Freedom of Expression, and What It Is Not

On MediaPost, Karlene Lukovitz recently authored an article on the pressure being put by a medical coalition on Spotify to drop Joe Rogan’s podcast, who is fond of spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines.

Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

Not surprisingly, in the few comments on that article, some have defended the idea that Spotify ought to give Joe Rogan a chance to show his ‘alternative’ views, allowing his exercise of freedom of expression, and not curb his opinion (and of those Rogan invites to his podcast, such as Dr. Robert Malone), no matter if it’s held by the ‘mainstream’ or not. The ability to be given a ‘fair’ share of attention to ‘the other side’ was defended quite sternly, under the principle that, in a free society, no one should be excluded from a public debate, even if their opinions are not so well substantiated.

There seems to be a slight misunderstanding here.

For example, a commenter (Alan Welsh) suggested that ‘ALL evidence OR “fake news” MUST ALL BE HEARD FIRST’, thus labouring under a very dangerous, but quite widespread, assumption on the meaning of the word opinion.

Unfortunately, most Western languages (I don’t know any non-Western ones, so perhaps this is true for other languages as well) use multiple meanings of the word ‘opinion’, which are employed in different contexts. English, for instance, distinguishes between ‘qualified opinions’ and the rest of them (sometimes also known as ‘expert opinions’).

When two scientists are arguing about a topic where both are specialists in the field, they might bring arguments — and empiric evidence — to sustain what can be considered ‘qualified opinions’ — especially if their arguments have been published by both. It’s of no consequence if their qualified opinions agree or disagree: what matters is that both make their arguments based on the application of the scientific method. Sometimes, one of them makes ‘erroneous assumptions’ (deliberately or accidentally) — essentially misrepresenting their own data, or drawing conclusions from their data which are not sustained by the data itself. During such debates between scientists with opposing views, anyone — trained in the specific field of knowledge and well-aware of the scientific method and what it entails — is most definitely entitled to their qualified opinion, which simply means that you can substantiate your opinion with proof (either mathematical or empirical).

This is not only related to science, but to many other areas of knowledge acquisition. Thus, similarly, in the judicial context, the same applies. When two jurists discuss a law case, they are also putting their expertise and knowledge of a body of laws into practice and will interpret laws according to whatever references they’ve got to sustain each argument. These are also qualified opinions, given by experts on a subject they’re quite familiar with. Again, differing opinions can be substantiated (each being ‘valid’), and that’s why you have a system of courts of appeal. Details may of course change from country to country, but, in general, in civil law the appeal court is more worried about the actual qualification that substantiates an opinion, that is, what exactly a judge (or a jurist, a lawyer…) has used to express a particular opinion. That’s why there are things like mistrials etc. — when not all procedures have been followed according to law or custom, some sentences (‘opinions’) may be reversed, annulled, or commuted, or whatever legal term applies. While the procedure may look very different, it is, after all, not so different from what happens when a scientific journal retracts a paper which has been proven to be based on manipulated or incorrectly interpreted data.

By no means obvious, but this is how Vajrayana Buddhist monks debate. Photo by Will Pagel on Unsplash

The list goes on. Two theologists discussing religion within their particular school of thought, or denomination, using a common set of references (a Bible, the Talmud, the Quran, the Rig Veda, the Buddhadharma… whatever), can express qualified opinions on a certain course of action, based on their years of study of whatever holy/sacred references they have, and discuss them in the context of theology or philosophy — even if they have opposing views — and back them up with quotes from certain books, allusions to how earlier theologists gave an answer to the same question and see if it still applies, etc. Sometimes such opinions may even be radical. For instance, both Catholicism and Buddhism consider human life sacred, to be preserved at all costs. Abortion is technically forbidden by Catholicism — but you can find many ‘pro-choice’ Catholic priests, especially in those very dubious cases where pregnancy was a result of rape, incest, etc. In Buddhism, different schools, based on the same writings (but possibly different interpretations), may argue either for or against abortion, despite considering human life precious. It is possible to argue pro-abortion and still remain a Buddhist without breaking any vows. However, a humble practitioner (or sympathiser) does not easily give such an opinion simply by claiming ‘Buddhism is not against abortion’. It requires a considerable amount of study and understanding to be able to correctly identify the arguments that could, in principle, sustain a pro-choice position, but it’s not something easy to do.

