Tag: <span>Scott Adams</span>

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Global Warming?

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

I mentioned in my last post that there were several controversial topics that I had never covered, and I promised to rectify that. Well, as they say there’s no time like the present. You can probably guess from the title which topic that will be. Yes, the first subject I’m going to tackle is global warming. I probably don’t need to point out that this is a controversial topic, so I expect to get some flack, but I go where the truth takes me! Or at least where my completely subjective, inadequately informed, culturally biased perception of the truth takes me…

I’m not the only one who’s been talking about global warming recently, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, who I’ve mentioned in this space before, has been spending a significant amount of time on it as well. Before going farther, I know that many people think Scott Adams has gone off the deep end. And I, personally, am a little bit tired of his repeated references to persuasion and hypnotism. Also, I think he sometimes engages in the bias of massaging his predictions after the fact to make them look better, but you know what? He would be the first to admit that he’s biased, and that he has biases he’s not even aware of. And whether or not he massages his predictions, he still called it for Trump over a year in advance, of the election, when very few people were. In other words, if we’re looking at whose side everyone is on in whatever weird battle is currently taking place, I think I’m on Adams’ side (particularly if there are only two sides.)

I bring Adams up because he’s been hammering home a point that I think is critical to understanding the issues and policy associated with global warming, i.e. it may be less about the facts and more about which side is the better persuader. Now, Adams is an absolute fiend for persuasion (as I said I’m a little sick of it) and so he would say something like this, but despite that I think he makes a very important and frequently overlooked point, in short, that global warming advocates may have overshot the mark.

In order to understand why that might be the case we need to begin by defining what global warming is. This may seem like an unnecessary first step, but the problem is that one of the ways in which advocates have overshot the mark is by bundling everything together, and in order to understand things we have to first unbundle the various assumptions if we really want to know what’s going on. The best way to do this is through a series of questions.

The first and most basic question: Is the Earth getting hotter? Much of the debate about global warming occurs at this level. On the one side you’ll see headlines like February 2017: Earth’s 2nd Warmest February and 4th Warmest Month in Recorded History. And on the other side you might see someone claim that there was no appreciable warming from February 1997 through November of 2015. This is the debate about whether any global warming is actually happening. For my own part I’m convinced that it is. The evidence is substantial. But as usual the point is not to convince you to agree with me, but to dissect things in such a way that you understand it better.

At this level what is frequently happening is what Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow called the substitution fallacy (also the Masked-Man fallacy), where people substitute an easy question for a hard question. The hard question is “Should we completely remake the world economy to prevent global warming?” That’s a really difficult question, so people substitute, “Is the Earth getting warmer?” That’s an easier question to answer. And of course it should be pointed out that some people go one step farther to, “Did summer seem especially hot?” Often the substitution happens as the question is being asked. It’s far more common to hear, “Should we do something about global warming?” Than any questions involving carbon pricing or emission sequestration. And of course we should probably do something, but that’s pretty broad.

Once we’ve determined that yes, the Earth is getting hotter, the next question is, is it getting hotter because of human activity? The background temperature of deep space is -455 degrees fahrenheit. The average temperature of the Earth is around 57 degrees fahrenheit. Which means that the sun provides 512 degrees of warmth. If the average temperature of the earth goes up to 59 degrees, it’s not insane to argue that perhaps the warmth of the sun increased by 0.005%. I used to see arguments along these lines fairly often, but I haven’t seen them recently. I think the consensus is that the Earth is getting warmer, and humans are causing it through the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide. That’s certainly where I would put my money. Still how often do you see anyone try and separate warming from human activity. I think 99.5% of people don’t make any distinction between the two, and they’re probably totally correct not to, but you can see from even the short example I gave that it’s not ridiculous to do so.

Third, is global warming a bad thing? Or more specifically are the downsides to a warmer planet worse than the upsides? Not all change is bad. If manna started falling from heaven, ending world hunger, then despite the potential increase in obesity I think people would argue, that on the balance, it was a good thing. As far as global warming goes, we hear about a lot of bad things, the flooding of coastal cities, a plague of tropical diseases, worse hurricanes, etc. But we don’t hear much about any benefits. Is it possible that global warming is 100% bad, that everything gets worse with rising temperature? I suppose so, but that seems unlikely. There’s probably some benefits. I completely understand why none of the advocates would want to mention any potential benefits, but there are almost certainly a few of them.

I just recently read a book called Twilight of Abundance. I know someone, somewhere recommended it to me, but I’m not even sure who it was. I probably wouldn’t recommend it, but it was interesting. The author, David Archibald, is a global warming skeptic, and a Malthusian. His big worry is that you have lots of countries, with serious population growth, which already import from half to 90% of their food. And therefore the biggest problem, in his opinion, is feeding those people. He doesn’t believe global warming is happening, but if it is, he thinks it would be a good thing, particularly if it increased the amount of arable land in places like Siberia. As I said I don’t think I’d recommend the book, but I also don’t think his opinions are so out there that they’re not even worth mentioning. Bill Gates was quoted as saying something broadly similar in an article about global warming a while back when he mentioned that if we don’t do something we’ll end up running the “2-degree experiment”. In other words no one is 100% sure what will happen when temperatures go up, it’s an experiment. I totally agree that it would be better if we didn’t conduct the experiment at all, but I think it’s implausible that rising temperatures won’t bring any benefits.

