Free speech at the outer limits

On January 12, Peter W. Wood, president of an American organisation called the National Association of Scholars (NAS), wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal against attempts by one individual to prevent NAS from organising a conference on science’s reproducibility crisis.

As it turns out, the individual – Leonid Teytelman – has been fighting to highlight the fact that the conference is an attempt to use “the issue of scientific reproducibility as a Trojan horse to undermine trust in climate change research” (source), and that Wood’s claim to “hold to a rigorous standard of open-mindedness on controversial issues” extends only so far as upholding his own views, using the rest of his diatribe on the WSJ to slap down Teytelman’s contentions as an unfortunate byproduct of “cancel culture”.

We’ve all heard of this trope and those of us on Twitter are likely to have been part of one at some point in our lives. The reason I bring this up now is that Wood’s argument and WSJ’s willingness to offer itself as a platform together recall an important but largely unacknowledged reason tropes like this one continue to play out in public debates.

A friend recently expressed the same problem in a different conversation – that of India’s Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1964. These rules discourage government employees from commenting on government policies, schemes, etc. to the press without their supervisors’ okay or participating in political activities, and those who disobey them could be suspended from duty. However, public opposition to India’s new Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, has been so pronounced that there appears to be renewed public acknowledgment of the idea that the right to protest is a fundamental right, even if the Constitution doesn’t explicitly encode it as such.

So after the government sought to use the CCS Rules to prevent its staff from participating in protests against itself, the Tripura high court ruled that simply showing up at protests doesn’t constitute a ‘political activity’ nor does it cede sufficient ground for suspension, dismissal, arrest, etc. This was obviously heartening news – but there was a catch.

As my friend, who is also a government employee, said, “Civil servants becoming openly political is harmful for the country. Then one doesn’t even have to maintain a façade of neutrality, and the government can’t run if it is busy quelling open rebellion in offices.” That is, to maintain a democracy, its outermost borders must be organised in a non-democratic system – a loose, but not unrecognisable, analogue of the argument that free speech and the slice of freedom it stands for cannot be absolute.

To quote from Laurie Penny’s timeless essay published in 2018, “Civility” – and its logics – “will never defeat fascism” or, presumably, its precursors. Freedom has borders and they are arbitrary by design, erected to keep some actors out even if those on the inside may agitate for unlimited freedom for everyone, and aspire to change their opponents’ minds through reason and civil conduct alone. The borders prevent harm to others and keep people from instigating violence – as the first amendment to the Indian Constitution, under Article 19(2), reminds us – and they just as well entitle us to refuse to debate those who won’t play by the same rules we do.

The liberal democrat’s conceit in this regard is two-pronged: first, that all issues can be resolved through reason (not limited to or necessarily including science), debate and civil conduct alone; second (this one more of a self-imposed penance), that one is obligated to engage in debate, and more generally that to disengage – from debate or from public life – is to abdicate one’s duties as a citizen. So the option to refuse to engage in debate might offend the liberal democrat’s commitment to free speech – for herself as well as others – but this ignores the fact that free speech itself can be productive or liberating only within the borders of democracy and not beyond its outer limits, where the fascists lurk.

And unless we imbibe these limitations and accept the need to disengage or boycott when necessary, we will remain trapped in our ever-expanding but never-breaking circular arguments and argumentative circles.

In the present case, Teytelman tried to expose the NAS as a threat to public trust in climate science but failed, thanks in large part to the WSJ’s ill-founded decision to offer itself as a broadcast channel for Wood’s tantrum. Perhaps Teytelman has more fight left in him, perhaps others do too, but the time will come when the appeals to reason alone will have to cease, and more direct and pragmatic means, equipped especially to disrupt the theatre of fascistic behaviour – part of which is the conflation of ignorance and knowledge and often manifests in the press as ‘he said, she said’ – will have to assume centerstage. (I.e. The WSJ can’t solve the problem by next inviting Teytelman to write a one-sided piece.)

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is a more pertinent example. Goop trades in specious ‘alternatives’ to treat made-up diseases. But in spite of what one professor of law and public health acknowledged to be “immediate and widespread … backlash by health-care professionals and science-advocates”, and what many science journalists celebrated as inspirational examples of good communication, the company is set to launch its own Netflix show (more of an infomercial) on January 24. Note that as of December 2019, Netflix had 158 million paying subscribers.

It’s time to stop playing nice, and to stop playing this as individuals. Instead, science communicators – especially those committed to beating back the tentacular arms of pseudoscience and organised disempowerment (à la organised religion) – should respond as a community. While one group continues to participate in debates if only to pull some of the more undecided people away from ‘evil in the guise of good’, another must demand that the video-streaming platform cancel its deal with Goop.

(We could also organise a large-scale boycott of Goop’s products and services but none of the buyers and sellers here seem to want to change their minds.)

Responding this way is of course much harder than simply calling for violence, and quite painful to acknowledge the grossly disproportionate amount of effort we need to dedicate relative to the amount of time Paltrow probably spent coming up with Goop’s products. And in the end, we may still not succeed, not to mention invite similar protests from members of the opposite faction to our doorsteps – but I believe this is the only way we can ever succeed at all, against Goop, NAS and anything else.

But most of all, to continue to engage in debates alone at this time would be as responsible a thing to do as playing fiddle while the world burns.

Communication, journalism and bullshit

Science can often be complicated to deal with and benefit from a journalist’s gaze – but it must be accompanied, if not preceded, by science communication.

A week or two ago, a scientist impressed with The Wire‘s coverage of science recommended that I stick to covering the good stuff (my syntax) and keep away from highlighting pseudoscience and other happenings of questionable footing.

Then, a few days ago, a science writer expressed an adjacent set of complaints to me. He said that (a) he had a problem with most science journalism simply being science communication, and (b) that whatever was being communicated was invariably optimistic about science’s intention itself.

Both these men are expressing valid concerns – but my disagreement with them was almost immediate. And the reason I’m discussing them here is that the scientist’s advice and the writer’s first complaint allude to a common concern: do people know how to differentiate between science and pseudoscience?

It’s a skill many of us take for granted, often because we’re aware of

  1. The investigative methods of science
  2. Common sources of inaccuracy and imprecision, and
  3. The features of scientific publishing

– all topped off with a passing familiarity with subjects most often in the news. For example, almost everyone in my social circles will suspect a news article claiming scientists have successfully cloned a fully grown human being or resurrected a mammoth. But I can’t say that all my readers will be able to as well.

So covering pseudoscience and research misconduct is a way to, first, highlight the existence of these modes of interrogating a claim and, second, to encourage readers to employ them with every (scientific) claim they’re ever faced with.

Another way to elucidate these modes – and delineate more like them – is to communicate sound science (as distinct from addressing it as a journalist). A typical example of this is for the communicator to take up a seemingly complicated piece of science and break it down in such a way that you stay faithful to scientists and their work – as well as to your intention to ensure a non-scientist gets the science and its spirit.

To “let the science speak for itself” – as the scientist told me – first requires an awareness of the boundaries within which scientific claims must qualify themselves. In a country like India, I suspect (from experience) that many people are unaware of these boundaries. It might not even be far-fetched to say that, in these circumstances, science communication is a form of science journalism. And science journalism can only benefit from a readership that knows and asks the right questions.

I’m reminded at this point of the words of Eric Hobsbawm (The Age of Extremes, p. 530):

The suspicion and fear of science [in the early to mid-nineteenth century] was fuelled by four feelings: that science was incomprehensible; that both its practical and moral consequences were unpredictable and probably catastrophic; and that it underlined the helplessness of the individual, and undermined authority. Nor should we overlook the sentiment that, to the extent that science interfered with the natural order of things, it was inherently dangerous.

Science can have these attributes (at times more so than we might like to acknowledge) and such effects, and that’s when science journalism – a la the writer’s second concern – is required. But it has to be preceded by science communication, or Gwyneth Paltrow is going to sell you her jade dildos. Or worse.

Featured image credit: Hans/pixabay.