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Coronavirus and the failure of the 'Marketplace of Ideas'

Modern laboratory with high-end equipment

Editor’s note: Next month, FIRE President & CEO Greg Lukianoff will be starting his own FIRE-hosted blog called, “The Eternally Radical Idea.” Here is a preview of the content that will be featured on the blog. 

Considering the “Lab in the Looking Glass”

“That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge.” — Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting). 

As the United States deals with the coronavirus pandemic, many of us look back and wonder if there were things that could have been done to stop the virus from going global. The most obvious place to start is in Hubei province and Wuhan itself, the epicenter of the disease. We are now learning that the disease had probably festered there for weeks. This is surely at least in part due to the disease’s unusually long incubation period, in which people are nonetheless contagious.

But what now seems equally clear is that Chinese attempts to clamp down on the free flow of information and freedom of speech played a disastrous role, as well. The arrest and death of doctor Li Wenliang helped alert the rest of the world to the censorship coronavirus whistleblowers faced in China. But fewer people may be aware of the widespread restrictions faced by all Chinese citizens, beyond just doctors or journalists.

Since at least Jan. 1, China enforced severe social media censorship of hundreds of terms relating to the virus, many of which concerned the failures of China’s leadership in controlling the outbreak. Because people in China didn't have access to information about the virus, they didn't know to take extra precautions, allowing it to spread faster, all the while preventing the world from preparing its response during the crucial first weeks of the outbreak. 

The “marketplace” metaphor doesn’t really capture free speech’s most fundamental function: Freedom of speech gives you a fighting chance to know the world as it really is.

In closed societies like China, government officials have the power to stop the free flow of information if they believe it poses a threat of any kind, either real or imagined; and in authoritarian regimes, like China, the leaders of countries often see anything that might embarrass the country in the eyes of the world as a threat. By contrast, if the initial outbreak had happened in the United States, where the government has comparatively little legitimate power to control what citizens say, it's doubtful that the disease would've gone unnoticed. Instead, it’s a virtual certainty that individuals suffering from the disease, doctors concerned about it, newspaper reporters, and even sleuthing hobbyists would have been sounding the alarm almost immediately and spreading the word through every possible channel. It might have been chaotic; it might have led to a small-scale, localized panic; it might even have led to, say, high schoolers engaging in malicious hoaxes; but in all likelihood, the new disease would have been recognized much faster, possibly even in time to contain it.

Now, please bear with me for what might seem like a dramatic shift in focus. For just over a hundred years, when we have talked about freedom of speech and the First Amendment, the dominant metaphor has been the “marketplace of ideas." This metaphor was the brainchild of the eminently brainy Oliver Wendell Holmes in his “Great Dissent” in the 1919 Supreme Court case Abrams v. United States. Justice Holmes was late to appreciate the value of free speech, but became convinced of its value in no small part due to his Darwinist outlook on the world. He envisioned the marketplace of ideas as an arena in which “fit” ideas battle unfit ones for survival.

This metaphor is vivid, relatable, memorable … and wrong.

Okay, maybe not completely wrong, but rather dangerously incomplete. The marketplace of ideas metaphor makes a lot of sense in the political arena, where one group seeks to prevail over another. It perhaps makes even more sense in the world of academic scholarship, where scholars battle it out to figure out whose version of the world, from physics to ancient history, will prevail. But beyond that, the “marketplace” metaphor doesn’t really capture free speech’s most fundamental function: Freedom of speech gives you a fighting chance to know the world as it really is.

Once we take off our “marketplace of ideas” glasses and start to look through the lens of the pure informational theory of freedom of speech, the answers to many free speech questions suddenly become quite obvious.

When I try to convey what I call the “pure informational theory of freedom of speech,” the first hurdle I run into is that people have a hard time distinguishing the veracity of the factual assertions people make from the fundamental importance of knowing what people really think.

Take, for example, people who are currently arguing that the coronavirus is just like the flu. While all available data indicates that the coronavirus is many times more lethal than the flu — possibly over 34 times more lethal, with one recent projection estimating a factor of ten — the value in someone expressing the opinion that the new virus is comparable to the flu is not the objective truth of the argument, but rather the ability to know what opinion an individual holds. This is not of small importance. Yes, arguments about facts are essential, but knowing that, say, 30% of your population holds damaging misconceptions is also of extraordinary importance. 

