Free inquiry gives way to ideology in annals of science
Last month, one of the world’s leading science journals, Nature Human Behaviour, issued a decree stating that scientific research would be suppressed at the journal if it had the potential to harm the public.
The new guidance, titled “Science must respect the dignity and rights of all humans”, was announced on Twitter on August 23 by chief editor Stavroula Kousta, who issued the chilling edict: “Some argue that we should evaluate such research only on the basis of its scientific soundness and merit. I disagree.”
The guidance states: “Although the pursuit of knowledge is a fundamental public good, considerations of harm can occasionally supersede the goal of seeking or sharing new knowledge, and a decision not to undertake or not to publish a project may be warranted.”
It is less than 100 years since the last Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books) was issued by the Catholic Church, the greatest project in censorship the world has known.
For 400 years, the Vatican suppressed knowledge that its cardinals deemed immoral and potentially harmful to the public, including knowledge such as the heliocentric model of the solar system and John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy.
The church’s index of banned books was so extensive that it encompassed the complete works of classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, the literary treasures of Homer and Virgil, indispensable works of history by Thucydides and Edward Gibbon, and foundational philosophical and scientific texts by Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Pascal, Bacon, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Spinoza, Hobbes, Erasmus, Hume, Milton and Locke. The church finally stopped issuing its index in 1948. And 74 years later, few people could have predicted the project of censoring knowledge would be taken up by scientific journals themselves.
We expect our scientific institutions to implement policies and procedures to minimise possible harms to participants who are directly involved in scientific research. And strict rules exist to protect research participants, and have existed for decades. Oversight of research is conducted by ethics committees that are attached to every university and organisation that produces peer-reviewed research.
Yet this new guidance from Nature takes the approach of harm minimisation to a new frontier – arguing potential harms to the public must be prevented also. And the gatekeepers who will decide which knowledge is harmful to the public are the journal editors themselves.
“People can be harmed indirectly,” the guidance enjoins: “research may inadvertently stigmatise individuals or human groups. It may be discriminatory, racist, sexist, ableist or homophobic.”
Elsewhere in the document, Nature lists the gender identities that must be respected if a research paper wishes to have Nature’s imprimatur, including, but not limited to, “transgender, gender-queer, gender-fluid, non-binary, gender-variant, genderless, agender, nongender, bi-gender, trans man, trans woman, trans masculine, trans feminine and cisgender”.
It will not escape a young scholar reading this decree that they will have to genuflect to unscientific concepts to have a successful career as a research scientist today. Publication in a journal such as Nature opens doors for young scholars, and can put them on the pathway to tenure and job security. In reading this decree, however, a young scientist will realise that if they want a successful career in the profession, they must subordinate their science to ideology.
The historical precedents for such a development should give us pause. While the church tried to stifle the spread of knowledge after the invention of the printing press, the Soviet Union’s censorship of science in the 20th century made the church’s efforts look like child’s play.
Under Joseph Stalin, science was not published if it was considered idealistic or bourgeois, or if it contradicted historical materialism. When the understanding of genetics – based on the principles of natural selection – was determined to be “bourgeois science”, any scientist who refused to renounce genetics was dismissed from their posting and left destitute. It is estimated that more than 3000 biologists were imprisoned during Stalin’s era, and some were sentenced to death for being “enemies of the state”.
But it was not just the scientific profession that suffered from this censorship. False ideas about agriculture promoted by Trofim Lysenko (ideas that could have been corrected by an accurate understanding of genetics) are thought to have played a direct role in famines that killed tens of millions of people in the Soviet Union as well as China. The Great Chinese Famine, which occurred after China adopted Lysenkoist agricultural policy, is estimated to have killed between 15 million and 55 million people. In other words, the suppression of accurate scientific knowledge in the 20th century was responsible for more deaths than the Holocaust.
The relatively recent cultural conventions of liberal democratic societies have allowed for open inquiry and free thought to flourish. But, ever since the Enlightenment, science and reason have come under attack from ideologues of all stripes. Whether those zealots be religious or political, the battle for science and reason never ends. And now the fight must be taken up with the ideologues within scientific institutions themselves.
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