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Happy New Year! #1 Story of 2020: Biology Journal Demands Government Censorship of ID

Photo credit: Shannon Kringen from Seattle [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: Welcome to an Evolution News tradition: a countdown of our Top 10 favorite stories of the past year, concluding today. Our staff have been enjoying the holidays, as we hope that you have done, too!

The following was originally published on May 14, 2020.

It was March 20, 2020, seven days after the U.S. Federal Government declared a national emergency over COVID-19. That was just one day after the country hit the dark milestone of 10,000 verified cases. Most people were focused on coping with new lockdown regulations, social distancing, and radical changes to everyday life. What the White House or the CDC could or should do to counter the virus was a subject of debate. Some scientists, however, had identified a surprising object of needed government action. 

Biologists at the prominent science journal BioEssays issued an urgent call. What was it, you ask? Try new experimental drugs? Rush a vaccine into development? Shut the schools? Open the schools? No — censor Evolution News!

Discovery Institute’s site offers daily analysis of evidence for intelligent design in life and the cosmos. What had we done to spark such an emergency? The timeline seems to be this: The crisis got going after February 11. That day, philosopher of biology Paul Nelson penned a brief post here at Evolution News. Dr. Nelson, a Discovery Institute Senior Fellow, asked “Is Popperian Falsification Useful in Biology?” He was responding to an editorial, from which he borrowed his headline, in BioEssays. Referring to the thought of influential philosopher Karl Popper, Nelson offered his opinion that Popperian falsification is indeed relevant in biology. 

The author of the editorial, biologist Dave Speijer of the University of Amsterdam, read what Nelson had to say and disliked some of the ID proponent’s comments. Speijer was also distraught about a staff-authored article at Evolution News, published back in November 2019. The latter commented on a piece by BioEssays editor Andrew Moore, which Moore titled “That ‘junk’ DNA… is full of information!” 

Speijer condemns the “infamous Discovery Institute, a notorious ‘intelligent design’ (aka ‘creationism in a tuxedo’) think tank.” (Normally they say “creationism in a cheap tuxedo,” so this represents a sartorial upgrade.) A separate post here will respond to the details of Speijer’s objections, offered in justifying his call for censorship. Let’s just say for now that they are bizarre.

A Matter of Time

With videos and other disfavored material being suppressed by YouTube and other social media platforms, where most Americans get our news, it was only a matter of time before would-be Internet censors turned their gaze on us. Speijer submitted his article on February 29, as, incidentally, the U.S. moved to stop travel from Iran and urged citizens to avoid visiting South Korea and Italy. But again, Speijer’s focus was on other perils. Here is the gist of what he wrote. From “Bad Faith Reasoning, Predictable Chaos, and the Truth”:

Nowadays, such sites [as Evolution News] pose as “objective” sources of information. Speaking more generally, spreading misinformation can be linked to climate science denial, vaccination avoidance, and a resurgence of pseudo‐scientific racism. Internet regulations to counter these sources of pseudo‐science are urgently needed….

We have identified the problem; how about the solution? My favorite Thomas Paine quote: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself,” eloquently explains why I am not a great fan of taking down websites. Only the most egregious ones (for instance, those inciting racial violence or denying well‐documented genocide) should be treated thus. But what about the sites discussed in this article? In such cases search engines could have mandatory color coded banners warning of consistent factual errors or unscientific content, masquerading as science. I can almost hear the strongly doubting voices. “The tech giants will never agree to that.” Make them. “It is impossible to draw the line, so how will you make sure that you do not stifle healthy debate?” Whenever one proposes internet regulations along these lines, opponents use such arguments to stop us from doing anything. Yes, the line might be difficult to draw, but below are several clear common‐sense cases where banner warnings should apply. And by all means, let us contribute to debates about the difficult instances: ongoing debates that a mature complex society with evolving insight should have. After all, scientists are not the ones afraid of complexity.

His proposal: “[S]earch engines could have mandatory color coded banners warning of consistent factual errors or unscientific content, masquerading as science.” And what if major technology companies shy from censorship? Then the government should take aggressive action: “Make them.” Let this sink in: the peer-reviewed journal BioEssays published an editorial pushing for government censorship policies to decide which websites the tech giants should be forced to take action against, diminishing the reputation and accessibility of those websites. Specifically, the scientists at BioEssays want to censor intelligent design websites like Evolution News.

Paine-ful Irony

There are a number of ironies here. One is that BioEssays calls for censorship while having the chutzpah to quote from Thomas Paine, a foremost spokesman for free speech in Western democracy. As Speijer notes, Paine said:

An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates his duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.

Yet Speijer’s proposal is the epitome of oppressing and restricting the liberty of those with whom he disagrees. Paine further said, “That government is best which governs least,” but if put into action, the demand from BioEssays would hugely expand government power, creating government policies or even government-backed thought-police boards to determine which ideas are unfit for public consumption and must be censored. 

No Need to Worry

Here’s another irony: the article anticipates resistance from the “tech giants.” On that score, Dr. Speijer should stop worrying so much. A glaring problem, completely off BioEssay’s radar screen, is that Big Tech seems eager to squash ideas they don’t like. Think of YouTube demonetizing Dennis Prager videosTwitter deciding which tweets ought to come with COVID-19 warning labels, or Facebook appointing a “Supreme Court” to decide which kinds of posts will be tolerated.

Far from balking at censorship, the tech companies are already willing collaborators in efforts to squeeze out ideas that don’t fit their preferred perspective. Be prepared. There is no reason to think that this could not happen to Discovery Institute, Evolution News, and others who urge a fair consideration of design evidence.

Here is Tom Paine again: “If I do not believe as you believe, it proves that you do not believe as I believe, and that is all that it proves.” But as for Dave Speijer, if you do not believe as he believes, then that proves you need to be censored.

Paine also said: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.”

Like most censors, Dr. Speijer thinks his proposals are entirely reasonable and warranted. He writes, “below are several clear common‐sense cases where banner warnings should apply.” Wait until you see what triggered him. You’ll be shocked at how benign and careful our original comments were, how unwilling ID-critics are to hear any form of criticism, and how the accusations they make against us are, with striking irony, applicable to their own rhetorical tactics. If Speijer’s thinking catches hold in this changing media and cultural environment, Western democracy is in bigger trouble even than it seems to be at the moment.