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Numbers and Censorship

November 3rd, 2010 by Jessika

(Photo by L. Marie via Flickr)

This week I read two articles on subjects I don’t like: math and censorship. One left me feeling somewhat cold the other made me red hot.


Laura Sanders’ article “Safety in Numbers” started off with an interesting though somewhat hokey start. I was willing to forgive the fact that she compared mathematicians to men in capes. After all, why couldn’t they save the world? It certainly seemed the article would show us that they were super and make me forget about the cheesy beginning.

But the article did not. Instead, I found myself somewhat confused and only moderately interested in the article. Don’t get me wrong, the topic itself is fascinating. I love the idea of using math to find terrorists and predict their locations.

At times, I found the article confusing, having to reread paragraphs to fully understand. The last sentence of the second paragraph for example made me do a double take: “From simple formulas that focus on mathematical properties underlying terrorist behavior to immense mega-analyses incorporating billions of information bits, mathematics is becoming and increasingly important weapon in the antiterror arsenal.” As I typed this excerpt, I did find myself understanding what she is saying. But I still find myself a little lost in the first part of the sentence.

As I read on, some of the concepts and tools used by mathematicians became more clear, such as the use of algorithms to find weapons caches and the analysis of data to group terrorists. This clarity made me a little more engaged in the piece. Though, I wanted more. The algorithms and other mathematical tools were only glossed over. Perhaps, this was due to a space issue or the fact that the article did not intend to go in depth. Even so, I would have enjoyed a little more explanation.

In addition, the end of the piece felt like a let down. The article was built up at the beginning to make the reader think that these mathematicians were saving the world. But in the second to last paragraph we find out that researchers don’t even know if the algorithms and theories will even work in the real world. At the beginning, Sanders referred to these people as being “super.” Yet, this second to last paragraph suggests their ideas may not turn out to be as super as she suggests. The quote she ended with also left me with mixed emotions. Here is the last part of it: “There’s still a long way to go her in translating the behaviors that are being learned to policy,” said Subrahmanian. “But we believe this stuff is going to be useful.”


I found “Speaking Out About Science” by Emily Waltz both intriguing and terrifying at the same time. Waltz opens up the article with Robert Wall, a federal scientist at the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, preparing to give a presentation on cloning. In the presentation he wanted to include the fact that sheep and cattle had been cloned more than 10 years before Dolly  was in 1996. (Dolly was cloned “cloned from an adult cell by nuclear transfer” while the animals before were “by splitting embryonic cells” But before Wall could give his talk, though, he was told by higher ups that he could not include that. No explanation was given to him. This anecdote made me angry. And by the end of the second paragraph, I knew the rest of the story would just make me more angry. Yet, I couldn’t stop reading.

Why would this agency censor something like that if it was true? Before reading this, I had no idea they had cloned animals before Dolly. The media sensationalism when Dolly was cloned made it seem like this was the first time it had happened. If they are trying to keep the truth about cloning hush hush, how much else aren’t they telling us?

The remainder of the story regales tales of scientists being barred from speaking to the media. Waltz talks about how President Obama promised to make federal researchers more accessible. Yet, policies have not been revised and practices haven’t been altered to make good on that promise. At the start of his term, Obama wrote a memo on “scientific integrity” requesting the director of the White House Office of Science an Technology Policy put together a series of recommendations on the scientific integrity of federal agencies. Currently, though, those recommendations still haven’t been done. The administration claims the delay is due to a complicated process that includes public input and consultations. But does that really take two years? How long are these recommendations going to be?

This surprised me. I knew things were bad for science under the previous administration. But I didn’t realize things still weren’t quite going so well under Obama.  Earlier this year, an ARS scientist was barred from talking to NPR about a paper on pests near genetically engineered crops. This continuing censorship has led some scientists to go rogue and not ask for permission to speak with the media. It has also deterred some scientists from even working for the government.

Have no fear, though. This will change, because administration officials say the integrity recommendations will be out by the end of this year. I won’t hold my breath.

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