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Why free speech is sacred—even when it’s dangerous
The bedrock of freedom? Denying the government the power of censorship.
NADINE STROSSEN: Censorship has always been used by those in power to stifle the voices of those who are criticizing them and seeking to bring about some kind of law reform. So it's not surprising that any authoritarian regime today and throughout history has always stifled protesting voices, has always exercised censorship, including over the arts and culture as well as politics. So, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, to the Soviet Union and Turkey and a whole range of authoritarian countries—Saudi Arabia springs to mind—have all exercised censorship as a way of maintaining the power of those who hold it and of preventing reform and spreading of human rights and also thwarting the pursuit of truth in realms of science and other fields of human endeavor.
I think the flipside to the question of "What is so dangerous about censorship?" is "What is so positive about free speech?" Because we lose the positive potential of free speech through censorship, and freedom of speech is, as great Supreme Court justices in the United States have recognized, the essence of individual liberty. Freedom of thought cannot really be exercised unless you have freedom of speech, so it's a way of forming your ideas, forming your own identity, communicating with other people to forge bonds of friendship, bonds of community. Freedom of speech is used to join together with others to amplify our messages so that we can have more of an impact in bringing about whatever changes or reforms we'd like to see happen in society. Freedom of speech is essential for petitioning the government, lobbying, trying to persuade those we elect and hold accountable to us to adopt certain policies or reject certain policies. Freedom of speech is also essential for the pursuit of truth. As somebody once said: Every great truth began as a blasphemy, so if government had the power to censor, as it has in the past, it has thwarted advances in all kinds of scientific and social scientific fields. Art censorship has been used to stifle expression that has been important, not only for the individual artist herself or himself, but also for those who are deprived, then, of the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired and enlightened by creativity. I definitely agree with the Supreme Court when it said that freedom of speech really is the bedrock of every other right, and really almost everything positive in our society could not be achieved without that essential bedrock.
There is absolutely no doubt that speech can do an infinite amount of harm, as well as an infinite amount of good. The reason why censorship is bad is precisely because speech is so powerful. And with that power we human beings can exert it either to great good or to great ill. Now the question is what does more harm, trusting our fellow citizens on the whole to minimize the adverse impact, adverse potential impact of speech, or trusting government to pick and choose which potentially dangerous, harmful speech should be censored? What we've seen throughout history and around the world, not surprisingly, is whoever exercises censorship power does it in a way to perpetuate their own power and to disproportionately silence the voice of their critics.
So today we have a president who attacks fake news—a lot of my liberal friends, and I am a bleeding-heart liberal as well as a civil libertarian, a lot of my liberal friends will say: But there is such danger coming from right-wing media and the dark corners of the Internet—"Shouldn't we censor that version of fake news?" And I say, "Who exercises the lever of power today? Are we going to give to the Trump administration the power to decide which news is sufficiently 'fake', sufficiently 'dangerous', sufficiently 'harmful' that their FCC licenses should be revoked?" I think it would not be FOX News whose license would be revoked or whose voices would be suppressed, it would be CNN and so forth.
And mark my words I would be equally distraught at having voices on the right silenced for a whole lot of reasons, one of which is the indivisibility of all rights. So if we're licensing the government or empowering the government to say, "This is sufficiently misleading that "it's going to be suppressed," it would just be a matter of time before there's a change in administration, a change in ideology, and it would be voices on the other end of the political spectrum that are suppressed.
And then also for the reason that censorship does more harm than good in general, which is that there is some really important benefit to confront ideas that are out there that people hold. I want to know that they have those ideas; I don't want them to hide in the dark corners of the Internet and to go underground. I want to be able to respond to them, perhaps dissuade people from holding those ideas, certainly persuade other people not to adhere to those ideas. If it's a hateful or discriminatory idea, I want to monitor the people who have those ideas to make sure that they don't actually engage in discriminatory or violent conduct. So there are all kinds of benefits from listening, even I would say especially, to ideas that we consider to be dangerous and odious.
The United States Supreme Court made an observation, which I think is really important, that freedom of speech in terms of government policies, public policies, is especially important because it is not only a matter of individual liberty and self-expression, but it is essential for our system of self-government. The way the Supreme Court put it was more or less this: That freedom of speech about policy issues is the essence of self-government.
The message to the team is keep the eyes on the prize. We have to look beyond the particular factual situation and understand that we are fighting for something larger, which encompasses the ideas that are antithetical to the ones that happened to be at issue in a particular case. So people will often say to me, as somebody who is Jewish and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who barely survived the Buchenwald Concentration Camp: How can I of all people defend the Nazis? And I always say I'm not defending the Nazis, I'm defending freedom of speech as an inviolable, indivisible principal that is only going to remain strong if we continue to respect that bedrock viewpoint neutrality principal denying government the power to suppress an idea merely because in one community that idea is deemed to be unpopular or hateful or hated.
Because I know that in many communities in this country, ideas that I cherish as a civil libertarian, as a human rights champion, those ideas are seen as dangerous and are subject to censorship. So I'm not defending the Nazis, I'm defending a principle that is especially important for those of us who want to have the freedom to raise our voices to protest the Nazis and everything they stand for.
- Suppression of free speech dooms democracy, says law professor Nadine Strossen. We should all be open to hearing dangerous and odious ideas rather than drive them underground.
- "[P]eople will often say to me, as somebody who is Jewish and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who barely survived the Buchenwald Concentration Camp: How can I of all people defend the Nazis?" says Strossen. She also says, "And mark my words I would be equally distraught at having voices on the right silenced for a whole lot of reasons, one of which is the indivisibility of all rights."
- The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.
- The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
- Should we defend the free speech of extremists? - Big Think ›
- Should you defend the free speech of neo-Nazis? - Big Think ›
- Free speech history: What you can and can't say in America - Big Think ›
- Why you should tolerate intolerant ideas - Big Think ›
- Do you like free speech? Answers vary across the world - Big Think ›
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
A team of marine biologists has discovered 16 species of "ultra-black" fish that absorb more than 99 percent of the light that hits their skin, making them virtually invisible to other deep-sea fish.
The researchers, who published their findings Thursday in Current Biology, caught the species after dropping nets more than 200 meters deep near California's Monterey Bay. At those depths, sunlight fizzles out. That's one reason why many deep-sea species have evolved the ability to illuminate the dark waters through bioluminescence.
But what if deep-sea fish don't want to be spotted? To counter bioluminescence, some species have evolved ultra-black skin that's exceptionally good at absorbing light. Only a few other species are known to possess this strange trait, including birds of paradise and some spiders and butterflies.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.
"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told Wired. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"
After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told Wired. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."
The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL
But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as Wired notes.
Other fish—like the oneirodes species, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like C. acclinidens only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.
Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.