Big Tech Is Suppressing Science
It's now posturing as the Catholic Inquisition of our time
The coronavirus crisis, I fear, is being used as cover for potentially the most dangerous escalation in Big Tech’s campaign of censorship yet.
Several platforms now seem to have declared themselves above the scientific process itself. They have lost faith in free and open inquiry and appear to be trying to mediate the most pressing (and increasingly contentious) scientific question of our time. This goes way beyond social media’s earlier attempts to control what political and social views we can express by suppressing perceived ‘hate speech’.
This week, Twitter and YouTube have been systematically eradicating videos promoting the use of the antimalarial drug Hydroxychloroquine to suppress coronavirus. Twitter has even temporarily banned the US president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, from tweeting for promoting the drug.
There is, of course, no clear evidence the drug works. But there is no clear evidence that facemasks make a tangible difference in the fight against the pandemic, either. The difference, it seems, is one has establishment and governmental support and the other does not. Establishment experts, including the World Health Organisation, have also variously implied that human-to-human transmission is not a concern and that the death rate from Covid could be as high as five per cent – both of which we know to be wrong.
This new wave of censorship began with the bonkers conspiracy theorist David Icke, who was ejected from Google-owned YouTube in May. He was the most high-profile case yet of a banning for ‘misleading information’ rather than ‘hate’. And things escalated quickly form there, as later that same month the same platform deleted an interview by the website Unherd with leading oncologist Professor Karol Sikora, in which Sikora advocated for an easing of the lockdown and a calming of the public hysteria surrounding the virus.
Sikora’s interview was brought back after a massive public outcry. But YouTube has also found a subtler way to crack down on lockdown skeptics. It has ‘shadow banned’ an interview with Peter Hitchens, delisting it from the search function and quietly making it almost impossible to find his views. Other sceptics affected include the writer Toby Young and the scientist Knut Wittkowski.
Ironically, Hitchens spoke about the social pressure and institutional censorship that lockdown critics like him have faced during the shadow-banned interview with Triggernometry. And he brought some political and historical perspective to the debate – something journalists are often well placed to do. He took the conversation beyond ‘The Science’ to ask questions about the less obvious harms of the lockdown.
But what if Hitchens, Sikora – the dean of the University of Buckingham’s medical school and former chief of the cancer programme of the World Health Organisation – and the other rebels, including Donald Trump Jr, turn out to be right? Or what if these men are speaking just elements of truth, which might help to direct the conversation towards truth?
‘Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths’, wrote the philosopher of science Karl Popper, who did perhaps more than anyone to describe the scientific process. With those words, he was acknowledging that science is almost always fraught with error but makes progress through deliberate and systematic efforts at correction, or ‘estimations towards truth’, as he famously described the process. There is no such thing as ‘The Science’ on complex and evolving questions. What was once a scientific fact can surprisingly – and quite suddenly in periods of paradigm shift – become scientific rubbish.
Scientists, you see, disagree on almost everything. But (outside of China) they generally don’t try to shut down their interlocutors, because they understand that it is through debate, exchange, conjecture and refutation that they all move forward. And sometimes, the most lonely voices in science turn out to be correct and help push humanity forward. Copernicus’s idea that the earth moved around the sun was once considered mad and misleading. Newtonian gravity was also a wacky idea before that too was superseded by general relativity.
Copernicus had to fight the church to be heard, and Einstein fled the Nazis. Is Big Tech the great censor to be feared today? Perhaps it is not so great a threat as those of the past. But the internet and social media have become essential for the public communication and understanding of ideas. The big tech firms have a monopoly over global online information, just as authoritarian regimes used to dominate the analogue airwaves and publications.
The idea that the harms of a lockdown are justifiable to stop or suppress the coronavirus is beginning to be questioned. The models produced by Imperial College and the ‘bonking boffin’ Neil Ferguson, which convinced Boris Johnson’s government to pursue a lockdown, are looking flimsy. They predicted a catastrophe when applied to Sweden if it did not lockdown. Sweden didn’t lock down, and no catastrophe followed.
My feeling is that the extent of our lockdown is unjustified, when balanced against the tens of thousands of deaths from missed cancer appointments and the many ruined careers and impoverished lives. Children under 15 are more likely to be struck by lightning than to die from the virus. The elderly should be isolated and protected, but I can’t see how trashing the economy won’t kill many thousands more than the disease alone. However, I’m also prepared to accept that I might be wrong. I, like a YouTube moderator, am not a scientist, and, even if I was, I would not dare silence anyone else’s view on this matter. As Karl Popper also wrote: ‘Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.’
Critics of this article will say that YouTube is a private company that can silence who it wants and the likes of Donald Trump Jr are still free to give their opinions in papers and elsewhere. But the big social-media platforms are now our de-facto public squares, controlling much of our public debate. Censorship on social media can remove people from the public consciousness.
The censorship of a man in the Trump family is democratically devastating. They may not be liked in this country but it is essential we understand what they stand for. And if even the powerful can so readily lose their voice, then the powerless do not stand a chance. Peter Hitchens and Professor Sikora, meanwhile, may well be wrong and they may convince some people to believe a false narrative. But they are part of a discussion. The challenging of wrong views actually strengthens the arguments of those in the right. Silencing them and killing debate is far more dangerous than they could ever be on their own.
Those of us who argued the corner of bigots, Nazis and Islamists when they were first shut down online, pointing out this was the top of a slippery slope to widespread censorship, were once called alarmists and sympathisers. Now, it seems, we have been proven right, and Big Tech is coming for polemical journalists and scientists who are merely in a minority in their field. Who knows who will be next.