IN PRAISE OF MISINFORMATION

The latest justification for censorship is the need to suppress “misinformation.” The enemies of misinformation see themselves, not as censors, but as public guardians engaged in a campaign of self-defense.

Critics of Joe Rogan have justified their efforts to pressure Spotify to drop his popular podcast by accusing him of endangering the public health by hosting guests skeptical of the Covid vaccines.

In his defense, Rogan posted a 10-minute video on Instagram, in which he addressed the subject of misinformation generally. Rogan gave three examples of contentions which were once deemed “misinformation,” but which are now either accepted as true or at least considered plausible: 1) even if you are vaccinated, you can still catch and spread Covid; 2) cloth masks don’t work; and 3) Covid came from a lab leak.

Rogan, a former stand-up comedian and ultimate fighting commentator, does not fit the classical profile of an intellectual. And one might quarrel with his descriptions of these contentions (for example, while experts have long advocated the use of masks, there has never been widespread advocacy of cloth masks in particular).

But Rogan’s basic point is valid and perceptive: yesterday’s “misinformation” may become tomorrow’s accepted truth. Indeed, Rogan may have understated his case.

Throughout history, science has advanced by the courage of those willing to subject themselves to derision and even persecution for advancing theories deemed the contemporary equivalent of “misinformation.” Many of those theories were in fact misinformation, and their sponsors deserved to be derided. Nevertheless, scientific progress is a never-ending process of examining, critiquing, and supplanting widely accepted theories. Almost invariably, the replacement theories are greeted skeptically. Sometimes that skepticism takes the form of ridicule and calumny. It may even take the form of violent resistance. But progress requires a willingness to face such slings and arrows.

Thomas Kuhn’s Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought, once required reading on college campuses, is worth revisiting on this point. Kuhn described how the Ptolemaic system accounted for the motion of the sun, the moon, and the five known planets. It commanded the allegiance of the world’s wisest scientists for nearly 1500 years. It was so reliable that it enabled Ptolemy to estimate the earth’s distance from the moon with impressive accuracy.

For all of those centuries, to “follow the science” meant to follow Ptolemy. Everyone – not just astronomers, but also theologians, philosophers, navigators, and sailors — just knew that he was right.

Except he wasn’t.

The Ptolemaic system was based on a profound but appealing error: the notion that the Earth is at the center of the universe, and that the sun, the moon, and the planets revolve around it. It became increasingly difficult for rational people to adhere to this geocentric theory as astronomical observations grew more precise. But for centuries the Ptolemaic system withstood those challenges. Significant adjustments were made to account for these observations. Ptolemaic adherents postulated that the planets, while revolving around the Earth, were simultaneously revolving around the course of their Earth orbits (the epicycle). They further postulated that the exact center of the planetary orbits was actually a certain distance from Earth (the deferent). These contrived theories went a long way to reconciling the basic notion of a geocentric universe with the actual evidence of astronomical observations. And so “the science” held – until it gave way to something better designed to conform to the evidence.

In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish polymath, published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). It replaced the geocentric model of Ptolemy with a heliocentric model, featuring the sun in the center, orbited by the Earth and the other planets. This represented more than just an advance in astronomy. It marked what Kuhn described as a “paradigm shift”; a new global organizing theory transforming how we look at nature, man, and God.

It also caused an assault on what might be considered the 16th century version of “misinformation.”

To replace the earth with the sun at the center of the universe meant defying “the science” of the day. But more than that, it meant defying theology, philosophy, and common sense.

Astronomers accepted the data and diagrams amassed by Copernicus, but either ignored his central heliocentric thesis or dismissed it as absurd.

Among lay audiences, rejection was more vehement. Opposition came not only from establishmentarians but also from the progressives of the time, such as Jean Bodin, a political philosopher so radical that his works were placed upon the Index of books which Catholics were forbidden to read. Bodin wrote:

No one in his senses, or imbued with the slightest knowledge of physics, will ever think that the earth, heavy and unwieldy from its own weight and mass, staggers up and down around its own center and that of the sun; for at the slightest jar of the earth, we would see cities and fortresses, towns and mountains thrown down.

