Free Speech, History, Science / Tech

Giving the Devil His Due: Why Freedom of Inquiry in Science and Politics is Inviolable

In the 1990s I undertook an extensive analysis of the Holocaust and those who deny it that culminated in Denying History, a book I coauthored with Alex Grobman.1 Alex and I are both civil libertarians who believe strongly that the right to speak one’s mind is fundamental to a free society, so we were surprised to discover that Holocaust denial is primarily an American phenomenon for the simple reason that America is one of the few countries where it is legal to doubt the Holocaust. Legal? Where (and Why) on Earth would it be illegal? In Canada, for starters, where there are ‘anti-hate’ statutes and laws against spreading ‘false news’ that have been applied to Holocaust deniers. In Austria it is a crime if a person “denies, grossly trivializes, approves or seeks to justify the national socialist genocide or other national socialist crimes against humanity.” In France it is illegal to challenge the existence of “crimes against humanity” as they were defined by the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg “or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.” The Race Relations Act in Great Britain forbids racially charged speech “not only when it is likely to lead to violence, but generally, on the grounds that members of minority races should be protected from racial insults.” Switzerland, Belgium, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, and Sweden have all passed similar laws.2 In 1989, the New South Wales parliament in Australia passed the Anti-Discrimination Act that includes these chilling passages, Orwellian in their implications:

The law invests in the Anti-Discrimination Board the power to determine whether a report is ‘fair,’ and whether a discussion is ‘reasonable,’ ‘in good faith,’ and ‘in the public interest.’ The Board will pronounce upon the acceptability of artistic expression, research papers, academic controversy, and scientific questions. An unfair (i.e., inaccurate) report of a public act may expose the reporter and the publisher to damages of up to $40,000.3

Even at the University of California, Berkeley, home of the free speech movement of the 1960s, they apparently have abandoned teaching this most basic principle. On Friday, February 3, 1995, for example, the controversial historian David Irving was invited to speak on campus, leading 300 protesters to show up and block the 113 ticket holders from entering the building and prevent Irving from speaking about his alternative views of the Holocaust and the Second World War. Campus police were roused to action to control the unruly crowd and Irving had to seek protection behind his book table until order was restored.4 Frank Miele, one of my editors for Skeptic magazine, attended the event and reported the mayhem:

The people outside the door were screaming at Irving and the rest of us inside the room. They tried to force their way in, but the Berkeley police prevented this. At one point an older-looking man with a gray stubbly beard came from the back of the crowd and made his way through the demonstrators and into the room. Irving grabbed his cash box from the display table of books and retreated peacefully to the wall. The old man pushed the books off the table and then physically pushed and shoved Irving. The Berkeley police finally restored order, moving the crowd out of the building and into the street, where they continued to chant, shout, and demonstrate. When the old man physically assaulted Irving, a muscular young man in a black t-shirt came forward and decked him with one right cross. The young man made no attempt to attack or injure him further, and the Berkeley police took the old man out of the room.5

Since Irving’s invitation to speak came from the Berkeley Coalition for Free Speech, they apparently also no longer teach irony at that institution.

*      *     *

Given the fact that the Shoah took place in Europe it is perhaps understandable that some countries there would be hypersensitive to the denial of it. And given the horrific history of race relations in America such hate speech laws could be rationalized as relevant to the claim that there are genetically-determined differences between blacks and whites in intelligence, because such information (whether true or false) might lead white supremacists and other bigots to commit violence against blacks. Or, considering the long struggle women have had to gain parity to men, one could argue that research on gender differences in cognitive abilities could turn back the clock on women’s rights should a disparity be found in favor of the gender still dominant in positions of power. Since people act on their beliefs, and beliefs are expressed in the form of speech, isn’t it reasonable to argue that certain scientific findings be categorized as a form of hate speech that should be censored?


The justification of such laws in the consequentialist argument that people might be incited to discrimination, hate, or violence if exposed to such ideas fails the moment you turn the argument around and ask: What happens when it is you and your ideas that are determined to be dangerous? This argument against censorship was well articulated in Robert Bolt’s 1960 play, A Man for All Seasons, based on the true story of the sixteenth century Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, and his collision with King Henry VIII over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. In the play, a dialogue unfolds over the changing of the law between More and his future son-in-law Roper, who urges him to arrest a man whose testimony could condemn More to death, even though no laws were broken. “And go he should, if he were the Devil himself, until he broke the law!” More entices.

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that.

