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I have an article in the Spectator drawing attention to the
curious fact that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring owed
much to a passionate tobacco denier. It's behind a paywall, but
there it is with the sources as links. Hat tip Ron Bailey.
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published 50 years
ago this month, effectively marked the birth of the modern
environmental movement. "Silent Spring came as a cry in the
wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly
written argument that changed the course of history," wrote Al Gore in his introduction to the 1994
Mr Gore reprised this theme on his website earlier this
year, proudly comparing Carson's call to arms over pesticides to
his own campaigning on the issue of climate change. He frequently
compares the resistance he meets, and Carson met, to that which
impeded the battle to establish the link between cancer and
cigarette smoking. He accuses industry of "sowing doubt [about
global warming] even more effectively than the tobacco companies
The tobacco companies, said Mr Gore last year, "succeeded in delaying
the implementation of the surgeon general's report for 40 years -
40 years! In every one of those 40 years the average number of
Americans killed by cigarettes each year exceeded the total number
of Americans killed in all of World War II: 450,000 per year. My
sister was one of them. … It was evil, evil, evil."
Mr Gore may not be aware of a startling irony here. Carson's
mentor and the source for much of her case that synthetic
pesticides, and DDT in particular, were devastating bird life and
causing widespread cancer in people, was himself a fervent denier
of the link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer.
His name was Wilhelm Hueper. An immigrant to the United States
from Germany (who shook off an embarrassing but brief enthusiasm
for Nazism that led him to seek a job back in Hitler's Germany) he became
the first director of the environmental cancer section of the US
National Cancer Institute. There he single-mindedly pursued the
idea that cancer was on the increase and that the cause was largely
synthetic chemicals in the environment.
He encountered resistance, however, and not just from the
chemical industry. Medical scientists were growing convinced that
the rise of lung cancer was being caused by a rise in smoking.
Hueper would have none of it. Here he is writing a paper called "Lung Cancers and their
Causes" in 1955 in CA, a cancer journal for clinicians: "Industrial
or industry-related atmospheric pollutants are to a great part
responsible for the causation of lung cancer…cigarette smoking is
not a major factor in the causation of lung cancer."
In her book, Carson refers to the work of Hueper throughout and
made it clear he was her most important source. Describing a
disease in trout, she wrote: "Dr. Hueper has described this epidemic
as a serious warning that greatly increased attention must be given
to controlling the number and variety of environmental carcinogens.
'If such preventive measures are not taken,' says Dr. Hueper, 'the
stage will be set at a progressive rate for the future occurrence
of a similar disaster to the human population.' "
The Hueper-Carson warning - that an epidemic of cancer caused by
chemicals in the environment was on the way - caused one of the
first eco-scares to go mainstream. The ecologist Paul Ehrlich,
writing in Ramparts magazine in 1970, said that as a result of chemical pesticides,
life expectancy in the United States would drop to 42 years by 1980
due to cancer epidemics. This was a widespread view. To this day
many people think that pesticides causes much cancer.
Yet cancer death rates, corrected for average age of the
population, are falling steadily. In the 1980s, a definitive study
by Sir Richard Doll and Sir Richard Peto concluded that whereas 30% of Americans'
cancer was caused by smoking, pollution caused at most a mere 5%.
In 1996, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that levels of both synthetic and
natural carcinogens are "so low that they are unlikely to pose an
appreciable cancer risk".
Rachel Carson herself had a mastectomy and radiation therapy for
breast cancer while writing Silent Spring and she died
within two years of its publication at the age of 56. In his 1994
foreword, Al Gore hints that she might have been a victim of the
chemicals she criticized: "Ironically, new research points strongly
to a link between this disease and exposure to toxic chemicals. So
in a sense, Carson was literally writing for her life."
Yet the evidence that DDT, the chemical that Carson's book is
all about, can cause breast cancer doe not exist. After several
studies, experts concluded that "weakly estrogenic
organochlorine compounds such as PCBs, DDT, and DDE are not a cause
of breast cancer."
When environmentalists attack a climate sceptic these days, they
often accuse him or her of being the kind of person who would have
denied the role of smoking in cancer. Tobacco denial "was
transported whole cloth into the climate debate," said Al Gore in Aspen last year, citing the
book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured
the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Oreskes herself, apparently
unaware of Carson's reliance on a tobacco denier for much of her
argument, told a Yale seminar she was "stunned to
discover myself how much the scientific evidence confirmed Rachel
Carson's precautionary approach".
In any case, the charge that climate scepticism goes with
tobacco denial is false. The best example that Oreskes has produced
is a 1994 paper written by the climate sceptic Fred Singer
challenging some statistics about passive smoking. Yet Singer does not deny that smoking causes cancer, has
served on the advisory board of an anti-smoking organization and
dislikes passive smoking.
To conclude from this history that climate alarmists have more
in common with tobacco deniers than climate sceptics do would be
simply to repeat Mr Gore's and Ms Oreskes's egregious mistake. The
true lesson is that arguments should be discussed on their merits,
not tarred by tenuous association.