There is a growing tendency toward censorship in the United States, made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. It must be opposed vigorously, as it is a slippery slope indeed. Once people have the power (and it is an awesome one) to decide what is truth and what is not, they will never willingly give it up. As that great political scientist, James Madison, explained, “Men love power.”
Over the last few years, the phrase “the science is settled” has become a euphemism for “shut up.” This year, the various social media platforms have been deleting what they declare to be Covid “misinformation.” The truth, as far as Facebook, Twitter, and others are concerned, is now whatever the government’s line is at the moment. Disgracefully, the Biden administration has been encouraging social media platforms to increase this censorship.
If the Centers for Disease Control has made a pronouncement regarding the pandemic, not even a highly credentialed epidemiologist is allowed to disagree, at least until the CDC changes its mind. Last year, to suggest that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan virology lab was “misinformation.” Today, it is the leading theory.
Obviously, the powers that be on social media have no idea how science operates. Science, almost by definition, is never settled. Scientists argue in order to find the truth (unlike lawyers, who argue in order to win the argument). Indeed, disagreement is the very engine that drives scientific advancement. That’s why scientific conferences are often contentious, even raucous affairs.
And scientists, like the rest of us, tend to become set in their ways as they age. That’s why fundamental breakthroughs in science—and in the arts, for that matter—tend to come from the young. Einstein was 26 when he published the theory of special relativity. Newton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society when he was 29. Lord Byron was 24 when he “awoke one morning to find myself famous.”
The scientists who issue pronouncements from on high, such as the CDC, tend to be well into middle age or even beyond (Anthony Fauci is 80). That’s why Facebook and Twitter should learn about the first of “Clarke’s laws,” developed by the great science writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
Three historic scientific breakthroughs show how science is never settled.
In 1912, Alfred Wegener, then 32, a German meteorologist and polar explorer, proposed that the continents drifted around the globe, sometimes coming together and sometimes splitting apart. That is why, for instance, South America and Africa seem to fit so closely together, with the bulge of Brazil tucking neatly into the Bight of Benin.
The idea was ridiculed by geologists for decades. Then in the 1950s came the discovery of paleomagnetism, which proved that sea floors indeed spread, pushing the continents around. Today, plate tectonics is the very foundation of the science of geology.
In the mid-twentieth century, gastroenterologists “knew” what caused stomach ulcers: stress, spicy foods, and excess stomach acid. But an Australian physician, Barry Marshall, 31, and his coworker Robin Warren had another idea. They thought peptic ulcers were the result of infection by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori. Experts ridiculed the idea, for it was thought that bacteria could not live in the highly acidic environment of the stomach.
Only when Barry Marshall drank a broth containing the bacteria and promptly developed severe gastritis did the idea gain credence. In 2008, the pair were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Or consider the most settled science there has ever been, Newton’s law of universal gravitation. After all, as Newton’s contemporary, the poet Alexander Pope, explained,
Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.
One of the triumphs of Newton’s law was the discovery of the planet Neptune in 1846. The planet Uranus was not orbiting the sun quite as Newton’s law said it should. The French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier thought that another, then-undiscovered planet was perturbing its orbit and calculated where in the sky it would be found. When the Prussian astronomer Johann Galle looked for it, he found it almost immediately, located only one degree from where Le Verrier had predicted.
When observers found a similar perturbation in the orbit of Mercury a few years later, Newton’s law didn’t help. It was again assumed that there must be a planet, inferior to Mercury’s orbit, and Le Verrier again calculated where it would be found. It was even given a name, Vulcan. But despite a small army of astronomers hoping for the glory of discovering a new planet (at considerable risk to their eyesight, as even a momentary glimpse of the sun’s disk through an unfiltered telescope can cause severe eye damage), nothing was found.
Newton’s description of gravitation was precise in some situations but not in others. It was Einstein who figured it out, describing gravity as the curvature of space-time and deriving new equations. Using these equations instead of Newton’s, Einstein was able to explain Mercury’s observed orbit without the need for hypothetical planets like Vulcan. It was one of the first confirmations of the theory of general relativity.
Thomas Jefferson (once a hero to the Left until it was suddenly discovered that he had owned slaves) had a low opinion of newspapers, the media of his day. But he realized that the only way for the truth to get out was to have a multiplicity of them, each with its own opinions on the subjects of the day. He was confident that disagreement among them would eventually produce the truth. Jefferson was, of course, no mean scientist himself.
In our own time, social media has become ever more dominant in the realm of public discourse, eclipsing newspapers and even television. For better or worse, it is the agora of our times. So banning certain ideas and people from social media is deeply pernicious.
The solution for politicians who advocate censorship is easy: vote them out of office. You can’t do that with the people who run social media sites, however. Some argue that, since they are private companies, the social media providers are free to censor to their heart’s content, for the First Amendment applies only to government. But railroads, airlines, and utilities such as power and telephone companies are private companies, too, and they can’t deny service to people whom they dislike or disagree with. They are what is known as “common carriers,” subject to government regulation to make sure that they don’t discriminate.
A version of the common-carrier solution has been proposed for social media companies, analogous to the Fairness Doctrine that required television and radio stations to present both sides of an issue. That doctrine was dropped as no longer necessary in the Reagan years when the number of television networks began to expand dramatically. But social media platforms—which are, in fact, vast conversations—are what economists call “natural monopolies,” where competition is inescapably limited or nonexistent. Everyone wants to be on the biggest platform.
Conservatives are instinctively leery of government regulation, but the increasing plausibility of a social media fairness doctrine illustrates just how badly the situation has deteriorated. Whatever the solution may be, few would deny now that the growing prevalence of censorship is a major threat to the American future. It is tearing the heart out of the First Amendment and endangering our democracy.