More: Oh? And when the law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast…and if you cut them down…do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.6

Pretend for a moment that the majority of people deny the Holocaust (or believe that racial and gender differences are real and innate) and that they are in the positions of power. If a mechanism for censorship of unwanted speech exists, then the believer in the reality of the Holocaust (or the skeptic of racial and gender differences) may now be censored. Would we tolerate this? Of course not. This case for free speech was argued in one of the most famous court trials of the twentieth century. When evolutionists were in the minority in America in the 1920s, and politically powerful fundamentalists were successfully passing anti-evolution legislation making it a crime to teach Darwin’s theory in public schools, as they did in Tennessee, in the 1925 Scopes’ trial held in Dayton the noted attorney and civil liberties defender Clarence Darrow made this case against censorship:

If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it in the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lecturers, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After awhile, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.7

In America, the First Amendment protects the right of citizens to express their opinions on anything they like, no matter how extreme, evil, conniving, or crazy. Here you are free to doubt the Apollo moon landing, the single-bullet theory, the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, the verisimilitude of the Quran, the prophetic nature of Moses or Muhammad, al Qaeda’s role in 9/11, and even the President’s birthplace. No matter how much one may dislike someone else’s opinion—even if it is something as disturbing or potentially disruptive as denying that the Holocaust happened or that some people may not be as successful because of innate racial or gender differences—that opinion is protected by the First Amendment. More than a legal right, I also believe we have a moral duty to speak our minds. I am therefore in unwavering agreement with James Flynn in his target article on “Academic Freedom and Race” in the Journal of Criminal Justice, that “There should be no academic sanctions against those who believe that were environments equalized, genetic differences between black and white Americans would mean that blacks have an IQ deficit.” Flynn’s courage and integrity go even further when he argues, “Moreover, research into this question should not be forbidden. This is so, no matter what the outcome of the race and IQ debate, that is, no matter whether the evidence eventually dictates a genetically caused deficit of nil or 5 or 10 or 20 IQ points.”

There are exceptions to the purely civil libertarian case for free speech, of course, from Justice Potter Stewart’s concerns about false fires and crowded theaters (wrongly applied to the ill-conceived idea that ‘hate speech’ might incite people to violence) to spreading lies about someone that damages their reputation, safety, or income. But never in history have a people been so free to speak their mind, and from that freedom emerges the truth, for the only way to know if your idea is wrong is to allow others to critique it. That principle—the freedom to participate in the dialogue that the philosopher Karl Popper called “conjecture and refutation”—is at the heart of both the scientific method and the political process.8

The reason we need critical feedback from others is that our brains come equipped with a set of cognitive heuristics—or rules of thumb, or shortcuts—that help us navigate through the buzzing blurring confusion of information coming in through our senses. These heuristics are also known as cognitive biases because they often distort our percepts to fit preconceived concepts. These cognitive biases are part of a larger process called ‘motivated reasoning,’ in which no matter what belief system is in place—religious, political, economic, or social—they shape how we interpret information that comes through our senses and motivate us to reason our way to finding the world to be precisely the way we wish it were. As I argue in The Believing Brain, our beliefs are formed for a variety of subjective, emotional, psychological, and social reasons, and then are reinforced through these belief confirmation heuristics and justified and explained with rational reasons.9 The confirmation bias, the hindsight bias, the self-justification bias, the status quo bias, the sunk-cost bias, the availability bias, the representative bias, the believability bias, the authority bias, and the consistency bias are just a few of the ways cognitive psychologists have discovered that we distort the world.

It is not so much that scientists are trained to avoid these cognitive biases as it is that science itself is designed to force you to ferret out your errors and prejudices because if you don’t someone else will, often with great glee in a public forum, from peer-review commentary to social media (where all pretensions to civil discourse are stripped away). Science is a competitive enterprise that is not for the thin-skinned or faint of heart. Most ideas that people come up with are wrong. That is why science is so cautious about tossing aside old ideas that have already survived the competitive marketplace, and why scientists tend to dismiss out of hand new ideas that threaten a tried-and-true research paradigm, especially before the revolutionary theory has been properly vetted by professionals in the field. That process of generating new ideas and introducing them to your peers and the public where they can be skeptically scrutinized in the bright light of other minds is the only way to find out if you’ve come up with something true and important or if you’ve been immersed in self-deception.

