Steven Pinker: 3 Reasons Why Free Speech Matters

The following is the prepared version of Professor Steven Pinker’s remarks at the 15th Anniversary Dinner for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, delivered in New York, on Oct. 23, 2014.

A few years ago I wrote a chapter on taboo language which began, “It’s no coincidence that freedom of speech is enshrined in the first of the ten amendments to the Constitution that make up the Bill of Rights, because freedom of speech is the foundation of democracy.” It didn’t take long for a historian to write to me, saying, “Actually, it is a coincidence.” Originally, the framers had framed twelve amendments, of which the one guaranteeing free speech was third. The first two, which dealt with how congressmen were paid and other housekeeping issues, failed to pass, resulting in the third amendment being promoted to first.

It serves me right for assuming that history provides us with neat symbolism that makes for cute chapter openings. Still, I could have written, “It’s fitting that the constitutional guarantee of free speech is the first of the ten amendments,” because free speech is indeed the foundation of democracy—and, as I hope to remind you this evening, much else that is worthwhile in life.

Persuading this audience that free speech is a good thing is a bit like Mitt Romney preaching to a certain musical ensemble in Salt Lake City. But the value of free speech is still very much worth affirming. There are good reasons why the people in this room fetishize free speech, and we should have the reasons at our fingertips when we are called upon to justify this fetish. Tonight I’d like to remind you of three of them.

First, free speech is the only way to acquire knowledge about the world. Perhaps the greatest discovery in human history—one that is logically prior to every other discovery—is that all of our traditional sources of belief are in fact generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. These include faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, augury, prophesy, intuition, clairvoyance, conventional wisdom, and the warm glow of subjective certainty.

How, then, can we know? Other than by proving mathematical and logical theorems, which are not about the material world, the answer is the process that Karl Popper called conjecture and refutation. We come up with ideas about the nature of reality, and test them against that reality, allowing the world to falsify the mistaken ones. The “conjecture” part of this formula, of course, presupposes the exercise of free speech. We offer conjectures without any prior assurance they are correct. It is only by bruiting ideas and seeing which ones withstand attempts to refute them that we acquire knowledge.

Once this realization sank in during the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Reason, and the Enlightenment, the traditional understanding of the world was decimated. Everyone knows that the discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun rather than vice-versa had to overcome fierce resistance from common sense and ecclesiastical authority. But the Copernican revolution was just the first event in an cataclysm that would make our current understanding of the world unrecognizable to our ancestors.

We now know that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago.

We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being.

There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.

Free speech was not just central to the development of knowledge in the history of humanity; it may be central to the development of knowledge in any intelligent species. In his brilliant book The Beginning of Infinity, the physicist David Deutsch argues that conjecture and refutation is the only way, in principle, that knowledge can be acquired. If he is right, we can rule out that staple of science fiction, the advanced race of extraterrestrials with a higher form of intelligence.

There is only one form of intelligence, Deutsch argues, and modern humans have it: a combination of the ability to conjecture hypotheses, which is part of our evolved cognitive makeup, and the willingness to let the world refute them, which is an accomplishment of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. If so, the freedom to advance ideas is not just a parochial ideal of Homo sapiens on Planet Earth; it is an ideal of all intelligent beings.

The second reason that free speech is foundational to human flourishing is that it is essential to democracy and a bulwark against tyranny. The most pressing historical question of the twentieth century is how monstrous totalitarian regimes, particularly those of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Imperial Japan, came into existence. There are a number of conjectures, such as the popular libertarian hypothesis that societies with extensive social welfare systems and copious government regulation are likely to slide down a slippery slope into totalitarianism. It’s an interesting hypothesis with a major flaw: nothing of the sort has ever happened.

Instead, fascist and communist regimes come to power through violent intimidation. In every case, groups of armed fanatics used violence to silence or intimidate their critics and adversaires. (Even the apparently democratic election of the Nazis in 1933 was preceded by years of intimidation, murder, and violent mayhem.) And once in power, totalitarians criminalize any criticism of the regime.

There’s a systematic reason why dictators brook no dissent. The immiserated subjects of a tyrannical regime are not deluded that they are happy. And if tens of millions of disaffected citizens act together, no regime has the brute force to resist them. The reason that citizens don’t resist their overlords en masse is that they lack what logicians call common knowledge—the knowledge that everyone else shares their knowledge.

