Is defending free speech with all your might worth the effort if the result is the further spread of knowingly false information and the expansion of ignorance?
That’s the question in this space today, after noted American astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter the other day tweeted this:
“The rise of flat-Earthers in the United States is evidence of two things: 1) the protection of speech, and 2) the failure of our educational system.”
Tyson isn’t specifically referring to people who think the Earth is flat, but he might as well be. If conspiracy theorists and others who simply refuse to believe established science on any given topic, from man-made climate change, to the benefits of vaccinating children, to the shape of the planet are routinely afforded platforms on social media or cable TV news channels to repeatedly voice their misguided beliefs, is the benefit of protecting free speech by providing such venues outweighed by the damage that is done by the increased percentage of misinformed members of society that results?
Maybe the question comes down to this: Are we better off allowing Alex Jones of InfoWars fame to spew what he spews on the Sandy Hook shooting and other topics, or, perhaps, is he doing more harm than good?
Vaccinating young children to protect them and society from a variety of maladies shouldn’t be a hot-button debate topic these days, but it is. Respected studies have shown there is no connection between vaccinating and increased autism rates in children, but no matter, the anti-vaccination crowd says: Parents should be able to easily cite their religious or “conscientious” beliefs as the basis of their opposition to vaccinating their children, and be exempt from doing so.
The Times on this page in recent weeks has published multiple opinion pieces on this topic, most of them stemming from District 1 State Sen. Mark Johnson, a Republican from East Grand Forks, saying he’s against any legislation that removes “conscientious beliefs” as an option for parents worried about the side effects of vaccinations to cite as they seek to avoid vaccinating their children.
Last week, a reader came into the Times’ newsroom saying that if non-medical professionals author letters putting forth the view that vaccinating children is bad and the Times publishes those letters, the Times should also publish a disclaimer along with such letters indicating that the author is not a medical professional.
As the gun control debate ebbs and flows in our nation, people like to bring up the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Gun control proponents say it was written when being armed meant carrying a musket and in its original form is no match for today’s prevalence of military-style automatic weapons meant to kill as many people as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the pro-firearms camp says the Second Amendment is just fine as it is.
Well, maybe the right to free speech included in the constitution’s First Amendment warrants a debate today, too, as society weighs the benefits and detriments of people having a variety of avenues to communicate falsehoods to what appears to be a growing audience of people who are none the wiser.