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Which Scientists Get to Have Free Speech?

In a recent TED talk, “Scientists must be free to learn, to speak and to challenge,” Canada’s Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, argues on behalf of free speech for scientists.

She describes a scientist working on algae who believed his research showed evidence of climate change. Implying that the prior administration didn’t agree with the scientist’s conclusions, Duncan notes that the government wouldn’t let him speak to the media about his research.

And why, to Duncan, is it crucial that scientists be free to speak? “Because after all, science is humanity’s best effort at uncovering the truth about our world, about our very existence.”

She adds: “We want to send a message that you do not mess with something so precious as science.” And: “Science is for everyone and it will lead to a better, brighter, bolder future for us all.”

Hmmm… As a historical matter, that last point needs some correction. Science can be abused and lead to outcomes that are not “better, brighter, bolder” at all. You could check out Darwin Day in America and Human Zoos about that. The role of skeptics is vital.

And what’s best for science is not necessarily a simple question. Some think that untethered from practical purposes, it loses its vibrancy and effectiveness. Writing for The New Atlantis, Daniel Sarewitz comments on the reproducibility crisis, and more: “The tragic irony here is that the stunted imagination of mainstream science is a consequence of the very autonomy that scientists insist is the key to their success. Only through direct engagement with the real world can science free itself to rediscover the path toward truth.”

But hey, Duncan isn’t the only Canadian official who has extolled science lately. Governor General Julie Payette, a former astronaut, gave a speech in fall 2017. She scorned those who are “still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process!”

But what about when Duncan’s value — free speech for scientists — and Payette’s — unguided evolution — come into contact? In other words, what about scientists who question neo-Darwinism? Do they get to have free speech, too?

I’d love to know what would happen if Peter Ridd were in Canada rather than Australia. What kind of reception would he receive for questioning evidence on global warming? After all, he has 30 years of experience in his field (studying the Great Barrier Reef) — which he says does not demonstrate evidence of harm from climate change.

Does the “scientific consensus” mean that that only scientists who follow the majority get to have their say? That would be a very hollow kind of academic freedom.