Brian Martin's publications on suppression of dissent
Brian Martin's publications
Brian Martin's website
Dissident scholars can be attacked in various ways, including by denial of tenure, harassment, withdrawal of research grants, official reprimands, referral to psychiatrists, ostracism by colleagues, spreading of rumors, transfer to different locations or jobs, and dismissal. Inevitably, the justification for such attacks is poor performance or some other inadequacy. At this stage, many scholars are all too ready to blame themselves. But, at least in some cases, they are the victims of suppression of dissent.
Anyone who does something that threatens a powerful individual or group is potentially a target of suppression. The classic case is the whistleblower, who speaks out about corruption or dangers to public health, for example accusing a senior colleague of scientific fraud or pointing out the danger of a chemical produced by one's employer.
But there are many other victims of suppression who wouldn't qualify as whistleblowers. People can be victimized even if they don't speak out and even if they don't work for an organization. Anyone who threatens an established practice or policy backed by powerful interests is vulnerable to attack. This includes doing unwelcome research or providing unwelcome policy advice--unwelcome to powerful groups--or questioning appointments made by an insider clique.
It was in 1979 that I first began investigating and writing about suppression of intellectual dissent. I was then an applied mathematician interested in environmental issues, and I discovered a pattern of suppression of environmental scholars. The more I looked into the issue, the more cases showed up. Then, after publishing articles about suppression, even more cases were brought to my attention. Initially I hadn't even thought of suppression as a problem in science and academia. Now I realize that it is pervasive. Although each case has its own peculiarities, there are regularly recurring features of suppression cases.
Any scholar who challenges a powerful establishment is a likely target for suppression sooner or later. But lots of others are suppressed too. In this article I first describe how to assess whether suppression is occurring and then summarize some insights about how to resist and survive attacks on dissent.
There are two main features of suppression cases. First, someone does something--research, teaching, or public comment--that threatens a powerful interest group, typically a government, industry, profession, or one's own superiors. Second, there is some attack on the activity or the person. This might be censorship, disciplinary proceedings, slander, transfer, dismissal, or blacklisting, or threats of any of these.
A few cases are dramatic. Melvin Reuber, who had done research on pesticides and cancer, was suddenly given a severe reprimand by his boss. The bulk of this reprimand was published in a chemical industry trade magazine and circulated around the world. Margot O'Toole, who persistently raised questions about the work of her superiors--including Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore--suffered enormous damage to her scientific career.
Most cases, by contrast, are much more subtle. Job applications are unsuccessful; publications are rejected; promotion is denied; grant applications are unsuccessful. In most of such cases, it is impossible to know the real reason. It might be a fair decision, it might be suppression, or it might just be bad luck.
There are two simple techniques to help decide whether suppression has occurred. The first is the double standard test. Have other scholars, with the same performance as the one in question, been treated the same way? For example, a researcher might be denied promotion for lack of publications. Were colleagues with the same publication record--but who never refused to add their boss's name to their papers, even though the boss rarely set foot in the lab--also denied promotion? Was the only teacher whose position was declared redundant the one who spoke to the media, criticizing an influential company in the town?
The second technique is to look for patterns of suppression. For example, there are numerous cases of attacks on expert critics of pesticides, nuclear power, and fluoridation. In each case there are powerful interests that are threatened by dissent: the pesticide industry; government and the nuclear industry in the case of nuclear power; the dental profession in the case of fluoridation.
There is never a final proof that suppression has occurred. But using the double standard test and establishing a pattern of suppression can provide strong circumstantial evidence.
Many scholars have a deep, abiding faith in the power of truth. They believe that if people really knew what was going on--about the corruption, the danger to the public, or the attacks on free speech--they would be supportive. They also believe that somewhere there are powerful people who will respond to the truth and ensure that justice is done and seen to be done.
My first important piece of advice for dissident scholars is not to rely on truth. It's useful but not enough. Certainly it should not be relied upon to sway the powerful.
Scholars are trained to believe that academia is a system for seeking and disseminating knowledge and that the "marketplace of ideas" will lead to the triumph of truth. This isn't a good model. It's far more useful to treat academia as a system of power, in which knowledge plays an important role. Government and industry don't fund research out of altruism: results are expected to be useful, either in a practical or symbolic way. Profits, power, and status are the keys.
