In our own time, social media has become ever more dominant in the realm of public discourse, eclipsing newspapers and even television. For better or worse, it is the agora of our times. So banning certain ideas and people from social media is deeply pernicious.
There is a growing tendency toward censorship in the United States, made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. It must be opposed vigorously, as it is a slippery slope indeed. Once people have the power (and it is an awesome one) to decide what is truth and what is not, they will never willingly give it up. As that great political scientist, James Madison, explained, “Men love power.”
Over the last few years, the phrase “the science is settled” has become a euphemism for “shut up.” This year, the various social media platforms have been deleting what they declare to be Covid “misinformation.” The truth, as far as Facebook, Twitter, and others are concerned, is now whatever the government’s line is at the moment. Disgracefully, the Biden administration has been encouraging social media platforms to increase this censorship.
If the Centers for Disease Control has made a pronouncement regarding the pandemic, not even a highly credentialed epidemiologist is allowed to disagree, at least until the CDC changes its mind. Last year, to suggest that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan virology lab was “misinformation.” Today, it is the leading theory.
Obviously, the powers that be on social media have no idea how science operates. Science, almost by definition, is never settled. Scientists argue in order to find the truth (unlike lawyers, who argue in order to win the argument). Indeed, disagreement is the very engine that drives scientific advancement. That’s why scientific conferences are often contentious, even raucous affairs.
And scientists, like the rest of us, tend to become set in their ways as they age. That’s why fundamental breakthroughs in science—and in the arts, for that matter—tend to come from the young. Einstein was 26 when he published the theory of special relativity. Newton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society when he was 29. Lord Byron was 24 when he “awoke one morning to find myself famous.”
The scientists who issue pronouncements from on high, such as the CDC, tend to be well into middle age or even beyond (Anthony Fauci is 80). That’s why Facebook and Twitter should learn about the first of “Clarke’s laws,” developed by the great science writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
Three historic scientific breakthroughs show how science is never settled.
In 1912, Alfred Wegener, then 32, a German meteorologist and polar explorer, proposed that the continents drifted around the globe, sometimes coming together and sometimes splitting apart. That is why, for instance, South America and Africa seem to fit so closely together, with the bulge of Brazil tucking neatly into the Bight of Benin.
The idea was ridiculed by geologists for decades. Then in the 1950s came the discovery of paleomagnetism, which proved that sea floors indeed spread, pushing the continents around. Today, plate tectonics is the very foundation of the science of geology.