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Why science needs free speech

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451.jpg (5156 bytes) Adam Perkins offers a revealing example at Quillette:

But why do we specifically need free speech in science? Surely we just take measurements and publish our data? No chit chat required. We need free speech in science because science is not really about microscopes, or pipettes, or test tubes, or even Large Hadron Colliders. These are merely tools that help us to accomplish a far greater mission, which is to choose between rival narratives, in the vicious, no-holds-barred battle of ideas that we call “science”.

For example, stomach problems such as gastritis and ulcers were historically viewed as the products of stress. This opinion was challenged in the late 1970s by the Australian doctors Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, who suspected that stomach problems were caused by infection with the bacteria Helicobacter pylori. Frustrated by skepticism from the medical establishment and by difficulties publishing his academic papers, in 1984, Barry Marshall appointed himself his own experimental subject and drank a Petri dish full of H. pylori culture. He promptly developed gastritis which was then cured with antibiotics, suggesting that H. pylori has a causal role in this type of illness. You would have thought that given this clear-cut evidence supporting Warren and Marshall’s opinion, their opponents would immediately concede defeat. But scientists are only human and opposition to Warren and Marshall persisted. In the end it was two decades before their crucial work on H. pylori gained the recognition it deserved, with the award of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

From this episode we can see that even in situations where laboratory experiments can provide clear evidence in favour of a particular scientific opinion, opponents will typically refuse to accept it. Instead scientists tend cling so stubbornly to their pet theories that no amount of evidence will change their minds and only death can bring an end to the argument, as famously observed by Max Planck… More.

Free speech in science is about far more than powering down the adult toddlers of Evergreen State, who are possibly not suited to the study of anything that requires more mental discipline than screaming does. Many people’s lives were likely improved by a closer approximation of the causes of gastritis and ulcers (less psychotherapy, more antibiotics, easier life). But our culture had to get used to the idea that ulcers were not necessarily a sign of inability to cope with stress. How sad to lose such a convenient explanation for the boss’s ulcers.

See also: At Quillette: Who will the Evergreen mob (targeted biology teacher recently) target next?


Tips for recognizing spin in science papers And consider, this spin is happening before pop science writers get hold of it, never mind what is served up to us afterward.


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