James Flynn hits the mark on this point when he writes, “I know of no alternative to the scientific method to maximize accumulation of truth about the physical world and the causes of human behavior. If scholars are to debate this issue, do we not want the best evidence possible—and this can only come from science.” What if it turns out that the primary cause of racial differences in IQ is the environment, but due to academic censorship of sensitive topics the only people doing research in this area are those who believe that all such differences are to be found in our genes? Where is the environmental refutation to the genetic conjecture? “There will be bad science on both sides of the debate,” Flynn admits. But “The only antidote I know for that is to use the scientific method as scrupulously as possible.” By way of example, Flynn says he discovered his eponymous effect—the “Flynn Effect” that IQ points have been increasing on average about 3 points every 10 years for almost a century10—by reading Arthur Jensen’s research on IQ and ‘g’ (the general intelligence factor), which no one else noticed because of their reticence to give any credence to Jensen’s work because of his association with the genetic position on racial differences in IQ. Flynn asks rhetorically, “Does academia really want to ally itself with those who reserve free discussion to Philosopher Kings, and create dogmas to deaden the minds of all others?” The answer for many academics, I’m sorry to say, is a resounding yes. They see themselves as Philosopher Kings who know what is best for the masses, whom they believe are incapable of thinking as deeply as themselves.

This narcissistic arrogance goes a long way to explaining the recent and disturbing trend on college campuses to censor unwanted speech and thought (yes, thought crimes!), well documented by Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), in his 2014 booklet Freedom From Speech.11 Readers may recall the wave of ‘disinvitations’ at universities who invited controversial (or simply interesting) speakers to enlighten their students, only to disinvite them after waves of protest from some students and faculty that the speakers’ words might offend. FIRE has documented 257 such incidents since 2000, 111 of which were successful in preventing the invited speakers from delivering their speeches (75 disinvitations, 20 speaker withdrawals, and 16 ‘heckler’s vetoes’ in which student hecklers shouted down the speakers or chased them off-stage).12 Potentially offensive words are the basis of ‘trigger warnings’ professors are supposed to supply their students in classroom lectures that might cause them discomfort (these include sex, addiction, bullying, suicide, sizeism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, slut shaming, and victim-blaming13), as if a university classroom were designed infantilize students and treat them like children instead of preparing them for adulthood and the real world where they most certainly will not be so shielded.

This is why the principle of free speech and the arguments in its favor apply to the political world as well as the scientific one (and why no Philosopher King or Benevolent Dictator can ever be allowed to rule). As I explained in my 2015 book The Moral Arc:

Democracies developed in response to the monarchic autocracies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and to the dictatorship regimes of the 20th century because democracies empower individuals with a methodology instead of an ideology, and it is to this extent that we can see that the scientific values of reason, empiricism, and anti-authoritarianism are not the product of liberal democracy but the producers of it. Democratic elections are analogous to scientific experiments: every couple of years you carefully alter the variables with an election and observe the results. If you want different results, change the variables. The political system in the United States is often called the “American experiment,” and the founding patriarchs referred to it as such, and thought of this experiment in democracy as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Many of the founding fathers were, in fact, scientists who deliberately adapted the method of data gathering, hypothesis testing, and theory formation to their nation building. Their understanding of the provisional nature of findings led them to develop a social system in which doubt and dispute were the centerpieces of a functional polity. Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, and the others thought of social governance as a problem to be solved rather than as power to be grabbed. They thought of democracy in the same way that they thought of science—as a method, not an ideology. They argued, in essence, that no one knows how to govern a nation so we have to set up a system that allows for experimentation. Try this. Try that. Check the results. Repeat. That is the very heart of science.14

The freedom of speech has been one of the driving forces behind moral progress through science and reason because it enables the search for truth. “There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry,” J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote in 1949. “The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors.” Reflecting on the history of science and extrapolating to wider spheres, he noted: “Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.” How does freedom of speech lead to truth? There are at least five reasons:15

  1. We might be completely right but still learn something new.
  2. We might be partially wrong and by listening to other viewpoints we might stand corrected and refine and improve our beliefs. No one is omniscient.
  3. We might be completely wrong, so hearing criticism or counterpoint gives us the opportunity to change our minds and improve our thinking. No one is infallible. The only way to find out if you’re wrong or if you’ve gone off the rails is to get feedback on your beliefs, opinions, and even your facts.
  4. Whether right or wrong by listening to the opinions of others we have the opportunity to develop stronger arguments and build better facts for our positions.
  5. My freedom to speak and dissent is inextricably tied to your freedom to speak and dissent. Once customs and laws are in place to silence someone on one topic, what’s to stop people from silencing anyone on any topic that deviates from the accepted canon? No one should be forced to facilitate the expression of an offensive opinion, but neither should there be what the U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis called “silence coerced by law—the argument of force in its worst form.”

It is my belief that truth will win out when the evidence is made available for all to see. “It is error alone which needs the support of government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on Virginia. “Truth can stand by itself.”16 And as Jefferson articulated the principle in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, arguably the greatest free speech statement ever penned, “And, finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”17

Thus it is that the human mind, no matter what ideas it may generate, must never be quashed.


Michael Shermer is a science writer, author of several books, and the founder of The Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine. His latest book Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia is on sale now via Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer


1 Shermer, Michael and Alex Grobman. 2000 (2009 Expanded Edition). Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say it? Berkeley: University of California Press.
2 Douglas, L. 1996. “The Memory of Judgment: The Law, the Holocaust, and Denial.” History and Memory, 7:2, 100-120.
3 In Rauch, J. 1993. Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1-2.
4 Post, R. 1995. “Go Home, Irving.” Daily Californian, February 7, 1.
5 Personal correspondence, January 2000.
6 The complete script of A Man for All Seasons is available online at
7 Quoted in: The World’s Most Famous Court Trial: Tennessee Evolutioin Case: A Complete Stenographic Report of the Famous Court Test of the Tennessee Anti-Evolution Act, at Dayton, July 10-21, 1925, Including Speeches and Arguments of Attorneys. Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. (Google eBook), 87.
8 Popper, Karl. 1963. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Harper & Row.
9 Shermer, Michael. 2011. The Believing Brain. New York: Henry Holt.
10 Flynn, James. 2012. Are We Getting Smarter?: Rising IQ in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
11 Lukianoff, Greg. 2014. Freedom From Speech. New York: Encounter Books.
12 Ibid., 31.
13 Ibid., 38.
14 Shermer, Michael. 2015. The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. New York: Henry Holt, 135-136.
15 One of the earliest and still strongest defense of free speech was made in 1859 by the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill in his classic work On Liberty, still in print and available online:
16 In Cummingham, N. 1987. In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 77.
17 Ibid., 49.


  1. Alas, people don’t seek censorship to suppress falsehoods, they censor truth tellers to uphold lies. If they didn’t suspect that they were fighting for lies, they would lack sufficient vehemence.

    This entails that they elevate the cause over the truth (in this sense, the cause becomes a “higher truth”), in which case appeals to truth hold no sway. Try debating a creationist, and watch as they recite scripture in response to your scientific facts.

    Further, we all know the consequence of socially enforced lies: lies get people killed. Pretending someone is qualified because they tick off the right identity boxes means the bridges fall down, or the fire burns and kills because people lack the upper body strength to cart a ladder efficiently. Pretending that genetics is made up by capitalism means Russians starve. The gods of equality demand blood.

    But this gets back to the quasi-religious quality of censorship: of course, in upholding a “higher truth”, certain human sacrifices must be made. Pragmatic arguments will never persuade the Aztec priest. The gods are good, and the sacrifices please them. . . and if you ask too many questions, you may end up on the altar.

    • dirk says

      Or just check here on Quillette the debate and reactions on the virtues and harm of colonialism, in- If I want to hold seminars on…empire….,Nigel Biggar-. Really hopeless endeavour.

    • Mercury says

      Ironically, I bet most Holocaust deniers actually know more about the Holocaust than your average American under 40 – who probably couldn’t pinpoint WWII within 20 years.

      Maybe if we took K-college history education seriously Holocaust denial wouldn’t actually be a thing. Right now the Holocaust is pretty much just the verse between slavery and MLK Jr. as far as your average high school kid is concerned.

    • Abu Nudnik says

      Not all creationists quote scripture. I am not a creationist but, to put the shoe on the other foot, pointing out that the big bang theory only explains the creation of spacetime since the big bang gets me a lot of grief too. In the issues of both creation and formation of life, the scientific answers succeed through acts of truncation. (The same truncation exists in Michael Mann’s hockey stick graph.) The big bang is not an explanation of all spacetime and evolution only explains adaptation since life broke the iron law of entropy to make self-perpetuating order out of chaos. So neither side has all the marbles.

      I concur with paragraph 3. Paragraph four makes the same error of failing to apply the same logic in all directions. Seeing as “biological sex is a popular misconception,” according to Nicholas Matte, how is it that all of nature can escape the same fate? In the 70s, scientific notions of global cooling were awarded with the same hysteria as global warming once the sunspot activity changed. Consider Marxist history (actually prophecy). He failed to predict the buying up of the tools of production by labor itself (eg WestJet) and splitting capitalism into venture and management sides. The “I am God” phenomenon sinks all boats.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you Mr. Shermer. This is the central issue of our time, the one on which all others depend. The way in which illiberal authoritarianism and the suppression and even compulsion of speech has insinuated itself into so many governments is deeply unsettling and in the long run deeply harmful to democratic and liberal societies. This is a struggle we cannot walk away from. This growing rigidity and enforced conformity in so many countries is a threat to science, education, and to the growth of individuals themselves. What has happened in American universities, with an elitist intellectual class training an entire generation in the suppression of speech is going to haunt us for a long time. Defending our freedom will be a struggle. It was never a given; we knew this. But now it is clearer than ever.

