On Education, Openness and Platforms

Lessons from an autism-talk kerfuffle

Boris the cat has a platform.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about freedom of speech, no-platforming and the untethered exchange of ideas. Often people are a little vague about the meaning of each of these terms, and their ramifications. I hope that I can shed a little light on this by setting out why I think filters on speech are important (depending on context), through the lens of a disagreement I’ve been involved with.

Recently a number of autistic people and allies wrote to Lighthouse Books, a lovely radical bookshop in Edinburgh who have hosted a number of Ragged University talks in the past, to object to a talk that had been scheduled, titled ‘Autism; The Plot Against Consciousness, Cognition and Language’. Basically what happened was that the bookshop owners read the description of the talk and said ohhhh, no, that is not the kind of bookshop we are. They put up an excellent post explaining their decision, including the reassurance that

‘we would like to state that autistic and neurologically divergent readers will always be welcomed and supported at Lighthouse Bookshop. Apologies to any readers who were alarmed by the event listing and its fleeting association with us — we hope that our alternative Autism Workshop goes some way to rectifying things.’

AMASE (the Autistic Mutual Aid Society Edinburgh) proposed that alternative autism workshop after their initial announcement, because we figured it would be nice to have something constructive to replace a talk that we were glad to see cancelled (and cancelled again after they moved it to St. John’s Church, another institution known for its dedication to social justice and equality, after several autistic people and allies wrote to them, too). We were impressed by their response, and didn’t want to leave them with an empty event slot.

I thought it might worth putting some personal thoughts down about why, after reading Ragged University’s long explanation of why they don’t want to act as a filter on the kinds of ideas they give a platform to, I’m still unconvinced. Alex’s take is that Ragged University talks ‘are situations where people have come together to share what they have invested their time in’, where the aim ‘is to be able to set up the circumstances for learning through opportunities to discuss’. To this end:

‘I invite people who love what they do to share their knowledge; when people get their speakers information sheets back to me, I put their talk into the next available slot.’

Here is the thing: they also say ‘The notion that as an organised practice “Ragged University events” are setting up people as authorities on subjects is a misapprehension of what is happening’. However, in framing these events as being about knowledge sharing, being ‘set up to discover what people have invested their lives in understanding’, they are setting their speakers up as authorities. At the very least, they are setting people up with enough authority to share knowledge about subjects they’ve invested their lives in understanding.

That’s fine and good, until you get someone coming along to share things that aren’t knowledge, and which they have evidently failed to understand important things about. Which brings us to this talk.

I’m not really inclined to get into a detailed demolition of exactly what’s wrong with it, but to bullet-point it:

  • Autism is not an epidemic — it’s certainly not a new thing, and the rise in incidence of autism diagnoses can be fully explained by better understanding and the way that’s manifested in broader diagnostic criteria
  • It’s not at all clear that it’s more common in boys, as opposed to clinicians being worse at identifying it in girls and women
  • The one study I know of that claimed to find elevated aluminium in autistic brains has grave methodological flaws
  • Autism is not caused by vaccines — seriously, they checked, there is extensive science on this

The description of the talk, in short, is couched in scientific language, but it clearly rests on unsound science. This means it is not knowledge. It’s pretty much the opposite of knowledge: the blurb for this event contains misinformation, to a degree that suggests the entire talk rests on it, which to my mind makes it inappropriate content for something which bills itself as knowledge sharing. Alex’s response to criticisms of this sort is as follows.

‘Pre-deciding what is scientific and un-scientific moves knowledge from the realm of experience to that of politics; it is politicising science and learning in ways which are unhelpful’

This strikes me as being unfair to science and the scientific method. Science proceeds through broad agreement on the methods of the discipline, if not always on the meanings of findings or the validity of theories. When evidence is found by multiple sources that gives good reason to disbelieve a given theory (for example, that vaccines cause autism) responsible scientists — and those who think the scientific method is broadly sound — abandon the theory. Everything is political, but a large part of the point of science is to investigate things as apolitically as possible. Dismissing some ideas as unscientific is not politicising science, it is simply giving science a bit of credit.

I don’t want to overstate the case, because yes, scientists have been wrong about things in the past, and certainly theories have sometimes been dismissed unfairly, when the evidence against them was not as robust as scientists believed. But when someone combines scientific language with statements against which there is strong evidence, that should raise major red flags — and frankly, it’s irresponsible to promote this kind of thing on platforms where few of the people there will be well-equipped to call bullshit on it.

When the pseudoscience in question includes claims that are both harmful to public health (anti-vaccine panic has led to multiple measles deaths) and offensive to the group of people who are the subject of the talk, so much the worse.

Still, this doesn’t mean that these ideas should never be given a platform. It would be a different story if this was explicitly set up as a venue for people to air any old pet theory they care to spout; or as a discussion, with at least one expert on hand to marshall facts and dispel misapprehensions — ideally an autistic autism expert, but at least someone who’s either autistic or an expert in a relevant discipline.

Without that, an event like this does not qualify as public education. Public education is an excellent goal, and I should say that I enjoyed and was impressed by the one Ragged University event I went to a few years ago. However, there are limits on the extent to which an institution can be agnostically open without risking out-and-out miseducation.