Yesterday, the Chair of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis wrote an ominous letter to the CEO of Google. For the second time, the Chair is leaning on Google to police and remove “dangerous climate misinformation” on YouTube. The letter doesn’t threaten direct legal action against Google, but it nonetheless raises serious concern because it runs so counter to the free speech tradition and the value of a robust internet.
According to the Chair, “YouTube has been driving millions of viewers to climate misinformation videos every day, a shocking revelation that runs contrary to Google’s important missions of fighting misinformation and promoting climate action.” The Chair states her own unequivocal commitment to “promoting ambitious federal policy that will … eliminate barriers to action, including those as pervasive and harmful as climate denial and climate misinformation.” It’s hard not to see the veiled threat here.
Note the letter’s subtle casting of the consumers of information as passive actors that must be protected, rather than rational actors who choose what information to consume, a choice they’re entitled to make. She says “YouTube has been driving millions of viewers to climate misinformation” and that Google should “correct the record for millions of users who have been exposed to climate misinformation.” This language strips accountability and action from the viewers, as if they are a captive audience held down and forced to view climate denial videos with eyelid clamps like a scene from A Clockwork Orange. But if that content is promoted and viewed, that’s because there’s a consumer demand for it. The passive language used in the letter exemplifies the paternalism that often lurks behind censorship: for their own welfare, we must protect the public from information they wish to consume.
Note also the absolutism woven into the letter. Google cannot both be committed to climate action and committed to an open culture of public discourse. In the war for humanity’s survival, one priority must dominate above all others.
The letter also relies on the tired tactic of impugning speakers’ motives. Anyone who expresses “climate misinformation” on YouTube just wants “to protect polluters and their profits at the expense of the American people.” It’s impossible for an absolutist to consider that views opposed to her own might be sincerely held. Plus, research has shown that political views frequently do not line up with individual self-interest. Only a shallow thinker or someone with an agenda assumes a political viewpoint is rooted in a selfish motive.
As for the constitutional implications of the letter, there is no question that the federal government cannot impose on Google the duty to remove “climate misinformation” or “climate denial” content. False speech is not exiled from the sanctuary of First Amendment protection. Of course, some false speech can be penalized, such as libel, slander, or fraud. But these are circumstances where there’s some other legally cognizable harm associated with the false statement for which recovery is warranted. There is no general rule that false speech is unprotected.
Government should never be in the position of arbitrating truth. Particularly in the context of hotly debated political controversies, allowing government to label one side as gospel and penalize dissidents opens the door to legally enshrined orthodoxy. As Justice Robert Jackson said 80 years ago: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” That’s what the power to ban “climate misinformation” entails.
Indeed, government refereeing of truth will almost always shade toward discrimination against disfavored viewpoints. For example, there is “misinformation” out there on both sides of the climate debate. Those who peddle wild doomsday predictions are just as unhinged as those denying the realities of climate change. Yet the Chair does not propose to censor such misinformation.
When I see such zealous effort to shut someone up, I can’t help but ask myself why the censor is so afraid. The targeting of this speech is likely only draw attention to it. Why worry about the hacks? I’ve always believed what John Milton expressed centuries ago in the Areopagitica: “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Of course, that doesn’t mean that falsehoods lack convincing power, but truth in the end has the edge. Rather than pick the winner in advance, we do much better by letting truth emerge through open debate, bloodied but victorious.
- Libertarians can’t save the planet (but is this a bad thing?) John Quiggin, Jacobin
- Great piece on class and contemporary film in the US Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
- Against the “balance sheet” approach to colonialism (or, how Leftists turn conservative) Robert Heinze, Africa is a Country
- If a monopoly gives away free services is it a problem? Izabella Kaminska, Alphaville
There is a new UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. It contains nothing but bad news, of course. But I am busy with my real life; I have obligations to others; I have to feed myself and shower; I even go to the gym regularly. What to do? Just trust a hysterical sixteen-year-old? (Yes, I mean Greta.)
When someone or something claims that there is, has been, change in something I perceive might be important, I apply the following four quick tests. I do this to decide how much I must attention I should pay to the change news.
1 Source credibility
Not all sources are created equal. Some stink, some have a long record of being reliable. The Wall Street Journal is one of the latter. Almost all anonymous internet sources are not even sources. The National Enquirer will publish anything (although it has had a few remarkable scoops). Normal sixteen-year old girls are only credible when they pronounce on show biz stars or on something related to a skill they have personally acquired, such as piano or gymnastics.
