Does free speech include anti-vaxer sentiments?

A reader named Jeannie has sent me the following email:

Today I read an article in the Washington Post about a measles outbreak in the Somali community in Minnesota.
The Somalis are concerned about autism and anti-vaxxers brought in Andrew Wakefield to caution them.
In the light of your recent essays on free speech, what would you do about this sort of thing where the message of anti-vaxxers is causing the illness of so many.  Andrew Wakefield is unrepentant.   Could you address this on your website?
And yes, Jeannie, I’ll respond briefly. First, though, some data. Here’s the vaccination rate in Minnesota as reported by the Post; the decline in the non=Somali rate is likely statistically insignificant (they don’t say), but the rate in the Somali community is surely significant:
and a bit of the article:

 Salah [a Somali-American whose two unvaccinated children got measles, with one becoming seriously ill] no longer believes that the MMR vaccine triggers autism, a discredited theory that spread rapidly through the local Somali community, fanned by meetings organized by anti-vaccine groups. The activists repeatedly invited Andrew Wakefield, the founder of the modern anti-vaccine movement, to talk to worried parents.Immunization rates plummeted, and last month the first cases of measles appeared. Soon there was a full-blown outbreak, one of the starkest consequences of an intensifying anti-vaccine movement in the United States and around the world that has gained traction in part by targeting specific communities.

. . . Minnesota’s Somali community is the largest in the country. The roots of the outbreak there date to 2008, when parents raised concerns that their children were disproportionately affected by autism spectrum disorder. A limited survey by the state health department the following year found an unexpectedly high number of Somali children in a preschool autism program. But a University of Minnesota study found that Somali children were about as likely as white children to be identified with autism, although they were more likely to have intellectual disabilities.

Around that time, health-care providers began receiving reports of parents refusing the MMR vaccine.

As parents sought to learn more about the disorder, they came across websites of anti-
vaccine groups. And activists from those groups started showing up at community health meetings and distributing pamphlets, recalled Lynn Bahta, a longtime state health department nurse who has worked with Somali nurses to counter MMR vaccine resistance within the community.

At one 2011 gathering featuring Wakefield, Bahta recalled, an armed guard barred her, other public health officials and reporters from attending.

Fear of autism runs so deep in the Somali community that parents whose children have recently come down with measles insist that measles is preferable to risking autism. One father, who did not want his family identified to protect its privacy, sat helplessly by his daughter’s bed at Children’s Minnesota hospital last week as she struggled to breathe during coughing fits.

I think you can guess my response to Jeannie’s question. Yes, banning the discredited Wakefield from speaking could have reduced the rate of measles infection. But you can’t ban Wakefield from speaking and at the same time not ban the many anti-vaxer websites. It is in fact the public rise of anti-vaxer sentiments that has led to counterspeech asserting, with data, that the preservative thimerosal is not a danger to children (it’s not even in most vaccines), and that vaccination doesn’t cause autism.

If we ban Wakefield’s anti-science sentiments, we must also ban the faith-healing sentiments of Christian Scientists and other groups who claim that disease is a result of either impure thoughts or bad thoughts. Many children have died from following this form of faith healing, as I show in Faith Versus Fact. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that doctors have to withhold medical care from children of such parents, though it’s allowed in a distressingly larger number of states.)

If you ban Wakefield because of possible harm, you must ban all “hate speech”, including Holocaust denialism, because it might lead to future harm, like the killing of Jews. You must ban climate-change denialists because, in the end, acting on their beliefs could destroy our planet.

There is nobody we can trust to decide which speech should be banned because it’s “harmful”. The best thing to do is allow people to say what they want (of course, nobody is obliged to give Wakefield a platform), and counter anti-science sentiments with good science. If people went to the Centers for Disease Control site, for instance, they’d quickly find that vaccination is safe. Likewise, virtually all doctors will tell parents to get their children immunized.

My position on freedom of speech has never altered, and it’s the position taken by the U.S. courts. Nobody should be banned by the government from saying anything they want so long as it isn’t calling for immediate violence. Nor can speech lead to a climate of harassment in the workplace.  Finally, this doesn’t mean that anybody can set up a soapbox anywhere and give speeches. There are procedures and permits for such public speech.

It also does not mean that colleges must give a platform to every Nazi and crackpot, nor that newspapers or the media must allow such people to write columns. It does mean that if groups in a state university or other public organization invites a speaker, it is unconstitutional for those who did not extend the invitation (like a college administration) to rescind the invitation. Even private organizations shouldn’t do that, for nobody can be trusted to decide what speech should be censored or who should be “de-platformed”.

Further, there are good reasons to allow even some crackpots to speak. I’ve long said that Holocaust denialists can and should be allowed to speak at colleges, for hearing their arguments is the best way to inspire you to find out why they’re wrong. I myself have benefited in this way.  Hearing views you think are too odious to even be countenanced—like no woman should be allowed to have an abortion, or that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry—still allows us to examine our own opposing beliefs and refine and strengthen them. (And sometimes change them, as happened during the U.S. civil rights movement.) For an example of someone who has refined her pro-choice thinking in light of anti-abortion sentiments, I draw your attention to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s incisive article, “A defense of abortion.

In the end, if speech that seems odious takes place, we always have the right to publicly demonstrate or produce counter-speech. Censorship of Andrew Wakefield won’t stop anti-vaxers from circulating their lies, which are best fought by public counter-reaction. Censorship does not end harmful or bigoted thoughts; it only drives them underground.

In this respect America is lucky—and unique. As Neil Gaiman said:

The current total of countries in the world with First Amendments is one. You have guaranteed freedom of speech. Other countries don’t have that.

Readers are of course invited to disagree civilly, giving their own views of what speech should be censored.

 

134 Comments

  1. BJ
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    And we wouldn’t have that enormous amount of conclusive studies disproving the link between vaccinations and autism without the free speech of anti-vaxxers. As you said, it was the anti-vaxxer movement that led to all that convincing, evidence-based counter-speech.

    • Alric
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      We already had all the evidence we needed. This was a waste of everyone’s time caused by anti-vaxxers.

