When Worlds Collide #72: Open Science and Closed Societies: Can it work?

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 30 June 2013

Cartoon by Zapiro in South Africa

Cartoon by Zapiro in South Africa

“Let us drink to the success of our hopeless endeavour,” was a favourite toast of old Soviet dissidents. As things turned out, ‘people power’ of millions of exasperated individuals eventually brought down the system. It partly collapsed under its own weight.

Since the Iron Curtain crumbled, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries continue to grapple with many challenges – such as enhancing real pluralism, safeguarding the public sphere and preventing a relapse to the bad old days of state diktats and propaganda.

Totalitarianism – in which the state holds total authority over a society and seeks to control all aspects of public and private life – isn’t quite dead. In the twenty first century, it has got a makeover and gone global.

And it keeps tripping open societies. Journalists and academics, being on the frontline of free thought and free expression, are among the first to face these realities.

How can scientists, committed to pursuing new knowledge, best cope with autocratic governments and intolerant fundamentalists? What role can science journalists play in situations where ‘monocultures of the mind’ are being forced instead of healthy public debate?

These were among the big questions explored in an interesting session during the Eighth World Conference of Science Journalists held in Helsinki, Finland, from 24 to 28 June 2013.

The discussions took place against the backdrop of receding media and academic freedoms in many countries. Despite the steady rise of information society, and sometimes because of it, many bottlenecks exist in the free flow of information and ideas.

So, as Lenin famously asked: What is to be done?

Politically blind scientists

WCSJ 2013 bannerFinland never became part of the Eastern Bloc, instead staying in the ‘grey zone’ between the West and the Soviet Union. The Finnish capital was thus a suitable location in which to ponder the long shadow of totalitarianism and its ‘new clothes’.

Istvan Palugyai, science editor of Népszabadság newspaper in Hungary, noted how information distortion in former Eastern Bloc countries has now reached new levels of sophistication. “In totalitarian times, distortion was everywhere and everyday. Now it’s more subtle, but no less devious. Journalists have to be extra vigilant,” he said.

Certain topics are still taboo, or have remained ‘Sacred Cows’ under both systems. For example, 40% of Hungary’s electricity is generated by a Russian built nuclear power plant. But its cost benefits, efficacy and safety are never debated.

On another front, Hungary has decided against genetically modified (GMO) crops and seeds, and enshrined the ban in the Constitution itself. This now prevents any research funding on the subject, Palugyai said. The topic is no longer open to discussion.

For Wolfgang Goede, a political scientist turned freelance science writer, both science and science journalism are intensely political pursuits. To do their jobs well, practitioners need to be politically aware and savvy.

In his view, politically blind scientists are every dictator’s dream. Professionals who suspend their conscience do advance well and fast in autocracies – as some bright Germans found out twice in the last century. Both fascism and communism put German scientists ‘behind walls’, Goede said.

Engineers are notorious for “sugarcoating dictatorships” by building infrastructure and designing machines without properly considering social, economic or political implications. They rarely ask questions.

Among the worse excesses of uncritical engineering during the Soviet era was the progressive draining of the Aral Sea. The massive lake, which at 68,000 square kilometers was larger than Sri Lanka, shrank to 10% of its former size within decades because its waters were diverted to Soviet irrigation projects. It is today one of the world’s worst environmental disasters.

Gagging Scientists

Liberal democracies can be just as repressive as totalitarian regimes, but conceal it more cleverly. The common covers are ‘national security’ and the ‘common good’: where have we heard them recently? Just think of the US National Security Agency’s largest peace-time surveillance of civilian communications that has just been exposed.

Similar or worse repression is taking place in emerging democracies around the world, and that hasn’t abated despite the promise of Arab Spring, said James Cornell, an American science writer who heads the International Science Writers Association, ISWA.

James Cornell, ISWA

James Cornell, ISWA

Cornell pointed out how science journalists are particularly vulnerable because they are often highly dependent on scientist sources for very technical stories. In many countries, government are the largest funders and employers in scientific research and development. They often restrict information disclosure of publicly funded science.

This happens not only in ‘big science’ projects like space exploration and nuclear energy, usually shrouded in secrecy, but increasingly in frontier biomedical research as well.

Sometimes scientists voluntarily self censor from both publishing in academic journals and talking to journalists. An early example was the top secret Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb in the early 1940s.

A more recent one was in early 2012, when researchers delayed the publication of two scientific papers describing forms of the H5N1 avian influenza virus capable of transmitting between mammals. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) had asked experimental details of these studies to be redacted as information could be used in a bioterrorism attack.

Less obvious are many other ways in which governments try to keep the products of public science away from the paying public. Cornell referred to ‘velvet-gloved bureaucrats’ in the US who don’t say much (or anything) when they speak. This inspires other governments to adopt similar styles.

The George W Bush administration was widely criticized for manipulating science to suit policy agendas. In 2006, top NASA climate scientist James Hansen told The New York Times how the space agency had tried to stop him from speaking out about global warming.

President Obama campaigned to make public science more transparent. Journalists now find that federal agencies dealing with key areas such as food, drugs, environment and even space exploration are all disclosing a lot of information – but without giving away that much.

Cartoon by Jesse Springer of Eugene, Oregon, USA

Cartoon by Jesse Springer of Eugene, Oregon, USA

Hide and Seek

There has been a steady rise of public information resources online – but a decline in the quality of authentic information and interpretive access to experts. The more we read, it seems, the less we understand.

Curtis Brainard, science editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, noted in 2011: “Some watchdogs believe that transparency and access (in US government) have steadily diminished since the 1970s, as successive administrations clamped down more tightly, and with a greater sophistication, on the free flow of information to the public.”

When it comes to controlling information via press policies, Brainard says Obama is the savviest practitioner ever. “Consider his adroit use of digital media as a defining example. His Open Government Directive made an unprecedented amount of federal scientific data available online. His administration touts that accomplishment as proof of transparency, but critics say that is disingenuous. In practice, the databases demonstrate how the Obama administration treats communication as a one-way street.”

So the big question is: how transparent are governments willing to be, whatever the political system? And when they try to cover up, how can scientists, activists and journalists get the information out?

As James Cornell put it, twenty-first century totalitarianism is a matter of style. Paradoxically, even as rights activists harness the power of new communications technologies, governments are tapping these for surveillance, obfuscation and control.

Information ‘hide and seek’ has clearly outlived the Cold War. With ‘geeks who leak’ joining in, the game has suddenly become a lot more interesting!

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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