Fourth, now that we’ve established that the planet is warming, humans are causing it, and it’s a net bad thing, we have to ask, “How Bad?” If unchecked global warming will unquestionably cause humanity’s extinction, then that calls for far more extreme measures, than if it’s just going to cause everything to have to move a few more meters above sea level. Obviously, I don’t want to minimize the disruption caused by a sea level rise of several meters, but it’s not the same thing as the end of humanity. And we shouldn’t treat it the same way either. The third question, essentially asked, should we do anything? This fourth question asks how much should we do. If it means the end of humanity then nothing is off limits. But if it’s not that bad then the question of what we should do becomes a lot more complex.

Beyond this point there are other ways to break the issue down. We might ask what the US and China should be doing vs. what countries in Sub-Saharan Africa should be doing. We might get into the fact that sea levels could actually fall in certain places. Or we might get into minutia, like Climategate or cow farts. But I think we’ll stop it here. The key thing I wanted to illustrate was that when people speak of global warming they generally combine all four of these questions into a single assertion that unless we do something radical, anthropogenic human warming will cause the end of humanity. And maybe it will. You know I’m very careful about predicting the future. But if we’re going to speak intelligently about global warming it’s important to examine the various links in the chain. Too many people translate “February temperatures reach record high” into “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!” And the two are not remotely the same thing.

This is something of a tangent, but before we go any farther it’s important to talk about climate change denial. By not immediately denouncing all denial as a crime akin to torturing kittens, and in fact even using the word “interesting” to describe some of the ideas, certain people may be assuming that I should be considered a “denier” as well. If that’s what you think, I doubt anything I can say will change your mind, which is too bad because reasonable disagreements and debates are one of the best ways to get at the truth, and that can’t happen if we only have access to one side. I would allow that there are certain situations of extreme emergency where debate has to be suspended, but I don’t see any reason for placing global warming in that category.

In any case I think “deniers” have had minimal impact on what’s actually happened. It’s not as if some charismatic denier kept us from taking the easy and obvious steps to prevent global warming. Doing anything about global warming is difficult, costly and politically unpopular even in the absence of doubt. In order to assume deniers have done any damage you have to show me where there was some credible path to stop global warming and it failed specifically because climate change deniers swung things the other way. As in, imagine voters in the Appalachian coal country who voted against something involving global warming specifically because they thought global warming wasn’t real and not because of the far more tangible fear that the legislation might cost them their jobs. I don’t think this has ever been the case. I understand lots of people have doubts about global warming, but that’s almost never the primary reason for doing one thing rather than another. Our hypothetical residents of coal country may have had doubts about global warming in addition to their fear of unemployment, but changing their belief in global warming would not have changed their votes. In any event I reject the idea that you can’t bring up the possibility that something might be wrong. End of tangent.

Having broken down the global warming debate into these various stages, maybe you can start to see why global warming advocates may have overshot the mark, but if not let me provide a metaphor. Imagine if you gave a very difficult test to a bunch of high school students, and told them that if they got a perfect score they could go to a good college, but that if they missed even one question it would be the same as if they missed all the questions. How hard would these high school students try? Sure you might have a couple of overachievers who really gave it 100%, but most kids would check out the minute they came to a question they didn’t know. This, in my opinion, is what the current state of global warming advocacy looks like, particularly when it’s framed as an apocalyptic, extinction level event. It’s a really hard test that we have to ace. And yes there are some overachievers out there who are really trying, but most people are essentially high school students who are going to check out the minute you tell them they can’t have a hamburger.

If you disagree with this metaphor, perhaps you’re not aware of how hard the test is. Fortunately as I was working on this post Vox.com published an article laying out the exact details. Titled: Scientists made a detailed “roadmap” for meeting the Paris climate goals. It’s eye-opening. I agree that it’s eye-opening and I would recommend reading the whole article, but just to give you some highlights:

  • All new cars have to be electric by 2030. Currently, electrical cars are at around 1%, at least in the US. To go from 1% to 100% in 13 years would be one of the most amazing accomplishments ever. How many people do you know that even have a purely electrical car? Now imagine that everyone you know has one…
  • Carbon capture has to get to five gigatons per year by 2050. In other words we have to be removing 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and putting it somewhere where it can’t escape. Currently, as best I can tell we are doing effectively zero carbon capture right now. But, by 2050, the article says, we would have to be capturing twice as much carbon as all the trees and soil on the entire planet.
  • In addition to perfecting carbon capture, there are a host of other technologies we’d have to invent. In particular we have to come up with a low carbon way for producing steel and concrete. We’d have to grow food with zero carbon emissions from land use. We’d have to make a huge investment in nuclear energy or invent much more effective batteries.
  • Finally we have to cut carbon dioxide emissions in half every decade. Currently the US, China and India are responsible for half of all emissions. Imagine that all three countries had to be completely carbon neutral by 2030. And then of course you have to halve it again in 2040, and then you have to halve it again by 2050.

All of this has to be done while at the same time the population continues to grow to 9.7 billion. As perhaps the best illustration of how difficult it is I refer you to another article also from Vox.com, where they talk about a “remarkable slowdown” in emissions. If you look at the article you’ll see that the remarkable slowdown is just emissions being flat for the last few years. If emissions need to go down by 90% while population increases by 50% then staying constant is not a “remarkable” slowdown it’s horrible.