      • Craw
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        We had the evidence before the issue was raised? Interesting. You seem to support a Decider who arbitrates for the rest of us. It’s a relief to learn your Decider is prescient, and knows the truth in advance of any study.

        • Alric
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

          Yes we did. The issue of the safety and efficacy of vaccines had already been solved. What was done was an unnecessary epidemiological study specifically for autism and vaccination. Even though there was never any reason or mechanism to think they were linked.

          • Craw
            Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

            No. We had no refutation of Wakefield’s study before Wakefield’s study. He published a fraudulent paper. No-one knew it was fraudulent before it was investigated.
            The known efficacy of vaccination is irrelevant to the issue because his study was about side effects not efficacy. It is not unknown for such things to happen There have been pain killers whose efficacy is known banned because of a previously unknown side effect: elevated risk of heart failure. Wakefield’s claims could not be dismissed a priori as you claim. They had to be, and were, refuted.

            • Alric
              Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

              http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.c7452

              Wakefield’s paper was fraudulent and it was pointed out at the outset.

              • BJ
                Posted May 6, 2017 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

                You’re changing the subject. This does not change the fact that we didn’t have the wealth of studies demonstrating no link between autism and vaccines before the “controversy.”

              • Craw
                Posted May 6, 2017 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

                The link you give says the fraud first became known 7 years after publication! Your own link refutes you.

                And as BJ notes, you are prevaricating. You claim we knew there was no link to autism *before* the question was investigated. It’s an absurd thing to say.

              • Alric
                Posted May 7, 2017 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

                It was ridiculous to suggest a link between vaccines and autism. We don’t have studies that show no link between vaccines and thousands other diseases and it wouldn’t make sense to do them either.

  2. Posted May 6, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I agree with Jerry’s message here, but I have to disagree with the closing Gaiman quote. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of speech. The limitations a government can place on this freedom are just like in the States. This freedom has also been upheld repeatedly by the courts. I see no difference in law (though I am no lawyer) or in practice between the American and Canadian versions of the freedom.

    I would also be surprised if some other countries didn’t fully measure up. I’m not an expert though and am only really informed enough to speak about Canada and the US here. Maybe some other readers can clarify?

    • Craw
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      This is simply factually wrong about Canada. In Canada a Protestant minister was banned for life from preaching about homosexuality as just one example. There have been numerous other outrages.

      • Jan looman
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

        Your example about a minister being banned has nothing to do with the state of free speech in Canada. An organized church has the right to defrock ministers, thus “banning” them.

        • Craw
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

          It was the GOVERNMENT that banned him.

          His name is Stephen Boisson, and this happened in Alberta.

      • Posted May 6, 2017 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        Can you give any details about this event so that I can identify and read about it? As Jan pointed out, unless it was the government banning their speech, there isn’t a problem. I am unaware of similar outrages. Charter rights have always held up in court as far as I’m aware.

      • BJ
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

        and, recently, a comedian was fined 50,000 Canadian dollars for making a joke about a kid with a disability because it was too offesnsive. Canada has some big free speech problems.

        • Posted May 7, 2017 at 10:23 am | Permalink

          As in the other case cited above, it was the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal that issued the fine. The ruling is being appealed to the actual courts and I have little doubt that it will be overturned.

          The existence of provincial Human Rights Tribunals is unfortunate, and they have a long track-record of punishing free speech. But the courts have always overturned these rulings upon appeal.

          • BJ
            Posted May 7, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

            “…I have little doubt that it will be overturned.”

            I really, really hope you’re right. Your assessment of the “Human Rights Tribunal” is unfortunately extremely accurate.

            On the other hand, Trudeau and his new cabinet seem to agree with the curtailment of what they consider “harmful” speech, so I hope things don’t get worse up there in the Great North (I have an enormous love for Canada and its people).

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      New Zealand has freedom of speech. However, it’s also true that we don’t have a formal written constitution in the form that the US does. We do have laws that guarantee it.

      We also, embarrassingly, still have a blasphemy law. It’s only been used once, unsuccessfully, almost a century ago, but still it exists. Most NZers would be surprised to discover its existence.

      Freedom of speech is a bit more complicated than Gaiman makes it sound. Pakistan, for example, has a freedom of speech article in their constitution. It’s just that the Islamic Council currently has a lot of power, and a lot of that is about standing up to the arrogant West.

      Also, the admittedly excellent First Amendment doesn’t always give the freedom it’s assumed. The US doesn’t do as well as I’m sure USians would assume in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. USA is considered free of course, but there are several countries ahead of them in the rankings, including NZ. Norway is currently #1.

      • Posted May 6, 2017 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the information, Heather! You make some excellent points too.

        It seems to me that outdated blasphemy laws in some Western countries don’t necessarily count against free speech (although it’s not trivial in all Western countries!). The issue to me is whether or not they could withstand a court challenge. There may be blasphemy laws on the books in some Canadian provinces (I don’t know though), but none of them would withstand a Charter challenge. There are similar laws in certain US states – I can’t think of a true blasphemy law offhand, but there are weird ones like atheists not allowed to hold public office, and all manner of banning certain private sex acts between consenting adults. The laws are technically on the books, but other laws supersede them.

        Would you say it is fair then to characterize NZ as de facto legally protecting freedom of speech? That is, would the right override any old, contradicting laws if brought to a court challenge?

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

          Cheers Ed, and yes, I would. The more recent laws in NZ around human rights that include freedom of speech basically override the blasphemy law. To even bring a blasphemy case you have to have the consent of the attorney general. A group of religious people tried in 1998 because of a couple of artworks they considered blasphemous, but the attorney general considered the laws around freedom of expression etc overrode the blasphemy law.

          If you’re interested, I wrote a post about our blasphemy laws that includes info on this a couple of years ago: http://www.heatherhastie.com/abolish-new-zealands-blasphemy-law-must-be-abolished/

          It includes pics of the “blasphemous” artworks.

        • Posted May 8, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

          Canada has a federal “blasphemeous libel” law, which has not had a case since the 1930s.

      • BJ
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

        But, ultimately, any press outlet is free to publish what it wants. Whether or not we have a good balance or a good facts-to-BS ratio is immaterial to whether our free speech laws appear to be the best at guaranteeing freedom of speech.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

        New Zealand has stacks of obsolete laws that nobody has bothered to repeal (as does any country – see loweringthebar.net for copious examples).