You could also delve into the context of military operations. Two generals may have completely different views on how to attack an adversary and be successful. Each, if having gotten the adequate training in military strategy, may be able to give a differing opinion and justify it with concrete examples, tested in a war theatre, where one solution has proven to be better than the other, and argue that such a solution is more or less adequate to the scenario under discussion. Such an opinion carries weight — and not because a general is higher in the hierarchy than a humble private, but rather because the private lacks the training in complex military strategy and the understanding that comes from such training.

Even an ‘instant expert’ does not make ‘qualified opinions’. An ‘instant expert’ is a layperson in a certain field of knowledge, but who has engaged in self-teaching, acquiring knowledge (and perhaps even some understanding) from reference books and/or conversations/workshops given by accredited experts in the field. That makes them knowledgeable, and, thus, being often able to follow the argumentation brought by experts to sustain their qualified opinion; but, in general, such knowledge is very incomplete and biased, and not enough to express a qualified opinion. At best, such a person may make ‘an educated guess’ which might or might not align with the knowledge acquired in the field.

Photo by Michael Jasmund on Unsplash

For example, a car mechanic may have read tons of books on how cars actually work, and give ‘educated guesses’ on how to design a car that consumes less fuel, based on all the experience they’ve got in fixing all sorts of cars. In some cases, such educated guesses may be very close to the truth — for instance, if there is a way to empirically increase the aerodynamics of a vehicle so that it presents less air resistance, which might lead to a decrease in fuel consumption, even if the car mechanic has never learned advanced fluid thermodynamics (and might simply be unable to understand it).

In other words: in debates between non-experts in a field that they might have some knowledge in, what emerges is, at best, ‘educated guesses’ from each side (and that’s being nice!). Such ‘educated guesses’ may be relevant to the subject — and not necessarily by chance only. But they are not to be confused with qualified opinions by experts!

I’m not an immunologist, nor a virologist, I have had absolutely zero medical or pharmaceutical training. Nevertheless, I can make a few educated guesses about vaccines. I have a rough, very basic and crude understanding on how biochemistry works — having studied it for some months at the university level. When I claim that ‘vaccines work’, however, I’m just making an ‘educated guess’ and nothing more. For example, I cannot explain, for all vaccines that have ever been invented in the past two centuries, why they work. I lack the simple knowledge of the history of vaccines, to understand, over the decades, how some strategies to develop a vaccine worked admirably well, while others failed. If you give me raw, empirical data from a vaccine study and expect me to be able to read it, process it, understand it and give a qualified opinion on the validity of such data (or, worse, on the interpretation of what that data actually shows) — well, I’d be 99.99% clueless, and, as such, not even able to make an ‘educated guess’ about it. It would be a worthless opinion — and this time I’m using ‘opinion’ in the context of the freedom to express opinions: it has no worth just because I’m entitled to an opinion. It’s worthless because I lack the training and understanding to process such data and be able to explain what the data shows in this context. Actually, I’m even more ignorant than that: I’m not even qualified enough to look at the statistical procedures used to analyse the data and say if they have been applied correctly. A statistician, for example, might have no idea about how vaccines work and have no previous knowledge about biochemistry or even what are considered normal procedures to acquire data in the field of virology, but she might be able to immediately recognise an error in the application of statistical theory to a set of data — and thus give her qualified opinion to the data itself. She might be absolutely clueless to explain what that means in the context of the study. She could only say: ‘I’m no virologist, but whoever analysed that data, came to the wrong conclusion — this set does not support the hypothesis, because, see, the author made a classic mathematical error on this line.’

