Editor's Note: The National Association of Scholars has since 1987 issued policy positions on various controversial issues in American higher education. We have done so sparingly and only after significant consultation with our members and a concerted attempt to comprehend the underlying disagreements and the relevant scholarship. As a result, our policy statements are more than declarations of what we consider the best answers to perplexing questions. They also lay out distinctions, consider arguments, and examine parallel matters that bear on the larger issue.
In this case, we offer both the full policy statement (see below) and an abbreviated version focused on the essentials (click here). The shorter version focuses directly on the concepts of misinformation and disinformation, rather than their use as tools of illegitimate censorship.
Censorship and Mis/Disinformation
The terms misinformation and disinformation are increasingly used in higher education to stigmatize opinions with which college and university authorities, including some faculty members, disagree. For simplicity’s sake, we will call this practice “disinformation censorship.” The National Association of Scholars opposes disinformation censorship.
The practice of disinformation censorship involves:
- Treating contentious topics as having been “settled,” and therefore beyond discussion.
- Delegitimizing an opinion on the grounds that the speaker received (or is alleged to have received) funding from a stigmatized source.
- Forbidding public debate on such topics.
- Treating disputes in the sciences as having been settled by majority opinion.
Disinformation censorship is adjacent to some other practices that should be distinguished from censorship per se. These include:
- Compelled speech, e.g., requiring individuals to use the “preferred pronouns” of others. This practice effectively censors the person who wishes to use standard English pronouns.
- Classifying various words, phrases, or opinions as “hate speech,” regardless of context or truth value.
- Speech codes that label various common nouns and ordinary English expressions as racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise unacceptable.
- Treating the expression of opinions as “harming” those who disagree with those opinions.
When Censorship Is Legitimate
The NAS’s opposition to disinformation censorship is to be distinguished from the policing of civil discourse. Opinion or speech that may stray outside the bounds of civil discourse include:
- The publication of normally private information about an individual without that person’s permission. Such information may include one’s home address, details about one’s spouse and children, health records, bank accounts, and travel itineraries. Often called “doxing,” the publication of such material is typically intended to harm the targeted individual.
- The publication of copyrighted material presented as the original work of the copyist, i.e., plagiarism.
- The publication of non-copyrighted material, such as private correspondence, without the permission of the original author or the rightful owner of the material. This applies mainly to living or recently deceased individuals. Non-copyrighted correspondence from historical figures should not be censored, though its fair use should follow whatever legal restrictions are applicable.
- The publication of libel. The muddled definition of libel in U.S. law makes this difficult to enforce or identify. Calling someone “a skunk” is not libel; declaring that “every word she writes is a lie, including a, an, and the” likewise is not libel. The expression of strong opinions about the character of another is a legitimate exercise of free speech, even if it entails exaggerations, cruel intent, and literally false statements intended metaphorically. As a general principle, libelous speech is outside the bounds of civil discourse.
- Publishing scientific findings that have not yet been released for publication by the primary researchers. Premature release may harm the researchers as well as introduce false or misleading details into broader discussion.
- The publication of test questions and answers that were not intended for public circulation.
- The publication of officially classified information that may harm the interests of the country, such as the identities of covert agents or the battle plans for the defense of allied powers.
We do not intend this list to be exhaustive, but it does overlap strongly with legal norms on speech. Libel, as difficult to prove as it is, is still speech that is subject to legal action. There may well be other sorts of expression that responsible publications should disallow—which is to say censor—in an academic context. Our acceptance of censorship in these areas is narrow. Our opposition to “doxing,” for example, does not mean that we oppose well-crafted HIPAA reforms that would facilitate medical research—or that we endorse the weaponization of privacy laws as another form of censorship. Our broader point is that censorship per se is not always wrong. It depends on what is being censored and why.
We would prefer to maintain a strong distinction between “censorship” as wrongful suppression of speech, and “civil discourse” as a legitimate restriction on speech, but plainly such restrictions are a kind of censorship.
