murphy’s study to my students, one of whom found it very relevant to a present-day controversy: the attacks on Carson (he said) reminded him of the attacks on “that English doctor” who pointed out the possible dangers of the MMR vaccine.

I had already noticed the similarities. But there is one all important difference between the two situations: the assault on Rachel Carson failed, whereas the attacks on Dr. Andrew Wakefield have largely succeeded (so far). Those of us who believe that ad-verse vaccine reactions may be a contributing cause of the autism epidemic, and who are struggling to be heard in the national media, should study this chapter of his-tory. Today everyone is aware of the dangers of pesticides, but it has taken 50 years of education, starting with Silent Spring, to raise that level of awareness.


In 1962, pesticides enjoyed the same level of public confidence that vaccines enjoy today. The scientific consensus held that chemical pesticides were safe, effective tools in the fight to eradicate disease and feed a hungry world. As Carson ruefully acknowledged, “certain outstanding entomologists are among the leading advocates of chemical control.” A National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council committee issued a report on pest control methods, just before Silent Spring, which played down the potential dangers. How did Carson overturn that conventional wisdom?

For starters, she recognized some glaring conflicts of interest. Vaccine safety advocates today have highlighted the incestuous relationships among the pharmaceutical industry, government agencies, and academic research scientists. Federal regulators move to high-paying jobs in the drug companies they regulated, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) promotes vaccines that corporations produce. Scientists depend on both government and industry for research money, which is likely to dry up if they report adverse effects. No one is inclined to blow whistles, and everyone profits (except, perhaps, the general public).

Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson identified the same kind of corruption among pesticide scientists: “Inquiry into the background of some of these men reveals that their entire research program is supported by the chemical industry. Their professional prestige, sometimes their very jobs depend on the perpetuation of chemical methods. Can we expect them to bite the hand that literally feeds them?”

Carson scathingly criticized the US Department of Agriculture and its indiscriminate chemical spraying programs, which often failed to eliminate pests while doing enormous damage to the environment. As Priscilla Murphy explains, the USDA promoted the interests of agribuisness: “Researchers knew the chemicals killed pests; they seemed uninterested in what else the chemicals did. Inevitably, findings favorable to greater sales and use of chemicals would color inquiry.”


Carson’s enemies were formidable, but in many ways she was ideally equipped to take them on. She was a competent scientist, with a master’s in zoology from Johns Hopkins University. She had worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. She was also a very popular writer. Before Silent Spring, she had published two bestselling nature books, The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955). The royalties allowed her to quit government work and devote all her energies to writing, without fear of professional retaliation. She also was well-connected. Her friends included Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and the wife of Eugene Meyer, publisher of the Washington Post. Her literary agent, Marie Rodell, was a superb publicist who made sure that advance copies of Silent Spring were distributed to the nation’s movers and shakers.

Carson’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin, was a respected and independent Boston firm with a long record of publishing nature writers going back to Henry David Thoreau. Its editor-in-chief, Paul Brooks, was a dedicated conservationist who believed that publishers should be “concerned more with good books than with quick and easy profits,” though he added that “Excellence can indeed be profitable,” and proved it with Silent Spring.

But most Americans became aware of the contents of Silent Spring without actually reading the book. Carson realized that she had to reach a larger public through the mass media. Earlier, she had attempted to publish warnings against pesticides in several popular magazines, but they had been repeatedly rejected by editors who did not want to lose advertisers. The New Yorker, however, at last agreed to serialize Silent Spring in June 1962, three months before it appeared in book form. More than any other major periodical, the New Yorker strictly prohibited its advertising department from influencing editorial decisions. In any case, its audience of urban sophisticates was so attractive to advertisers that some of its issues sold out all their ad space. It was the most profitable magazine in America, and therefore impervious to corporate pressure. Three chemical companies (DuPont, Cyanamid, and Esso/Humble) advertised regularly in the New Yorker, but none of them pulled their ads when Silent Spring was serialized: DuPont needed the New Yorker more than the New Yorker needed DuPont.

Both the New Yorker and Houghton Mifflin were pressured by a chemical industry lawyer to drop or tone down the story. “Everything in those articles has been checked and is true,” the New Yorker’s lawyer shot back. “Go ahead and sue.” Indeed, thanks to a rigorous fact-checking policy, the magazine enjoyed an unequalled reputation for reliability.


Readers responded to Silent Spring with a record outpouring of letters to the editor, nearly all of them positive. One of those readers was President John F. Kennedy. At an August 29 press conference, a reporter raised the issue of the dangers of pesticides: “Have you considered asking the Department of Agriculture or the Public Health Service to take a closer look at this?” Kennedy responded yes, and added, “and I know that they already are. I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book…”

Of course, the Department of Agriculture was outraged by Carson’s book, but it held its fire for tactical reasons. As one official shrewdly noted in an internal memorandum, a “typical bureaucratic response which never quite joins the issue” would only provoke “a strong adverse public reaction”. Congressmen were already receiving angry letters from constituents, passing them on to the USDA, and demanding explanations. And no federal bureaucrat was eager to contradict the President of the United States. Ultimately, Kennedy ordered the President’s Science Advisory Committee to investigate the issue, and their report the following May mostly substantiated Carson’s warnings.