To further go into this example of what I call ‘borderline knowledge’ (not a real term, scientific or otherwise), when a court has to decide if a mortal victim was, indeed, attacked by the defendant or not, they bring in experts in forensics, namely forensic medicine. A forensic doctor is a MD with expert knowledge in figuring out how human bodies have been assaulted or murdered. But the forensic doctor also knows a bit about laws and a bit about court procedures — simply because she has been called to give testimony so many times (and probably has attended more than one class on ‘how to present medical forensic conclusions to the court’). So, she can say, as an expert in the field, why it would have been impossible for the defendant to commit (unaided) the murder of the victim. She will be able to present her conclusions not only to other forensic doctors, but has enough knowledge in how to write her report to be able to aid the court in their decision. That doesn’t mean that she’s able to pronounce a sentence and judge a case on her own. She has an immense pool of ignorance of what takes to make a judge being able to judge a case. Conversely, a judge who has been through hundreds or thousands of murder cases will acquire some understanding of medical forensics — perhaps enough to do an ‘educated guess’, based on the evidence presented. But the judge will not enter his own opinion on what the forensic data actually means when writing the sentence. For that, the judge will rely on the qualified opinion of the forensic doctor having been called to testify. Just because such a qualified opinion may, in many cases, coincide with the judge’s own ‘educated guess’, it does not make the judge a ‘medical forensic expert’. Again, that field of knowledge lies far beyond their own training as judges.

Adam Smith

The trouble in our day and age is that far too many people confuse qualified opinions with educated guesses, or, worse, ‘opinions given just because I’m entitled to one opinion’. That’s not how our civilisation was built: like good Adam Smith so well wrote, a year before the US Constitution was written, our society (and civilisation) builds upon the principle of division of labour. In essence, what that means is that a doctor is trained as a doctor, and a judge is trained as a judge, while a scientist is trained in the scientific method and a theologist is trained in reading the sacred books of their religion — that’s how it works. Inside their respective fields, where they are experts, they know how to substantiate their respective opinions according to the rules of their field of knowledge, and, as such, regarding that field of knowledge only, their opinions are qualified.

We erroneously believe that just because we have ‘freedom of opinion’ in Western-inspired democracies, that means that we can all pronounce sentences as a judge, perform surgery as a doctor, or start up a nuclear reactor as a scientist. No. That’s not what ‘freedom of opinion’ means — in those fields of knowledge, ‘freedom of opinion’ means that every judge, or doctor, or scientist, or even theologist, has the freedom to forward a qualified opinion in their field of knowledge — even if it goes against the mainstream thought — so long as such an opinion is, effectively, qualified using the rigorous procedures or customs defined by such fields of knowledge.

When in a debate someone claims to have a ‘better’ opinion in a very specialised field of knowledge just because they are entitled to an opinion, that’s stretching the definition of ‘freedom of expression’ to the point of breaking. Just because everyone is entitled to worthless opinions, that does not mean that such opinions are as worthy of attention as qualified opinions! That is, after all, what is meant by worthless opinions. They are just that — ‘opinions’, in the mundane, non-scientific usage of the word, and meaning simply ‘expressing one’s thoughts on a subject we aren’t experts in’.

Even despite Adam Smith’s description of a society based on division of labour, it’s nevertheless true that many fields of knowledge are not as systematic as, say, science, law, or even theology. In other words: while the scientific method has been proven, century after century, that it leads to better acquisition of knowledge that is closest to the experienced truth, it is not the only method of knowledge acquisition — the best example being, of course, how legal knowledge is acquired in a court (or even by an inquiry committee). Journalism is perhaps also another such method of acquisition, equally valid, albeit not following the scientific method. Just because I focused on a few examples of perfectly valid, but non-scientific, methods of knowledge acquisition, I’m not claiming that these are the only ones that are possible, of course. We humans are rather good at inventing new things :)

