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August 2008

Fateful Voice of a Generation Still Drowns Out Real Science

This is a classic from John Tierney...

For Rachel Carson admirers, it has not been a silent spring. They've been celebrating the centennial of her birthday with paeans to her saintliness. A new generation is reading her book in school — and mostly learning the wrong lesson from it.

If students are going to read "Silent Spring" in science classes, I wish it were paired with another work from that same year, 1962, titled "Chemicals and Pests." It was a review of "Silent Spring" in the journal Science written by I. L. Baldwin, a professor of agricultural bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin.

He didn't have Ms. Carson's literary flair, but his science has held up much better. He didn't make Ms. Carson's fundamental mistake, which is evident in the opening sentence of her book:

"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.

Ms. Carson used dubious statistics and anecdotes (like the improbable story of a woman who instantly developed cancer after spraying her basement with DDT) to warn of a cancer epidemic that never came to pass. She rightly noted threats to some birds, like eagles and other raptors, but she wildly imagined a mass "biocide." She warned that one of the most common American birds, the robin, was "on the verge of extinction" — an especially odd claim given the large numbers of robins recorded in Audubon bird counts before her book.

Ms. Carson's many defenders, ecologists as well as other scientists, often excuse her errors by pointing to the primitive state of environmental and cancer research in her day. They argue that she got the big picture right: without her passion and pioneering work, people wouldn't have recognized the perils of pesticides. But those arguments are hard to square with Dr. Baldwin's review.

Dr. Baldwin led a committee at the National Academy of Sciences studying the impact of pesticides on wildlife. (Yes, scientists were worrying about pesticide dangers long before "Silent Spring.") In his review, he praised Ms. Carsons's literary skills and her desire to protect nature. But, he wrote, "Mankind has been engaged in the process of upsetting the balance of nature since the dawn of civilization."

While Ms. Carson imagined life in harmony before DDT, Dr. Baldwin saw that civilization depended on farmers and doctors fighting "an unrelenting war" against insects, parasites and disease. He complained that "Silent Spring" was not a scientific balancing of costs and benefits but rather a "prosecuting attorney's impassioned plea for action."

Ms. Carson presented DDT as a dangerous human carcinogen, but Dr. Baldwin said the question was open and noted that most scientists "feel that the danger of damage is slight." He acknowledged that pesticides were sometimes badly misused, but he also quoted an adage: "There are no harmless chemicals, only harmless use of chemicals."

Ms. Carson, though, considered new chemicals to be inherently different. "For the first time in the history of the world," she wrote, "every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death."

She briefly acknowledged that nature manufactured its own carcinogens, but she said they were "few in number and they belong to that ancient array of forces to which life has been accustomed from the beginning." The new pesticides, by contrast, were "elixirs of death," dangerous even in tiny quantities because humans had evolved "no protection" against them and there was "no 'safe' dose."

She cited scary figures showing a recent rise in deaths from cancer, but she didn't consider one of the chief causes: fewer people were dying at young ages from other diseases (including the malaria that persisted in the American South until DDT). When that longevity factor as well as the impact of smoking are removed, the cancer death rate was falling in the decade before "Silent Spring," and it kept falling in the rest of the century.

Why weren't all of the new poisons killing people? An important clue emerged in the 1980s when the biochemist Bruce Ames tested thousands of chemicals and found that natural compounds were as likely to be carcinogenic as synthetic ones. Dr. Ames found that 99.99 percent of the carcinogens in our diet were natural, which doesn't mean that we are being poisoned by the natural pesticides in spinach and lettuce. We ingest most carcinogens, natural or synthetic, in such small quantities that they don't hurt us. Dosage matters, not whether a chemical is natural, just as Dr. Baldwin realized.

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).

It's often asserted that the severe restrictions on DDT and other pesticides were justified in rich countries like America simply to protect wildlife. But even that is debatable (see, and in any case, the chemophobia inspired by Ms. Carson's book has been harmful in various ways. The obsession with eliminating minute risks from synthetic chemicals has wasted vast sums of money: environmental experts complain that the billions spent cleaning up Superfund sites would be better spent on more serious dangers.

The human costs have been horrific in the poor countries where malaria returned after DDT spraying was abandoned. Malariologists have made a little headway recently in restoring this weapon against the disease, but they've had to fight against Ms. Carson's disciples who still divide the world into good and bad chemicals, with DDT in their fearsome "dirty dozen."

Ms. Carson didn't urge an outright ban on DDT, but she tried to downplay its effectiveness against malaria and refused to acknowledge what it had accomplished. As Dr. Baldwin wrote, "No estimates are made of the countless lives that have been saved because of the destruction of insect vectors of disease." He predicted correctly that people in poor countries would suffer from hunger and disease if they were denied the pesticides that had enabled wealthy nations to increase food production and eliminate scourges.

