On being a free speech disappointment

Free speech allows us the possibility of learning from our errors

To many, I know I am a disappointment. This is the constituency who like what I have to say about education research, including my takes on explicit teaching and cognitive science, but who would rather I not mention my concerns about free speech or the adoption of critical race theory in schools. I am sorry about that but it all comes from the same place.

My primary concern is with the truth. This may seem like a grandiose and self-serving statement, designed to position me favourably, but think of the alternatives - I could, for instance, be primarily concerned with what is good. In some ways, that would be better, right? And I think most people would see concern with what is good as their motivation*. We want to make the world a better place. However, my view is more, ‘Yes, and…’. My ultimate aim is definitely a better world, but the route goes squarely through the big truths. Noble lies do not cut it and I will explain why.

And anyone who grapples with the truth knows that its elusive. While the general public at large may take statements such ‘the science shows’ at face value, I extrapolate from my own experiences and these make me sceptical that ‘the science’ is anywhere near as clear and unequivocal as that.

I have a tendency to write polemically, due to my frustration with the kind of nonsense that has been foisted on schools over the years. However, if you read my take on education research in my blog posts or books, you will see that I present my findings with caveats.

I cannot rigorously assess the shortcomings of educational research and then, for example, blithely state, ‘Well the science shows that cloth masks work against COVID,’ when I know the thinness of the evidence on which such a claim is made. Based on the available anecdotal evidence from various lockdowns, the logic of the argument and the empirical evidence such as it is, I happen to think masks do work, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to doubt this. Even authoritative sources were prone to express doubts in early 2020 and I am not sure much has changed in the evidence base since then.

At least the masks question is potentially falsifiable. Although it would be extremely challenging to conduct the kind of experiment you would need to do in order to disprove a key claim - that masks stop disease-carriers from spreading the disease - at least such evidence could potentially be collected, perhaps epidemiologically.

Contrast this with critical race theory (CRT). What evidence could potentially disprove this theory? It seems there is none, with CRT scholars engaged in a thriving industry that generates rationalisations for potentially challenging evidence.

There are three main ways we seek truth about the world. The first is through revelation - the truths revealed by religions and doubted by atheists. The second is through the scientific method - someone proposes a hypothesis, usually based on an educated hunch rather than a shot in the dark, that hypothesis makes testable predictions and then those predictions are systematically tested. Hypotheses that withstand a great deal of testing then become robust, if always provisional, scientific theories. The third way we seek the truth is through debate - we test our ideas against those of others. Contrary to what the word ‘debate’ brings to mind, it does not have to be confrontational or harsh, it just has to involve the testing of conflicting ideas.

In reality, the second and third ways of finding the truth often work together. Most of us seek confirming evidence most of the time. It’s a special kind of scientist who seeks the flaws in their own work and so we have invented processes that are supposed to bring the scrutiny of others to bear. The back-and-forth between an author and a reviewer in the process of publishing a paper is clearly a form of debate, no matter how civil.

And this is ultimately why free speech matters. And let me be clear - free speech is a principle. I do not care about your limited, legal or constitutional definitions of free speech that you got from an XKCD cartoon. I do not care whether it is the government who is closing down dissidents, whether it is big tech, whether it is a community of academics or a bunch of trolls threatening doxing on social media. All of these are attempts to prevent the airing of deviant views and so all potentially remove the possibility of disproving bad ideas. It is no coincidence that Lysenko’s deeply flawed view of genetics prospered in the totalitarian Soviet Union.

Yes, I think speech can and should be shut down at the extremes, such as when clearly inciting violence or sharing graphic images of beheadings. I also think publications that aim to be taken as serious news sources have a duty to avoid, and then if necessary correct, factual errors and I would support social media algorithms that prioritise sources that submit to that kind of constraint. However, these decisions should be made transparently with clear criteria and with public scrutiny and not left to a few oligarchs. I certainly do not think people should be censored by social media for doubting COVID advice or the results of a democratic election, no matter how absurd those doubts may seem.

And unfortunately, the sort of people who are prepared to break the consensus and argue an unpopular position are not usually agreeable consensus-seekers. Although we can never know the motivations of others, some controversialists may be arguing in bad faith or just looking for an angle and some publicity. They are often extremely annoying. None of this matters. You don’t have to listen to them but you should not try to shut them down. Any short-term gains from stopping people hearing the bad words are outweighed by the long-term damage to our societal truth-testing systems.

The truth is important and precious, but no matter how hard we try, none of us have a monopoly on it and all of us will be wrong about something. If we shut down dissenting voices, we lose the possibility of our errors being corrected.

*I read a blog post or article on this distinction once but I can no longer find it. If you know the one, please put me out of my misery so I can link. Edit: @michealcannon found the link and it is an article be Jesse Singal