Energy & Environment

Vermont Conversation: How anti-science disinformation spreads poison

Elena Conis, left, and her new book, "How to Sell a Poison." Images courtesy of Elena Conis

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Sixty years ago this week, author Rachel Carson published the landmark book, "Silent Spring." Carson argued that pesticides, especially DDT, were poisoning people and the environment. and that the chemical industry was spreading disinformation in order to profit from this disaster. "Silent Spring" inspired the modern environmental movement and led to the banning of DDT in 1972.

Today, DDT is back, thanks in part to a new era of industry disinformation.

Elena Conis argues the current science denialism movement — led by anti-vaxxers, climate deniers and Covid-19 skeptics — has its roots in efforts by industry and right-wing think tanks to cast doubt on science. Conis is a professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of “Vaccine Nation” and a new book, “How to Sell a Poison: The Rise, Fall, and Toxic Return of DDT.”

“Way back in the 1950s, the chemical companies had employed these PR firms that essentially began to sketch out what's now known as a playbook on how to defend your product and undermine public faith in evidence that your product might be causing harm,” Conis said on The Vermont Conversation. “This involves things like casting doubt on the scientists who are talking about the hazards of a particular chemical or technology. It involves courting journalists and encouraging them to see your side of the story and to cover your side of the story. It also involves creating scientific debate where there is none or making a debate seem consequential even though scientific consensus falls almost entirely on one particular side of the issue.”

The result is the situation today where people say, “I'm only going to trust this, or I'm going to reject that. I'm going to take Ivermectin, or I'm not going to wear a mask or whatever it is. … We've lost sight of the fact that science is a process. It's about experimentation. It's about asking questions about the world we live in, coming up with answers that make sense for the moment and then adjusting those answers when the moment or the situation changes,” she said.

“We've shifted from a country that appeared to trust in science and institutions of science to one that has been encouraged to question everything to the point where … you can readily find the evidence or justification you need,” Conis said.

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David Goodman

About David

David Goodman is an award-winning journalist and the author of a dozen books, including four New York Times bestsellers that he co-authored with his sister, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, New York Times, Outside, Boston Globe and other publications. He is the host of The Vermont Conversation, a VTDigger podcast featuring in-depth interviews about local and national topics. The Vermont Conversation is also an hour-long weekly radio program that can be heard on Wednesday at 1 p.m. on WDEV/Radio Vermont.


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