Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When knowledge is dangerous

Well, it's finally happened: in the course of researching a disease, someone has created a virus that could decimate the human population, and states are moving towards censoring the findings:
For the first time ever, a government advisory board is asking scientific journals not to publish details of certain biomedical experiments, for fear that the information could be used by terrorists to create deadly viruses and touch off epidemics. 
In the experiments, conducted in the United States and the Netherlands, scientists created a highly transmissible form of a deadly flu virus that does not normally spread from person to person. It was an ominous step, because easy transmission can lead the virus to spread all over the world. The work was done in ferrets, which are considered a good model for predicting what flu viruses will do in people.  
The intent of the "authorities" (both scientific and legal) seems to be that the details of these experiments be restricted, so that only "legitimate scientists" have access to the information needed to replicate the experiments. I'm torn on this issue: clearly we don't want to hand a weapon of mass destruction to a homicidal maniac, but this restriction on scientific communication could usher in its own problems.

I don't have a clear thesis to argue for, so I just want to list a number of points that need to be considered while debating this decision:
  • The scientific establishment (epitomized by the journals Nature and Science) wants to maintain its independence from political institutions and will resist any formal censorship. That is all well and good, but we still need to be concerned about self-censorship. The openness of science is integral both to its progress (addressed below) and to its authority among the public. This notion of "legitimate scientists" risks encouraging the notion that professional scientists are elitist snobs who want to rule over the ignorant masses, in part by keeping them ignorant. This type of move is very dangerous both for science and for democracy.
  • Censorship can at best delay the independent development of this technology (10-20 years, I'd say). It also is likely to retard the progress of mainstream research into infectious diseases, with the extent dependent upon how well implement the system of access is. Regardless of the calculus here, the point is that we cannot stop technologies from spreading to our enemies, and the best strategy for protecting ourselves may paradoxically be to allow technologies to spread freely, while dedicating our resources on maximizing our own capabilities to respond to infectious diseases -- whether natural or engineered.
  • The release of a pathogen like this new flu virus will probably be either ineffective or suicidal. Either the virus won't spread well and the outbreak will not expand, or it will expand rapidly and affect the entire globe. Anyone seeking to use it as a tool for "Clash of Civilizations" terrorism would be extremely foolish. While the terrorist may be able to inoculate himself and his close associates, the only societies that could engage in widespread inoculation are Western and Japan. So there would be some terrorists who may be able to use this weapon effectively, but they aren't our typical Islamist boogeymen (think: Unabomber, or White Supremacists)
I'm sure that they'll be a lot of debate on this topic in the future.

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