I tend to post what I think here and on Twitter, and sometimes people don’t appreciate some of what I’m saying. That’s okay — they are free to unfollow, unsubscribe, mute or even block! But occasionally, they will go farther and try actually to deter me from posting, telling others in the public square what I’m saying is “dangerous” or “harmful”. I’ve even been accused of “killing people” and having a “body count!”
A recent example of this happened a couple months ago when I posted the following observation about the colonoscopy procedure:
Some people took exception to this post, despite the risk/benefit disclaimer, arguing it was dangerous because it could deter people from getting this potentially life-saving procedure. In other words, let’s say colonoscopies save lives, and if 100 people who read my post were convinced not to get one, maybe one of them would get a preventable form of cancer.
I understand the argument, but it’s a terrible one. For starters, each adult human being reading that post has agency. Whether he does or does not do something is never solely because he heard me make an observation. Anyone who reads a tweet from someone neither claiming special expertise in the subject matter nor even purporting to give advice as to risk/benefit and decides not to do something was almost certainly not going to do it anyway for a variety of reasons. I am not a puppet-master of other people with special powers to command them to do things.
To conclude someone is responsible for another adult’s behavior simply because of an observation is to invite all kinds of absurdities. If I post about how crunchy, salty and tangy a particular Doritos flavor is (I do not eat Doritos!), and someone struggling with a junk food addiction reads it and falls off the wagon, am I therefore responsible for the deleterious health effects of his binge?
If posting negative (even though accurate) observations about a health-promoting procedure makes us responsible for someone who subsequently forgoes that procedure, surely posting positive observations about unhealthy behaviors should be viewed similarly. Posting a photo of yourself with a glass of scotch and a cigar in a swanky Vegas lounge with the caption “My happy place” might just be the image that sends an alcoholic reaching for the bottle! Only virtuous, healthful and wholesome messages are permitted!
But could even a picture of yourself in tip-top shape at the beach, surrounded by your healthy and beautiful family cause single people to feel lonely and depressed? Better not post on social media at all. Better not even go out in public if you’re well-dressed and have a healthy and beautiful family. Virtually anything you do could trigger a negative emotion in someone, and who knows where it could lead?
And what if Donald Trump were to say something positive about colonoscopies? Surely, there’s a cohort of people who would reflexively start to question them because everything he says is bad. So even someone posting ostensibly healthful information could be killing people by virtue of their reaction to the poster himself.
But let’s set the absurd implications aside and address the argument on its merits. Even if we concede getting the colonoscopy would have led to early detection and a successful removal of colon cancer (which is not always the case), not getting the colonoscopy is certainly not the proximate cause of the cancer. It might be a but-for cause, but the proximate cause would be some combination of diet, environmental toxins and genetics. Surely, my tweet, no matter how much it stuck with him, cannot be credited with the yeoman’s work of industrial pollution, a pesticide, hormone and antibiotic laden corporate food supply and any risk-augmenting personal behaviors (smoking, eating a poor diet, not exercising) from the person himself.
Further, anyone declining an often free preventative medical procedure probably lacks trust in the medical system generally, and my tweet surely did not cause the medical establishment to offer such consistently wrongheaded advice during the covid era and squander so much of the good will and esteem in which people once held it.
Put differently, my posting about Doritos’ crunch can’t be isolated from the hundreds of millions in marketing from Pepsi-co subsidiary Frito Lay that preceded it.
But even this is not the most pertinent objection to the notion it’s wrong to express earnest observations about medical procedures or lifestyle choices. The primary reason people should feel free to share what they believe or observe is that the science is never all in. Just as eggs were once considered harmful due to their cholesterol content and margarine healthful for its lack thereof, we might one day discover that colonoscopies (and the removal of polyps during the procedure) are themselves sometimes the trigger for colon cancer.
Set aside whether that particular hypothetical mechanism during that particular procedure sounds farfetched, it isn’t hard to imagine more generally that many of the treatments deemed “dangerous” to question might not in fact be net beneficial.
The implications of this are twofold: (1) if someone were on the hook for observations that might deter ostensibly net beneficial procedures, should those procedures later turn out to have been net harmful, those who recommended them would similarly have to be on the hook for those harms. (And I am not talking about the medical establishment that should very much on the hook were that the case, but the ordinary person encouraging his friends and social media followers to follow establishment medical advice.)
And (2) if it were verboten to share earnest observations that contradict the establishment dictum, we would disable the very error-correction mechanism that allows us to update our body of knowledge. Put differently, the examples of expert consensus being wrong and in need of correction span the millennia, from Galileo challenging the geocentric paradigm of the church to Einstein updating Newton’s theories on gravity. Without the ability to question openly the knowledge of the day, whether scientific, medical or political, our myriad errors in attending to human affairs would not merely cause acute harm — they would be permanent.
In short, anyone who discourages you from expressing earnest observations is himself engaging in the most harmful speech of which we can conceive, for though his perceived end might be prevention of local harm, it actually precludes the possibility of progress itself.