21st-century science and its FOIAbles

“Science is his forte, and omniscience is his foi(a)ble.”

Quote (forgive the 21st-century twist) attributed to the English clergyman and essayist Sydney Smith (1771-1845).  

The Wikipedia article on Sydney Smith  makes for fascinating reading. He must have been an interesting man, and fun to be around.  After all, we’re also talking about a man who also said, at various times…

“Have the courage to be ignorant of a great number of things, in order to avoid the calamity of being ignorant of everything.”

“Errors to be dangerous must have a great deal of truth mingled with them. It is only from this alliance that they can ever obtain an extensive circulation.”

“Don’t tell me of facts, I never believe facts; you know Canning said that nothing was so fallacious as facts, except figures.”

“A bigot delights in public ridicule, for he begins to think he is a martyr.”

“The object of preaching is to constantly remind mankind of what they keep forgetting; not to supply the intellect, but to fortify the feebleness of human resolutions.”

There’s so much more.

The reason for focusing on FOIA today? Nothing special…regrettably FOIA has come to be a term drearily familiar to government employees and management. The background? FOIA is an acronym for the Freedom of Information Act. The Act dates back to 1966, the time of the Vietnam War, when suspicion of government decision-making was rampant and citizens’ groups wanted access to information sources that had been, after all, developed using tax dollars. Over time, as FOIA has come to be used more extensively, it’s become a verb (like “Google”). And over that same time, it’s been found to have major unintended consequences. In legal hands, it’s something of a neutron bomb, one that can tie a government agency in knots. FOIA compliance can shed light on the seamy underbelly of corruption, fraud, and malfeasance. It can also be used simply to intimidate…to preoccupy and paralyze personnel and leadership of an organization at every level.  Occasionally, maybe increasingly, scientists find themselves ensnared..

But a recent, similar event – the BP subpoena of e-mails, documents, and notes and other materials from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) oceanographers who estimated the size of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill – is making headlines. That subpoena, for materials comprising the scientists’ scratchwork and detailing their deliberative process, may have a chilling effect on how science is conducted in the future, according to WHOI leadership. The targeted scientists argue in a Boston Globe op-ed that the BP demand for their e-mails and other document, and the court’s finding in favor of this demand, may erode the deliberative process of science.

There’s much to be sad about the use of these legal tools such as the subpoena and the FOIA…their abuse, on the one hand, and the abuses that prompted their creation on the other.

The media, especially the blogosphere, are full of the BP-WHOI story. Several themes emerge. The first is scientists’ near-universal hope for judicial relief – that a court appeal will restore historic protections. The second is renewed reminders to all scientists to assume that all e-mails are forever available to everyone.

All e-mails forever available to everyone?


Were Sydney Smith alive today, perhaps his insight into human FOI(A)bles and subpoena-bles might find in that reality the seeds of a new approach.

He might suggest the following: just suppose that instead of waiting, apprehensively, for the dreaded FOIA or subpoena, scientists were to be more helpful and proactive…and send all their e-mails, each and every day, to all employees of all parties that might conceivably someday legally demand them. Such a simple adjustment would accomplish several things. Just to name a few:

–          Scientists would automatically grow more circumspect in composing their e-mails.

–          Unemployment would plummet as law firms and other organizations brought on staff to analyze the influx of documents.

–          E-commerce would grow. Some firms would develop apps for scientists to aid in developing their extended mailing lists (which to be exhaustive would probably number in the hundreds of millions for each scientist). Other firms would develop apps for those on the receiving end…to aid the e-mail analysts in their tasks of finding the needles in the data haystack (or, to use today’s vernacular, in “the cloud”).

–          STEM education would improve, in order to satisfy the demands of the new job market.

–          The legal process would be expedited…when and if firms FOIAed material, scientists would be able to respond that they’d already complied.

Skeptical? I hear you. But Sydney Smith offers encouragement. As you and I determine to persevere, to make a difference, despite the litigious nature of the society we live in and all its threats and vexations, he advises, down through the ages,

“To do anything in this world worth doing, we must not stand back shivering and thinking of the cold and the danger, but jump in, and scramble through as well as we can.”

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *