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OP-ED: The freedom to be wrong

  • Published at 08:31 pm August 29th, 2020
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Should Facebook be made to remove certain statements? BIGSTOCK

Stopping people from speaking untruths is the first step on a dangerous road

An American organization called Avaaz has just decided to run a campaign to force Facebook to remove untrue statements about vaccines from the site. This seems fair enough on the face of it. Vaccines do indeed cause some harm, but the overall effect of them is vastly positive.

Without those vaccines, some third to a half of us would be dead of the usual childhood diseases -- polio, smallpox, measles, and so on. We think of that last as being just something to be had once and got over with, but it wiped out some third of the people of the Faroe Islands in an epidemic in 1840 or so. 

So, yes, we would prefer it if people weren’t spreading untruths about vaccines on websites. However, this is only the first step along a dangerous road. We’ve also been told that tobacco was a unique evil and that it was worth taking extraordinary actions to reduce the use of it. 

Things like advertising bans, banning smoking indoors, even, as happens often enough in the US, refusing to employ people who smoke. OK -- if tobacco is that unique evil. And yet all the same tactics are now being used to manage obesity, the consumption of sugar, processed foods. 

We’ve even got to the point where the British government has just banned the sale of two pizzas for the price of one. That’s a long way from dealing with some unique evil. Which is what the problem is with insisting upon untruths being banned from Facebook and other social media sites. 

For, what is truth? 

Not in that Biblical sense with Pontius Pilate asking, but in the more hard-headed sense that many things that are generally believed to be true -- and are, therefore “truths” that would be popularly managed in this manner -- are not in fact true. But once there is a system of insisting that only the truth may be publicly stated then we’re in rather a bind.

To stick with health care for a moment, it is said that the use of tobacco creates costs to health care systems. So, we can see that if only pro-vaccine posts may be made, it’s only a small step to saying that only anti-tobacco ones maybe. 

But it isn’t actually true that smoking costs money. Yes, it is entirely true that people die from smoking. But that is the very reason it saves money. Dying is cheap compared to another decade of health care for someone toward the end of their lifespan. 

It is cheaper, for the health care system, that someone die younger that is. The same is true of obesity, or of drinking. Those who die young from these things save health care systems money.

If we now have a system of censorship of what may be said on social media then we can be really very sure indeed that little inconvenient facts like these will be among those controlled. Or perhaps we might talk about climate change. 

I am, in one listing by right on people, declared to be a climate denier. And climate denial is something some call for to be illegal, or not to be allowed in the media, or to be corrected on social media. 

But my actual climate denial is to agree that it is happening, we should do something about it and that something should be a carbon tax. That is, I agree with all the official reports upon the subject, even the Nobel awarded for work on the point, but as my solution is unfashionable I am to be curbed.

It is possible to go on with currently fashionable beliefs -- that minimum wages don’t affect unemployment, that governments can print money without limit, that inequality is increasing (that last being obviously wrong), and so on.

The point being that once there is a system of control over what may be said in the public square then it matters who is to have control of that system. And we know it’s not going to be you or me that does, clearly. 

Further, once there is the system, then the use of it will be expanded and our liberty to speak truth to power will inevitably diminish.  

Yes, vaccines are a good idea. Yes, they make the world a better place and we really would prefer that people didn’t go around proclaiming otherwise. But we have to allow them to do so because however wrong they are that’s the only way to preserve freedom itself. 

Only if they get to say what they want do we also retain the right to speak our own minds. Even when they’re obviously wrong and we right this is still so.   

Yes, proclaiming that vaccination causes autism is the activity of pinheads -- but if freedom doesn’t include the ability to be a pinhead then it’s not liberty, is it? 

Tim Worstall is a Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London.

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