Science and the Thought Police

By David L. Brown

Is the probing light of science being dimmed in the interest of political expedience? Several ominous examples suggest a continuing effort on the part of government appointees to prevent scientists from speaking freely and openly.

The role of science is to answer questions relating to nature and, in its applied form, to find ways to benefit humanity. History is filled with examples of discoveries that changed the world. A key element of the scientific method is that it must be open and allow findings to be checked and re-checked by qualified individuals. But growing numbers of government scientists are complaining of being muzzled by political “handlers.”

This has been especially true in regard to findings about climate change. One top expert on the subject, James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute, refused to be silenced and has defiantly spoken out on global warming. He got away with it because of his courage and the strength of his reputation, but many lesser lights have been dimmed or extinguished, in some cases forced out of their jobs as the penalty for speaking “inconvenient truths”.

Here is another example. Dr. Richard Carmona served as the U.S. Surgeon General from 2002 until he resigned in 2006. During testimony before a Senate committee last summer, Carmona charged that Bush appointees engaged in political interference on key issues such as stem cell research and the use of contraception. The nation’s top doctor was unable to freely speak his mind on matters concerning human health.

According to a Reuters news report, he told the Senate committee: “Anything that does not fit the ideological, theological or political agenda is ignored, marginalized or simply buried.”

He added: “The problem with this approach is that in public health, as in a democracy, there is nothing worse than ignoring science, or marginalizing the voice of science for reasons driven by changing political winds. The job of surgeon general is to be the doctor of the nation, not the doctor of a political party.”

Dr. Carmona also said that he had been instructed to mention President Bush three times on every page of any speech he gave. We can assume that those references were expected to be laudatory rather than critical.

It’s not just the present administration that is at fault. Another former Surgeon General, Dr. David Satcher, recounted how the Clinton administration interfered with his report on sexuality and public health. As reported last week in Science Magazine, he speculated this may have been “in part because of the Monica Lewinsky affair”.

Even C. Everett Koop, perhaps the best-known Surgeon General who served under the Reagan administration, told the Senate committee of attempts to “thwart his AIDS campaign,” according to the Science article.

When Carmona’s testimony was made public, the White House response, according to Reuters, was that “it’s disappointing to us if he failed to use his position to the fullest extent in advocating for policies he thought were in the best interests of the nation.”

What a travesty! To criticize Carmona for not having spoken freely when his very point is that he was prevented from doing so is to turn the subject completely upside down.

The 20th century writer George Orwell would have understood this. In his novel 1984 he described a society in which “thought police” control what the people are allowed to know and think. Orwell defined freedom itself as “the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

The reported meddling of government officials in the free flow of scientific ideas directly contradicts Orwell’s definition of freedom, by attempting to control what the public knows. This is especially harmful when the result is to impose non-scientific ideas such as religious beliefs or commercial interests on scientific issues. It has the potential to direct public opinion in mistaken directions, and to discourage and drive away our best and most creative scientists. Clearly, the manipulation of science by political operatives threatens progress in important areas such as climate change, health, and genetics.

That freedom to which Orwell referred — to be bearers of what the people do not want to hear — lies at the heart of science, which is based on the concept of experimental proof. Opinion and supposition with no sound basis in fact — or even worse, the spreading of misinformation aimed at promoting a certain philosophy, social group, or industry — have no place in the scientific process.

It is a human failing to blame the bearer of bad news, a fact that was recognized nearly 2500 years ago by the Greek playwright Sophocles when he wrote the line “don’t kill the messenger.” Sadly, all these many years since, that lesson has still not been learned.

If we want a true and realistic understanding of our world — and I suggest it is important that we do — we must listen to our scientists, those who base their statements on substance, not political convenience. Political hacks should have no role in preventing the free exchange of ideas, facts and data. If we are to remain a free society, we have no need for the Thought Police.

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