The Planetary News Radio – Episode 5: Fear and Censorship in Scientific Communication

Hello. Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode. The date is May 30th. It’s a cloudy day in Corvallis, but not raining. Enjoying the temperature. [Let’s talk today about] popular science and censorship. So a great example of censorship in science recently has been climate science. And this is it’s kind of scary how well accepted it is that the censorship is occurring. Strange things like purging the word climate from government documents put out by environmental agencies. So it’s very strange to experience, a blatant, systematic censorship like that by the government, well, specifically by the Trump administration. Attempts to quantify that [censorship] and paint a picture of how widespread that actually is are even more disturbing. I’m looking at an article here that counts the number of times that federal departments and agencies were involved in an act of censorship and sense put out by a group, Columbia Climate Law. So I don’t know if that’s associated with Columbia University or what that is. I haven’t really researched it. I’m just looking at a Scientific American article here, but before I talk about those numbers, let’s talk about my own personal experience with censorship [link to Columbia Climate Law Silencing Science Tracker].

When I was a graduate student, I worked in environmental genetics and the agencies that were interested in environmental genetics were sanitation departments and water districts, at least for the ones that I worked for. More broadly, the U.S. Geological Survey was interested in environmental DNA (eDNA) as a way to track fish or aquatic mammals or other vertebrates. And so I spent a lot of time working on informatics methods to identify species using genetics. And this was really one of those projects in science, which happens quite a bit where we all think we have a really good idea of what is going on. We have a hypothesis. We can test a hypothesis, but maybe it’s something that we’ve already known for years. And so when we went in to test the hypothesis that using genetics to identify species improves are our ability to identify a pollution in a stream, we were reasonably confident that this would be the case, and so it wasn’t really expected it not to be better. It was more of the question, “Could we do it?” And so a lot of what we did were methods studies, and so really, it was developing a method to apply this theory that we already thought would be good.

Some publications had represented data that would suggest using genetics to identify impacted streams. I shouldn’t just say polluted streams, [but streams] that were impacted by either human modification or by pollution or something like that, and it did make sense that genetics would improve our ability to do that because the way that we identify those streams, the way that was historically done was to identify species by looking at them visually. And so we know that some percentages species, especially insects, cannot be identified visually. So we knew there are more species out there. And so the idea was that if we’ve confined more species, then we’ll have a more sensitive tool. So it wasn’t really a question of, well, this will be better. It was more of a question of “How much does it cost? And can we do it? Is it practical?” And so we set out to answer those questions at the group that I was working for, and so I spent about three years working on that project. But every time we found a example where we would find more species or find specific species at different sites, this was always ignored. And so we thought that we had done a good job developing a tool that could improve our ability to detect human impact in the environment, but this was ignored by the supporting agencies of our group.

Not really ignored [outright], but ridiculously high standards were put on us, much higher than other studies. So everything was scrutinized. Money, sensitivity. Any mistake was highlighted. And so it’s overall if you add up everything. This was an act of censorship, and so individually the acts were not censorship. In other words, nobody ever said, “Oh, you can’t publish that result”. All right. Nobody has ever told me you cannot publish that result, however, I have had results that were scrutinized not because not for their scientific validity but for their philosophical impact. So we had many empirically correct results that suggested this would be a better method, and those results were ignored for philosophical questions. So I have experienced censorship and it was government censorship, and that was during the Obama administration. But this is not unusual in biology. Biology is one of the most censored scientific fields in modern times because of the philosophical component, because of the way that it makes people feel uncomfortable about their [world view].

It was not surprising to me that that study did not take off or that those methods were not implemented. And as far as my knowledge, those methods that we were developing are still not implemented by the United States government routinely. Now, there is one thing that has been implemented, and that is the use of eDNA. In that case, the cost of benefit argument worked in favor of the science.The ability to go out and collect a sample of water from a stream and be able to know what species of fish are in that stream based on the DNA and the water is a very powerful analysis because it can be done relatively inexpensively. Now the question is, well, why do you want to know what species are in the stream? And the second question is, Do you need to know how many? Because there’s a very specific limitation of the technology in genomic sequencing. And so the same technology that’s used to sequence a genome is the one that will be used to sequence water to identify DNA in that water sample.

