Self-censorship in science: WTF?

2008/04/29 § Leave a comment


Are we entering an era of self-censoring in science [*]? One of the villains in the suppression of many forms of expression is the old enemy religion. We are all too accustomed already to hearing of art exhibitions, which remove pieces that insult the religious feelings of individuals or groups. Usually muslims feel easily insulted, but also jewish and christians are not bad at playing the victim. In simple terms, the abrahamic religions are the root evil as usual. However, I am too tiered to get entangled in this topic once more.

What upsets me most is not some crazy religious nuts who get all pissed off about art exhibitions I would never have visited in the first place. The enemy can be found right amongst us too. Amidst the humanistic, educated cosmopolitans that we proudly call ourselves a part of.

What would they attack into self-censorship? Science, sadly enough. I have long had trouble with the realization that science education is so neglected that people have again started believing the most insane and ludicrous things; like certain medical treatments and/or political conspiracy theories. On the other hand I do not really care too much if you kill your kids due to the fact that you are against vaccination. That is called natural selection. I could also not care lee, if you believe aliens killed Kennedy. But I do care if you are restricting my freedom to perform science.

The basic question is: where do we draw the line (if any) when it comes to research? What can be permitted what not? Obviously, we are not performing inhumane experiments Nazi-style anymore. However, thousands of rodents are killed every day in the name of research. But before you allow yourself into a preposterous reaction like: “exactly, poor animals, we need to substitute all these experiments”, you may like to know that you have no clue what you are talking about if that is your opinion.

While I am actively working on substitutions for animal-experimentation I have come to the realization that there is no substitute yet.  It is the medical research, which we all come to appreciate when our spouse, children or parents are about to die from a cancer or the like. Hence you may want to think twice before yelling too loudly due this unjust and inhumane research. Concomitantly, there is no doubt whatsoever that one day we will look at this era of research with similar objections as today we look at the Nazi-doctors. But luckily for you who has just been cured of a disease that would have killed you 100 years ago, we need not care yet.

However, what really gets my blood pressure rising is the obnoxious idea that scientists should decide what they research to which extend. Sure, when we talk about research that permitted to get into wrong hands could harm people is a touchy subject [1]. But did you know that you could use paper clips in order to kill people if you wanted too? Given incentive and/or sufficient religious or whatever idiocy a lot can be achieved using paperclips. I am certain about it, though I hope it remains a somewhat disturbing imagination of mine.

But even if we agree on not wanting bioterrorism, we must realize that you do not know the outcome in scientific research. If you would it would not be called research, right? Hence it is usually impossible to predict, if a matter of investigation could be utilized to harm others. This is not to say that we then may do whatever we want. But it is a crucially important fact to keep in mind, before requesting scientist to censor their actions.

In my mind there can be no doubt whatsoever that the public (i.e. you and you and I) must be held responsible. How? Already now we have (maybe to your surprise) committees of scientists and especially non-scientists who decide if a given animal-experiment can be carried out. Ethical considerations play a role in their decision. Naturally you might expect or demand similar committees for deterioration of “terrorism enabling” research? I would not! Strongly against it!

As recent history teaches us, when politicians (committees) have too much say in this scientific facts are going to buried for the protection of economic growth, the maintenance of religious idiotheocracy or any other egoistic reason.

But I am equally strongly against playing that ball into the scientists’ court. Scientist should not have anything to think about in terms of ethics, more than how to carry out their experiments in a humane way. What happens with their results should not be ANY of their concerns.

I feel, as you can tell from the tone I utilize today, that this is an important topic. Too often have I recently read about self-censorship performed by scientists. Now be it for political reasons or ethical reasons that scientists would censor themselves is not interesting in this regard (often times these are interchangeable anyhow).

It is sickening to hear biologists discuss that they cannot write anything in regards of evolution in an application for a scientific grant anymore, or otherwise they must fear not getting the money [3]. By the way, if you have not seen the “flock of dodos”-movie yet, go and do so. This movie shows another self-bashing of creationists’ in action merely documented by a non-creationists’.

Side note: obviously all you have to do as a film maker is put a camera into a creationists’ face and let it role; they will instantly ramble themselves into oblivion…). Anyhow…           

I reject the notion that scientists’ should be held responsible for the weaknesses and wrongdoings of our society. Let the scientists roam free in their ivory towers! What has happened to us to demand that scientists would need to think about these things? If they were interested in doing so they had studied something humanistic, like literature or sociology.

However, sadly, as I mentioned in the introduction, I had to face a discussion recently with friends who think that way. Who think scientists must be fully aware of the implication of their research and must be morally responsible.

 

Now do not get me wrong though. I am not saying that scientists do not- to varying degrees- evaluate their research on multiple bases, amongst which ethical thoughts (automatically) play a role. But they must not and can not be the ones ultimately responsible and in charge of controlling what is to be done and what not.

Again, only on an immediate threat level must a scientist react. If I pour deadly viruses into my lab sink this is my responsibility. If someone else takes my virus invention and kills millions then it is not mine. Hence my demand: let a scientist be free. Once he/she gets the money for a research project (and here you already have the second line of censorship after the initial self-censoring by the scientist) let the scientist forget the rest. A scientist should not even have to think of any restriction AT ALL!

I know it sounds drastically, but personally I am certain that I rather live in a world where riscs are taken to achieve the extraordinary instead of one, where everyone restricts themselves having in mind what others’ might like to see. I simply see science facing hard times already without self-censorship, and I hate it.

 

Finally, I would like to propose that we must let the public decide. And they do already! If we bring GM-food to the market (which I think is bollocks) then the buyers can decide if they want it or not. Sure, hopefully politicians have given the industries’ proposals to sell the stuff a good thought too… But hopefully scientists just sat in their ivory tower and had the freedom to be creative and came up with the most insane yet novel and mind boggling new discovery… 😉 

 

 

[*] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/02/0210_050210_censorship.html

[1] http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/0,1518,236839,00.html

[2] http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/0,1518,484192,00.html

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GU8V5oTIwKM

 

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