Common knowledge is a prerequisite to coordinating behavior for mutual benefit: two friends will show up at the same café at a given time only if each knows that the other knows that both know about the appointment. In the case of civil resistance, people will expose themselves to the risk of reprisal by a despotic regime only if they know that others are exposing themselves to that risk at the same time.

Common knowledge is created by public information, such as a broadcasted statement. The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes illustrates the logic. When the little boy shouted that the emperor was naked, he was not telling them anything they didn’t already know, anything they could not see with their own eyes. But he was changing the state of their knowledge nonetheless, because now everyone knew that everyone else knew that the emperor was naked. And that common knowledge emboldened them to challenge the emperor’s authority with their laughter.

In his computer simulations of artificial societies, the sociologist Michael Macy has shown that open channels of communication are essential in preventing unpopular beliefs—those that no one believes but no one dares deny—from becoming entrenched. If true believers can punish skeptics, then a minority view can take over. But if skeptics can sample the beliefs of their compatriots, the collective delusions can unravel.

It may seem outlandish to link American campus freedom—which by historical and global standards is still admirably high—to the world’s brutal regimes. But I’m here to tell you that the connection is not that far-fetched. This morning I woke up in Oslo, after having addressed the Oslo Freedom Forum, a kind of TED for political dissidents. I met people who escaped from North Korea by walking across the Gobi desert in winter; people who were jailed for a single tweet; people whose families were thrown in prison because of their own political activity.

These stories put the relatively minor restrictions on campus speech in perspective. But the American commitment to unfettered speech, unrivaled even by our democratic allies in Europe, stands as a beacon of inspiration to the world’s dissidents, one of the few features of the American brand that still commands global admiration. At least one speaker at the Forum singled out speech codes and other restrictions on expression in the United States as a worrisome development.

The third reason that free speech is fundamental to civilized societies—and the one most directly tied to the mandate of FIRE—is that it is inseparable from the mission of higher education. Today’s universities are racked with debates on curricula, admissions, funding, pedagogy, sexuality, and much else, and all of them ultimately hinge on an understanding of what universities are for.

As the song says, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” But I have been astonished at how professors, deans, and university presidents cannot come up with a coherent statement of what the mission of a university is. When called upon to do so they go all misty, babbling in incoherent platitudes.

A good example is William Deresiewicz’s recent book Excellent Sheep, a bestseller whose excerpt in The New Republic quickly became the most-read article in the century-long history of that magazine. In this scathing critique of elite universities, Deresiewicz ventures that the goal of a university education is for students to “build a self,” which he explicates as follows: “It is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul.”

This vision, to the extent that one can make sense of it, is troubling. Though I’ve been a professor for more than three decades, I have no idea how to get students to acquire a self or build a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and we’ve never evaluated a candidate for hiring or promotion by how well he or she can accomplish it. Indeed, if “acquiring a self” has something to do with adult responsibility, moral sophistication, or the ability to reason through the inherent conflicts in human condition, contemporary universities are falling over themselves to prevent students from doing acquiring one.

The students at elite universities today are encouraged to prioritize music, athletics, and other forms of recreation over their academic duties. They may be disciplined by an administrative board with medieval standards of jurisprudence, pressured to sign a kindness pledge suitable for kindergarten, muzzled by speech codes that would not pass the giggle test if challenged on First Amendment grounds, and publicly shamed for private emails that express controversial opinions.

In any case, the commonly expressed idea that a university education is a form of “soulcraft” is not as anodyne as it first seems. Indeed, I find it creepy, because it licenses moralistic propaganda and a condescending disregard for students’ critical faculties. I say that students’ souls are none of our business. A concern with soulcraft distracts us from a more coherent, defensible, and practicable understanding of the mission of the university—one in which free speech is an inseparable part.

Let me be specific. It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains.

They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present.

They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which people have made sense of their lives.

They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat.

They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law.

They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature.

Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech.

They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom.

They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable.

They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence.

They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not necessarily stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish. And so, with the conviction that free speech is essential to the acquisition of knowledge, to the flourishing of a humane democracy, and to the mission of higher education, I salute the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, its founders, Harvey Silverglate and Alan Kors, its director, Greg Lukianoff, and all of you who give it your generous and essential support.


Portions of this address were adapted from my New Republic essays “Science is not Your Enemy” (2013) and “The Trouble with Harvard” (2014).

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The Editors

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