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The Congressional censure of a research paper: Return of the inquisition?

by Kenneth K Berry; Jason Berry

Source: Skeptical Inquirer Electronic Digest

Commentary in the issue dated December 10, 1999

1st January 2000

In July 12, 1999, the United States House of Representatives took an historic step toward censorship of scientific findings when it voted 355 to 0 to condemn and censure a scientific publication because the members disagreed with the findings and believed that they would have a negative effect upon citizens' thoughts and actions.

The paper, published a year earlier in the American Psychological Association's journal Psychological Bulletin (July 1998), by Bruce Rind of Temple University, Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Bauserman was titled, "A Meta-analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples." This paper was basically a review and analysis of fifty-nine previous research studies of the consequences of sexual molestation of children.

The congressional members found some of the findings personally repugnant, particularly the conclusion that some molested children grow up to be normal and a small portion are seemingly little affected by this experience. The members, especially Rep. Salmon (an Arizona Republican and a sponsor of H. Con.Res.107) believed that the findings would not only encourage pedophilia among United States citizens, but the findings could not be true. The Representatives' thinking appeared to be a demonstration of what Donald Watson (1993) called "Autistic Certainty" ("I would not believe something that was not true; I believe this is not true, therefore this must be untrue").

The journal's review of past research was brought to the attention of congressional members by several very vocal, fundamentalist religious voices. Two of these are lobbying groups: the Family Research Council, a group whose primary missions appear to oppose civil rights for homosexuals, advocate celibacy for heterosexuals, and to stop abortions when they are not celibate; and the Christian Coalition, a strong political group with similar goals but with the additional one of doing away with the separation between church and state. Another strong voice was that of radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger, who uses her popular nationally syndicated radio program ("Dr. Laura") as a forum to attack those who do not agree with her personal ideas of morality and religion.

Although this may be the first time in US history that the legislative branch of the federal government has officially condemned and censured a scientific publication, it is not a first in world history. In the thirteenth century there was no separation of church and state in Europe and mysticism prevailed over direct observation of phenomena; Roger Bacon, known for his publications on logic and experimental sciences, was condemned and spent two years in prison.

Following this he wrote his final paper, published the year of his death in 1292, which was a caustic critique of the corruption of Christianity. An outspoken supporter of Copernican views of the solar system, Giordano Bruno, was victim of an inquisition (meaning "inquiry"), found guilty of heresy, and was burned at the stake by the Church/State in 1600.

Perhaps the best known incident of suppression of scientific research was Galileo's proposition of the heliocentric theory of the solar system. Those in power disagreed with his research findings and believed that the Sun circled Earth because to them it appeared to do so. An inquisition was held and, in order to avoid punishment, Galileo recanted his findings. It is an interesting parallel that Dr. Raymond Fowler, Executive Director of the American Psychological Association, "recanted" in a letter sent to the House of Representatives during the congressional inquisition. This action brought the APA praise from the House.

The most recent period of official condemnation that led to governmental censorship of science occurred in the USSR under Communism. This followed the similar pattern that led to the book burnings in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Historically, the path begins with religions or states (or both, as in Res.107) exerting pressure upon research bodies, researchers themselves and other writers, to "self-censor." This is often achieved through withdrawal, or threat of withdrawal, of financial support for specific kinds of research and/or by public censure of anything that lacks "religious" or "political" correctness. This has often been effective in science, especially in behavioral sciences.

Researchers quickly become afraid to apply for grants or perform research that might bring them pejorative labels or worse. In 1633, upon hearing of Galileo's situation, Descartes expressed surprise and vowed out of fear to either burn his manuscript in progress or hide it so that no one would ever see it. Fortunately he did the latter.

The next step on the road to control of science, as happened in the USSR, is "official censorship" (Sinitsyna 1998). Governmental bodies, or "committees," are established (some of which in the USSR were called "editorial boards") to review research projects and prevent publication of findings if they do not agree with the beliefs of those in power.

During Stalin's period and after (official censorship did not end until 1988) research in the behavioral sciences floundered. The reasons for censorship of a particular piece of work, whether art or science, were political. Work that did not fit or was critical of "accepted" standards of ideology, work that dealt with a prohibited subject (such as nudity in art), and findings or facts that might cause undesirable thoughts or associations in citizens (emphasis added, Sinitsyna 1998), were all subject to censure.

It seems that a number of variables may have influenced this recent Congressional decision. First is the general turning away from science and critical thinking and toward mysticism in the US as shown by revival of interest in supernatural and psychic powers. Science - or at least its methodology is too little valued or respected today in the United States by the majority of people and their elected representatives.

The rise of fundamentalist Christian thinking appears to have played a role in shaping judgmental attitudes, values, and the public's negative attitude toward critical thinking. The lack of public media interest in the ramifications of the House action should be a matter of concern for everyone. One cannot help but wonder what would have occurred if the Washington Post or the New York Times had been publicly censured by Congress in response to a published article or an editorial. Is it then that scientific journals, which are intended for a relatively small number of professionals and scientists, are fair game? Congressional members are well aware of the control they can exert over research, since much of the funding comes from governmental grants. Scientists are at the mercy of those in power and, at least for now, those in power are often at the mercy of the public press.

Throughout the history of science, scientists themselves have been the harshest critics of research, but their denouncement of specific studies is usually based upon the strength or weakness of the methodology, rather than their personal values and emotions about the findings.

The Evangelical Christian groups appear to have "discovered" the behavioral sciences and may likely wield their power against unpopular research findings to a greater extent in the future. It seems likely that their next targets may be gender studies, research on sexuality, and research into parenting roles.

We have taken the first large and frightening step away from scientific freedom and toward totalitarianism in control of scientific endeavours.



Sinitsyna, Olga. 1998. Censorship in the Soviet Union and its cultural and professional results for Arts. Paper presented at the Sixty-fourth International Federation of Library Associations, Amsterdam.

Watson, Donald. 1993. Autistic Certainty, Telicom, XI, 7, 43. D


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