Gagging of scientists – a common problem?


A recent NZ Association of Scientists survey indicates that 40% of NZ scientists report they feel gagged from communicating their scientific findings to the public. Management policies and funding problems were blamed and there are issues around “embarrassing the government.”

The Science and Innovation Minister, Stephen Joyce, is not convinced by the survey results but is unwilling to accept there is a problem without  “a heck of a lot more evidence than we’ve got from one write-in survey.” (See Call for closer look at scientists’ claims | Radio New Zealand News.)  You can be sure he won’t go out of his way to look for such evidence.

Wider than direct censorship

Despite Joyce’s attempts to “turn a blind eye,” I think there is a problem and can certainly remember examples from my time working in a Crown Research Institute (these problems may not be as bad in the Universities). But the problem is wider than direct censorship – limiting publication because of commercial sensitivity, protection of intellectual property,  fear of scaring away or offending potential funders and succumbing to legal action – or just threats of legal action – from commercial interests.

There is also the gagging effect arising from the institutional culture, the attitudes and perceived interests of management bureaucracy, the old-boy network (which these days incorporates people from the commercial  sectors as well as the government and political system). I experienced an example of the old-boy network when a National MP attempted to get my director to “discipline” me because I had made a public statement on nuclear disarmament! I am sure this sort of “behind the scenes” pressure is exerted all the time on research institute managements by commercial and political figures. And how often do management figures consider the interests of freedom of expression and information, or the responsibility of science to communicate with the public, when subjected to such pressure with its implied threats to the funding or “name” of the institute?  Or to the career of the management figure themselves?

Wider than one’s own research

The issues, for and against, may be fairly clear when the findings being gagged are the research results of the scientists themselves. But scientists do have the responsibility to speak up about science itself, and about general findings which may not be directly linked to the narrow field of specialisation of the scientist concerned.

This is especially true today when so much pseudoscience and outright distortion of science is promoted in the public sphere. Very often the promotion is done in the interests of business so managements may feel the need to prevent staff from fulfilling such responsibilities so as to avoid commercial pressures on the institute.

A common example is the scientific misinformation peddled by the “natural”/alternative health industry, which today is a big and profitable business – despite attempting to present itself as the “David” challenging the “Goliath” of “Big Pharma.”

Institutional management may pressure staff not to face up to their responsibility to fight this misinformation – especially if they believe there may be possibilities of research contracts from businesses within that industry. Maybe management will express this in relatively bland terms such as the need to protect the “name” and “reputation” of the institute. Or express the concept that the institute should not be seen to be “taking sides” as this undermines its credibility and appearance of objectivity.

Becoming a “street fighter” or abdicating scientific responsibility?

Then, of course, there is just the outright viciousness of some anti-science campaigners. Getting into public fights with some ideologically motivated activists can be like participating in a pub brawl. Responsible management cannot be happy about staff being seen as “street fighters.”

Management also has a responsibility not to expose their staff to danger. In New Zealand District Health Boards have tended not to take part in public meetings which are stacked with anti-fluoride activists – partly for the safety reason. And recent reports of attacks on health spokespersons and city council leaders, by anti-fluoride activists, show this is a reasonable concern (see  Lismore mayor assaulted in broad daylight by fluoride-hater, and Beware the violent antis – Lismore Mayor physically assaulted).

33618It is a complex issue. On the one hand engagement with those who are misrepresenting science can sometimes end up like fighting a pig – one’s opponent is so slimy they can escape from any rational debate and the expert ends up just a dirty as the pig in the end. In the other hand not to take part in the public debate  results in the abdication of our scientific responsibilities and handing over the public issue to those who promote misinformation and pseudoscience. (In NZ anti-fluoride propagandists are continually claiming  the refusal of district health boards to front up to their meetings as evidence that science does not support fluoridation!)

Social media

Social media can be just as nasty to pro-science people who attempt to challenge misrepresentation and pseudoscience (have a look at the abuse rendered by the Australian anti-fluoride propagandist Dan Germouse here). There is little point in engaging extremists on social media – unless one is sure there are other readers, or “lurkers,” who may learn something from the exchange.

But one thing is sure, advocates of science do not use social media as often or as effectively as they should. Studies do show that pseudoscientific groups and those peddling scientific misinformation tend to dominate social media like Facebook and Twitter. Social media can be effective in creating opinions – and anyway it is a popular forum which we ignore at our peril.  Scientists need to find ways to effectively take part in social media – if we don’t we are abdicating our responsibility to society to defend science and oppose misinformation.