Another way to look at this is to remember Lord Acton's saying, "power tends to corrupt." Those who have power in academia--deans, grant administrators, research directors, editors--are liable to use it to advance their own ends and protect themselves from threats.
Most whistleblowers believe in the power of truth. They speak out, believing that the problems they have pointed out will be quickly rectified once people know about them. Occasionally this actually happens. But all too often it is the whistleblower who is seen as the "problem" and who is "rectified."
This does not mean that there is a conscious conspiracy of evil schemers who set out to destroy dissidents. Just the opposite. Those who attack dissent sincerely believe that they are doing the right thing. They see dissenters as incompetent or dangerous because they are questioning a valid procedure or undermining support for an important enterprise. Among those who attack dissent, it just so happens that there is a nice meshing of their beliefs and their self-interest.
Anyone dissenting from powerful groups needs to understand how power operates and to develop a strategy. My second important piece of advice for dissident scholars is that they should work out their goals.
This may seem unnecessary. Surely goals are self-evident: expose and correct the injustice or abuse of power! But seldom is it clear-cut what this means in practice. Does it mean allowing free speech? Penalizing those who suppressed dissent? Exposing the wrong-doing? Obtaining compensation?
Dissidents need to sit down and carefully examine what they want to achieve. Is enabling the public to learn about a dangerous situation the only thing? What about keeping one's job, or maintaining future career options? Is the aim to expose and penalize the guilty ones, or to have them admit that they were wrong? What personal sacrifices is one willing to make to achieve one's most important goals? What about a personal life?
Once goals have been spelled out, then it's time to develop a strategy, which is a means of moving from the present situation towards the goals. Any decent strategy must take political realities into account, things such as who are likely to be supporters, the resources at the disposal of opponents, the cultural climate, one's skills in this sort of enterprise, and so forth. In formulating a strategy, it is valuable to have a gut-level understanding of how academia operates as a system of power-knowledge.
Two contrasting Australian examples illustrate the value of understanding science and academia as systems of power-knowledge and having well-thought-out goals. (There are plenty of cases from other countries. I'm using Australian examples because I'm more familiar with the details.)
First is the case of Phil Vardy and Jill French, medical researchers who worked for William McBride, the Australian doctor who discovered that the drug thalidomide causes birth defects. Vardy and French found out that McBride had falsified some of his data in a published paper. After they confronted him about it, they were dismissed and their careers were almost destroyed. They had the naive belief that truth would lead to justice. They had no strategy that took account of the exercise of power. The board of Foundation 41, which McBride had set up for his medical research, backed him. McBride had the prestige and power. It was only years later, after journalists took up the story, that McBride's fraud was exposed.
The second example involves Dr David Rindos, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia who was denied tenure in 1993. He knew that this was coming. After arriving at the university in 1989 from the US, he soon discovered a range of improper behaviors in the Archaeology Department, including sexual impositions placed on students. As soon as he began expressing concern about these problems, Rindos came under attack. He was moved to another department, accused of plagiarism, accused of sexual harassment, had his teaching taken away and was eventually moved out of any department--a pattern typical for a severe case of suppression. This was highly stressful, but he mounted an effective campaign with the goal of gaining tenure or, if that was unsuccessful, exposing the university administration. He produced a mammoth body of material documenting his case for tenure. The tenure committee based its case for rejection on his research record. Rindos, as well as documenting his case, mobilized support nationally and internationally. Thirty prominent figures in the field wrote to the university testifying to his outstanding research record and abilities. Rindos and his supporters also developed an effective media campaign and won the support of some politicians. The Western Australian parliament set up a major inquiry into the whole affair. Rindos' campaign took into account the powerful forces ranged against him. Although he was not successful in gaining tenure, he certainly succeeded in severely embarrassing the university.
Rindos didn't think he was in control quite as much as I've suggested. For example, he contacted just a dozen people to obtain letters of support, and they took the initiative to spread the word to others. But he was going about it in the right sort of way. Tragically, he died unexpectedly in 1996 at the age of 49. The parliamentary inquiry, reporting in December 1997, strongly criticized many of the university's actions in the affair.
