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Author Topic: Do government scientists enjoy free speech?  (Read 2901 times)

Offline cheryl j

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Do government scientists enjoy free speech?
« on: 03/11/2013 01:06:55 »
I was listening to the CBC yesterday and there was a segment on the censorship of government scientists. These aren't scientists working in the military or in areas that could be associated with national security. One of the big things was actually environmental issues . One official interviewed (sorry I don't recall his name) said "employers" absolutely do have the right to control whether their scientists can discuss their work, what they can say, and with whom. But a private corporation like Proctor and Gamble imposing that restriction some how seems different to me than the government doing it. When one researcher talked about being forced to have "a handler" supervise his discussions with the media, it reminded of the carefully monitored and controlled interactions when western media or outsiders visited institutions in the USSR during the cold war. "This is Canada?" I thought to myself. I am wondering what others think about it.

Here is a link to a CBC report about it. I don't have a link to the radio program or interviews.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/muzzling-of-federal-scientists-widespread-survey-suggests-1.2128859
« Last Edit: 11/11/2013 19:13:14 by chris »


 

Offline alancalverd

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Re: Free speech and government scientists
« Reply #1 on: 03/11/2013 01:35:30 »
The Official Secrets Act (or its transatlantic equivalent) covers everything that government knows, and applies to everyone, not just those government employees who have signed to say that they have read it. In principle, I can't tell you the staff canteen lunch menu without permission. Private employers have an automatic right to secrecy as an implied (though usually expressed) term of contract: trade secrets are often more valuable that patents.

The political conundrum arises when a scientist tells an obvious truth (e.g. that CO2 is not responsible for climate change) that is at variance with government policy. In a democratic society you could use the defence that what you have said is (a) common knowledge or derivable from information in the public domain and (b) not a product of your paid employment, therefore not a secret, but a dictatorship won't accept those arguments as valid.

Furthermore even a statement of the obvious can be regarded as treason in time of war. The fate of Dr David Kelly, Hilda Murrell, et al,  is a warning to any expert inclined to question the "data" of those in power in a dictatorship parliamentary democracy.       
« Last Edit: 03/11/2013 01:38:46 by alancalverd »
 

Offline Bored chemist

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Re: Free speech and government scientists
« Reply #2 on: 03/11/2013 10:06:35 »
Alan, I wonder if, like me, you are old enough to have signed the official secrets act before they changed it.
http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1989/6/section/1
You can now talk openly about the lunch menu- provided that it is not " any information, document or other article relating to security or intelligence " and so on.
It's just about possible that the menu might be secret. For example, if some senior official came to lunch and the menu was gluten free then that would indicate that the official concerned was gluten intolerant. That, in turn might be useful to someone who wanted to apply that information maliciously.

Incidentally, you seem to have made a mistake by saying "The political conundrum arises when a scientist tells an obvious truth (e.g. that CO2 is not responsible for climate change) " but this isn't the place to discuss that issue.

" In a democratic society you could use the defence that what you have said is (a) common knowledge or derivable from information in the public domain and (b) not a product of your paid employment, therefore not a secret, but a dictatorship won't accept those arguments as valid. "
A dictatorship wouldn't. The law does. The problem is how independent the judiciary is from the government, not how independent the scientists are.
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: Free speech and government scientists
« Reply #3 on: 03/11/2013 20:32:35 »
So what was for lunch Friday?
 

Offline distimpson

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Re: Free speech and government scientists
« Reply #4 on: 03/11/2013 22:37:37 »
So what was for lunch Friday?
fish sticks.

I don't know about Canada, in the US supposedly there are whistle blower protections, doesn't seem to be doing Snowden any good. I agree with Bored chemist, when you enter the legal system you are rolling the dice. I haven't worked directly for the government, but in private industry in addition to the non-disclosure agreements there are a lot of unwritten rules. In general, if you are taking a public stand contrary to your employer's opinions (or even subgroups within the organization) it better be something very important to you as it can pretty much flush your career and you'll have to start something new, maybe a book deal. 

" "a handler" supervise his discussions with the media", it is pretty much ubiquitous now, marketing has taken over, just look at most social media sites, shills, astroturfers, publicists/media wing men, it is almost everywhere, except this forum and why I hang out here so much!

Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 (WPEA) http://www.americanbar.org/content/newsletter/groups/labor_law/ll_flash/1212_abalel_flash/lel_flash12_2012spec.html
 

Offline distimpson

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Re: Free speech and government scientists
« Reply #5 on: 06/11/2013 15:23:04 »
and of course it is not just science, seems to happen with any group of humans:
http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/05/us/nfl-dolphins-richie-incognito-suspended/?hpt=hp_t2
"Once you sign that contract there's a lot of rules, written and unwritten, that you are expected to follow," he said. "For me, this is something that should be handled internally. I don't think the media, I don't think fans, I don't think anyone outside is really in a position to really fully understand what occurs inside of a locker room and inside of a football team."

A well censored group is an environment that allows bullies (alpha male/females?) to thrive for the good or determent depending on your point of view (military, politics, strict adherence to the party line or you better leave the group). But lack of censorship is one feature that has always set science apart from other human activities and why censorship is so distasteful (imo). Eventually science distills the ideas most consistent with observation from those that arise from other objectives . But it only applies to the scientific method, not groups of scientists, hence, "Science advances one funeral at a time.A popular paraphrase of Max Planck's A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. "http://squashed.tumblr.com/post/802449972/science-advances-one-funeral-at-a-time
 

Offline Bored chemist

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Re: Free speech and government scientists
« Reply #6 on: 06/11/2013 19:52:21 »
There is, of course, also "whistle blower protection" legislation in the UK
This is the legislation
http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1996/18/part/IVA
but the guidance (which is a lot easier to understand, is here
https://www.gov.uk/whistleblowing

Enforcing the "unwritten rules" that you speak of is probably unlawful unless they are actually in the contract and properly written.
And, incidentally, I had a cheese and ham sandwich on Friday.

 

Offline alancalverd

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Re: Free speech and government scientists
« Reply #7 on: 06/11/2013 23:35:56 »
     
Quote

Alan, I wonder if, like me, you are old enough to have signed the official secrets act before they changed it.

Yes, many years before.

Quote
A dictatorship wouldn't. The law does.

But to quote my American girlfriend "A Colt 45 beats four aces". Ask David Kelly, Hilda Murrell, Alexander Litvinienko, and anyone else who has stepped out of line.

Quote
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Max Planck is in good company! I prefaced my thesis with "Any advance in the boundaries of knowledge is due to fatigue of the surrounding ignorance".
« Last Edit: 06/11/2013 23:40:12 by alancalverd »
 

Offline Donnah

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Re: Free speech and government scientists
« Reply #8 on: 07/11/2013 18:11:02 »
Have you seen "The Great Global Warming Swindle", Martin Durkin's film?  What did you think of the evidence and the way it was presented?
 

Offline distimpson

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Re: Free speech and government scientists
« Reply #9 on: 08/11/2013 12:35:54 »
Have not seen this, just looked at a synopsis here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Global_Warming_Swindle

I haven't watched a documentary or reality show for quite some time, many have turned into infomercials cloaked under the disguise of education or science. Same with the US news media, reporting is often just a compilation of press releases and publicist rhetoric, they tell you something is going on but you have to do the research yourself to find out exactly what. Facts and data are still hard to come by in the information age.
 

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Re: Free speech and government scientists
« Reply #9 on: 08/11/2013 12:35:54 »

 

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