Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Gagging science: 'It's worldwide'

'Deranged' policy has experts scared to speak up, doctor says.

Claims that New Zealand scientists are being silenced is something seen around the world, says a renowned author, doctor and outspoken science commentator visiting Auckland this year.

UK academic Ben Goldacre said concerns raised in a new book by Auckland physicist Professor Shaun Hendy - which argues many scientists feel constrained by strict media policies or fear of jeopardising funding - have popped up "all around the world".

"In the UK, we've had a similar problem recently, where the Government has proposed a new policy on all science funding, where scientists won't be allowed to lobby politicians or government with the results of their scientific research, which is obviously deranged," said Dr Goldacre, best known for his books Bad Science and Bad Pharma.

"And obviously there are lots of individual stories of scientists having pressure put on them by funders," he said.

"As always, I think these problems aren't just about individual episodes where people have been silenced, and it's not just about where somebody's got something that might be a little bit difficult for their funder to hear, I think it's because of a wider problem and a wider lack of respect for the importance of communicating science to the public."

But Dr Goldacre wasn't convinced by Professor Hendy's suggestion in Silencing Science that the problem could be addressed by a new independent commission to represent science in policy.

"Big organisations, inevitably, are vulnerable," he said. "They can become captured by their funders and become part of the establishment, just like the people they think they are going to come out and fight against."

He believed the benefits of a more science-literate public, something the Government was pushing through various programmes, was "absolutely enormous".

"When somebody understands how to critically appraise, how to critically review, a piece of scientific research or a claim that is being put in front of them, then they can make much better, informed choices themselves as a citizen, about their own healthcare [and] about the policies around them."

Asked why so many people reject scientific consensus on matters such as vaccination and climate change, he suspected the reasons varied.

"We have to accept that there are people who actually don't care about facts," he said. "They would make the rest of our lives a little bit easier, or less frustrating, if they could at least acknowledge that fact openly, and obviously none of them ever do."

Dr Goldacre described himself as an "equal opportunities quack-buster" who took on anyone who misrepresented statistics, whether they were journalists, politicians, "herbal remedy peddlers" or researchers.

At present, he is running a campaign to stop drug companies and academics from withholding the results of clinical trials, and another that calls out journals for misreporting the results of clinical trials.

Dr Ben Goldacre on ...

• Bad science in different countries: "It's a bit like when you hear crappy eastern European pop trance music, and you say, 'this is exactly the same as Italian pop trance, and French trance - it's just that the words are a little bit different, in a different language'."

• Appreciating science: "If you don't understand science, then you are denying yourself access to all of the most significant intellectual achievements of the past two centuries of human history."

• People who reject scientific evidence: "Everybody knows, from having arguments in the pub, or over dinner, that there are people who just don't care what the facts are."

• Climate sceptics: "What you have is a middle-aged person who chooses to ignore the scientific evidence on climate change, and who is inflicting harm on people they will never meet, 50, 100, or 150 years from now."

• Ben Goldacre will be speaking at The Mercury Theatre in Auckland on September 24. For tickets, visit www.eventfinda.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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