There's no method that can guarantee success. Sometimes a simple "speak-truth-to-power" approach will work, and sometimes the most sophisticated campaign will fail. I believe that an approach based on clear goals and a strategy based on an understanding of academia as a power-knowledge system will improve the chances of success. With this foundation, it is worthwhile examining some methods of opposing suppression.
This is absolutely crucial if there is any chance of repercussions. Evidence of corruption, discrimination or public hazard must be watertight. This means saving copies of correspondence, receipts, lab notes, drafts of papers, or whatever is important. It can also involve notes on conversations and signed statements from colleagues. Documents should be kept in a safe place.
Documents are valuable, but to be useful there needs to be an account of the case that is accessible and understandable to outsiders--people who aren't familiar with the situation. In my files on suppression cases, there are several for which I have literally hundreds of pages of documents. Very few people are going to wade through or make sense of such a pile of paper.
What is needed is a convenient summary, perhaps a one-page summary or a 5000-word article. The documents provide back-up material. For the person in the center of a case, it is extremely difficult to obtain the perspective to write a clear summary. If possible, a sympathetic person should write an account. Alternatively, if one writes about one's own case, comments should be obtained from others on how to make it communicate well.
In my opinion, this is usually the most important technique for opposing suppression. This is also the area where understanding of academia as a power-knowledge system is most crucial. It is vital to work out who are likely to be supporters, neutrals, and opponents, and then to encourage supporters to take action, encourage neutrals to become sympathetic, and discourage opponents from action or reduce their hostility.
How can allies of a dissident help? A first and absolutely vital way is by listening and providing advice and moral support. Being attacked is often psychologically devastating. It can destroy people's faith in the organization or cause to which they have committed years of work--or even destroy faith in the possibility of justice. Furthermore, when longstanding colleagues and friends show their true colors by deserting a dissident at a crucial moment, this can be a severe blow. To have even one friend or family member who is willing to stand by through thick and thin is to have a prize asset. (Some dissidents mistakenly demand or expect unlimited support, causing supporters to burn out.) If some supporters organize an action group to take up a case, this is good fortune indeed.
A second important way that supporters can help is by raising the issues: exposing the corruption, warning the public of dangers, etc. The aim of suppression is to stop open discussion of the issues. By continuing to raise the alarm, supporters undermine this aim.
The other issue is the suppression itself. If the dissident is willing, this should be exposed. Suppression works best when it is hidden. Exposed to public eyes, it usually discredits the suppressors--even when what they are suppressing isn't very worthy.
Supporters also can play an important role by mobilizing further support and by taking direct action and by obtaining publicity, an important topic in itself.
For many scholars, publicity is unsought and even undesired. A polite report on research for promotional purposes is okay, perhaps, but anything more personal or political can be frightening. Suppression adds to the reservations. The immediate instinct of many of those who are attacked is to go into hiding, to tell almost no one about what happened, and to hope that everything will somehow return to normal.
This sort of response makes it very difficult to court publicity. But for most cases, publicity is the single most effective means to mount a challenge. Reluctance to obtain publicity about suppression must be overcome.
Often it is good to start small, for example by asking some colleagues to write letters of enquiry or concern to relevant officials (often the suppressors or their superiors). This lets the officials know that other people are aware of some of what is going on.
The campaign can be expanded by getting concerned individuals from all over to write letters. To aid this process, it is useful to compile a small packet of material, perhaps a summary of the case plus a few supporting articles or documents. It is important that this material be calmly stated and as accurate as possible. Even minor errors or exaggerations will be seized upon by opponents.
This may not sound like doing a whole lot and it is a pretty quiet process, but it can be very productive. Amnesty International's most important techniques are scrupulously accurate research and letter writing. They have been successful in freeing some political prisoners held by ruthless regimes. The same techniques sometimes can work for dissident scholars.
The next escalation is to make some of the information and messages of support available to a wider audience. Letters to newspapers and scholarly journals can be effective. Media stories can have an even greater impact.
