Four hundred years after Galileo, scientists still face persecution for speaking out. Laws must not be used to stifle debate.
In 1633, the Italian astronomer and physicist, Galileo Galilei, was put on trial by the Catholic Church for suggesting that the Earth might not be the centre of the universe - and found guilty.
Almost 400 years later, scientists and those speaking on their behalf are still being persecuted for expressing opinions based on their scientific expertise.
Three years ago, for example, the Nigerian Academy of Science was taken to court by a local doctor after the academy criticised his claim to have developed an HIV-AIDS vaccine (see HIV “cure” doctor sues science academy).
Last year, a British science writer, Simon Singh, was found guilty of libel for a newspaper article in which he described certain claims of chiropractors - who believe in treating a range of ailments by manipulating the spine - as "bogus" (the ruling was recently overturned on appeal).
Meanwhile, the University of Virginia in the United States is being investigated by the state attorney-general over statements made in grant applications by a former faculty member, Michael Mann, whose views on the severity of global warming are challenged by climate change sceptics.
And now a prominent biologist in Peru has received a suspended jail sentence for describing as a "false truth" a claim by another biologist to have detected modified genetic material produced by commercial companies in local maize crops (see Scientists rally round convicted Peruvian researcher).
Engaging in debate
It would be wrong of course to expect that scientists should operate under different rules from the rest of society. Where a researcher has been caught in fraudulent behaviour, such as using deliberately falsified claims to obtain government funding, the full sanction of the law is surely appropriate.
But the law should not be used to penalise scientists who criticise the views of those who lack scientific credentials, or those whose controversial differences with other scientists spill over into the public domain.
In the cases above, legal action has been taken, or threatened, against scientists or science writers primarily over statements made not about a purely scientific dispute, but about scientific disagreements that form part of important public debates.
At a time when the relationship between science and society plays an increasingly important role in development issues, from disease prevention to food security, it is essential that outdated or misconceived laws do not discourage scientists from engaging in such debates, where they can ensure discussion is based on reliable evidence.
Extent of academic freedom
Of course, academic qualifications do not give scientists the right to say what they like about the behaviour of others. Researchers should restrict themselves to issues in which they can demonstrate an appropriate level of expertise.
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