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Censorship Literally Cannot Work - Brownstone Institute

Censorship Literally Cannot Work


The digital era exposes citizens to a dizzying range of sources of information and evidence. The old days when public information was vetted by a few prominent newspapers and TV and radio stations are over. Under these circumstances, censorship and expert control can seem like an efficient way to bring order, coherence, and predictability into a maelstrom of conflicting sources of evidence and information. But this solution, however emotionally consoling, is ultimately bound to fail, because it naively assumes that rational inquiry can be effectively steered toward the Truth through authoritarian, top-down control over public deliberation.

There is a certain appeal to the notion that truth-seeking citizens would benefit from a uniform sorting mechanism to weed out false or misleading information before it reaches their TV, radio, or social media feed. This idea rests on the notion that censors can be counted upon to restrict their target to misleading and false information, and do so in a completely rigorous and nonpartisan fashion. In this highly idealised world, centrally applied rules against “misinformation” (false or misleading information) and “disinformation” (intentionally false or misleading information) might indeed help purge the public square of objective falsehoods and lies.

However, in the real, non-ideal world of mediocre and shallow thinkers, cowards, selfish careerists, and the occasional scoundrel, political and scientific censorship never works out in the way envisaged by its public advocates. In the non-ideal world of imperfect knowledge and corruptible character, censorship is just as likely to frustrate the pursuit of truth as to facilitate it.

Nobody’s Wisdom or Knowledge is Infallible

Consider, first, the fact that nobody, not even the most educated or brilliant person, possesses perfect, infallible knowledge, whether on moral or scientific questions. Of course, some people may, as a matter of fact, be better informed or wiser than others on this or that issue. However, the notion that anyone could enjoy a form of knowledge or wisdom that is uniquely infallible or immune to challenge is preposterous. Who but God alone could possibly redeem such a far-fetched claim, and on what basis?

The idea that there is a superior class of persons whose knowledge and insights automatically trump the knowledge and insights of others is inconsistent with ordinary experience, which confirms that people reputed to be highly knowledgeable and wise can make grave and even catastrophic errors. In addition, it is based on a deeply naïve and misguided view of the complex and messy process through which human knowledge is acquired.

The Quest for Truth is a Bumpy Discovery Process

The human quest for truth is a bumpy discovery process, with unexpected twists and turns, not a form of inquiry whose outcome can be predetermined or rigidly controlled by a preconceived notion of Truth, uniquely available to a special anointed class of “experts.” The truth emerges gradually, through an ongoing process of correction and refinement, a process in which evidence and arguments play at least as important a role as epistemic credentials and prestige.

This process of correction and refinement can only occur under conditions in which participants in the conversation are free to advance their opinions and raise whatever objections they see fit to the opinions of others. Any attempt to immunise a certain set of opinions from criticism and challenge artificially short-circuits the discovery process, substituting the dogma of the censor for an evolving consensus validated by rational scrutiny and debate.

It is the discovery process itself, rather than Eternal Truths solemnly promulgated by an “expert” class, that uncovers the merits and limitations of competing opinions. There is simply no way to decide, once and for all, who is closest to the truth, or who is the most “brilliant mind” in the room, in the absence of open and uncoerced rational inquiry and debate.

No Reliable Process for Recruiting the Best and the Brightest to Occupy Censorship Roles

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there was in fact someone who, while not infallible, possessed a form of knowledge that was light-years ahead of most citizens, including their scientific peers, and therefore was qualified to stand in judgment over the opinions of others, flagging false and misleading claims for authorities to duly suppress. How might we go about identifying such a person, so as to hand them the power to arbitrate the moral and scientific claims of those less knowledgeable and wise than they?

In practice, this would be done through some convenient proxy, or epistemic shortcut. In a large society, it is impossible to have intimate knowledge of the intelligence, wisdom, and knowledge of all citizens. So those who are in a position to confer censorship powers would use an efficient sorting mechanism, such as social recognition or prestige. For example, someone might be nominated as a censor because they have a Ph.D from Harvard University, or an impressive publication record, or a Nobel Prize, or heart-warming letters of recommendation from other well-regarded experts.

The problem is, none of these credentials, no matter how impressive, can reasonably guarantee that someone is so outstandingly superior as a scientist or thinker that they deserve to stand in judgment over the claims advanced by their colleagues and fellow citizens. For neither moral nor scientific knowledge and understanding neatly track professional prestige. Indeed, professional recognition and adulation, which is influenced by non-scientific factors like politics and Groupthink, can push in a very different direction to scientific progress and enlightenment.

The fact that one individual wins celebrity status among their peers and another does not, does not tell us which of these individuals is wiser or more insightful in their judgments. The fact that one scientist’s work finds favour with a Nobel committee or attracts the patronage of an important institution does not necessarily mean that other scientists with different credentials, or less glamorous credentials, are less reliable or have an inferior grasp of reality.

Under a censorship regime controlled by expert knowledge, a WHO-appointed “fact-checker” would have the authority to declare, by fiat, that the opinions of a non-WHO scientist should be censored or wiped from the public sphere, just because such a scientist is, in his opinion, sharing false or misleading information. But the fact that someone’s opinions are approved by the WHO or its nominated “experts” does not mean they are true, unless we think that WHO-appointed experts are uniquely immune to error, which is manifestly absurd. A WHO expert is just as prone to error as an expert working at another institution.

The fact is, there is no expert class whose views automatically deserve preeminence and immunity from criticism. If we accepted that such a class existed, we would have to reject the dominant understanding of the scientific enterprise as the presentation of evidence-based hypotheses susceptible to public refutation and correction within the scientific community. For under a regime in which certain individuals can unilaterally censor what they deem “false or misleading” information, the opinions of the censors are effectively shielded from public challenge, correction, or refutation by their peers. And this is the very antithesis of science and rational inquiry.

Tools of Censorship Invite Political Abuse

Besides the fact that no group of individuals can plausibly claim to be wiser or more knowledgeable than everyone else, there is a very serious risk that the instruments of moral and scientific censorship could be abused for private or political gain.

The power to selectively silence some citizens’ opinions is an important instrument of control. It may be used to silence annoying critics or to control the narrative surrounding a particular social or political issue; or to protect a lucrative industry or product from public criticism. Such a power placed in the hands of ambitious politicians or public regulators would be a permanent invitation to corruption and abuse.

Censorship is as old as politics. It will always be in the interests of some – usually, the powerful – to control the flow of information and arguments, whether to protect their careers or reinforce a narrative that keeps them in power. All that changes historically is that censorship is rationalised and dressed up in the language and concepts of its time. There was a time when heretics were censored for undermining the eternal truths of the faith; now, scientists are censored for propagating whatever passes for “misinformation” on the censorship boards of social media companies.

Republished from the author’s Substack

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • David Thunder

    David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain, and a recipient of the prestigious Ramón y Cajal research grant (2017-2021, extended through 2023), awarded by the Spanish government to support outstanding research activities. Prior to his appointment to the University of Navarra, he held several research and teaching positions in the United States, including visiting assistant professor at Bucknell and Villanova, and Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Princeton University’s James Madison Program. Dr Thunder earned his BA and MA in philosophy at University College Dublin, and his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Notre Dame.

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