If you have spent any time debating those who deny the well established science of vaccines, climate change, global warming, evolution, etc., then you have likely encountered the accusation that scientists/skeptics try to silence and suppress opposing viewpoints. This claim is interesting because, for once, it’s somewhat true, but it does require several important qualifiers. The recent fuss of the Tribeca Film Festival is an excellent example of this. The festival, was going to screen an anti-vaccine propaganda piece called “VAXXED,” in which Andrew Wakefield (the man who falsified research and started the “vaccines cause autism” myth) perpetuates his claim that vaccines are behind the supposed “autism epidemic.” This, unsurprisingly, resulted in a uproar from scientists and skeptics who decried the misinformation and falsehoods in the film. Fortunately, Robert De Niro and the other people running the festival listened to reason and pulled the film. This is clearly a win for science and rational thought, but it is something of a costly victory, because a cursory examination of the situation does indeed suggest that skeptics suppressed an opposing viewpoint.
Further, this festival is far from being the only time when skeptics have blocked pseudoscience from gaining a public venue. Just last year, for example, vaccine supporters succeeded at cancelling Sheri Tenpenny’s Australia anti-vaccine tour by creating so much fuss that the venues that Tenpenny was supposed to talk at dropped her. Again, at a quick glance it’s hard to describe that in anyway except silencing opposition. Therefore, I want to take a closer look at situations like this, and I am going to argue that skeptics’ actions in these examples are completely justified and do not actually infringe on freedom of speech, nor do they suggest a fear of opposing viewpoints.
Freedom of speech
When discussing this topic, people often invoke their freedom of speech and claim that scientists/skeptics are attempting to deny them their rights. This is, however, completely incorrect. First, it is important to realize that a freedom of speech guarantees you the right to say whatever you want, but it does not guarantee you the right to a public platform. Further, having freedom of speech means that the government cannot stop you from saying whatever you want, but it does not mean individuals cannot stop you by denying you a venue. Finally, there are exceptions to the freedom of speech, and one of those exceptions concerns spreading falsehoods as if they are factual statements (e.g., libel laws), and as I’ll explain more in a minute, the things that skeptics try to suppress are misconceptions dressed as truth. So, I really don’t think it is fair to bring the freedom of speech into this.
Opinion vs. fact
The next point, and really the most important point, is that there is a huge difference between suppressing an opinion or viewpoint and suppressing a factually incorrect statement. As Daniel Moynihan brilliantly stated, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” You can have opinions about things like whether Star Wars is better than Star Trek or whether or not Obama is a good president. Those are topics that can’t really be quantified or answered objectively. You can certainly make logical arguments one way or the other, but it’s pretty nigh impossible to arrive at a clear, definitive, quantitative answer. So on topics like that, you should give time to both sides (as long as both sides are making rational arguments).
Science, however, does not work that way because science deals with facts not opinions. Once something has been thoroughly, properly, and repeatedly tested it is no longer a “point of view,” and it is not subject to opinions. As such, you shouldn’t give time to both sides because one side is clearly wrong.
Let me use a silly example to demonstrate this. I imagine that everyone reading this fully accepts the fact that the earth is round. There are, however, a few people who do actually believe that it is flat. Should we give them equal time and public platforms to argue for their position? Obviously not. Their position is demonstrably false. Therefore, denying them a public venue is not suppressing an opinion; rather, it is preventing the spread of nonsense and misinformation.
Now, imagine that they had made a flat-earth “documentary” and were planning on showing it at a film festival, but they were blocked by skeptics. It would obviously be absurd to describe that situation as skeptics “suppressing an opposing viewpoint.” The idea that the earth is flat is not an opinion that skeptics don’t want people to hear; rather, it is factually incorrect claim that skeptics don’t want people to be duped by.
That example is fairly innocuous, so let me give a more dangerous one. Let’s imagine that, based on blogs, anecdotes, Youtube videos, and a few low-quality papers by fringe scientists, a group of parents decided that smoking was actually good for you. Further, this group attempted to make documentaries and movies about the benefits of smoking, they wrote books, went on public speaking tours, etc. I think everyone reading this will agree that their “view” is dangerous. It’s not an opinion that smoking is unhealthy; it’s a fact. Further, I think that most people will agree that the world would be a better place if people didn’t go around proselytizing the supposed benefits of cigarettes. Blocking their “documentaries” would not be “suppressing of a point of view;” rather, it would preventing the spread of a dangerous lie.
This example is, of course, only somewhat hypothetical, because only a few decades ago, tobacco companies in the USA advertised their cigarettes as being wonderful things. Fortunately, science and reason prevailed, and the government cracked down on the tobacco companies and severely limited their claims and advertising abilities. This brings me back to my previous statements about the freedom of speech: a freedom of speech does not give you the right to make false claims that endanger the public.