There’s a limitation of that [genomic sequencing] technology that makes it very difficult to determine the abundance, the original abundance of the animals that created the DNA, and so the challenge of the eDNA work was to be able to determine abundance from the sample, and that has been worked on four years for five years now. eDNA is being implemented by the U.S. Geological Service in the United States. And so that’s a federal government agency acknowledging the usefulness of genetics for environmental monitoring. Now, as I read the article that I just read, the conclusion of the article is that developing this on a wide scale would be cost prohibitive. So again, is that an act of censorship? By saying that this technology that allows you two very quickly and rapidly assess the community structure of a stream using genetics is to cost prohibitive? Maybe, Maybe not. I don’t think so. I don’t believe that that is true [that it is more expensive]. The sequencing technology, the cost of DNA sequencing is almost negligible for the amount of sequencing [needed to conduct a routine stream sample]. So really the cost here it would be the labor to conduct the analysis. And so then the question is, what is the labor cost to conduct a genomic analysis versus the labor cost to conduct a visual analysis? And so when someone says that is to cost prohibitive to conduct genetic analysis, you’re saying that it costs more for someone to go out and collect a bottle of water from a stream and put it in their car and drive back to the lab or collect 10 bottles of water and put him in there in a in a cooler and drive those back to the lab later in the day, that it cost more to do that than it does to send a team of 20 people out to count fish visually in a stream. And not only that, but that the extra information gained by doing the genetic analysis is not useful at all has no monetary value.

So that’s what the federal state governments will say, is that genetic testing is to cost prohibitive. And so, let’s see. Let’s look at numbers here that have been published by this group. 51 Instances of Censorship in the Environmental Protection Agency, 35 by The Department of Interior, 25 of the White House, 17 by Health and Human Services, 16 by The Energy Department, 6 at NASA. [The reason] for these [censorship acts] could be science is told they can’t talk publicly, studies discounted in policy making budget cuts for scientific research programs, removing scientists visit from positions limiting the teaching of theories, self censorship, the research hindrance. So the censorship that I experienced would be classified under was self censorship by the scientists that I was working with because they all knew what not to say to avoid budget cuts. [Ultimately, that] research program was defunded.

[Listing types of censorship from the article]

We could not get funding, to research genetics. Some forced personnel changes were experienced that might have been considered censorship. [I didn’t see any] overt interference with education. That’s something you would expect to happen, [for example], at the EPA. [If I wanted to] put out a pamphlet or informational document on environmental DNA and [some authority in the] government said, “Well, you can’t put that out” or if I wanted to put out something on climate change and the government said, “No, you can’t do that”. Well, [we were never specifically told not put out educational materials]. So we tried, and spent a lot of time trying to educate people about [environmental] genetic testing. And so then it became apparent, though it didn’t matter how much people understood they were. Still, there was still a fear of the technology. And so in some cases you didn’t need to censor it because the people who would be making the decisions about money we’re so already inherently biased, and were already afraid of the implications, or just didn’t know just didn’t understand the implications [of adopting the technology], even if we tell them “Look, these are good implications for science, the scientific method will let us improve our current systems”. It didn’t matter. They’re afraid. And so fear is a big driver of censorship, and fear is a human is part of humanity.

We always have a tendency to fear the unknown, and that is part of what being a scientist is: Knowing that the unknown is scary. Particle physics is potentially scary. Genomics is scary. All of these things have impacts that we don’t understand. We don’t know how CRISPr gene modification is going to affect humanity in the next 10 years. We hope that it’s used for good, but it could be used for bad. We don’t know how particle physics is going to affect us in the next 10 years. If we discover a new particle that could modify gravity, that would be amazing. It could be terrifying. We don’t know. We don’t know enough about subatomic physics to conjecture what will happen with the development of new technologies. So does that mean we shouldn’t do it? Should we not investigate neutrinos because we might develop anti-gravity technology? No. I and so that’s why being a scientist is being an adventurer because it’s an adventure. We don’t know where genomics is going to bring us, but we should explore it.

