Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

“We Have Always Been at War with Science”

By Guy Nolch

An Orwellian dystopia is upon us when scientists are muzzled and their expertise disappears into a memory hole.

When I was a student I was fascinated by the dystopian future imagined by George Orwell in 1984. The thought of an extensive network of cameras, microphones and two-way telescreens to monitor each citizen seemed far-fetched in the 1980s, let alone the concept of government departments dedicated to rewriting historical records, but in 2017 we now seem to have caught up with Orwell’s imagination.

Our computers all have video cameras that can be hijacked by hackers; our ATM and credit cards record every purchase we make; GPS tracking of our mobile phones records our every movement; the cameras on millions of phones enable a mobile army of citizens to record and broadcast on social media what were once considered unremarkable events; and governments can track our phone calls, emails and browsing history. This volume of information can quickly generate a detailed profile of us all.

Much of this has been evolving since the start of the millennium. Where 2017 is now echoing 1984 is in the emulation of a Ministry of Truth by new US President Donald Trump. While Trump’s election campaign last year was the flagbearer for the “post-truth” era, his inauguration has seen this morph into the blatant creation of “alternative facts”.

But Trump is not waging a war against Eurasia or Eastasia. He’s waging a war against science. When your philosophy is to create a Ministry of Truth that churns out alternative facts, the knowledge collated by science over the course of centuries becomes an irritant. Hence it’s not surprising that in its first week the Trump Administration took to muzzling scientists and wiping any mention of science that conflicted with Trump’s agenda.

While in 1984 Winston Smith discarded previous versions of the public record into a “memory hole”, the Trump Administration immediately began removing references to climate change policy on the White House’s website. After all, the science of climate change is an inconvenient truth for a President who wants to reduce “burdensome regulations on our energy industry”.

In almost the same sweep of his tiny hands, Trump attempted to put a muzzle on government scientists, requiring political appointees to review and approve all public communication by several agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency. The gag encompassed everything from scientific data to press releases, blogs and tweets.

But anything can happen in America. Not here, right?

Wrong. It’s not so long ago that CSIRO’s climate scientists were gagged, and there are already signs that events like Trump’s election and Britain’s decision to leave Europe will see post-truth politics adopted in several other countries, including Australia.

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, has likened Trump to Josef Stalin, who famously placed the Soviet Union’s agriculture in the misguided hands of Trofim Lysenko. “While Western scientists embraced evolution and genetics, Russian scientists who thought the same were sent to the gulag,” Finkel said. “Western crops flourished. Russian crops failed.”

One of Big Brother’s slogans was: “Ignorance is strength”. But that’s only true in a dystopian society.

Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.