I’ve talked about how difficult it’s going to be, but I haven’t talked about how bad it is if we fail. As I said above if this threatens the extinction of humanity we should do whatever it takes. But as far as I can tell it doesn’t. I haven’t seen a credible scenario on how global warming wipes out all of humanity. I see how it makes things really bad, how progress might be set back 50 years, and even where some people die. But I don’t see any scenario where it kills every last human. A few months ago I read the book Global Catastrophic Risks, which is a comprehensive examination of everything that might wipe out humanity, and while they have a chapter on climate change their conclusion is:

The key point to emphasize in the context of catastrophic risk is that this warming is expected to be quite smooth and stable. No existing best guess state-of-the-art model predicts any sort of surprising non-linear disruption in terms of the global mean temperature.

In other words there’s no tipping point where the Earth suddenly gets 50 degrees hotter. Further on it says:

While it’s true that a global mean temperature rise of 4℃ would probably constitute dangerous climate change on most metrics, it would not necessarily be catastrophic in the sense of being a terminal threat. The challenges they suggest our descendents will face look tough, but endurable.

If global warming is “tough but endurable” what’s really at stake? Generally when you talk about some big potential catastrophe what you’re really talking about is people dying. I am not an expert, but it doesn’t appear that global warming is bad because of all the lives that are stake. Yes, some people will die as a result of global warming whether it’s hurricanes, or tropical diseases or something else. But as I also pointed out it’s possible, maybe even likely that more people will be saved from hunger. I’ve already touched on that idea, but briefly, at a minimum we’re looking at longer growing seasons, an abundance of carbon dioxide, which plants love, and additionally, unlike how it’s often portrayed, a warmer world is a wetter world. So if people’s lives aren’t at stake, what is?

In short, progress is at stake. We’ve talked a lot about progress in this space, from the Religion of Progress, to the idea that progress has reduced deaths. We’ve also talked about how modern progress is sustained by using up the stored solar energy of millions of years in the space of a couple of centuries, which is course what causes global warming. Which means that what global warming really is, is a very costly challenge to this idea of never-ending progress. In simple terms it’s the challenge of having your cake and eating it too. This is why it’s so hard to do anything about global warming. People don’t have some higher want they’re willing to make sacrifices for. They’re not avoiding cake so they can lose weight. Global warming is essentially avoiding cake in order to maybe still have cake in 50 years. Very few people even understand that trade, and even fewer are willing to make it. Not even the people who are ostensibly very concerned with the issue (do a search for global warming and private jets).

As I say, so often I don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe we will manage to do all the things I listed above. Maybe there will be hidden benefits to warming. Maybe there will be some tipping point and the world will get 50 degrees warmer all of the sudden. And maybe, just maybe the deniers are right. I don’t think so. I think global warming is happening, and I wish I knew what to do about it. But in the end it’s one more reason why the harvest is past, and the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

Solving global warming is not straightforward, or easy. If you’re looking for something easy and straightforward may I recommend donating to this blog. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, it’s just straightforward.

The Value of Free Speech

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to watch Sesame Street. As I recall it was in black and white, probably because the entire world was still black and white back then. It could also have been because we were poor. In any case, one of the recurring features of Sesame Street was one of these things is not like the other. It even had a song to go with it, which I can easily recall without any effort, such is the power of childhood indoctrination. I would assume that most of my readers are familiar with the segment, but for those who aren’t, the way it worked is they would show four things and three of them would be similar and one would clearly be different. An example might be a chalkboard with three “2”’s and one “W” or an alarm clock next to a knife, fork and spoon. I assume you get the idea or, like me, saw Sesame Street as a child. If not, it’s too late because we are about to play “One of These Things”!

Of course to start with I need to provide you with the “things” (I’m going to cheat somewhat an only provide three things.)

1- Russia

2- United States of America

3- China

And to really get us in the mood here’s the song:

One of these things is not like the others,

One of these things just doesn’t belong,

Can you tell which thing is not like the others

By the time I finish my song?

Did you guess which thing was not like the others?

Did you guess which thing just doesn’t belong?

If you guessed this one is not like the others,

Then you’re absolutely right!

Did you guess the USA? If so then, as promised, you’re absolutely right! I know this edition of “One of These Things” was not quite as obvious as the alarm clock and silverware, but also we’re not six anymore either, so hopefully we can expect some deeper thinking. But why is the United States the odd man out? Why is our country the one thing that’s not like the others? On the surface the answer is easy, perhaps even trivial, Russia and China are authoritarian states ruled by a single individual. The USA is a not. (Unless Trump wins and all of the most extreme fears of the anti-trumpers come true.) But why is this? Or more importantly how did it come about?

I think you’ll find that on paper the actual governmental structure of the other two countries is not that different from that of the USA. Russia and China both have elections and they both have legislatures. Russia has the Duma and China has the National People’s Congress. They both have what amounts to a Bill of Rights. Russia has the Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen and the Chinese have their Constitution which has sections on Democracy and Minority Rights. They both claim to have an independent judicial system, charged with impartially interpreting the law. Russia’s is modeled on the German and French system, while China’s contains protections like the right against self incrimination, and the suppression of evidence which was obtained illegally.

If the difference isn’t in how the government is organized perhaps it’s somewhere else. Maybe the US has a better economy? That’s possible, but China has, or shortly will pass the US as the biggest economy. And if you’re more focused on per capita GDP, Saudi Arabia is basically tied with the US on that measure but they’re actually more authoritarian than China and Russia. The US, China and Russia all have a strong militaries and nukes to boot, so that’s not a difference. It also can’t be the size of the country, or the number of people, or the latitude. So what is it?

