Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Muzzling the scientists

Let me say, from the outset, that I am not a particularly political person.

I do vote, and I try to keep myself informed, but I find that politics in general seems mostly to fall into two classes: (1) arguing over things that are obvious, such as whether banning same-sex marriage is discrimination; and (2) arguing over things that are so complex that it's unlikely we'll ever see a solution, such as how to balance the federal budget.

So, I find politics alternately maddening and baffling, and mostly I leave the political debates to the people who relish that sort of thing.  But what does make me sit up and take notice is when politicians begin to intrude on the realm of science -- which is what the government of Canada did, just last week.

In an article that a Canadian friend sent to me, entitled, "Canadian Government Votes Against... Science," we hear about a frighteningly common trend -- the desire by politicians to control what scientists research, publish, and discuss.  Here's what happened:

A little over a year ago, a claim hit the media that the Canadian government was "muzzling" its scientists.  At a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held last February, Canadian scientists discussed the push of politicians to control what scientists were doing, particularly about controversial topics.  The government had the previous year issued a "protocol" that provided rules governing how scientists could interact with the media.  This protocol included the following:
Just as we have one department we should have one voice. Interviews sometimes present surprises to ministers and senior management. Media relations will work with staff on how best to deal with the call (an interview request from a journalist). This should include asking the programme expert to respond with approved lines.
Naturally, scientists were infuriated by the demand that they toe the party line.  "The Prime Minister (Stephen Harper) is keen to keep control of the message, I think to ensure that the government won't be embarrassed by scientific findings of its scientists that run counter to sound environmental stewardship," said Thomas Pedersen of the University of Victoria.  "I suspect the federal government would prefer that its scientists don't discuss research that points out just how serious the climate change challenge is."

Andrew Weaver, also of the University of Victoria, was even more pointed.  He said that the desire of the government was to keep the public "in the dark."

Some politicians took notice, and there was a measure recently introduced into parliament that read as follows:
That, in the opinion of the House,

a) public science, basic research, and the free and open exchange of scientific information are essential to evidence-based policy-making;

b) federal government scientists must be enabled to discuss openly their findings with their colleagues and the public;

c) the government should maintain support for its basic scientific capacity across Canada, including immediately extending funding, until a new operator is found, to the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area Research Facility to pursue its unique research program.
The measure was defeated, 157-137.

I find this infuriating, but hardly surprising.  Here in the United States, there has been so much emphasis put on spinning science news that we have gotten to the point that a significant percentage of the public doesn't even trust the facts.  The scientists themselves have an agenda, political leaders claim.  If scientific research presents findings that run counter to the party-approved position, the scientists must be shills.

The result: to a lot of people, even the data is suspect.  At the far end of this we have articles like the one that appeared last week in Forbes entitled "Sorry, Global Warming Alarmists - the Earth is Cooling," which was such a hash of cherry-picked facts, misextrapolations, and outright lies that I barely know where to start.  Beginning with the fact that the author, Peter Ferrara, is the Director of Entitlement and Budget Policy for the Heartland Institute, which has as its stated goal "promoting climate skepticism."

Because that, evidently, is an unbiased, "skeptical" stance.

It is a frightening trend.  The problem is that if you can convince people that facts, that hard data, have a bias, you can convince them of damn near anything.  Yes, there can be productive political arguments over how to respond to a particular set of facts; but the data are either true or false, they cannot in themselves have an agenda.  And the desire of the government to control what the public knows is especially terrifying -- "Orwellian," in the words of Professor Weaver.  The fact that the Canadian parliament voted down a measure that stated that "federal government scientists must be enabled to discuss openly their findings with their colleagues and the public" should scare the absolute hell out of you.

I hope, for the sake of truth, that scientists in Canada and elsewhere defy this increasing demand by politicians that they should have the right to control the free flow of scientific information, and its release to the public.  It's bad enough that in many cases, governments control the purse strings, determining which research gets funding and which does not; it's worse when they want to make sure that the results of that research support the party's platform.  In the words of Carl Sagan, "The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there is no place for it in the endeavor of science."


  1. After you've presented facts, tried rational explanation, attempted healthy discussion, joined in the propaganda, sunk to ridicule, and still nothing seems to change, what do you do? I refuse to sink to their level and propagate/believe lies. The problem is I can't figure out what TO do.
    Great post, Gordon. Thanks.

  2. Well said sir. Shame you're "not a particularly political person", politics could use more sane voices.

    As far as what is to be done about the suppression of science- with the distribution of information problem solved (internet) it comes down to curating the suppressed data into a location and directing the public to it with some cleaver spin of its own. I've noticed that articles with headlines such as "Information the Government doesn't want you to see" or "Leaked research the government tried to hide from the public" generate far more hits. Indeed our own Mr. Bonnet has tapped into this popular trend with the headline "Muzzling the scientists".
    The public opinion of the government (congress in particular) is historically low, so access to information they have tried to suppress will have its own draw independent of the information itself.

    It wouldn't be hard to set up a website where scientists could share links to their suppressed research, it would just be a matter of getting the scientific community involved and then generating buzz about the content they share.

  3. Brilliant post!

    Though I would say the move to censor science communication is less Orwellian, more Huxley['s Brave New World].

  4. I Agree that allowing our publicly funded scientific community to speak freely is an absolute necessity. It is also obvious to me that by including item C "Experimental Lakes Area Research Facility" guaranteed that this measure would be defeated. If there was a serious concern about free speech, Item C should not have been included. Rather I believe it was intentionally included so that it would be defeated and headlines would be made. Once again politics mucks it all up.