You Ought to Have a Look: Intimidation in Science

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

Talk of interference, intimidation, and abridgement of scientific freedom continues to make the news this week—and increasingly is taking the form of pushback against recently announced congressional investigations into sources of scientific research funding.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial offering a “round of applause for those pushing back, providing the bullies a public lesson in the First Amendment.” Highlighted in their coverage were efforts by the Cato Institute, Heartland Institute and Koch Industries condemning attempts to “silence public debate” on climate change. From the WSJ:

Democrats and their allies have failed to persuade Americans that climate change is so serious that it warrants sweeping new political controls on American energy and industry. So liberals are trying to silence those who are winning the argument. We’re glad to see the dissenters aren’t intimidated.

Also unintimidated by attempts abridge academic freedom is Alice Dreger, professor of Medical Education-Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University and a historian of science and medicine. Dreger has a new book out titled Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and the Search for Justice in Science that describes how activists try to intimidate researchers when the activists disagree with the researchers’ work.

Roger Pielke Jr. reviews the book for Nature. From his blog, leading into his review, Roger describes why he empathizes with Dreger:

Most academic work is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, but every so often (and probably more often than many of us would like to think), scholarship becomes the focus of a political battle.

I should know. My review was completed and filed the week before I was targeted with an “investigation” by a member of Congress for the audacity of testifying before that august body with the results of peer reviewed, government-funded research, widely accepted as scientific consensus. But even before that, my own career has led me to be sympathetic to Dreger’s arguments.

I have lots of experience with personal and professional attacks based on my research and advocacy. For instance, it was one year ago today that I published a piece at FiveThirtyEight on that same research, which prompted a social and mainstream media campaign to have me fired for voicing such heresies. The Guardian, New York Times, Slate, Salon and even the American Geophysical Union all joined the campaign. Unsurprisingly, FiveThirtyEight succumbed to the pressure, explaining “Reception to the article ran about 80 percent negative in the comments section and on social media. A reaction like that compels us to think carefully about the piece and our editorial process.”

So, scientific consensus vs. Facebook likes - Guess who won?

Dreger herself describes some of the attacks on academic freedom in her post at Retraction Watch titled “Yes, we are seeing more attacks on academic freedom.” She leads with:

The good news: Policy makers and the public seem to be increasingly taking scientific research seriously. The bad news? People who don’t like researchers’ findings seem to be increasingly coming after researchers and their universities. And some of those people are powerful.

Technically, your university is supposed to protect your academic freedom. In my own university’s faculty handbook, academic freedom is the first topic discussed. But as I’ve learned from my own personal experiences, as well as from eight years studying the experiences of other researchers who have gotten into political hot water, your administration may not always have your back.

Economist Paul Frijters of the University of Queensland in Australia seems to have found this out the hard way.

You ought to have a look at her full post for some rather lurid details.

And from what we can gather, you ought to have a look at her book, too.

Stay tuned. The issue of scientific intimidation is trending—big time.