If you remember the end of my last episode then you already know where this is headed. I would argue that a large part of the difference comes down to the level of free speech (and free expression in general) in each country. If we look at the World Press Freedom Index we find that the USA is 41st out of 180 countries while Russia is 148th and China is 176th! I think 41st is still disappointing, but it’s obviously a lot better than 148th or 176th.

It is not lost on me that this could be a chicken and egg question. Which came first the authoritarianism or the speech restrictions? Or perhaps more accurately I could be confusing correlation with causation. Restrictions on speech could accompany authoritarianism without necessary causing it. We’ve definitely seen it come about even in situations where freedom of expression was relatively unrestrained. As far as I can tell the time between the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin assuming power was a time of relatively free expression (unfortunately the index I was using only goes back as far as 2002, at which time Russia ranked 121st out of 139). But even if speech restrictions don’t cause authoritarianism it’s indisputable that they perpetuate it. And that’s what I really want to get into.

As I said, I’m not entirely sure how good freedom of the press and freedom of speech are at stopping bad things from happening. I would argue that they’re a lot better at uncovering bad things once they have happened. Take the current election as an example. I should mention that I try to be objective here at “We Are Not Saved”, but it’s possible I’ve picked on Clinton more than Trump, so we’ll pick on Trump for awhile. At this point there is a large group of people worrying that Trump is going to be bad news if he gets elected. People are using the term fascist and even comparing him to Hitler, and yet as just a few days ago Trump was polling slightly ahead of Clinton in at least one national poll. In other words despite these warnings there are a lot of people who still think he’ll be a better president than Clinton. And you know what, it’s hard to tell what kind of President he’ll be until he actually is President. Campaigning is a lot different than actually being in office and it’s hard to say what kind of president Trump will be (in fact I think it’s particularly hard with Trump.) All the people who are sounding the warning could be right, and he could be terrible, or he could surprise everyone. But if he does become president and he is terrible, we’ll hear about it (oh boy, will we hear about it). But only because we have free speech and freedom of press. In short, you would hope free speech would be some protection from even electing potential dictators, but even if it isn’t, it has a, potentially, still greater role, that of uncovering and deterring the authoritarian impulse after an election has happened.

For the moment let’s assume Trump is the second coming of Hitler. Or that he at least aspires to be. How does he go from wanting to be Hitler to actually being Hitler. The first step is getting elected President. And while it would have been nice if free speech had prevented that, for the purposes of our argument we’re assuming that it didn’t. But just being made President doesn’t make him Hitler, he has to start doing evil things, and if he starts making all the Muslims wear crescent moon armbands, we’ll hear about it, and presumably do something. The best way for him to get away with doing evil stuff is if we don’t hear about it.

It may be overly simplistic to say that free speech is all that prevents Trump (or anyone) from becoming Hitler, but that’s only because speech itself is so complicated. Setting aside the difficulties of keeping people from finding out about Trump’s Hitlerish acts, if it were possible and people actually could be kept in the dark it would be very effective in suppressing dissent. It’s true that in addition to the protection of free speech that we also have Congress and the Supreme Court to protect us. But as I mentioned above Russia and China also have legislatures and courts and it hasn’t prevented Putin or Xi Jinping from being authoritarian. Also, closer to home, we’ve discovered that it’s relatively trivial to gridlock Congress, and with the next President possibly appointing four new justices, I’m not so sure the Supreme Court will be of much help either.

Additionally don’t forget the vast expansion of executive power which has happened over the last century or so, and the President’s unique influence over the military. (Particularly since congress was cut out of the process of declaring war.)  You may be thinking that I am saying that Trump could stage some sort of military coup. While anything’s possible that seems pretty unlikely, but I have much more confidence in the ability of free and open speech to keep him in check than relying on every member of the military to remember their oath to the constitution, or in Trump’s inability to use the military in some other way to boost his popularity. Recall that Putin boosted his approval ratings both by using the military in Chechnya and in his recent annexation of Crimea.

Perhaps the example of the aspiring Hitler has convinced you of the importance of free speech, or perhaps you were convinced already. However, it is almost certain that however important you think speech is that it you don’t believe that it should be entirely unrestricted. Most people, at a minimum, would argue for a ban on child pornography, and I am no exception. But this still leaves us needing to draw a line somewhere between speech that prevents a second Hitler, and child pornography. Where should that line be drawn? A lot depends on the value provided by certain forms of speech and expression. Child pornography provides zero value and causes incalculable harm (to be honest it makes me uncomfortable even typing the words.) While preventing a second Hitler is one of the more valuable things that we can do, as it prevents incalculable harm.

