Minding the Sciences — The Not-So-Silent Spring

Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a new Minding the Campus article series called Minding the Sciences, wherein we are renewing our focus on the sciences given the many threats it faces in modern academia. Click here to learn more.

Sixty years ago, Rachel Carson warned of a “silent spring” to come. Presently, here in upstate New York, our long-awaited spring is anything but silent, filled as it is with chirping cardinals, phoebes, and goldfinches, buzzing bumblebees (which are not supposed to be here anymore), and that curse of the northeast spring, the despicable, whining black flies.

The silent spring has become environmentalism’s enduring vision. As in all millenarian ideologies, when Carson’s doom failed to appear, the faithful said to one another, “Not to worry, it will come.” This time, instead of pesticides wiping out the insects, it will be the “climate crisis” that does them in. So says Oliver Milman, who paints a dark picture of impending doom in his book, The Insect Crisis:

The first inkling of the cataclysm was the deathly stillness. The countryside, suburban gardens, and urban parks, their soundtracks now muffled, became lifeless imitations of themselves. No more rumbling buzzsaw of a passing bee, no metronomic chirping of a cricket, no nagging whine of a famished mosquito. …

The world’s insects had vanished, but the lag of human inertia meant that the first howl of horror, oddly, came not from us, but rather from the birds.

Not to quibble, but I don’t know of any bird that howls in horror, but never mind: perhaps Milman’s silent spring will not be so silent after all.

Milman is an environmental reporter for The Guardian, but he also is a monomaniacal climate catastrophist. Those recent fires in Quebec that have darkened skies all through the Northeast? Climate change! Pandemics? Climate change! Problems with penguins? Climate change! Goats fighting sheep? Climate change!

To be fair, Milman can claim he is only reporting on the work of frontline scientists, who he says are raising increasingly loud alarms on the state of the world’s insects. Milman’s message: to avoid catastrophe, follow the science and act now! To paraphrase the Proverb: Go to the insects, ye climate-denying sluggards, consider their ways, and be wise!

Last year saw several high-profile papers raise the alarm. In October 2022, Nature Climate Change published a lengthy article describing how climate change increases extinction risk for insects and other “ectothermic”1 animals. Oh dear! In July 2022, Ecological Monographs (a publication of the Ecological Society of America) published a multi-authored manifesto warning of the dangers climate change poses to insects. These include a loss of all the things insects do for us and for nature (the “tiny empires that rule the world,” as Milman’s subtitle puts it). Along with these came a spate of popular articles by environmental journalists, including Milman. Government also stepped in to reinforce the message. Consensus!

Are we really facing a climate-induced insect apocalypse? Probably not. The insects are species-rich, accounting for 90% of all the animal species on Earth. They have persisted through several mass extinctions, including the late-Permian extinction event 250 million years ago that wiped out 90% of the world’s fauna. They sailed through the Cretaceous–Tertiary mass extinction 65 million years ago, when an asteroid strike ushered about 30% of species (including dinosaurs) off the ecological stage. Yet, the insects endure because they are the planet’s most resilient and adaptable creatures. It’s a pretty safe bet that they will not be wiped out by a few tenths of a degree rise of global mean temperature.

What of those recent scientific publications that say otherwise? The bet stands, for two reasons. First is the echo chamber of climate doomsaying. The other is shortcomings in the science itself.

[Related: “Science is Rotting from the Top”]

Climate change is not so much a scientific issue as it is a moral panic. It bears uncanny resemblance to the eugenics mania from the early twentieth century. Then, the panic was over racial purity, bolstered by the consensus support of nearly the entire scientific community at the time. Now, the panic is over changing climate—never mind that climate has always changed, and at magnitudes much larger than the present.

Moral panics arise from a closed positive feedback loop. All the protagonists in the climate change panic—journalists, governments, activists, and scientists—are enclosed in an echo chamber that amplifies the message at every turn. Scientists make a claim (insects are in trouble, we think it’s climate). Journalists amplify the claim in attention-grabbing articles. Funders step in to “help”. More scientists pick up on the hot topic and recast their work to be relevant. With every doom-mongering echo, rewards accumulate. The science journalists get clicks, which pleases the horde of foundations who are pumping millions of dollars into news organizations to pay their salaries. Scientists’ public profiles are enhanced, driving up the citation counts for their papers. This pleases their administrations and granting agencies, which bolsters claims for promotion, salaries, and more grant funding. Publishers love it because their quality metrics go up, allowing them to attract more authors (and lucrative page charges) to their journals. Once the panic has become sufficiently amplified, the cool rationality and skepticism that science is supposed to bring to debates like this becomes the unwelcome dog in the manger.