        I once went to a meeting addressed by the late great David Lange, long before he became our Prime Minister, he was a lawyer then, on the subject of obsolete laws. A very witty speaker. I recall two examples – if ‘caught short’ in the middle of town, it is permissible to urinate on the offside wheel of your wagon only; and, it is illegal to have your horse served for breeding purposes within sight of a public highway. As he put it, “if the event is occasioned by lust, then you’re off the hook”.

        More seriously, I would question the suggestion that, because the US has a constitutional amendment for free speech, it is (a) unique or (b) a better solution than any other. There are obvious problems in drawing a line somewhere between what is protected, and incitement to violence, hate speech, libel, and juvenile pornography.
        There will always be borderline cases wherever the line is drawn.

        cr

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

          I actually prefer that we don’t have a formal constitution, and that we rely on the body of laws. Language changes. Look at the problems the US has with interpreting the 2nd Amendment, and with the ongoing issues around originalists etc. Imagine if the constitution had been written in the English of Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or Beowulf. How is the constitution going to read and interpreted in 500 years time? There are all sorts of other issues I can think of as well around the way society changes and evolves.

      • somer
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

        I agree its better not to have an explicit Bill of Rights – because it can be used by interest groups at the expense of others for all time by fiat of the supreme court for decades or hundreds of years until some major change. It flies in the face of context and whats needed at the time. Hence gun laws in the US. Hence Corporations not only granted personhood status but deemed to have greater rights than large groups and for 50 years from end 19C and early 20th ran completely roughshod over workers – upheld by Supreme court decisions. Hence highly organised/motivated or well funded minorities and individuals can push rights at expense of majority for generations if Supreme court lets them – be they religious, economic or whatever. Maybe however it is worth stating freedom of expression, thought and assembly failing immediate incitement to violence or grave security danger in the constitution because that right underlies most other rights and is inherently impartial.

        • somer
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

          correction Grave and immediate security danger (e.g. in time of war directly affecting the physical integrity of the state). Nevertheless allowing the prosecution of blatant and knowing falsehoods against organisations and peoples.

    • Wunold
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      For anyone interested, here’s a list of Freedom of speech by country:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_speech_by_country

    • Posted May 8, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      No, actually, the Charter guarantees “freedom of expression”, and subject to the “peace, order and good government” or “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” weasel words. (I’m no lawyer, but I do remember that’s where the case law is.)

      (http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/const/page-15.html)

  3. Alric
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    The fallacy is that we can’t objectively determine what is harmful speech because in some instances it would be difficult.

    I bet 99% of the time it is real easy to tell what is hateful, or harmful, speech based on simple criteria. Such as, does it harm a group based on gender, race, nationality, etc, or does it result in disease or toxicity.

    It’s like saying let’s not test drugs for safety and efficacy because drug development would be cheaper, ignoring the death toll and suffering.

    • Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      I bet 99% of the time it is real easy to tell what is hateful, or harmful, speech based on simple criteria. Such as, does it harm a group based on gender, race, nationality, etc, or does it result in disease or toxicity.

      Can you give examples of these ‘real easy’ cases so we can argue whether we think they qualify or not?

      • Craw
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        And can he explain how the government in power would not in fact be the final arbiter? (Who is that right now in the USA? Someone completely reliable and trustworthy?)

        • Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

          Setting aside the issue of ‘hate speech,’ Trump’s administration includes anti-vaxers so if you handed the state powers to censor it would be Wakefiekd’s critics who would be silenced.

      • Alric
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        Creationism in schools. Milo and Anne Coulter. Do you have any hard ones?

        • Craw
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

          School curriculum is not a free speech issue.
          Your other examples are simply to proscribe people? Can Milo say “Hello” or should we just cut out his tongue? This is a serious question. You were asked for particular examples of *speech*. You gave none. One can only assume you meant to act out Heine’s warning that when you start burning books you end up burning people.

          So, should Milo’s book be burned?

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

          Your examples do not support your premise. There is no right to have one’s speech heard in the classroom.

          If you are correct that “hateful, harmful” speech should go unprotected by the First Amendment, it follows that these people should have no right to speak in any public fora. Is that what you’re advocating?

          • Alric
            Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

            There is no right to have one’s speech heard in a classroom simply because we decided it should be so. The same could be done for harmful speech.

            • Craw
              Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

              “The same” would be to say it has no place in the classroom, not that it can be banned.

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

              And that would be to abrogate the First Amendment’s “speech clause” completely.

              So I take it that your implicit answer to the question I posed is “yes, the Milos and Coulters and creationists can be prohibited from speaking everywhere.”

              Reminds me of the poster with the picture of the Bill of Rights stamped “void where prohibited by law.”

            • Taz
              Posted May 6, 2017 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

              It’s a captive audience. No one has a right to have others forced to listen to their speech.

        • Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

          In what way is creationism actually harmful?

          Bullshit, yes, but can you give an example of where it caused physical harm?

          The reasons for not teaching creationism are due to the separation of church and state, not the harm principle.

          And the right to free speech for the two individuals you name has been defended here so it really isn’t obvious that they should be banned.

    • Taz
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Please explain what you consider “harm”.

    • GBJames
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Personally, Alric, I find your comments alarming and harmful. Prove me wrong.

      And then be happy I’m not in charge of limiting your speech.

      • Alric
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        You are the one making a claim. By all means make your case.

        • GBJames
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          You make the case for me.

          If I thought that censoring speech was a good thing I would start with your’s. It threatens the free exchange of ideas that we rely on to maintain some semblance of civilization. I think that’s an objective fact.

          I am no more eager to live in a society governed by the rules you advocate than I do to live in one with blasphemy laws.

          • Alric
            Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

            Hateful or harmful speech is not a free exchange of ideas.

            • Zach
              Posted May 6, 2017 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

              Religious people often regard speech criticizing their faith as “hateful or harmful.” This is the rationale behind modern blasphemy laws, as well as hate speech laws that include religion as a proscribed subject. They are instituted and enforced to preserve religious sensibilities and foster harmony in religiously diverse societies.

