Wikipedia as Illustration of the Truth-Seeking Rationale for Freedom of Expression

July 10, 2017 • EMERGING TRENDS, CRITICAL ANALYSIS, Digital Transformation, World Development

By Mark Cenite

Empirical evidence for the truth-seeking rationale for freedom of expression – the assertion that truth prevails in a free marketplace of ideas – is difficult to interpret. Analysis of how Wikipedia functions, and the accuracy of its content, provides preliminary indications of the validity of the truth-seeking rationale and its limits.


A rationale for protecting freedom of expression that ranks among the most cited is the truth-seeking rationale. According to this rationale, information and opinion should circulate free of government controls. The sanguine conclusion is that truth, or at least the best ideas, will prevail in the end. The evidence for this sweeping conclusion is limited and disputable, as this article demonstrates. Given the paucity of solid evidence from other contexts, this article suggests that Wikipedia can serve as an illustration of how relatively unfettered expression can lead to the best content prevailing, at least in some circumstances. 

Despite the limited evidence for it, citations of three famous sources of the truth-seeking rationale are frequent. An early expression of the rationale is from English poet John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), his defense of free speech, in which he uses a metaphor of Truth and Falsehood wrestling and Truth winning in a fair match.1 Areopagitica has been cited 478 times in law review articles published since 1982 that are available in LexisNexis Academic; there are also 49 citations of it in federal and state cases available in the LexisNexis database from throughout United States legal history.2 Another source for the rationale is English philosopher John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), in which he advanced the argument that truth will prevail and that a side effect of the struggle to identify the truth is that participants in the debate, and those in the audience, may gain a keener appreciation of the truth that finally emerges. A search for citations of Mill’s On Liberty and “free speech” returns 1,683 hits from law reviews and 65 hits from the US cases since Mill’s publication of the work.3 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is often cited for the view the truth would prevail in the “marketplace of ideas”, though Holmes did not actually use the exact phrase, but instead words with similar meaning: “[T]he best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”4 A LexisNexis search for “Holmes” and “marketplace of ideas” yields 2,979 hits in law reviews and 193 hits in cases.

In the sentence after Holmes advanced this “marketplace of ideas” rationale, he wrote that it “is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge.”5 Is the rationale merely a prophecy? What are the results of the ongoing experiment? What evidence can one cite of the free marketplace of ideas actually creating conditions in which the best ideas prevail? We shall discuss national comparisons and a famous study of the incidence of famine in liberal democracies.  Though the illustration is imperfect, we argue that analysing Wikipedia as a contemporary example of a well-functioning free market of ideas is preferable to making a statement, on blind faith, that truth emerges.


Evidence for the Truth-Seeking Rationale: National Comparisons

One might say that the truth-seeking rationale is being tested regularly, if one contrasts debates in societies that enjoy more freedom of speech with others. In free societies, does truth displace falsehood? If we simply look at the national level, there are too many confounding variables to make comparisons rigorously. The most difficult question is how to assess the outcome variables: How does one choose the variables to examine to assess which ideas are true (or best) and whether they have prevailed? A less complex but real concern is assessing the level of freedom of expression in nations; ratings and rankings of organisations like Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House are fraught with controversy for being subjective, biased, or imprecise.6

Free expression is a factor that facilitates discovery of better arrangements for distributing basic resources; the best ideas prevail, at least in this very narrow context. 

Limited evidence supporting the rationale comes from Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist, who found that there has never been famine – widespread hunger that results in part from human error – in a functioning democracy with a free press.7 He suggested this correlation is not spurious, but may actually be a result of causation. Sen suggests that in free societies, citizens and the press take the steps necessary to intervene in the sequence of missteps that results in famine. Free expression is a factor that facilitates discovery of better arrangements for distributing basic resources; the best ideas prevail, at least in this very narrow context.  

Despite the weakness of the evidence for it, the truth-seeking rationale has become something of a cliché in free societies. The rationale has its detractors, however, such as legal scholar Alexander Bickel, who wrote, “[W]e have lived through too much to believe it”, for one must ask “whether our experience has not taught us that even such ideas [as proletarian dictatorship, segregation, or genocide] can get themselves accepted” in the marketplace of ideas.8 Legal scholar Lee Bollinger wrote that if truth emerges in the long run, it may be too late for many who suffer through the process.9 “Market failure” theorists point out that just as entirely free markets sometimes fail to produce the best outcomes and can benefit from government regulation, the marketplace of ideas can fail: lack of economic resources can prevent some from participating in debates that are controlled by wealthy media owners and dominated by voices backed by big promotional budgets.10 Sceptics of the truth-seeking rationale abound; the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, was among those who emphasised that freedom of expression would lead to “a mess” unless people were sufficiently educated for a well-informed, rational debate: “This free-for-all, this notion that all ideas should contend and there will be blinding light out of which you will see the truth – ha!”11

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