Gagging of scientists is much wider than the few cases where publication of individual research findings is restricted.Unfortunately institutional culture, its conservatism, authoritarianism and bureaucracy, inhibit the freedom of scientists to take part in the public debate around scientific issues. They inhibit participation in social media where much of the public debate occurs (see Science and social media in new Zealand). Institutional culture can therefore restrict a scientist’s ability to fulfill his or her responsibility to communicate science to the public and to oppose widespread misinformation and pseudoscience.

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14 responses to “Gagging of scientists – a common problem?

  1. Pleased to see you do acknowledge the pressures that prevent scientists (and others) speaking out but would be interested to see if you can back up your claims about the ‘natural health industry’ compared to Big Pharma – do you have relevant comparisons of turnover etc?
    As for violence towards pro-fluoridationists – I’ve never been to Lismore – don’t even think it’s in NZ is it??? – so I can’t recall any such incidents in Godzone – but I do remember the erstwhile Gary Taylor calling the police to prevent a petition being presented to the then ARC – I consider that institutionalised bullying really . . . don’t you?
    I’m more inclined to think that pro-fluoridationists don’t front up to public debate because they know that in the public forums commonsense is likely to prevail and there are enough holes in their arguments for us common old garden members of the public to drive a double decker bus through . . . keep up the bad work Ken . . . . :}


  2. I feel there may be dishonesty sometimes to get a policy across.
    If trying to prove presence or absence of an effect two types of error have to be allowed for.
    1. Measurements were such that we thought there was an effect when there actually wasn’t.
    2. Measurements were insufficient so we thought there was no effect when there actually was.
    The more measurements we take the more chance we see a result when maybe it is just by chance, i.e. we get a type 1 error.
    So we reduce the number of measurements, but not too much so as to get the type 2 error, not seeing an effect which is actualy present.

    95% confidence can be a compromise.

    In 2012 a number of scientist and officials widely and angrily rejected results of an experiment with a number of subjects avoiding the type 1 error though insuffient to avoid the type 2 error.
    They asked for the positive result to be rejected just because the sample size was not sufficent to prove a negative result.
    The study was for toxicology which requires fewer subjects than cancer testing for avoidance of type 2 error. The critics, including the German Govt risk management authority, set out to dicredit the researcher for saying how extra tumours had occurred, when because of the smaller toxicology sample size there was risk of the type 2 error.
    The public and some scientists were persuaded to reject the positive results based on the sample size being to small to make sure no effects were occurring.
    So, Ken, further than the suppression you note, outright dishonesty appears, too.

    Brian Sandle


  3. chris price

    If that was the case why did Mary Byrne refuse to enter into a debate with Ken last week , citing, I quote”– I do not want to have a debate with you as I don’t see the point. For one thing, I think you say things that aren’t true and secondly, it would basically only be us that would be interested so I really don’t see the point.
    Maybe she was scared of that “Double Decker Bus”


  4. Greenbuzzer, I have written before about the financial role of the local “natural”/alternative health big business in their hundreds of thousands of dollars transfer of industry funds for legal campaigns against fluoridation. Similarly Mercola’s funding of Connett’s crowd in the U.S.

    As for public exchanges – it is telling that while the local anti-fluoridation propagandists continually “challenge” people to debates they quickly back down when anyone takes them up on it.

    One of the points in my article is that institution culture prevents staff from taking up many of these challenges whereas someone like me is not so restricted.

    If the FF people really believed in their claims people like Mary Byrne and Stan Litras would have long ago accepted my offer (and the offer of others) of rights of reply and on-line debates. They never do. Go figure.



  5. What a strangle attitude, Brian. You call a debate over the nature of statistical variation in data “dishonesty.”

    Yet I would have thought it is dishonest to cast damning aspersions like this in such vague terms without citations. Are n’ you just trying to manufacture doubt in the integrity of the scientific process?


  6. Brian

    One hopes that in 2015 excessive thirst and water intake (polydipsia), a symptom of untreated or inadequately treated diabetes, is vanishingly uncommon from a population perspective.


  7. Billy Budd, it was pregnancy I was emphasising. Pregnant people are a minority in the population. Say 1% of people are pregnant at any one time. Midwives should test for diabetes. Even without diabetes extra thirst is quite common in pregnancy, which may result from a similar cause in the hormones. Diabetes is just one cause. You need some extra blood but if your weight goes up some 12kg that is only 12 litres of water which an exerciser could drink in a few days.

