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Blurring the Lines

Caroline Figgie

I am currently a sophmore at Davidson, with my major as of yet undecided, although I am leaning towards the sciences. I went to Greenwich Academy for high school, a private school in Connecticut. I’ve always enjoyed studies that highlight logic and analytical thinking, and my first-year writing course encouraged me to incorporate both into my essays. Caroline’s essay was produced in Professor Shireen Campbell’s English 101: Dangerous Words and Spin.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was an extremely controversial book when it was published in 1962.1 This discord was partially fueled by the rarity of women scientists like Carson (most professional working women were either nurses or schoolteachers) and by the fact the Carson remained unmarried, flouting the still-common expectation that women should marry and have children.  However, the principle source of controversy was the book’s broad range of criticism. It critiqued the government for misuse of dangerous chemicals, poor research, and endangering the public. It criticized researchers for not exploring the side effects of pesticides, and instead focusing single-mindedly on their effectiveness. It also criticized pesticide and herbicide manufacturers for neglecting safety concerns and environmental impacts in pursuit of profits. Because of its sharp criticism, Silent Spring became for some a target of attack.  Carson’s opposition attempted to discredit both her argument, often through ad hominem invectives which implied that her gender and choice to remain unwed limited her understanding of the subject.2 In more legitimate attacks, her detractors impugned her credibility as a scientist and the status of her book as a source of reliable information.3  As Murphy reports: “one reviewer did concede that ‘it was not meant to be a scientific document’ but compared Carson to a ‘pamphleteer’.”4 It is undoubtedly true that Carson does use tactics other than “dispassionate scientific evidence” in Silent Spring.5 However, despite her use of literary techniques absent from most science writing, Silent Spring is a form of scientific communication similar to those of a more technical tone, a classification which allows the reader to analyze Carson’s view of both her public and her scientific communication with that public.

Carson utilizes a fusion of methods from both scientific and literary genres to convey her messages. Contrary to what her critics claim, Silent Spring does contain reliable scientific facts. There are a full fifty-five pages of citations at the end of the book, references to scientific research, governmental reports, and various other sources ofss3-150x150 Blurring the Lines professional information. For example, she cites the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Public Health Service, and The New England Journal of Medicine, to name a few. While distributed throughout the book, these references are most apparent in the chapter “Elixirs of Death,” where Carson describes pesticides that concern her in technical terms, including the chemical background of each. Nonetheless, Carson also relies heavily on anecdotes and literary devices such as metaphor, personification, allusions and lyrical language to communicate her information to readers.

Because of the quality of information Carson offers, and the ways in which she carefully manages explanations, Silent Spring has many of the attributes considered to be ideal for conveying scientific information to non-specialists.

While anecdotes of harm caused by pesticides (one example is found on pages 176-177) cannot be generalized to apply to every occasion in which they are used (nor can they indicate the kind of causal relationships posited in experimental science) enough of them can indicate a strong correlation between pesticide use damage to the environment, animals, and humans. If nothing else, they indicate the possibility for pesticides to cause harm, which Carson argues is an unnecessary risk since other options (such as biological controls), with less potential for harm, are available.6 Therefore, her use of supportive anecdotes is more straightforward than is her use of literary techniques, which caused her critics to define Silent Spring  as “passionate propaganda.”7 Carson does use lyrical language when describing aspects of nature that she thinks her public should appreciate and value: “a curving wing of a bird in flight” for instance.8 She alludes to popular literary works or other common knowledge, such as the Borgia family to help emphasize her points.9 She also employs metaphors and personifications to help illustrate the workings of nature: “Then living things began to work their creative magic and little by little these inert materials became soil.”10 However, in using these methods, Carson strives toward the ideal of scientific communication with the public rather than an aesthetic interest for its own sake.

Because of the quality of information Carson offers, and the ways in which she carefully manages explanations, Silent Spring has many of the attributes considered to be ideal for conveying scientific information to non-specialists. Sharing accurate scientific information with a non-expert public is generally considered quite difficult. As such, certain qualities are needed to make the transaction effective, according to studies on scientific communication with the public. Relevancy and applications of research are important, since people are generally  more “interested in what affects them personally.”11 Guiding ideas are more important than the specifics of research.12 And “demonstrations, ‘activities’ involving the audience, images, and the use of comedy” are all more effective an engaging than “lectures or strongly text-based modes [of communication].” ((Davies, “Constructing,” 418.))