At first glance one straightforward way to approach the problem would just be to figure out at which point the net benefit of speech is negative and draw the line there. Unfortunately while that may appear to be a straightforward solution it is anything but. For one thing, as I already mentioned, logistically it’s very hard to do, particularly in the age of the internet. That said, it’s not impossible. I think censorship by the Chinese government has been more effective than the Information Wants to be Free Crowd would like to admit. Of course that effectiveness has only been possible through a huge degree of centralization, something most Americans would strenuously object to if for no other reason than its potential for abuse (which the Chinese have more than adequately demonstrated.) But for the moment let’s move past the logistical difficulties and just focus on the thorny problem of determining the ultimate value of any given bit of speech

I hear a lot of people arguing that as the internet has increased the quantity of speech that the quality of speech has declined. As the saying goes, on the internet, no one knows that you’re a dog and all opinions seem to carry equal weight. People like to point to the good old days when Walter Cronkite would soberly report the evening news in an objective and dispassionate fashion, with none of the fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, speculation or innuendo of the internet. And yet, this doesn’t seem to have worked all that much better. To put things in context, Walter Cronkite became the evening anchor at CBS in 1962 and yet in 1964 we had the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, one of the more egregious examples of the government misleading people, a cover up with arguably very serious consequences. And yet as far as I’m aware no major news outlets of the day managed to uncover the truth, which was that no attack had occurred and that Secretary McNamara had distorted the evidence in an effort to get Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

I can’t say for certain how the Gulf of Tonkin would have played out in this day and age, but I think it’s safe to say that an accurate assessment of what happened would be out there somewhere. And it might even have been pretty easy to find. On the other hand there would have been a lot of false and misleading speculation as well. And even if an accurate description of events had been out there and easy to find, you still would have to recognize that it was the truth, sifting it out from all the other theories which would have emerged. My sense of the situation, therefore, is that we are more likely to have access to accurate information, but only because we have access to more information, both true and false. Therefore one question we need to ask ourselves is whether it is better to have the truth out there somewhere, but buried in a thousand blogs and a million Facebook posts, or is it better to not have access to the truth at all?

Let’s turn from examining how free speech played out (or didn’t as the case may be) in the age of Cronkite to examining how it played out in the age of the internet, using the example of the Clinton email controversy. You may from this assume that I’m done picking on Trump, but in reality you could use any scandal or controversy as an example. I use the email controversy because it’s the biggest item of news at the moment and it represents a real free speech issue with some people arguing that FBI Director Comey is a hero and other people casting him as a villain.

For the purposes of our thought experiment let’s further assume that the email controversy would not have come out in the age of Cronkite. Obviously I can’t say that for sure (though they didn’t have email, so that’s one argument) certainly Watergate came to light and resulted in the resignation of Nixon, but I think the fact that Johnson and McNamara were able to cover up the Gulf of Tonkin, arguably far more serious that anything people have even imagined Clinton doing, leads me to believe that there is a good chance that Clinton’s email issues would not have come out at all. Plus, once again if you can’t imagine a scenario under which Clinton’s email issues would not have eventually seen the light of day, pick one of the other dozens of controversies and scandals that have come out in this election and surely out of all of them one or more would not have come out in the pre-internet era. In other words if you’re uncomfortable with using Clinton’s emails, then use the scandal of your choice as an example.

This leaves us with four possibilities with respect to Clinton’s email controversy, and more particularly their impact:

1- The accusations will cost her the presidency but they shouldn’t.

2- The accusations will cost her the presidency and they should.

3- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

4- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency but they should have.

When we examine these possibilities it becomes clear that only the first reflects a situation where too much free speech was the problem. Here the accusations should not have kept her from the presidency and yet they did.

The second possibility is a triumph of free speech. This is free speech working as intended, the accusations reflected something bad enough that she shouldn’t have been president. And that’s what happened.

The third possibility would have to be taken as evidence that people can handle all the free speech we have and then some. That despite the enormous coverage given the controversy, people correctly intuited that it shouldn’t keep her from being President.

The fourth possibility is hard to view in any other way than as a failure caused by too little free speech. If the accusations should have cost her the presidency but didn’t, then why didn’t they. Probably because the true extent was never known.

Of course speaking of never knowing, while we will know on November 9th (unless something crazy happens) whether Clinton is President, we may never know if the accusations flowed from something serious enough to disqualify her from the presidency.

Out of all these possibilities only number one is an example of there being too much free speech, but of course that’s also the one that Clinton supporters probably find most alarming. In fact if Trump does win this will almost certainly be the explanation that many people offer. That the email controversy and in particular the latest revelations, cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

For many of these people the true tragedy will not be that Clinton lost, but that Trump won. And given their fear and loathing of Trump it will appear, in retrospect, that restricting his speech and the speech of his supporters would have not only been justified, but patriotic, particularly if they think that too much free speech was the problem. Of course as always we have to ask who would have implemented these restrictions? And how can we be sure that they wouldn’t be abused, either now or later? To return to the subject of my last episode, Facebook and Twitter could have applied speech restrictions and it would have been legal, and it may, if Trump ended up as bad as they feared, have saved the country. Surely this justifies a few restrictions?

But look back to where we started this episode, to the key difference between Russia, China and the USA. Free speech is our best protection against authoritarianism and that includes Trump’s. Any weakening of it, even in service of what appears to be noble goals, makes it that much easier to get rid of free speech entirely when it becomes inconvenient. The fact that censorship and authoritarianism go hand in hand is not some weird coincidence. It’s only by eroding free speech that authoritarianism can flourish. Therefore any erosion, however legal, however justified, can make it that much easier to do away with free speech entirely when the time comes. Also it’s important to remember that whenever one “side” uses a tool they make it that much easier for the other “side” to use that tool when the end up in power.

To phrase it another way do we want to mangle free speech to prevent Trump from becoming President, and risk having him become president anyway? Only now in addition whatever harm he causes as President we’ve given him a precedent of free speech restrictions to use on top of that. Or do we want to keep the principle of free speech as strong as possible knowing that it’s our best defence against whatever shenanigans he might try to pull? Even if in the short term our defence of free speech makes it more likely for him to be elected?