Topics like vaccines are really the exact same situation as my smoking example. The idea that vaccines cause autism, for example, has been tested over, and over, and over, and over, and over again, always with the result that vaccines do not cause autism. Even a massive meta-analysis with over 1.2 million children and a study that was funded by anti-vaccers failed to find any link between vaccines and autism. This is, therefore, not a matter of opinion. It is a well established scientific fact that vaccines do not cause autism. So, when someone stands up and claims that vaccines cause autism, they might as well be claiming that the earth is flat or that smoking is healthy. They aren’t expressing an opinion or point of view; rather, they are making a demonstrably false and dangerous claim.
I want to be explicitly clear here. Issues like smoking, vaccines, evolution, etc. are not two-sided issues. There aren’t two views which both have merit. Rather, there is a position that is overwhelmingly supported by evidence, and there is a position that is overwhelmingly refuted by evidence. So when skeptics try to stop anti-vaccers, creationists, etc. it has nothing whatsoever to do with suppressing opposing viewpoints. Rather, it is entirely about stopping the spread of misinformation.
In short, we should be tolerant of other people’s views and opinions, but we do not need to be tolerant of willful ignorance or blatant falsehoods, and there is nothing wrong with trying to prevent their spread.
Why does it matter?
I have often encountered people who argue that even if the science is overwhelmingly on the side of vaccines, GMOs, etc., there really isn’t any harm in letting anti-scientists have their say, and we should just keep the peace an be tolerant of their views, even if their views are demonstrably false. I wholeheartedly disagree with that position for two key reasons.
First, people are incredibly quick to believe misinformation and incredibly resistant to corrections. As Mark Twain may or may not have said, “It is easier to fool someone than to convince them that they have been fooled.” Allowing anti-vaccers, creationists, etc. to have public platforms is a bad idea because many people will believe them without critically examining what they are being told, and once they have bought into the lies, it becomes very difficulty to convince them that they have been duped. Again, this is about stopping unequivocally false claims from spreading.
Second, many of these anti-science positions are dangerous. For example, a recent review article revealed (once again) that people who don’t vaccinate are at a much greater risk of potentially serious illnesses, and I, for one, do not think that we should tolerate positions that endanger others by encouraging them to take a course of action that has been clearly demonstrated to be hazardous. I think that we can all see the problems with someone preaching that seat belts are dangerous, or that you shouldn’t wash your hands, or that smoking is healthy, etc., but vaccines, GMOs, etc. are the same situation. On the one hand, you have a very well tested, safe, and beneficial technology, and on the other hand, you have fear-mongering and misinformation. It is a contest between fact and fiction, not a contest between opinions or points of view.
“It’s a conspiracy!”
Finally, I want to briefly examine the claim that suppression of anti-vaccine documentaries, creationist text books, etc. is indicative of a conspiracy. Almost anytime that scientists/skeptics try to block some piece of nonsense, the anti-scientists claim that it is evidence of a conspiracy. “See,” they say, “Big Pharma is suppressing the truth!” As you should have gathered from the rest of this post, however, that simply isn’t the case. Skeptics blocked Wakefield’s anti-vaccine video because it was a load of crap, not because we are paid shills. Further, this argument commits a logically fallacy know as question begging. I would not accept the premise that the video was blocked by a conspiracy designed to suppress the truth unless I was already convinced that the information in the video was true.
Closely related to this argument, is the accusation that skeptics are afraid of being wrong or are close-minded and try to block anything that doesn’t agree with their views, but nothing could be further from the truth. True skeptics are totally willing to change our minds, if they are presented with good evidence. A counter-factual documentary made by a convicted fraud is, however, not good evidence. If there was actually substantial evidence in the peer-reviewed literature showing that vaccines cause autism, then we should be having an actual dialogue, but the reality is that there is no good evidence to suggest that vaccines cause autism. As such, documentaries like Wakefield’s are simply spreading dangerous misconceptions.
In summary, scientists/skeptics do often try to prevent anti-scientists from having public platforms, but this is neither a suppression of free speech nor a silencing of opinions. Once something has gone through rigorous scientific testing, it becomes an established fact, and at that point, you don’t get to have an opinion about whether or not it is correct. To be clear, if you conduct a large, properly controlled study and that study is replicated by others, then you can overthrow a fact, but that is not what we are talking about on issues like vaccines. The anti-vaccine position is based on conjecture and anecdotes, not hard evidence, and it ignores thousands of studies. It is a dangerous and factually incorrect position that should be blocked at every opportunity.
- Do we need more studies on vaccines, GMOs, climate change, etc.?
- Settled science part 1: Is science ever actually settled?
- Settled science part 2: Creating the illusion of a debate