In “The Human Price” and “Through a Narrow Window” of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson details the potential costs of pesticides to human life—effects that can be lethal, but are more often sublethal through changes in fertility, biological processes, or genetics—the very foundation of our own person biology. I was struck by how Carson takes complex processes, like the role of mitochondria in powering the cell or the function of the liver, and laid them out clearly and beautifully. Sometimes in communicating science to the public, we are advised to cut to the basics and keep it simple. It’s not bad advice in many cases, but it is possible that some of the disconnection between complex processes (like global climate change) and public perception of the issues becomes clouded by oversimplification. People can understand complex processes if it is explained clearly--and a little flair never hurts.
In these chapters, Carson turns from a weight of evidence approach laden with melodramatic and emotional language, to a thoughtful, scientific approach that does not lose its readability. I can understand her use of histrionic language, given the widespread use of pesticides without a clear or contemplative plan resulting in exposure to wildlife and humans with the potential for large, long-term costs. But the clear explanations in these chapters, the explanation that scientists are still continuing to understand how cellular structures like the mitochondria work and about the biochemical effects of pesticides exposure on biochemical approaches, it becomes a powerful, objective argument for using pesticides sparingly when necessary because of the potential for a ramification of effects in food webs and in individual bodies.
When I started rereading this book with a seminar of graduate students, I expected to feel more cynical toward the text and Rachel Carson, but instead I find that I am just crazy about her and in awe of the strength of her argument in conveying scientific information to a general public. Could the world have been blessed with a better advocate at the time? She had a strong scientific background, she had spent years righting up reports and brochures for the public with the US Bureau of Fisheries (now the Fish & Wildlife Service), she had written three other books which established her as a naturalist and a writer, and she was not working for any agency at the time which freed her to use her scientific knowledge to evaluate the information available and advocate for change and a better path. And as I read these chapters in particular, I cannot help but think of the woman struggling with cancer and the treatments that were failing her; it is no wonder these pages are filled with urgency and passion, as well as a steady gaze on what science and observation have revealed.
“It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster” (in “The Human Price”). As we as scientists and non-scientists struggle with issues like global climate change that can have long lag times like the impacts of some pesticides, Carson’s book serves as a reminder that an effective, logical, and yes emotional argument can turn the tide of public perception that results in needed federal changes to protect human life and natural life, on which our own lives are intricately tied. Looking back 50 years ago to her text may serve as a useful guide for forging the way ahead with effectively conveying science to the public in a way that serves the public and puts the best scientific knowledge to use.