This is an important point to emphasis. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the New York Times and any other newspaper you care to name could pull out all the stops and refuse to give Trump any positive coverage (they may already be doing that) and this could not only fail to stop him from becoming President, but make the situation worse if he does become President. In fact they may already be making the situation worse. Any accurate assessment of Trump’s popularity would have to take into account that a huge amount of his support comes from people who are angry at the censorship they already perceive. As an example, it’s entirely possible that things like shadowbanning Scott Adams help Trump more than they hurt him.

At the end it boils down the ancient trade-off between short-term and long term gains. It’s entirely possible that certain restrictions on speech would be beneficial, as this most crazy of all elections nears its end. (Okay 1860 was probably crazier, but who remembers that.) I certainly don’t claim to be wise enough to know what those restrictions would be or even which side to apply them to. But, I do know, that free speech occupies such an important defensive position that any long term weakening in service of short term goals is a potentially fatal mistake.

We’ve gone so long without any serious censorship (certainly nothing to rival Russia and China) that I think we no longer worry about it. For many people the idea of the United States descending into authoritarianism appears as probable as Elvis being found alive (he would be 81, nearly 82), but I assure you that it’s not. Free speech isn’t free, it’s costly, and yes, with things like child pornography (there’s that phrase again) there should be restrictions, but we should be very careful about those restrictions, even, if not particularly, when it comes to stuff we hate. As expressed so memorably by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.:

…if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.

Scott Adams and What Counts as Censorship?

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

You may be familiar with Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip. According to Wikipedia, as of 2013 it was syndicated in 2000 newspapers in 65 countries and 25 languages. I say “as of 2013” because he’s been doing some things recently which have made him less popular, or at least have made a segment of people very angry with him (his net popularity may have actually increased.) Most of the evidence for this is self-reported, so there is some chance it’s a fabrication, but based on what he’s written I would be very surprised if it wasn’t in fact true, knowing, as I do, the sorts of things which make people mad. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to know that anytime someone stakes out a strong political opinion, and particularly when that strong political opinion could be viewed as a defense of Trump (Adams is now endorsing Johnson, wait now he’s back to Trump) they’re going to get some backlash.

One of Adam’s claims is that Twitter (and Periscope, which is owned by Twitter) is Shadowbanning him. (With respect to Twitter, shadowbanning consists of not sending your tweets to all or most of your followers. With Periscope, Adams claim is that they artificially lowered the number of followers who were being displayed.) Adams is not the first to make this claim and he won’t be the last and as I said I see no reason to doubt what he says. His posts on the subject provide evidence to support his assertions and he’s quite calm about it. This is not someone with an obvious axe to grind, and he’s even reasonable enough to admit that it might not be happening, but one of the reasons it’s called shadowbanning is that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. The actual mechanism is murky (as you might imagine from the word shadow.)

Obviously if Adams doesn’t know for sure if he’s being shadowbanned I sure don’t, but even people who offer up alternative explanations for shadowbanning acknowledge that it exists. It seems more a question of how widespread it is, though there certainly are lots of people who think they’re being shadowbanned. Regardless of how widespread it is, or whether Adams is affected or whether it’s ideologically motivated it definitely represents a disturbing new weapon in the ongoing war over free speech, which has been heating up over the last few years.

I’m sure you’ve heard of this war, which mostly appears to be raging on America’s campuses. Everyone from The Atlantic to Zerohedge has written about it. (What? You haven’t heard of Zerohedge? Well there goes my clever A-Z construction. How about everyone from The Atlantic to The Economist?) And most of the articles are built around one or more ridiculous examples of someone objecting to something which appears fairly trivial. (a song, the cultural appropriation of a hair style or any of these 13 things.) I could do the same and fill up the article with similar ridiculous examples, but as I said that’s been done already, a lot. Which is to say this is not going to be a post rehashing the issue or another call for college kids to lighten up. What I want to talk about is what counts as censorship because I think that’s a more interesting way of approaching the issue. But before we can talk about censorship i.e. preventing free speech, we need to establish what free speech is in the first place.

The first and most legally consequential definition of free speech is just what it says in the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…” Under this definition, unless the government is doing something to restrict your speech, you still have it. Which means that only the government can censor people. Even here there are exceptions. The Supreme Court has ruled that obscenity, threatening immediate violence, and false statements can be restricted without violating someone’s free speech. You may have also heard of the shouting fire in a crowded theater standard. Though it should be noted that this particular standard applies to falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater. If there actually is a fire, basically the opposite standard applies…

The government is generally not considered a battleground in the current war over free speech. Most people seem to think that it does a pretty good job of not censoring people. Though some may argue that they don’t need to since any necessary censorship is already carried out more effectively by the public at large. But I do think the recent scandal over the IRS disproportionately targeting conservative and tea party groups could be framed as a free speech issue, though few people seem to be making that connection. (The Wikipedia article doesn’t make any mention of a free speech angle.)  In any event there doesn’t seem to be much of a problem with the government arresting people for what they say.

And for some people this is exactly the standard they apply, unless the government is actually arresting no censorship is taking place. But the First Amendment doesn’t mention imprisonment, and it doesn’t even mention censorship. What it actually says is that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. I see lots of articles mentioning censorship, and it’s presence or lack, but I don’t see any mention of whether free speech is being abridged, which is what the First Amendment actually prohibits.

