Should We Censor Science?

(In reference to: Science and Censorship: A Duel Lasting Centuries by William J. Broad, NY Times)

What that has been censored remains so? In this instance with a federal advisory panel asking two journals to self-censor, the underlying issue is ethics and the duty of two separate institutions, the government and the scientific community.  In this instance, censorship is a well-intentioned protection from few for many, especially when driven by fear and ignorance (as stated in the article by Abigail A. Salyers), but at what cost? What purpose will it serve? If we become a nation motivated out of apprehension and fall prey to the tactics of terrorists and misguided government, when will it end? Allowing censorship, even asking for it, thwarts the goal of science to test, predict, learn and know and with that knowledge, to collaborate and distribute findings for the benefit of all. The duty of science is not to discern if and when knowledge and power, may or may not be misused or abused.

As stated in the article, science is driven and dependent upon its openly collective studies and reports. The reality is that most likely there are documentation and communication in existence pertaining to the work in progress. The suggestion of limiting sensitive data in publication to a select few is unrealistic. Even if it were plausible, setting such a precedent would unleash more problems than protection or prevention meant by it. Who would decide what information, who gets it, when and how much? Wouldn’t such deliberate withholding spark more controversy and fuel the flame for demand of the data even more so?   Philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote, “As to the evil which results from censorship, it is impossible to measure, for it is impossible to tell where it ends.”

Chances are that there are presently unscrupulous people with detrimental intent secretly at work advancing the causes of terrorism in many forms. Furthermore, we are already co-existing among nations with potential for mass destruction with several other countries that possess capability for nuclear and/or chemical warfare. Perhaps time, effort and money would be better spent in impelling the research on both sides of the issue with regard to preparing for the potential of harm and how to combat it. Let the scientists do their job.

Likewise, the intent of government is to protect its citizen’s inalienable rights, which includes preserving public communication.  Censorship is from Latin meaning to give one’s opinion, to assess. Opinion is individual and highly subjective. As stated by Henry Steele Commager, “The fact is that censorship always defeats it’s own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.” Governing ourselves is our own responsibility.  The saying that you can’t legislate morality holds true as with the ideology that guns don’t kill people, people do. Or that just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Perhaps the gynecologists and obstetricians and Octomom Nadya Suleman, should have asked more questions before they went ahead and implanted her.  It isn’t the job of fertility experts to mandate how obstetricians implement the knowledge and power available to them and at their discretion any more than it is the duty of government to squelch the advances of science because of a perceived threat that may or may not be realized. Both the institutions of science and government have distinct boundaries that should be upheld to ensure the objective of fulfilling their original intent and purpose. As history and humanity have demonstrated, from an ethical standpoint, censorship by any institution is ineffective.