Proponents of disinformation censorship often justify it for two basic reasons: protection of the vulnerable and prevention of the spread of dangerous ideas. Both justifications are superficially appealing and boil down to the censorship of ideas that advance partisan political agendas. For example:
- Children are certainly vulnerable to false information about sexuality, maturation, science, the climate, the racial history of America, and other subjects. All are legitimate topics for classroom discussion. Proponents of disinformation censorship, of course, are not thinking about gender ideology, social-emotional learning, climate change hysteria, and so on as the kinds of “disinformation” they would like to suppress. Arguably, these kinds of “disinformation” imperil the psychological—and, in some cases, even the physical—wellbeing of children, particularly those who do not yet have the capacity or the opportunity to question these beliefs or to gain familiarity with contrary perspectives. When schools have become avenues for teaching ideologies that forward the agendas of groups that are eager to normalize their beliefs, these are examples par excellence of disinformation aimed at the vulnerable. They are capable of wreaking severe harm.
The other broad rationale for disinformation censorship is to prevent the spread of dangerous ideas. Again, “dangerous” is a synonym for “contrary,” which promotes a variety of harmful ideologies and practices. For example:
- The idea that it is permissible, or perhaps admirable, to employ disruption and even violence to prevent the expression of views with which one disagrees.
- The idea that binary biological sex is a fallacious concept, at least as applied to human beings, and that, instead, humans belong to a very large (perhaps infinite) spectrum of “gender identities.”
- The idea that American history is best conceived as the working out of the exploitative logic of “settler colonialism.”
- The idea that policing in the United States originated as and remains an instrument of racial oppression.
- The idea that the COVID-19 virus was best combatted by a national economic shutdown, masks, and social distancing.
- The ideas that mRNA vaccines are safe and effective against the COVD-19 infection.
- The idea that human industrial activity and consumer behavior will lead to catastrophic global warming through increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations (and the corollary that drastic reductions in the emission of carbon dioxide will save the planet from this dire fate).
Again, proponents of disinformation censorship do not think that any of these ideas are dangerous and, therefore, proper targets. But these are all instances of likely “disinformation,” which, if widely accepted by the public, could have immensely destructive consequences for society as a whole—indeed, they have already produced such consequences. There can be legitimate differences of opinion on all these topics. If they are to be taught, they must be taught in a context that gives equal and rigorously fair-minded expression to other views that run contrary to these. Things become problematic when one set of ideas is treated by government and other authorities as “most favored,” and contrary sets as “dangerous.” The National Association of Scholars opposes government and other authorities’ attempts to stop the expression of contrary views on the grounds that they endanger the vulnerable. Rather, we endorse the principle that no idea should be granted a “most favored” status that makes it exempt from rational examination and debate.
Fact vs. Opinion
The proponents of ideologies generally resist giving time and attention to views they regard as false. Many go further by describing dissent from their favored positions as “evil.” And they insist that teaching such contrary positions is a betrayal of education itself, which should stick to promulgating known truths. That position, once again, has a germ of truth. Some facts are sufficiently well established as to be counted as “known truths.” Water is best conceived of as H2O, though actual water can take on many states (liquid, solid, gaseous) and can behave in poorly understood ways. A triangle has apices whose angles add up to 180°, although perhaps not if the triangle is inscribed on a nonplanar surface.
The trouble comes when views regarded as “facts” by some collide with the views of others who doubt the asserted facticity. Is man-made, catastrophic global warming a “fact” or an ardently held “opinion”? Did COVID-19 arise from a natural mutation in an animal species, or was it the result of gain-of-function gene editing in a Chinese laboratory? In each case, strong opinions endorse both alternatives.
When it comes to education, we face the very difficult task of laying all such alternatives before students and giving those students the tools to examine and evaluate without prejudice all sides of the debate.