Under the “marketplace of ideas” theory of freedom of speech, someone’s expression of an inaccurate belief could be seen as having zero or even negative value. Under the pure informational theory of freedom of speech, however, knowing that the inaccurate opinion exists has tremendous value, especially if it is widely held. While the marketplace of ideas metaphor does a good job of explaining that we must tolerate beliefs that are later proved to be false — because as a practical matter it often takes a great deal of time to learn that a belief is false, and sometimes you never know — it treats the existence of a misconception as an unimportant fact in and of itself.

This vulnerability of the marketplace metaphor has been used by some scholars and academics to dismiss or diminish the value of free expression. Their argument goes one of two ways. 

The first goes something like this: Freedom of speech is justified on the basis of establishing “truth,” but since we now “know” that objective truth is either impossible or nearly impossible to establish, all we are left with are competing stories with equivalent inherent worth, and all that matters is a political victory of one side’s “story” over the other. Not coincidentally, the advocates of this argument often seem to think that it is their ideology that should fill the gap, not taking sufficiently seriously that anyone else’s ideology could just as easily do so. Once truth is undermined and replaced with power, advocates who argue that truth is unascertainable would likely suddenly find themselves staunch believers in at least some agreed-upon reality.

The second argument typically points to the apparent inability for the good ideas to ever finally defeat and drive from the earth bad ideas. Some bad ideas shamble around like zombies decades or centuries after their supposed “defeat” in the marketplace of ideas. For example, it’s been known that the earth is (roughly) spherical since at least Aristotle (and, arguably, Pythagoras more than a century earlier). Nevertheless, belief in a flat earth has seemingly resurged with the rise of the internet, with a number of celebrity adherents (who presumably can afford to find the truth for themselves, but inexplicably have not).

The unknowability of objective truth and the seeming immortality of bad ideas pose problems for the marketplace model, but they hold far less relevance for a pure informational theory of freedom of speech. Under pure informational theory, the goal of freedom of speech is not limited to establishing the objective “big-T Truth” about, say, the Platonic form of beauty, goodness, or squareness, but rather, the more mundane “little-T truth” of expressed opinion, preference, or belief. Knowing that individuals believe in conspiracy theories about lizard people is valuable, not because it might be true (call me unscientific, but I’m willing to call this one as obviously false), but because you might want to know that someone believes in lizard people before dating them or making them your primary care physician. On a larger scale (no pun intended), it’s useful to know whether paranoid delusions are common within a population.

If finding objective truth were the only value of freedom of expression, there would be little value to studying history. Most of human thought in history has been mistaken about its assumptions and beliefs about the world and each other; nevertheless, understanding things like superstitions, folk medicine, and apocryphal family histories has significance and value. Many disciplines recognize this intrinsically; few Greek historians say they got into the field so they could determine what it was really like to hang out with Zeus. Instead, we want to know everything about ourselves and our histories, even when it reveals our collective beliefs have been, in hindsight, manifestly false. The marketplace metaphor does not capture these crucial aspects of free speech. 

A fitting metaphor for the pure informational theory of free speech might be “the lab in the looking glass.” 

Imagine being a scientist and showing up to a new fully staffed laboratory with all of the best equipment that's ever been invented. You have not been told about the project you will be working on, but there is a huge curtain in front of you. The director of the project announces that the study is the most challenging that has ever been undertaken and you will not be able to finish it in your lifetime, but even knowing a little bit more about the subject will be of nearly limitless value. He pulls back the curtain to reveal a gigantic mirror looking right back at you. 

You and your colleagues are to be the subjects. The project: to know everything about you and everything related to you. Where you come from, as recently as this morning and as far back as the Big Bang and maybe before; what makes you tick; what your societies look like; what attracts or repels you; what makes you angry or sad or ambivalent; how much you would pay for a bottle of wine from Napa; how much your neighbor would be willing to pay to be more beautiful; what kind of planet you live on; what kind of stellar objects you can see; what the smallest unit of matter is that makes you and your world up. This is the Project of Human Knowledge. It is basically the project that humanism began many centuries ago: to know as much about us and our world as we can. 

Once we take off our “marketplace of ideas” glasses and start to look through the lens of the pure informational theory of freedom of speech, the answers to many free speech questions suddenly become quite obvious. 

