2024 Leg Session, Exclusives, Joshua Sharf, Uncategorized

Sharf: Colorado has no business policing ‘misinformation’

Recenty, I tried to post a story to Facebook.  And like every other Facebook friend of mine who tried to post that same link, the system deleted it and warned me that I was violating community standards by trying to post it.

The story was not hate speech.  It was certainly not pornography.  It wasn’t libelous.

It was a column by University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke, Jr. on his Substack, The Honest Broker, warning that climate science is endangering its own credibility by focusing on extreme scenarios rather than plausible ones, and that plausibility includes how electricity is likely to be generated.  Scientists want to look at the extremes but policy-makers need to look at the more probable, and by prioritizing their own needs over those of policy-makers, scientists risk discrediting the whole enterprise.

That’s it.  That’s the gist of the article that Facebook, for a time, anyway, found too objectionable to let my friends and me link to.

And if Colorado Democrats have their way, Pielke might not be able to publish it in the first place, which means you might not be able to read it, no matter where you look.

In 2021, State Senator Kerry Donovan proposed a bill that would have created a state regulatory scheme around “misinformation” on social media.  That bill died in committee amid concerns about its feasibility and constitutionality.

This year, rather than try to create the regime itself, Democrats have asked Attorney General Phil Weiser to create a road map for them.  Senate Bill 84, signed into law by our allegedly “libertarian” governor Jared Polis, backed of from its requirement that the AG produce a formal study on how this could be accomplished, but it leaves the door open for him to do it, and instructs him vaguely to create resources for educational institutions around the state.

Respectful discourse is, of course, a laudable goal.  But it’s also one that teachers can enforce in their classrooms and their debate teams by making students discuss issues and ideas rather than people.  It certainly doesn’t require the Attorney General, with all the law enforcement power of his office.

Someone like Pielke is particularly vulnerable, or would be if he hadn’t recently announced his intention to leave the University of Colorado for a senior fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute.  He believes in man-caused global warming, and that we need to do something both to prevent it and to deal with its consequences.

At the same time, Pielke rejects the worst excesses of the climate lobby as both untrue and destructive to its credibility and effectiveness.  He backs up his arguments with hard data, such as a series of posts dismantling the IPCC’s claims about the incidence of more severe hurricanes.  He opposes neo-Malthusian ideas common among climate activists that the earth needs fewer people.  He supports solar while questioning the long-term benefits of wind power.

Pielke is concerned about the integrity of science, which is needed if science is to perform its critical task of informing public debate, but which can be frittered away by taking convenient or unrelated political positions.

In particular, for our purposes, Pielke opposes efforts by scientific organizations to police “misinformation:”

Self-proclaimed experts analogize misinformation to a disease — a removable stone in the head. While they do not prescribe drilling a hole in the skull to remove the idiocy, they do assert that they are akin to medical doctors who can “inoculate” the misguided and susceptible against misinformation, giving them occasional “boosters” and with the goal of creating “herd immunity.”

The self-serving nature of such arguments is hard to miss, and it is easy to see why governments, social media platforms, major news media, and advocacy groups might find such arguments appealing in service of their own interests.

That is to say, not only do such efforts quickly become politicized, a government like the State of  Colorado, that wants to pursue an aggressive climate agenda, will use the scientific authority of the organizations involved to do so.  We can expect the resources used by Weiser to have passed muster with like-minded scientific groups.

Pielke speaks from experience.  It is this concern for scientific integrity that led to a well-financed and ultimately successful pressure campaign to kick him off the FiveThirtyEight website, with the Center for American Progress taking credit for the success of stifling debate.

Note that all of that, plus the recent Facebook exclusion, happened without any government intervention, without any force of law behind it.  And it still managed to gain the support of journalists, who are supposed to be free-speech advocates.

As columnist Ari Armstrong pointed out in a close examination of the Senate Bill 84’s implications earlier this year, it contemplates potential civil liability for Substack, the current platform of refuge for Mr. Pielke.  Not only could other platforms be pushed to ignore or isolate The Honest Broker, it’s possible that Pielke could be forced off of social media altogether.

There’s always a chance that Attorney General Phil Weiser writes up the report and then future Governor Phil Weiser decides to ignore it, at least until the second term.  But there’s also a real risk that his office takes the project seriously, laying out not only the regulatory regime but also the legal theories and defenses that a future AG could use.

Beware the government that prefers consensus over dissent and censorship over debate.  It can only become a very dishonest broker of ideas.

Joshua Sharf is a Denver resident and regular contributor to Complete Colorado.


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