So my wife and I were recently having a conversation with my sons' family and I started to say something. My wife interrupted and said, "If you're going to say what I think you're going to say, I wouldn't say it."
Of course, I had no way of knowing if what I was thinking about saying was the same thing she was thinking I was going to say, so I decided it would be safest if I didn't say anything. She's usually right.
I've kind of been thinking about saying something about that event, although I don't think my wife thinks I ought to. But I think it's OK this time because it illustrates an important point about science.
There was a reason I defer to my wife's judgment about what I should say. It's because I know she cares about me and wants what's best for me. If a stranger had said something similar about what I was going to say, I would have surely gone ahead and said it. I might have paused a moment to think of what I thought he thought I was going to say, just to be sure I said something he didn't think I should.
I may value a stranger's opinion, but not as much as my wife's, because I don't really know that the stranger has my best interest at heart. And then there is the troubling little resentment concerning "who does he think he is telling me what I can and can't say?"
I am usually above such pettiness, but ... OK, my wife says that I shouldn't say that.
So, what has this got to do with science? If one becomes a scientist, they may form strong opinions based on their research data. Luckily this is not much of a problem because the average person doesn't care about their research. Most other scientists don't care either, except the handful doing research on the same subject you are.
Those with different data may suggest you are wrong and a mild, only occasionally violent, disagreement may ensue. But you are all free to present your data and your argument.
As soon as someone says you "shouldn't" say something, you have left the field of scientific data and entered the field of morality and ethics.
"Should" is a morally laden word suggesting not just that you are wrong, but that you are also bad. As such it has a chilling effect beyond such statements as "I disagree with you."
My wife has a vested interest in my morality and is free to advise me on moral issues. Her opinion often influences what I say and how I behave, although she would say not nearly enough.
However, other scientists do not have that right and when they say that I ought to not say something, then I know they are not speaking of science but of some other aspect of life, such as morality or politics.
When we are told we should not say something, it does one of two things.
First, it may have a chilling effect and suppress us, and others, from saying anything. If this really worked all the time, it might be kind of cool because we could shut down most of the news commentary programs on television.
The trouble is, when it doesn't suppress opinion, it usually aggravates opinion. The person being told they shouldn't say something listens carefully to find out what someone thinks you shouldn't say so they can be sure and say it loud and clear.
Of course, only small, petty people do this. My wife says I shouldn't say that.
Anyway, there seems to be a lot of scientific topics about which we aren't allowed to express a different opinion anymore, at least according to leading scientists like Bill Nye or Al Gore. Morality is significantly different from material science. They may be right, but I respectfully disagree.
Gary McCallister, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.