From Florida, A Reminder About Freedom of Expression

March 12, 2015 · 0 comments

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting published allegations this week that the terms “climate change” and “global warming” were banned from state government communications in Florida, including state-agency sponsored research studies and educational programs. The Washington Post followed with claims, for example, that a researcher was required by state officials to strike such words before submitting for publication a manuscript about a epidemiological study.

No evidence of a written policy or rule has been reported, and state officials have denied any policy of the sort. Meanwhile, the media are hunting through Florida websites trying to find state documents produced during the administration of Gov. Rick Scott with contents that would contradict the charges of an unwritten policy, imperfectly enforced.

The controversy is one in a string of recent events reminding us how much scientists rely on their freedom of expression. Most often the problem has been the freedom of government scientists to speak about their work with the public. Lately this has caused a media blizzard in Canada.

Science ethicists may argue one way or another about where the limits of public expression are for government scientists when they contradict policy goals. And certainly—as well seen most obviously in the Cold War—such goals can include national security concerns. But the AMS stance on the filtering or tampering of science for nonscientific purposes is quite clear in the Statement on Freedom of Expression:

The ability of scientists to present their findings to the scientific community, policy makers, the media, and the public without censorship, intimidation, or political interference is imperative.

Freedom of expression is essential to scientific progress. Open debate is a necessary part of science and takes place largely through the publication of credible studies vetted in peer review. Publication is thus founded on the need for freedom of expression, and it is in turn a manifestation of freedom of expression.

One might think the job of journals is to screen out unwanted science, but it’s quite the opposite. Papers are published not because they are validated as “right” so much as they are considered “worthy” of further scientific consideration. In addition, the publication process itself—which AMS knows well in its 11 scientific journals—is not just for authors to report and interpret their work. It relies on free discussion. The peer review process usually allows reviewers maximum protection of anonymity to preserve the ability to speak freely about the manuscripts being scrutinized. The papers that pass review are then the starting point for documenting objections, alternative interpretations, and confirmation, among other expressions that only matter if made accessible to other scientists through peer reviewed journals.

The AMS Statement recognizes that such freedom implies responsibility:

It is incumbent upon scientists to communicate their findings in ways that portray their results and the results of others, objectively, professionally, and without sensationalizing or politicizing the associated impacts.

Scientists are not the only ones to treasure such freedoms, of course. Society benefits from the progress of science every day. This only happens when scientists freely, promptly, and prolifically report what they find—and that means exactly what they find, not what they are told to find. The alternative is to compromise the pursuit of truth and the very foundations of our health and prosperity.

We all become victims when science is not shared and cannot flourish. The fact that climate change has deep social, economic, and political implications today means it is even more important to recognize that with increasing value of climate change science comes the increasing temptation for policy makers to co-opt and alter that science. As the AMS Statement warns, the principles of free expression “matter most—and at the same time are most vulnerable to violation—precisely when science has its greatest bearing on society.”