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#18: Still scary after all these years

You know Silent Spring. Well, know of it, at least; maybe you haven't read it. Even fifty years after its publication, it's still shocking how cavalierly toxic pesticides were sprayed in Carson's era - spread, for instance, by airplanes over suburban neighborhoods without advance warning and against the occupants' wishes, etc. The DDT would soak into the ground, where the earthworms would find it; the robins would eat the earthworms; and thereby the toxins work their way up the food chain concentrating themsleves in doses far beyond the initial spray.

The book's a strong primer in how to bring a case to the public. Carson explains the science involved - cutting-edge at the time - by refusing to overwhelm; she presents just enough information to her readers to give them an informed working knowledge of the situation. Her research is meticulous and well-cited, and the conclusions she drew have proven pretty prescient; her asserted link between benzene and cancer, for instance, is now widely supported by a number of studies. She frames her report as a narrative, giving a structure to her argument that underlines her main points - that seemingly small actions can aggregate to big consequences; that nature is a living system, and you cannot engineer one aspect of it in isolation.

Now that DDT is being considered a weapon of last resort in the fight against malaria, some are blaming Carson for sounding the alarm about its dangers in the first place - claiming that we could've carpet-bombed the African continent the continent with DDT and had no malaria ever more ever. Well, they say you can inversely judge an argument by the quality of its detractors, so have an article from one of the primary the anti-Carson websites on how cesium-137 is health food.

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