The Knowledge Embargo: A Scientific Affair


May 20, 2012 16:10 EDT

An introduction to the issue of censorship in the scientific community.

Censorship and science are two words one would not expect to hear in the same sentence in the 21st century. Yet this pair has been cavorting together throughout human history. The music, the characters, and the plot may have changed but they are inseparable.

Today, their relationship has become more exquisite, shadowy and complicated. Restricting and bending scientific research has always been prevalent. Knowledge is power. Governments – democracies, dictatorships and all kinds of disguised oligarchies – cherish it. Their interest ranges from propaganda purposes to the common good of the nation and homeland security policies. But being a player in this game can have collateral damage.

The internet has provided us with a magnificent tool to sidestep censorship. It sets up a soapbox for us to shout from; information is no longer exclusively spouted from institutional mouthpieces. This tussle between freedom of information on a truly global platform and the clout of national governments plays out before our very eyes. Take a recent case in China as an example. More than 40 sites were shut down and over 210,000 messages were erased in order to stop web rumours that were creating a political scandal.

But censorship is often more subtle than this. Individuals can be subject to bullying and external pressure from an organisation that believes its reputation or profits will be affected by what they write. Science writer Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropratic Association for implying in an article that it promoted “bogus treatments”, for example. Those targeted can be tied up in libel cases for years or even run out of money before they get to court. This means the wealthy can effectively “price out” other points of view.

The knowledge embargo

Academic institutions themselves are not infallible. The public has very little real idea about the reality of the social politics of the academic world. It is near to impossible to determine whether a personal bias or belief is influencing a review, or even the collective bias of a group is preventing something from being published. That a reviewer sheds himself of his belief system to review a submission is the myth of objectivity.

Journals are gatekeepers, the academic equivalent of the economic rating agencies that determine who comes out AAA or toxic. In the field of science in particular, the public is under the impression that the release of new data translates into hard fact – its influence is astonishing. It can determine governmental policy, and in turn the course our lives will take. Issues surrounding the scientific community’s consensus on climate change are an example of this. The basis of scientists’ research and the sources of their funding have created a huge amount of in-fighting, with professional reputations being tarnished along the way.

Peer review is a good way of controlling content without infringing on the rights of the academic world to be unaffected by the fluctuations of politics. But like everything else, this is not foolproof because academic institutions are also run by people, all with their own biases, fickleness and egos.

If things go wrong, the public can easily criticise the scientific community over its fundamental weakness: it is its own judge, jury and executioner.

Blogging Science

Ideally, academic journals and magazines should be free from any type of pressure. If an article is published in a renowned journal it automatically has a seal of approval that gives credibility to the research and prestige to its author. However, blogs can be a platform for people to divulgate their research and bypass the peer review system.

The blogosphere is growing as a marketplace for scientific knowledge. There may be no guarantee of the quality of the content, but we can be certain that it hasn’t been straight-jacketed either. This alternative information, the underbelly of the academic world, can keep the gatekeepers in check.

Are there exceptional circumstances in which scientific research should be censored? The answer is simple: when releasing information harms more than it helps. But who can project whether information is a threat or not? Setting a precedent in a special case could result in causing greater censorship in general in the future.

To blindly uphold the principles of freedom of speech and information without considering the consequences is foolish. There are cases when freedom is odds with more important principles. The problem is identifying them.

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