Carson certainly makes a strong effort to convey the relevance of his information; besides argument that we all, as humans, could suffer illness or death as a result of the overuse of pesticides, she also outlines why specific groups should care.13 She provides examples in which large pesticide ss3-150x150 Blurring the Linesapplications are followed by the death of pets (appealing to pet-owners), birds (appealing to birdwatchers), fish (for those who fish), and deer and other game (for hunters).  Carson mostly mentions the key ideas and implications for research before going on to supply her examples; she explains the toxicity of the pesticides in third chapter, for example, before extending that point into anecdotes throughout the rest of the book. In place of visual images, she uses descriptive language, metaphors, and personifications that make her ideas more accessible to the non-expert public. One such example is her calling the organisms living in the soil part of the “soil community,” lending the soil a sense of social interaction, which helps the reader identify with creature living in the dirt.14 Carson uses anecdotes instead of demonstrations. She replaces “activities” with exhortations to her readers to demand a change in pesticide policies, giving the knowledge she imparts a practicality of action. She implores: “When will the public become sufficiently aware of the facts to demand such action?”15 Carson also uses occasional irony and even sarcasm, subtle forms of humor, to keep the audience’s attention and to emphasize her points. All of these tactics indicate Carson’s interest in reaching a wide public.

Both the attitude with which Carson approaches her task and the writerly methods she employs indicate Carson’s rhetorical savvy. Her use of literary tactics and her specific targeting of groups in order to convince her audience of the negative effects of pesticides point to her abiding ethic of care, a generous concern for beneficial persuasion. Also apparent is her assumption that her audience is either naïve or misinformed about pesticide’s dangers, thus necessitating tactical measures.

If her writing does its work, the public will stimulate changes in science–a reciprocity that improves the scientific enterprise all the way around.  At one point, Carson urges the public to demand more research in biological controls rather than chemical pesticides: “we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.”16 Her belief in the public’s stimulus to perform new research suggests that Carson envisions scientific communication as a robust and constant exchange between experts and non-experts. In essence, as Davies so succinctly puts this, “political and ethical decisions are not just for the scientists to make.”17

Carson was unorthodox in many ways, including her extending the narrow definition of scientific communication, which tested traditional boundaries. But what prompted such a high degree of criticism was not so much her rhetorical methods, but rather her argument itself. Interestingly, in her previous work, The Sea Around Us, the same literary techniques that brought criticism to Silent Spring, received praise. As one reviewer put this: “She tells her story with scientific assurance and a happy freedom from scientific jargon.”18  This discrepancy indicates that what troubled Silent Spring‘s reviewers was her “attack” on the pesticide industry, while her communicative style was generally admired. Despite its novelty, Carson’s blending of genres–the scientific with the literary–shows that there are new possibilities for science writing, possibilities that are perhaps more effective because they are ultimately accessible to non-specialists.

Bibliography

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

Davies, Sarah R. “Constructing Communication: Talking to Scientists about Talking to the Public.” Science Communication 29, no. 4 (2008): 413-434.

Murphy, Priscilla Coit. What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.

“Profile in Water.” Time July 16, 1951. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,889142,00.html (accessed November 8, 2009).

 

  1. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. []
  2. Priscilla Coit Murphy, What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005): 101. []
  3. Murphy, What a Book Can Do, 101-104. []
  4. Murphy, What a Book Can Do, 104. []
  5. Murphy, What a Book Can Do, 103. []
  6. Carson, Silent Spring, 277-297. []
  7. Murphy, What a Book Can Do, 103. []
  8. Carson, Silent Spring, 127. []
  9. Carson, Silent Spring, 173-184. []
  10. Carson, Silent Spring, 53. []
  11. Sarah R. Davies, “Constructing Communication: Talking to Scientists about Talking to the Public,” Science Communication 29, no. 4 (June 2008): 417. []
  12. Davies, “Constructing,” 418. []
  13. Carson, Silent Spring, 187-243. []
  14. Carson, Silent Spring, 56. []
  15. Carson, Silent Spring, 152. []
  16. Carson, Silent Spring, 278. []
  17. Davies, “Constructing,” 424. []
  18. “Profile in Water,” Time.  July 16, 1951. http:www.time.com/time/magazine/article/o,9171,889142,00.html (accessed November 8, 2009). []
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