    • Ad Francis says

      Nathan: I agree with most of what you’re saying here. But I would caution against pinning this suppression of speech on liberal elites. Increasingly, both sides of the political spectrum (in the US, at least) are becoming entrenched in their competing orthodoxies. A president who calls the free press the “enemy of the people” is very much a danger to free speech.

      • Ad Francis: Referring to legacy media as ‘free press’ seems almost quaint, given the pronounced Leftist slant presented by many mainstream organizations. How many young journalists, bloggers and podcasters even attempt to cover both sides of a story? I do hear your “caution against pinning this suppression of speech on liberal elites”, but for now the dominant cultural narrative is Progressive.

        When people in my local community – men especially – talk about being afraid to speak openly and honestly in the public square, it’s Progressive backlash they fear. They worry about losing their livelihood through public shaming or censure. Especially those business owners who must maintain a sterling reputation in order to secure future income. The list of topics no longer up for coffee shop or Facebook debate, for example, is long and growing quickly.

  3. Pingback: Inviolable

  4. Tony Lawless says

    “In Canada, for starters, where there are ‘anti-hate’ statutes and laws against spreading ‘false news’ that have been applied to Holocaust deniers.”

    My understanding is that the False News provision was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada as a more or less direct result of the Ernst Zundel trials in the mid-1980s.

    • Michael Bryson says

      While this provision was indeeed struck down, Canada still has hate speech laws and the Human Rights Commission which can prohibit speech it finds to be discriminatory.

  5. dirk says

    I wonder whether the truth of Jefferson (on social facts and insights) can ever be the truth of Donald Trump. And what about the truths of Jordan Peterson and Carl Jung? Jordan P. is good and convincing in his sermons and reflections (I appreciate them very much), but any debate with adversaries or interviewers (like the one with Cathy Newman) is maybe useful as thought expression of two individuals, but is quite ineffective as a Popperian dialectic search for adequate and unequivocal truth. Just an example of course, everybody’s social life is a long chain of similar events on a somewhat lower level.

    • BillyJoe says

      The problem with the JP v CN debate was that it was supposed to be an interview (CN is an interviewer after all). The idea of an interview is to tease out the views of the subject and ask questions in order to clarify those views. But CN was determined to undermine JP. So the interview became a debate which became an attempted assassination. But CN was almost entirely un-equipped to do so. She had an almost entirely false account of what JP’s views actually were. The whole episode consisted of CN falsely stating his views and JP continually correcting her and then CN not listening to the corrections. JP’s only mistake was his “gotcha” comment. That was actually an opportunity to start the real interview and he botched it.

      • dirk says

        And teaches us viewers that TV debates as of now are not at all concerned with truth, compromise or acclarations. Viewers are not interested in that, they like the conflicts and emotions.

        • dirk says

          -acclarations- to change into -elucidations-, sorry.

    • Wilson Hill says

      I don’t know Popper, but I’d say one of the demands of a search is consideration. She only considers one rather unsophisticated possibility, which therefore immediately becomes an uncontested certainty in her mind. But I’d say Peterson did his part, at least by considering multiple possibilities.

  6. SkipTownCPA says

    While I fully agree with Mr. Shermer’s defense of free speech and inquiry as being essential to the advancement of civilization, and with his criticism of the pernicious environment on many university campuses, I think he may be pointing the finger in the wrong diretion when he writes:

    Flynn asks rhetorically, “Does academia really want to ally itself with those who reserve free discussion to Philosopher Kings, and create dogmas to deaden the minds of all others?” The answer for many academics, I’m sorry to say, is a resounding yes. They see themselves as Philosopher Kings who know what is best for the masses, whom they believe are incapable of thinking as deeply as themselves.

    I’m sure some academics may feel this way, but there is another and perhaps more important reason. I live in a university (2) town and had a conversation on this subject with my neighbor and friend, a retired chair of the department of sociology & anthropology. I was quite surprised when he blamed market forces for the current surfeit of political correctness and coddling. It seems competition for good students is fierce and the customer is always right. So much for the free market. 😉

    • BillyJoe says

      Then maybe market forces will reverse the trend.
      Evergreen State College enrollments have plummeted since the incident with Prof Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying.
      The University of Michigan has a “diversity staff” of 96 costing $11million annually.

