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From: TSS ()
Subject: Forbidden Knowledge
Date: February 12, 2005 at 9:51 am PST


Forbidden Knowledge

Joanna Kempner,1 Clifford S. Perlis,2 Jon F. Merz3*


1School of Public Health, The University of Michigan,
Ann Arbor, MI 48109–2029, USA. 2Department of
Dermatology, Brown University Medical School,
Providence, RI 02903, USA. 3Department of Medical
Ethics, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine,
Philadelphia, PA 19104–3308, USA.

*Author for correspondence. E-mail: merz@mail:

Published by AAAS


There is growing concern about the
politicization and social control of science,
constraining the conduct, funding,
publication, and public use of scientific
research (1). For example, human cloning
and embryonic stem cell creation have been
regulated or banned (2), activists have been
lobbying Congress to remove funding from
certain government-sponsored research
(3–5), and science journal editors have been
compelled to develop policies for publication
of sensitive manuscripts (6, 7).
Forbidden knowledge embodies the idea
that there are things that we should not know
(8–15). Knowledge may be forbidden
because it can only be obtained through unacceptable
means, such as human experiments
conducted by the Nazis (9, 11); knowledge
may be considered too dangerous, as with
weapons of mass destruction or research on
sexual practices that undermine social norms
(8, 9, 12); and knowledge may be prohibited
by religious, moral, or secular authority,
exemplified by human cloning (10, 12).
Beyond anecdotal cases, little is known
about what, and in what ways, science is
constrained. To begin to fill this gap, we performed
an interview study to examine how
constraints affect what scientists do. In
2002–03, we conducted 10 pilot and 41 indepth
semistructured interviews with a sample
of researchers drawn from prestigious
U.S. academic departments of neuroscience,
sociology, molecular and cellular biology,
genetics, industrial psychology, drug and
alcohol abuse, and computer science. We
chose diverse disciplines to gauge the range,
rather than prevalence, of experiences.
We asked subjects to consider their practices
and rationales for limiting scientific
inquiry or dissemination and to tell us about
cases in which research in their own discipline
had been constrained. Respondents reported a
wide range of sensitive topics, including studies
relating to human cloning, embryonic
stem cells, weapons, race, intelligence, sexual
behaviors, and addiction, as well as concerns
about using humans and animals in research.
Nearly half the researchers felt constrained
by explicit, formal controls, such as governmental
regulations and guidelines codified by
universities, professional societies, or journals.
Respondents generally agreed that formal
controls offered important protections.
Less consensus surrounded the necessity,
efficiency, or good sense of specific policies.
Stem cell research was repeatedly identified
as an example of an overly restricted area.
Many respondents expressed a preference that
scientists—not policy-makers—determine
which research is too dangerous.
We were surprised, however, that respondents
felt most affected by what we characterize
as “informal constraints.” Researchers
sometimes only know that they have encountered
forbidden knowledge when their
research breaches an unspoken rule and is
identified as problematic by legislators, news
agencies, activists, editors, or peers. Studies
by Kinsey et al. (16, 17), Milgram (18),
Humphreys (19), Herrnstein and Murray (20),
and Rind et al. (21) were attacked only after
publication. Many researchers (42%)
described how their own work had been targeted
for censure. One researcher was accused
by activists of “murderous behavior” because
he was incapable of reporting HIV+ subjects
who admitted to unsafe sex practices in an
anonymous survey. A sociologist published an
article that undermined the central claim of a
particular group, who allegedly then accused
him of funding improprieties.
In other cases, the mere threat of social
sanction deter red particular types of
inquiry. Several researchers said that their
choices to study yeast or mice instead of
dogs were guided by fears of retribution
from animal rights groups. As one respondent
commented, “I would like to lunaticproof
my life as much as possible.” Drug
and alcohol researchers reported similar
fears, stating that they had not pursued studies
that might provoke moral outrage.
Finally, there may be unspoken rules
shared by the community. As one respondent
stated, “every microbiologist knows
not to make a more virulent pathogen.”
We failed to detect a coherent ethos
regarding production of forbidden knowledge.
Respondents at once decried external
regulation and recognized the right of society
to place limits on what and how science is
done. They stated that scientists are “moral”
and “responsible,” but acknowledged cases
in which scientists were sanctioned for acting
outside the mainstream of their disciplines.
They also said that, although information
and “truth” had inherent utility, full
and open publication was not always possible.
Whereas most respondents worked hard
to avoid controversy, others relished it.
In summary, formal and informal constraints
have a palpable effect on what science
is studied, how studies are performed, how
data are interpreted, and how results are disseminated.
Our results suggest that informal
limitations are more prevalent and pervasive
than formal constraints. Although formal constraints
will bias science—by affecting what
is studied and how it is studied—these biases
are relatively transparent and amenable to
political change. Informal constraints, in contrast,
may be culturally ingrained and resistant
to change, leaving few markers by which to
assess their effects. We believe it is important
to observe these constraints, assess their
effects, and openly debate their desirability
for science and society.
References and Notes
1. R.A. Charo, J. Law Med. Ethics32, 307 (2004).
2. G.Q. Daley, New Engl. J. Med.349, 211 (2003).
3. J. Kaiser, Science300, 403 (2003).
4. J. Kaiser, Science302, 758 (2003).
5. J. Kaiser, Science302, 966 (2003).
6. J. Couzin, Science297, 749 (2002).
7. Journal Editors and Authors Group, Science299, 1149
8. C. Cohen, New Engl. J. Med. 296, 1203 (1977).
9. D. Smith, Hastings Center Rep. 8 (6), 30 (1978).
10. G. Holton, R. S. Morison, Eds., Limits of Scientific
Inquiry(Norton, New York, 1979).
11. D. Nelkin, in Ethical Issues in Social Science Research,
T. L. Beauchamp, R. R. Faden, R. J.Wallace, L.Walters,
Eds. (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore, MD, 1982),
pp. 163–174.
12. R. Shattuck, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus
to Pornography(Harcourt Brace, New York, 1996).
13. D. B. Johnson, Monist79, 197 (1996).
14. B. Allen, Monist79, 294 (1996).
15. D. B. Johnson, Sci. Eng. Ethics5, 445 (1999).
16. A. C. Kinsey et al., Sexual Behavior in the Human Male
(Saunders, Philadelphia, 1948).
17. A. C. Kinsey et al., Sexual Behavior in the Human
Female(Saunders, Philadelphia, 1953).
18. S. Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental
View(Harper Row, New York, 1974).
19. L. Humphreys, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in
Public Places(Aldine, Chicago, 1970).
20. R. Herrnstein, C. Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence
and Class Structure in American Life (Simon &
Schuster, New York, 1996).
21. B. Rind et al., Psychol. Bull.124, 22 (1998).
22. This study was approved by the University of
Pennsylvania Institutional Review Board.We thank all
respondents for their participation; B. Sitko for assistance;
and C. Bosk, A. Caplan, J. Drury, C. Lee, and B.
Sampat for comments. Supported by the Greenwall
Foundation (J.K., C.S.P., J.F.M.) and the Robert Wood
Johnson Foundation (J.K.).
Supporting Online Material

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