Science / Tech

Censorship, the Authoritarian’s Snake Oil

Of all the many world-changing inventions that have come from the field of particle physics, few are more prominent than the World Wide Web. Invented in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee as a tool for sharing data with other scientists at CERN, the Web was based on a simple yet powerful idea: that a single mouse click could take you from one page to another, anywhere else on the planet. Berners-Lee was remarkably forward-thinking, proposing not only rich content like images or video, but also that the Web should be an interactive and democratic medium, where every user has the power to speak as well as listen. The millennium gave us blogs, wikis, and social media, at which point Berners-Lee’s dream was (sort of) realised, and the internet grew from a toy for geeks into a public utility as ubiquitous as electricity or television. The rest, as they say, is history.

But where science leads, lawyers and politicians inevitably follow. It didn’t take long for the self-appointed moral guardians to arrive on the scene, realise that this wonderful new invention could be used for unwholesome ends, and decide that Something Must Be Done. The result was the notorious Communications Decency Act, passed by US Congress in 1996, which trotted out the usual child-protection clichés to effectively outlaw any online speech that could be considered unsuitable for minors. This blatantly unconstitutional piece of moralistic posturing was unceremoniously slapped down by the courts, of course, as was the marginally more refined second attempt — the Child Online Protection Act — which followed a couple of years later. Americans are well-protected by their First Amendment. The rest of the world is not so lucky.

Here in the UK the government have just passed the Digital Economy Act, which gives the state unprecedented power to block websites they deem insufficiently child-friendly — essentially turning the internet into a glorified electronic kindergarten, whether the 50 million British adults like it or not. Never before did Mark Twain’s famous quip, “censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak because a baby couldn’t chew it”, seem so appropriate. Throughout Europe we see speech restrictions that would be unthinkable in the US. There are French and German laws against Nazi memorabilia, England’s infamous libel regime, and the very real risk that expressing an unapproved opinion about the ethics of halal butchery could earn you an expensive visit from the thought police. Censorship is not an anomaly. It extends through society like a religion.

If you expected the population to object to the endless assault on their rights, you’d be disappointed. With each power-grab that plops out of the legislature — unopposed, barely-debated, and as fast as the clerks can lift their rubber stamp — the obedient silence from We The People is deafening. Those who argue for absolute freedom of speech are regarded at best as curious oddballs, and at worst as apologists for neo-Nazis or terrorism. Social media luvvies gleefully cheer on prosecutions of people they dislike, oblivious to the possibility that they themselves could become a target of those same laws. The technology media, which used to rage against legal campaigns by Christians or the recording industry, now bleat about “hate speech” and warmly applaud government regulation of the internet as if it were just another TV channel. To say that we are losing the battle for online freedom would be far too charitable. We have surrendered to petty authoritarianism without a fight.

The desire to censor is not entirely impossible to understand. When you encounter an idiotic YouTube comment or forum post, it’s tempting to wish that someone would delete it and improve the quality of discussion. If the comment is on your personal blog or Facebook page, then you have every right to send it to the junkheap. Your house, your rules. But unless you are a tin-pot dictator, banning material from an entire country requires something more substantial than mere dislike. You need a reason — not necessarily a watertight argument, but at least a plausible narrative that will persuade lawmakers to pass your proposal. For a conservative politician, terrorism and the welfare of children will typically do the trick, while those on the Left are likely to mutter something about protecting marginalised communities. The details of the excuse hardly matter, so long as it triggers the right emotions. There is no requirement to prove that the law will actually work.

In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, biologist Richard Dawkins invented the term “meme” to describe a unit of culture that could propagate and evolve, just as a real gene does. Memes as envisioned by Dawkins include everything from the tune of “Happy Birthday” to entire organised religions. All a successful meme needs is some appealing quality: a cute image, a catchy tune, or the reassuring doctrine that life has meaning and death is not the end. But a popular idea is not necessarily true, and memes often lead people astray. Grieving relatives sometimes spend a small fortune on supposed psychic mediums, while the delusion that acupuncture is an effective cure for cancer might have cost Steve Jobs his life. Faith healing does not work, but people continue to believe in it because it validates their worldview or offers them comfort. Censorship persists for the same reason. It doesn’t solve anything — it might even make the problem worse — but it offers psychological reassurance to sanctimonious control-freaks who want to remake society in their own image.

The importance of free speech has been consistently demonstrated throughout history, which is why it was written into the US Constitution in 1791 and expanded significantly by courts in the 20th century. The ability to develop new theories and challenge prevailing orthodoxies has formed the basis of every great advance that humanity has ever made. Censorship, by contrast, has created nothing of value — not a single invention, not a single scientific discovery, not a single work of art, not a single medical treatment. Given its dismal track record, you might expect the authorities to think twice before reaching for the ban-hammer as a solution to every problem. But faith healers are rarely bothered by lack of evidence, because faith is not based on evidence in the first place. If the disease isn’t cured, you just didn’t pray hard enough. It’s precisely because speech restrictions are so ineffective that their proponents constantly need to expand them in ever more draconian ways.

