Posted by Roger Mallett Posted on 3 March 2024

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 realnon-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.

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