Opposition also came from voices of the popular culture. Kuhn quotes a poet popular among French and English lay audiences (one might consider him the 16th century version of Neil Young or Joni Mitchell), who described the Copernicans as:

Those clerks who think (how absurd a jest)

That neither heav’ns nor stars do turn at all,

Nor dance about this great round earthyly ball;

But th’earth itself, this massy globe of ours

Turns rond-about once every twice-twelve hours;

And we resemble land-bred novices

New brought aboard to venture on the seas;

Who, at first launching from the shore, suppose

The ship stands still, and that the ground it goes ….

Martin Luther, another “progressive” of the era and the leader of the Protestant Reformation, objected that:

People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. … This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us … that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.

The reaction of the Catholic Church, at least initially, was silence.  Copernicus had been a respected cleric, and his De Revolutionibus was dedicated to the Pope. A bishop and cardinal were among his many friends who encouraged him to publish it. But the Church was locked in a mortal struggle with the Protestant movement, and that movement was sternly opposed to his ideas. The competition between the two branches of Christianity imposed pressure on the Church to join the chorus condemning his supposed misinformation.

V0001275 Nicolaus Copernicus. Lithograph by Salucci after G. Colzi. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Nicolaus Copernicus. Lithograph by Salucci after G. Colzi. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

After his death, the Church charged Copernicus and his followers with formal heresy, and placed his De Revolutionibus upon the Index. Catholics were forbidden to teach or read any of his works, except in versions carefully edited to delete any references to a moving Earth and stationary sun. Not until 1822 did the Catholic Church allow the publication of books asserting that the earth moved around the sun.

Ultimately, of course, the Copernican revolution became conventional wisdom. General acceptance was the underpinning of Newtonian physics. But the process of examining, critiquing, and supplanting continued. Newtonian physics held sway for more than two centuries, until superseded by Einstein’s quantum physics.

Einstein, in turn, was viewed in many quarters as just another purveyor of misinformation. Pierre Duhem assailed relativity as the product of the “too formal and abstract” German spirit, which contradicted “common sense.” On the other side of the nationalistic ledger, several German scientists, including two Nobel laureates, condemned relativity as the product of “Jewish science.” Eventually, of course, Einstein’s quantum physics gained acceptance. But the scientific process of questioning and criticizing continues. Respected voices stand ready to explain “why Einstein was wrong about relativity.” Einstein is not the final word in physics. No one is.

None of this is to suggest that Joe Rogan is the modern incarnation of Copernicus, Newton, or Einstein. But if we hope ever to see modern incarnations of such thinkers, we must be willing to entertain controversial ideas, even ones we find disturbing or dangerous. For without granting an audience to ideas deemed “misinformation,” we can be certain of nothing but the certainty of stagnation. Temper tantrums thrown by the likes of Neil Young or Joni Mitchell may silence their music but they do not advance science. Ultimately, we must place our trust in the scientific process of examining, critiquing, and supplanting to separate mere misinformation from the next paradigm shift.  

2 Comments

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2 responses to “IN PRAISE OF MISINFORMATION

  1. David Berger

    Larry,

    As an avid reader of To Put it Bluntly, I’ve enjoyed, though not always agreed with your opinions. However, they always gave me reason to think outside of my comfort zone of Basic, Physical and Life sciences and their application to clinical medicine. “In Praise of Misinformation” appears to fall outside of your mission of “Occasional opinions on politics, foreign policy, law and culture.” Your argument citing scientific examples, although compelling enough to possibly sway a jury or a judge, would never be recognized by a peer reviewed scientific journal which makes one ask have you too wandered from your own comfort zone?

    Yes, as early as the sixth century B.C. Pythagoras-and later Aristotle and Euclid- wrote about the Earth as a sphere. Ptolemy wrote “Geography “at the height of the roman empire 1300 years before Columbus, who himself owned a copy. For Columbus the big question was the size of the ocean he wanted to cross and he considered the idea of a round planet as FACT. FACTS are the basis for advancement of all sciences. It’s not for me to give an exhaustive history of scientific thought but comparing your “16th century version of misinformation” to “I read a tweet about a podcast about an article on Buzz Feed” is in this readers opinion where your always clever and profound use of words lose their validity.

    David L. Berger, MD
    Emeritus Clinical Professor of Anesthesia,
    Stanford University School of Medicine
    Trustee, University of St. Andrews
    510.332.7554
    dlbergermd@gmail.com

  2. Pingback: In Praise of Misinformation - Blue Marble News

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