Scientists Increasingly Find Themselves on Defensive: Advocacy Groups Are a Stumbling Block to Research

Article excerpt

Forbidden knowledge. From the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, to Frankenstein and Jurassic Park, the story of the scientist who dares to probe the unknown and unwittingly brings horrific consequences to society is as old as science itself.

But for some scientists, life has begun to imitate art - with a disturbing twist. Legitimate scientific research, they say, is increasingly being placed out of bounds by advocacy groups.

From animal rights advocates to radical feminists to religious conservatives, political or ideological agendas are increasingly taking precedence over scientific discovery, two new books assert.

In "The New Know-Nothings," author Morton Hunt, an adjunct sociology professor at the State University of New York, argues that opposing scientific research has gone mainstream.

"The idea that a group has a moral right to disrupt and halt research its members disapprove of or find offensive has diffused throughout our society," he writes.

These groups believe that the social costs of the knowledge will outweigh any possible benefits. Their beliefs are based not on science, but on political or religious convictions.

Mr. Hunt contends, "While they have a right to their beliefs, they do not have a right to force scientists to abstain from seeking knowledge that may challenge those beliefs."

"Legitimate scientific debate is great," agrees Steven Milloy, a lawyer and co-author of a new Cato Institute book called "Silencing Science." "But having a political agenda is wrong."

"Intimidating researchers is wrong. The Animal Liberation Front blowing up laboratories is wrong - that's not scientific debate," he said in an interview.

Some examples:

* In 1994, researchers at the renowned Mayo Clinic published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, saying they had found no link between silicone breast implants and connective tissue disorders.

Lawyers representing women claiming harm from their implants were outraged. They demanded access to the medical records of all women in the Mayo Clinic's medical database, whether they were part of the study or not. Eventually, they succeeded in shutting down all epidemiological research at the Mayo Clinic.

* J. Philippe Rushton, professor of psychology at Canada's University of Western Ontario, was repeatedly harassed for his research on race-based differences. In 1996, he attended a conference in Baltimore, where he was to present a discussion of brain sizes of the different races.

Protesters surrounded the booth where Mr. Rushton's research results were displayed, chanting that he was a racist. One of the protesters managed to elude police and take Mr. Rushton's picture.

"This is for a `Wanted: Dead or Alive' poster - you won't be living much longer," the protester told Mr. Rushton.

* Authors cite a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals attack on the March of Dimes for its research on birth defects. PETA members dressed as bloody cats protested in front of March of Dimes headquarters, carrying a giant banner reading "March of Dimes: Stop Torturing Animals."

Other groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front, are even more aggressive. From 1986 to 1992, ALF was involved in at least 14 cases of vandalism, arson and firebombing of research laboratories and lab animal breeding facilities.

Mr. Milloy suggests there are three basic techniques for silencing science:

* Stop science before research starts. …