Some forms of pseudoscience are relatively harmless. Astrology and Feng Shui may seem rather silly, but as long as people aren’t consulting a horoscope to determine whether a child should be given life-saving medication, they are not damaging anything except their own bank balance. The same cannot be said for abusing the law to stifle the free exchange of ideas, which does considerable harm — both to the intellectual progress of society as a whole, and to the artificial criminals it manufactures out of thin air. There are many serious challenges facing the world, from income inequality to violent terrorism, but the solutions will only be found through open debate and rational enquiry. Real problems cannot simply be censored out of existence, no matter how firmly politicians believe in their favourite legislative snake oil.

Filed under: Science / Tech


Matthew Mott is a writer and photographer with a background in technology, based in the UK. He can be found on as @InfiniteDissent


  1. Pseudoscience is yet another silly label in a silly age. Science is a system of enquiry, no more, no less. It is one of many such systems.

    It is the one which has done best with nuts and bolts and whizz-bang mechanics to impress people, but it is delusional to think that materialist reductionist modern science is best for all questions, particularly those pertaining to the natural world, of which human beings are a part. On this count modern science and its cult, modern medicine, are often destructive.

    Hubris rules in modern science as it takes the view that just because it is clever at man-made stuff, it means it is clever at everything. It isn’t.

    The religion of Scientism, which is fundamentalist science as practised too often today is the real pseudoscience – or rather, science pretending to be a system of enquiry when it is really a system of censorship.

    How ironic that the writer berates politicians for the same thing which poisons and debases the scientific system of enquiry today.

    • Uri Harris says

      Pseudoscience is not a silly label. It has a clear meaning: to identify fields or theories or people that attempt to capitalise on the image and success of science while in fact not adhering to scientific methodology. This is not the same as saying that there are no other paths to knowledge. No one accuses Christianity, for example, of being pseudoscience, because it doesn’t claim to be scientific (or imply that it is). I don’t disagree that sometimes the label is used too liberally, but it certainly has utility.

      • I wish that were true. Pseudoscience is the label applied to anything which does not fit into the materialist reductionist paradigm belief system of modern science.

        Even when scientific methodology processes are followed, the modalities are dismissed as pseudoscience.

        In fact, anything dubbed pseudoscience, by the real pseudoscience, is denied the right to ask questions which should be the foundation of science.

        It would have utility if it were used as you say. It isn’t.

    • Pseudoscience is yet another silly label in a silly age. Science is a system of enquiry, no more, no less. It is one of many such systems.

      It’s also one which works. The woo you keep peddling doesn’t and the reason it doesn’t is because you have no system of enquiry other than stamping you feet when cancer sufferers won’t drink you magic wee-wee.

      • I take it you realise you comment makes no sense.
        One reason why millions of people are looking for alternatives to Allopathic medicine and questioning science is because the ‘woo’ is in Allopathic medicine and modern science. Snake oils, bells and whistles abound.

        As to people who are seriously ill, I believe they should be supported to make their own choices, whatever those choices might be, not railroaded into Allopathic treatment which kills more than it ever heals.

  2. Uri Harris says

    This is an interesting topic, and I agree that the leftist cry of ‘hate speech’ against anything that challenges their beliefs is ridiculous. That said, I think the question of free speech is a little more nuanced than you suggest here. Anyone who was on the Web during the early, pre-Google days knows what a wild west it used to be, with pornography mixed in with children’s stuff in Alta Vista/Yahoo searches. That’s why AOL, with its walled garden, was so popular.

    Now, you can argue that companies should do the censoring, and not the government. But, aside from some of the laws you mention, it largely *is* companies like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. that are doing the censoring, and because they’re so dominant it has a government-like effect and people still complain about censorship. I’m not sure there’s an easy solution.

  3. Richard Williams says

    Interestingly, the people/organisations who/that seek to use technology as a tool of censorship seem least engaged with or understanding of either. Martha Lane Fox is an excellent example – an early technology pioneer who now pontificates using the guise of female empowerment as a means of projecting seriously silly world views. Censorship “offers psychological reassurance to sanctimonious control-freaks who want to remake society in their own image” pretty much sums up this small but vocal class of people who appear incapable of understanding any ideas that are opposed to their own. Compromise is therefore impossible and ‘authoritarian solutions’ ensue.

  4. Thank you. This is a very welcome breath of fresh air, and confirms something I’ve noticed over the years: The most fanatical supporters of forcing ideas and opinions on others—no matter how unfounded in science, experience, and common sense, these ideas and opinions are—tend to be the same people most easily duped by telephone psychics, magnetism therapy, the miraculous powers of crystals, and the like. Just saying.

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