Many scholars are frightened of the media, claiming that they get the facts wrong. The reason the media seem dangerous is that no individual can control the coverage. The media need to be understood as part of the wider social systems of power and knowledge.
Most journalists are competent and well-intentioned, and some have great skills. But they work under extreme pressure. A scholar can spend months researching and writing, have papers checked by colleagues and referees and be able to correct errors at the proof stage. Journalists don't have this luxury. They often have to write several articles in a single day, sometimes on completely different topics, knowing that some may not be published. Usually someone else writes the titles to their stories.
Therefore, typical journalists cannot be expected to read through piles of documents and to research the case the way scholars are able to. Instead, they need a succinct treatment of the key issues. They will then talk to the dissident or supporters and also talk to people on the other side. It is useful to remember that anything one says may end up in print. The stories journalists write normally will cover views on "both sides" of the issue. That gives the story greater credibility, even if it seems unfair to the dissident. If everything in a story is exactly the way one side likes it, then it probably will seem unbalanced to many readers.
Sure, there may be inaccuracies, but unless they are really serious they are not worth worrying about. So what if a name is misspelled or the story refers incorrectly to dismissal rather than denial of tenure? Attention should be always focused on stating the central issues over and over again. Minor details are of interest to the dissident but are a distraction for others.
John Coulter, a researcher at the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science in Adelaide, South Australia, was dismissed in 1980. The official reasons turned out to be spurious; many thought the real motivation was Coulter's outspokenness on chemical hazards and other environmental issues. Clyde Manwell and I each wrote quite a number of letters and articles for a wide range of newspapers and journals. The responses were revealing. Newspapers were much more likely to publish our submissions than scientific journals. Furthermore, when stories were written about Coulter's case, the newspaper stories were at least as accurate as the ones in scientific journals.
There's a good reason for this. Suppression usually involves powerful figures attacking weaker ones. Prominent journals often have links with powerful scholars, and so are reluctant to take up the cause of challengers. The mass media, on the other hand, have fewer ties to elite scholars. Editors also know that readers like human interest stories and tales of corruption. Suppression cases often are newsworthy. Sometimes the local media may have links with the local academic or scientific establishment, but the national or international media may still be willing to publish something.
There are even stronger things that supporters can do: propose resolutions at academic conferences, organize rallies, or even a strike. When Clyde Manwell was threatened with dismissal from the University of Adelaide for writing a letter about pesticides to the local newspaper, students supported him by occupying administration offices. Most of these actions are important mainly for their symbolic effect: they demonstrate the intense concern felt by some individuals and alert wider audiences to the issues. In a sense, they are a form of publicity.
Mobilizing support is central to the struggle against suppression. In doing this, publicity--in the widest sense, not just media coverage--is highly effective in most cases. I have seen it work in practice, but there are also theoretical reasons why it should work. Most suppression is carried out in large bureaucratic enterprises, including government departments, companies, and universities. These bureaucracies are like authoritarian political systems: only a narrow range of viewpoints is allowed. If bureaucracy is like a political system, then an opposition movement can only succeed by mobilizing support. A whistleblower is like a lone dissident up against a repressive regime. With no base of support, isolated individuals are highly vulnerable to attack, no matter what the justice of their claims.
Bureaucracies work by controlling information as well as other resources. They can handle challenges that go through the "proper channels." Publicity undermines their power over information and also reaches a constituency that they cannot control.
Dissidents are often tempted to use official procedures. They make a formal complaint, file a grievance, use appeal procedures, approach an ombudsperson, or file a lawsuit. Occasionally these procedures are effective. My advice is not to rely on them. They often give only the appearance of dealing with the problem without achieving anything--for the dissident.
Official channels are designed by and usually serve the purposes of powerful organizations. Typically, they keep public discussion to a minimum. They deal with technicalities rather than the underlying issues. They take a lot of time, allowing abuses to continue and dissipating the urgency of concern. They are largely under the control of bodies with more links to suppressors than to dissenters.
My skepticism about official channels is not based on some nasty personal experience, but rather on observing quite a number of cases. Melvin Reuber sued over the publication of the damaging letter about his performance as a scientist. He won $875,000--but then lost on appeal. He ended up with nothing to show for ten years in the courts.
