The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared measles eradicated in 2000. But less than 20 years later, we’re seeing record outbreaks again. The United States has 800 known cases. Europe is far, far worse with 34,000 cases.
How did we lose so much progress in such a short amount of time? It’s not hard to find the answer: An increasing number of individuals are choosing not to vaccinate their children.
I don’t write about the anti-vaccine movement much. But it’s closely related to the anti-science movement plaguing agriculture. The science is clear: Vaccines are incredibly effective and safe. And yet celebrities, self-proclaimed experts, and snake-oil salesman have hijacked the conversation. They’ve exploited social media and turned it into a platform for their misinformation campaign.
And the social-media giants have noticed. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Pinterest. GoFundMe. And, even, Amazon. They’ve all taken steps to censor anti-vaccine messages on their platforms. It’s probably too little too late. But all of them realize they don’t want to be left holding the bag when people start pointing fingers.
I initially applauded these moves. We should silence this crazy nonsense. It’s literally managed to bring back a disease we thought we had beat once and for all. Children (and adults) are needlessly suffering because of it. Of course censorship is the solution.
And what if we could move to censor other speech, like anti-GMO messaging? We could eliminate so, so many problems!
But I realized that’s the wrong approach. And censorship is actually kinda scary.
I acknowledge social-media platforms aren’t the government (for now …). And, through the terms and conditions that every user agrees to, these companies have every right to disallow certain people or certain messages from using their websites. There is no such thing as “free speech” on Facebook. And Twitter doesn’t have to allow conspiracy theorists equal access. These platforms have every right to censor our speech.
But that doesn’t mean they should.
What about all those anti-vaxxers that we don’t like? We need to put a stop to them!
See, it’s easy to support censorship when we don’t like the message, because it makes our position a whole lot easier. We don’t have to do anything to support our point-of-view. We win by simply shutting-up the other side. And who doesn’t want to win without doing anything?
Well, quite obviously, the people told to take a hike. It isn’t a stretch to imagine how agriculture could be negatively impacted by censorship. If the powers-that-be decide organic farming is the only sustainable option for the future, maybe conventional farmers don’t need Facebook pages. If the masses conclude GMOs are dangerous and scary, maybe biotechnology supporters don’t deserve Twitter handles. And if we don’t like an expert calling out a snake-oil salesman, maybe making him stop is easier than labeling him a shill.
So what’s the solution? More speech. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis gave a stirring defense of free speech in his concurring opinion for Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927). And while he meticulously lays out his argument, this stands out to me: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
In other words, we don’t win an argument by making the other guy shut-up. We win by making our case, exposing the other side, and using speech to convince others. We point out the flaws used by those opposing us. We argue better. Sure, it takes more time. But that’s the remedy.
So if that’s true (and I’d wager it is), how did we end up with a measles outbreak 20 years after the disease was eradicated? Science should win. Common sense should prevail. Logic is superior.
And this is where we get to the real problem humans are facing. It isn’t free speech and an array of ideas. Our problem is that we don’t know how to think critically. Our population doesn’t know how to evaluate evidence. We can’t weed out liars and charlatans. We don’t understand the science and technology powering our world. So we accept what sounds good or fits into our biased perspectives.
Here’s the even worse news: I’m not sure how we fix it. It’s a problem that has plagued humans for our entire history. From superstitions to magic potions to a multi-million-dollar supplement industry, we’ve always lacked critical-thinking skills. So I don’t know how we evolve into something better. And, honestly, it sometimes feels like we can’t.
But I do know that censorship isn’t the answer. Because eventually the essential-oil believers and Dr. Ozes control the message. And they silence us.
The only option is to fight bad speech with more good speech. We have to learn about marketing. We have to understand effective communication. We support science education. We earn trust. We connect with people. We find ways to get our message to resonate. That’s how we win.
That’s the only way to win.
But, yeah, I get it. Censoring anti-vaxxers feels pretty good.
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.