Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How will the digitization of old journals affect opinions toward science?

In a recent correspondence to Nature, William Burns predicts the effects of digitizing old scientific journals:
... We can now also search deep into the past. And what turns up isn't necessarily pretty... One of [Soviet geneticist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko]'s reports, in a 1947 issue of the journal Literaturnaya Gazeta, declaimed that: "intraspecific competition does not occur... the opposition of bourgeois geneticists to this theory is attributed to their desire to justify capitalist exploitation, which is essentially a struggle within the human species".

Another search, using Web of Knowledge, brought up hundreds of Chinese scientific articles from the decades after Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, with titles such as 'Chairman Mao's brilliant philosophic thought guides me in winning triple cropping with high yield'....

But will this censorship be possible when every politically motivated, unethical and demonstrably incorrect scientific article breaks out from dusty library storerooms to appear online? How will anyone be able to believe that science is an honest quest for truth, when its inglorious past is a mouse click away?
I have three immediate reactions:

1) Burns casts this development in a somewhat negative light, but I think it would be undoubtedly be positive. There have been too many dystopian novels written by 2009 for any serious thinker to doubt the importance of being skeptical of authority.

2) I question whether this so-called wealth of available knowledge will actually change many people's searching habits. If celebrated columnists like David Brooks cannot even open a scientific journal, why should we expect that the average internet user will?

3) Those are two awesome examples of how politics can invade and infect the realm of science.