Arguing for a Police State: Slate Suggests Google Censor Vaccine Safety Advocates
A recent article at Slate.com suggests that search engines such as Google have a responsibility to police online content, specifically that which questions, among other things, vaccine effectiveness. In the author’s opinion, websites that suggest that vaccines may be less than 100% safe should be marked with a banner or some such thing that advises the viewer that the content on the website is not in accordance with the scientific community.
There are obvious flaws with this line of thinking, quite apart from the fact that such a move not just raises First Amendment issues, but also has distinct overtones of authoritarianism. The mark of any vibrant society is the free flow of ideas. This is particularly true in the scientific realm, where ideas that initially seem far-fetched or incorrect can end up overturning long-established beliefs (Galileo, anyone?!) The end result of the author’s policy would be to limit such dialogue, and the ability of such dialogue to lead to advances that improve living conditions for us all.
The author argues that “The trick here is to come up with a database of disputed claims that itself would correspond to the latest consensus in modern science” – that is, all websites should be checked to see if their content contradicts what scientists hold to be true. However, oftentimes what science holds to be true today is entirely different from what it holds to be true tomorrow. Just consider the oral polio vaccine. Long considered to be entirely safe, it is now not administered in the United States because it can cause vaccine-associated paralytic polio in children. By the author’s own logic, anyone who pointed this out before it became an accepted scientific fact would be subject to a Google banner suggesting that this information was incorrect, even though what they said was true.
In addition, would this censorship extend to genuine scientific articles? Google Scholar has millions of articles online, many of which do contradict established scientific writings. These articles are based on exhaustive research and scientific study. Are these, too, going to be discredited? Or does that only go for those websites that report their conclusions?
There are other issues with this article as well – for instance, its focus on “anti-vaccine activism” seems bizarre in a world where websites which feature hate speech or pornography are freely available and politicians’ claims are parroted by established media sources even when they are patently false. The author does his best to delegitimize those of us who call for vaccine safety and informed consent, reducing the movement to Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield. He notes that McCarthy, a figure in the vaccine safety movement, has nearly 500,000 Twitter followers, implying that all of these followers must likewise question vaccine safety and that her rhetoric poses a major threat to ‘established scientists’ such as Richard Dawkins, who has 300,000 followers. Nowhere is it suggested that perhaps she has that many followers because she is an actress and a celebrity. Another actor and celebrity, Ashton Kutcher, has over NINE MILLION followers, and nobody suggests all of those agreed that the firing of Joe Paterno in the wake of the UPenn scandal was an “insult” and “in poor taste.”
Nowhere is it mentioned that, as in the case of the oral polio vaccine above, there are often reasons for parents and members of the medical community to doubt the efficacy of certain drugs. I suppose it’s just easier to dismiss all of these people as either greedy or stupid: “hard-core opponents of vaccination … are too vested in upholding their contrarian theories; some have consulting and speaking gigs to lose while others simply enjoy a sense of belonging to a community, no matter how kooky.”
I could continue to pick out the flaws in this article but, really, they’re not important. The bottom line is that the internet as it exists today is one of the greatest sources for information and dialogue today. Crippling that dialogue with arbitrary definitions of what is “right” and “wrong” would not just limit free speech – it would also reduce our ability, as a nation, to draw attention to the problems that exist, in contemporary science and the world around us. And that, in turn, would mean even more delays in the solutions to the issues that plague us as a society.
Note: this article has been amended to correct the name of the publishing website to Slate.