Free Speech and Science Denialism in the Digital Age
The marketplace of ideas has grown and strengthened during the digital revolution, but it has also brought about a decline in the filtering of incorrect information. “Good” ideas have difficulty rising above falsehoods in the overcrowded marketplace of ideas. False information can hold a position of credibility, which constructs a truth by choice, regardless of whether opposition of “stronger” or factually correct “ideas” cannot maintain traction against the will of the choice of likeminded individuals.
The discovery of the truth by individuals holds a distinct importance in maintaining the foundations of the human good. Thus, individuals and governments should seek to eliminate the dissemination of errors in the promotion of truth. The difficulty lies in identifying what ideas are false, therefore, allowing for the justification of actions leading to the suppression of certain ideas.
C. Edwin Baker asserted that the “truth is not objective.” Baker argued that our interests, desire or aesthetics determined paradigm choices, as opposed to being determined by a rational criterion. Therefore, individuals did not discover the truth; instead, individuals make a choice based on personal perspectives and their own depth of understanding.
The Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) highlights the conflict between rationalism and the marketplace of ideas. Vaccination programs are a public health necessity to protect society from vaccine preventable diseases. An assumption of the truth behind vaccinations can be based on the grounds the current scientific community’s expert knowledge and understanding provides. If implied freedom of political communication protects the dissemination of falsehoods regarding immunisation programs, this places the wellbeing and health of the public at significant risk of harm.
The newfound credibility the AVN has gained has been through social media, where content is accessible to a layperson. A large portion of the public do not have the prerequisites to understand academic, scientific findings when searching for the truth. The AVN’s expression can be weighed against substantive, scientific, peer reviewed evidence that can only truly be interpreted accurately by professionals who are appropriately trained in the related fields. The understanding of scientific terminology has a large impact, whereby it widens the gap of scientific literacy between the layperson and the scientific community, to a point where it could be argued it cuts science out of the public forum. This demonstrates the importance of the conflict between freedom of expression and the dissemination of false information when platforms create unreliable credibility to ideas based on false information.
To be intolerant of ideas is often confused as the restriction of freedom of expression. It actuality, intolerance can highlight the veil of distortion over the available truth. The truth rationale focuses on the greater good, therefore, promotes for all individuals to seek and promote the truth while taking responsibility to reduce errors. The issue therein lies in whether an individual ought to use their own power to eliminate error that can be demonstrated to have harmful consequences. Additionally, this builds upon ensuring that individuals cannot be exempt from obligations that impact on the wider community.
While all individuals should be under the protection of human rights law to be free to express a view in the public sphere to those that will listen, organisations and other bodies should be held legally accountable for the impact of their expression. An individual or organisation with the appropriate qualification, at times, should require the entitlement that academic study and peer review provides them with the label of “expert”, therefore providing the support to hold higher credibility in the marketplace based on the discovery of the actual truth as far as the knowledge and understanding of a given time provides. This requires heavy consideration in matters around public health and issues that causes social discord through falsehoods sparking scare tactics and the ‘truth’ being inaccessible in the marketplace of ideas, particularly in the digital age.
[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by 19779889@N00]