Free Inquiry Requires a Free Society

Ever since the Charlie Hebdo attacks last week, I have been seeing a lot of news on this issue, Pope Francis’ idiot remarks among them. I wasn’t originally going to post anything about this (if you want to know, I agree with Professor Ceiling Cat (aka Jerry Coyne) that there should be no limits on free speech, inciting violence excepted), but with so much news around this issue I thought that I shouldn’t miss the opportunity to point out the obvious: that free inquiry, which is integral to the success of science, requires a free society. By this I mean that as soon as we start imposing limits, however well-meaning, on what people can say we already start on the path to limiting what we are allowed to know even if the person would never discuss it. Think about it. If someone starts researching around a topic that has been banned, then suspicion immediately falls upon the person doing the research (perhaps they may even start classifying them as ‘undesirables’?).

We have already seen what this had led to in the past, and it is not only science which suffers. If people cannot be honest about what they believe, then you might as well chuck literature and art into the bin as well. Not only do people suffer under the arbiter, they also suffer under within themselves. Culture flourishes in a free society and withers in a repressive one. You may think that science would be exempt, but you would be wrong. Look what happened in the Soviet Union when Stalin decided to follow Lysenko’s stupid ideas about genetics, along with the awful literature and art which was allowed to be circulated.

I have seen Salman Rushdie’s quote on being offended doing the rounds on social media, and I think that it deserves to be quoted in full:

Nobody has the right to not be offended. That right doesn’t exist in any declaration I have ever read. If you are offended it is your problem, and frankly lots of things offend lots of people. I can walk into a bookshop and point out a number of books that I find very unattractive in what they say. But it doesn’t occur to me to burn the bookshop down. If you don’t like a book, read another book. If you start reading a book and you decide you don’t like it, nobody is telling you to finish it. To read a 600-page novel and then say that it has deeply offended you: well, you have done a lot of work to be offended.

That’s true for anyone who makes their hobby or bread and butter out of words and ideas (God knows I’ve probably offended people with the relatively innocuous things I’ve written on this blog).

You may have noticed the picture attached to this blog. It is an image of the Bebelplatz Monument in Berlin; my parents went to Berlin on holiday last year and I was struck by my mother’s description of it: rows of empty bookshelves. It is a memorial on the Nazis decision to burn approximately 20,000 books on May 10th 1933, by authors who were “a threat to Nazi ideology”.  Since we are an image conscious species, I think that this picture acutely captures the sterility imposed by those who wish to limit not only what you say, but also what you should think.

I shall leave you with what the late Christopher Hitchens, the great polemicist, had to say about free speech:


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