Government and Peer Pressure are Hobbling Scientists

ACORN Organizing

usa-climatechange-marchNew Orleans   Just when I thought I might be out of my element and moving into the quicksand of squishy opinions in areas outside of my expertise, I just caught a lifeline thanks to Scientific American.

Ok, what the heck am I talking about?

Careful readers and listeners may remember my objections to the way super lead-head West Virginia research, Dr. Marc Edwards, who has been mega-helpful to Local 100 and ACORN’s efforts around lead testing in schools and elsewhere, was characterized by headlines in the New York Times Sunday magazine calling him a “zealot,” as well as quotes from other scientists that seem to be taking him down and denigrating his research, because he was speaking out on lead dangers. A year earlier, I trumpeted Professor Naomi Oreskes’ work in looking at how scientists had banded together to research explaining continental drift because it was not part of prevailing elite scientific consensus at the time. I’ve even argued that maybe Tom Wolfe has a point on linguistics, if for no other reason to encourage scientific argument about prevailing consensus, if it advances knowledge. Some might wonder what this has to do with organizing and my usual interests and concerns, and the simple answer is that the heart of organizing is a way of thinking critically and looking past prevailing consensus in order to advance the empowerment of people, so science is not off limits to that broad definition. Now, the October issue of Scientific American pulls the curtain aside and lets us understand better a couple of prevailing trends that make a mockery of the ideology of the scientific method.

First, they raise the issue of what are called “close-hold embargoes” being increasingly used by the government to release their research and by many other elite universities and research institutions in order to curry the most favorable press. An embargo in the press world is common. It is a message to the media that they are getting the information early so they can pay attention and give it priority, but they cannot write about until the date named when everyone has their shot at the news. A close-hold embargo is often in secret to a select number of papers or in this case science reporters, which gives them the research release early and restricts who their ability to even get comments or reactions from other experts and scientists in the field in exchange for the exclusive report. One professorial observer who writes a blog about these embargoes argues that they are reducing reporters to little more than stenographers, simply mouthing whatever the government or university wants them to write. The reporting by Charles Seife was eviscerating on this practice with universities and government response fumbling and dissembling. For all of us biscuit cookers the message becomes, “be careful about believing what you read” when these science reports come out until they have a chance to ferment in the community.

Perhaps as devastating was another piece in the same special section of Scientific American which looked at the way the scientific community bans together in a sort of elderly high school clique to punish so-called “celebrity scientists.” You know scientists like Marc Edwards who are in the news and acting as advocates for the public. The authors had interviewed and surveyed scientists who had written popular works allowing the general public to access scientific information better or who were regular commentators or public spokespeople for their work. Overwhelmingly, the message from all of these scientists is that their best advice was “keep your mouth shut” until you had tenure protection at your university or were well-advance and established in your field or you would be punished. The scientific community seems more like a secret society than a public good.

I find this scary and dangerous. It allows there to be concocted controversies on issues like climate change, chemical and pollution dangers, food, environment, space, and almost every area where modern life intersects with basic health and welfare thanks to manipulation of the public by our own government and the scientific community based on what they believe we “need to know,” rather than what we “want to know” by taking away our ability to decide and act in our interest on what we need to know.