The Congressional censure of a research paper:
Return of the inquisition?
by Kenneth K Berry; Jason Berry
Source: Skeptical Inquirer Electronic Digest
Commentary in the issue dated December 10, 1999
1st January 2000
In July 12, 1999, the United States House of Representatives took an historic
step toward censorship of scientific findings when it voted 355 to 0 to condemn
and censure a scientific publication because the members disagreed with the
findings and believed that they would have a negative effect upon citizens'
thoughts and actions.
The paper, published a year earlier in the American Psychological
Association's journal Psychological Bulletin (July 1998), by Bruce Rind of
Temple University, Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Bauserman was titled, "A
Meta-analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using
College Samples." This paper was basically a review and analysis of
fifty-nine previous research studies of the consequences of sexual molestation
The congressional members found some of the findings personally repugnant,
particularly the conclusion that some molested children grow up to be normal and
a small portion are seemingly little affected by this experience. The members,
especially Rep. Salmon (an Arizona Republican and a sponsor of H. Con.Res.107)
believed that the findings would not only encourage pedophilia among United
States citizens, but the findings could not be true. The Representatives'
thinking appeared to be a demonstration of what Donald Watson (1993) called
"Autistic Certainty" ("I would not believe something that was not
true; I believe this is not true, therefore this must be untrue").
The journal's review of past research was brought to the attention of
congressional members by several very vocal, fundamentalist religious voices.
Two of these are lobbying groups: the Family Research Council, a group whose
primary missions appear to oppose civil rights for homosexuals, advocate
celibacy for heterosexuals, and to stop abortions when they are not celibate;
and the Christian Coalition, a strong political group with similar goals but
with the additional one of doing away with the separation between church and
state. Another strong voice was that of radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger,
who uses her popular nationally syndicated radio program ("Dr. Laura")
as a forum to attack those who do not agree with her personal ideas of morality
Although this may be the first time in US history that the legislative branch
of the federal government has officially condemned and censured a scientific
publication, it is not a first in world history. In the thirteenth century there
was no separation of church and state in Europe and mysticism prevailed over
direct observation of phenomena; Roger Bacon, known for his publications on
logic and experimental sciences, was condemned and spent two years in prison.
Following this he wrote his final paper, published the year of his death in
1292, which was a caustic critique of the corruption of Christianity. An
outspoken supporter of Copernican views of the solar system, Giordano Bruno, was
victim of an inquisition (meaning "inquiry"), found guilty of heresy,
and was burned at the stake by the Church/State in 1600.
Perhaps the best known incident of suppression of scientific research was
Galileo's proposition of the heliocentric theory of the solar system. Those in
power disagreed with his research findings and believed that the Sun circled
Earth because to them it appeared to do so. An inquisition was held and, in
order to avoid punishment, Galileo recanted his findings. It is an interesting
parallel that Dr. Raymond Fowler, Executive Director of the American
Psychological Association, "recanted" in a letter sent to the House of
Representatives during the congressional inquisition. This action brought the
APA praise from the House.
The most recent period of official condemnation that led to governmental
censorship of science occurred in the USSR under Communism. This followed the
similar pattern that led to the book burnings in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Historically, the path begins with religions or states (or both, as in
Res.107) exerting pressure upon research bodies, researchers themselves and
other writers, to "self-censor." This is often achieved through
withdrawal, or threat of withdrawal, of financial support for specific kinds of
research and/or by public censure of anything that lacks "religious"
or "political" correctness. This has often been effective in science,
especially in behavioral sciences.
Researchers quickly become afraid to apply for grants or perform research
that might bring them pejorative labels or worse. In 1633, upon hearing of
Galileo's situation, Descartes expressed surprise and vowed out of fear to
either burn his manuscript in progress or hide it so that no one would ever see
it. Fortunately he did the latter.
The next step on the road to control of science, as happened in the USSR, is
"official censorship" (Sinitsyna 1998). Governmental bodies, or
"committees," are established (some of which in the USSR were called
"editorial boards") to review research projects and prevent
publication of findings if they do not agree with the beliefs of those in power.
During Stalin's period and after (official censorship did not end until 1988)
research in the behavioral sciences floundered. The reasons for censorship of a
particular piece of work, whether art or science, were political. Work that did
not fit or was critical of "accepted" standards of ideology, work that
dealt with a prohibited subject (such as nudity in art), and findings or facts
that might cause undesirable thoughts or associations in citizens (emphasis
added, Sinitsyna 1998), were all subject to censure.
It seems that a number of variables may have influenced this recent
Congressional decision. First is the general turning away from science and
critical thinking and toward mysticism in the US as shown by revival of interest
in supernatural and psychic powers. Science - or at least its methodology is too
little valued or respected today in the United States by the majority of people
and their elected representatives.
The rise of fundamentalist Christian thinking appears to have played a role
in shaping judgmental attitudes, values, and the public's negative attitude
toward critical thinking. The lack of public media interest in the ramifications
of the House action should be a matter of concern for everyone. One cannot help
but wonder what would have occurred if the Washington Post or the New York Times
had been publicly censured by Congress in response to a published article or an
editorial. Is it then that scientific journals, which are intended for a
relatively small number of professionals and scientists, are fair game?
Congressional members are well aware of the control they can exert over
research, since much of the funding comes from governmental grants. Scientists
are at the mercy of those in power and, at least for now, those in power are
often at the mercy of the public press.
Throughout the history of science, scientists themselves have been the
harshest critics of research, but their denouncement of specific studies is
usually based upon the strength or weakness of the methodology, rather than
their personal values and emotions about the findings.
The Evangelical Christian groups appear to have "discovered" the
behavioral sciences and may likely wield their power against unpopular research
findings to a greater extent in the future. It seems likely that their next
targets may be gender studies, research on sexuality, and research into
We have taken the first large and frightening step away from scientific
freedom and toward totalitarianism in control of scientific endeavours.
Sinitsyna, Olga. 1998. Censorship in the Soviet Union and its cultural and
professional results for Arts. Paper presented at the Sixty-fourth International
Federation of Library Associations, Amsterdam.
Watson, Donald. 1993. Autistic Certainty, Telicom, XI, 7, 43. D