William De Maria of the University of Queensland carried out a major study of whistleblowers. As part of this, he catalogued their experiences with numerous official channels, such as the Ombudsman and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. In less than one out of ten cases was there a positive response. In many cases official channels were not just useless but actually harmful to the whistleblower. Jean Lennane, former president of Whistleblowers Australia, reached a similar conclusion from her own investigations. She found only two things reliably helped: media coverage and contact with other whistleblowers.
What about whistleblower legislation? It seems to be the solution, but actually it is usually flawed from its conception. In many cases, legislation ostensibly designed to protect whistleblowers requires them to report abuses within the organization first, or to some government body. This is a prescription for making sure the abuses are not publicized. Indeed, some critics argue that whistleblower legislation gives only the appearance of providing redress against abuses while actually ensuring that nothing changes. Furthermore, only a small fraction of suppression cases qualify under whistleblower legislation. For example, it provides no means to challenge the systematic rejection of unorthodox viewpoints by academic journals.
To be sure, there are some cases where dissidents are vindicated through official channels. But in many cases this is because of efforts by supporters or the possibility of publicity. John Coulter went to the Industrial Court after his dismissal from the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science. After the case had been heard at some length, the parties to the dispute arranged a face-saving compromise. They agreed to claim that Coulter had been retrenched rather than dismissed, thus entitling him to a considerable payout. Part of the pressure to make this arrangement came from the massive campaign waged to publicize his case.
Going through official channels is, for most dissidents, entering "enemy territory." Even the strongest cases can fail. I recommend it only if a case is rock-solid, or if pressure is being applied in other ways, and preferably both.
Faith in official channels dies hard. When one official body proves useless or joins in the suppression, many dissidents seek out another and then another. Official channels should be understood not as neutral tools of justice, but as part of a wide, though often uncoordinated, power structure. Just as academia is a system of power-knowledge, so are bureaucracies, federal agencies and the courts. Occasionally they might be helpful to dissidents, but it is important to be wary.
Most suppression cases last far longer than imagined at the beginning, both in terms of formal inquiries and personal consequences. Some whistleblowers are still fighting to clear their names 10 or even 20 years after the original attack. Dissidents need to be aware of the possibility of such a long-term commitment. They should ask themselves whether it is worth spending years of their lives on the cause and, if so, what they hope to achieve.
The struggle may be long. It can also be nasty. Dissidents should be prepared for the most unscrupulous behavior by the other side. In the case between Clyde Manwell and the University of Adelaide, the university attacked by claiming that Manwell had allowed his wife, who worked in the same department, to work too many hours according to an addendum at the bottom of a carbon copy of a contract, produced in court by the university. Luckily, she had the original--and it had no addendum!
Forged documents are one thing. Destruction or hiding of documents is more common. Then there are payoffs--money, promotions, etc.--for keeping quiet or joining in a conspiracy. If there is the slightest suspicion that underhanded techniques may be used, it is wise to keep multiple copies of documents, including copies deposited with a lawyer, journalist, or friend who is separate from the case. If the stakes are very high, it may be wise to take personal precautions. A public profile can be a form of protection, since attacks may generate unfavorable publicity.
David Rindos reminded me of a key bit of advice: "Don't take it personally!" Dissidents often become symbols of opposition, and it is the symbol that is attacked, as in the classic case of the scapegoat. Attackers may not really know anything about the person they attack. Of course, knowing that it isn't "personal" is one thing--avoiding emotional distress is another.
In many countries, of course, suppression of ideas is accompanied by physical repression. Scientists, academics, and intellectuals often have been targets for not just dismissal but also imprisonment, torture, and murder, for example in Mexico, Kenya, and Cambodia.
It is not my intent to be gloomy about the possibilities of dissent. Personally, I believe that dissent is vital to building a free and democratic society. Standing up for justice is good, but so is effectiveness.
There are plenty of dissenters who, after being attacked, decide to acquiesce. Thereafter, they do everything possible to conform to what is required. Sometimes they even join in attacks on other dissidents. Historically, there are cases of prominent dissidents who, after being attacked, spent years trying to become acceptable to the establishment. These are instances showing that suppression can be effective in stifling dissent. Even more important is the role of suppression in signaling to others--those who haven't expressed any dissent--the dangers of stepping out of line.
