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November 17, 2021

In Brief: In Defense of ‘Misinformation’

Restrictions of scientific free speech will inevitably lead to restriction of any speech deemed detrimental to freedom.

Science, noun: “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.” That’s the Merriam-Webster’s definition. According to social media, however, science is whatever they allow you to say. Mathematics professor Brendan Patrick Purdy warns of such censorship.

American sociologist Robert K. Merton once defined four norms that guide scientific research: communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. Communalism holds that science should be done publicly, universalism that everyone should be held to the same scientific standards, disinterestedness that there should be no biases, and organized skepticism that scientific claims should be evaluated based on objectivity and rigor. For all four norms, open inquiry is fundamental. To practice the scientific method, we must have the freedom to discuss ideas. No claim should be ignored, only refuted, using available evidence.

The ideologization of science poses a constant danger to the Mertonian norms and the freedom of scientific expression. Extreme historical examples include the Soviet Union’s promotion of “socialist science” over “bourgeois science” and Nazi Germany’s forbidding political opponents or those of Jewish ancestry from working for the government. Communist and fascist governments handicapped scientific endeavors by restricting who could do science and what science could be done; in both the Soviet Union and the Nazi Germany, all speech was regulated. The scientific method allows scientists to seek out truth about the world, without worrying about whether the truth will bother the government: free scientific inquiry can properly take place only in a society where freedom of speech is allowed, or better, encouraged.

Not surprisingly, the United States — with free speech enshrined in its Constitution — is the leading scientific country in the world. While totalitarian countries like China nominally perform well in the sciences, they take advantage of the work being done in the West, and only one Nobel Prize winner in the sciences has come from China. Other scientific Nobel Prize winners of Chinese descent all left for the British Commonwealth or the United States to pursue their scientific endeavors. All told, America boasts 347 Nobel Prize winners in the sciences.

Freedom works for science, just as it works for education, markets, and so many other things. And yet some treat freedom of speech as a danger to public health:

“We live in a world where misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared in July at the White House. “While it often appears innocuous on social media apps on retail sites or search engines — the truth is that misinformation takes away our freedom to make informed decisions about our health and the health of our loved ones. Simply put, health misinformation has cost us lives.” …

Murthy is not alone. President Joe Biden described those who spread so-called misinformation on social media as “killing people” (though he later retreated from that formulation). Biden is framing a certain type of speech as not protected by the First Amendment. The Center for Disease Control’s Rochelle Walensky and the National Institutes of Health’s Anthony Fauci have made similar statements. Since freedom of speech concerning science is part of freedom of speech writ large, then Murthy, et al. are suggesting that statements about Covid-19 must have their imprimatur.

And they have found a way to enforce their restrictions on science and speech: through social media companies. Since social media is the primary culprit for the spreading of so-called misinformation, Big Tech firms are essentially tasked with regulating free speech. Companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are the perfect free-speech suppressors, as they claim that they are merely content platforms, and hence enjoy the legal protections from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — while at the same time banning users and content as if they are editorial publications.

Purdy concludes:

The Mertonian norms have come under further attack by the ideologization of the scientific method during the Covid-19 pandemic. These attacks didn’t start with the virus. One has only to look at discussions of climate change and biological sex to realize that even before Covid, our ability to speak freely about science has been narrowed. … To rehabilitate the scientific method — and with it, our own freedom of speech — we need to stop participating in their deceptions.

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