Sunday, October 30, 2005

Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: copywrong in the right cause

Sunday, and I'm weary. But pulpits are to preach from, so time for a sermon directed at my most loyal parishoners, scientists. Even they sin.

Case in point. The National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Teachers Association are threatening the benighted Kansas Board of Education with a copyright suit for quoting their materials in Kansas's disgraceful looming new "science" standards. They provide time for "alternatives" to evolution (you can guess what the alternatives are). The two science organizations were supported in a statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), to which I belong. I also work on NAS committees, so I have a relationship with two of the three associations involved here.

Here is the rationale for the copyright tactic:
"Kansas students will not be well-prepared for the rigors of higher education or the demands of an increasingly complex and technologically-driven world if their science education is based on these standards," Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy, and Michael J. Padilla, president of the teachers' group, said in a joint written statement today. "Instead, they will put the students of Kansas at a competitive disadvantage as they take their place in the world."

In the statement, as well as in letters to the state board, the groups opposed the standards for singling out evolution as a controversial theory, and also for changing the definition of science itself so that it is not restricted to natural phenomena. (New York Times)
The Board has a six to four anti-science majority and won't be deterred by this tactic. More importantly, however, the NAS and NSTA (with AAAS support) are violating an important principle. I agree strongly with Cory Doctorow at Boingboing:
As much as I support their cause, I deplore their tactics.

The heart of science is publication and refutation. The difference between an alchemist and a scientist is that alchemists don't publish their findings and so for 500 years, every alchemist had to discover for himself that drinking mercury was a bad idea. The publication and review of a scientist's findings -- especially the reviews of his sharpest critics -- is how science progresses. It's how we, as a species, progress.

That's the very heart over the fight for evolution. If scientists start arguing that their detractors are illegal infringers who should be silenced by the courts, they set themselves on a road to ruin.

Science will win this fight, but it can't win it at the expense of the scientific method and free speech.

Copyright is not about endorsement or agreement, and it's not a right to stop criticism, even ill-considered criticism. Quotation can be fair use even in a context the original author abhors -- that's precisely when we need fair use most, we on all sides of a political debate.

The organizations are free to broadcast their loud disapproval of the uses to which their publications are being put, and free to sue for misrepresentation if false statements or positions are put into their mouths, but asserting copyright rights seems a heavy-handed way to win a battle of ideas.
Copyright, whatever its merits (and they are few), is not meant for this purpose.

Sermon over. Go forth and sin no more.