Effective dissenters neither acquiesce nor make futile gestures. Instead, they carefully assess the situation to figure out a strategy that will achieve both their own goals and those of the causes they support. Sometimes this means making an open challenge, with every prospect of being attacked. Other times it means keeping a low profile and working to mobilize support. One lesson from the failures of so many whistleblowers is the need to be aware of the power of likely opponents and to be prepared for what may be in store.
Like all advice, what I have to say here needs to be evaluated in light of circumstances. While there are regular patterns in suppression cases, each one has its own idiosyncratic features. From some experiences, it may be possible to learn new techniques for resistance that are helpful to others. My own experiences, both in being attacked myself and in studying many other cases, have been profoundly educational.
Overt suppression is a sign that normal processes of social control have not worked. Suppression reveals the dynamics of power in society in a way not possible when conformity prevails. In one's own struggles, or in helping to defend someone else, it is possible to learn a lot about the way society operates.
1. Myron Peretz Glazer and Penina Migdal Glazer, The Whistleblowers: Exposing Corruption in Government and Industry (New York: Basic Books, 1989); Marcia P. Miceli and Janet P. Near, Blowing the Whistle: The Organizational and Legal Implications for Companies and Employees (New York: Lexington Books, 1992). For practical purposes, the single most useful source is Julie Stewart, Thomas Devine, and Dina Rasor, Courage without Martyrdom: A Survival Guide for Whistleblowers (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Project, 1989); http://www.whistleblower.org/.
2. Brian Martin, Suppression Stories (Wollongong: Fund for Intellectual Dissent, 1997); http://www.bmartin.cc/dissent/.
3. Brian Martin (ed.), Confronting the Experts (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).
4. Keith Schneider, "Hard times: Government Scientists Fall Victim to the Administration's Policy to Silence Debate," Amicus Journal (Fall 1982), 22-31.
5. Serge Lang, "Questions of Scientific Responsibility: The Baltimore Case," Ethics & Behavior 3 (1) (1993), 3-72; Judy Sarasohn, Science on Trial: The Whistle-Blower, the Accused, and the Nobel Laureate (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993).
6. Brian Martin, "Critics of Pesticides: Whistleblowing or Suppression of Dissent?" Philosophy and Social Action 22 (3) (July-September 1996), 33-55; Brian Martin, "Nuclear Suppression," Science and Public Policy 13 (6) (December 1986), 312-320; Brian Martin, Scientific Knowledge in Controversy: The Social Dynamics of the Fluoridation Debate (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).
7. Bill Nicol, Bill, McBride: Behind the Myth (Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1989); Quentin Dempster, Whistleblowers (Sydney: ABC Books, 1997).
8. For comprehensive documentation, see http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~hjarvis/rindos.html. [later moved to http://rindos-anthropology.webapps.buffalo.edu]
9. Brian Martin and Clyde Manwell, "Publicising Suppression," in Brian Martin, C. M. Ann Baker, Clyde Manwell, and Cedric Pugh (eds.), Intellectual Suppression: Australian Case Histories, Analysis and Responses (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1986), 253-256.
10. Deena Weinstein, Bureaucratic Opposition: Challenging Abuses at the Workplace (New York: Pergamon, 1979).
11. William De Maria and Cyrelle Jan, "Behold the Shut-eyed Sentry! Whistleblower Perspectives on Government Failure to Correct Wrongdoing," Crime, Law & Social Change 24 (1996), 151-166.
12. Tom Devine and Donald G. Aplin, "Whistleblower Protection--The Gap between the Law and Reality," Howard Law Journal 31 (1988), 223-239.
13. Mary O. Furner, Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1975).
Brian Martin is associate professor in Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong. He has a BA in physics from Rice University and a PhD in theoretical physics from Sydney University. He is the author of several books and over 150 papers in a variety of fields, including numerical methods, astrophysics, wind power, science and society, peace, and democracy. He was co-founder of Dissent Network Australia and is president of Whistleblowers Australia.