As usual with the Constitution the language was chosen very carefully, and abridge is interesting not only because it makes you think of a book, but because it implies a lighter hand than censorship. Obviously the way language is used changes over time, and abridge appears to have had a stronger connotation at the time the Constitution was written than it does now, but’s it not as if the word “censor” didn’t exist. The Framers chose abridge for a reason, and I think the implication we should take, with respect to interpreting the First Amendment, is that it’s not enough to avoid outright banning, but that we should be avoiding any diminishment of speech.

At the opposite end from the “only action by the federal government counts as a restriction of free speech” are people who feel that unless they can say anything they want in any setting without consequence that censorship, in some form, is taking place. But is this actually true? In the way that some people believe that unless the government is arresting you your free speech has not been violated, are there some people who believe the opposite? That unless people are being arrested for preventing speech that they don’t truly have freedom of speech? I don’t think so. I can’t find any calls to cart away network executives in chains if they cancel a TV show, or to lock up Jack Dorsey when someone is banned from Twitter or to round up the Mozilla board of directors when Brendan Eich was forced out.

This is not to say that people don’t get angry about these things, but their anger is not about what people can do, their anger is about what people should do. This may seem like a fine point, but a lot hinges on it. Legally, networks can cancel shows, and they can ban you from posting on Twitter, and they can fire you, and all based on what you said, but should they? As I see it the two sides are arguing past each other. The one side is arguing what censorship is technically, and the other side is arguing what censorship is morally. These are two completely different arguments, and while the former just appears to be looking at what they can get away with the later debate might actually include a discussion of what’s best for the intellectual health of students and citizens and the country as a whole.

To return to Adams and Twitter, the question of whether they can shadowban him is easy. They can, Adams himself admits it. And for many people that’s the end of the story, there is no separation between the ability to do something and the appropriateness of doing something. As you may have already guessed I am arguing that they shouldn’t and I’m going to make the argument that it should be considered censorship from a few different angles.  What I’m not going to be arguing is that free speech is some sort of absolute good, though that’s not far from my true feelings, but for the purposes of the present discussion it will help if I’m more specific.

My first point is made best by drawing a comparison. Imagine if one company ran all the newspapers in the country. It might be legal, it might still produce objective news, but it would definitely be worrying (they might even make a movie about it). The potential for abuse is just too great for people to not be concerned. People would, quite understandably, wonder why the government hadn’t broken it up. In fact, it would be nearly impossible for the government to not have a demonstrated interest in a single nationwide newspaper company, as either a monopoly which should be broken up, a monopoly which had been granted for some reason (like baseball) or at a minimum a monopoly to keep an eye on. And yet very few people are concerned about the effective monopoly of Facebook, or of Twitter (within its niche) but is this a case where technology has outstripped the ability of government to react to it? In other words one argument about whether shadowbanning is censorship hinges on Twitter’s dominant position. It’s not as if CNN has banned Adams, but he can still go on Fox News. There is no real competitor to Twitter, despite their troubles (which is not to say people aren’t trying.) The monopoly is even more apparent with Facebook, which made the news recently when it was revealed that employees within Facebook were suppressing conservative content.

One of the reasons why it’s so important that the government not abridge freedom of speech is that they have a monopoly. In the government’s case it’s a monopoly on the use of force, but it’s really the monopoly part that’s important. Other monopolies, particularly monopolies on modes of speech, have a similar moral responsibility to not censor. Once again, this has nothing to do with what they can do, but what they should do. And because of their effective monopoly, what Facebook and Twitter should do is very similar to what the government, another monopoly, should do.

The second argument concerns the particulars of shadowbanning. I don’t know about you, but I find the practice to be particularly Orwellian. We’ve already granted that Twitter can ban people, and I think that if they’re going to do that they just should, ideally with a reason why. In other words, if Twitter doesn’t want you on their platform they should have the guts to say it to your face. I would think the morality of this should be obvious, but if not perhaps it would help to look at reasons why they might shadowban people rather than outright banning them. The key feature of the shadowban is that there is no notification. Why is that? You would imagine that if they wanted to warn someone about their inappropriate behavior that they would send them a warning, something very clear and unmistakable. But they don’t which leads me to believe that it’s purpose is not to warn people. But if that’s not it’s purpose, what is? It seems specifically designed to restrict speech, but in a way that people won’t notice. This makes it difficult to complain about it, or even to know what’s going on, as we see in the case of Adams.

I said it was Orwellian, and on reflection it may be closer to Brave New World. Where people are distracted by the illusion of agency and control, while actually possessing neither. Also, as long as we’re talking about the First Amendment, there’s another section to it, which might bear on this topic. The First Amendment also grants people the right “peaceably to assemble and petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Imagine if the government allowed a gathering on the National Mall. A typical protest where you can have your signs and you can yell and march, and do do all the normal things you do at a protest. But in reality, rather than letting you protest on the National Mall, the government, without your knowledge, secretly funnels you into the holodeck from Star Trek. As far as you can tell you’re marching towards the Capital waving your sign, with protesters as far as the eye can see. It’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t feel pretty good about things, surveying the vast uprising that you’re a part of. But in the end it’s just a holodeck, and you haven’t really done any marching or any protesting. In reality you’re just a guy in a box shouting at himself.

