Activists and the danger to science

August 22, 2011

Okay, I think the tolerance of activists (1) has gone on a bit too long. It’s bad enough we have animal rights and eco-terrorists trashing labs and harassing researchers in their homes, or destroying property to fight the evils of AM radio waves. These are people whose values are so warped that they see no problem with trampling on the rights of others in ways wholly beyond the pale of a civilized, democratic society, because their cause is righteous, while all others are evil.

But terrorism in the name of chronic fatigue sufferers? Harassing and threatening scientists with death because they offer an alternative theory of the causes? Really?

Yes, really.

The full extent of the campaign of intimidation, attacks and death threats made against scientists by activists who claim researchers are suppressing the real cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is revealed today by the Observer. According to the police, the militants are now considered to be as dangerous and uncompromising as animal rights extremists.

One researcher told the Observer that a woman protester who had turned up at one of his lectures was found to be carrying a knife. Another scientist had to abandon a collaboration with American doctors after being told she risked being shot, while another was punched in the street. All said they had received death threats and vitriolic abuse.

In addition, activists – who attack scientists who suggest the syndrome has any kind of psychological association – have bombarded researchers with freedom of information requests, made rounds of complaints to university ethical committees about scientists’ behaviour, and sent letters falsely alleging that individual scientists are in the pay of drug and insurance companies.

“I published a study which these extremists did not like and was subjected to a staggering volley of horrible abuse,” said Professor Myra McClure, head of infectious diseases at Imperial College London. “One man wrote he was having pleasure imagining that he was watching me drown. He sent that every day for months.”

If there’s such a thing as a jump-the-shark moment for activism, this is it.

Not to make light of those who suffer from CFS, but the people conducting this campaign, whether themselves afflicted with chronic fatigue or not, should be thrown into Her Majesty’s Prison for a good long stay.

This behavior is appalling not only for the for threats to the safety of the researchers, but also in the longer term for the hostility it shows towards basic science and the search for truth. The heart of the scientific method is the testing of falsifiable hypotheses, to see if they stand up to empirical observation. If they don’t, you refine or abandon them and develop another that better fits the facts — and you expect that to be tested and challenged, too.

And while the actions of these, let’s be blunt, terrorists are reprehensible, they are little different at their root from the mindset of others who demand science submit to “correct ideas.” Whether in service of a secular or religious ideology, it is an attempt to corrupt science and the scientific method and it should be opposed every time it occurs, even if the cause is thought noble. To excuse or justify the threatening of scientists because they advance a theory someone doesn’t like, even when that someone claims the moral shield of “victim,” as with the CFS sufferers, is to strike at the foundations of democratic society and Western civilization, itself.

via Jim Geraghty’s Morning Jolt

(1) “Activist:” a noun often referring to someone who acts like a jerk in the belief that other people will be impressed and join his cause.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)