Advisory Committee on Pesticides
Activity Profile || Background || Roles || Resources || Evaluation || Supplements  


In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, criticizing the indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides and advocating respect for the integrity of nature. With its vivid images and dramatic evidence, it sparked emerging concerns about pollution and wildlife into a major public controversy. President John F. Kennedy directed his Science Advisory Committee to investigate Carson's claims and make recommendations. This activity situates participants in late 1963 to respond to Kennedy's charge as members of that panel.

The episode surrounding Silent Spring became an important historical landmark. Investigations about the adverse effects of pesticides were also launched by journalists and the U.S. Congress, leading to calls for reform. In the years to follow, other environmental concerns entered public debate. Within a decade the U.S. had a new environmental protection agency, a nascent "Earth Day," and major legislation regulating DDT, endangered species, and air and water pollution. Carson's role in helping modern environmentalism take root has since come to be celebrated (and sometimes romaniticized -- see Time's 100).

The simulation here provides an occasion to consider how science and society interact by engaging participants in the arguments of Silent Spring and the original response to them. It poses questions about the roles of scientific credibility, science and values, scientific uncertainty, public understanding of scientific issues, and science and gender, as well as the science itself -- each discussed briefly below.

First, how does the public assess scientific credibility? Carson's expertise was widely challenged. Others endorsed her claims. Were pesticides indeed poisoning our food? Were they carcinogenic? Did using pesticide prompt evolution of resistance, ultimately making them ineffective in controlling the insects that ravaged crops or carried disease? Such issues touched the ordinary citizen. Yet not everyone can be an expert. Who, then, can one trust? How does one establish an effective system of credibility? Who makes decisions: the experts or persons hopefully well informed by them?

Second, how does one integrate values and science? Carson coupled her specific argument about pesticides with a general critique of human attitudes towards controlling nature. Pesticides were thus also cast as damaging wildlife and upsetting a purported balance of nature. Were those views relevant in public discourse? Were we to care (as a society) about the loss of birds, dramatized in a prospective "silent spring"? How does one make a public decision involving both moral perspectives and scientific information? How does one debate values when facts are also involved? How does one debate facts or the interpretation of facts when they seem laden with values?

Third, Silent Spring introduces the challenge of public policy under scientific uncertainty. Science is not always complete and does not always yield ideal information to resolve public controversy. What is the appropriate response? Does one use a scientifically guarded posture, even if it will later prove to be wrong? How does one hedge against possible alternatives? Does one entertain worst-case scenarios and apply a precautionary principle? In 1962, how much was reliably known about pesticides and how was policy to be estalished without knowing more and not having alternative technologies at hand?

The case of Silent Spring is especially dramatic when viewed in its historical context. The discovery of the insecticidal properties of DDT and its role in controlling typhoid and malaria in World War II occasioned a Nobel Prize in 1948. For the next decade, the culture continued to bask in the triumph of DDT and the promise of "better living through chemistry." Studies about the adverse effects of DDT had been published, but had little effect on public policy. How does one develop public understanding of scientific issues? Carson's emotional imagery was surely important to shaping public opinion. Was that inappropriate or, conversely, necessary? Did Carson or other scientists have an ethical responsibility to inform the public or, more deeply, to effect political change? How does one balance the ideal of scientific objectivity and political advocacy or activism?

The episode also raises questions about science and gender. Carson's credibility was challenged in part by portraying her as a woman (at a time when the culture largely peripheralized women from science and politics). In addition, one may consider how Carson's views about the control of nature were shaped by values fostered by the culture more deeply among women. How important was Carson's gender to her interpretation of science, her perceived role in communicating it to the public and her writing style?

The case may also be an occasion to explore several scientific concepts:

  • ecology of agriculture & the role of pest control
  • ecology of disease transmission & the role of pest control
  • natural selection of resistance to pesticides
  • concentration of elements in food chain
  • predator/prey and parasite host interactions (as basis for 'biological control')
  • cellular biochemistry and the mechaniss of pesticide action
Silent Spring was on the New York Times bestseller list for 31 weeks. It appeared on The Modern Library's "Best 100 Non-fiction Books of the Century" (#5); Boston Public Library's "100 Most Influential Books of the Century"; and New York Public Library's 100 "Books of the Century." Rachel Carson was one of only twenty "scientists and thinkers" recognized in Time's 100 most important persons of the 20th century. The pivotal position of Carson's book in 20th-century society, not just science, indicates the importance of engaging it in some depth.
Material for the simulation is organized as follows (and available through links at the top of each webpage):
  • The activity and major issues are described for participants in the project profile.
  • A background essay provides the historical context. Historical supplements aim to help revive a sense of the time period.
  • There is a list of roles. For each there is individual orientation, guidance and prospective resources.
  • There is also a general list of resources, including books, scientific and historical articles and government reports, as well as some online resources. Copies of many hard-to-secure historical sources are included here in the simulation "library."
  • Teaching notes offer guidance for leading the simulation, and provide background information mapping the issues for discussion and the positions of various participants.
  • For a synoptic overview of the episode and its major issues (in an alternate non-simulation activity), see "Rachel Carson & Silent Spring".

Simulation assembled by Douglas Allchin. || last revised July 28, 2008