All I’m saying is that you cannot compare worthless opinions with qualified opinions. And people like Dr. Malone know that very well (see, for instance, https://www.logically.ai/articles/who-is-dr.-robert-malone). Just because Dr. Malone did, in fact, co-author a paper on the potential of mRNA-based vaccines, that was written back in 1989. I haven’t read his article, nor am I qualified to judge its quality, or even its relevance to contemporary human genetics. Nevertheless, Dr. Malone has been very clever to leverage that association with his past endeavours to propel him into being accepted — by some — as an ‘expert’ in the field! He’s not. His opinions are, at best, ‘educated guesses’. As such, they’re worthless compared to qualified opinions. Not even the argument that the WHO goes back and forth with its own recommendations is a valid one: science is not static, it is dynamic, new results supersede older ones, and new results can give new insights, new theories, new applications. While it’s true that science — because it is a human endeavour, after all! — is tainted with bias and prejudice, and it certainly ‘follows the money’ in the sense that scientific research needs funding, which comes either from governments or private companies, so these, by selectively picking what is in their interest, will naturally ‘guide’ researchers towards some areas to the detriment of others; therefore, science is not ‘perfect’, it commits mistakes — sometimes, very serious ones — and has its share of questionable characters, who use the gentle mantle of science as a pretext for advancement of their own, personal goals (money, fame, glory…).

That’s ok — this is true of all fields, since it’s part of human nature. Nevertheless, science has a tiny advantage over most fields: the scientific method can be used, eventually, to prune the ‘bad’ from the ‘good’ science, merely by running the same data again, just doing things ‘right’ this time. Or, alternatively, by a genius that comes along and gives a completely different interpretation on the meaning on such data and has the required ability to prove it. We may record incorrect science for all eternity, not only as historical curiosities but as means to learn and understand how earlier generations of scientists have acquired and evaluated their data, and either refute or confirm their results — at any time, by anyone (qualified to do so!), at any place. The scientific method, just as justice, is blind — it’s just a tool to extract knowledge, after all. But it works only if certain assumptions are made, such as that ‘educated guesses’ by experts in the field become ‘conjectures’ when they are substantiated with reasoned thought experiments; then they might become ‘hypothesis’ when there is actually a way to test such conjectures (either mathematically or empirically); and, finally, they might become a ‘thesis’ or a ‘theory’ that has predictive power. That’s what enables, for instance, surgeons to identify the adequate procedure for a particular medical issue with a patient and be successful in most cases (or, at the very least, to be able to define a probability of success). It’s not just because surgeons are highly trained, specialised professionals, with an incredible agility. It’s mostly because the scientific method has been applied to such procedures, repeatedly, according to strict guidelines, and the results of that analysis showed surgeons what works, what doesn’t, and why.

Now, that’s not to say that anyone may have an opinion on what surgical procedure is ‘best’ for them (or their families). Given that we all enjoy freedom of expression, sure, we’re entitled to have and even give that opinion. But what is so often misunderstood is that the ‘right to give an opinion’ is not saying that ‘every opinion counts’. No. Depending on the context, some opinions count more than others; sometimes, such opinions, in a particular context, may even be absolutely worthless, while precious in other, different context. It’s when we mix up the contexts and proclaim that ‘all opinions are equal’ that confusion and even havoc results.

When Spotify, or any other media channel, decides on what to publish and what not to publish, that’s not censoring, much less ‘preventing someone’s right to freely express themselves’. Again, no. Freedom of expression does not include the ‘right to be published’; in other words, we have the right to express our opinions, not the right to have our opinions disseminated. That is, unfortunately, another quite common fallacy, more so since the dawn of social media on the Internet, where every person is handled a megaphone able to shout across the entire world. It also gives people a certain illusion of entitlement: because there are nowadays mechanisms to get my opinion heard, we believe we have the right to do so, and, more relevant than that, the right to demand that our opinion is vehiculated by the media (social or otherwise) at the same level or degree of any other opinion.

No. That is a complete misunderstanding on what freedom of expression means, and how it can (and should) be used. For instance, Joe Rogan is not being prevented of expressing his (worthless) opinion: it’s just that Spotify does not want his opinion to be expressed through their technology. This is exactly how the printed media also works: if I send an article to the New York Times ‘demanding’ that they publish my opinion in the name of freedom of expression, I’m misunderstanding my actual rights. The New York Times has the right to publish whatever ‘opinion’ they want — not I! They have freedom of expression, too: they are entitled to publish only those that they wish to publish, and no one, outside their editorial board, has anything to say about their choices.

