Issues of 'doubt' in eco-research

Opinion: Columns

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Peggy McGrath

With the recent Tribune articles concerning flame retardants, we have become aware of the industrial cover-up of their dangers. For years, flame retardants, in children's pajamas and elsewhere, were pushed as necessary for our children's "safety." Through this reporting, we once again learned how long it takes to fight powerful industrial corporations to get to the truth.

I read Merchants of Doubt, which meticulously researches the development of "doubt" as a tool used to discredit scientific evidence. This has been going on for a long time. The authors focus on the dangers to life and health involving tobacco, second-hand smoke, acid rain, the ozone layer and global warming. The book continually highlights certain scientists pitting themselves against the academic evidence. These scientists are not educated in the fields where they denigrate academia's science, but they may be renowned in other fields, so their names are recognizable.

In the case of global warming, 168 scientists from all over the world agree that a major cause of global warming is human activity. But never mind. The nature of science is that it's a process, always evolving. No 100 percent proof is possible. Never mind that also. The critics cite the lack of 100 percent proof and reframe it as "science does not know." Doubt is raised and concerns about the dangers diminish. Industry wins and the people lose.

Rachel Carson, the National Book Award winner and acclaimed author of Silent Spring, has a chapter devoted to her in Merchants of Doubt. Why would anyone be doubting her research now, when she died almost 50 years ago? If her research of 50 years ago can be doubted, so much the better for undermining science in general.

Carson never attempted to ban any chemicals, but only to affect their misuse and overuse. She and the United States never banned the use of DDT in world locations where malaria was epidemic. In fact, after increasing the amount of DDT used in Sri Lanka, malaria flared up again. It was determined that the problem was not diminished use of DDT, but that mosquitos developed resistance to it.

What is the point of all this doubt being added to public discourse? According to the authors, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, there is and has been a powerful push, backed by huge amounts of money, to reduce and eliminate regulations that protect the American public. Corporations have only one goal, and that's profit. There is no place in their legal structure for the common good, human health or environmental needs. And since corporations are now global entities, they are larger and more influential than most governments, including our own.

In Europe and Canada there is a principle that guides governmental laws as to what can be sold. This principle is called the "precautionary principle." A product cannot be put on the shelf unless it is proven safe first. In the United States, it is the opposite. And most of the testing is done by the corporation itself, not our government. That is why it is so essential to have strong federal regulations. Yet so many times environmental laws have been watered down, poorly funded or are continuously under congressional assault.

Rachel Carson was one amazingly brave woman who, even after developing cancer and undertaking debilitating treatment for it, continued writing her book. She had no university or corporate sponsorship and no computer, just index cards and a regular typewriter. She was a woman of moral conviction — that the public had the right to know the truth and the inalienable right to a clean environment.

We need more people of her moral integrity, selflessness and courage today.

Peggy McGrath is an Oak Park resident who has been writing a series of essays honoring the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring."

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Reader Comments

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Brian Slowiak from Oak Park  

Posted: October 30th, 2012 10:21 AM

not for science that relies on models and consensus for validation. Results from either side might be skewed because of the desire for additional funding.

Brian Slowiak from Oak Park  

Posted: October 30th, 2012 10:08 AM

global ice age that was predicted in the70s, to the lobotomy trend, my point is that no one studies how scientists make mistakes. We all make mistakes. I seem to recall the astrornauts who burned to death on the launching pad because the capsule was filled with oxygen in stead of air. The electrical spark from a switch flipped burned two astronauts to death.Scientists knew this was a hazard, and scientists went forward anyway.All for science based on the experiment, which can be repeated, but

Brian Slowiak from Oak Park  

Posted: October 30th, 2012 10:01 AM

ED, thanxs for showing me where I might be mistaken. In regards to Dr. Ehrlich, can you state exactly which group, business, agency directly stated that they are using his methods to overcome these problems? Food per acerage has increased in some parts due to fertilizer use and transportation all due to the use of crude oil. The organic trend is yielding less food per acre. Not good for a growing population. You made no comment on how or why science proves themselves to be in correct. From the

Ed Darrell from Dallas, Texas  

Posted: October 26th, 2012 1:02 AM

Second, EPA's jurisdiction ends at the U.S. borders. DDT has never been banned in Africa, nor Asia. Most important, third, malaria infections have declined, from 500 million per year at peak DDT use in 1959 and 1960, to about 250 million per year in 2010, a 50% reduction. Malaria deaths declined from 4 million per year at peak DDT use, to fewer than 800,000 today -- a reduction of more than 75%. These reductions in infections and deaths have been achieved using the integrated pest management methods that Rachel Carson championed in "Silent Spring." Ehrlich's various scenarios -- he never "predicted" millions of deaths -- were frustrated, fortunately, because people listened to him and his colleagues. We acted to fight hunger, and perhaps most critically, with the massive assistance of the work of Norman Borlaug and his associates, the world dramatically increased food production and food quality. It is not that Ehrlich was "wrong" in his "predictions." We avoided mass starvation by paying attention to scientists. Rachel Carson remains one of those scientists to whom we should listen, if we are wise.

Ed Darrell from Dallas, Texas  

Posted: October 26th, 2012 12:57 AM

Brian Slowiak claims that banning DDT to third world nations caused millions of deaths to malaria. However, first, EPA Administrator Ruckelshaus's order banning the use of DDT on agricultural crops (see the order) specifically exempted manufacturing, allowing manufacturing of DDT in the U.S. to continue unabated, with all DDT production dedicated to export. EPA's "ban" effectively increased the amount of DDT available to Africa and Asia by several multiples.

Brian Slowiak from Oak Park  

Posted: October 25th, 2012 7:04 PM

In banning DDT to third world nations, millions died from mosquito born diseases. No one wants to go back to 70s and study the scientists mistakes when they predicted the coming global ice age. Dr. Paul Erlichs book the population bomb predicted mass starvation at the turn of the century in the US. Dr Moniz, Nobel winner for medicine for the now discredited practice of lobotomy. Scientists research, and much research is a waste. Scientists get it wrong, no one studys why.

Marjorie Mazel Hecht  

Posted: October 25th, 2012 4:08 PM

Two points: DDT was in effect banned by the U.S. and other countries, because they prohibited aid to third world countries that used DDT. These countries could not forgo foreign assistance. and thus were unable to use DDT. Also, DDT has the unique capability of repelling mosquitoes--even those that are resistant. That is why DDT is still extremely effective when sprayed on indoor house walls to stop the spread of malaria. Most mosquitoes will not enter a house that is sprayed.

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