From Science Matters
By Ron Clutz
Ross McKitrick writes at Financial Post Policing misinformation from the misinformation police. Excerpt in italics with my bolds and added images.
State-sponsored ‘experts’ on ‘misinformation’ are typically the worst offenders
As citizens of a liberal democracy Canadians have long believed that only the free contest of differing points of view can produce genuine intellectual progress. But now we are told we face a crisis of “misinformation” that calls for vigorous censorship of heretical opinion. On all of today’s major public controversies, we are asked to believe, all of us would enthusiastically assent to the one obviously correct view (which happens to be the view promulgated by the governing class) were it not for the pernicious influence of a shadowy conspiracy of social-media traffickers in misinformation — voices that must be suppressed for the good of society.
In his 1859 essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill decisively rebutted this argument. “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion,” he wrote, “is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.” It is one thing, Mill argues, if the holders of received opinion conclude their view is correct because, though challenged, it has not been refuted; but another thing altogether if it’s simply assumed true and challenge is therefore forbidden.
Yet that’s precisely the position of today’s would-be “misinformation” police.
In reality, state-sponsored “experts” on “misinformation” are typically the worst offenders. Presuming themselves infallible, they call for new laws to shut everyone else up.
In the climate domain, a group called the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) boasts a Climate Disinformation Team consisting of five staff members, all trained in arts or political science (none in economics or physical sciences) who have put out a long report (and follow-up) supposedly documenting these networks of online misinformation and calling for new legislation and stricter rules for social media companies to combat it.
The reports feature screenshots of social media posts that critique
alarmist climate claims or the high costs of climate policy.
The ISD does not rebut but simply displays these posts — as if their mere existence is proof censorship is needed. For instance, they say “Calling into question the viability and effectiveness of renewable energy sources is a common practice among climate sceptics and delayist actors,” and then show a series of social media posts pointing out problems associated with wind and solar power systems. But wind and solar power systems do have problems, including intermittency and the need for costly fossil-fuel backups. To suggest otherwise is itself misinformation.
Closer to home, an organization called the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), which purports to draw on top experts in Canada to give guidance to policy-makers, recently issued a report on “science and health misinformation” that concludes society would benefit from more vigorous efforts to suppress debate and ban more people from social media.
Much of the report consists of finger-wagging against anyone
who questioned anti-COVID public health measures.
For instance: “(O)ngoing claims that mask wearing is ineffective or even harmful have shifted firmly into the realm of misinformation.” Meanwhile, back in science, a newly-published, peer-reviewed meta-analysis summarizing 10 randomized control trials involving nearly 277,000 people concludes that “Wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of influenza-like illness (ILI)/COVID-19 like illness compared to not wearing masks.” So who’s spreading misinformation?
The CCA report also has much to say about supposed climate misinformation. But again none of the authors is an economist or climate scientist. The closest they come to an “expert” is a psychologist who has spent years studying, or more precisely denigrating, skeptical climate blogs and their contributors. In several places, the CCA report relies on his 2012 article asserting that climate skepticism is correlated with a wide set of dubious conspiracies, such as believing the moon landing was a hoax. But it fails to mention a 2015 statistical critique published in the same journal that showed its conclusions “are not supported by the data.”
CCA brags about its peer review process, saying reviewers were selected for their “diverse perspectives and areas of expertise.” But again the reviewers did not include climate scientists or economists; nor is there any evidence of diversity of perspectives. As a rule, one-sided and unimpressive polemicists constitute the CCA’s “expert team.”
And yet CCA complains (at length) about the public’s declining trust in scientific institutions.
To the extent the CCA report offers any factual assertions about climate change, it points to “catastrophic events” such as “droughts, floods, and wildfires exacerbated by climate change.” It fails to mention, however, that Chapter 11 of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says, concerning droughts, that “Global studies generally show no significant trends” and that in most places around the world there’s “inconclusive evidence” tying droughts to human-induced climate change. In North America in particular there’s “low confidence in the attribution of long-term changes in meteorological drought.”
Regarding floods, “In general, there is low confidence in attributing changes in the probability or magnitude of flood events to human influence because of a limited number of studies, differences in the results of these studies and large modelling uncertainties.” As for wildfires, they have been trending down globally for the past decade. In Canada, according to the Canadian National Fire Database, both the number of forest fires and total area burned peaked in the late 1980s and has been declining ever since. Yet again the CCA offers misinformation to support its case for more censorship.
Here’s a better idea. Ignore the CCA and the ISD
and all the other would-be enforcers of orthodoxy.
Drop the fixation on “misinformation,” which is just the latest iteration of the same old desire of governments to censor their opponents. Allow the public the freedom, as Mill counselled, to hear arguments “from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them.” A dangerous thought in 1859, and judging by the current misinformation craze, an utter heresy today; yet true nonetheless.
Ross McKitrick is a professor of economics at the University of Guelph and senior fellow of the Fraser Institute.
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