To recap, thus far the arguments are, Facebook and Twitter should be held to a standard nearly as high as the government because of their de facto monopoly in social networks, and micro-blogging respectively. And that shadowbanning is creepy and dystopian. I want to look at free speech from one final perspective. I predict that I may be walking into a minefield, but I think the comparison I’ll be making is not without merit.

In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was not equal, and from that point, though there was fierce resistance in many states, it was the law of the land that the government couldn’t segregate people on the basis of race. However private companies were still allowed to refuse service to blacks, as was the case in one memorable instance in 1957 when the Finance Minister of Ghana stopped at a Howard Johnson’s in Delaware and tried to order orange juice, only to be refused service. (Eisenhower personally apologized.) It wasn’t until the 1964 Civil Rights Act that it was made illegal for businesses to refuse service on the basis of race, under the doctrine of public accommodation.

These days it seems obvious that a hotel shouldn’t be able to refuse to give someone a room on the basis of race, but back then it wasn’t obvious. While it’s been clear since the founding of the republic that the government needed to be under certain restrictions, precisely because of the monopoly on force that I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t clear at all that the same restrictions should be placed on private businesses. The doctrine of public accommodation was their way around that. Not only were these businesses open to the public, but they used government provided roads and utilities. Consequently, while not part of the government they could nevertheless be placed under the same restrictions concerning discrimination.

Perhaps you can already see where I’m going with this, but if not, free speech is in the same situation the Civil Rights movement found itself in after Brown, but before the Civil Rights Act. There’s lots of things we don’t think the government should be able to do, but we’re okay with private businesses doing them. If you think this comparison is valid (and if you don’t think it’s valid I’m interested in hearing why). Then you’re left with one of three options:

1- Free speech is less important than preventing discrimination. And that’s why we allow a different standard to exist.

2- We should extend the same basic restrictions the government operates under to businesses which provide a public accommodation, particularly as it relates to speech.

3- The Civil Rights Act was a mistake and we shouldn’t apply any restrictions to private businesses in terms of racial discrimination just as we don’t with apply any restriction as regards speech.

I have a hard time believing that anyone is going to stake out option three as their position, particularly the kind of people who are offended by Scott Adams and others like him. (Rand Paul tried it and it worked about as well as you would expect.) This leaves either number one or number two. Number two assumes that you think that free speech is at least as important as preventing discrimination (otherwise we’re talking about option 1). And if you do, and you accept the comparison I made, then option two is the only logical choice. I win!

If you don’t want me to win (and, frankly, who could blame you) and you don’t want to get crucified for supporting option three. Your only defensible position, as far as I can tell, is to admit that free speech is less important than preventing discrimination. Perhaps you’re fine with that, perhaps you honestly feel that free speech isn’t especially important, particularly when, in this day and age, it appears to frequently result in threats and harassment. And even if you’re a big believer in free speech, like myself, it’s still appropriate to wonder what value it actually has. Why did the founders consider it so important? Important enough to be the very first amendment? What role does it serve? How does it improve our society, and our country?

These questions are particularly important right now on the eve of the election. If freedom of the press is ever important it has to be especially important when deciding who to vote for. And it can only exercise that importance if free speech is a way of improving the outcome in an election. The most obvious way it could do that is by disseminating truth.

There are some who would argue that in this day and age free speech is doing the exact opposite of that. We see articles lamenting the fact free election, we hear podcasts where the host complains that facts have become irrelevant. But if this is true (and I’m not convinced that it is) how do we decide which speech to allow and which speech to restrict? Certain people want to claim that it’s clear what’s factual and what’s not, and that we just have to impose restrictions based on that. But is it really that clear? I’m not sure that it is. I’ve already written about the questions which have been raised concerning Hillary’s health, and some people will declare it as fact that she’s in perfect health. But these same people were also saying she was in perfect health right up until the moment that she collapsed on September 11th and for several hours afterward. I remind you that I freely admit that I don’t know how healthy Clinton is. Just that people want to declare something like Clinton’s health to be a fact in the same way that it’s a fact that light travels 299,792,458 meters/second, and unfortunately those two are not equivalent.

But even if there was a foolproof way to designate something as a fact and a non-dangerous way to put a single organization in charge of applying that restriction (could we get unicorns farting rainbows while we’re at it?) distributing non-factual information is not why Adams and others like him are being shadowbanned. As far as I can tell Adams is being shadowbanned for expressing unpopular opinions. I am not claiming by this that this is the only reason that people get (shadow)banned, I’m claiming that when we examine all the reasons for someone to get banned saying things which are factually incorrect does not appear very high on the list, if it appears at all. Interestingly, while I was writing this post, the news reported that numerous Facebook employees wanted to remove Trump’s posts because they considered them hate speech. If you search the article I just linked to the words “untrue”, “lies”, “fact” and “false” do not appear.

Now, it might be that Trump did say things that were untrue, but it was just easier to make the hate speech argument. This takes us off into another realm where gallons of ink have been spilled, with arguments about whether people have a right to not be offended, and we’re already basically out of space. I’ll just leave you with two final thoughts:

First, it’s clear from the fact that many of the founders were slave-holders that they did not consider preventing discrimination to be more important than free speech. In fact they didn’t consider to be an issue at all. In this they were certainly incorrect, but are we so sure that it should be flipped to the point where preventing discrimination goes from having zero attention paid to it to being more important than free speech?

Finally, if you question the value of free speech I urge you to take a look at countries where free speech is restricted, and consider that in many ways this restriction represents one of the few differences between those countries and the United States. We’ll continue discussing this in my next post