Photo by Spenser Sembrat on Unsplash

No, instead, if the NYT rejects my fabulous article, I have several options. I can submit it to Breitbart instead (or any other media outlet). I can, as a measure of retaliation against the NYT, boycott their newspaper (or website, or both), and appeal to others to do the same, in the hope that, by hurting their business, they start publishing my articles, too. I may or may not be successful in doing so, but there is little that the NYT — or the government — can do about it. There is freedom of association; there is a right to peaceful rallies; so, if I create an Anti-NYT organisation, raise funds, promote it, and organise a long march to the front of the NYT corporate headquarters, waving signs saying ‘Stop the Censorship!’… I’m fully entitled to do so. Sure, there are some rules to follow (legal and accounting fees to run the organisation; informing the authorities about which streets will need to be closed and when, so that the rally can gather; etc.), but, so long as I follow them, the New York Times cannot do much about it — as they shouldn’t. They can, of course, start an Anti-Anti-NYT campaign of their own — again, so long as a few rules are kept (such as no libeling or defamation), they are allowed to do so, and, once more, there is nothing I can do about it. It’s my freedom of expression demanding something from the NYT; it’s their freedom of expression to refuse to meet my demands and instead to defend themselves and even fight back.

And, of course, the last option is to give up the fight, and, instead, set up my own newspaper. Nobody can stop me — I’m entitled to create my own means of disseminating my own opinions and do it in whatever way I wish (again, so long as a few rules are followed). If I find enough people that agree with me and join their money to start the Anti-New York Times newspaper, so that my opinion can be published by this new newspaper, then so be it — neither the NYT, nor the government, can do anything to prevent me from doing that.

In fact, legally speaking, censorship happens when I’m prevented to do any of the above, especially if it’s the government which has the power to decide who is allowed to publish a newspaper, and who is not. That, indeed, is censorship. The NYT refusing to publish my articles is only common sense — or, if you prefer, an ‘editorial decision’.

We cannot confuse the two!

Now, nothing prevents Joe Rogan to the knock at the door of Rupert Murdoch, or any such billionaire news mogul, and try to pitch him the idea that the JRE ought to be carried by Murdoch’s various media outlets. That’s fine: both Rogan and Murdoch are entitled to do so. What Rogan — and anyone else — can demand is that Spotify continues to give voice to JRE, or whoever else they do not like. Again, that is not censorship. It’s just Spotify deciding what to carry and what not to carry — and they have a legally binding agreement with each and every member of the service where they clearly state under which conditions access to their services is provided or not. That’s all that is needed. Whatever Spotify decides, within the context of their end-user agreements, is up to them. No company, media or otherwise, is compelled to publish anything against their own wishes.

In earlier (and slightly more peaceful) times, the argument about who should be included or excluded from social media was put in milder terms. It was argued that, since such services are universal — in the sense that their audience is potentially the entire world — they should be given ‘fair and equal’ access to everybody using their services. This was, I believe, the start of the concept that freedom of expression also includes the right to be published — even if it started to be framed in more moderate terms. Nowadays, when everything is polarised, those ‘moderate terms’ have shown their true colours — what they advocate is that private companies should be forced (or coerced) into publishing anything, even if the companies themselves do not want to, and that such ‘force’ might ultimately come from the government or the judiciary. Whoever remains on the side of the company (Spotify, Facebook, you name it…) is, well, labeled as ‘fascist’, or even ‘nazi’, or at the very least ‘enemy of freedom of expression and lover of censorship’.

Unfortunately, those who write such claims are either ignorant or malicious. Ignorant, because it’s exactly under a fascist regime that governments and courts tell companies what to publish and what not to publish (personally, I believe that the extreme positions held by so many in the US come from never ever having lived under a fascist, autocratic regime — so they tend to have absolutely no idea what it means; then again, what do I know of these things?… it’s just another worthless opinion). Under a democratic regime, neither interfere with the right of companies to publish what (or who) they wish, because such companies also enjoy freedom of expression, and the freedom to publish whatever they want (naturally, within reasonable limits, set by law).

