Last week, I wrote a column that was supposed to be about inspiration. I told the story of Rachel Carson, famed naturalist, science writer, and personal hero.
Fifty years after Silent Spring’s publication, I figured I could get away with a quick summary of Carson’s contributions. Judging by some of the commentary I received, I was wrong.
For example, I referred to Carson’s exhaustive research on the environmental harms posed by DDT, which was, at the time, extensively used to control disease-spreading and crop-harming insects.
While Congress ultimately agreed with her conclusion that DDT was overused in the United States — where we were already “winning” the battle against these pests with other means — the chemical was still used elsewhere in the world where other means of insect control were less available or less effective.
Today, DDT is banned worldwide, mostly because of the threat it poses to human health — because of its acute toxicity, because it decreases sperm counts, and so on. But exceptions to the ban are permitted because sometimes, the potential to save human lives outweighs the costs.
So many times we as individuals, and as groups of policymakers, operate like pendulums, swinging from one extreme to the other — from liberal use of DDT to its ban (and back again to those who hold Carson responsible for millions of malaria-caused deaths).
It’s only by damping this instinct to seek black-and-white answers that we can progress as a society. Nuanced views are tougher: they require more energy spent collecting information, and more thought digesting that information. But in the end, they’re more truthful and more rewarding.
I often say that “Seeing Green” is really about seeing in shades of gray. Last week, trying to squeeze in under my word limit, I probably painted Rachel Carson a bit too white in comparison to DDT’s black. Yet some of the responses I received were even more extreme, ranging from uninformed chastisements to personal attacks.
My parents, sports coaches, science advisors, and journalism instructors trained me to have a thick skin. Still, some of the attacks stung, and they made me think hard about what Rachel Carson had to go through during the last 18 months of her life. The backlash, magnified by Silent Spring’s popularity and the big pocketbooks of the chemical industry, was ferocious.
Fortunately, I’ve never faced a threat to my safety because of my work. But I have friends in graduate school who have already had to think hard about whether their careers are worth subjecting families to the occasional death threat. Sadly, they’re not the first, nor likely to be the last.
Are our reactions to ideas that we don’t like becoming more extreme? Some would argue that the nature of modern media — and, generally, information accessibility in the digital age — has amplified the rabid nature of the more aggressive among us.
Many comment forums, like the one on The Stanford Daily’s webpage, are anonymous: It’s much easier to make vitriolic comments if no one knows who you are. And while, as an opinion columnist for The Daily, my voice gets promoted to a slightly higher level of authority, anyone with an Internet connection can post his or her opinions on almost any forum. It’s easy to find both like-minded people to reinforce your viewpoint, and dissenters to target.
Simultaneously, the media struggles with its timeless charge of unbiased reporting. Achieving “balance” is especially challenging today because so many environmental issues have become hopelessly politicized. For example, though international scientific consensus is that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” and “human influence on the climate system is clear” (and the “scientists” who write otherwise are, frankly, less credible), barely half of Americans believe them. Does a media outlet have to pair every climate scientist with a skeptic?
It was refreshing last week to read a brief piece from the Los Angeles Times letters editor, Paul Thornton. He wrote that he wouldn’t print climate change denial letters anymore because, the scientific consensus being what it is, these letters are simply not factual.
And while his job as an editor is to incorporate valued varied viewpoints, he will not sacrifice his fact-keeping mission. (His comment, of course, was quickly met with accusations of bias, slander calling him a “moron,” and renewed “liberal media” labeling for the “LA SLIMES”.)
We need more bravery like Thornton’s truth-telling. Being fearless is just as important as being tireless — you won’t change any minds if you don’t try. People may react, and overreact.
You may overreact yourself. Just remember that you have the intelligence and the ability to damp that pendulum swing and pick out those shades of gray.
Holly welcomes reader questions, comments, and other feedback at hollyvm ‘at’ stanford.edu. She also heartily enjoys reading the thoughts of various fearless online commenters on the online version of Seeing Green. You can also like Seeing Green on Facebook.