You need to shut up: Research silencing and its implications for public health policy

You need to shut up: Research silencing and its implications for public health policy

Author: Dr Jacqui Hoepner – The Australian National University, Australia

This paper investigates responses to enquiry that disrupts normative public health positions and the implications of these attacks for public health policy.

Qualitative interviews were conducted with 16 researchers whose work elicited controversy and silencing attempts from public health proponents and interest groups. A mixed-methods analysis of the data was used to determine shared themes, discourses and characteristics within the dataset.

Silencing attempts reveal limits to data-driven policy, as maintaining a ‘unified voice’ on contentious public health positions matters more than data. Silencing responses were primarily intitiated by academic colleagues, and ranged from private cautioning, spreading misinformation in peer reviewed journals and mainstream media, to research misconduct allegations and conflict of interest claims.

While public health policy is increasingly data-driven, particularly controversial research–around e-cigarettes, obesity, sugar and addiction, among others–can be deemed so dangerous that evidence no longer matters. The selected cases share a seemingly visceral response characterised by an inability to engage with evidence in a critical or rational manner. The reaction is one of silencing or shutting down the offending research, not understanding or consolidating knowledge. This shutting down can severely impede evidence-based policy, as ‘conventional wisdom’ and ‘status quo’ takes precedence.

Attempts to silence unpalatable findings can severely curtail researchers’ ability to shift public health policies, despite rigorous, compelling data. When research challenges a public health ‘status quo’, existing players will employ silencing tactics to punish the rulebreaker: truth is the first casualty of war.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Society
Area of interest: Influencing policies through science communication