Thank you to our friends at The Autism File Magazine for allowing us to excerpt this article by Jonathan Rose.
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.
OVERTURNING CONVENTIONAL WISDOM
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?”
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