Combatting misinformation from the misinformation police

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Appeared in the National Post, February 24, 2023
Combatting misinformation from the misinformation police

We have long held that only by the free contest of differing points of view can humanity make genuine intellectual progress. But now we’re told we face a crisis of so-called “misinformation,” which calls for vigorous censorship of heretical opinion. On all of today’s major public controversies, the problem (we are to believe) is that there’s one obviously correct view, which happens to be the one promulgated by the governing class, to which everyone would enthusiastically assent but for the pernicious influence of a shadowy conspiracy of social media operators who traffic in misinformation. Hence these voices must be suppressed for the good of society.

In his 1859 essay On Liberty John, Stuart Mill decisively rebutted this argument. “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion,” he wrote, “is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.” It would be one thing, Mill argues, if the holders of received opinion assume their view is correct because it’s open to challenge and none have refuted it; but another thing altogether if it’s assumed to be true, and on that basis, challenge is forbidden. Yet that’s precisely the position of today’s would-be “misinformation” police.

In reality, the state-sponsored “experts” on “misinformation” are typically the worst offenders. Presuming themselves to be infallible, they call for new laws to shut everyone else up, from which they expect naturally to be exempt.

In the climate domain, a group called the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) boasts a Climate Disinformation Team consisting of five staff members, all trained in arts or political science (none in economics or physical sciences) who have put out a large report (and follow-up) supposedly documenting the networks of you-know-what online and calling for new legislation and stricter rules for social media companies to combat it. The reports feature screenshots of social media posts that critique alarmist climate claims or costly aspects of global climate policy. The ISD doesn’t rebut them but merely shows them as if their mere existence is proof that censorship is needed. For instance, they say “Calling into question the viability and effectiveness of renewable energy sources is a common practice among climate sceptics and delayist actors,” and then show a series of social media posts pointing out problems associated with wind and solar power systems. But wind and solar power systems do have problems including intermittency and the need for costly fossil fuel-powered backup systems. To suggest otherwise is itself misinformation.

Closer to home, an organization called the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), which purports to draw on top experts in Canada to give guidance to policymakers, recently issued a report on the “Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation,” which concludes society would be greatly assisted by more vigorous efforts to suppress debate and ban more people from social media.

Much of the report consists of finger-wagging against anyone who questioned public health measures around COVID-19. For instance, they state (p. 4) “ongoing claims that mask wearing is ineffective or even harmful have shifted firmly into the realm of misinformation.” Meanwhile a newly-published, peer-reviewed meta-analysis summarizing 10 randomized control trials involving nearly 277,000 people concluded that “Wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of influenza‐like illness (ILI)/COVID‐19 like illness compared to not wearing masks.” So who’s spreading misinformation?

The CCA report also had a lot to say about supposed climate misinformation. Again, none of the authors are climate scientists or economists. The closest they come to an “expert” is Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist who has spent a long time studying, or more precisely denigrating, skeptical climate blogs and their contributors. The CCA report relies in several places on his 2012 article in Psychological Science, which asserted that climate skepticism is correlated with a wide set of dubious conspiracy ideas such as believing the moon landing was a hoax. It failed to mention that in 2015 a statistical critique of his paper was also published by Psychological Science showing that Lewandowsky’s conclusions “are not supported by the data.” Nor did it mention that a similar paper by Lewandowsky on conspiratorial thinking among climate skeptics was retracted after the journal received numerous complaints about his failure to follow proper research protocols. Then the journal had to issue a subsequent statement to rebut untrue claims by Lewandowsky that the journal had received threats and caved to external pressure.

Somehow Lewandowsky was the only “climate expert” the CCA called on. Meanwhile, they lecture the rest of us about the need to assess the credibility of information sources. Since they define (p. 3) misinformation as “any piece of information that is initially processed as valid but that is subsequently retracted or corrected,” I think we know what to call CCA reports.

They brag about their peer review process, saying the reviewers were selected for their “diverse perspectives and areas of expertise.” The reviewers again did not include climate scientists or economists nor is there any evidence of diversity of perspectives. The one reviewer with publications in the climate field was John Cook (also not a scientist) who’s hardly independent since he’s Lewandowsky’s longtime coauthor. Cook is also known as lead author of a paper supposedly proving a 97 per cent consensus among climate scientists. That paper was subsequently subject to severe expert rebuttals on grounds of both data quality and analytical validity. The other “climate expert” among the reviewers was James Hoggan, who is not a scientist or expert of any kind—he runs a public relations firm and operates “Desmog,” an inflammatory environmentalist blog with a reputation for abusive and derogatory treatment of anyone who questions climate orthodoxy. These one-sided and unimpressive polemicists constituted the CCA’s “expert team.” And yet the CCA complains (at length) about the public’s declining trust in scientific institutions.

To the extent the CCA report offers any factual assertions about climate change, they point to “catastrophic events” such as “droughts, floods, and wildfires exacerbated by climate change.” Needless to say, for all their disparagement of anyone who questions the so-called climate crisis, they don’t provide any supporting evidence. Chapter 11 of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says, concerning droughts, that “Global studies generally show no significant trends” and that in most places around the world there’s “inconclusive evidence” tying droughts to human-induced climate change. In North America in particular there’s “low confidence in the attribution of long-term changes in meteorological drought.” Regarding floods, “In general, there is low confidence in attributing changes in the probability or magnitude of flood events to human influence because of a limited number of studies, differences in the results of these studies and large modelling uncertainties.” As for wildfires, they have been trending down globally for the past decade and in Canada, according to the Canadian National Fire Database, the number of forest fires and area burned peaked in the late-1980s and has been declining ever since. So once again, the CCA spews misinformation to support its case for more censorship.

Here's a better idea. Ignore the CCA and the ISD and all the other would-be enforcers of orthodoxy. Drop the fixation on so-called “misinformation,” which is just the latest iteration of the same old desire of governments to censor their opponents. Allow the public the freedom, as Mill counselled, to hear arguments “from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them.” A dangerous thought in 1859, and judging by the current misinformation craze, an utter heresy today; yet true nonetheless.

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