There is a fascinating article by Sherelle Jacobs in today’s Telegraph, mainly about the never-ending drama of Covid etc, but also on the subject of free speech and the challenging of so-called ‘orthodox’ ideas:
Although it seems a tad too hyperbolic to contend that the West’s commitment to intellectual freedom officially died in 1991, the date was symbolic. In the same year that the Soviet Union collapsed, the most brilliant theoretical physicist of the day resigned from the American Physical Society. Nobel Prize winner Prof Julian Schwinger had made the mistake of turning his attention to cold fusion – the theory that the process powering the Sun can be replicated at room temperature, promising abundant cheap energy. Physics journals refused to publish a theoretical analysis that challenged their received wisdom:
“The pressure for conformity is enormous,” he wrote in a resignation letter that warned that censorship threatened “the death of science.” Whether he was right or wrong – and we still don’t know – about cold fusion is almost beside the point. His treatment was an astonishing confirmation that even rising to the top of one’s field did not guarantee freedom to question that field’s basic premises; to interrogate the whole as well as the parts. One is left wondering whether, as the Cold War melted away, the West did not reach the end of history, but rather the end of knowledge.
Thirty years on, his experience – and his warnings about the future of freedom of thought – seems more prescient than ever in the wake of the belated attention being paid to the Wuhan lab leak theory. That this theory was denounced as Trumpian misinformation only to be resurrected once President Biden expressed an interest says much about the quality of the public debate over science – none of it good.
Prof Angus Dalgleish, a British oncologist who has been one of the most influential scientific voices behind this theory, says that he has been ostracised by many of his peers and told he was out of his depth. He struggled to find a publisher for his initial findings, and was compelled eventually to publish it “disguised as a vaccine paper”.
Prof Dalgleish gives many reasons for why he met such a hostile reaction, among them a desire by scientists to avoid offending the Chinese government and a fear of endorsing a politically incorrect narrative. Perhaps most interesting is a reflection he gave in a newspaper interview last week: “The breakthroughs I’ve been involved with in science come when people disagree with something you present, then you talk afterwards and get into the real argument and realise you’re both partially right.”
This process too often seems to be broken. Instead we have got to the point where the more significant and complicated a subject is, the less likely it is that society is able to engage in an open debate. Some like to blame this on “culture wars” as if the problem was simply that the masses have become too tribal in their thought processes. The problem is much deeper.
Take the pathetic nature of the debate over June 21. Just as the basic question of where the virus came from was sidelined for months because it did not fit with preconceived ideas, the efficacy of the vaccines and the success with which they have been rolled out has become surreally marginalised. Instead of discussing how quickly vaccines could spell the end of restrictions, the commentariat fixates on the risk of another wave as if absolutely nothing has changed. Somehow, despite low deaths, the Indian variant rather than the vaccine has become the game changer.
One detects a strange synergy between distorted public discussions and repressed academic debate. It has been left to already marginalised lockdown heretic scientists to question the received wisdom that herd immunity is a simple number to aim for (such as 95 per cent) rather than a fluid benchmark that depends on factors like the season (if it is lower in summer, as some scholars claim, that potentially strengthens the case for easing restrictions).
Research on the psychological impact of lockdowns remains extraordinarily stunted, save a few tentative papers on the effect of lockdowns on mental health and face masks on child development. A new academic project on the effects of restrictions, Global Collateral, has struggled to make headway. Leading Harvard epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff was recently suspended from Twitter after questioning the consensus on face masks, and whether the vaccine is necessary for children and those with prior natural infection.
Worryingly, freedom of speech on such controversial issues seems to be a one-way street. Prof Kulldorff is censored on Twitter for his perspective, and yet no less contentious contrasting opinions are given a free run. Take, for example, Oxford’s Prof Julian Savulescu, who has published high-profile papers arguing that mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations could be justified (“If people can be sent to war against their will, in certain circumstances some levels of coercion are justified in the war on the virus”). Prof Savulescu should be free to make his case without fear of cancellation – but so should his intellectual opponents.
The impasse that we have reached is even more alarming because tech has the power to silence dissenters far more effectively than old-fashioned dictators. Unlike the days when ideas and information were largely communicated through word of mouth or the printing press, which required enormous resources to try and control, public debate is concentrating onto online platforms, which can be censored at the touch of a button (or the tweak of an algorithm).
The idea of a liberal-Left Silicon Valley conspiracy desperate to censor the Right while allowing jihadists to host their videos of beheadings is not quite right. Most of these platforms harbour little desire to become arbiters of truth or the judges of what is fit for public discussion (this only gets in the way of their real purpose – profit). The reality – that governments and political influencers (many from the woke Left) are the ones driving tech firms to take on a responsibility that they are poorly suited to fulfill – is hardly more reassuring. It all points to deeper problems in the liberal ethos, whether the intolerance of the “tolerant” Left or the historical roots of a philosophy that has succeeded by skimming over our deepest disagreements.
Considering the development of freedom of thought and speech over the last 30 years – from Julian Schwinger to the Wuhan lab leak – one is left wondering whether our problem is more banal. Even the West has found no definitive antidote against everyday impulses of conformism, snobbery and intellectual laziness. It urgently needs to.
While incurring the entertaining wrath of so-called ‘academics’ for daring to point out that their preferred version of the Boer War is nonsense is not in the same league as the things mentioned in the article, it is – nevertheless – symptomatic of the issue. Rather than reading my work with an open mind and being interested to expand their understanding of the conflict, the knee-jerk reaction of some was to go out of their way to ignore or even silence me – which makes it obvious they know just how weak their case actually is.