      • SkipTownCPA says


        I hope you’re right, but Evergreen State College isn’t Washington & Lee.

  7. Daniel says

    Yeah yeah unshackled science is great and all. What is to be done about a partisan, irresponsible press, though? Freedom of speech has become freedom to only report on stories that bolster your preconceptions, or freedom to have 5x as much analysis (read “correct” opinion) as news.
    What is to be done about the state of dialog in society? Freedom of speech has become protestors’ right to ruin businesses and lives without any regard for facts. THAT’S the article I want to read.

    • Nicholas Conrad says

      @daniel go ahead and write it then.

  8. Susan says

    The “blasphemy” laws continue to proliferate in Europe with the UK set to enact a new law that will sentence people promoting “hostility” towards a religion or the transgendered online of up to six years in jail.

  9. BillyJoe says

    The situation in Australia is very odd. The general population is pretty liberal but our governing bodies never seem to reflect that trait. We have had overbearing censorship laws for over a century. We’ve only recently been dragged kicking and screaming to an agreement to enact same sex marriage laws. And now laws against hate speech and blasphemy are being seriously considered by our politicians. None of these laws seem to reflect the views of the populace.

  10. Daniel says

    Mr. Shermer, you mentioned “… gender differences are real or innate” along with Holocaust denial. Are you suggesting that gender differences are unreal, or somehow not innate?

  11. Tyler Lane says

    This is a lovely essay, though I think we should emphasise science’s ability to reject falsehoods rather than derive truths. This is partly because science, as an a posteriori process, doesn’t prove anything, but accumulates evidence to create general descriptions of the natural world, which are refined over time within the limits of our faculties and methods. This is in contrast to a priori processes that are by definition true, like maths and logic. Even scientific ideas we’re pretty certain about are probably only approximations, but we won’t know until enough anomalies accumulate for us to question our basic premises.

    For instance, the heliocentric model of the solar system is clearly closer to the truth than the geocentric model, but as initially formed it wasn’t the whole truth. It was refined over time to replace circular orbits elliptical ones, and later incorporated relativity to account for odd behaviour in Mercury’s rotation that ran against Newtonian physics. And while Evolution is certainly more than a theory as understood in everyday language, there remain many debates about the mechanisms, such as group selection.

    I’m sure Prof Shermer is well aware of all these points, so I don’t mean to be pedantic. However, I think they are worth dwelling over as this mindset would help reframe science in the public eye as a process and not a source of Tableted Truth. I also think it would lend itself much more easily to Prof Shermer’s well-taken citation of Popper’s “conjecture and refutation”.

    • Esme says

      @Tyler Lane, I wish all science students, practitioners and enthusiasts could read your reply. And I think I should start reading Popper!

      • Tyler Lane says

        Thanks! I wanted to read some of his stuff, but each book is about 6-700 pages, so have only read his arguments in summary form.

    • Jack B. Nimble says

      @Tyler Lane

      I agree completely with your first paragraph!

      OTOH, I have three problems with Shermer’s essay:

      First, he is probably preaching to the choir here.

      Second, many of the people who SEEM to be engaging with ‘science,’ like creationists, flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers, are actually marching under the banner of a priori truth. Should the state grant full free speech rights to a group like the anti-vaxxers, whose beliefs can cause substantial public harm?

      Third, Thomas More is hardly a model of, or martyr for, freedom of thought. Here’s what I said at The American Conservative web site last December, before I was banned for life, thanks to Mr. Dreher:

      December 7, 2017 at 7:11 am

      [NFR: Communism requires a police state and the gulag. It’s intrinsic to the nature of the thing. — RD]

      This is an interesting thread!

      VI Lenin was a fanatic’s fanatic; Karl Marx not so much…..

      Here’s some historical trivia relevant to the above NFR: In 1918, Lenin ordered the installation of a monument to revolutionary thinkers near the Kremlin. The inscribed names included Marx and Engels but also Sir [‘Saint’] Thomas More — see .

      That is a tip of the Leninist hat to More’s Utopia, and while listing More alongside Marx and Engels may seem ridiculous, More was also a fanatic’s fanatic, who believed that Protestants should be exterminated — .

      Bottom Line: the urge to punish and kill runs strong in some people; they should be kept as far away from power as possible, be they Communist or Christian.”

