Sunday, 31 October 2010

Freedom of speech

Most countries in the West guarantee freedom of speech, because everybody should be able to express their opinion, however flawed. If we then counter the misleading and incorrect statements with facts people will be able to recognise ideology for what it is. At least, that is what I was thinking in the past. That principle I have come to doubt.

The past decade we have seen the rise of the anti-science movement, the decline of quality in journalism, and use of sophisticated techniques by those Merchants of Doubt. This means that public discourse (about science) is dominated by ideology, and monetary, driven arguments.

But there is also scientific evidence supporting my doubts. Research by Brendan Nyhan et al. which shows that people are not correcting their ideology based views when confronted with contradictory evidence. Their study shows something called "backfire effect," which stands for the observation that
corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.
NPR aired a discussion with Brendan Nyhan. While commenting on a more recent study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology Ben Goldacre observes:
What do people do when confronted with scientific evidence that challenges their pre-existing view? Often they will try to ignore it, intimidate it, buy it off, sue it for libel or reason it away.
The classic paper on the last of those strategies is from Lord, Ross and Lepper in 1979: they took two groups of people, one in favour of the death penalty, the other against it, and then presented each with a piece of scientific evidence that supported their pre-existing view, and a piece that challenged it; murder rates went up or down, for example, after the abolition of capital punishment in a state.
The results were as you might imagine. Each group found extensive methodological holes in the evidence they disagreed with, but ignored the very same holes in the evidence that reinforced their views.
After discussing the study he concludes:
When presented with unwelcome scientific evidence, it seems, in a desperate attempt to retain some consistency in their world view, people would rather conclude that science in general is broken.
Jonathan M. Gitlin, for Ars Technica, reviews studies by John Bullock of Yale, and the above mentioned by political scientists, Brendan Nyhan of Duke and Jason Reifler of Georgia State. An explanation for refuting facts that contradicts ideology might be cognitive dissonance. This may hinder rational debate on so-called controversial topics.
It seems to suggest that this effect might lead to problems when it comes to efforts to educate people about controversial or politically charged topics; I'm thinking here of climate change or evolution skeptics, both groups that have been targeted by think tanks and interest groups with vested interests in challenging accepted facts. It also points to the rationale behind media outlets like Fox News or Air America, where ideologues can have facts that support their world view continually reinforced. Sadly, that's bad news for anyone who's interested in honest and open public debate.
Yet another study, by David Gal and Derek D. Rucker, When in Doubt, Shout!
Paradoxical Influences of Doubt on Proselytizing shows that:
people whose confidence in closely held beliefs was undermined engaged in more advocacy of their beliefs (as measured by both advocacy effort and intention to advocate) than did people whose confidence was not undermined.
Reviewing this article Tom Jacobs, for Miller-McCune, notes:
The notion that shaken beliefs leads to increased levels of advocacy can be traced back to Leon Festinger’s 1956 seminal book When Prophecy Fails. It examined a cult whose members believed in their leader all the more strongly and began actively advocating on his behalf even after his predictions of catastrophe failed to materialize.
Gal and Rucker set out to replicate Festinger’s findings and use more recent psychological research to determine precisely what drives this dynamic.
Their conclusion leads him to observe:
This helps explain why political rhetoric has ratcheted up during a time of rapid societal change. In a logic-driven world, the shattering of long-held assumptions such as “the U.S. will never be attacked on its home soil” or “the value of my house will never decrease” would lead to a thoughtful period of reflection and re-evaluation. In our world, it leads one to actively advocate one’s pre-existing beliefs all the more passionately.
So, in contrast with conventional wisdom, the Tea Partiers may not be true believers so much as they are people who have had their confidence in the system shaken. To overcome any distressing doubts, they have reaffirmed their convictions by loudly attempting to persuade others. As Gal and Rucker put it in the title of their paper: “When in Doubt, Shout!”
In short, as Tom Rees puts it:
Although it is natural to assume that a persistent and enthusiastic advocate of a belief is brimming with confidence, the advocacy might in fact signal that the individual is boiling over with doubt.
The same mechanisms appear to be present in the entire denialism-movement. Just look at the rhetoric used by the and-still-alternative-medicine-works-crowd, vaccines-are-dangerous-crowd, evolution-is-just-another-belief-crowd, HIV-does-not-cause-AIDS-crowd, earth-is-flat-crowd, global-warming-is-a-hoax-crowd, US-does-not-torture-crowd, without-abolishing-civil-liberties-the-terrorists-will-win-crowd, voter-fraud-threatens-democracy-in-the-US-crowd, et cetera. These studies show part of the psychology behind the vehement opposition to (scienctific) fact. This obsessive denial of science is why I call those that promote, and those that are susceptable to, the above the anti-science movement. Whatever the reason, if science is not compatable with ones personal beliefs the irrational discard science.

