Issue 91, Fall 2003

by Joan E. Bertin

In the recent past, censorship debates have mostly revolved around sex, violence, and religion, in familiar re-enactment of the culture wars. Even controversies that implicate science, like those about teaching “creation science” and abstinence-only sex ed, have been largely driven by conflict over religion and its role in the public schools.

This issue of CN focuses on another, perhaps less recognized, facet of censorship: government suppression of scientific research and information. As documented not only by the report issued for Rep. Henry Waxman, but also by OMB Watch, the American Psychological Association, the American Association of University Professors, and others, this development affects—and undermines—scholarship in many subjects and disciplines.

Some of the examples discussed by scholarly and professional organizations involve censorship in the name of national security. This is a complex problem, as acknowledged by the editors of scientific journals who convened last winter to address it. The use of scientific research to serve illegitimate ends is obviously a serious concern, but hardly a new one. Scientists have coped with the problem for many years, perhaps since science became a recognizable discipline.

Censoring science to promote a political agenda is a different matter. Whatever justifications may be advanced where national security is genuinely involved have no bearing on this undertaking, which is wholly indefensible. Concealing or distorting information about health and the environment and suppressing research on certain topics in fact undermine “national security” in the broader sense.

Governments around the world have manipulated information to advance their political and ideological goals, most notoriously in Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union. This country has defined itself in opposition to such regimes of thought-control and manipulation. A core purpose of the First Amendment’s free speech clause is to prevent government indoctrination through control over the production and dissemination of information. The individual’s right to dissent, criticize, and present alternative interpretations of fact is crucial to this vision.

Knowledge is essential to democracy. An uninformed public can neither govern itself wisely nor protect itself from serious risk. In these pages, and on our website, we will keep you informed about these troubling developments. What you do with that information is up to you.