November 25, 2020

Biology Journals to Withhold Research

Sunday’s Washington Post published an AP article by Joseph B. Verrengia, detailing plans by journal editors to “Excise Material That Could Be Used by Militants to Help Make Biological Weapons.” Many prominent journals will participate, including “Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet. ”

The article is surprisingly slanted, starting with the headline, “Science Journals to Join Fight Against Terrorists,” as if the journals had not already been doing their part by publishing articles that help scientists understand and protect against biological attacks. The downsides of censoring researchers are barely mentioned, except for the very last sentence of the article, which says, “Others worry that security measures could hamper breakthroughs in basic science and engineering.”

Careful reading makes the drawbacks of censorship more obvious. Here is an example from the article of why research might need to be censored:

Indeed, it has never been easier to … hijack aerosol technology meant for convenient spray vaccines to make anthrax spores float through the air.

The implication is that some research on vaccines should be suppressed because of possible misuse. This makes the underlying tradeoff clear – the research we would be censoring is often the same research that we would use to defend ourselves.

In the current climate, it’s not surprising that calls for censorship of research are resurfacing. Apparently we need to have a debate on this topic. What we don’t need are slanted arguments that ignore the very real costs of censorship.