              Of course, one person’s harmony often means another’s subjugation. I invite you to read this long survey about the enforcement of blasphemy laws around the world, written by Ken White. Its conclusion:

              …anti-blasphemy laws are a tool for religious majorities to suppress religious minorities, and a mechanism for the more powerful to oppress the relatively powerless, and tend to be used in a lawless manner resembling modern witch hunts.

  4. David Duncan
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Well said. Letting anti-vaxers, creationists, et al. peddle their lies breaks my heart, but the alternitave is worse. We just have to keep exposing these crackpots.

  5. Alric
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    “I’ve long said that Holocaust denialists can and should be allowed to speak at colleges, for hearing their arguments is the best way to inspire you to find out why they’re wrong.”

    This is very idealistic but makes an assumption that is not true, that people can evaluate information appropriately and arrive at the correct conclusion.

    What keeps happening over an over is that a demagogue convinces enough people to cause a problem, sometimes deadly and genocidal.

    This is not worth abnegating the responsibility of taking a second to asses if speech is harmful or hateful, or simply not true.

    • Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      “This is very idealistic but makes an assumption that is not true, that people can evaluate information appropriately and arrive at the correct conclusion.”

      Wow! Talk about a blindspot! That people can evaluate information appropriately and arrive at the correct conclusion may be idealistic, but it’s also the basis of democracy. It’s why we have a jury of our peers rather than just someone “taking a second to assess” whether a person is guilty or not. You’re comment only illustrates Jerry’s point: “There is nobody we can trust to decide which speech should be banned because it’s ‘harmful.'” Amen to that!

      • Alric
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        It’s almost like a jury is preferably to a mob to make decisions …hmm

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

          A jury is preferable because they hear evidence from both sides and evaluate it. Sure they get it wrong sometimes, but that’s better than the alternatives, including mob rule.

          The system isn’t perfect, and I don’t think anyone is pretending it is. But currently, it’s the best we’ve got.

          • Alric
            Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

            So there couldn’t be groups of people like juries that can have conversations about what’s free speeches? As you say we can have a system that’s not perfect but preferable to people coming down with measles.

            • BJ
              Posted May 8, 2017 at 8:25 am | Permalink

              So you want juries of people, made up from a country many 42% of which support Trump, to decide for all of us what can and cannot be read, said, or expressed? You think that will go well, or at all the way you want?

        • Posted May 6, 2017 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

          A jury is preferable to a mob or to one individual not mainly because it hears evidence and evaluates it; a single person could do that. It’s preferable mainly because of its diversity—of intelligence, of education, of political persuasion, of religious belief or non-belief, etc. It’s intended to represent a cross-section of “we the people,” warts and all. It works because of, not in spite of, our limitations.

          I’ve served as foreman on a jury in a homicide case, and I can vouch for the fact that it’s maddening as hell when people can’t “evaluate information appropriately” and make even basic distinctions—e.g., between whether someone is guilty and whether someone has been proven guilty. I finally took a poll: all of us thought the guy was guilty; only five of us (myself not included) thought the prosecution had proven that he was guilty. Would I have preferred a jury of college graduates or a single person with the wisdom of Solomon? No way! The system, like tolerating free speech, is frustrating and fallible but, as Heather says, it’s better than the alternatives.

          (Incidentally, we got a conviction, but it took two weeks to do it.)

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted May 6, 2017 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

            If only five of you thought the case had been proved than surely the verdict should have been ‘not guilty’?

            ‘Beyond reasonable doubt’ comes to mind.

            (Incidentally, I’ve come across jurors who were complete f**kwits – one just has to hope that a given jury doesn’t contain too many of them).

            cr

      • BJ
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

        Right, meanwhile he’s talking about how we can “objectively” figure out what is and isn’t hate speech, all while continually, through this and other threads, avoid the most difficult questions about these ideas.

  6. Posted May 6, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    “There is nobody we can trust to decide which speech should be banned because it’s “harmful”. ”

    I am not sure that is a useful criterion. Lots of speech is banned in the U.S. for decades now, not because it has been shown to be or proven to be harmful, but merely because it might reasonably be harmful, or disturbs certain moral sensibilities. Examples would be public nudity, open pornographic images, cigarette and liquor advertisements, age limits, practice bans.

    Also, the U.S. position is that political speech is more highly protected than other forms of speech. Wakefield’s speech is not political opinion – it is purportedly truthful scientific opinion. Which, one would think, could and should be evaluated on its truthfulness and potential for harm.

    I would also like to point out that the U.S. position is an outlier. Most of the rest of the civilized world has, for decades, banned hate speech and dangerous political ideas from the public dais, but allowed it in private. There has been no slide down a slippery slope to totalitarian thought control, although there have been temporary instances of overreach, but they have usually been corcted. My point is that most of the world is in disagreement with the above quote, and for sixty years has operated under the evidently proven belief that men of reason and goodwill can, indeed, be trusted to decide which speech should be banned.

    I am no expert, but I daresay that Wakefield might or could be banned from speaking publicly about autism and vaccinations in Europe. And I certainly think that he should be, because what he is saying in public under the aegis of his title “Doctor” is false and potentially very harmful to others (children, for heaven’s sake, the scoundrel!)

    In a country where children are protected from the cover photography of Playboy, one would think they might be protected from the healthcare influence of convicted liars.

    • Dick Veldkamp
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      GingerBaker,

      I would agree with you, and lean towards preferring ‘somewhat limited free speech’ over the American absolutist variant. In practice it seems to work out OK.

      By the way, the Dutch constitution explicitly makes an exception for commercial speech (advertising), which is not protected (art. 7.4).

    • BJ
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      Could you point to any current federal laws that prohibit speech because it “disturbs certain moral sensibilities.” I’m not talking about things like child pornography here because there is clear, objective, physical harm done to someone in order to engage in that expression. I’m talking purely about words.

      Basically, the only federal restrictions on speech in the US are incitements to violence and fighting words. That’s the simplified answer.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

        “I’m not talking about things like child pornography here because there is clear, objective, physical harm done to someone in order to engage in that expression.”

        I think you’re possibly confusing the two different issues of the harm done in the making of it (which may occur in a different jurisdiction) and the harm done to the consumers of it.

