The House of Commons Science and Technology committee have just concluded an inquiry into science communication. One of those who presented evidence was David Whitehouse of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.
David Whitehouse’s evidence focussed mainly on science journalism, and some of what he presented was quite reasonable. It would be nice if science journalism didn’t so often involve simply copying university press releases (not all do, but it does seem quite common). Would be good if science journalists did a bit more actual investigation (although some are very good). However, the most amazing part of his evidence was his final point:
Some argue that free speech does not extend to misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements. But it does. ………….. the freedom of speech principle does not mean that you have to be factually accurate. …… If someone says something others deem inaccurate then demand a say, not their silence. Whatever one’s stance one should criticise, highlight errors, make a counterbalancing case if it will stand up, but don’t censor, even by elimination. …..
Technically, I think he’s correct; with some exceptions, people are allowed to say things that are not true. What, of course, the above ignores is that this has little to do with freedom of speech. Our right to say certain things, does not mean that doing so is somehow acceptable. There are societal norms, which means that even if we are legally allowed to say and do things, we often choose not to. For example, we don’t typically go around saying nasty things about other people, even if they’re true. Similarly, we expect an organisation that claims to be providing information to the public, and to policy makers, to be presenting information that they at least regard as being true (i.e., they’re not being intentionally dishonest). In some cases, the latter can be required in order to maintain a certain status.
So, yes, freedom of speech may allow for people, and organisations, to mislead the public, but as a society we mostly expect that people, and organisations, do not intentionally do so. What’s maybe more interesting about the above quote is the implication that even if some are intentionally misleading the public, those who respond should aim to do so in a reasonable/responsible manner. It’s essentially suggesting that even if they behave in some socially unacceptable manner, that the response should still be socially responsible.
This is the fundamental issue, though; if you feel free to violate societal norms, then you should expect others to do the same. You can’t give yourself the freedom to do so, while expecting others to not do so (okay, you can – of course – argue for this, but it would be silly to expect it). However, this kind of thing seems rather common. Many of the complaints about the public climate science debate appear to be more about discouraging criticism than about any real desire to improve the dialogue.
Similarly here, we have an argument that people should respond responsibly in cases where another party may be intentionally misleading the public and policy makers. Well, there may be cases where a reasoned response would be the optimal way to respond. There will be others, however, where calling them liars (or whatever other descriptor may seem most suitable) may be both justified and optimal. If it’s clear that the other parties are behaving dishonestly, and are not actually even trying to present credible information, then responding as if they are may simply make their obviously disingenuous arguments seem far more credible than they actually are. The problem, of course, is that sinking to their level then makes one no better than they are, so it is a very fine balancing act.