But Dr. Baldwin did make one mistake. After expressing the hope "that someone with Rachel Carson's ability will write a companion volume dramatizing the improvements in human health and welfare derived from the use of pesticides," he predicted that "such a story would be far more dramatic than the one told by Miss Carson in 'Silent Spring.' "

That never happened, and I can't imagine any writer turning such good news into a story more dramatic than Ms. Carson's apocalypse in Eden. A best-seller titled "Happy Spring"? I don't think so.

Obesity, Diabesity, and Orthopedics

That's the title of my newest HND piece.  When I found out that hip and knee replacements were now being done on TEENAGERS, I had to say something!

Every extra pound you carry translates into seven more pounds of force on those joints.  Run the numbers on a person who might be more than 50 pounds overweight.

"Diabesity" is a trademarked word used to highlight the relationship between obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

Fortunately, the technology has improved greatly for knee and hip implants--but it is still better to prevent such degradation to your joints for as long as you can.

Yes, Congress really is that stupid about energy policy

This one is from kindred spirit David Deming--a geophysicist, an adjunct scholar with the National Center for Policy Analysis, and associate professor of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma.


How many persons does it take to change a light bulb? Four hundred, if the people in question are members of the United States Congress. Four hundred is the number of representatives and senators who voted last December to ban incandescent light bulbs.

Full awareness of this idiocy has not really manifested itself in the public consciousness yet. When it does, there will be an outrage. Beginning in 2012, the manufacture and sale of incandescent light bulbs, starting with the 100-watt bulb, will become illegal. Instead of paying less than 20 cents for a standard incandescent bulb, we will all be forced to purchase compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) for about $3 each or more.

I'm a frugal person. Like other sensible people, I'm interested in saving energy. But I'm skeptical of the exaggerated claims made for CFLs. When these devices were first introduced several years ago, I bought one, anxious to reap the benefits of the claimed energy savings. I was amazed to find that my new 10,000-hour light bulb burned out in a week. The replacement CFL lasted for three months.

Much of the advertising copy we have been sold on CFLs contains exaggerated and misleading claims. The fine print is that the average lifetime is not 10,000 hours, but "up to" 10,000 hours. In many applications, the lifetime of a CFL and estimated energy savings are significantly lower than we have been led to believe. For a compact fluorescent bulb to achieve the claimed efficiency, it has to be burned continuously for long periods. If a CFL is left on for only 5-minute periods, it will burn out just as fast as an incandescent bulb. To avoid short cycling, the U.S. Energy Star program advises consumers to leave compact fluorescents on for at least 15 minutes.

This brings up some interesting questions. What procedure should I follow when I have to go into my bedroom closet for 30 seconds? Should I stay in the closet for 15 minutes, just so the light bulb won't burn out early? Do I have to stay in the bathroom for 15 minutes every time there? What about other lighting applications with short cycles, such as outdoor motion detectors or lights on automatic garage doors? What are the energy savings, if any, of using CFLs in real-life applications instead of idealized laboratory conditions? What sort of moron mandates that people have to use CFLs in applications they are unsuited for?

It is true that most of the energy utilized by an incandescent bulb goes into heat, not light. But has anyone considered that most of the U.S. is in a temperate climate zone? During a heating month, the heat produced by an incandescent bulb is not wasted, but contributes toward household heating. For most winter months, incandescent bulbs thus achieve an energy efficiency of 100 percent.

There are other problems with CFLs. As most people know, they contain toxic mercury and cannot be thrown into the trash, but have to be recycled. CFLs become dimmer as they age, and thus again will not perform as advertised. The quality of light from fluorescent bulbs is inferior to incandescent. Standard CFLs won't operate at low temperatures and are thus unsuitable for many outdoor applications.

Given that the upcoming ban is on manufacture, not possession or use, it would seem the rational person has only one option: to hoard standard incandescent bulbs while they are still available. Unused light bulbs can be stored indefinitely without degradation. At a unit price of less than 20 cents each, it is eminently practical for most persons to lay in a lifetime supply before the 2012 ban takes effect.

In an ideal world, where the government had some respect for the intelligence of its citizens, consumers would be allowed to make rational decisions about using lighting devices. People would use CFLs in installations they were suited for, indoor applications involving long-use cycles. And we would still be allowed to use 100-watt incandescent bulbs in our bedroom closets, where large amounts of light are needed for short periods. This is known as free-market economics. In the 20th century it came be recognized as a superior system almost everywhere, even in communist China.

There is one benefit to the light-bulb ban: it serves as a useful voting guide for the coming fall elections. In November, the 86 senators and 314 representatives who judged their constituents as not intelligent enough to choose the correct light bulb will undergo a referendum on their own judgment.