        Is there any clear, objective, physical harm to consumers of child pornography? (There may well be some mental harm but that’s a fairly tenuous link, one could also argue for mental harm to the audience of fundamentalist preachers for example).

        (Just to nullify the argument about harm caused in the making, let’s say it’s cartoon child pornography in which no actual children are involved).

        My point is that ‘harm’ is not a sharply defined yes/no question on most issues, and there is no convenient sharp line that can be drawn between what’s ‘protected’ and what should be outlawed. There will always be borderline cases.

        cr
        (P.S. Just to make clear, I’m not arguing in favour of kiddiepr0n!)

        • BJ
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

          There is clearly physical harm perpetrated in the production of the material. But you haven’t answered the question, really.

          And, for that reason, cartoon child pornography is, in fact, protected by the First Amendment. You can draw whatever craven thing with which your mind can come up. Obscenity laws went out the window a long time ago.

      • Posted May 7, 2017 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        “Could you point to any current federal laws that prohibit speech because it “disturbs certain moral sensibilities.” ”

        Yes – Playboy magazine, for example, must have its cover hidden if on sales display in a market. Evidently, somebody’s moral sensibilities were disturbed by the idea of teenagers seeing bare breasts on magazine covers. Tons of stuff like this – bans on breastfeeding in public, zoning laws restricting porn shops, Sunday Blue laws etc.

        • BJ
          Posted May 7, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

          That’s a good and intriguing answer; however, I would argue that this falls in line with the law that minors (people under 18) are forbidden by law from viewing pornography.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

      None of the speech you identify (assuming it constitutes “speech” at all) is “banned” in the U.S.

      In general, the First Amendment prohibits content-based restrictions on speech. But the courts interpreting the First Amendment have recognized that there are certain circumstances in which some content is inappropriate — for example, holding a parade or demonstration on a residential street at 3 a.m. Accordingly, the courts allow reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions to be placed on such speech.

      What’s crucial for First Amendment purposes in such circumstances, is that such “time, place, and manner” restrictions must be viewpoint neutral. Thus, while a city could refuse to grant a permit to hold a demonstration on a residential street at 3 a.m., it could not grant such a permit to pro-choice protesters, but deny a permit to ones who are pro-life.

      All the speech you identify is permitted in the US; some of it may be subject to time, place, and manner restrictions.

  7. Craw
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I like the present USSC precedents on free speech pretty well. Direct incitement to violence can be restrained, as long as it is direct and immediate. “Let’s shoot Frodo next month” would be protected. A few related and narrow exemptions to a blanket free speech rule.

    I will note this makes me far more supportive of free speech than almost anyone on this board, most of whom supported candidates pushing amendments to curtail some speech currently protected.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      I take a backseat to no one in supporting the right to free expression. But “let’s shoot Frodo next month” probably constitutes a conspiracy (or solicitation) to commit murder, thus falling outside the First Amendment’s ambit.

      OTOH, “Frodo ought to be shot” would be protected speech, unless it presents a clear and present danger that someone will act upon it immediately — if it were said, for example, to a person with a gun standing next to Frodo.

      A lot depends on context in such line-drawing cases.

      • Craw
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        Prosecution for conspiracy is not prior restraint, and not a ban. We are talking about an immediate ban or intervention against the speech, and for that I am right. The law is that the threat must be immediate (amongst other things like credible).

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

          No speech can be subject to a prior restraint under the First Amendment. But if protected speech is protected from anything by the First Amendment, it is protected from criminal prosecution above all else.

          Nevertheless, verbal conduct that itself constitutes a crime — conspiracy, assault, and fraud, for example — falls outside the First Amendment’s protections. Such conduct can be prosecuted regardless whether it presents an immediate danger. You and I could be prosecuted for conspiracy to commit murder, for example, even if we were planning to kill Frodo far in the future.

  8. Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I think it is a matter of rule utilitarianism. Although there may be individual cases where suppressing free speech would serve the common good, like this one, we need to choose the best rule on average rather than case by case. And that rule is free speech except for incitement to harm. Suppressing free speech opens the door to even more repression, as history and current events have shown.

  9. Jonathan Smith
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Surly the “First Amendment” was derived from English Common Law. Freedom of speech is not the sole property of the USA.

    • Frank Bath
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Freedom off speech in England is now limited by law in respect of Hate Crime. For example under Harassment you can be prosecuted for calling a black person a n*gg*r.

  10. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    There is nobody we can trust to decide which speech should be banned because it’s “harmful”.

    As a general principle I think this largely correct. However it’s worth noting that we do in fact trust government agencies to regulate the speech of manufacturers and advertisers in order to protect consumers from harm. Here’s one recent instance in which you praised the FTC for tightening regulations on the labeling of homeopathic products. I think most of us here will agree that this is a good thing.

    So the question then becomes one of whether Wakefield’s anti-vax advice to these parents crossed the line from protected speech to false advertising or medical misconduct.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Under SCOTUS precedent, “commercial speech” (including advertising) is protected by the First Amendment, but is subject to less- stringent standards, especially as to its truthfulness and falsity, owing in part to the inherent dangers of fraud. (Cf. the standards for libel and slander.)

      I think this commercial-speech doctrine probably strikes the right balance.

    • BJ
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

      Wakefield isn’t selling a product and making claims about it or its efficacy though (however, you would be surprised what advertisers can get away with saying. Look up the legal term “puffery” for a good example). You’re talking about commercial speech, as Ken rightly pointed out.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:21 am | Permalink

        I know what commercial speech is; that’s why I brought it up as an example of speech that may be restricted to prevent harm.

        I don’t know what Wakefield said in private to those Somali parents (“an armed guard barred […] public health officials and reporters from attending”), so I don’t think we can rule out the possibility that he touted alternatives to vaccination and made representations about their efficacy.

  11. Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    That graph shows a startling drop that seems totally unrelated to influence of false information and more likely related to the immigration of Somalians over that period.

    This is article shows that Somali refugee admissions sharply increased in 2004 and have continued since

    http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/patrick-goodenough/almost-100000-somali-refugees-admitted-us-911

    Seems very likely they were fleeing the wars and enforcement of Sharia law during that time in hope of coming to a country that values free expression. I bet the Somali community numbers of vaccination will rebound.

    • GBJames
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      If you read the original Washington Post story that Jerry linked to, you’ll find that this is not a case of “ignorant Somalis coming to America”. It is about misinformation spread within the community right here in the United states.

      “Salah no longer believes that the MMR vaccine triggers autism, a discredited theory that spread rapidly through the local Somali community, fanned by meetings organized by anti-vaccine groups. The activists repeatedly invited Andrew Wakefield, the founder of the modern anti-vaccine movement, to talk to worried parents.” (italics added by me)

      • Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

        “If you read the original Washington Post story that Jerry linked to…”

        I have read the article that Mr Coyne linked to that’s why I’m bemused by this quote:

        “ignorant Somalis coming to America”

        It’s not in that WaPo article and I didn’t use it.

        I don’t pretend to know how large populations from vastly different cultures integrate in a short period. However the fact the (well established?) American-Somali community was on par with the normal US population in % numbers of vaccination uptake in 2004, which then sharply dropped within a period of large proven influx immigration would seem to indicate a more likely cause for this drop was this very influx *for whatever reason* – rather than somehow the Somali community weirdly being selectively hypnotised by Wakeman’s charms during this period while the rest of US population remained immune 😉

      • Posted May 6, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        I think this IS a case of “ignorant Somalis coming to America”. The educational level of these immigrants is, on average, well below that of the average American. This makes them more vulnerable to quackery than the average American. The American-born fans of the fraud Wakefield are aware of the difference and are now preying on these frightened people. I am for freedom of speech, and I won’t say that the antivaxers’ speech should be banned, but I admit I wish them bad things. They are a lowly life form.

        • GBJames
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

          They are a lowly life form. In any case, the Somali community here is being victimized by quacks of the worst kind and responsibility needs to be squarely on the quacks.

  12. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Free speech is countered with free speech, full stop.

    I don’t know about libel, slander, etc. – I looked it up, and still don’t understand, but I get it. Incitement to violence is easier to understand.

    “But what about the children?”

    “But what about This, That, The Other Thing?

    The above ^^^ I think is how the Hate Has No Home Here campaign got started.

    Sorry to rant / hijack, but one more thing :

    Recently, the POTUS claimed that the free speech of churches was infringed because their tax exempt status didn’t allow them to promote political candidates.

  13. Jeannie Hess
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I agree: we cannot stop anti-vaxxers from speaking. I just wanted to know if there was any way to get the truth out there. Do we need those old-fashioned public service announcements on TV? Do we need more images of sick kids on the news? Do we need PTAs to get involved? Do we need engaging entertaining doctors on TV or radio? Do we need to teach people how to spot frauds? Do we need TV series like Grey’s Anatomy to do a story featuring the anti-vaxxer issue or whatever other issue? What we are doing now is not working.

    • eric
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

      Either the feds or the state of Minnesota could certainly air public service announcements…if they think it’s a big enough issue.

      Governor Mark Dayton seems like he might have the background that would lead him to prioritize it. But I wouldn’t count on federal action, given that Trump is bent on cutting the CDC’s budget and has occasionally made anti-vaxx statements.

  14. Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    The only reason freedom of speech enters into the problem of parents not vaccinating their children is that parents are granted the legal right to deny their children proper medical treatment. That’s wrong. If the law acknowledged that parents have responsibilities and children have rights, and that denying a child medical treatment is illegal child abuse, then it wouldn’t matter what anti-vaxers say.

    • Craw
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      Excellent point.

    • Posted May 6, 2017 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      “. . .then it wouldn’t matter what anti-vaxers say.”

      What you’re really saying is that then it wouldn’t matter what parents say about the well-being of their children. You’re wading into dangerous water here, especially since we’re dealing with a preventive public health issue, not an instance of an ill child.

      Parents indeed have responsibilities, and because they do they also have rights–i.e., primary say about what’s best for their kids–unless they forfeit those rights by abuse. Determining what constitutes “abuse” isn’t all that much easier than determining what constitutes “harmful speech,” so your approach still has some problems.

      At the very least, you’re likely to have major riots on your hands when the liberal, affluent people who constitute a major portion of anti-vaxers get upset. I’d have to be on their side in this one.

      • tomh
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

        mirandaga wrote:
        “At the very least, you’re likely to have major riots on your hands when the liberal, affluent people who constitute a major portion of anti-vaxers get upset.”

        There have been no major riots in states that deny exemptions, except medical, from mandatory vaccinations in order to enroll in public schools. For over 30 years Mississippi has allowed only medical exemptions for childhood vaccines – it’s no surprise they lead the nation in vaccination rate for kindergartners and it’s not even close. California passed a similar law last year and there have been no major riots. The only reason people can avoid vaccinating their kids is because of the religious privilege that saturates America.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

          It’s odd to see Mississippi leading the list on this issue.

          All credit to them.

          cr

          • Posted May 8, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

            A tribute to the idea that sometimes we can learn from unexpected places.

  15. Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    This is a tough question but I think you are correct.

    When it comes to medical malpractice the issue is less about free speech and more about actual criminal acts: in Wakefield’s case he committed fraud and abused 12 developmentally challenged children. He really ought to be in jail.

  16. colnago80
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    But you can’t ban Wakefield from speaking and at the same time not ban the many anti-vaxer websites.

    Well, given his track record in England, Wakefield could certainly have been banned from entering the US.

  17. Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I offered a related argument about the decision of a university in New Zealand to host a screening of ‘Vaxxed’.

    A core thing universities do is critique stuff. It’s a central thing to academic work.

    Hosting controversial material is fine – *provided* open, free criticism is allowed.

    Evangelism and advocacy can cross that line.

    My objection to hosting ‘Vaxxed’ wasn’t that they were hosting the film, but that because the organisers were clearly trying to suppress open discussion, they ought to been asked to either open the discussion, or if they felt they couldn’t to use another venue.

    (My post can be found on Sciblogs.)

  18. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    In the USA, there is the “incitement test”.

    The Incitement Test

    “The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

    Now, this puts conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on the margins, though not fully there, re his pizzagate theories. After months of employees of the restaurant being harassed, Edgar Maddison Welch fired three shots in the restaurant with an AR-15-style rifle, striking walls, a desk, and a door.

    Now Jones did not directly suggest anyone shoot up the restaurant, but his irresponsible broadcast is a link in the chain of causality here.

    And then there is Jones’ impact on Sandy Hook forcing families of victims to relocate.

    THoughts??

  19. Posted May 6, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that if you have group A asserting X and group B asserting not(X) and the evidence is all on the side of group B, then group B should be winning the argument.

    If group B is not winning the argument, then group B needs to re-examine its approach. Group B asking from group A’s free speech to be curtailed is an admission of incompetence on group B’s part. “We must ban anti-vaxxer speech because we are useless at putting the truth across”.

    No thanks.

  20. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think the US has the market cornered on free speech. But by incorporating free speech and free press rights into the fundamental law of the land — an amendment to the US Constitution, which takes precedence over any any statute, or rule, or regulation — the US free-speech protections are unsurpassed anywhere in the world.

    Which is as close as I care to come to a claim of “American exceptionalism.” 🙂

  21. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Oh oh

    Spam email, junk mail, scam phone calls – all free speech. people must get get harmed by it. People can block callers, use the do not call registry, etc.

    Not that I understand it, but it’s free speech.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      The First Amendment applies only to the regulation of speech by the government. (“Congress shall make no law … “) Private persons and entities are as free to block callers and spammers as they are to ignore street-corner declaimers.

  22. Kevin
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Religion and anti-vax should be protected by free speech. They are certainly not protected from stupidity.

  23. Mark Perew
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    It’s unclear to me how Wakefield’s statements are substantively different from the case of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. In both cases there is a specific false claim which directly prompts a panicked response directly leading to injury and death. If we can prosecute a person for the theater example, then we can sanction Wakefield without inflicting harm on the First Amendment.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      The immediacy of the harm. A scream of “Fire!” in a crowded theater is likely to prompt an immediate panic without an opportunity for others to calmly explain that there isn’t one.

      The false claims of anti-vaxers can be countered by reasoned explanations of the benefits of childhood vaccination. That’s how the First Amendment was meant to function.

      • GBJames
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        Begging the forgiveness of PCC[E] in advance for posting a video. But this is relevant.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted May 6, 2017 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

          Hitch is right as far as it goes, but he’s overly harsh on O.W. Holmes, Jr., in this clip. Holmes was insufficiently protective of free speech in the Schenck case — and he was horribly wrong in Buck v. Bell (“Three generations of imbeciles are enough”) — but Holmes came around on free speech in his later years, under the influence of the Court’s great free-speech champion, Justice Louis Brandeis.

          • BJ
            Posted May 6, 2017 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

            “…but Holmes came around on free speech in his later years, under the influence of the Court’s great free-speech champion, Justice Louis Brandeis.”

            He did, but before that, he did quite a bit of harm to the First Amendment. I commend with great admiration any Justice willing to change his views on things (it’s very rare), but Hitch isn’t wrong about Holmes before his later years.

  24. Dick Veldkamp
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    I would like to table a related question on free speech.

    Here in the Netherlands, just the other day, 100+ women journalists, newscasters etc. asked advertisers not to cooperate any more with a site that recently invited readers to share online their rape fantasies about a female reporter it (the site) did not like. This site (“GeenStijl”) is known for its anti-immigrant and mysoginistic rhetoric, and seems to have 1 million indepent views per month. In short, a website the world could well do without.

    I would tend to agree with the call for an advertiser boycot. On the other hand, we might consider this to be suppression of free speech. What would we think of a consumer boycot of brands that advertised on a pro-choice website (in Poland say, or in some US state) ?

    I am interested to hear your views, especially that of PCC(E).

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

      Free speech isn’t a guarantee that speech should be free of consequences. If I say something that causes people to lose respect for me or refuse to do business with me, that’s the price I pay for speaking my mind. A boycott isn’t suppression of speech; it’s a form of counter-speech signaling opposition to the original speech.

      In the US, religious conservatives can and do try to organize boycotts of everything from video games to herbal tea based on some perceived affront to their sensibilities. That’s their right, though in my opinion the silliness of some of these claims tends to undermine the credibility of all of them.

      (On a linguistic side note, “table a question” is one of those phrases that seems to mean opposite things on opposite sides of the Atlantic. In the US, to table a question is to set it aside, not to bring it up.)

      • BJ
        Posted May 6, 2017 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

        “In the US, religious conservatives can and do try to organize boycotts of everything from video games to herbal tea based on some perceived affront to their sensibilities.”

        Both sides do this, and with the rise of popularity in the internet, I’d say the left more than the right. Look at Breitbart and, for a more palatable example, Youtube.

      • Posted May 6, 2017 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

        “On a linguistic side note, ‘table a question’ is one of those phrases that seems to mean opposite things on opposite sides of the Atlantic.”

        Interesting. I just recently came across this passage from Winston Churchill’s history of World War II, volume 3:

        “The British Staff prepared a paper which they wished to raise as a matter of urgency, and informed their American colleagues that they wished to ‘table it’. To the American Staff ‘tabling’ a paper meant putting it away in a drawer and forgetting it. A long and even acrimonious argument ensued before both parties realised that they were agreed on the merits and wanted the same thing.”

        That was in 1940. You’d think after three quarters of a century we’d have worked this out.

    • BJ
      Posted May 6, 2017 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

      A consumer boycott is the market deciding. As long as no force of law is behind it, I see no problem.

  25. zoolady
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    In a word, YES!

  26. Posted May 6, 2017 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    You’ve got some facts wrong, perhaps from urban legend. Semmelweiss died in a lunatic asylum, apparently of gangrene he as a result of a beating. He had had a serious mental breakdown after years of frustration.

    David

  27. Posted May 6, 2017 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Comparing uninformed yet successful experimentation with careful scientific method is inherently an invalid analogy. The argument use unsound. It just can’t survive even the simplest test of logic.

  28. Dale Franzwa
    Posted May 6, 2017 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    The discussions above are all very interesting. So, here’s the final solution: We don’t ban Wakefield’s speech, we just set the switch so the trolley runs over him. See, simple solutions for complex problems always win. QED (or something).

  29. Timothy Travis
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    What about a law such as Canada’s prohibiting broadcasting false or misleading news? Or our “fairness doctrine” that was gotten rid of during the Reagan administration? Considering how hard it is to sort out truth from lies, how can you have an informed citizenry and a democracy if freedom of speech means being able to broadcast false and misleading news?

  30. Posted May 7, 2017 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    Freedom of expression is esential, and should only be limited by a few carefully circumscribed cases. However I disagree with giving loons a stage. We don’t have time for this.

    Further, there are good reasons to allow even some crackpots to speak. I’ve long said that Holocaust denialists can and should be allowed to speak at colleges, for hearing their arguments is the best way to inspire you to find out why they’re wrong. I myself have benefited in this way.

    (1) Inviting loons gives off the impression their views are legitimate to some degree. It is rather easy for a few coordinated individuals to make it seem their fringe views represent genuine dissent within a field. Humans have no capacity to comprehend 536637 to 5. They might even become famous for their hobbyhorse, and paradoxically beat overwhelming expert consensus, just because the public sees them frequent enough as talking heads.

    (2) Most of the things are believed by most people because of information management, not because they (we) have reasoned through everything. As it turns out, we only have very limited time, and any subject can be (made) infinitely complex. Motivated “skeptics” can easily confuse and kick up a massive cloud of dust on a matter that is more or less settled among experts. This is also a known strategy, developed by tabacco industry, and now used by Supervillains Inc (US Republicans) to doubt anything from evolution to human-made climate change.

    (3) It’s not possible to know what is true with absolute certainty (though we get close enough), but it is knowable what’s false. False views can be refuted as example cases in a presentation for the same effect, without giving the impression they are legitimate.

  31. davidlduffy
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Even the US has laws against defamation, which recognize the existence of some forms of harmful speech other than those fomenting violence. One might comment that speech that causes monetary loss is punished, but speech causing emotional harm is acceptable.

    • BJ
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      Actually, defamation laws have nothing to do with emotional harm. They have to do with whether you’re spreading lies about a particular person or organization.

  32. Posted May 7, 2017 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    “I think you can guess my response to Jeannie’s question. Yes, banning the discredited Wakefield from speaking could have reduced the rate of measles infection.”

    Mr Coyne, how can you back up the certainty you express here about the Minnesota Somali-American community?

    • Posted May 8, 2017 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      Certainty? The verb used is “could” not “will” or “must”.

      • Posted May 9, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        Grammar excellent*. Information, nil 😉

        *(I lie I have no idea or care 🙂 )

  33. Posted May 7, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    “I think you can guess my response to Jeannie’s question. Yes, banning the discredited Wakefield from speaking could have reduced the rate of measles infection.”

    By how much?

    Give us all a percentage.

  34. Posted May 8, 2017 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I think, of course, he (Wakefield) should be allowed to speak. It’s our duty to show that he is a fraud and publicize that.

    At recent meeting with (mainly) the local Somali community, some of our health officials explained that science has show there’s no connection between vaccination and autism — and (some of) the crowd hissed the statement.

    There’s still a long way to go.

    There are now “test yourself at home” kits for sale online to pull your own blood and saliva and urine for lab testing. What tests do they run, by what standard, what do the results mean? Don’t ask.

    There is a strong and building “don’t trust the doctors/scientists/specialists” movement in the US. It really concerns me. Post-modern my reality is real for me crap.

    • Posted May 8, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      On issues that have been highly politicized (we all know what they are) suspicion about the objectivity of scientists is understandable given that 55% of scientists identify as Democrat vs only 6% Republican. Add to this the fact that many people are reasonably reluctant to rely on scientific technology to solve problems that scientific technology pretty much created (e.g., climate change). Finally, as society increasingly faces issues that are fraught with ethical implications, many people are doubtful about scientific materialism as a tool for adjudicating values wisely. Whether such skepticism is healthy remains to be seen; it’s definitely real and, to a certain extent, justifiable.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted May 8, 2017 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

        many people are reasonably reluctant to rely on scientific technology to solve problems that scientific technology pretty much created

        Those same people, when their car breaks down or their toilet backs up or their computer gets hacked, would not hesitate to call the appropriate technologist to fix it. They rely on technology to solve technologically induced problems every day. So I’m not sure why their reluctance to use technology to mitigate climate change should be seen as reasonable.

        • tomh
          Posted May 8, 2017 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

          It’s not reasonable, but the ones who make those arguments don’t rely on reason.

        • Posted May 8, 2017 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

          The car/toilet breaking down is a mechanical problem for which a mechanistic solution is appropriate. Climate change is the result of a screwed-up relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world. Unlike the broken toilet, it’s as much a problem of values as it is of technology, and technology alone is not going to fix it.

          Our pipe dream is that we can come up with technological fixes that will allow us to go on our merry way abusing the planet without repercussions. A good example is wind turbines: they’re a blight on the landscape and are killing birds at a rate of 140,000 to 328,00 a year just in North America. But you don’t need statistics; as with Trump and Nixon, one has only to look at them to know that they’re evil. And this is technology’s notion of a solution!? We’re in more trouble than we think.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted May 8, 2017 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

            In what sense is our relationship with the natural world more screwed up than that of other organisms that exploit available resources for their own gain without giving a thought to global consequences? That’s Darwinism in a nutshell. Our power to modify the environment is greater than theirs, but our values are largely the same, with one important difference: we do sometimes consider consequences and take steps to mitigate them. No other species does that, and I don’t see how behaving more like other species in that regard would be an improvement.

            • Posted May 8, 2017 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

              “In what sense is our relationship with the natural world more screwed up than that of other organisms. . . ?”

              One word: greed. Make that two: stupidity.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted May 9, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

                Humans can certainly be greedy and stupid at times. But uniquely greedy and stupid compared to other species? I don’t think so.

  35. Posted May 8, 2017 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Sure, let the anti-vaxxers talk! It’s a free country, right?
    But what we DON’T want to give them (or any of the other nut cases) is credibility. Let them shout their nonsense on street corners, in social media, on daytime TV or in the tabloids. I don’t see the point of providing them with the respectability of an audience at major universities and science forums though.


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