Big Tech is suppressing science

Social-media platforms are cracking down on anyone who challenges the Covid narrative.

Liam Deacon

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.

Liam Deacon is the Brexit Party’s former head of press.

Picture by: Getty.

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Stephen Abrahams

1st August 2020 at 12:46 pm

Whilst there can be no doubt that scientific knowledge has improved the lot of humanity, there is also masses of evidence that scientific research is becoming increasingly corrupted by a combination of fraud, bias, negligence and hype. Those four words form the subheading to a book, which I wholeheartedly recommend, entitled ´Science Fictions’ written by Dr Stuart Ritchie. It is a devastating exposé of how science is gradually being undermined by abuse, manipulation and downright villainy.

Tim Bull

31st July 2020 at 1:16 pm

“There is, of course, no clear evidence the drug [Hydroxychloroquine] works.”

You might like to have a look here ….

which includes a thorough and positive review of the drug use for prophylactic and active treatment.

Right Now

31st July 2020 at 5:37 am

Re “The big social-media platforms are now our de-facto public squares ” : so why do we allow American billionaires to decide whose voices should be heard?
The agora in Ancient Greece were public squares where ideas about politics were openly discussed. If a citizen had been barred from entry and told a millionaire had bought the square and didn’t approve of said citizen’s views then the Greeks would have ostracized – expelled from the city-state for ten years – the rich oligarch. We need to find a way to institute a similar policy.

Ness Immersion

31st July 2020 at 12:15 am

steve moxon

30th July 2020 at 8:55 pm

It is wildly beyond belief that the utter fools axed content from Professor Karol Sikora, one of the foremost medical experts in the UK, a well-recognised voice of sanity against popular pressure for screening when the informed view is that it doesn’t work well enough and is counter-productive; and who knows a thing or two about epidemiology.
Yet they keep content from the individual who has caused most damage through falsehoods in this crisis: that fraud, Neil Ferguson, whose latest fiction re a disease — in an ignominious line of such — has indirectly cost tens of thousands of UK citizens their health and indeed their lives and seriously undermined if not destroyed the economic basis of the lives of millions of others.

Christopher Tyson

30th July 2020 at 7:03 pm

People used to talk about scientism, which is science as dogma or pseudo science which is the use of jargon or scientific pretentions for dubious characters to give their work credibility. Scientific is also taken to mean rigorous, serious generally sound intellectual activity. But you can find all of these things in other fields, particularly literature but others arts as well. Actually after science conquered the world around the 18th century, seemingly everyone wanted to be a scientist, we have social science, and marxism – scientific socialism, even the poet Rimbaud hailing the visionary poet as ‘the supreme scientist’. Greens, once mocked for their romanticism are now true converts to ‘the science’.
Today people are pre-occupied with data, and seem to think that data equals science. The world ‘statistics’ derives from ‘of the state’, these are useful numbers for planning. But data isn’t knowledge, at least not scientific knowledge as traditionally understood. You can know something like the quickest way to the station, but you wouldn’t elevate that to the status of science. Data is useful, like logistics are useful, and some will say ‘data science’ or ‘logistical science’. So how many people are coming to the wedding? How many of them are vegetarians? For most of us approximations will suffice, for a caterer precise data enables them to do their job, they don’t need to know about the complex relationships of the guests or how the couple met and such.
There’s a good show on Radio 4 called More or Less where they unpick statistics and the mis-use of statistics. Often this seems to be common sense, but a data scientist won’t be to impressed with that, if might even be a question of logic, sometimes the logic of statistics does not make sense, and of course some call ‘logic’ science. So if you roll a dice, the chances of any number coming up is 1:6, if you roll it enough times you should get a roughly equal distribution of numbers. The thing is, why should the chances of getting the same number over and over again be less probable? It’s the same dice, rolled in the same way with a 1:6 chance every time. Statistics don’t explain this, the behaviour of the dice, would be some kind of question for engineers or physicists.
Some scientists do the same thing every day, we might even relegate them to the status of technicians, some go where the money is, a few might even me motivated by the quest for knowledge, but In reality it has to pay, and to get the research money they have to dance to someone else’s tune, if you’re lucky you might get a job doing what you would do anyway, is this nay more the case for scientist than any one else? Like that moment when you realise that some professional footballers ‘living the dream’ hate football.

James Knight

30th July 2020 at 5:21 pm

They are acting exactly as if they were newspaper editors. As they are editorialising they should be treated exactly like publishers from a regulatory point of view. Make the CEO and board responsible for every word published on those platforms, just like a newspaper editor is.

What we need is some kind of new de-centralised platform – something like bitcoin – where monopoly power cannot be exercised over the content provider.

Darth Saddius

30th July 2020 at 4:52 pm

‘Scientists, you see, disagree on almost everything.’ I would contend that this is a somewhat misleading statement by the author. Within areas of active scientific research at the ever expanding borders of science there are of course disagreements which may in due course be resolved in favour of one theory or another (even if only provisionally) by new data observational and/or experimental etc etc. There are also complex interdisciplinary areas of science which will take much more work to unravel. However there are many areas of science which essentially settled and agreed on. For example plate tectonics, the laws of thermodynamics, quantum mechanics being a better description of physics on the atomic/sub-atomic scale than newtonian mechanics etc etc. Now it is not inconceivable that these areas of agreement could be overthrown by some extraordinary new evidence/data but what the more settled big ideas in science have in common is what is sometimes called ‘consilience’ – multiple lines of evidence/data leading to the same conclusions. Areas of scientific theory which are consilient tend to be areas of science in which there is an extremely high level of agreement amongst the scientific community. The writer does, even if only unintentionally, allude to some interesting areas in the philosophy of science. I can do no better than suggest reading Chapter 4 of ‘Fashionable Nonsense’ by the physicists Sokal and Bricmont which gives a brief and thought provoking overview of this subject including a discussion why the overused cliche ‘paradigm shift in science’ is not as straight forward as is often made out.

James Knight

30th July 2020 at 5:14 pm

One thing is sure: the people who run Google, FB and YT know absolutely f*!k all about science. They are not qualified to debate it never mind censor it.

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