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Friday, October 1, 1999

Silencing Science

A Lighthearted Approach to a Serious Subject


This slim volume is an ironic how-to guide for heavy-handed regulators, panic-mongering activists, demagogic politicians, venal trial lawyers, dogmatic religionists, and anyone else with an interest in stifling or manipulating science. In breezy style, the authors explain how to impede research and suppress data, using lawsuits, regulation, intimidation, and other methods. They also show how to fill the resulting void with misinformation.

The authors—Milloy is publisher of the Junk Science Home Page (www.junkscience.com); Gough is the former director of science and risk studies at the Cato Institute—draw on numerous examples of science under siege. They present the persecution of Galileo as a cautionary tale (the Inquisition didn’t crack down quickly enough to eliminate his influence) and cite the Scopes Monkey Trial as a useful model for interfering with science education. They then launch into more recent anecdotes of obscurantism and obstructionism. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if one remains in the book’s ironic mode), there are many ways to silence science.

Outlawing research is one option, the authors explain, pointing to efforts to place a wide-ranging ban on cloning experiments. Alternatively, science can be regulated into the ground, as when the Environmental Protection Agency moved to control pest-resistant plants as if they were pesticides. Government purse strings can be useful in tying up undesired research, such as fetal tissue studies during the Reagan-Bush years. Nor is privately funded science immune to political attack; one need only stigmatize the research as profit-driven or linked (however tenuously) to Big Tobacco.

Legal harassment works well, too. The authors describe how lawyers representing the alleged victims of silicone breast implants intimidated the Mayo Clinic with onerous demands for medical records. Another form of harassment is to make bogus claims of scientific misconduct; this approach was used by “multiple chemical sensitivity” activists against researchers who raised doubts about that “disease.” And don’t forget about street protests and celebrity letter-writing campaigns; such techniques helped animal-rights proponents prevent NASA from studying monkeys in orbit.

Even after a research project has been completed, there are various ways to hide or distort the resulting information, the authors point out reassuringly. Careful editing, for instance, allowed a United Nations report to overstate the threat of global warming. Another method is simply not to publish the data; the Energy Department has kept a major radiation study under wraps for years, providing only a brief summary in an obscure bulletin. California’s environmental agency went this one better, systematically destroying research documents that did not support the agency’s final decisions.

The authors explain how to replace genuine science with various phony substitutes, such as “official science,” “consensus science,” and “the precautionary principle.” The first consists of governmental or other seemingly authoritative pronouncements that happen to be unsupported by evidence, such as a U.S. Senate resolution that women in their 40s should have mammograms. The second involves claiming that there is agreement when in fact there is not, as occurs often in the global-warming debate. The precautionary principle, embraced by environmentalists, means that industrial chemicals and radiation are to be regarded as extremely dangerous, while contrary evidence and uncertainties are swept under the rug.

While Silencing Science takes a lighthearted approach, the underlying seriousness of the subject shines through. The suppression of science—whether motivated by politics, ideology, or personal and financial gain—produces bad decision-making, increased risk, and diminished freedom. One comes away from this book with a heightened awareness of danger—a danger not only to scientists but to anyone who depends in any way on their research (everyone, that is, whose participation in modern society exceeds that of, say, the Unabomber).

The book’s format does impose certain constraints. The “how-to” approach, while funny, would start to wear thin if the book were to go on much longer; at the same time, the overall subject deserves a more extensive treatment. A somewhat broader picture of the threats to science would take notice of academic postmodernism and New Age mysticism, movements that go unmentioned here. A deeper analysis, rather than merely reporting anecdotes, would delve into the conditions that enable anti-scientific tactics to thrive.

Nevertheless, Silencing Science packs a great deal of valuable and thought-provoking material into its slender frame. The book deserves a wide readership. May that readership not include the anti-science types who might actually take its advice.

Kenneth Silber has written about science and technology for Reason, Insight, the New York Post, and other publications.