2 Main text: description of process
I scrutinize the description at the heart of the announcement of change though only for a short time. Does the process described make sense? Is it derived in an intelligible way from a study, or studies, that conform to conventional scientific, or other scholarly standards? If no claim is made that they do, they don’t, ever. If there is such a claim, there can still be abuse but there will shortly be a denunciation, in most cases, at least.
3 Narrative around description
Most change descriptions not directly in a scholarly journal come wrapped up inside a narrative. The narrative is often more interesting than the findings to which they are supposed to be linked. That’s intentional but dangerous. Suppose your doctor carefully measures your heartbeat and records his observations. Suppose that then, he gives you a very good lecture on the faults of Social Security. However valid the latter is, it should gain no authority whatsoever from the impeccable measurement of you heartbeat. This is a crude example but people do this sort of things all the time. Do you think climate activist do?
I ask myself how tightly connected the narrative is to the straightforward description of the relevant change? Often the answer is: barely, sometimes: not at all.
4 Gauging critically the order of magnitude of change
Suppose I tell you that I have lost weight. (I could use that.) Courtesy requires that you congratulate me but rationality demands that you ask: How much? If my response is one ounce, you will tend to dismiss my announcement and you will be right. One ounce out of 220 lbs is like nothing. (That’s aside from the fact that it might actually be nothing, a measurement error.)
The mysterious issue of “statistical significance” (that I will resist going into here though I am tempted) is only indirectly related to this matter. A difference between before and after, for example, may be statistically significant but yet, completely unimportant.
The short Wall Street Journal piece (1) covering the publication of the report is rich in narrative and short on figures. (That’s usually the case with climate change announcements, I think.) On rare figure drew my attention:
In the past 140 years -covering most but not quite all of the Industrial Age – global surface temperatures have risen by one (unit) degree Celsius.
To give you a practical idea, that’s not enough of a rise to cause me to take off my cotton sweater, or even to unbutton the top of my shirt. If the temperature rose by only one C between 8 am and noon, I would think something was wrong with the weather! I can easily believe that at this rate, in another 1400 years, it will be ten degree centigrade (Celsius) warmer and, we will still be here. That’s unless something else, something much more likely, like an epidemic. wipes us out. (2) and (3).
As this example illustrates, it may often be wise too reverse the critical sequence described above. Why bother to assess the source credibility associated with an announced change, or the conformity of the description change process to good scientific practice, or check out the attachment of the surrounding narratives to the process in the description, why do all this if the measured change is too small to merit attention?
My more complete ruminations on climate change skepticism are in Liberty Unbound: “Climate Change Denier.”
1 “U.N. Panel Sees Threat to Ocean” – by Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal 9/26/19, P. A8.
2 I am well aware that this is a sort of arithmetic average. Surface temperature may have gone up more in some areas and less in others. They may have declined in some places. If the subject is dealt with, it will be in: Watts Up with That.
3 The WSJ accounts implies that the UN report is oddly concerned with fisheries. This is odd because fishermen have known forever that there are warm and cool patches at the same latitude in the oceans. They also know that those shift positions and that the positions of such warm and cool patches affect the movements of fish.
Santa Cruz, California is really Silicon Valley Beach. It’s the closest; the next one is quite far. That’s in addition to drawing visitors from deep into the Central Valley of California, and a surprising number of European visitors.
One attractive beach close to its municipal wharf has only two (2) toilets. On Labor Day weekend Sunday, one of the two toilets was out of order. I estimate there were between 500 and a thousand people on that particular beach.
The day before, Labor Day weekend Saturday, the same toilet was already out of order. It was still out of order on Monday, Labor Day itself.
It was only a few months ago that the City of Santa Cruz joined a class action suit by a number of government entities against major oil companies for causing climate change. The first judge to look at the suit send the plaintiffs packing, of course.
So, this city of 60,000 wants to stop global warming but it does not have the ability to place two working toilets at the disposal of hundred of visitors who leave thousands of dollars in its coffers. The city cannot afford to hire a competent plumber on an emergency basis to fix the problem immediately. It does not have the timeX2 that would be required. Make it timeX3 on the outside. The total would come to $500 tops. Make it $1,000. It does not change anything.
The same happened last year or the year before. Surprise!
This is pathetic. We are governed by morons. Their gross incompetence is not natural, I am guessing. It’s learned stupidity. Our fault. We vote them in – with big help from UC Santa Cruz undergraduates who don’t care one way or the other, just want to feel good by electing “progressives.”
No one told our City Manager that Labor Day weekend, and its crowds, were coming. How was he supposed to know?