F is for factional, fascist, and Facebook

Earlier this week MercatorNet published an essay on environmental catastrophizing by Michael Shellenberger. In “I was wrong. We scared you unnecessarily, says environmentalist,” he promoted his latest book, Apocalypse Never.

As we often do, we posted a link on our Facebook page.

Imagine my disgust when our Facebook editor, Jean Seah, told me that Facebook had censored our post. Amazingly, an article by a man who has been described as “North America’s leading public intellectual on clean energy,” was labelled “Partly False Information”. It had been reviewed by “independent fact checkers” who claimed that it presented “a mix of out-of-context facts and outright falsehoods”.

And who are Facebook’s fact-checkers? A group of six scientists at Climate Feedback, “a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to science education.”

I’m not questioning their credentials – although I note that Climate Feedback has never once mentioned the absurd exaggerations made by Saint Greta Thunberg, the media's climate-change Joan of Arc -- I’m questioning Facebook’s ability to redact controversial views in a democratic society.

It’s incredible that Greta’s absurdly apocalyptic (“our house is on fire”) utterances get a free pass by Facebook’s fact-checkers while Michael Shellenberger is censored.

And does Michael Shellenberger have any credentials?

His book has received strong pre-publication reviews from a wide range of scientists and scholars.

  • “An extremely important book” -- Richard Rhodes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Making of the Atomic Bomb
  • “This may be the most important book on the environment ever written.” -- Tom Wigley, climate scientist, University of Adelaide, former senior scientist National Center for Atmospheric Research, and fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • “Shellenberger advocates a more constructive environmentalism that faces our wicked problems and shows what we have to do to solve them.” — Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of Enlightenment Now.
  • "If there is one thing we have learned from the coronavirus pandemic, it is that strong passions and polarized politics lead to distortions of science, bad policy, and potentially vast, needless suffering. Are we making the same mistakes with environmental policies? … you must read Apocalypse Never." — Jonathan Haidt, author, Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
  • “Apocalypse Never will make some green progressives mad. But I see it as a useful and even necessary counterpoint to the alarmism being peddled by some activists and journalists, including me. Let the arguments begin!” — John Horgan, leading science journalist

If a writer who has received praise from reviewers of this calibre can be censored, something is radically wrong. It shows that there is no room on Facebook for questioning the conventional wisdom. This is not democracy; this is Facebook reinventing the stifling authoritarianism of fascism. What George Orwell wrote in the 1940s rings true today:

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

Yes, Michael Shellenberger’s book is controversial. So what? “Controversial” means that writers hold different views on the same subject. Every precept of the prevailing scientific orthodoxy has been questioned by someone, somewhere, at some stage. Even Isaac Newton’s laws of physics.

In 1987 feminist philosopher Sandra Harding described Newton’s Principia Mathematica as a “rape manual”. How should Facebook’s fact-checkers have responded to that? A mix of out-of-context facts and outright falsehoods? No, they should have said, this is loopy and we’ll let people make up their own minds. Which is precisely what they should have done with MercatorNet’s post about Apocalypse Never.

With more than 40 percent of Americans sourcing their news from Facebook, the social media giant’s power to censor controversial views is a threat to democratic discourse.


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