September 27, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

‘Silent spring’ – making science public

In terms of making science (and products of science) public, the book Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson, published 50 years ago today, occupies a unique place. It was one of the first popular science books that shaped public perception of the world we live in and it also had direct political consequences. Carson’s book alerted scientists, the media and the general public to the dangers associated with the indiscriminate use of pesticides, such as DDT, to wildlife, humans and the environment.

Rachel Carson’s legacy has just been explored in an article, or rather a compilation, by Leo Hickman for The Guardian. When reading this article, I was reminded of an (academic) article I penned ten years ago, around the 40th anniversary of Silent Spring, prompted by reflections on an altogether different silent spring caused by foot and mouth disease in 2001. One argument I make in the article is that the metaphor of silent spring permeates talk about environmental issues to this day. It has populated many niches of discourse from ecology to economics, and it will live on well beyond the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book. This book title will resonate with us for a long time.

War and peace

In the spring of 2001 Britain lived through a devastating outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which led to the widespread slaughter of huge numbers farm animals whose corpses were incinerated on massive pyres. As our study of the social and cultural impact of foot and mouth disease showed, the phrase ‘silent spring’ was evoked frequently during the outbreak with reference to the empty countryside that resulted from the large-scale slaughter policy. In the spring of 2001 the countryside was literally and metaphorically at war, and death, the eternal partner of war, was everywhere: in the funeral pyres, the funeral pits, the burial trenches, the mass graves or ”Hecatombs”, in the smoke in the air and in the (deathly) silence that followed the slaughter. This silence was described as a ”deafening silence”, an ”eerie silence”. The countryside was said to be ”uncannily quite”, ”silent”, and ”lifeless.” Referring back to Carson’s 1962 book, one farmer said: ”There is nothing: it is Silent Spring: empty fields in a silent spring.” Some also spoke of ”the silence of the lambs”. Silence became a motif that permeated all writing about the foot and mouth crisis, from newspaper articles to children’s poetry, such as this: “Silence…. Lots of silence. No moo, no baa, no neigh. No more sheep to round up no more. Silence…” (Matthew Whitehouse, Age 11 from Settle Middle School) (published in: Life Extinguished, 2001) Or verses in a 2001 collection of poems by James Crowden whose website has unfortunately fallen silent: “Summary executions, As if Goya was on hand as a marksman, Or Hieronymus Bosch employed as a war artist.” These are powerful images of death and silence, similar to the evocation of a desolate village at the beginning of Carson’s book: “On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

The silence of the lambs, just as the silence of the birds predicted by Carson, was a deathly one, a silence following a slaughter policy based on war and conquest. What Carson was hoping for when writing her book was that our war with nature would cease and be replaced by peace, by making peace with nature (see Hickman’s conversation with Satish Kumar in his Guardian article). This also means replacing the certainties provided by war and conquest with exploring and negotiating uncertainties.

Science, uncertainty and public debate

A decade after my foray into foot and mouth disease, I am now working more within the field of climate change and the languages that pervade climate change debates. One of the issues that I am concerned with is that of uncertainty and the representation and communication of uncertainty. So I was astonished to find an article on Silent Spring by Andy Revkin published today in the New York Times, where he establishes a link between Carson’s work and uncertainty, via a linguistic analysis of its emergence. He quotes from a 2010 study by Walker who used archival material to demonstrate how Carson amplified (or rather modulated) scientific uncertainty in order to awaken public participation. Revkin quotes a long passage from this work, from which I want to quote a short passage, but one that is really interesting with regards to discussions about the up-or down-playing of uncertainty at the science-policy interface:

“Carson’s choice to deliberately increase her use of uncertainty in ‘Silent Spring’ came as a bit of surprise since in the well documented cases of tobacco, acid rain, and global warming, it was the skeptic’s strategy to amplify doubt, not the scientist’s. In Carson we saw a counter-example: her composing process suggested that uncertainty is a crucial site for public participation and precautionary action. Uncertainty’s ability to disrupt knowledge (‘we don’t know’) and actualize risk (‘potential for harm’) gave the public a place to draw their own inferences, make their own evaluations, assert their right to know the potential hazards they face, and to motivate policy action. Uncertainty provided the readers of ‘Silent Spring’ a clearly defined role in an otherwise inaccessible scientific controversy. Uncertainty shaped the promise of Carson’s book: to let the public decide for themselves.”

Here then scientific uncertainty seems to be used not so much to put a break on political action, public debate and public participation, but to foster thought and action both by politicians and publics. This issue, of the strategic use of scientific uncertainty in opening up or closing down public debates and policy debates, certainly needs further reflection and research, especially in environmental, rural and farming policy contexts. It highlights central dilemmas and challenges associated with making science public.





Posted in Science CommunicationScience PolicyUncertainty