Overheated attacks on global warming "deniers"

The usual suspects are at it again, this time attacking Americans for Prosperity, presumably because they get money from Koch Industries.  AFP has been hosting some events debunking global warming and trying to quell the hysteria.

The news release I received cites a blog entry from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  You might remember NRDC who--amazingly--still describes the late and very unlamented Rachel Carson as a "courageous woman who took on the chemical industry."  NRDC was a big factor in getting DDT banned, thus causing the deaths of tens of millions of Africans, with NO benefit to the environment.

No matter what kind of picture they paint of Koch Industries, NRDC is by far more evil and destructive.

The news release speaks of the irony of a global warming denying event being canceled because of a hurricane, but then goes right on to say, "As you probably know, climate scientists don’t blame all hurricanes on global warming, but they do link the increased number of severe hurricanes on climate-related factors."

That, folks, is called a distinction without a difference.

The REAL irony is that the global warming idiots are now the deniers, since they don't use the term "global warming" anymore.  Instead, they refer to "climate change" or "climate issues."

They can't hide the fact the original issue is all bogus, so they switch to a nebulous expression like "climate change" in the hopes that you wouldn't notice.  If this reminds you of how the true believing Commies totally bought into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, whereby deathly enemies suddenly became allies (for a while), go to the head of the class.

The nonsense of the Left is so transparent, sometimes, it's downright boring.  At least the smarter Greenies have been quietly trying to bury the very tattered icon of Ms. Carson, whose junk science is now well-known.

Sadly, Carson, who had done good work earlier in her career, was an embittered spinster dying of breast cancer, who apparently had to find something (in this case environmental pollution) to blame her disease on.

She paved the way for later fiascoes, such as the absurd silicone breast implant settlements, where science simply did not matter, and emotions (and greed) trumped all.

Maybe a bigger irony is that Rachel Carson--a scientist by profession--single-handedly invented the notion of emotion-tinged junk science.

What happens when science takes a holiday

It's too bad that most people don't know about all the junk science that goes on in big-time academia and government agencies.  The conventional media is pretty much silent on this issue since they tend to agree with the PC-agendized excuse for science that is happening these days.

We've talked before about how rooms full of pointy-heads are--at this moment--discussing tenth-order effects of obscure chemicals on your health, but you don't hear too much about the single greatest health crisis of all---obesity.

Yet, even within these discussions of tenth-order effects, much of the work would not have passed muster 30 years ago for a high school science fair.

I interviewed a number of insiders on this issue, and wrote an HND piece all about it.  The article looks at water quality and formaldehyde matters, but we have really only scratched the surface.

It is truly a national disgrace.

Angel Heart (1987)

Since movies are part of the ecology, you'll see occasional links to my reviews and retrospectives. 

Angel Heart is about the darkest film ever made, and is also known for Mickey Rourke's best screen performance, and a sex scene that had to be sliced and diced to allow an R-rating.  The sex scene featured the formerly squeaky-clean Lisa Bonet from TV's The Cosby Show. and it nearly derailed her career.

Of course, the scene was restored on home video.

Check out my review, watch the pic, and then laugh at the other retrospective reviewers who claimed that they could see the twist ending coming all the way.  Not bloody likely.

What should we do about the obesity epidemic?

That's the title of a recent HND article, based, in part, on an interview I did with Jessica Donze Black, executive director of the Campaign to End Obesity.

The stats are disturbing...

  • According to projections, 73 percent of American adults could be overweight or obese by 2008.
  • More than 9 million children are overweight or obese.
  • According to Health Affairs Journal and RAND, 83 cents of every health care dollar in America is spent on a patient that is overweight or obese.
  • According to the American Cancer Society, obese adults are at increased risk for all cancers especially endometrial, gall bladder, uterine, ovarian, colorectal and prostate.
  • According to the CDC, obesity contributes to two-thirds of all heart disease.

We make some suggestions, and link to reports from the Campaign.

At a time when people are obsessing on tenth-order effects on health, it is astonishing that the biggest true health crisis of all is getting scant attention.

Carbon nanotubes can fight cancer--with precision

Ask any critic of conventional cancer therapy to name the three allopathic methods of fighting the dread disease.  Chances are, he will answer, "Slashing (surgery), burning (radiation), and poisoning (chemotherapy).  No matter how you may feel about this, the conventional treatments certainly kill off lots of good cells, along with the bad.

That's why the holy grail of cancer treatment is to just kill the cancer cells.

Would you believe that this can now be done--at least in vitro--with carbon nanotubes, monoclonal antibodies, and near-infrared light (the same type of light that runs your video remotes).

Read all about it in my HND article.

Paul Ehrlich's magic bullet has finally arrived.