Good censors are hard to find

Freeman Dyson on John Milton on how free enquiry offers the best protection for society

Writing in the January/February 2007 issue of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Freeman Dyson argues that a more open world is a safer world. His criticism of the fundamental problem with censorship—relevant in the context of India’s growing rot of competitive intolerance as much as it is in the context of scientific research—is well worth quoting in extenso:

If we are to establish a system of censorship, to decide which scientific inquiries are safe to pursue, the crucial question is: Who will be the censors? We can be sure that the job of censor will not attract first-rate scientific minds. The job will be intensely political and is likely to attract people with a political axe to grind. In the year 1644, the poet John Milton made a famous speech to the British parliament opposing the censorship of books.

The argument that Milton used applies equally well to the censorship of scientific inquiry. “He who is made judge,” said Milton, “to sit upon the birth or death of books, whether they may be wafted into this world or not, had need to be a man above the common measure, both studious, learned, and judicious. . . . If he be of such worth as behooves him, there cannot be a more tedious and unpleasing journey-work, a greater loss of time levied upon his head, than to be made the perpetual reader of unchosen books and pamphlets. . . . Seeing, therefore, those who now possess the employment, by all evident signs wish themselves well rid of it . . . , we may easily foresee what kind of licensers we are to expect hereafter, either ignorant, imperious, and remiss, or basely pecuniary.”

This last phrase of Milton identifies precisely the two kinds of people who became candidates for the job of scientific censor in more recent times. “Ignorant, imperious, and remiss” describes the Communist apparatchiks of Russia in the time of Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko.

“Basely pecuniary” describes the capitalist lobbyists who swarm around the chambers of government today in Washington. Science will always have to defend itself against enemies of freedom on two sides, against ideological enemies on one side and against commercial enemies on the other. The ideological enemies are not only Christian fundamentalists on the Right, but also dogmatic Marxists and environmentalists on the Left. The commercial enemies are not only monopolistic corporations interested in profits, but also corrupt politicians interested in power.

The choice that we have to make is not between scientific freedom and science governed by a wise group of philosopher kings. The choice is between scientific freedom and science governed by political hacks of one kind or another. [BAS]

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