Scientists Censoring Science
Our new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Science is the one the great accomplishments of the human species - the “jewel in the crown of our cultural achievements,” as I put it in my book The Ape That Understood the Universe. But even a cursory glance at the history of science reveals that scientific claims haven’t always been greeted with open arms. New science has sometimes clashed with old orthodoxies, and reactions have often been negative. People have scoffed; people have turned away - and in some cases, they’ve sought to censor the scientists. When we think about scientific censorship, we usually imagine external institutions forcibly preventing scientists from speaking or promoting their ideas. The classic example, of course, is the Church’s censorship of Galileo’s heliocentric model of the solar system. But scientific censorship doesn’t always come from outside. Sometimes, it comes from within: from scientists themselves. Indeed, in the last decade or so, scientific self-censorship has become increasingly common - and although the motivations driving it are often laudable, the move toward censorship in science very likely does much more harm than good.
That, at any rate, is the argument made in a new paper on which I’m co-author, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The paper, titled “Prosocial Motives Underlie Scientific Censorship by Scientists,” was spearheaded by the inimitable Cory Clark, and co-authored by 38 academics representing a diverse range of expertise and political persuasions: Lee Jussim, Komi Frey, Sean Stevens, Musa al-Gharbi, Karl Aquino, Michael Bailey, Nicole Barbaro, Roy Baumeister, April Bleske-Rechek, David Buss, Steve Ceci, Marco Del Giudice, Pete Ditto, Joe Forgas, David Geary, Glenn Geher, Sarah Haider, Nathan Honeycutt, Hrishikesh Joshi, Anna Krylov, Elizabeth Loftus, Glenn Loury, Louise Lu, Michael Macy, Chris Martin, John McWhorter, Geoffrey Miller, Pamela Paresky, Steven Pinker, Wilfred Reilly, Catherine Salmon, Philip Tetlock, Wendy Williams, Anne Wilson, Bo Winegard, George Yancey, William von Hippel, and yours truly. I have to say it’s an honor to see my name alongside such an amazing group of scholars.
What motivated us to put pen to paper? Simple: All of us are concerned about what appears to be an increasing tendency within science to stifle certain unpopular claims - not because of low scientific quality but for other, non-scientific reasons. The claims in question tend to revolve around hot-button political issues such as sex, gender, and colonialism, and the attempts to censor these claims tend to come from a leftist or progressive perspective. Here are some of the examples of scientific self-censorship that we document and discuss in the paper:
Increasing numbers of scientists report being sanctioned for conducting politically contentious research.
Retractions of papers have become more and more common over the last decade, and at least some of these appear to be driven primarily by concerns other than epistemological merit. One group of scholars even retracted their own paper, not because it was scientifically flawed, but because it was being cited by conservatives in ways they didn’t approve of.
Several lines of research suggest that studies reaching politically unpalatable conclusions may have a harder time negotiating the peer-review process than they would if the conclusions were flipped. As we note in our paper, “When scholars misattribute their rejection of disfavored conclusions to quality concerns that they do not consistently apply, bias and censorship are masquerading as scientific rejection.”
Recent surveys suggest that many academics support censuring or censoring controversial research, and that support is stronger among younger scholars.
Unsurprisingly, recent polls also suggest that many academics now self-censor on even mildly controversial topics.
A large number of academics express a willingness to discriminate against conservatives when it comes to hiring, publications, grants, and promotions. Unsurprisingly, conservative scholars are particularly likely to self-censor.
A growing number of journals have explicitly committed to judging scientific papers not just on the quality of the research but also on their (supposed) social or political impact. “In effect,” we note, “editors are granting themselves vast leeway to censor high-quality research that offends their own moral sensibilities.”
Needless to say, scientific self-censorship isn’t the only form of censorship afflicting the modern academy, and nor is it the only form that matters. Bans on the teaching of critical race theory in several U.S. states are a contemporary example of the censorship of academia by government. But no paper can be about everything, and in our view, scientific self-censorship is a big enough problem to warrant serious attention of its own - especially given that, ironically, many scientists may self-censor on this topic.
Why, though, is scientific self-censorship a problem? In many cases, the motives underpinning it are benevolent or actively prosocial. One common motive, for instance, is the desire to protect vulnerable groups from harm. But the fact that censorship often comes from a good place doesn’t mean that it’s effects are necessarily good. On the contrary, we have ample reason to think that censoring science produces harms of its own that easily rival any produced by the science itself.
The first and most obvious harm is that censoring science blunts our ability to understand the world. By censoring findings on just one side of a politically charged topic, the scientific record may end up strongly supporting the other side, even when the other side is false. The figure below, taken from the paper, shows how this could happen.
A second harm is a direct implication of the first: By blunting our ability to understand the world, we also blunt our ability to make the world a better place. Successful interventions are more likely to emerge from an accurate picture of the world than an inaccurate one. As such, by impairing our understanding of the world, scientific self-censorship increases the chances that we’ll end up with interventions that don’t achieve their stated aims, and which waste time and energy that could otherwise be channeled into those that might.
A third harm associated with scientific self-censorship is that it threatens to undermine the public’s trust in science. If people get the impression that universities and other science-producing institutions effectively forbid certain ideas, they’ll understandably stop trusting the ideas coming out of those institutions – including important, well-established findings such as climate change and vaccine efficacy. Moreover, if people come to see scientists as untrustworthy or politically biased, they’ll be unlikely to remain enthusiastic about funding science from the public coffers. It’s hard to overstate the harm that a slump in the credibility of science could produce.
Science has made enormous strides in the last few centuries, greatly enhancing the quality of life of billions of the planet’s inhabitants. It has often done this in the face of considerable opposition from external, authoritarian institutions. Arguably, though, the biggest threat to science today, at least in the West, comes from within science rather than without. In many ways, scientific self-censorship is a more insidious and intractable problem than censorship by outside forces, and the battle against this form of censorship may be a harder one to wage. But wage it we must if we wish to continue honing our knowledge of the world, and thus improving our capacity to make the world a better place for ourselves and for future generations.
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