Back to main page

Back to home page

Printer friendly

Free Inquiry

Free inquiry is a policy of allowing all points of view about an issue to be heard.  When we’re not sure what point of view is right, it’s obviously a good idea to consider as many possibilities as possible.  This increases the chances that the truth will be heard.  Of course it might not be immediately recognized as the truth, but if we compare alternatives and do our best to gather evidence about the subject, over time the true position should look better and better and false positions should fall by the wayside.

Restricting expression in order to protect the truth

Free inquiry sounds great, but historically, and in many places and situations today, people attempt to suppress certain points of view.  Why?  One obvious reason is that the people doing the suppression are sure they have the right position, and they see no value to people expressing wrong positions.  If we know the world is round and we don’t allow people to claim the world is flat, what’s wrong with that?  If we let them tell other people about the flat world, some of them might believe it and this might result in them making all kinds of resulting mistakes, like thinking the space program is a hoax and that people who work for NASA are phonies.

In Germany it is illegal to deny that the Nazi holocaust ever occurred.  Almost everyone would agree that holocaust denial and other pro-Nazi positions are wrong, and if they were to become popular again it could have tragic consequences, so preventing these ideas from being expressed seems to serve a useful purpose.
No doubt there are lots of false ideas that are harmful and we’d benefit from suppressing.  The problem is this: who decides what should be forbidden?   Suppose whoever has this authority mistakenly forbids something that’s true?

The Catholic Church put Galileo under house arrest and threatened him with torture or death if he continued to promote the idea that the earth and other planets moved around the sun.  They did this because they felt that Galileo’s claims contradicted statements that were in the Bible.  They were so sure of their position that they apparently didn’t feel there was any usefulness in discussing alternative views.  They may have assumed that anyone challenging their view was deliberately trying to promote falsehood and undermine the church.  They no doubt were concerned that others would believe these “lies” and fall away from the church and it’s other teachings.  Alas, in the case of Galileo, the Church was wrong and he was right.

The former Soviet Union was a country that had no qualms about forbidding expression of ideas the leadership felt were false.  In 1928, Trofim Lysenko came up with a process he claimed would increase yields for wheat crops.  In reality his techniques weren’t effective and in fact contradicted principles of genetics known by other biologists at the time, but for various reasons, including liking his peasant background, the Soviet leadership backed him.  They executed or imprisoned many of the biologists who disputed Lysenko’s false science.  There is little doubt that the leadership actually thought Lysenko was right, since agricultural production was important to the strength of the country and they would be foolish to support someone advocating unproductive methods.

Ultimately this was disastrous for the Soviet Union.  While their scientists were very capable in areas like physics, they fell far behind the rest of the world in biological sciences.  In addition their food production suffered because they didn’t make use of the best available agricultural advances.  In attempting to suppress falsehood, they suppressed the truth and paid a terrible price.

In Turkey it is not permitted to claim that the Turks committed genocide against Armenians during and shortly after World War I.  Turkey prosecutes those who report the genocide under laws against insulting Turkey.  Turks that support this restriction may well believe they are supporting the truth and that the killing was more the result of conflict on both sides, but most scholars elsewhere in the world agree that the situation is correctly described as genocide.

The censorship of holocaust denial by the Germans doesn't deny a true position, but it does have drawbacks.  It means there must be a legal mechanism in place for prohibiting some views, and in the future that mechanism could be used wrongly.  It also may create the impression among those who deny the holocaust the government is unable to refute their arguments on their merits.  Even when used against false views, restricting free expression can be a problem.

Limiting expression for political gain

Most restrictions on expression are not because of concern for truth but because it would hurt people in power.  The People’s Republic of China typically bans most criticism of it’s government and tries to prevent people from even knowing about the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.  The leadership no doubt fears that a demand for democracy might lead to them losing their power.  The old Soviet Union not only controlled all the media within its borders to make sure critical views weren’t heard, it broadcast signals to interfere with radio stations from the west that presented forbidden news stories.

The United States is normally a supporter of free inquiry, but there have been important exceptions.  The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 restricted people’s right to criticize the government.  Joseph McCarthy and others investigated and blacklisted people who were thought to be associated with the Communist Party.  While most of these people had committed no crime, they were fired from jobs and prevented from getting other jobs in the government and many private industries.  

It is pretty typical for tyrannical leaders to outlaw any criticism of themselves or their regimes.  Opposition leaders may be imprisoned so they can’t speak out and to instill fear in others who might criticize the people in power.  Naturally the leaders are likely to justify their suppression by claiming that any such criticism is false.  In some cases the leaders may actually delude themselves into thinking they are always right, but often corrupt leaders are fully aware that they’re exploiting the people for their own benefit. 

A government that is doing a good job should have little to fear from opponents who criticize it.  It is the corrupt government that has the greatest need to prevent alternative views from being heard.