Even so, the appearance of scientific objectivity must be maintained. The EM manifesto’s seventy authors and nearly four hundred references are intended to project an air of scientific consensus and authority. The hedging qualifiers that permeate the text bely this. The word “may” shows up ninety-one times in the text, as in, “severe droughts may push the last remaining ephemeral populations toward extinction.” Then again, they may not. “I may win the Powerball and buy that Porsche I’ve always coveted.” Then again, I may not. Clarifying the odds should settle the matter in any case, but qualifiers that would help set the odds, like “probability,” are absent altogether. The authors’ “warning” thus amounts to uncertainty (severe droughts may occur …) piled upon uncertainty (… which may cause extinction)— hardly a reason to pay the warning any heed.

Behind the linguistic prestidigitation lurks a more fundamental scientific flaw. Climate science is a field dominated by physics. Most of the predicted consequences of climate change concern biology: extinction, ecosystem health, disease, pests, and so forth. To make credible predictions about the biology, the physics of climate has to meld coherently with the biology of climate adaptation. Presently, it does not.

A difference of scale causes much of the mismatch. The basic tool of climate science is the General Circulation Model (GCM). This divides Earth’s surface and atmosphere into blocks, or cells, of 250 to 600 kilometers wide and 20 to 40 km deep. The temperature of each cell can be calculated: global temperature comes from simultaneous calculations of the temperatures of all the cells. In contrast, insects operate on scales of centimeters. At such small scales, the temperature actually experienced by an insect can vary over ranges of plus or minus ten or more Celsius degrees relative to the cell temperature, more if the habitat is structurally complex. Forested landscapes are more structurally complex than grasslands, for example. This adds an order-of-magnitude layer of uncertainty over the already substantial uncertainty that comes out of GCM climate predictions. The statistical noise thereby becomes so large that reliable predictions of the effects of climate change on insects (or for any organism, for that matter) are impossible.

Paradoxically, this large uncertainty helps ensure that insects will be just fine in a changing climate. At the small scale that insects inhabit, the large variation of local temperature ensures a high probability that equable microhabitats will be available somewhere within those tens of thousands of square kilometers encompassed in a GCM cell. Patches of shade, perches under leaves, and adjustments of the time they are active are all opportunities for adaptation, which, be assured, insects will exploit. At a small scale, these adaptive opportunities are vast, making the likelihood of extinction due to a small shift of temperature commensurably small.

[Related: “Science Should Leave the University”]

This brings me to a second fallacy, which Roger Pielke Jr. has called environmental determinism: that the fates of organisms are determined by their environment. If environmental temperature gets too high, say, this will determine whether an insect species lives or dies.

Environmental determinism is derived from a foundational concept of ecology, the Hutchinsonian niche.2 The ‘niche’ is a hoary concept that refers to where, and how, a particular organism fits into its environment: its place in nature. The Hutchinsonian niche is a variant concept of the niche which looks specifically at the physical interaction between organism and environment. A simple, and apt, example is the so-called thermal niche. Let us say an insect species functions well over a range of body temperatures: 30 to 35 degrees Celsius, for sake of argument. Outside that range, the species will not function well. Again, for sake of argument, let us say the environmental temperature of the species’ habitat ranges from 10 to 50 degrees Celsius. The insect’s thermal niche will encompass sub-environments within that range where environmental temperatures correspond well with the insect’s own range of functional temperatures. If those sub-environments are common, the species will thrive, because finding its thermal niche will be easy. If they are rare, or are decreasing in availability, the species will fail to thrive as its thermal niche disappears.

The supposed effect of climate change is therefore a theory of the thermal niche. A rise of global temperature will translocate an organism’s thermal niche to higher elevations, toward the poles, or to earlier in the spring. To persist, organisms will have to ‘follow their niche’ as it moves, either through physical translocation of their populations, or through genetic evolution. That is to say, their fate will be determined by their environment. Nearly all climate scenarios, including the hundreds cited in the EM manifesto, are environmentally determinist.

The logic might be sound, but the theory behind it is less so—this further undercuts the reliability of any predictions based upon it. The Hutchinsonian niche concept misses a crucial fact: organisms not only adapt to environments but also adapt environments to themselves. They construct their own niches, in other words. So, for example, the social insects I study are able to live in environments far dryer than their classically defined Hutchinsonian niche would allow. They do so by engineering the local hydrology on an ecosystem-wide scale. They adapt their environments to provide them with sufficient water, even in environments where water is scarce.