      • Tyler Lane says

        These are all good points. As for creationists, sure they march under the *a priori* banner, but David Hume did a good job dismantling such a position (we can only infer from causes an effect that is no more than necessary to produce it; ergo, we have no reason to believe in specific characteristics about the creation event). So, let them speak, but don’t let them capture an audience, as in the ‘Teach the Controversy’ position from the last decade, that would have mandated equal time in public schools.

        Anti-vaxxers, what can we do about them? Andrew Wakefield had his piece retracted and his medical licence revoked. Beyond that, what official sanctions can we offer? Charge them if they provide medical treatment without a licence, and challenge them wherever they are, I guess. And, never let them get away with JAQ-ing off (‘Just Asking Questions’), that weasely means of sowing unreasonable doubt and promoting blatant falsehoods. But never deny them the right to speak, lest that power be turned against those who are closer to truth.

      • Ad Francis says

        Jack: Fair question about anti-vaxxers. Yes, I’d say, let them talk. The state can still coerce vaccination. Free speech is not the same as free action.

        • Jack B. Nimble says

          @Ad Francis

          This article in Slate about censorship of pseudoscience by private actors [Google, Facebook] slipped under my radar, but is very relevant to this discussion:

          I’d also like to point out that ‘free speech’ is an aspirational goal, like curing cancer or eliminating poverty. Until perfection is achieved, some of the intermediate steps or states may seem counter-intuitive, like blasting cancer cells with toxic chemicals or radiation, in the hope of improving health outcomes.

          Similarly, censoring pseudoscience may be justifiable in the intermediate term, particularly since no 1st amendment rights are at stake with private actors. If Google or Facebook were declared to be public utilities, like the 1960s era telephone companies, that would be a different story.

  12. MikeB says

    To paraphrase someone else on a different idea:

    Very lovely theory. Wrong species.

    Which means I agree, intellectually. But what I see around me–a insatiable, lying beast, and his allies, gobbling up the ignorant and shitting out little deplorables everywhere.

  13. dirk says

    Anecdote on holocaust denial: During winter sport in an Alp resort, the discussions at the 5-Uhr Tee with older Austrians at the bar in Stuberl, after some Schnaps, may float in the direction of the War of once. Around every church in those villages is a graveyard with, even now, nicely lit flames on the graves of the village suns and soldiers (18, 20 yrs old, farmer suns )fallen in Russia, Poland, Latvia 75 yrs ago. “What now”, I once heard there, ” is so special of the Holocaust? Genocides happened everywhere, all the time. I figured out 2 reasons why this one is a never ending, almost holy human story. First, it happened in an advanced nation, with a precise administration and modern methods, the ones also used in industry and technology, so belongs to our western world. Second, the victims were people of a highly articulate, intelligent and powerful people. That’s why. The same crimes committed in history by Huns, Seldsjoeks and against indians in the Americas never will get so much attention, outcries and literature”. Was this holocaust denial? No, but mitigation yes. Could this story , as an article or letter to the editor, have been accepted by a European newspaper or journal? No, I think, too painful. Not done, and by most not even written down as a form of selfcensorship. To tell the truth, or to mitigate human tragedies, is a luxury of nations where the wounds are not so deeply inflicted.

    • So if I understood you correctly, the genocide of the native Americans, black American slavery are on the same par as the Holocaust. Downplaying each of these tragedy is a luxury only those not directly involved can afford? But do you think something downplaying genocide of native indians or black slavery (“human history his full of tragedy..”) could have been accepted in Quillette or other media?

      • dirk says

        I just repeated what was told to me in Austria Ava, but could understand why he talked so. He did not talk about slavery, too far away from his home, but that slavery was of course the opposite of genocidal, why would someone finish off his (paid for direly) labour force on the plantations? Against all logic. About the indians, he must have learned that in school (more so than on slavery, I fear).

  14. Steve says

    “Many of the founding fathers were, in fact, scientists who deliberately adapted the method of data gathering, hypothesis testing, and theory formation to their nation building.”

    It is not abuse of the scientific method that is at the heart of today’s malaise. Rather,

    “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

    — John Adams, Oct 11, 1798

    • X. Citoyen says

      Agreed. The historical part of this essay is more than a little anachronistic. The U.S. Constitution was not modeled on the scientific method.

      I did agree with the overall thesis of the piece, though. The false is better challenged. Suppressing it is not possible and only gives it credibility.

