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.
“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 sounds more like a lawyer than a medical doctor when he warns about speech concerning Covid-19. His lawyerly phraseology invokes the “imminent lawless action” of the Supreme Court’s 1969 Brandenburg test.
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.
Senator Rand Paul was banned from YouTube in August for posting a video challenging the efficacy of masks in stopping the spread of the coronavirus. Paul was accused of making a false claim, though there is still no strong evidence that cloth masks, which Paul mentioned explicitly, are effective. Former Biden coronavirus adviser Michael Osterholm stated on CNN not long before Paul was banned that cloth masks do not work. Even the (incorrectly) lauded Poverty Action’s Bangladesh study on masking finds no evidence that cloth masks are efficacious. The American health bureaucracy declares that people must continue to wear masks, and social media companies willingly suppress the free speech of their users on behalf of the government—even when one of their users is a U.S. senator who also happens to be a medical doctor. Walensky just announced that masks can reduce your chance of Covid-19 by more than 80 percent. This is untrue, and she knows it—but only those who speak the truth against the regime are banned from social media.
Restrictions of scientific free speech will inevitably lead to restriction of any speech deemed detrimental to freedom, as Murthy described it. David Rubin was banned from Twitter for a week in July for predicting that the Biden administration would impose a federal vaccine mandate. In September, Biden announced such a mandate and is now telling businesses to ignore the court-ordered pause to it. While Paul’s offending statement was a scientific one, Rubin’s was merely an opinion.
It’s hard to find examples of social media suppressing misinformation when it squares with current government policy. When Joe Rogan said that he had taken ivermectin (with a prescription from his doctor) to help him battle Covid, the medication was widely described on social media as being a “horse dewormer.” While the drug can be used for veterinary purposes, ivermectin is also considered a “wonder drug,” one of WHO’s essential treatments for myriad infections in humans. Ivermectin has been in medical use for humans since 1987. Its discoverers won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2015. Perhaps I missed it, but I’m not aware of a “blue check” Twitter user being banned from the platform for describing ivermectin as horse dewormer. That’s as it should be. While representing ivermectin in this way constitutes actual health misinformation, it should not be suppressed by social media companies at the behest of the government—and nor should statements that disagree with governmental health officials.
In a melancholy essay, John Ioannidis discusses how 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. Murthy, Biden, Walensky, and Fauci, and others following what Thomas Sowell calls the vision of the anointed understand that science remains the standard of truth; thus, if they control what science says, they can control what is considered true. To rehabilitate the scientific method—and with it, our own freedom of speech—we need to stop participating in their deceptions.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images