Photo by Johan Mouchet on Unsplash

But sometimes these claimants are actually malicious. They know very well that they are not ‘entitled’ to get published by private companies. However, they also know that most people are ignorant of their own rights. As such, they think they can leverage such ignorance in their benefit, by letting them echo and amplify their own ‘opinions’ and try to get enough people angry enough (on false assumptions) to put pressure on companies, or even governments, to force them to publish what they don’t want to. Such efforts will fail, simply because you cannot claim to a right you don’t have and expect it to be accepted as such. The cleverness comes from disguising that ‘right’ as seeming to be something completely different, but which the claimant is able to pass it as being legitimate. If their audience is mostly ignorant, such efforts may be rewarded.

Thus, Dr. Malone is perfectly entitled to his opinion on vaccines, even an unsubstantiated opinion that doesn’t even qualify as an ‘educated guess’, on his own media channel. Note that does not mean that he is ‘entitled’ to use another’s media channel to push his opinion to an audience. Rather, it means that Dr. Malone, if he wishes, is allowed to purchase a vast amount of cloud servers, hire an army of software developers, and provide video streaming services that compete with YouTube, in order to disseminate his opinions. In this scenario, it’s worthless to discuss if Dr. Malone is an ‘authority’ or not; that’s irrelevant. Since Dr. Malone is not engaging with the scientific community — where he has to abide by some rules, collectively known as the scientific method, in order to get published and have his views disseminated — it means that all he’s ‘entitled’ to is the right to publish his own ideas, using his own media channel, which he has built with his own hands (and those who are sadly too naïve to understand the issue, or simply lack the knowledge to see through the farce).

But no — the likes of Dr. Malone know perfectly well that it’s far easier to disseminate one’s opinions through established channels than to start one’s own media company from scratch. That’s why they’re always so eager to squeeze themselves into the ‘established media’, demanding to be heard by a vast audience… and, slowly, by eroding the system with constant pressure, they’re actually getting what they want.

Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash

TL;DR:

  1. Not all opinions are created equal: qualified opinions are made by experts in the field (and each field defines its own rules for establishing expertise).
  2. The word ‘opinion’ has different meanings according to context.
  3. Non-qualified opinions, also known as ‘educated guesses’, are worthless — even they’re proven right! — and, as such, are not entitled to the same treatment as qualified opinions.
  4. Freedom of expression is way too often misinterpreted to mean ‘the right to demand to be published’ (and to demand to be published by the media, conventional or otherwise). That’s a dangerous fallacy, which has been disseminated far too wide in the last decade; there is no such ‘right to be published’, just the right to emit (publicly) an opinion.
  5. Media outlets, from conventional media to social media, also have the right to freedom of expression, and that can be understood as being the ‘editorial choice’ (in the case of conventional media) or ‘terms of service and user agreement’ (in the case of social media). Just like no one is allowed to force us to have an opinion that we don’t agree with, exactly the same applies to media in general: no one can force them to accept an opinion they do not agree with. (‘No one’, in this context, means mostly the government and/or the courts.)
  6. The idea that a private media company denies service to an individual, based on that individual’s opinion is censorship, is a very dangerous fallacy. Censorship is when governments decide what opinions are published, and which companies are allowed to publish them. Companies deciding who they publish and who they don’t is nobody else’s business, so long as anyone is entitled to build their own media company (which is true on all countries touting freedom of expression).
  7. Fascism is not when a group of individuals — owners of a company, for example — restricts what can or cannot be done, in the context of their regular business operations. Fascism is when the government tells such groups of individuals what they are allowed to do, what kinds of activities are permitted or not, according to their opinion — and having the means to coerce companies to either comply with such restrictions or shut down their business (usually by also getting imprisoned/exiled/killed/whatever).

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