    What is fluoride’s effect on AChE having on the embryo?

    Ken has allowed that comment, not quite sure how it relates on this thread.

    But thanks for making me think about checking for winter/summer pregnancy effects.


  8. I’m unaware of any literature supporting a concern over 0.7 or 1 ppm fluoride ion have an anti-cholinesterase effect in either pregnant or not pregnant people. Perhaps you could post some references.

    Water quality stardards are designed to protect human health. The exhaustive 2006 NAS report on the health effects of 4 ppm (the US EPA current maximum allowed fluoride in drinking water) identified only three health issues. Studies over many years show that none of those three exist if drinking water fluoride is limited to 2 ppm.

    The Institute of Medicine (IOM) does have a Tolerable Upper Intake Level for pregnancy and it is 10mg/day for all ages.

    Click to access 5_Summary%20Table%20Tables%201-4.pdf

    That means a pregnant woman can drink up to 14.3 liters of fluoridated water and not be over that limit. The IOM has determined the adequate intake for water in women is 2.2 L/day. Thus there is an adequate safety margin.

    Fluoride crosses the placenta. There are animal data to show the fetal plasma fluoride level follows maternal levels.

    We have considerable clinical experience with fluoride supplements which were studied and shown to provide no benefit to fetal oral health. No harms were ever described in those studies.

    Humankind (that includes fetuses) have eons of experience with fluoride as a natural mineral. Without data supporting a concern, it is biologically implausible that there is any harm to a fetus from mother drinking fluoridated water.


  9. Thanks for the table but it is challengeable. For example the low fat levels. See recent release from Institute of Science in Society. Besides your table suggests 3 litres daily in pregnancy and more in lactation. And I don’t think 3 litres to be adequate for a sportsperson in hot weather.

    And you are talking the new 0.7 level whereas fluoridation effect studies are likely to be at greater levels.

    is saying that children conceived in winter, therefore obviously in the later stage of gestation in the Californian summer, are at higher risk for autism.

    Click to access acta_vol_19_p1333-1346.pdf

    gives plenty of space on the graph for possible effect between zero and 0.5×10^-3 molar (p.1338 bottom.)

    I don’t know how to search for this but if there is any effect as on the sense of smell, note that a constantly refreshed perfume (analogous to drinking water periodically with its fluoride) can keep the nose blocked from perceiving lesser odours.


  10. @ soundhill,

    Before you get further with your speculation, I note that you appear to be trying to equate “constantly refreshed” with “intermittent”, and the biological perception of smell with concentration of anions. I don’t think “analogous” is the correct term to use.


  11. Stuartg, it takes a while after a perfume disperses before the nose regains its sensitivity to lesser odours. I image the smell receptors all become occupied and take a while to clear before being able to receive a new odour. Occasional large odour doses, say when a person is cleaning up waste, temporarily block receptors but then leave them clear again so finer odours, a lower concentration of molecules, can be differentiated. (Odours may be quite important for mammal identity signalling, is this a sibling or not sort of thing.)
    But a perfume source constantly refreshing the supply of perfume molecules before they become unbound again is going to stop mate or sibling recognition via odour, isn’t it? (I have read psychology counsellors maybe even all healthcare workers shouldn’t wear perfume.)

    This gives some sort of insight into AChE blocking, for example fluoride from sarin, it seems:

    A large dose of fluoride, such as a cup of tea may block lots of receptors but give more hours to the next dose than if the soups stews and porridge and jams and jellies are made with fluoridated water some boiled down and concentrated, and water is drunk, too.

    Better empty the litterbox and check the next TCH15 event, though I think our receptors have a pause while the contestants practice with orchestra &c.


  12. So if the science we all rely on is squeaky clean and absolutely above reproach why then this commentary published a few days ago:

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Trev, I know you rely on the local anti-fluoride propagandists sites for you information on science, but I am a bit offended you a regurgitating this old news (just because FFNZ is) when I had dealt with that issue in my article Making mountains out of scientific mole hills.

    In fact, Trev, you commented on the article at the time!

    Do I detect some senility creeping in there? 🙂


  14. soundhill,

    Read what I said.

    You are talking about the masking of odours by stronger scents. A practical example is the use of “new car” smell by second hand dealers.

    Closer analogies to your use of smell would be raw garlic masking the delicate taste of scallops, or a siren a metre away masking the sound of a falling pin striking the ground.

    And you have completely failed to consider the role of the brain in the perception and interpretation of any of the senses.

    P.S. Where does gagging of scientists enter your speculation?


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