So while fears a big part of, human nature, so is exploration. And so when you have a government entity, the highest levels of the government, continually systematically censoring good science, that’s a problem. And really, this is hindering not just the United States but the entire planet. All of humanity is going to suffer because of the censorship, the anti-science climate in America, because we are the greatest, well, we’re the largest producer of scientific research still, to this day, out of all the countries that produce science. We have a responsibility to conduct the scientific method in a way that is open and fair. And so again, I’ll link back to how I’ve talked about moral consistency. It’s difficult for us to criticize China for its government, censoring its citizens, controlling its science, when we’re now doing the same thing here. So I don’t view the Trump administration as taking a different stance then the ruling administration in China in terms of science censorship. Now, sure, China’s more ingrained. They have the great firewall. They have control over Google in that country. But arguably the United States has a very be strong control of the entire Internet.

While the censorship isn’t [exactly] the same [between the US and China], It’s potentially as effective. So if you have a scientist in the United States who’s the top researcher in climate, and they are barred from speaking at a international scientific conference, then you have effectively stopped the transmission of that idea. And that’s the same thing that China is doing, stopping the transmission of ideas, or at least controlling the transmission. I’m sure that within China ideas are shared freely, and so the scientific research that is being done there is probably very advanced [regarding what’s] known within the country, and what’s published outside of the country is probably much more [limited/controlled]. These are different types of censorship, but, I imagine, that in some ways a scientist working for the government in China almost has more freedom. They’ve given up their ability to transmit ideas internationally, but China is very well aware of the fact that they have a climate problem. And so I imagine that the ruling class in China is very concerned about pollution and, I can imagine that a scientist working on pollution in China is potentially very highly regarded. Their work, if successful, might not be published broadly, at least not initially, because they’re very competitive and they want to use that within the country to promote the ruling class [first].

Whereas in America you see something almost worse, because now you’re telling a scientist you cannot tell anyone about your work. You cannot even tell your friends, and to me, that’s scary. If I can’t tell my friends about genetic testing, that is scary. If I can’t talk about but something that I believe is an empirical fact on climate, that’s scary. And so the regime that is in charge of the greatest scientific producer of scientific work in the history of the Earth is conducting a scary level of censorship. And I’m not trying to scare people by saying that, I’m using an emotive term, and what I mean is that we should be aware that that’s what’s going on. While I have never been barred from a scientific conference, I can imagine what it would feel like to be barred from a conference. I have been questioned for ideas that are well accepted in the scientific community. But again, I’ve never been personally barred from a conference. And so the conclusion here is censorship in the United States. It’s disturbing. I don’t know if I would use the word scary. I suppose I could, it depends on how you you feel about the year 2050. If you plan on being alive in the next 30 or so years, I would say that climate change could be scary. It should be. You should have a healthy, fearful respect for what could happen to the Earth in 30 years.

I think that think the presence of censorship is scary. So I think we should allow ourselves a little bit of fear and use that as motivation. And so maybe that’s the conclusion here is censorship should motivate us, and that’s what motivates me. So this project, aside from all the other things that I’ve talked about, this is a project about censorship as well, and so hopefully I will not be censored. Hopefully, my ideas are relevant, valid, and not censored, but maybe, hopefully my ideas are worth being censored because someone has to take a stance, and a lot of government employed scientists are not in that position. So that’s also kind of where I see is my position is, that since I’m not employed by the government, I can’t really be censored. It would be difficult for the government to censor me. In other words, I’m not going to lose my job over this podcast. This podcast is my job. So that’s my goal. To say what I think scientists can’t say in America. I want to be the voice of people that are being censored. So, if what I’m saying is something that’s worthy of being censored, that would make me proud.

[On that note,] I will sign off for the day. This is Bryan White with The Planetary News Radio, and I hope you enjoy this podcast. Thanks for listening.

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