Low Quality Literature Is Hard To Discuss

I recently read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I liked it. I had been told it’s horrible. The book and its author have been demonized by right-wingers including the Ayn Rand Institute.

It’s a really famous and controversial book. It had a significant influence on political policies. A lot has been written praising or attacking it.

So I thought I’d be able to find criticisms and counter-criticisms to analyze. I thought there’d be a complex discourse that I could make a tree of. But I basically can’t find anything worth analyzing. I tried, but most critical literature attacks things the book doesn’t say, attacks Carson’s character, or attacks something else like the character of an expert that Carson quoted. Many so-called criticisms wouldn’t refute Silent Spring’s claims even if they were true. Lots of commentary is just mudslinging, not truth-seeking discourse. It’s hard to find anything to give a rebuttal to.

The responses to Carson routinely fail to give quotes from the book then point out errors in those quotes. They also don’t read Carson’s scientific citations and point out specific factual or scientific errors in those texts. E.g. they will accuse Carson of “junk science” but not point out a scientific experiment she cited that was done incorrectly or was contradicted by a later result. (I’ve noticed and complained that a lot of my critics have similar problems, e.g. they make vague arguments but don’t quote me and point out specific errors in text I wrote, nor in text Karl Popper wrote.)

I could take a bunch of criticisms and say “This doesn’t provide quotes and evidence to show Carson ever said the thing being criticized.” Or I could quote Carson saying things contradicting what they claim about her. But I don’t think many people would care, and I wouldn’t get to talk about the object-level issues like the toxicity of DDT. In a better world, people would be more receptive to meta criticism.

Carson is also accused of the “precautionary principle”, but her book doesn’t directly advocate that, so people making the accusation ought to explain why they attribute it to her.

I often read people talking about the criticism Carson had already received (usually without citations) rather than actually giving criticism. Like they’d say she was already refuted by previous critics (without naming, citing or summarizing any) and then proceed to talk about how evil it was of Carson to attack useful chemicals based on her environmentalist agenda of leaving nature untouched (which is not what her book actually asks for).

I know that documenting details is extra work, which is why I haven’t provided a bunch of detailed examples with quotes in this article. But this is just a short article using Silent Spring as an example of a philosophical theme about discussion methodology. And I wrote down some details on my forum, so now you have a citation as well as a place you could engage in debate. I’d be more willing to write down details if anyone who disagreed actually wanted to talk about it productively. I also have more details saved in unpublished notes and several draft articles. Silent Spring is really famous, so if it’s wrong you’d expect at least a few people to write high quality rebuttals, and for many other critics to link at least one of the good rebuttals in addition to insulting Carson. (If you know of any good criticism of Silent Spring, please share it with me.)

The idea of engaging with what an author actually said is not new. It’s not my idea. It’s just unpopular and uncommon.

Henry Hazlitt wrote Failure of the 'New Economics’ (1959), a book-length refutation of John Maynard Keynes's General Theory. Hazlitt used many quotes and engaged with what Keynes actually said. Despite Hazlitt being a prominent intellectual with a sizable audience, and Keynes being extremely popular and influential (to this day), I’m not aware of any Keynesian ever publishing a rebuttal to Hazlitt. And I’ve rarely (maybe never) seen Hazlitt’s book mentioned by anti-Keynesians, either. It seems that criticism that actually engages with what someone said isn’t particularly wanted or appreciated by either side.

Similarly, many years ago, I read around 20 books about Edmund Burke. All but one were relatively short, vague summaries. They usually got most of the basic facts right but also repeated some commonly believed falsehoods without giving any textual evidence. By contrast, The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke (1992) by Conor Cruise O'Brien actually quoted Burke extensively and connected its claims (about e.g. what kind of person Burke was or what he believed) to words Burke said (not to inaccurate summaries and paraphrases about Burke’s speeches). O’Brien also discussed and criticized some false narratives about Burke, whereas most books just didn’t acknowledge that any other viewpoints exist. People often ignore the existence of disagreement instead of making arguments (perhaps because they don’t want to give the other side any extra attention and publicity or they’re bad at arguing).