Saturday, March 14, 2015

Science and freedom of expression

Recently, there has been some question as to whether the state of Florida saw fit to ban the use of the term, climate change. The upshot of such a policy, if true, would be to stifle scientific communication by researchers working in the state. Although I am not a climate scientist, I do find it important to stand and be counted on matters concerning any of the sciences, as politically motivated attempts to silence researchers in one science potentially affect all of us engaged in scientific work. In any event, the AMS published a statement, summarized on their blog, that I find well worth sharing. In the blog post itself are some statements that deserve highlighting:
Freedom of expression is essential to scientific progress. Open debate is a necessary part of science and takes place largely through the publication of credible studies vetted in peer review. Publication is thus founded on the need for freedom of expression, and it is in turn a manifestation of freedom of expression.
One might think the job of journals is to screen out unwanted science, but it’s quite the opposite. Papers are published not because they are validated as “right” so much as they are considered “worthy” of further scientific consideration. In addition, the publication process itself—which AMS knows well in its 11 scientific journals—is not just for authors to report and interpret their work. It relies on free discussion. The peer review process usually allows reviewers maximum protection of anonymity to preserve the ability to speak freely about the manuscripts being scrutinized. The papers that pass review are then the starting point for documenting objections, alternative interpretations, and confirmation, among other expressions that only matter if made accessible to other scientists through peer reviewed journals.

Scientists are not the only ones to treasure such freedoms, of course. Society benefits from the progress of science every day. This only happens when scientists freely, promptly, and prolifically report what they find—and that means exactly what they find, not what they are told to find. The alternative is to compromise the pursuit of truth and the very foundations of our health and prosperity.
We all become victims when science is not shared and cannot flourish. The fact that climate change has deep social, economic, and political implications today means it is even more important to recognize that with increasing value of climate change science comes the increasing temptation for policy makers to co-opt and alter that science. As the AMS Statement warns, the principles of free expression “matter most—and at the same time are most vulnerable to violation—precisely when science has its greatest bearing on society.”
As a researcher in the behavioral and social sciences, I understand all too well that any of the sciences involved in socially significant research can become the targets of corporate and political busybodies who deem the research to be inconvenient for their profit margins or re-election efforts. The moment we find ourselves only able to generate "data" that fits a preconceived politically correct outcome (bearing in mind that I am using the term "politically correct" in the broadest sense to include any speech or activity intended to maintain some real or imagined social order), we leave the realm of science and enter the realm of science fiction. At that point, the work we once did withers, and the potential to benefit society withers as well. This might be a good time to look back at the history of governments in which scientific research was interfered with by those holding the levers of power, and to examine how well that worked out for them in the long run.

No comments:

Post a Comment