In Defense of Censorship

Will the truth win out on its own?

The strongest and most popular argument against censorship is that the free exchange of ideas does a better job of promoting true beliefs and good customs.  The idea is that if every side is allowed to make its case without obstruction, the truth will naturally win out.  After all, true beliefs are guaranteed to be logically self-consistent and consistent with all accurately-determined facts, while false opinions will often fail one or both of these tests.  This is the argument made by J. S. Mill in his celebrated liberal tract On Liberty.  Mill goes so far as to say that beliefs which are supported by tradition or authority should be regarded as especially suspect, because they haven’t yet shown their mettle in the test of free debate.

What can the defender of censorship say to this claim?  Only that it is simply not true.  For a race of purely logical intelligences, free debate might work like this, but not for real human beings.  For a human being, there are aspects of a proposition which attract him and which are uncorrelated or even negatively correlated with the probability of it being true:  how well it flatters his pride or helps to rationalize his vices, how much it relies on apparently simple concepts and avoids challenging his imagination, how well it is able to discredit its opponents and shut down debate in its favor.  One need only consider Richard Dawkins’ theory of the spread of “memes” to imagine the possibilities.  If, then, free debate will generally not lead to the truth, then this gives us one means of deciding when censorship is necessary.  What ideas, or more importantly, what rhetorical tricks must a debating community disallow in order to keep the search for truth on track?

In this context, one often hears appeals to the example of science.  Here, we are told, complete freedom to criticize old theories and suggest new ones has undoubtedly led to an advance in knowledge.  In fact, the equation of science with free debate reflects a misunderstanding of the scientific enterprise.  The scientific community has rules—rigidly enforced—regarding what may and may not be said while engaging in scientific discourse.  One may not fabricate or misrepresent data.  One may not attack the character of a fellow researcher in order to discredit his theory.  One may not accuse him of forging or plagiarizing data without strong evidence.  One may not criticize a theory by asserting that negative social or political consequences would follow from its acceptance.  One may not criticize a theory for its disagreement or agreement with a religious or political authority.  One may not draw philosophical conclusions from empirical data, or vice versa.  If a scientist violates any of these rules, his professional reputation, and usually his career, will be destroyed.  Science owes its success not only to the freedom it does allow, but also to the freedoms it doesn’t.  The community knows that, if personal aspersion or political passion were allowed into scientific debate, they could quickly destroy it or render it fruitless.

8 Responses

  1. […] As with other free markets, the product that wins is not the best but the cheapest.  In my essay on censorship, I explain why this will always be the […]

  2. ‘The scientific community has rules—rigidly enforced—regarding what may and may not be said while engaging in scientific discourse. One may not fabricate or misrepresent data. One may not attack the character of a fellow researcher in order to discredit his theory. One may not accuse him of forging or plagiarizing data without strong evidence. One may not criticize a theory by asserting that negative social or political consequences would follow from its acceptance. One may not criticize a theory for its disagreement or agreement with a religious or political authority. One may not draw philosophical conclusions from empirical data, or vice versa. If a scientist violates any of these rules, his professional reputation, and usually his career, will be destroyed. ‘

    I’ve worked in several science labs. These rules are not on the radar. Science is a business. Businessmen don’t like scandal, but it’s all about surviving.

    Scientists do what they feel will promote their interests. Debates get politicized, reputations get smeared, philosophy is used or disregarded according to convenience – science is nothing like what you have described.

  3. ‘The impious can always seize the public space away from a religion by ridicule. Even if their jokes, slanders, and innuendos don’t add up to an actual argument against the religion’s claims, these stunts often succeed in fostering attitudes of suspicion and cynicism that are incompatible with faith.’

    You’ve got the right idea here. In the modern West, there are two major sacred cows – the State and Political Correctness. Blaspheme either and you’ll be clapped in irons, but you can throw plates of spaghetti at Christians and claim to be preaching for the Flying Spaghetti Monster all you like.

  4. Hello zhai2nan2,

    I did indeed mean science when it functions as it should, and there is still a large amount of science that has not been politicized. I work in theoretical astrophysics, and none of my colleagues would dream of breaking these rules (or at least, getting caught breaking them).

  5. Am doing the assignment for “Discuss the arguments for the need for censorship in society?”. My main idea is governance related n for the supporting ideas is acting in defense.n we have to give the details n the examples….pliz help me….

  6. This comment has been removed in accordance with the published commenting policy.

  7. Every time the Bible states “Thou shall not,” that is a form of censorship, albeit good censorship.

    The only bad censorship is censorship of the truth, and this is the kind of censorship that’s rampant today, the kind that comes with its own commandments. You know the ones: “Thou shall not question the holocaust.” “Thou shall not demonstrate white racial pride.” “Thou shall not discriminate against people of color,” and so on and so forth.

  8. In defense of censor-S***?! Are you ******* kidding me?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: