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  • Writer's picturegraeme

LOCKDOWN REFLECTIONS DAY 43: Regulations on information

Updated: May 8, 2020

I’d like you to consider three situations and let me know how you’d handle them.

A bit of background first: a close relative was diagnosed with epilepsy last year and has to take medication everyday. One option is a drug called Epilim. Another relative was diagnosed with bipolar, and I was surprised to discover that she has also been prescribed Epilim. It’s a powerful drug that helps the brain to rewire and fix itself.

Ok, now three situations:

#1: A person hears about how effective Epilim is for brain development. They are struggling with concentration and go to a pharmacy and request a box of Epilim. The pharmacist refuses. Apparently, they need to have a doctor check them out and prescribe Epilim. They can’t just self diagnose and pick whatever medicine they think will work for them. Powerful pharmaceutical drugs that affect brain functioning should be properly regulated and the schedule of medicines makes sense, so that some medicines have to be properly prescribed by a trained doctor. Do you agree?

To be very clear, we agree, right, that it is not impinging on this person’s rights if we deny them the medication? It’s not denying them freedom of choice if we tell them they can’t have this drug? For something that would have a serious effect on your brain, we need regulations and restrictions on who is allowed to use the drugs and who can prescribe them in the first place? Do you agree?

#2: A pharmaceutical company hears that lots of people want to try Epilim, and of course they want to sell more medicines. So they create a version of Epilim that they sell over the counter, and now anyone can buy it. I am imagining a world where a Pharma company could just do this because in this imaginary world Pharma companies would not be regulated. They could do what they liked. They could sell untested medicines to anyone. They could make any claims they wanted to about their medicines. Do you think that is a better world than the world we live in now?

Just to be very clear, we agree, right, that it is correct that Pharma companies are heavily regulated? It’s not denying the drug companies their freedom of speech rights to regulate what drugs they can sell, what they can claim those drugs do, and who they can sell them to? Do we agree that for something that has a significant effect on the brain, some regulatory oversight is necessary? Do you agree?

#3. Some blogger who’s cousin’s friend owns a proper (but I mean proper) SLR camera shoots a YouTube video about the impact of Epilim on brain functions. They genuinely do know someone who knows a person who took Epilim a few times and they got a lot smarter. They also have a degree in anthropology from Texas State U, so they’re qualified for sure. And they can quote lots of names and stuff to prove it. The video is a masterpiece and proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that government and Big Pharma are conspiring to keep Epilim away from the people who really need it.

Do you agree that this video should be allowed to be aired on YouTube without regulation? Do you believe that something this powerful which has a significant impact on the brains of the people who watch it should have absolutely no regulations applied to it at all?

Wait, there’s a fourth scenario I want you to consider. Imagine this video was put out by someone with shares or an interest in the Pharma company who makes Epilim? Or maybe by a competing company who wants to put misinformation into the system? Or maybe just by someone who wants to have some fun messing with people? Or maybe by someone with sinister intent who wants to mess with people? Should they just be allowed to say whatever they want to, even if some people might be hurt by the misinformation?

Here’s my point, in case it’s too early in the morning for you to get it subtly:

We regulate speech all the time.

You’re not allowed to slander someone else without proof to back you up. There are libel laws that limit your speech.

You are not allowed to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre when there isn’t one (literally, this is a law in New York).

You are not allowed to make claims about your products and services that are not true. This is not just medicines, it applies to every industry everywhere. You are only allowed to speak the truth (with a fairly broad definition, it has to be said, but still, there are limits).

We limit and regulate speech all the time because some things are true and others false. Some things are right and some are wrong. Just because YOU might not know how to determine which is which doesn’t mean that no one can.

I am sometimes accused of not having an open mind when I engage with people on issues of truth and conspiracy theories (it’s always, only, of course, when I don’t agree with them). Let’s be clear: there is a difference between a closed mind and a settled argument. A closed mind doesn’t take in new information. A settled argument happens after you look at all the evidence and make a decision. And yes, nothing is settled forever - new information can open things up again, but there are things that are settled for now, and open minds know that.

Please don’t confuse the two.

Just because I don’t agree with your view doesn’t mean I have a closed mind. And just because you don’t know how to work out what is true and what is false doesn’t mean you have an open mind.

Even more important: not everything is a matter of opinion. Facts exist. Not everything has “two sides of the story”. Some things just are. For example, the earth is not flat. Queen Elizabeth is not a lizard in human skin. And the world is not 10,000 years old. There are not “two sides” to any of these assertions.

So, if some nutjob gets on YouTube and produces a video that is just plain wrong, and maybe goes further to be damaging to your brain - as damaging as taking the wrong medicines could be - then I believe that it should be regulated and removed. Of course, let’s refute it first, but I don’t think it should be given airtime once it has been refuted. If it so bad that it will cause damage to people’s brains, it should be regulated - by which I mean removed.

Bad information is as bad for us as bad medicine - maybe worse. If we regulate medicines, we should also regulate information.

I do not want to live in a world where anything goes.

Of course, we need to have the conversation about “who gets to decide” and “who is guarding the guardians”. Let’s have that conversation. Let’s ensure the system works. Let’s remain vigilant about the system.

But that’s not the same as saying “no one knows” and “every opinion is equally valid” or the worst: “it’s the very fact that they want to take this video down that proves it must be right.” You look very stupid when you start bringing these arguments out. “There’s no smoke without fire” might be true, but that doesn’t make the fire the truth - it might be a smouldering dog turd that’s causing the smoke.

Properly researched information is a minimum. Verifiability is important. If it can be proven to be false then we must ask if it’s dangerous, and if so, it should be regulated. One regulatory option is removal.

Free speech is not an absolute right.

Now. Can we please make the stupid stop. It’s hurting my brain.

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