August 12, 2008

Antiscience Zoning

None of the materials found at 81 Fremont St. posed a radiological or biological risk, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. No mercury or poison was found. Some of the compounds are potentially explosive, but no more dangerous than typical household cleaning products.

Yet the state cleaned out retired chemist Victor Deeb's basement for him, removing all his experiments while he was told to go find an apartment. He's not charged with anything, and as far as I can tell he wasn't doing anything particularly dangerous. They were worried about the possibility of danger.

Pamela A. Wilderman, Marlboro's code enforcement officer, said Mr. Deeb was doing scientific research and development in a residential area, which is a violation of zoning laws.

I checked the Massachusetts General Laws regarding zoning and special permits for scientific research (see here). The MGL tells local municipalities what they're allowed to do with their zoning, so you'd need to refer to your own municipality for specific ordinances.

Nobody wants someone doing hazardous experiments with explosives, growing biological weapons, or dumping toxic waste into the street. I'll defer, for the moment, to the local authorities who were in Mr. Deeb's house and thought they were in the middle of a potentially hazardous situation. I think they overreacted, but I can see how that would happen since they were there responding to an unrelated fire. I am more concerned about "scientific research" zoning laws.

It seems to me that the zoning laws are written sufficiently vaguely that the authorities in Massachusetts can break up anyone's scientific hobby without having to show that there is any risk to anyone in the neighborhood. They allow for a special permit for scientific research, and that permit can be denied based on risk, but the assumption is that doing any sort of science-related exploration on your own (as a hobby, for home schooling, or for the hell of it) puts you afoul of the law unless you seek a permit.

Imagine if you needed to seek a permit to do art in your house, on the possibility that you might be using poisonous paints. Or practice music on the off-chance you might be using an instrument made from a banned material like ivory. How about a permit for sex, so we can get you on record that your sex is the legal kind? Or for photography, to get you to sign a document pledging that you aren't taking illegal photos. Any of these activities could wander into illegal territory.

Why have special treatment for science when it is not specifically harmful? Look at all the lawbreaking that goes on around the state on a daily basis in which people are harmed. How much of that is related to people practicing science? Plenty of lawbreaking involves sex, driving, drinking, guns... Where are the permits promising you won't break the law while intoxicated? Even an FID, the least level of required permit for gun ownership in the state, doesn't ask you what you're going to do with the gun so that the state can reject the FID on that basis alone (or catch you in a lie later when it turns out you are doing something either illegal, or just different than what you first intended to do).

Lying to officials is a crime, carrying with it additional penalties. A permit gets you on record. It makes you additionally punishable if you run afoul of any laws, including laws you might not be aware of. Do you sign a form promising not to break the law when you drive your car? If you did, you could be pulled over for speeding and then additionally prosecuted for lying.

Why should science be treated differently?

Hat tip to this somewhat overheated Make Blog entry.

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Posted by James at August 12, 2008 12:55 PM
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"It is a residential home in a residential neighborhood,” [said Pamela A. Wilderman, Marlboro’s code enforcement officer]. “This is Mr. Deeb’s hobby. He’s still got bunches of ideas. I think Mr. Deeb has crossed a line somewhere. This is not what we would consider to be a customary home occupation. …"

And who is Ms. Wilderman--the arbiter of what constitutes a wholesome, "customary" home occupation [read: hobby]?

I will never forget one of, if not the, first town meetings we attended in Stow where they passed a bylaw preventing biotechnology companies from coming to town.

We fear what we don't understand. It's a pity that the solution in so many cases is not to understand but to further the ignorance.

Posted by: Patti M. at August 12, 2008 4:11 PM

First comes the overreaction. Then comes the justification.

"Eek chemicals! What if this guy makes a bomb? Someone might BLAME ME. We gotta DO SOMETHING."

Why is it investigating and determining that there is no danger is not "doing something"?

The real funny part is that if Mr. Deeb was instead a handgun collector and had 75 handguns mounted on the walls of his cellar... that would have been fine. It boggles the mind.

Posted by: Chuck S at August 12, 2008 6:19 PM

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