The chemical industry and agribusiness were less re- strained. “This was, for us, an opportunity to wield our public relations power,” one Monsanto executive said. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association ponied up $250,000 (back when that was real money!) to fund a campaign against Silent Spring. The Manufacturing Chemists Association commissioned Glick and Lorwin, a New York public relations firm, to launch a counterattack. Scientists could be mobilized to assert that the book was unscientific.


One of those scientists was entomologist Dr. Cynthia Westcott—and it was noted that she, unlike “Miss Carson”, had a PhD. William Darby, a nutritionist at Vanderbilt University, charged that Carson used “literary devices to present her the- sis and make it appear to be a widely held scientific one. She ‘name-drops’ by quoting or referring to renowned scientists out of context.” (What Darby called “name-drops”, Carson preferred to call “footnotes”.)

The Desolate Year, a pamphlet widely distributed by Monsanto, warned that without their products human civilization would be overrun by pests and deadly epidemics. Dr. Robert White-Stevens, an American Cyanamid biochemist, aggressively defended pesticides in a national speaking tour, accusing Carson of “gross distortions of the actual facts, completely unsupported by scientific experimental evidence and general practical experience in the field.” And he went further: “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson,” he warned, “we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”

But others in the industry worried that attacking Rachel Carson would only give more publicity to Silent Spring, and suggested a shrewder tactic. “It has generally been decided to ignore Miss Carson herself and accentuate the positive side of agricultural chemicals,” an advertising trade journal reported. “Producers of the pesticides wisely decided to let the popular authoress alone and step up educational and informational programs instead.” In fact, starting in the summer of 1962, US newspapers and magazines ran numerous articles touting the benefits of pesticides, without mentioning Silent Spring. It is impossible to prove that these articles were placed by the chemical industry’s PR agents—but the first principle of good PR is to ensure that readers do not recognize it as PR.


None of these strategies worked. If the chemical industry criticized Silent Spring, they called attention to the book. If they ignored it, then Rachel Carson’s allegations went unanswered. When the New Yorker and President Kennedy endorsed the book, they ignited a media firestorm that was impossible to put out. Along with John Glenn’s flight into space, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and civil rights struggles, Rachel Carson was one of the biggest news stories of 1962. Silent Spring became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and by the end of the year it had sold a half million copies.

The public controversy climaxed the following April, when the news program CBS Reports broadcast “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson,” moderated by Eric Sevareid. Some advertisers, including two agribusiness corporations (Standard Brands and Ralston Purina) and a chemical product (Lysol disinfectant) pulled their commercials, but the program went ahead anyway. Equal time was allotted to Carson and her critics, including White-Stevens. There is no question who won the debate. Carson became an American icon, while White- Stevens is remembered today as a blustering corporate shill.


The parallels between the pesticide controversy 50 years ago and the vaccine controversy today are fairly obvious. Just as the pharmaceutical industry mischaracterizes vaccine safety advocates as “anti-vaccine,” the pesticide industry smeared Rachel Carson as “anti-chemical.” In fact Carson offered a disclaimer often overlooked by her critics and admirers alike: “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.” As she told a Congressional committee, the debate over pesticides was not an “all-or-none” question.

Carson died in 1964, so we can’t know whether she would have wholly supported the 1972 ban on DDT. It may well be that DDT, used carefully and sparingly, is an effective and safe weapon against malaria in poor countries. Likewise, vaccines are not an all-or-none issue. But we should be using fewer and safer vaccines, eliminating those that aren’t effective against serious diseases, and allowing medical exemptions for individuals who are susceptible to serious adverse reactions. And we must subject vaccines to the same rigorous regulatory scrutiny that we apply to chemical pesticides.


So why is that portrayed in the mass media as an unreasonable and even dangerous proposal? The answer requires some background history.

Rachel Carson was uniquely qualified to take on the chemical industry. She was (1) an experienced scientist, (2) a celebrity even before Silent Spring, (3) a bestselling author who knew how to write for a popular audience, and (4) some- one with friends in high places. Neither Jenny McCarthy, nor Andrew Wakefield, nor any other vaccine safety advocate today combines all four of those essential qualifications. And Carson could not be fired from her job or stripped of her medical license, because she had neither.

She also worked with an independently owned main- stream publisher that was willing to take a chance on a controversial book. Such firms would later be swallowed up by conglomerates where the bottom line rules. However, even with the full support of Houghton Mifflin, Silent Spring would probably not have become a blockbuster without the endorsements of the New Yorker and President Kennedy. True, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. published an article in Rolling Stone on the link between vaccines and autism, but he does not have his uncle’s presidential clout, nor does Rolling Stone have the prestige once enjoyed by the New Yorker. There is simply no substitute for having a friend in the White House. If President Obama had ordered a full investigation into RFK, Jr.’s charges, just as JFK ordered an investigation into Rachel Carson’s charges, the response of the CDC would probably have been very different. But no recent Chief Executive, Democrat or Republican, has exercised that kind of leadership.