  15. dirk says

    To add to Steve’s: Yuval Harari criticised the opening of the Declaration of Independence and called it stuff and nonsense:
    -We hold these truths to be selfevident that all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with.. the unalienable rights….life,liberty and the pursuit of happines-.
    . He corrected this into a more scientific version as follows:
    – We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure-. Quite a different outlook, of course.

    • Steve says

      Indeed. An outlook wholly alien to the founding principles of the United States of America.

      Evolutionary biology — as powerful as it is in explaining the natural backdrop to human existence — alters nothing whatsoever when it comes to these fundamental principles.

      It is irrational to project scientific findings concerning evolution, neurology, etc into realms where they have little if any relevance. This is summarized effectively in Raymond Tallis’ book The Aping of Mankind. A great read for those smart enough to comprehend his arguments (presumably most of the Quillette readership).

  16. Martti O. Suomivuori says

    Meanwhile in Britain, Tommy Robison (aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) is in prison for reporting a trial where “Asian” rape gangs were prosecuted for drugs, forced sex with minors and threats of violence. A cherry on the top of the cake was the hush-up that made reporting the trial a crime.
    This is the state of affairs now. Free speech has gone down the drain because the British government knows very well that it could not control a Muslim uprising in the country any longer.
    Pen stronger than sword? Maybe. But this mob has Kalashnikovs.

  17. Sarah Allsop says

    Brilliant article and I will forward to my daughter in college, who has sadly fallen for the idea that protecting peolple’s feelings trumps speaking the truth. Of course, it is only some people’s feelings that must be spared and not others – a glaring hypocrisy that is overlooked by most commentators on “hate speech”.

    • dirk says

      @Sarah: I hope for you she will read it, and thank her mum for protecting her for youngster follies. But I fear (without knowing her) that she won’t listen and just stick to her type of protective people’s feeling attitude.

  18. I enjoyed the article but I hope the author is not comparing holocaust denial with belief in the existence of certain inherent genetic differences between the races.

  19. dirk says

    Neither do I hope so Kevin, but it seems a recurring theme on Quillette.

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  21. Pst314 says

    “life,liberty and the pursuit of happiness”

    But “happiness” meant something like “full realization of one’s abilities and potential”, not “pleasure”, so Yuval Harari was not “more scientific” but rather failed to understand the text he was criticizing.

    • dirk says

      Indeed, he has something of a cynical, that’s why he sells so good. But I look forward for his new book on human unification.

  22. Bartek says

    While this is valuable essay in general, the part about politics is somewhat messed up. It is so common nowadays to see this false dichotomy of “democracy vs. tyranny”, but according to classic political theory, the opposition of tyranny is monarchy, not democracy (and the opposition of democracy is anarchy). You can have very benign monarchy (when the king cares about the best interest of the people) and very oppressive democracy (via mechanics similar to the prisoner dilemma). You can also have a interesting hybrid arrangements: for example, there were times in imy country, when the kings were actually elected. It definitley resembled an experiment, but – a surprise! – the final result was pretty disastrous to the country…

    Slightly off-topic: the problem with many rationalistic thinkers here, is that they are very biased towards liberal democracy (Quillete needs to invite some so-called Dark Enlightenment thinkers) and also very biased against pre-Enlightenment times (this is probably the result of the fact that American thinkers dominate the discourse, and since USA simply didn’t exist in Medieval times they are unable to appreciate the richness of this epoch and they are repeating the 19th century propaganda about “Dark Ages” – now long and thoroughly debunked).

    • dirk says

      Very good note Bartek, in my newspaper of yesterday, I read about the origin of free partner choice in marriages, as opposite to family arrangements. It all started already in 13th century Western Christian Europe, where it was enough for 2 adult people in love to find a priest to marry them in the name of God, without any consentment of parents and elders. Pre-enlightenment! And there are many other examples.

  23. Timothy E. Siegel says

    There is another reason, too. When belief is suppressed, it actually does not go away, but underground. Then it pops out in really weird ways, like birthirism and the election of Donald Trump. I think an honest discussion is better than people keeping their actual beliefs private, but savaging others in strange ways, based on these hidden beliefs. That has not worked out well for us.

  24. adam says

    “Pretend for a moment that the majority of people deny the Holocaust (or believe that racial and gender differences are real and innate) ”

    I take it you’re not married and you’ve never talked to a married person. Every married person with an open mind knows for a fact that men and women are different – clearly, innately, and wonderfully so.

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  26. Michael Bryson says

    Nice article.. I believe it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who originated the phrase concerning shouting fire in a crowded theater. Potter Stewart’ was the justice who said he couldn’t define obscenity but but would know it when he saw it,.

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