This phenomenon of “niche construction”, as it has come to be known, is ubiquitous in the living world, occurring at all scales, ranging from the humblest bacteria to the entire biosphere. Our oxygen-rich atmosphere, for example, is a planetary-scale constructed niche, as is, for that matter, global temperature. We have scarcely begun to grasp the implications of this, but one certain consequence is the overthrow of environmental determinism: life is not the slave of its environment, but its master. Any claim that fails to recognize this, no matter how many dozens of scientists make it, and no matter how many hundreds of references they cite, holds no water. These scientists do not account for the many ingenious tricks life has up its sleeve for dealing with changing climate, as life on Earth has done for roughly 3.5 billion years, and as it will do so for however long Earth is a habitable planet.

1 Ectotherms are creatures that rely on external heat sources to manage body temperature. Endotherms are creatures that use internally generated heat to manage body temperature. Mammals and birds are endotherms. Nearly all other animals (including most insects) are ectotherms.

2 After G. Evelyn Hutchinson. For an outstanding biography of this fascinating scientist, see Slack, N. G. and Wilson, E. O. (2011). G. Evelyn Hutchinson and the Invention of Modern Ecology, Yale University Press.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • J. Scott Turner

    J Scott Turner is Emeritus Professor of Biology at SUNY ESF in Syracuse, New York. He is the author of The Extended Organism: the Physiology of Animal-Built Structures (2000, Harvard University Press), and Purpose and Desire. What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It (2017, HarperOne). He is presently Director of Science Programs at the National Association of Scholars.

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15 thoughts on “Minding the Sciences — The Not-So-Silent Spring

  1. “The panic-induced banning of DDT”?

    The EPA finally cancelled Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane in 1972, a decade after the publication of Carson’s book.

    Regulatory action to limit its use, due to growing evidence of resistance in insects, and of environmental and toxicological effects (including devastating impacts on birds and other wildlife), was initiated by the Department of Agriculture a decade before publication.

    Research and regulatory action did not cease with the EPA’s order, and a wealth of research relating to DDT’s harmful effects and its decades-long persistence in the environment have informed international efforts to ban or severely limit its use, along with other persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

    Contrary to your claim, the Stockholm Convention on POPs includes a limited exemption for the use of DDT, which is listed in Annex B. Its production and/or use is restricted to disease vector control purposes when ‘no equally effective and efficient alternative is available’, and in accordance with related World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations and guidelines. It is up to individual countries afflicted by malaria whether or not to make use of it, and the EPA plays an important advisory role in so-called vector management programs.

    The ATSDR toxicological profile for DDT, which sets out the toxicology and adverse health effects, can be found here: https://wwwn.cdc.gov/TSP/ToxProfiles/ToxProfiles.aspx?id=81&tid=20

    “The very same panic is endemic in climate change”

    Ergo: none.

    1. The banning of DDT in the 1970s was indeed a moral panic, something that Rachel Carson herself did not advocate. The waivers came in precisely because African countries especially objected to being deprived of an effective counter-measure against malaria. Even then, restrictions on DDT use increased malaria-induced deaths. See e.g. Ferriman A. Attempts to ban DDT have increased deaths. BMJ. 2001 May 26;322(7297):1270. PMCID: PMC1173321.

  2. This is as concise and true statement of much that is wrong with climate alarmism as can be found. The common view that creatures are somehow static with respect to a changing environment is absurd. Not only are creatures good at engineering their environments, but evolution and adaptation can occur very, very quickly, especially with fecund creatures like insects.

    1. Yea, Judy! Aren’tcha just sick of all this climate alarmism? How much less absurd, and less bother all round, to just pump more and more carbon dioxide into the air (34 billion tons a year worldwide from fossil fuel and industry alone in 2021) and then just rely on “the many ingenious tricks life has up its sleeve for dealing with changing climate” if it all goes belly up. I like it!

      And what about all the “doom-mongering echoes” surrounding tropospheric ozone and particulate matter in the air we breathe? Air pollution alarmism, I call it.

      As for scientists’ lack of “cool rationality and skepticism” when it comes to the release of pathogenic microorganisms, organic waste, fertilizers, plant nutrients, toxic chemicals, sediments, heat, petroleum, radioactive substances and other stuff into surface and subsurface bodies of water? More panic. A combination of moral panic and grifters riding the gravy train.

      If some people, some millions of people each year worldwide (and, yes, an awful lot of animals), get sick and die, and that is the price of being exploited, we know that is better than not being exploited at all.

      Back in 2016, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said:

      “You will hear a lot of times from big polluters, the Koch brothers, their indentured servants in Washington DC and the toadies on Fox News that we have to choose economic prosperity on one hand and environmental protection on the other.

      Good environmental policy is good for economic prosperity.”

      But, Judy, we – and the author – know the opposite is true! We are with the Kochs! Environmental protection is an unnecessary expense that hurts business, and that’s what really counts.

      And that – not ‘good’ science – is what this article is actually about.