It is always important to know what people really believe, especially when the belief is perplexing or troubling.

For example, let’s say you were studying the prairie vole, a small rodent that lives in Australia and North America and is famously monogamous. You then discover one prairie vole that is a regular Don Draper, mating with any vole it can find. Do you then say, “Well, this is an aberration from commonly accepted prairie vole norms, so I must not report it?” Or maybe, “This prairie vole violates my personal sense of morality, and therefore I shall ignore it!” Of course not. You ask yourself, “I wonder why this prairie vole is different? I bet we could learn a lot by looking into it.” And, indeed, research into prairie voles is producing extraordinarily interesting findings about genetic and hormonal influences on monogamy and polygyny. 

The same is true for the human animal. Both for scientific reasons and for our success as a democratic republic, we need to know more, not less about the ideas in our fellow humans’ heads. I call it my “Iron Law”: It is always important to know what people really believe, especially when the belief is perplexing or troubling. Conversely, in the overwhelming majority of scenarios you are not safer or better off for knowing less about what people really think. 

The “lab in the looking glass” metaphor can also explain a whole lot more of the First Amendment than the Darwinian marketplace of ideas. Again, the marketplace of ideas has some explanatory power relating to political speech and academic freedom, but it does a poor job of explaining why, for example, sexual expression should be protected. Erotic, violent, or otherwise provocative art has to be awkwardly transformed into an argument that could “win” in order to have a place within the marketplace of ideas. However, taking the looking glass laboratory approach, erotic or violent art must be allowed because it both reflects the deepest human urges and tells us more about human nature.

The lab in the looking glass explains why we can’t make “false” or ill-informed speech unprotected. For example, people believing that vaccines cause autism can have lots of harmful effects, but preventing people from saying that they believe that vaccines cause autism would prevent us from understanding why, suddenly, entire communities are refusing to have their children vaccinated. 

Under both the marketplace of ideas metaphor and the lab in the looking glass theory, China was foolish to silence early whistleblowers for “rumor mongering.” China not only chilled speech that may be untrue, it chilled speech that may be both true and useful, and also speech that gives us information about both human psychology in general and individual credibility in particular. (And believe me, many of us are paying a lot of attention as some people reveal themselves as bad mathematicians, hopelessly partisan, intransigent, or simply superstitious — and this surely is important information.) 

“Forcing hate speech underground by banning it is like taking Xanax for syphilis. You may briefly feel better about your horrible disease, but your sickness will only get worse.”

The lab in the looking glass theory even better explains the major flaw in thinking about hate speech. Yes, the expression of hate can cause real emotional pain, and that is why some constitutional lawyers argue that it is “low value” speech. However, if you view hate speech from the purely informational standpoint, it is of course absolutely crucial to know if someone is a bigot for a vast number of reasons when, for example, deciding to go into business with them; electing them to public office; putting them in charge of your human resources department; hiring them to supervise your children; or, more generally, in knowing about the tensions in your community, county, state, or country. Or as I wrote years ago, in my first attempt to present this theory: “Forcing hate speech underground by banning it is like taking Xanax for syphilis. You may briefly feel better about your horrible disease, but your sickness will only get worse.”

I was born in 1974 and have always been a history buff. And though I’ve read horrifying stories about plagues sending populations fleeing from cities and boarding themselves in their own houses, I never experienced anything like a mass quarantine until now. In the early days of humanism, as the scientific method was being developed and what Jonathan Rauch calls “liberal science” was starting to form, there were also days in which entire cities were devastated by plagues nobody understood. While some people came up with useless superstitions to make a disease go away, a subset wanted to know as much about the disease as possible in hopes that maybe, just maybe, if they put their preconceptions to one side and systematically investigated it, there might be a way to defeat it. This open-minded curiosity and resolve to simply and humbly learn more led to unparalleled innovation and, yes, progress in human history. 

We are faced with a threat that makes us feel small, helpless, and insignificant. We should take it as a reminder that there’s still so much we don’t yet know about the natural world we inhabit, and about biology, human nature, and group psychology. We will answer these questions and many more if we are willing to enter the looking-glass lab and see ourselves as we really are. 

To do that requires a kind of radical openness rooted in an expanded understanding of the societal role of freedom of speech.

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