Freedom. How can anyone be against freedom? The simple answer is that people generally are not against freedom. It is often a core value in various political ideologies and play a central role in the law of many counties to the point of being ingrained in our social conscious. Therefore, predictably, a lot of pseudoscientific cranks abuse the notion of freedom for their own malevolent goals. Claims about health freedom is used to attack science-based medicine and promote dangerous and non-effective “treatments”. Holocaust denial is defended by appealing to freedom of speech. Various forms of creationism or climate change denialism is infiltrating education via academic freedom bills.
A typical defense of quack medicine or anti-vaccination is talking about health freedom. Surely, people should be able to decide for themselves what type of medication they put in their bodies? Sure, but promoting anti-science quackery negates informed consent, because patients are basing their decision on false information. So, in an ironic twist of events, quack medicine is actually incompatible with real health freedom: the ability to decide what treatment is most rational for yourself based on the best available scientific evidence. Real health freedom also means freedom from cranks that exploit you for money and access to the standard of care from modern medicine. For quack medicine providers, health care freedom is a malevolent method for avoiding science-based quality control while still providing substandard care. Often far substandard care.
“Freedom of Speech”
In Obliterating The Free Speech Objection to Criticism, I took on the free speech objection in its most general form: the central fallacy was that such an objection confused free speech with the (non-existent) right to stand unchallenged. In this section, I will be taking on a more subtle and subversive formulation.
A common defense of the ability for Holocaust deniers is to spew their nonsense on university campuses is to point out that those that see the problem with this is against free speech. This is erroneous because free speech is about how governments are not allowed, with rare exceptions, to limit your speech. The right to free speech does not itself regulate what universities and other private institutions are allowed to disallow. They are perfectly within their right not to have Holocaust deniers spreading their misinformation. This of course also ties into another common denialist tactic, namely playing the martyr card. By not being allowed to hold talks at universities, they consider themselves oppressed by the establishment. In reality, the university is just upholding basic intellectual and academic standards. They think that it is more important to avoid giving holocaust denial and hate a platform and they are within their right to think that and act on it by not allowing holocaust deniers to hold talks on their property.
There are laws against holocaust denial in certain countries. There are problems with these laws, but free speech is not absolute, not even in the United States. The main concern is that free speech has to be balanced against other consequentialist goals. While such a discussion requires more than a single blog post, there are reasons to question free speech absolutism and to accept at least some free speech restrictions, such as false advertisement, concrete threats of harm, child pornography etc. Whether holocaust denial should fall under free speech restrictions is a matter of debate: on the one hand it may increase the power of playing the martyr card, but on the other, it may give a platform for antisemitism and racism.
In recent years, bills appealing to academic freedom to allow teachers to teach creationism and intelligent design has resurfaced in various U. S. states. The academic freedom argument existed in previous forms in creationism as well, but it is exploded with the emergence of intelligent design creationism. The general idea is this: teachers supposedly have an academic freedom to teach what they see fit, and any regulation of that is oppression. In reality, academic freedom for teachers has to do with their right to write e. g. letters to the editor, publish or discuss research without facing repercussions from the school they are working on. Academic freedom does not allow teachers to teach whatever they want, such as creationism, drugs are cool, that HIV does not exist etc. Teachers are bound by the education standards in their state.
Appealing to “freedom” to defend pseudoscience is a socially successful strategy, but intellectually bankrupt. In reality, they represent the exact opposite of freedom. Spreading misinformation about medical treatments denies the patient the ability to make informed decision about their health and spreading creationism in the education system is unfair to both teachers, students and society. In this context, freedom ought to mean the freedom from pseudoscientific propaganda and misinformation. They are abusing the notion of freedom, their actions reflect badly on social libertarians, and it is a distraction from issues of real freedom violations occurring around the world.
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References and further reading
Novella, S. (2008). Health Care Freedom. Science-Based Medicine. Accessed: 2012-08-26.
NCSE. (2008). Academic Freedom. National Center for Science Education. Accessed: 2012-08-26.