Free Speech, Science, and Ideology

Below is an email I sent to the Scientists’ March on Washington, connecting free speech to science.  Some commenters on the March’s webpage expressed the belief that science should be used to advance particular ideals, values, or causes, and I hope the March doesn’t echo that view.  Science, like free speech, must remain a process-based concept in order to retain its value.

“Dear Organizers of the Scientists’ March On Washington,


I am so heartened to see that your mission is to elevate empirical science and expertise in policymaking.  I wholeheartedly agree that “[a]n American government that ignores science to pursue ideological agendas endangers the world.”  I hope that, despite reader comments on your webpage that science is and should be political/progressive, you continue with your empirically-based mission.

As a law professor and former biology major in college (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the evolution of the male flour beetle), I find the similarities between free speech jurisprudence and the scientific method to be illuminating here.  One of the rationales for free speech, as for science, is the search for truth.  When people censor speech to serve ideological ends, or when we manipulate science to serve those ends, the reasons for the respect we have for the ideals of both free speech and the scientific method are undermined.  Both science and free speech represent process-based values that must remain divorced from substantive outcomes.  There is no idea so objectionable that we should not allow it to be aired and debated, and there is no cause so important that we should manipulate studies or ignore inconvenient truths.

All sections of the political spectrum have, historically, tried to marshal science and speech in irresponsible and dishonest ways, even in the service of ultimately good ends.  I hope the March for Science remains nonpartisan and values-neutral, because the distrust sown by undermining the political neutrality of both science and the dissemination of speech are one reason we are now in this frightening situation.

If you need any assistance, please know that I am here.”

Edit:  Just to clarify, because “neutrality” doesn’t translate well to science-speak, by values-neutral, I mean that the process of the scientific method, i.e. reliability, falsifiability, etc., should be followed in a way that is separate from any particular partisan agenda or notions of “the good,” outside of scientific principles.  There need not be a forced neutrality if results point in a particular direction, but neither should there be a striving for a particular result in a way that compromises the scientific method.