Science, Censorship and Subsidy

12 May 2007

Our topic today is science and censorship.  The case of smallpox provides an interesting case-study.

Smallpox, once a main scourge of mankind, was eradicated through the efforts of the World Health Organization and others.  Stocks of the virus were retained by the U.S. The U.S. and the Soviet Union retained stocks of the virus in Atlanta and Siberia. 

Now, however, the smallpox genome has been sequenced and is on the web.  In the words of Antointe Danchin, Director of the HKU-Pasteur Research Center in Hong Kong:

We thought we had eradicated smallpox, but now that its sequence is on ethe Web, it is more of  a threat than ever, freely available for anyone to download and manipulate it.  And the damage has been permanently done, all becasue of the vanity of soem irresponsible scientists...
("Not Every Truth is Good," European Molecular Biology Organization Reports, 2002)

This seems, prima facie, like a terrible thing.  Perhaps there is another side to the issue.  It's unclear to me what it might be Danchin had argued to prevent the sequencing of the genome; he notes that the reasons cited against his campaign were all-purpose homilies:

...knowledge should not and cannot be suppressed; nobody knows whether there are hidden pools of the virus; se should preserve our knowledge of biodiversity, and so on.  My contention is simple:  we should have destroyed the stocks of the virus, and w should not have sequenced its genome.  It is a fallacy that all knowledge is good.  The virus has only one host---man.  It therefore cannot re-emerge and so surely it is more important to destroy it than to understand it.  ... many species become extict every day without their genomes having been sequenced.  Finally, there are more tan enough current and new diseases to absorb our research efforts once we have unequivocally abolished this one.

It is of course conceivable that it will turn out to be a good thing that the sequencing was done and made available on the Web.  Any philosopher worth his or her salt could come up with some scenario.  But the probabilities seem overwhelming that it was a bad thing.  Should it have been prevented?

Preventing the publication of the sequence on the web would have required censorship.  And the question is always, who should be the censor?  Ideally scientific organization would take on this duty, using persuasion and soft constraints, like treating scientists who do such things with contempt.  But this doesn't seem to be happening.

That seems to leave governments.  I don't like the idea of governments censoring things, but it seems quite inconsistent to give governments the power to bug our phones, incarcerate people indefinitely, and invade other countries, all to lessen the dangers of terrorism, but deny them the power to publish virtual manuals for terrorists on the web.

But earlier intervention seems appropriate.  I don't know the details in this case, but I suspect the sequencing of the smallpox virus was in some way subsidized by governments, probably ours.  President Bush, with respect to stem-cell research, invoked the principle that the government should not subsidize immoral research.  Whatever the merits of his argument in the stem-cell case, the general principle seems correct.  It should be invoked in more clear cut cases.  As I write government money, taxpayer money, is being used to invent "improved" thermonuclear devices, and probably better land mines and all sorts of other nefarious weapons, that, if history is any guide, will end up in the "wrong-hands" (and, by my lights, starts off in the wrong-hands in any case).

To presever Millian principles of free-inquiry without acquiescing in  insanity like publishing the smallpox sequence on the Web, we'll have to understand those principles and their conceptual limits better than we do.  Plenty of work here for philosophers.  For those interested, Philip Kitcher's Science, Truth, and Democracy (2003) is an excellent place to begin.

 

Comments (5)


Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, May 12, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

I'm all for publishing information. But some scie

I'm all for publishing information. But some scientists seem to think they have unlimited freedom to determine our future just because they have the technology. If you were my next door neighbor, I have the technology to blast the Ramones loud enough to rattle your windows. But my freedom to listen ends where your rights begin. Works both ways.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, May 12, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Censorship by goverments could only be tolerated i

Censorship by goverments could only be tolerated if the justification based upon public safety is clearly conveyed to public,and the act of goverment subject to a judicial control and annulment mechanism.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, May 13, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

How much potential danger in some information wi

How much potential danger in some information will warrant its unavailability? The vast majority of information can be used for some nefarious purpose or
other, it seems to me.
Life is dangerous, full of risk and unexpected
consequences but if we expect to live life with any
courage and creativity--in the face of our ultimate
demise--which could happen at anytime it seems---then
we cannot obsess about the dangers of life--we must
not allow it to limit our resources and creativity
to a significant degree.
On the other hand, we must --in order to forget the
impending doom---in order to create a secure space for
current and future activity---we must minimuze risk.
We cannot forget our deaths if we cannot be assured that the obvious risks have been minimized (though, for instance, a car seatbelt doesn't seem to offer much
distance--between us and the 40 k traffic deaths on
the road each year).
The world remains a damned dangerous place== and to
paraphrase Jim Morrison, no one gets out of here alive.
We all share this fate---one way or another.
It seems we balance our desire to prolong our existence
with desire to take risks that makes this existence
fulfilling to us-- until the end. It is a tricky business.
Some traditions say that there is something
beyond personhood ----but even to discover what this
may be--requires a path of discovery necessitating a stable context. The zen master needs a meditation hall.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, May 25, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

So, what if manipulating this genome reveals the c

So, what if manipulating this genome reveals the cure to Cancer? Or AIDS? Without radiation treatments being available for Cancer patients, progress in Cancer treatment itself would have been tough going for a very long time. And radiation could possibly be considered under that umbrella of "not all knowledge is good": at least for me it could, but I've never been a big fan of bombs.
Regulating info is not solving the problem, it's attacking a symptom of the problem. Info is never bad. It's how that info is applied and who applies it that determines whether or not information is "evil or good."
The question shouldn't be if whether or not we should regulate, the question should be "Why are scientists using this for the wrong ends, and more importantly, how do we solve that issue?" This two part query is tough, so tough that very, very brilliant men and women have moved heaven and earth to try and solve the problems handed to us by such a query. And I can almost gaurantee that "silencing" the information was not among the possibilities. Because when we silence the "bad' scientists, how can we be sure we are not silencing the "good" scientists.
It seems to me that the wiser course in this situation would be to take the lesser of two evils: "regulate" regulation and hope that humanity at large, that scientists at large, are good enough people to know when bad is not an option. But prepare for the worst by developing a larger supply of vaccines for the strains we know of, and also by exploring vaccines of strains we don't know of. Who knows? Maybe during our search for more vaccines, we'll find the cure for Cancer.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, June 15, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

This is a hard one. I'm not sure that I agree with

This is a hard one. I'm not sure that I agree with he thesis that states Info is neutral. I tend to think that info is good or bad, depending, of course, what what you do with it. Neutral means not good nor bad.
Sure no one gets out of here alive. But the later, the better.

 
 
 

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