Should we defend the free speech of everyone — extremists included?

You can't really have an opinion if you don't know all sides of the argument.

MICHAEL SHERMER: If we can't think and say what we want, how are we going to understand the nature of reality and the way the world works without communications? And without that then all other rights – the right to worship religiously or the right to assemble, the right to debate and dispute and criticize the government and then all the others that fall from that – civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, animal rights and so on...all of it depends on us understanding the nature of reality and it depends on us communicating. The reason for that comes straight out of cognitive psychology. That is, we are wrong about so much of what we believe that the only way to find out if you're on the right track or you've gone off the rails is to actually talk to other people.

Even if you're completely right, by listening to what somebody else says you have an opportunity to strengthen your own position, as John Stuart Mill said in his foundational text in 1859 "On Liberty": "He who knows only his own position doesn't even know that." So, for example, most of my students that I teach they're pretty liberal. They're pro-choice on the abortion issue. but when I ask them to articulate the pro-life position, which over half of Americans take, they mostly can't do it. I tell them that you don't really understand pro-choice arguments if you don't understand the pro-life arguments. You've got to have both sides.

Even if the pro-choice position is absolutely the right one, you're still not really understanding until you understand the other side. Then there's the fact that you might be wrong, partially wrong, or completely wrong. And again, the only way to find out is by listening to what other people say. Then there's the right not just of the speaker to speak, but of the listeners to listen. So when protesters shut down talks at say colleges and universities when a Conservative comes to speak, it's not just the right of the speaker to speak or the administrators or deans who brought that person in, but the audience. There might be a lot of students that want to hear what this person has to say. And even if they are completely liberal and totally opposed to this Conservative's ideas, they still have a right to hear if they want to. And so when protesters get these speakers de-platformed, that is they're not even allowed to speak, they don't even come to campus or if they do come and they try to speak and then they're shouted down – it's called the heckler's veto – that's violating the rights of listeners, not just the speakers.

I'll tell you how far I go in defending free speech. I would defend the free speech of Holocaust deniers. My example of this is David Irving, who's the most prominent of the Holocaust deniers. I've known him a long time, since the 1990's. He's definitely the smartest of the bunch and I think he's absolutely wrong, and I've confronted him with what I think, why I think he's wrong. And as is apparent in his trial, he's also pretty anti-Semitic, or at least he lies for Hitler. But that's beside the point. The idea that he went to Austria to give a talk and was arrested at the airport. They scan your passport and the name pops up and they call the police and they come and arrest him. He was tried and then convicted and put in jail. And he didn't even give a speech. He was just thinking about giving a speech. So that is the very definition of a thought crime. Do we really want to go down that road? I mean that's what countries like North Korea do. That's what the Soviet Union did under Stalin, arrest people for thought crimes. This is a terrible way to go and I even went so far as to write a letter to the judge in that case on behalf of David Irving, even though I completely disagree with him, because I just find this abhorrent. It's like in some countries you can't purchase "Mein Kampf." Are you kidding me? I mean this book should be widely read. It's a terrible read. It's really boring. It's pedantic and rambling and anti-Semitic to the core.

But if we don't understand why people think the way they do, we're never going to be able to end discrimination and hatred, bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, and so on. That's the only way to do it. Expose it for the erroneous idea that it is and then move on.

  • To fully understand your own stance on political subjects such as abortion, you have to listen to and understand both sides.
  • Defending free speech, according to bestselling author and skeptic Michael Shermer, means ensuring that those you vehemently disagree with are given a fair platform to speak.
  • This principle should also be applied to extremists and those who choose to listen to them. Protesting ideas should not equal silencing them.




    Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
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    The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

    New research establishes an unexpected connection.

    Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
    Surprising Science
    • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
    • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
    • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

    We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

    A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

    The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

    An unexpected culprit

    The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

    What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

    "We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

    "Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

    fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

    Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

    The experiments

    The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

    You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

    For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

    Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

    The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

    However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

    The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

    As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

    The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

    The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

    "We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

    Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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    Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

    Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
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    Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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