Censoring science: have scientists become the new inquisitors?

Saturday 29 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Lecture Theatre 2

In January this year, Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, used BBC’s Horizon programme to declare war on bad science. He compared climate sceptic James Delingpole to an AIDS denier. According to Nurse, deniers corrode the public’s trust in science and need to be exposed. As the government’s chief scientific adviser John Beddington put it a few weeks later, we should become ‘grossly intolerant of pseudoscience’. But is it right to blame controversy around scientific issues for eroding public trust in science and scientific bodies? Is not likely that attempts to silence debate about science will do more damage to our belief in scientific objectivity?

From Galileo’s run in with the Catholic Church to the recent attacks on animal research and GM crop trials, scientists have always run up against vested interests and been under pressure to convince both those in authority and the public of the value of their work. Big scientific questions have always been played out in the public arena, not hidden away in the laboratory or ruled over by committee. The case for evolution was won in heated public debates like that between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, which took place in the Oxford University Museum in 1860. Some may think the argument on climate change is now settled, but others insist that just ridiculing those who hold different opinions is counter-productive. That is why the Royal Society caused such a stir in 2008 when it sacked its education director Michael Reiss for advising against simply insisting children are ‘wrong’ to believe in anything other than evolution. Don’t scientists need to win their case with the public rather dismissing those who dissent as ill-informed bystanders?

Nobody wants to defend ‘bad science’, but the frequent accusation that those responsible for it must be part of a conspiracy of some kind allows little room for anyone to challenge anything established as ‘good science’. Isn’t this a call to close down debate and demand subservience to ‘facts’ that ought to be regarded as provisional rather than the final word? Is the scientific establishment in danger of setting itself up as a new - scientific - inquisition?

Listen to session audio:


Professor Conrad Lichtenstein
chief scientific officer, Nemesis Bioscience

Mark Maslin
professor of palaeoclimatology, University College London; Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Scholar; author, Global Warming: a very short introduction

David Perks
founder and principal, East London Science School; director, the Physics Factory

Professor Brian Wynne
research director, Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, University of Lancaster; associate director, ESRC Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics

Tony Gilland
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas

Produced by
Tony Gilland associate fellow, Academy of Ideas
David Perks founder and principal, East London Science School; director, the Physics Factory
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