There are three questions, however, embedded in this idea of debate:
- First, at what age and grade level are students capable of the fair-minded assessment of contrary hypotheses?
- Second, how capable are teachers of presenting the alternatives without bias?
- Third, how can students be encouraged to pursue open-minded inquiry in the context of a society saturated with single-threaded ideologies?
The introduction of age and grade level as relevant distinctions complicates the picture. The NAS is not arbitrarily inserting these matters into a controversy in higher education. Rather, the proponents of disinformation censorship have thrust these considerations into the foreground by arguing in favor of teaching young children about gender identity, sexual proclivity, racial hierarchy, climate activism, and other highly disputed topics. Such activists have also decried as “censorship” decisions to limit access to graphic depictions of sex acts, including homosexual sex acts, to older children. The ideological agendas driving these activists put both the ideas and the texts squarely in the realm of debates over mis- and disinformation.
Can K–12 Education Handle the Distinction?
The answers to all three questions, unfortunately, underscore the great difficulty of escaping the indoctrination that is now built into many of our educational institutions.
First, at what age and grade level are students capable of the fair-minded assessment of contrary hypotheses?
Schools and colleges pose significantly different challenges. College-level students can be expected to rise to some degree of independent judgment. In recent years significant percentages of college students fail that expectation. Nevertheless, the cultivation of independent judgment is the sine qua non of college-level education, but not of school education, which focuses on other matters, including intellectual preparation. For our purposes, K–12 education can be seen as providing the knowledge and skills that make independent judgment possible, and we should expect students at the secondary level to begin to develop such judgment.
Students in our K–12 system, however, are seldom prepared to engage in meaningful critical inquiry. Schools may praise “critical thinking” and pretend to teach it, but this often reduces to presenting negative assessments of society as though that in itself constitutes critical thinking. This is one powerful reason why intellectually contentious topics should not be taught in schools, outside some very limited advanced courses.
Second, how capable are teachers of presenting the alternatives without bias?
American teachers, who are generally trained in schools of education, are extremely ill-prepared to hold themselves aloof from their own opinions on contentious topics. Generally, they have absorbed uncritically the views of the progressive left and have scant knowledge of the alternatives.
Third, how can students be encouraged to pursue open-minded inquiry in the context of a society saturated with single-threaded ideologies?
Our mass media, and nearly all the institutions through which children have exposure to the debates of the day, are fully aligned with progressive orthodoxies. Given this situation, the best that can be hoped for is the establishment at the state level of curricular standards that rigorously exclude the social-political-ideological programming of the progressive left. At the college level we should expect and demand rigorous attention to all reasoned scholarship and evidence that bears on these debates. But in our current era, that cannot be expected in K–12 education.
These judgments are no doubt overgeneralized. Some schools and some teachers at every level far excel the norms of American education. Moreover, the situation is not without remedies. The National Association of Scholars, for example, has drafted a K–12 model history and social studies curriculum, American Birthright, which is under consideration in many states. American Birthright provides a model of non-politicized instruction. That is not to say that the curriculum aims at least-common-denominator blandness. Rather, it aims at teaching “students to identify the ideals, institutions, and individual examples of human liberty, individualism, religious freedom, and republican self-government; assess the extent to which civilizations have fulfilled these ideals; and describe how the evolution of these ideals in different times and places has contributed to the formation of modern American ideals.”
Naturally, teaching these ideals can be and already has been criticized as a form of “politicization” in its own right, or a form of indoctrination. Let’s be careful with these words. American Birthright is grounded in the ideals of American liberty, not the politics of any party or special interest. “Indoctrination” suggests the imposition of a narrow creed that permits no doubt or consideration of alternative views. American Birthright does indeed have a doctrinal component: it insists that students become acquainted with ideas about liberty and individuality, but keeping with those ideals, it allows students to discover for themselves how liberty and individuality can be lived out.
What is Education, Anyway?
