Standing Up For Free Speech In Science

  • Date: 31/03/17
  • Dr David Whitehouse, GWPF Science Editor

There have been a few comments about my submission to the House of Commons Committee on Science and Technology report on communicating science. A submission sent personally reflecting my 35 years plus in science communication. They are along the lines of “GWPF Science Editor promotes freedom to spread inaccuracies.” It has been retweeted a handful of times mostly by those who appear to promote the end of free speech or who have not bothered to read my actual submission to the committee that has been online for nine months.

A free society allows people free speech within the law. Allowing people to lie or write inaccurate articles is the bedrock of a free society. So is the freedom of others to challenge them. People have died for this freedom, and still do in many countries. This is deadly serious stuff as people in China, North Korea and many other countries know. So the irony is that those who cherry pick and deliberately misinterpret my comments have a perfect right to do so, even though they imply such a right should not exist for others. Hypocritical or ignorant, take your pick.

The just published House of Commons report on science communication is a disappointment. It has sections on false balance, and embargoes, though it quotes no practising journalist’s views on these issues. Indeed in the whole report there is only one working journalist mentioned – the BBC’s Science Editor.

There are a few points that worry me. They stem from a lack of appreciation of journalism itself, and a belief that there is something special about science journalism. My submission to the enquiry concerned the state of science journalism. I have several concerns about its reliance on embargoes and press releases. I am also worried about the use of ‘false balance’ as well as its subservience to, and lack of independence from, the scientific establishment.

Once again there is a suggestion that in cases of journalists misrepresenting science there should be a government body able to “put things right.” This suggestion has been made many times in the past few decades, most notably after the Channel 4 programme, “The Great Global Warming Swindle,” in 2007. Then a group of self-appointed activists and scientists suggested that they form a committee (hopefully with government backing) to judge future science programmes on climate change.

I and a few other journalists were horrified that the freedom of the press should be subject to the views of an unelected committee. I remembered the words of Tony Benn concerning democratic freedom, “Who are you, who elected you, and how do we get rid of you?”

As I say in my submission, criticism and dissent, the views of minorities and the controversies they encourage, play a special and integral role in science. Science has a particular disdain for authority, as does journalism. It’s a real thing not to be paid lip-service too by a committee as they hand down judgement. We are not talking about journalists questioning if carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but about views on climate trends, frequency of extreme events, climate sensitivity. Views on these are varied, each justifiable, yet are often subject to complaints to press regulators. The fact that so many complaints fail shows how many do not understand journalism.

Motivated people can establish websites to criticise, rank, judge and condemn articles they read. That’s OK. Good luck to them. But if it’s an arm of the government or self-selected censors controlling the press then it is not.

What is Journalism?

Journalism is not just about relaying information, scientific or otherwise, and it is far more than relaying authority. Science journalism is also about “shaking the tree,” about asking awkward questions, about standing in the place of those who can’t ask such questions, and being persistent and unpopular. It is a vital aspect of democracy. In far too many countries journalists are told what to say, and told what not to say.

The history of scientific research shows that scepticism is essential for the progress of science. Without constant criticism no flaws would ever been detected and no dominant paradigm ever overthrown. The history of science has shown time and time again that widely held consensus views often turned out to be wrong. Why should this suddenly be different today? Actually it is different today.

Science has never been in the hands of so many people and scientific information and data has never been so attainable. The world is full of clever people, experts with time to analyse. This is good for science as looking for problems and flaws is not confined to a few.

Being able to speak freely without censorship is fundamental to modern liberal democracies and is guaranteed under national and international law. The important point is that the freedom of speech principle does not mean that you have to be factually accurate. Sure, one should never lie and always strive to be accurate. But what looks right today can turn out to be wrong tomorrow, especially in science. It is freedom, not accuracy that is supreme. If someone says something others deem to be inaccurate, or even a lie, then demand a say, not their silence. Attack the inaccuracy or the lie, not their civil rights. Defend their right to be wrong by pointing out why they are wrong. People have a right to believe, and talk about, the things they believe, even if they are wrong and even if they are stupid. I don’t believe the world is flat and I wouldn’t lobby the government to believe it, but I would lobby the government for freedom if the right of others to hold that incorrect view is taken away. If you live in a society where you haven’t got the right to free speech, to be wrong, to disagree with any authority, or in the case of others, lie, then you live in a society where what you write or say can easily lead to a knock on your door in the small hours. I know journalists who have suffered that way and even been killed.

You have a right to talk nonsense, and we and others have a right to challenge it. We at the GWPF frequently challenge others we disagree with. You can do the same. That’s why we stand up for this freedom.