Science offers the best method for sense-making and fact-finding, particularly for investigating the material aspects of ourselves and our world.
As much as we yearn to get at the truth and the cold hard facts of things, our evidence-based quest is never quite complete, as more information is perpetually being acquired. This has the (wonderfully positive) effect of continually refining our conceptual frameworks—usually with minor elaborations, but occasionally with astonishing and transformational breakthroughs in our understanding.
The best scientists advance our collective knowledge not by validating well- established models, but rather through a tireless aim to explain results and phenomena which are surprising, unexpected, or do not seem to fit with the dominant logic. In doing so, these visionaries resist a common human trait called “confirmation bias,” which compels us to cherry-pick information that confirms our existing beliefs or ideas. They remind us to look more deeply in order to see what was missed all along, prior to the eureka moment.
It turns out that scientific pursuits, especially medicine, are prone to all sorts of biases (not just cherry-picking), as highlighted in this article written 10 years ago about the meta-researcher John Ioannidis, MD, PhD, which is still relevant today. The paper emphasizes the various ways in which we skew data when making decisions based on “scientific inquiry”—especially when such decisions are extended to generalized recommendations or become legislated as public policy. History is full of examples of how this can lead to harm.
For these reasons—both the perpetual presence of uncertainty in any truth-seeking endeavor, as well as the prevalence of bias (i.e. self-deception or the deception of others) in human affairs—freedom of speech and of the press are amongst the most cherished values of any open society, and is enshrined in the first amendment of our Constitution.
It is essential to debate and discuss best courses of action, especially when making consequential decisions about problems which may not have simplistic binary solutions. But for this to take place, dissenting views must have a seat at the table. Dissenting views are, by definition, unpopular and are often proposed by outsiders, renegades, or loyal oppositionists who do not conform to the conventional institutional position. But such individuals provide the spark of collective intelligence, which is the antidote to the tyranny of group think.
The line between a healthy diversity of perspectives holding valid but opposing points of view and overt misinformation (the deliberate use of pseudoscience and falsification in order to achieve nefarious goals) is not always easy to draw. And dissenting views are already rarely embraced in today’s hyper-polarized echo chambers, not so much because of censorship per se, but simply due to the scarcity of dialogue between members of differing social identity groups.
Yet now we are setting foot into extremely dangerous territory when ubiquitous media channels like YouTube threaten to remove any COVID-19 related posts “which do not comply with WHO recommendations,” according to its CEO. Or when Google blocks websites promoting “alternative”, “natural”, and “integrative” approaches to health including those of Andrew Weil, Chris Kresser, Joe Cohen, Mark Sisson, Joe Mercola, and many others. Facebook and Twitter have issued similarly concerning statements about culling content.
As a physician, I and others like me may or may not agree with every single World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation. Nor may we support everything that Dr. Weil proposes in the name of health and wellness. But we live in a far better world when both the WHO and Dr. Weil are willing and able to receive thoughtful feedback and critiques regarding their stated opinions from those with differing vantage points. This doesn’t mean that we have the right to disregard rules and policies codified into law. But I shudder for us to lose our right to think for ourselves after listening to opposing views and considering varying arguments, and to see the decisions for determining what qualifies as “truth” being abdicated to algorithms or consensus panels.
The next decades will be defined by serious conversations about our existing systems of economics, politics, education, healthcare, criminal justice, and many others—including our values regarding the end of life and what it means to be human in the age of exponential info-robo-biotech replete with increasingly powerful AI, automation, and gene editing capabilities.
These conversations will determine whether or not we become worthy ancestors to our children and their children’s children.
A crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic always provides an opportunity to deepen our solidarity. It is time for our people, our nation, and our planet to come together and face the immense challenges which lie ahead in a unified way.
The path to unity is not through censorship.
Vaclav Havel, no stranger to the horrors that stem from and accompany censorship, had this to say:
“Follow those who seek the truth, but run from those who claim to have found it.”