To oppose disinformation censorship plainly takes us into a discussion of matters considerably deeper than saying “don’t lie” and “don’t censor.” Behind the idea of disinformation censorship lie debates about the purposes of education. This is not the place to delve deeply into these debates, but a few questions are unavoidable.
- To what degree is education about the transmission of “information”?
- To what degree is “knowledge” reducible to “information”?
- How should education balance the sometimes-conflicting ideals of transmitting knowledge, challenging old ideas, discovering new possibilities, and validating novel claims?
To be clear, these three questions are not meant to delineate all of what “education” entails. They are, rather, matters that bear directly on what misinformation and disinformation are and what we should do about them.
To what degree is education about the transmission of “information”?
In briefest compass, every field of study depends on the transmission of accurate information. This is as true of the humanities as it is of the social sciences and the natural sciences. “Transmission,” in this context, means more than recording information that can be retrieved by others, though it includes such recording. Transmission also means conveying the information to someone who understands it in context and either commits it to memory or recognizes it well enough to recall it when needed. No education is possible without a substantial transmission of information.
Disinformation and misinformation jeopardize this essential aspect of education by undermining the confidence of the learner in the sincerity and truthfulness of the teacher. Every student learns sooner or later that teachers make mistakes and, sometimes in good faith, transmit misinformation that they wrongly believe to be true. Part of education involves learning to distinguish error, misconceptions, and reliable facts.
To what degree is “knowledge” reducible to “information”?
All information has the potential to become knowledge, but knowledge is a broader conception that includes context, matters of personal experience, intuition, insights, and transcendental matters. Knowledge without any information is impossible, but information alone is insufficient for knowledge. Knowledge implies an active and integrative mind and a desire to synthesize information into a picture of the world. Misinformation and disinformation distort that picture by poisoning the ingredients.
How should education balance the sometimes-conflicting ideals of transmitting knowledge, challenging old ideas, discovering new possibilities, and validating novel claims?
There are many competing ways by which educators attempt to achieve this balance. The important point for our purposes is that education has to deal with the conflicts between received knowledge and discoveries that challenge received knowledge. Education is never simply an accumulation of facts. It necessarily involves knocking down some ideas and replacing them with others; it involves trying out novel approaches and discarding those that prove to be mistaken.
In this context, misinformation is not to be seen as a failure of legitimate inquiry but as an inevitable part of the search for the truth. Disinformation, however, in the sense of deliberately false claims presented as truth, is a dire threat to education.
The National Association of Scholars opposes disinformation censorship because this censorship is a tool used by those who wish to preserve exclusive control over education to further their illiberal political agenda.
We have stipulated that censorship is not always bad in the context of education; that the distinction between facts and opinions can be difficult to draw, especially as they pertain to contentious topics; that careful attention must be given to the age and maturity of students; and that accurate information is indispensable in education. Disinformation censorship, however, blurs or ignores these distinctions in an effort to assert authoritative control over matters that properly belong within the discretion of faculty members and students.
The current attack on “disinformation” is typically a masquerade. It is an attempt to gain exclusive control over what can be said in the classroom or on campus (or elsewhere, as in social media and newspapers). That attempt is disguised as a defense of the truth against the forces of deliberate misrepresentation.
The youth or the public must not be misled into thinking that serious scientists reject the climate-change-catastrophe narrative; or that well-informed physicians regard the adverse effects of COVID vaccines as more dangerous than the disease; or that serious scholars view the net benefits of European colonialism as outweighing its negative effects; or that serious physicians regard transgenderism as a mental illness. The NAS has argued on one side or another of hundreds of such issues. Our particular position is not what is at stake. In many cases, we have taken no position at all except that dissenters from the prevailing orthodoxy have a right to express themselves in the ordinary channels of communication. We stand for the academic freedom of faculty members to express such views.
We also stand for the need to teach students a full spectrum curriculum on intellectually, socially, and politically contested issues. An education that presents only one side of these issues is itself, indeed, a form of disinformation.
