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Chapter 2 – The political sociology of science and undone research

2.9 Reasons for undone science

2.9.2 Political reasons for undone science

The following sections describe the types of research that fall into the categories of political reasons for undone science. Negative non-knowledge or forbidden knowledge

Political reasons for undone science, include what Gross types as ‘negative non-knowledge’. Undone science as a form of ignorance or non-knowledge can be perceived as dangerous knowledge by those who fund research, similar to Hess’s

science left undone by elites.67 Undone science from the perspective of vested interests or those who do not want the research done is viewed as negative non-knowledge and consequently abandoned. In other words, the research is left undone for political reasons.

In the case of the devil disease, toxicology results that may have identified dangerous levels of chemical residues in devil tissues constitute ‘negative non-knowledge’ as is described in Chapter 5.

However, there are circumstances where scientific research can be classified as

‘negative non-knowledge’ for ethical reasons. It becomes ‘forbidden knowledge’ and is not funded on ethical grounds. Science left undone or abandoned because it is considered unethical has included the testing of new designs for nuclear weapons and the cloning of human embryos. The science is considered either by some scientists or the public as too dangerous to pursue and hence pressure is put on governments and industry to leave it undone. These are political reasons for undone science. In Tasmania the scientific research into the devil disease has not been abandoned or left undone due to ethical concerns. Uncertainty in science

When science is undoable due to either limitations in technology or non-knowledge, as is the case with the mode of action for endocrine disrupting chemicals, it can lead to uncertainty in science for practical reasons. Val Gunter and Steve Kroll-Smith point out that knowledge limits can also ensue from uncertainty in the interpretation of the results

67 Hess DJ, 2009, Potentials and Limitations of Civil Society Research: Getting Undone Science Done, Sociological Inquiry Vol 79(3), pp 306-327

of research that does exist.68 This uncertainty can genuinely stem from disagreements amongst researchers ‘because both the production and interpretation of “facts” rest on models and background assumptions that are open to dispute’.69 Uncertainty in science is often found in environmental problems where the complexities are extreme. This uncertainty can also provide reasons for delays in decision-making by policy makers and regulators resulting in benefits to vested interests. When science is conducted in a limited and secretive manner then uncertainty can be manufactured and used to the advantage of vested interests.70 The uncertainty created by the undone research in the Tasmanian devil cancer and three other wildlife cancers is the prompt for me to suggest it would be prudent to invoke the precautionary principle. The need for the precautionary principle is discussed in full in Chapter 7.

Meanwhile, openness and transparency in research and publication through peer review allow scientific uncertainty over research results and different interpretations of research to be openly debated, negotiated, mediated and resolved. Censorship and the ‘chilling effect’

Scientific research that is compromised by a lack of openness and transparency can produce a further two types of undone science due to censorship: first, suppressed knowledge, when the science is done but not made public and second, censorship either by powerful elites or by self-censorship. Suppression according to Brian Martin is

‘restraint or inhibition without physical force’ such as blocking of publications which is

68 Gunter V & Kroll-Smith S, 2007, Volatile Places: A Sociology of Communities and Environmental Controversies, Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, California

69 ibid, p 113

70 Michaels D, 2006, Manufactured uncertainty: Protecting public health in the age of contested science and product defense, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Vol 1076, pp 149-162

an exercise in power.71 Martin found that scientists avoid doing research if they expect an attack if they do so. Martin terms this self-intimidation. Joanna Kempner agrees with Martin that intellectual suppression has been the focus of most censorship along with distortion or manipulation of knowledge in the intimidation and silencing of researchers.72 Kempner also agrees with Martin’s notion of self-intimidation, that scientists frequently practice self-censorship, which she called the “chilling effect”. In her study she found that scientists themselves employed a variety of methods in order to self-censor. These included:

- disguise the most controversial aspects of their research - remove potential “red flag” words from titles or abstracts - delete sensitive keywords

- complete silence i.e. not publish - minor modifications

- omissions

- the reframing of studies in ways thought less politically sensitive

- dropped studies or renewal of studies thought to be politically non-viable.

- changing careers

Hess also notes suppression can occur through employment, where dismissal is threatened, or actions such as funding cuts, media campaigns and litigation are implemented to discredit and exhaust challengers. Hess further points out that the worst suppression is reserved for high-status challengers, the results of which not only have a

‘chilling effect’ on the targeted scientists but also on other ‘would-be sympathizers and challengers’.73

71 Martin B, 1999, Suppression of Dissent in Science, Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, Vol 7, pp 105-135

72 Kempner J, 2008, The Chilling Effect, PloS Medicine Vol 5(11), pp 1517-1578

73 Hess DJ, 2009, Potentials and Limitations of Civil Society Research: Getting Undone Science Done, Sociological Inquiry, Vol 79(3), pp 306-327

In her study Kempner did not find a causal relationship between political controversy and self-censorship but she did find that the political environment might serve as a powerful force in shaping scientific research practices. Her research also concluded that political controversy might also encourage scientists to avoid some areas of scientific inquiry, but no studies have formally investigated this possibility. Both Hess and Kempner call for an investigation into why certain science is left undone and what role political influence or controversy might play.