    2. The wild card in climate science is life itself. Which the physics cannot even begin to capture.

  3. Fact: The earth has a magnetic north and south pole, with a related magnetic field.
    Fact: These poles have reversed in the past — we know this from liquid magnetic rock which aligned relative to reversed poles.

    Fact: These changes have repeatedly reoccurred over time, and we are overdue for one.

    Fact: The Magnetic north pole is racing across Syberia — so much so that the GPS had to be adjusted early.

    This isn’t going to affect animals and instincts that use the global magnetic field to davigate>

    1. Indeed, magnetic poles reversals are regular occurrences, which cause massive disruptions of the atmosphere as deflection of the solar wind waxes and wains. This is another driver of long-scale climate change. Even then, there is only a tenuous connection to extinction rates.

    1. You’re unlikely to meet someone less angry than I, but enough about me. Oliver Milman is not my adversary, I think he’s actually a quite talented writer. It is his words that label him as a climate catadstrophist, though.

  4. “The Not-So-Silent Spring” is – to borrow from the great Mike Nesmith – pretty much your standard climate-science bash. It is not-so-cunningly dressed up as a level-headed assessment of the cult-like behavior of huge numbers of loony climate scientists, who have utterly and inexplicably failed to notice what J. Scott has noticed – “life is not the slave of its environment, but its master.” But the message is the same. Panic, panic, panic – all is panic! And… er… even if there is some truth in what the climate nuts assert, the right kind of science will aid humanity in planet-wide ‘niche construction.’ Good luck with that.

    J. Scott provides a reliably skewed impression of Rachel Carson’s concerns. If upstate New York is awash “with chirping cardinals, phoebes, and goldfinches, buzzing bumblebees” credit is due to Rachel’s ground-breaking and scrupulous research into the deadly and indiscriminate effects across species of DDT and other pesticides, the conclusions she reached, and the impact it had.

    DDT, as J. Scott knows, poisons everything. It goes up the food chain, from plants to insects to birds and fish and in due course to humans, leading to chronic accumulations in the fatty tissues of organisms exposed to it. The scientific term for this process is bioaccumulation or biomagnification, and its lethal implications for the structure of ecological communities and human health underpin Rachel’s observation that “In nature nothing exists alone […] But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

    At the time Rachel’s work was attacked and derided by scientists, politicians, and most vehemently by those making huge profits out of the assault on nature. Infamously, an executive of the American Cyanamid Company claimed, “If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”

    60 years on, the question that Rachel Carson poses in Silent Spring could not be more germane: “Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

    That, as we continue to spew poison into the atmosphere – therefore into everything – is the question J. Scott attempts to circumnavigate. To paraphrase Mark Twain, he didn’t have time to write a short apologia for ‘business as usual,’ so he wrote a long one instead.

    1. Rachel Carson’s legacy is, shall we say, mixed (see Meiners, R., P. Desrochers, et al. (2012). Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson, Cato Institute.), not least for the panic-mongering that permeates modern environmentalism. Panic has consequences, among them indiscriminate harm, as in the damage wrought against malaria control stemming from the panic-induced banning of DDT. The very same panic is endemic in climate change, and will have very damaging consequences, particularly for economic progress in developing countries, who often have abundant energy resources but are bought off from developing them by a faux panic over climate change (see Perry Green. 2022. Climate follies in the developing world. City Journal. 22 December 2022.).
      Scientists should not be helping to spread the panic. That was my point.

      1. Science is, at its core, a truth-seeking exercise. If this is a sample of what we can expect from MTC’s ‘Minding the Sciences,’ I despair.

    2. In fact Rachel Carson was wrong about DDT. But she didn’t know it. It was a problem of analytical chemistry, which is my field. The problem was that, at the time, instruments to measure chemicals such as DDT were not able to separate DDT and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). So the amount of DDT found was actually the amount of DDT and PCBs.
      The PCBs were the problem, not DDT. In fact DDT is an excellent protection against mosquitoes carrying malaria. The banning of DDT led to increases in deaths from malaria. Some countries (such as The Philippines) are now brining back DDT to protect from malaria.
      Here is useful scientific information about DDT:

      1. “The PCBs were the problem, not DDT.”

        “The banning of DDT led to increases in deaths from malaria.”

        Yes, good old dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely. When the EPA finally wises up and cancels its ‘bioaccumulative and toxic’ designation, one will be able to sprinkle it (now PCB-free, of course) on one’s peanut butter sandwiches.

        As an analytical chemist you will have been aware that, as part of the Global Malaria Program, indoor residual spraying is a major primary vector control intervention, and that, under strict conditions, DDT has been and remains one of the dozen World Health Organisation recommended insecticides for this procedure. You must have forgotten.

        Coincidentally, J. Scott Turner suffered the same memory lapse in respect of this ‘crucial fact.’ Spooky. N’est-ce pas?

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