Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tempted into Censorship

I remember once doing a reprehensible thing. I remember doing many reprehensible things, but this one is related to my being a scientist and priding myself, perhaps in a self-congratulatory and delusional way, in being a lover of the “truth,” whatever that may mean.

I was browsing around in the science section of a bookstore in Mexico City. The science section of Mexico City bookstores can be quite bewildering because bookstore owners have a very dim idea of what the term “science” means (witness the book department in any Sanborn’s store, where bona fide science consorts promiscuously with astrology, UFO-abductee accounts, and New Age self-help pap.) Next to some physics textbooks I found a little tome. I don´t remember the title or who the author was. I just remember that it was an enraged accusation of physicists and their strange ideas about relativity. The author, obviously a crank, was not comfortable with the notion that someone might know for a fact something he did not understand. A little training in math and physics shows relativity to be a logical necessity despite its weird predictions (which, by the way, are perfectly established by experiment), but this the author did not know and did not bother to find out. Too much trouble. Instead, he just ranted and raved and argued nonsensically against the special theory of relativity --whithout a single equation.

Now, this is what I did: I pushed the little volume all the way back in its shelf, effectively hiding it from view for the rest of time.

Later it dawned on me what I had really done. I had tried to suppress an idea --an act of censorship. Censorship, of course, is what people do who are not sure they are right. Totalitarian states do it, and the Inquisition did it. It is the weapon of the liar and the usurper, the corrupt and the power-hungry. Censorship, as opposed to argument, is contrary to the search for truth. I don´t mean to say that censorship is unheard-of in science, because it most certainly is not. Scientists are human and subject to human passions. But science has an advantage over political or religious systems of belief, where censorship is common --that its criteria for truth or falseness are clear, and shared by most scientists (the criteria include reproducibility of results and consistency of explanations, among others). The best way to challenge ideas is with ideas. My deed, although inspired by the noblest sentiments (as I’m sure the author of the little book is convinced his own deeds are), was reprehensible and childish.

And then again... The author wasn´t there for me to argue with. With the mass media gone over to the cranks, scientists are reduced to guerrilla tactics. We can´t speak out as they can, and most scientists will not upset their schedules to take part in the war effort. What could I do? I was feeling frustrated. (And please don´t go telling me that maybe so were Hitler, Stalin and Torquemada.)


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