Don’t Talk To The Press? | Vol. 4 / No. 13.3

Please don’t. | Photo: Andrey, CC BY 2.0

In which I spend a moment pointing out that muzzling scientists has been tried before.

For nine years in Canada, scientists receiving money from the government were banned from speaking directly to the press. This is largely because the incumbent government was particularly invested in certain anti-scientific economic policies, and therefore particularly against bad press concerning Climate Change, atmospheric pollution, ecological mismanagement of fisheries, and so on. This, by the way, did not go well for that government. Scientists rallied around a common cause, and to this day if you type “muzzled scientists” the results in Google are all about Canada.

But that might be about to change.

Yesterday the news broke that orders have been handed down to the people who work for the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service that they are not to speak with the public. While it appears that — at least in part — this order has been rescinded, it follows hard on the heels of an as-yet unconfirmed leak from the EPA reporting that a grants freeze is imminent and that they are not to speak about it, reported the day before. NPR is reporting today that the current administration may enact a case-by-case review of EPA science before it can be released to the public. This raises, to me, the spectre of the muzzling of Canadian science under their last government (which only ended a little over a year ago) so I thought I would take a moment to talk about how that went.

In short: it went badly.

At first, it went just as you would expect the government wanted it to. Quieter scientists meant fewer scandals, less press about negative environmental impacts, and so on. But as time went by the muzzling itself became the story. Canada’s worldwide reputation was damaged. International scientists signed open letters urging the Canadian government to stop damaging science. Scientists in the U.S. complained that it might prevent them from speaking as well. When the time came for an election, scientists across the nation — usually a pretty even-keeled bunch from across the political spectrum — all united against the Conservative Party for what it had done.

And Harper lost.

Science is not inherently political. There’s nothing inherently conservative or liberal about following scientific evidence where it leads. There’s nothing inherently politically conservative or liberal about studying the genetic modification of plants, or the development of evidence-based policies on how to use which fertilizers and pesticides, or the now absolutely undeniably irrefutable fact of the human-caused warming of the planet. If you think there is, the problem is you. You’re making it political. And you need to stop.

Don’t muzzle scientists. Listen to them. They’re a large part of what made America great in the first place.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.