06 July 2009

Free Speech for Me, but Not for Thee

A troubling article in today's WSJ suggests that officials in the EPA are censoring research that might call into question their official position on (alleged) global warming and on its (alleged) man-caused influences. (I say "alleged" because among the claims that the censored research makes are (a) that we are actually in a global cooling trend and (b) that there is little or no reliable evidence that human activities have contributed to (earlier) global warming.)

What is especially galling to the author of the WSJ article is the fact that the Obama administration and the new head of the EPA both have repeatedly derided the previous administration for, as they claimed, putting ideology over science, and have touted their own dedication to science unadulterated by political agenda. Yet here seems a clear case of politics trumping scientific investigation.

I cannot vouch for the facts of this case, of course, but double-standards for allowed speech are rampant in my own field of American higher education. People who dare to stray from the approved circuit of political and moral views--however gingerly, however tentatively, even under cover of anonymity or humor--suffer ad hominem attack, have their characters savaged, are fired from positions of authority, do not get promotions, get passed over for positions for which they are otherwise qualified, are not welcome at the lunch table or in the break room, are ignored in the hallways, are the butt of indecorous jokes, and are otherwise villainized, punished, and pilloried for their independence and impudence.

I do not exaggerate. (See here if you are skeptical.) Political correctness in higher education has become such a cliché that people have become inured to it. Another person persecuted for dissenting from the reigning orthodoxy? Ho-hum, heard that one before. The toll this takes in individuals' careers, and in their personal and family life, is not insignificant, however.

But this is not mere special pleading. The cost to the the academy of driving out or silencing a range of perspectives is a steep one. As Mill argued, it robs us of a clearer and livelier perception of the truth brought about by honest debate and discussion from competing perspectives; moreover, unless we make the unlikely assumption that the current orthodoxy is infallible, silencing or persecuting dissenting views robs us of the opportunity for exchanging error for truth.

That is bad for everyone concerned. Echo chambers are not crucibles of truth. Yet it is even more dangerous when it comes to science. The quality of human life depends in many important ways on the progress of science. Allowing ideology to bend science to its will, rather than the other way around, imperils the scientific enterprise. That is too high a price to pay to flatter our vanities and rationalize our prejudices.

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