Robert MacNeil’s recent Autism Now series on PBS, like Eric Sevareid’s report on Rachel Carson, offered a balanced and objective program, not a polemic. MacNeil reported that his own daughter attributed her son’s autism to vaccines, while cautioning that public health officials deny any connection between the two. Revealingly, vaccine safety advocates enthusiastically applauded MacNeil, while those on the other side of the issue furiously attacked him. The former had every reason to welcome a dispassionate discussion, while the latter had a clear motive to fear it, just as the chemical industry feared the debate that Silent Spring whipped up.

Even though he remained neutral, Eric Sevareid offered Rachel Carson the best public platform she could have hoped for. He treated his viewers as intelligent citizens who were en-titled to hear both sides and make up their own minds. Contrast that with those today who portray parents as gullible hysterics who “panic” at reports of ad- verse vaccine reactions.

For that matter, contrast MacNeil (a real journalist) with George Stephanopoulos, who harangued and repeatedly interrupted Andrew Wakefield when he appeared on Good Morning America. Judging from the comments emailed to Stephanapoulos’s web- site after wards that performance back- fired badly, just as the bombastic Dr. Robert White-Stevens alienated the viewers of CBS Reports.


So these are the key lessons that the autism community can learn from Rachel Carson. What she faced 50 years ago, we face now, though the forces aligned against us are stronger. Today, drug industry giants and public health agencies such as the CDC are deeply invested in vaccines, and together constitute a very powerful obstacle to any investigation of vaccine abuse.

The public relations campaign against Silent Spring failed, but today PR is vastly more pervasive in American society, and frighteningly sophisticated. There are now 3.7 PR agents for every working journalist, and the imbalance is getting worse as news organizations lay off staff. The overworked survivors (reports the Economist) have less time for investigative journalism, and are ever more willing to accept slanted stories fed to them by a growing army of pitchmen. And recently a new type of PR specialist has sprung up to serve the pharmaceutical industry, reports Elliot Ross in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. These are ghostwriters who work with drug companies to draft articles promoting their products, customarily charging $18,000 to $40,000 per article. They recruit prominent academic researchers, who (for a generous fee) attach their names to these articles, which are then placed in prestigious medical journals. Merck used these methods to promote Vioxx in an article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. It neglected to mention that the drug caused the deaths of some trial participants. Vioxx was pulled from the market in September 2004, after causing an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 deadly heart attacks.

One could compare the perpetrators to students who purchase term papers and turn them in as their own work, except that (a) the students are not paid to do this, (b) they are expelled if they are found out, and (c) plagiarized term papers rarely kill anyone. These ghostwriters even have their own professional organization, the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals, with more than 1,000 members and (as its website boasts) corporate sponsorship by Pfizer, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, and Sanofi Aventis. Medical journals were always dependent on drug company advertising, but this takes corruption to new depths. “The whole thing is a big lie,” frankly admits Alastair Matheson, who has worked in this business. “You’d do the same thing if you were selling cornflakes.”

The result, according to Prof. Leemon McHenry, who teaches ethics and the philosophy of science at CSU Northridge, is “an epistemological morass where you can’t trust anything.” There are many sincere and honest medical professionals, not in the pay of drug companies, who point to journal articles, ostensibly authored by respected scientists that “prove” vaccine safety. What they don’t realize is that these articles may actually have been written by company flacks. As Lancet Editor Richard Horton protested, medical “journals have devolved into information laundering operations for the pharmaceutical industry.”


Rachel Carson never had to deal with anything quite so insidious. The media in 1962 gave her extensive coverage, whereas the media today has suppressed the vaccine debate. Like Silent Spring, Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill’s The Age of Autism was published by a respected mainstream publisher (St. Martin’s Press), but no American newspaper reviewed it, with the exception of the English-language edition of a Chinese-language daily. Leonard Lopate interviewed the authors on his NPR program, but only after he had been warned by public health officials not to give them publicity. As Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced, “There are groups out there that insist that vaccines are responsible for a variety of problems, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary. We have reached out to media outlets to try to get them not to give the views of these people equal weight in their reporting.” The Department of Agriculture clearly wanted to do the same to Rachel Carson, but they were not about to buck President Kennedy.

The vaccine industry consequently enjoys an immunity from public scrutiny that the pesticide industry never had to the same degree. The Vaccine Business Congress, which met March 2011, publicly announced on its website a workshop titled “Understand the Changes in the National Vaccine Plan to Maximize Government Sponsored Funding and Avoid FDA Scrutiny.” It seems incredible that they would brazenly advertise their plans to evade federal regulators: if the media reported that, it would be a PR disaster of the first magnitude. But evidently the planners were confident that no one would report it—and until now, no one has.

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