The NAS finds itself involved in many cases of faculty members who have been censored, punished, and, in some cases, fired for spreading what their colleges and universities have declared is misinformation. We have presented numerous accounts of individual cases and have examined the rationales put forward by the institutions for these violations of individual rights and deformations of education. The NAS, of course, is not alone in raising such alarms. Other organizations have joined in what amounts to a chorus of protest. Yet, so far, we have seen little indication that schools or colleges are willing to change direction. We have, however, seen willingness on the part of some state legislatures to intervene in constructive ways.
Rather than review and summarize the cases or examine the legislative proposals, we have chosen here to provide a simple outline of the debate. We hope this will assist those who find the charge of “disinformation” both alarming and confusing. Those who deploy the term as a weapon typically hope to silence their opponents without having to address the substance of their points and adduce valid evidence. The claim that disagreement is to be seen as “disinformation” is a tactic, not an argument, and those who use it are the enemies of liberal education.
“Disinformation” is a scholarly topic in both national intelligence and psychology. This NAS statement focused on its emergent use in domestic political debate. Efforts by the Biden administration to remove expressions of opinion it deemed or still deems “harmful” were strongly criticized by federal judge Terry Doughty, who filed an order in the Western District of Louisiana declaring that government officials must desist from coercing Twitter, Meta, and other social media companies to censor various views. In the eyes of some government officials in the FBI and other agencies, these opinions were to be counted as “disinformation” even if they were factually accurate. Judge Doughty issued a preliminary injunction against these practices.
Attempts by governors and legislatures in several states to rein in diversity-equity-inclusion (DEI) policies and “critical race theory” (CRT) pedagogy have also become part of the debate over disinformation. In this case, defenders of DEI programs in schools and colleges attempt to deflect criticism by accusing the critics of misrepresenting what is actually taught.
While the NAS’s policy statement focuses on mis/disinformation in the United States, the topic plainly has international reach. Dara Macdonald, writing on Quillette, in “The Great Misinformation Panic,” describes the attempts in Australia “by the established elite to suppress dissenting voices rather than a genuine pursuit of truth.” A draft bill has been introduced in Parliament, the “Communications Legislation Amendment (Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation),” that would amend the Australian Communications and Media Authority Act 2005 (ACMA). The new legislation would “make digital platform rules requiring digital platform providers to keep records and report to the ACMA on matters relating to misinformation and disinformation on digital platform services.”
Likewise, Canada has moved further than the United States in attempting to criminalize opinions that government authorities consider wrongheaded and classify as “misinformation.” Leila Mechoui, writing on Compact, in “Why Canada Is Criminalizing Dissent,” describes an attempt to silence critics of the idea that the former practice of assigning indigenous native children to residential schools was a form of genocide. Under proposed legislation, so-called “residential school denialism” would become a criminal offense.
Among the most telling uses of “disinformation censorship” was the government attempt to discredit the “Great Barrington Declaration,” a statement written by physicians and epidemiologists who, in December 2020, dissented from the “prevailing COVID-19 policies.” Almost all the concerns enunciated in the declaration have proven accurate, but the stigma of “misinformation” was so successfully imposed by government officials that the document remains in eclipse.
A deeper dive into the history of disinformation would require an examination of Soviet-era attempts to influence American domestic politics. NAS fellow Mason Goad chronicled some of those efforts in “KGB Documents Show the Secret History of Ibram X. Kendi’s ‘Antiracist’ Movement.”
The study of misinformation now spills over into the examination of artificial intelligence (AI), which may be an abundant new source of falsehoods that are likely to leap into widespread currency. Without the help of AI, we already have the frequently false but authoritative-sounding and uncritically accepted pronouncements of Wikipedia.
Yet another deep source of actual disinformation has been the corruption of the natural sciences by erroneous statistical practices and by mis-incentives that encourage the publication of unreliable results in cases where these align with favored government policies. The NAS has been closely examining these problems in a series of reports over the last decade.
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