Free Minds & Free Markets

The Truth Hurts

The humanitarian threat to free inquiry

In 1990 the French National Assembly passed new laws to toughen the existing measures against racism. At the time people were in an uproar over the desecration of Jewish graves and the newspapers were full of concern about France's extremist right wing and the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and the Soviet Union. So the new legislation surprised no one. But there was something disturbing in it, passed over incidentally, as though hardly worth mentioning, in newspaper accounts like this one: "The measures also outlaw 'revisionism'—a historical tendency rife among extreme right-wing activists which consists of questioning the truth of the Jewish Holocaust in World War II."

Taken by itself, the French action was a curious and vaguely troubling incident, but little more. But the French action could not be taken by itself. It was part of a pattern.

In Australia the New South Wales parliament amended the Anti-Discrimination Act in 1989 to ban public racial vilification. Since most people are against racial vilification, most could sympathize with the legislature's intentions. But it was hard to be enthusiastic about the mechanism. Reports Tony Katsigiannis in the Australian magazine Policy: "The law invests in the Anti-Discrimination Board the power to determine whether a report is 'fair,' and whether a discussion is 'reasonable,' 'in good faith,' and 'in the public interest.' The Board will pronounce upon the acceptability of artistic expression, research papers, academic controversy, and scientific questions. An unfair (i.e., inaccurate) report of a public act may expose the reporter and the publisher to damages of up to $40,000."

In Denmark the national civil-rights law forbids "threatening, humiliating, or degrading" someone in public on the basis of race, religion, ethnic background, or sexual orientation. When a woman wrote letters to a newspaper calling the national domestic-partnership law "ungodly" and homosexuality "the ugliest kind of adultery," she and the editor who published her letters were targeted for prosecution.

In Canada a reputable research psychologist named Jean Philippe Rushton presented a paper in 1989 in which he looked at three very broad racial groups and hypothesized that, on average, blacks’ reproductive strategy tends to emphasize high birth rates, Asians' tends toward intensive parental nurturing, and whites' tends to fall in between. The man was vilified in the press, he was denounced on national television (to his face) as a neo-Nazi, and his graduate students were advised to find a new mentor. That was not all. The Ontario provincial police promptly launched a six-month investigation of Rushton under Canada's hate-speech prohibition. They questioned his colleagues, demanded tapes of his debates and media appearances, and so on. "The provincial police officially assessed the question of whether Rushton might be subject to two years in prison for such actions as 'using questionable source data.'" In the end, the attorney general decided not to prosecute and settled for denouncing Rushton's ideas as "loony."

So it goes in France, Australia, Denmark, Canada—and the United States. The U.S. Constitution, however, makes government regulation of upsetting talk difficult, so in America the movement against hurtful speech has been primarily moral rather than legal, and nongovernmental institutions, especially colleges and universities, have taken the lead. All around the country, universities have set up anti-harassment rules prohibiting, and establishing punishments for, "speech or other expression" (this is from Stanford's policy, adopted in 1990 and more or less representative) that "is intended to insult or stigmatize an individual or a small number of individuals on the basis of their sex, race, color, handicap, religion, sexual orientation or national and ethnic origin." One case generated a lawsuit in the federal courts, which eventually struck down the rule in question. At the University of Michigan, a student said in a classroom discussion that he considered homosexuality a disease treatable with therapy. Now, as of this writing the evidence is abundant that the student’s hypothesis is wrong, and any gay man or woman in America can attest to the harm that this particular hypothesis has inflicted over the years. But the people at Michigan went further than to refute the student or ignore him. They summoned him to a formal disciplinary hearing for violating the school's policy prohibiting speech that "victimizes" people on the basis of "sexual orientation."

Such cases have drawn their share of outrage from civil libertarians. To understand these incidents as raising only civil liberties issues, however, is to miss the bigger point. A very dangerous principle is now being established as a social right: Thou shalt not hurt others with words. This principle is a menace—and not just to civil liberties. At bottom it threatens liberal inquiry—that is, science itself.

On May 10, 1989, the Nashville Tennessean reported that George Darden, a city councilman, had filed a resolution asking the city to build a landing pad for unidentified flying objects. "What it was," he said, "people were reporting all these strange creatures coming to town, and they have nowhere to land." He said that he had never seen the creatures himself but that he was "very serious." He wanted to know, "When people see them, do you want to just cast them off as a lunatic?"

George Darden was no clown. He was raising nothing less than what philosophers refer to as the problem of knowledge: What is the right standard for distinguishing the few true beliefs from the many false ones? And who should set that standard? Everybody laughed at Darden—but he deserves an answer. To the central question of how to sort true beliefs from the "lunatic" ones, here are five answers, five decision-making principles—not the only ones by any means, but the most important contenders right now:

—The Fundamentalist Principle: Those who know the truth should decide who is right.

—The Simple Egalitarian Principle: All sincere persons' beliefs have equal claims to respect.

—The Radical Egalitarian Principle: Like the simple egalitarian principle, but the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration.

—The Humanitarian Principle: Any of the above, but with the condition that the first priority be to cause no hurt.

—The Liberal Principle: Checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who is right.

The last principle is the only one that is acceptable, but it is now losing ground to the others. Impelled by the notions that science is oppression and criticism is violence, the central regulation of debate and inquiry is returning to respectability—this time in a humanitarian disguise. The old principle of the Inquisition is being revived: People who hold wrong and hurtful opinions should be punished for the good of society. To see why, you have to look at fundamentals.

We have standard labels for the liberal political and economic systems—democracy and capitalism. Oddly, however, we have no name for the liberal intellectual system, whose activities range from physics to history to journalism. I use the term "liberal science." The very need to invent a label for our public idea-sorting system speaks volumes about the system's success. Establishing the two basic rules on which liberal science is based required a social revolution; yet so effective have those rules been, and so beneficent, that most of us take them for granted. Put them into effect, and you have laid the groundwork for a knowledge-producing and dispute-resolving system that beats all competitors hands down. They are the basis of liberal inquiry and of science.

First, the skeptical rule: No one gets the final say. No idea, however wise and insightful its proponent, can ever have any claim to be exempt from criticism by anyone, no matter how stupid and grubby-minded the critic. A statement is established as knowledge only if it can be debunked, in principle, and only insofar as it withstands attempts to debunk it.

This is, more or less, what the great 20th-century philosopher of science Karl R. Popper and his followers have called the principle of falsifiability. Science is distinctive not because it proves true statements but because it seeks systematically to disprove false ones. In practice, of course, it is sometimes hard, if not impossible, to say whether a given statement is falsifiable or not. But what counts is the way the rule directs us to try to act. If you do not try to check ideas by trying to debunk them, then you are not practicing science.

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