27 September 2013
Censorship in the name of science
A local paper called my attention to the recent decision by the online content director of Popular Science magazine to no longer allow online readers to comment on stories. The reason, writes Suzanne LaBarre, is twofold. First, some of the hostile commentary from "trolls" on one side or another of controversial issues is "shrill" and "boorish." Second, and more in the spirit of the magazine, a recent study indicates that uncivil discussion influences most people's views on any given subject and encourages a more extreme polarization of viewpoints. Responses could range from doubling down on your own position to spite the other side, or the knee-jerk liberal impulse to assume that if someone feels so strongly against a thing, maybe we should reconsider -- an impulse that may come into play this weekend as the Tea Party Republicans demand the delay or defunding of "Obamacare" as the prerequisite for authorizing new spending or raising the debt ceiling. LaBarre laments a "politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise" that has brought Popular Science to this sad decision. Her momentarily-silenced critics will see that as more proof of "elitism" from the likes of LaBarre. They will deny questioning "expertise" as such, but insist on questioning the expertise of those don't see the world their way. They may also question whether conventional credentials confer expertise as definitely as the "establishment" insists. As autodidacts, in many cases, they imagine themselves more committed to free inquiry than those the establishment (however defined) defines as experts, exactly because they refuse to take some things for granted. Ultimately, they express a perhaps-inevitable pathology in self-styled free societies that seem to stand for nothing but "freedom." For many, freedom is essentially the right to refuse, to resist. This freedom is an adversarial state of mind, assuming that others are out to enslave them or take their stuff. It can only confirm that it is free by disagreeing with something. The ability or the right to disagree becomes more important than the substance of the disagreement; the really important thing is to prove that you're not simply being carried along by the tide or driven with the herd. The funny thing about this is that for all that the Founders and Framers talked about freedom, they expected the masses to defer to those who were their intellectual superiors. That was true whether you followed Hamilton or Jefferson. Now, the people who most loudly proclaim their allegiance to the Founders don't believe in deferring to anyone. Their very sense of freedom seems to depend on refusing to defer. Historians will have to figure out whether this was an inevitable if unanticipated result of the Founders' experiments. But for what it's worth, the comment option here remains open.