Censorship in Science

Photo Credit: Su Yin Khoo

Photo Credit: Su Yin Khoo

Earlier this week, it came to light that Dr George Murray Levick, a scientist working with Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition, had his observations of the unusual sex lives of the Adelie penguins censored. This censorship was twofold, performed by Murray himself, by writing his findings in Ancient Greek, and by those who published his paper “The Natural History Of The Adelie Penguin”, by omitting those sections.

The reasons for this were simple, his observations and graphic descriptions of the abnormal sex acts occasionally performed by the younger penguin males were deemed as being too shocking for the Edwardian public. In contrast, the BBC and numerous other media outlets appear to feel that the modern-day public are desensitized enough to learn about penguin necrophilia. The original publication has almost become an ornithological Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

Considering the theme, censorship of scientific data and discovery is not a new phenomenon, be it by the church or, more recently, by the state. The infamous example of this occurring in 1633, with Galileo and the Catholic church. The story of Galileo Galilei and his support of Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system now being taught in schools as an example of science proving blind faith wrong.

Today, the church, in all its forms, has long lost the power to suppress discoveries it disagrees with and the internet has taken freedom of information to a level that even our parents’ generations would have struggled to predict. Nowadays, ideas and discoveries are not considered dangerous if they change a long held view of the universe, astronomy is no longer a threat to any country’s stability. Instead, it is the fields of defence research that come under scrutiny.

The most recent examples of government censorship of science can be seen in the USA, as the result of heightened national security post-9/11. One of the most publicised examples occurred in 2011, when the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (an American federal organisation) requested that key information on the methods behind the modification of a flu virus were removed from a scientific paper. The justification being born from the partially exaggerated fear that the information contained within may be used to create an extremely deadly strain which would be utilised as a powerful bioweapon.

Some may argue that, when it comes to censorship by the state, governments could be seen as justified in their attempts to keep discoveries and research into fields such as virology and nuclear weaponry on the quiet. Indeed, the line between breaking a censor and committing treason can become very narrow indeed.

A noted demonstration of this occurred in 1953, when the issue of censorship ceased to be a one of contemplation for two American communists and engineers. For Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, censorship had become an issue of life and death as they became the first US citizens to be executed for espionage, after passing information about the construction of atomic bombs to the Soviet Union.

It would be naïve to assume that censorship is only performed by religious organisations or governments. In reality, the media is also to blame as the larger and more established scientific journals, such as Science and Nature, discreetly request a kind of confidentiality to be applied by all its contributors. Essentially a subtle form of self-censorship. Many feel that information that could pose a threat to the general population should remain unpublished. In fact, this form of self-censorship is likely to have had much more of an effect than any government mandated enforcements.
Upon reflection, history does appear to show us that, in every field of science and the arts, attempts at censorship will always eventually fail. Sometimes the truth is too big to be contained, sometimes people gossip too much to keep secrets. Eventually, the truth will out.

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