Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency abruptly pulled a group of its scientists from speaking at a scientific meeting set to take place Monday.
The conference was focused on exploring ways to protect the Narragansett Bay Estuary in Rhode Island. Climate change happens to be one of the threats to the estuary and the EPA’s researchers were set to talk on this issue.
Given the administration’s hostility to climate science, the new leaders of the EPA were quickly accused of censoring their own scientists.
“They don’t believe in climate change,” John King, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, told New York Magazine, “so I think what they’re trying to do is stifle discussions of the impacts of climate change.”
The charges of scientific censorship that have been leveled at the EPA are indeed troubling. The EPA’s only defense of their actions was that “it’s not an EPA conference.”
Given these events, it’s worth remembering that there is a long, sad history of governments trying to muzzle, stifle or censor the fruits of scientific research. It’s a history Americans might want to pay attention to, given how poorly those muzzling efforts worked out for the nations that tried to implement them.
The most famous example of forcing a scientist to stop talking was Galileo and the Catholic Church. In the early 1600s, the Church wanted the astronomer and physicist Galileo to stop publicly arguing that the Earth revolved around the sun. The Church’s official position was that the sun orbited Earth and the Earth was fixed in space, the center of all things. Though Galileo was warned about his actions, he continued to argue for the “heliocentric” solar system his research supported. Eventually, in 1633, he was brought to trial, forced to recant his views and was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. It is said that as Galileo was led away, he muttered in Italian “even so, it does move.”
Yes, the Earth moves. It does, in fact, orbit the sun — and no amount of politically motivated censorship could change that fact. More than 300 years later, the Church admitted its error.
A more modern and potent example of a nation shooting itself in the foot by censoring science comes via Soviet Russia. It was almost 100 years ago that agronomist Trofim Lysenko became a power in Russian science. Lysenko believed plants and animals could be “taught” new characteristics that would be inherited by the next generation. Ignoring everything biologists understood about evolution, Lysenko promised this methods would skyrocket farm production to new levels and feed a starving Russia. He made his ideas align with the political ideology of the day — Stalinism — and rose high enough in power to control Russian agricultural science.
Lysenko censored and persecuted scientific opponents even though his ideas were a disaster for crops yields. It was not until the latter 1950s and early 1960s that “Lysenkoism” was finally rejected as the non-science that it was.
Along with the vast scale of human losses, in the end it was Russia’s long-term viability as a scientific power that Lysenkoism hurt most. By censoring any idea that did not meet with government approval, the revolution that was DNA and genetics passed Russia by. Russian biology never really recovered.
Censoring science for political expediency is folly of the highest order. First, a nation cannot maintain its position as a leader in science and technology if it censors science and technology that doesn’t match ideology. Ideology can’t bind science for very long. But censoring science that doesn’t match ideology sends a very clear message to the rest of the world about how that nation values science.
Why does that matter?
Science runs on talent. For young talented people who want to develop the next round of life-saving drugs or the next billion-dollar technology, the message censorship sends is quite clear: Go somewhere else, somewhere that takes research seriously; go do your work there.
But in the end, the greatest folly in government scientific censorship is failing to recognize that you will be caught. But it’s not your political opponents that will catch you. Instead, it’s the world itself that will trip you up. It will come in the next “never-seen-before” hurricane, or the next dangerous epidemic. Nature, which is the point of scientific inquiry, will always have the last word. The censorship those in power impose does nothing but blind those powers to the consequences of ignoring nature. That’s because nature is, was, and always will, be the higher power.
You would think we’d have learned that by now.
Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and author of the upcoming book Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. His scientific studies are funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Education. You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4