The Book Club

Ban DDT, Let the Terrorists Win


For two people in a debate over cultural rifts, you and I sure are agreeing on a great deal. I suppose that’s one positive sign.

That’s why I hate to turn this, now, into the most tedious sort of fight—one about interpreting voter stats. There’s voluminous poli-sci research on the recent rise of independent voters, and the picture isn’t as clear-cut as you say. Yes, the share of Americans who identify as independents has grown over the past couple of decades. At the same time, though, the meaning of independence has shifted: Most unaligned voters now exhibit strong, pseudo-permanent preferences—in surveys as well as in voting behavior—for one party or another. The number of what you might call “pure” independents—voters who pick candidates without regard to party and ideology—has been steadily declining.

And don’t overlook all the other signs of growing political polarization. Americans who do identify with parties are now much less willing than in the past to vote across party lines. In the 1970s, liberals frequently voted  (PDF) for Republicans and conservatives for Democrats. We don’t see that sort of behavior anymore. Congress has also grown steadily more partisan; party-line votes on all but the most inconsequential of issues are now the norm. Just look at what’s happened to John McCain in the last 10 years—he was against Bush’s tax cuts before he was for them, which pretty much says it all, no?

Can we blame the new infosphere for this new partisanship? It certainly doesn’t deserve all the blame. Gerrymandering, lobbying, campaign-finance rules, 9/11, and Tom DeLay, among other things, have also likely contributed to polarization. The rise of voters who call themselves “independent” notwithstanding, we’ve seen few signs, since 1990, of people reaching for common ground.

I agree with you on global warming. Though a large number of Americans still dismisses the science, it does look like facts about climate change are slowly washing over the culture. But let’s not forget your question: Would the public of the 1950s—the mass-media public—have accepted the facts sooner than the public of the 2000s, the niche-media public? The question, as you say, is untestable.

But on Rachel Carson: Silent Spring was first serialized in The New Yorker in the summer of 1962, and it came out as a book that September. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club title, and quickly hit the New York Times best-seller list. In 1963, CBS Reports, a 60 Minutes-type show, broadcast an hourlong report on Carson’s thesis that the pesticide DDT was causing ecological damage. This was back when one-third of the nation watched CBS—we’re talking American Idol-type ratings.

The chemical industry mounted a huge counterattack in the media. Carson was called a “hysterical woman,” assailed as an alarmist, and accused of overlooking all the benefits of DDT. The charges didn’t stick. John F. Kennedy’s science advisory panel looked into Silent Spring’s thesis and supported its claims. The industry largely backed down, and within a few years the government began to regulate DDT. In 1972—10 years after Silent Spring’s publication, under a Republican administration—the pesticide was banned for use in the United States.

Just 10 years! Can you imagine the fate that would await Silent Spring if it were serialized in The New Yorker today? You can guess it would get some play: NPR and the big newspapers would go after the story; sites like TreeHugger and Grist and maybe Slate and Salon would discuss it; perhaps the network news would interview Carson; and maybe cable news would get to it, too.

But picture the fun Fox News and right-wing blogs would have with it. Carson had researched DDT’s effects on the environment for years, but the science was not airtight; there was, as in any emerging field of study, legitimate disagreement among experts over the scope of the problem and the remedy. Today, the right would surely distort that disagreement.

In True Enough, I describe the scourge of dubious “expertise” we now see in the media—people of questionable credentials (sometimes with undisclosed financial interests) who are called on by TV producers to discuss matters about which they’ve got no special knowledge. I’ll hazard that such experts would flood the zone to fight Carson today, just as they do on global warming. The anti-environmentalists would produce pseudo-scientific research of their own showing how DDT harms only terrorists, and in fact helps bald eagles live longer, happier lives. This stuff, then, would get passed around the right, attaining a measure of respect and becoming a kind of parallel truth. How long till Glenn Beck begins comparing Carson to Hitler?

All speculation, of course. But that seems to me a pretty good template for how objective facts are churned out through the news these days. If Silent Spring were published today, would it lead to a ban of DDT? Maybe. But not fast enough, I worry.

I’d been looking forward to this debate, Steven; it’s been fun. I probably haven’t changed your mind about the Internet’s role in society—and you haven’t changed mine—but here’s hoping that a civil chat between rivals serves as a model for others online.