for National Geographic News
Self-censorship may play a greater role in suppressing scientific research than laws or regulations, according to a new study.
What scientists can and cannot do is, to an extent, officially dictated. For example, human cloning and embryonic stem cell creation have been restricted or banned by some governments.
But the new study suggests that such regulations pale in comparison to informal constraintsthe possibility that findings could provoke moral outrage, for example.
"What we found is that researchers are very aware of controversy and decide what to study ... in relation to what they think is appropriate," said Joanna Kempner, a sociologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "It's these silent rules that really guide what researchers do."
The study is reported today in the journal Science.
The concept of forbidden knowledge can be traced back to Genesis in the Bible, in which Adam eats the forbidden fruit from "the tree of knowledge of good and evil."
In the realm of science, knowledge may be forbidden because it can only be obtained through unacceptable means, such as experiments that harm humans. Or it may be deemed too dangerous, as with weapons of mass destruction.
"It's a deeply rooted idea in our culture that some truths are just too dangerous for us," Kempner said.
But beyond anecdotal cases, little is known about how prevalent the suppression of scientific knowledge really is.
To find out why and in what ways scientists constrain and self-censor their work, the researchers interviewed 41 scientists in the United States from fields ranging from psychology to microbiology. Among the sensitive topics were human cloning, stem cells, weapons, race, intelligence, sex, and addiction.
Nearly half the scientists felt constrained by formal controls, such as government regulations and university codes. Many said, however, that such controls also offer important protections.
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