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Censor of the Year: Who Will It Be?

Censor Award Cover.jpg

In the culture of science, science education and science reporting, a sea change became evident this past year. The idea of censorship, once rejected as a shameful thing or practiced covertly for the same reason, took on a new glow of virtue. With that in mind, Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture announces a new prize to be given out yearly on Darwin Day, February 12: the Censor of the Year Award.

The award will recognize particularly vicious efforts to throttle free speech and punish dissenters from orthodoxy in the context of scientific discussion of the origins of complex life, life itself, and of the cosmos.

Certainly, it has been the case for years that scientists and educators trafficking in forbidden scientific ideas -- Darwin skepticism, climate skepticism -- were subject to being penalized and suppressed. That by itself is not new. But until recently, the censors did their work under pretenses, driven by the recognition that few thoughtful men and women will say they approve of putting a cork in somebody's mouth, threatening his reputation and livelihood, just because you don't like what he says.

So the censors sought acceptable justifications for silencing people with controversial views. You may recall what happened to evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg at the Smithsonian Institution after he published a peer-reviewed journal article by Stephen Meyer in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Colleagues who wished to punish Dr. Sternberg sought high and low, without success, for something unsavory to pin on him that would justify pushing Sternberg out of his position.

That was a decade ago, in 2004. It would be less likely to happen that way today. If the story were repeated, the censors and bullies would more probably just shove Sternberg out the door, making no bones about what they were doing or why. Probably they would brag about it.

Or recall the David Coppedge affair at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and how his colleagues sought a fig leaf of a respectable rationale for canning Mr. Coppedge, an advocate of intelligent design, scant years before he would have retired with an appropriate benefits package. The trial we covered here in 2012 was supposed to be all about determining the real reasons that Coppedge was fired.

Something has changed, both on the climate and on evolution. It was a milestone this year when the Los Angeles Times announced, in an off-handed manner, that it had ceased publishing letters that critique theories of human-generated global warming. An editor explained that such doubts are factually inaccurate and so have no place on the letters page. There was no apology for this, no excuse-making.

In the past, the whole purpose of letters to the editors was to give readers with dissenting opinions a space to have their say! No more. Silencing skeptics, or "science deniers" as they're called (it rhymes with "Holocaust deniers"), is now a virtuous act, something to feel good about.

Charles Darwin himself, whose birthday is commemorated on the day bearing his name, insisted that getting at the truth, sorting true from false, requires an unimpeded airing of views: "A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question." Ironically, it is his latter-day advocates and defenders who are the most eager to muffle dissenting opinions, and the most unashamed about doing so.

And again, not just unashamed, but proud. A victory in shutting down a college class, punishing a teacher, thwarting a law intended to protect educators from administrative reprisals, intimidating a publisher into a canceling a book contract, erasing words from the wall of a public museum -- such things are not merely done, they are candidly, brazenly bragged about.

Hence the need for a formal recognition of the individual who has been the proudest and most successful censor of the preceding year. Who will it be?

The Center for Science & Culture will be taking nominations for the next couple of weeks, through Wednesday, January 29. We'll have some suggestions and reflections for you in the meantime, to stimulate your thinking. Contact us with your suggestions by emailing the editor of ENV. We'll deliberate carefully, and make our announcement on Tuesday, February 4, in ample time to get ready for Darwin Day.

At Evolution News & Views, we've devoted articles almost beyond count to documenting censorship. You can consult our archives under the topic heading Academic Freedom.

Why do we care? The point is two-fold. First, we want to do what we can to protect vulnerable researchers and teachers from academic bullies. That's out of concern and sympathy for innocent people, but no less from the recognition that Darwin was right: There is no hope of arriving at the truth when one group of disputants in a controversy is prevented from giving the evidence on their side.

Second, because we care about the truth, we despise the falsehood that claims a scientific "consensus" confirms that Darwinian theory has satisfactorily explained the origin of the first living organism and the rise of complex animal and human life.

Yes, a majority of scientists who will speak openly will you tell you, if questioned, that they accept the Darwinian account and reject the scientific alternative of intelligent design. But the statistical fact of such a majority is the result, in no small measure, of rule by fear. For every story of a scientist or teacher silenced that we have covered here, many, many others could be told -- but the censored scholars and instructors are careful about keeping safe from further threats and reprisals, which means keeping quiet.

Then there are the countless untellable tales of those in academic life who never dared to think objectively about evolution because they know well the disastrous consequences if they arrived at and openly aired skeptical views.

So while we can't name but a few of the silenced, we can name -- and we hope bring public attention to, even judgment and censure -- some of their persecutors. So let us have your nominations!