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Editorial: The blood-dimmed tide

TedViagraResized.jpgBad things happen all the time; but when they happen in America they always seem worse, because they often are.  This is not just because everything in America is bigger and better.  The simple fact that they should happen there - of all places - makes us sit up and realise how fragile freedom can be, even in the very country where it is most fervently worshipped.

The diktat issued by Mr Donald Trump, the US President, on January 23, a gagging order affecting scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture, forbade them from speaking to the media and the public about the work they do.  But suppression of scientific information and opinion because ideologues would rather believe in comfortable falsehoods and personal fantasies, is nothing new.

Across the 49th, we may remind ourselves, where Mr Justin Trudeau now stands as a beacon of sweetness and light, the very same thing happened.  During the government of Stephen Harper, between 2006 and 2015, scientists working for the Canadian government were prevented from communicating to the public about the research their money had paid for.  The Harper government reduced funding for science and took decisions that often flew in the face of scientific evidence.

Attempts by politicians to suppress uncomfortable facts that do not fit their prejudices may not always be as flagrant.  In Australia, they employ ‘codes of conduct’ covering communication by scientists who are public servants, which severely circumscribe their contribution to public debate on environmental issues.  There has also been evidence of scientists being blackmailed and coerced lest they speak out about politically sensitive ecological or environmental issues with potential financial impacts on Australia’s farming or industrial base.

The presence of avowed Young Earth Creationists among Mr Trump’s cabinet is likely to spur on the forces of endarkenment in those States where the teaching of evolution in schools still comes under periodic threat from fundamentalists.  Such people rarely raise their eyes from their navels; but were they to do so, they might also take heart from that other global beacon of freedom and democracy, Turkey. 

Draft primary and secondary curricula issued recently by Turkish government, for example, contain not a single word about evolution.  That country’s Society for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has urged everyone to support its reinstatement, pointing out that Turkey has proclaimed its intention to become a world leader in life sciences and medicine.  How, we might ask, will that be possible in the absence of biology’s Grand Unifying Theory?  Perhaps Mr Trump’s anti-vaxxer friends have an answer…


[email protected], @TedNield @geoscientistmag