One way that inquiry can be stifled is by secrecy.  Naturally every country has military secrets that have to be kept hidden or its military position might be weakened.  These would include weapon capabilities, troop strength and locations, identity of spies and informants, and so on.  Secrets like these are certainly necessary for maintaining military strength.

Unfortunately the laws for enforcing secrecy can be misused in order to cover up embarrassing or improper conduct by government officials.  In 1971, the New York Times began publishing secret documents concerning the Vietnam War that had been leaked to the paper by Daniel Ellsberg who worked for the Defense Department.

These documents contained nothing of military interest to the North Vietnamese or any other foreign power.  Instead they showed that the government had been misleading the public about how well the war was going and the expected extent of future casualties.  In effect, the secrets they contained weren’t of interest to the enemy, they were information that was of interest to the American public.  The secrecy was not being used to benefit the citizens of the country, it was being used to keep them in the dark about the failures of their leaders.

When our leaders tell us that there is secret information to support their policies we should be suspicious.  There is a lot of incentive to keep the incriminating evidence secret while declassifying anything that makes the leaders look good.  Occasionally favorable evidence might actually be necessary to hide from our enemies, but we are foolish if we assume that is the case.


Open-mindedness could be considered free inquiry on a personal level.  If we want to know the truth and avoid believing things that are false, we should listen to people we disagree with.  We shouldn’t tune people out or take it for granted that they’re mistaken or deliberately avoid reading or hearing from sources we disagree with.  Our listening should be attentive enough that if the other side does have a legitimate point, we will recognize it.

Often our ego gets involved with some opinion we have and we naturally resent the fact that someone is saying we’re wrong.  Or possibly we’ve become polarized (see polarization) and have started to believe people with views different from ours have sinister motives.  If our first priority is the truth, we have to overcome these feelings and make sure our opponents don’t have some valid points.

Note that listening to the other side is not at all the same as accepting it or agreeing with it.  I’ve heard people say “You should be open-minded but not so much that your brains fall out.”  This refers to cases when people, eager to show how open they are to new ideas, accept new or unusual claims without recognizing they could be false.  This isn’t being open-minded, it’s being gullible.  Often when we hear some claim that’s at odds with what we already think, we won’t know whether it’s legitimate or not.  We can do further investigation or just recognize that we don’t know.

Freedom of speech

Freedom of speech is a right guaranteed in the United States Constitution and in many other countries as well.  It is a legal basis for preventing the government from restricting people from expressing their opinions.  It is like free inquiry since it encourages open consideration of all ideas, but is different in that it is legal rather than philosophical, and only applies to government.  Freedom of the press is similar but applies to news media rather than individuals.

There are lots of situations where people can violate the spirit of free inquiry without violating free speech.  The crucial difference is whether government is involved.  Privately owned organizations can legally control what their employees say in public or write for the public, especially in publications they control.  Naturally employers don’t want to pay people if those people are hurting their business, perhaps by saying bad things about their products.  This isn’t a violation free speech because the government isn’t making the restrictions.  The organization can dismiss employees, but it can’t have them arrested.

Still, private organizations can violate the ideal of free inquiry by discouraging or forbidding the consideration of certain point of view in their publications or by their employees.  This may be particularly damaging when done by organizations providing news or education.  A private newspaper might deliberately refuse to publish certain views, or a private school might not expose students to certain information that supports a view they disapprove of.  While this isn’t illegal (a violation of free speech) we may have good reason to object to it because it can allow false ideas to go unchallenged.

Scientific Publication

The whole point of science is to come up with the most accurate possible understanding of what is going on in the real world.  When scientists complete some piece of research, they publish the result in a scientific journal.  Since the most prestigious journals get many more submissions than they can print, researchers who are rejected must try again with another journal, but if the work is done properly they should eventually get published.  Papers are selected based on reviews by other researchers who are familiar with the field.  Together the journals provide a record of the research that has been performed.  Nobody officially decides what is true in science, but when the research pertaining to a particular issue consistently supports a certain view, that view will be regarded as reliable.  Naturally along the way there will be controversies and conflicting claims, but ultimately the environment is one of free inquiry, where anyone is allowed to publish their findings, whether they disagree with previous results or not, and other scientists get to make up their own minds without having to conform to any authority.  Free inquiry is an essential part of what makes scientific progress possible.


Sometimes governments try to prevent certain ideas from being heard.  Sometime religions object to certain views being stated.  Sometimes other organizations or individuals try to squelch particular points of view.  The reason may be that these ideas interfere with their personal gain or it may be they think it is wrong or harmful.  However, it is hard to get rid of false beliefs if we don’t hear about other points of view that may contradict that belief.  If we care about Responsible Thinking we should promote free inquiry.