Guest post: Even more pressing today

Originally a comment by Bjarte Foshaug on Dr Brat.

I’m under no illusion that free speech in any way guarantees that the best evidence and the strongest arguments will rise to the top in the “marketplace of ideas”. Despite what Movement Skeptics™ might like to think, judging evidence and arguments on their merits is not a straightforward matter, but something that requires a great deal of experience and accumulated pre-knowledge in its own right.

Also, the strongest indicators of truth vs. falsehood objectively speaking rarely coincide with what seems most subjectively persuasive to a lay audience. Playing by the rules of science, critical thinking, and intellectual honesty is nothing if not limiting while the peddlers of nonsense are free to say whatever it takes to impress people. In the absence of the necessary pre-knowledge, critical thinking skills etc. all your average lay person can be expected to get out of the kind of “rational debate” that believers in the “marketplace of ideas” like to imagine, is that one side comes across as far more confident and assertive, more aggressive etc. while the other side is forced to use conservative language (“seems to indicate”), talk about statistical probability and error bars, acknowledge doubt and uncertainty, and introduce caveats, conditions, and qualifiers at every turn. No need to specify which side is the scientific one, and no need to specify which side your average lay person is going to find most persuasive.

Still, while free speech may not guarantee that the truth prevails, at least it guarantees that it gets a fighting chance. As I’m sure many of us still remember the late great Christopher Hitchens explicitly invoked Holocaust denial as an example of the kind of thing that has to be allowed if free speech is to mean anything at all, precisely because it’s the kind of thing most of us would like to silence. If anything I think old Hitch’s question “Who gets to decide?” is even more pressing today. After seeing how easily institutions like courts, the mainstream media, and even universities can be captured by agenda-pushers of various kinds, it’s unfathomable to me how people can still trust anyone else to decide for us what we’re allowed to read or hear.

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