Recently, following years of denying the efficacy of vaccines, we have seen the return of many preventable infectious diseases. With horrible consequences.This is a result of the right people have to say whatever they want, however irresponsible. But, freedom of speech does not stand for the right to mislead and/or lie, i.e. perpetrate a scam. Today it is used to protect the salespitch of conmen and populists among us and not to promote reasonable public discourse.

More and more I am inclined to think that this willfull spread of misinformation, if not overt lies, should be corrected. In medicine prevention is becoming increasingly important. Why not apply that principle to public discourse? Two possibilities come to mind. One, we should disallow speech which is evidently at odds with science, i.e. the earth is flat, HIV does not cause AIDS, vaccinations are evil, et cetera. The second would be to hold the anti-science crowd accountable for the consequenses of their advocacy. We should prosecute the infectious-disease-promotion-movement for increased morbidity, if not mortality. Does the law not mention reckless endangerment? See the article by attorney Jann Bellamy for details:
Those who breach their duty to avoid the spread of communicable disease may be liable to those injured for damages.
In short, those advocating an absolute right to freedom of speech must acknowledge the consequence of that principle and allow accountability when this right damages other individuals.

Update: It appears I was not clear enough in outlining what qualifies as reckless, to accommodate here is a clarification.

Update II: Another detailing the difficulties in opposing the anti-science crowd is Amy Tuteur who reviewed an article on pseudoscience in relation to the internet and noted:
Minimizing cognitive dissonance requires selective exposure, seeking out information sources that confirm existing beliefs and avoiding sources that undermine those beliefs.
Her conclusion:
The authors and publishers of pseudoscience books and websites are quite upfront about their determination to minimize cognitive dissonance by restricting the free flow of information. Only information that supports a predetermined point of view is allowed. Anything else must be deleted. To the extent that any real scientific papers are discussed, they are limited only to those that can be easily refuted. The rest of the vast scientific literature is ignored.
Update III: Apparently this obstacle to rational discourse was also discussed by Watching The Deniers.


  1. Interesting suggestions you make there. As for the first one, it seems most of the idiotic ideas you speak of come from religious or new-age type groups, who get their ideas from dangerous books like the Bible, The Koran, The Torah, and so on, so those books would need to go first. Then we'd need to go after all the Buddhist stuff, which is clearly unscientific, and... hmm... That's a lot of work. And that's just the written word. Pretty big project. And where would we draw the line, exactly? And after it's all said and done, how would that make us any different from the numbskulls who wanted to shut us up?

    And as for the second -
    I write an essay advocating what I believe is a clear, compelling, moral case for suicide. Someone reads it and is so convinced by it that he attempts suicide, fails and suffers horribly. If I take your point properly, he would then have grounds to sue me for reckless endangerment. Is that the world you'd intend? Again, where would you draw the line?
    Whom would you have in charge of enforcing these rules? How would it be decided? You know the history of science - remember one day the same rules could be applied to you, only wielded by different powers. It's a fatal path you lay out there.

    What all your examples clearly show me is the decline of basic education and the shocking lack of critical thinking skills in the US. Of course, having more fools has many uses, so I often question the motivation to actually invest in improving the system as it stands. Having all information is the same as having no information if you lack the skills to analyze it, refine it, and put it to good use. Pundit dependency is an easy habit to enable for the lazy, undeveloped mind. And as I said earlier, it does have its uses.
    So whose fault is that? Who is accountable? Who is accountable for your bad habits, boneheaded decisions or thoughtless reactions? As a responsible adult, you know the answer.

    Here is an interesting even though anonymous supposed quote from a European by way of the Czech Republic: "Blaming the prince of the fools should not blind anyone to the vast confederacy of fools that made him their prince. The republic can survive a Barack Obama, who is, after all, merely a fool. It is less likely to survive a multitude of fools such as those who made him their president."
    Not using that to try and dis Obama, merely illustrating a larger context for your (and my) point. And as for consequences, well, we're seeing them. Best turn our attention to learning from them somehow, even if it seems too late. Personally, I don't think giving out the power to restrict what people say is the answer.

  2. Responded here: