What if the Earth isn’t the centre of everything? What if the ancestors of humans once looked like monkeys, or were single-celled organisms? What if the continents move?
These questions were once beyond the pale. They were not to be discussed in polite society, were outside the frame of the Overton window. None of that made them untrue, however, or unimportant.
Every idea that we now understand to be true was first realized by a human mind, unknown to anyone else. Before that moment, nobody in our species had had the thought. Our lack of knowledge limited us. And yet before any human had the thought, it was nevertheless true. Some person first conceived the idea, thought on it for a while, honed it, shaped it, and then shared it. Maybe the first person they shared it with thought it was a terrific idea. More likely, they thought the originator was wrong, maybe engaged in crazy talk. For a while, the idea may have even been considered dangerous, worthy of contempt and scorn. And for a long time thereafter, that idea—one that, in retrospect, we understand to be fundamental—was at the very least considered outside the range of acceptable and accepted thought. It was heterodox.
Galileo might have had a few things to say about that.
Orthodoxy and heterodoxy—apparent opposites pulling against one another from across a gap that can seem impassable—in fact rely on and thrive with one another. Orthodoxy is effective at times of stasis, when what is to come looks very much like what came before, and when what we believe to be true is in fact true. Too much orthodoxy, though, and we become stale and stagnant. Heterodoxy injects new ideas into a system, and is necessary any time the world is changing, and the future has little chance of looking like the past. Too much heterodoxy, however, and we become frenzied and chaotic.
Regardless of what is most needed in the world at any given moment—regardless of whether the conditions call for more orthodoxy or more heterodoxy—there always needs to be an avenue for discussion. Both orthodox and heterodox ideas always need to be publicly discussable. Otherwise, whoever holds the most power when censorship begins—at the point at which people begin hiding their thoughts and conversations—will gain ever more power. The powerful will shape the governing orthodoxy—and it will always be an orthodoxy, even if its central ideas were heterodox just yesterday—and will crack down ever harder on those who dissent.
The argument, of course, is not that all instances of dissent are necessary, or valuable, or reasonable. Angry, deceitful and dangerous words, actions and regimes have emerged from dissent countless times throughout history. But dissent in and of itself is utterly necessary. Instances of ill-considered dissent are too often trotted out as proof that dissent itself is dangerous, but this is poor logic, and often obscures other motives.
It is naïve to imagine that—living as we do within the constraints of the moment—we can see into the future with such clarity that those who would decide what speech is and is not acceptable are in a good position to know what is actually true. Many of Galileo’s interlocutors did not know what was true, yet they certainly believed that they did. (Some of his interlocutors—like many of those who would tamp down dissent—were presumably not driven by belief, but merely by a wish to shore up their power.) Too many would make themselves judge, jury and executioner of certain concepts and conversations, while claiming to be the sole proprietors of truth. They are engaging in a grand narcissism: they imagine themselves as, for the first time in history, able to see everything. It is akin to declaring themselves God.
What if SARS-CoV2 leaked from a lab? What if there are long-term effects of mRNA vaccines? What if Ivermectin is a safe and effective prophylaxis against, and treatment for, COVID-19?
Unlike the questions that began this essay, the answers to these questions are not yet resolved. But the very posing of them has been considered—again—beyond the pale, unacceptable in polite company, outside the Overton window. Those of us who asked them, throughout 2020 and well into 2021, have been called conspiracy theorists, and worse. Our intentions have been questioned. We have been told to keep quiet. Some have self-censored, and others have been brought to heel by Big Tech. The powers that be at Google, for instance, had an official policy as of May 2021 which includes this line: “YouTube doesn’t allow content that spreads medical misinformation that contradicts local health authorities’ or the World Health Organization’s (WHO) medical information about COVID-19.”
This policy fundamentally misunderstands science. Local health authorities and the WHO can be wrong, as can we all. Being wrong is no crime (although prevaricating to further your own agenda when lives are on the line is tantamount to one). Shutting down the voices of those who question your conclusions—while not criminal—is antithetical to science.
On Leap Day of 2020, in a tweet that remained up for months but has now been deleted, the US Surgeon General was dismissive of those who thought that masks were a useful tool in preventing the spread of COVID-19, chiding: “Seriously people—STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.” The US Surgeon General has since reversed course and we know that its line, as of Leap Day 2020, was based on politics rather than science. Our understanding of the subtleties of airborne vs. aerosol transmission may even cause a re-evaluation of mask policy in the near term—re-evaluating what we understand is to be expected, as new data come in.
What’s a thinking person to do?
Additionally, there has been clear evidence since Spring 2020 that outdoor transmission of Covid is incredibly rare, yet public policy has barely begun to catch up to this reality in Spring 2021. Meanwhile, those of us who have been masking indoors in public spaces longer than almost anyone else, but have not worn masks outdoors, have been glowered at, and sometimes yelled at, for being irresponsible. We are accused of not following the science, when in fact we are doing exactly what the actual science suggests.
When scientific thinking and a careful analysis of the scientific literature leads to a different conclusion than the declarations of the authorities, what path does #followthescience suggest? Science does not operate by authority, but #followthescience is being used as a bludgeon to silence people into compliance. Freedom of expression is required if science is to function. Those who are engaging in silencing are doing neither science, nor humanity, any favours.
YouTube’s official “COVID-19 medical misinformation policy” further prohibits any claims that Ivermectin is an effective treatment for COVID-19. This despite abundant evidence that Ivermectin is an effective treatment for COVID-19, including from countries where it was already in widespread prophylactic use against other pathogens.
If the efficacy of Ivermectin in treating COVID-19, suggested by many peer-reviewed scientific papers, is borne out, YouTube will be revealed to have been playing a very dangerous game indeed. How much health—individual and economic—will be sacrificed globally on this altar? It’s censorship in science’s clothing. Look closely, and you will find that this has little to do with science. A censor wearing a lab coat is still a censor, and censorship is fundamentally incompatible with science.
Furthermore, even if Ivermectin proves to be little help against COVID-19, the game being played by those who stand opposed to free expression is still dangerous. Policies like that of YouTube, which quash discussion and silence debate, pretend to be pro-science, but they are the opposite. This is a new orthodoxy stamping out heterodoxy, yet again.
We need freedom of expression because what we currently believe is true, just or moral may change. We might be wrong. In light of history, to imagine elsewise is the height of hubris.
We used to know this at a societal level. In fact, we used to teach this to our children.
I am reminded of a book that I had growing up, which I read to my own children when they were small. It was from a series called “Value Tales,” which told the stories of famous people so as to illustrate the particular values they personified. I had The Value of Determination, which was about Helen Keller, and The Value of Adventure, about Sacagawea, but the one that is pertinent to the present discussion is The Value of Believing in Yourself, about Louis Pasteur.
In this children’s book, first published in 1975, we are told that Louis Pasteur, in the days before he was renowned, would walk in the park, pondering the nature of the “invisible enemy … the Rabies germs,” in order to find a way to kill them.
But Pasteur’s idea was not compelling to his contemporaries. We are shown children pointing fingers at him and mocking him, and adults yelling at him that what he attempted was impossible. Pasteur soldiered on, though, and we are all the beneficiaries of that.
The bulk of the book takes us through Pasteur’s remarkable and humanity-changing creation of a rabies vaccine. From the vantage point of more than 130 years on, we know that he was successful. At the end of the book, we are returned to those children who mocked Pasteur when he was the only person who believed in what he was attempting to do. With a lack of self-awareness that is characteristic of children, we find them adoring Pasteur for his success. Pasteur cautions them that what kept him going was his belief in himself—even on those days and with those ideas that didn’t succeed. The lack of self-awareness that will be evidenced by adults today, as positions they once scorned or ignored become visible and viable, will no doubt be comparable.
For every Pasteur, there must be thousands of people who have had an idea that didn’t pan out, as well as countless others whose ideas were good, but never got traction. Science depends on the tenacity of the person with the new idea, even when others take pleasure in mocking it. And if science depends on individuals with tenacity, then society depends on all conversations being possible. The adults who mocked Pasteur before he was successful in creating a rabies vaccine were simultaneously small-minded and arrogant. On the basis that he lacked the appropriate credentials, many medical doctors of the time scorned Pasteur and his work. Pasteur’s contemporaries imagined that the current consensus was all there would ever be to know.
What if we’re not right, though, just as they were not? The scientific process, and having an ever more accurate and refined understanding of our world, both depend on the ability to present explanations for observed phenomena that turn out to be wrong. In the modern era—when the crowd is not just madding but has the capacity to be anonymous and thus avoid any repercussions—many adults are happy to play the schoolyard bully, taunting those whose ideas run even slightly counter to the accepted orthodoxy.
Science functions best when all hypotheses are on the table. Some will be easily dismissed. Others will prove recalcitrant to falsification, even if we eventually come to understand that they are not true. But what science needs, above all else, is the freedom to discuss the possibilities. Without that, there will be no new discoveries. What are today’s equivalents of the heliocentric model of the solar system, evolution by natural selection and plate tectonics? Nobody can be certain. And those who claim certainty on such matters should never have control of who gets to speak, or of what they say when they do.