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Should "Dangerous" Information Be Censored?

This question is posed by Laura K. Donohue in today's Washington Post. Her answer? No, at least not in the case of biological threats.

Biological information and the issues surrounding it are different. It is not possible to establish even a limited monopoly over microbiology. The field is too fundamental to the improvement of global public health, and too central to the development of important industries such as pharmaceuticals and plastics, to be isolated. Moreover, the list of diseases that pose a threat ranges from high-end bugs, like smallpox, to common viruses, such as influenza. Where does one draw the line for national security? . . .

Terrorists will obtain knowledge. Our best option is to blunt their efforts to exploit it. That means developing, producing and stockpiling effective vaccines. It means funding research into biosensors -- devices that detect the presence of toxic substances in the environment -- and creating more effective reporting requirements for early identification of disease outbreaks. And it means strengthening our public health system. . . .

Keeping scientists from sharing information damages our ability to respond to terrorism and to natural disease, which is more likely and just as devastating. Our best hope to head off both threats may well be to stay one step ahead.

As a general matter, I am inclined to think she is right. Knowledge is difficult to suppress (and that's a good thing!). In all but the most extreme circumstances, I suspect the costs of restraining scientific inquiry and research results are likely to be greater than any consequent risk reduction. Yet as scientific knowledge advances, the pressure to control "dangerous" knowledge will increase, just as the ability to control it declines.

erp (mail):
Things cannot be un-invented.
6.26.2005 10:09pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
It seems to me that Donohue conflates the issue of sharing scientific information with the issue of sharing information about security vulnerabilities.

She says, "Citizens are entitled to know when their milk, their water, their bridges, their hospitals lack security precautions." This doesn't make sense, since security is a fuzzy, continuous quantity rather than something that you either have or lack. In effect, she is saying that citizens have the right to know the currently most effective ways to attack their milk, their water, their bridges, their hospitals.

I understand that while these two issues are not identical, they will sometimes have much in common. I also believe that the answers are not obvious. I just wish Donohue had emphasized the fact that she really isn't at all sure that she knows what's right either, instead of leaving it as a hint in the last sentence where, in effect, she admits that she may well be wrong.
6.27.2005 1:58am
Former Kerr Student:
LTEC is right. It's one thing to say that the government shouldn't stifle publication of research, as with Donohue's example of the mouse gene splicing. It shouldn't, for at least the reasons Donohue cites: the benefits of a better-informed scientific community outweigh the possibility that information will be used nefariously, and the attempt to silence such information is likely to be ineffective.

Those same arguments do not justify, however, specific articles detailing so-called security risks. Despite the supposed brilliance of the 9-11 attack, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that big planes full of fuel could easily be turned into powerful bombs if you have pilots willing to die. It does take a genius, or at least someone prearmed with a some knowlege of the system, to spot the softest vulnerabilities in our infrastructure. When the smartest minds in the country start thinking about the easiest ways to kill a large number of people, they should not decide to publish their conclusions. If the risk is so high, report it to the department of homeland security, not to the New York Times. Otherwise, the person warning of a "security risk" and the one warning of a "roadmap for the terrorists" will both find themselves to be devastatingly prescient.
6.27.2005 9:26am
twolaneflash (mail) (www):
Suppression of knowledge is impossible, as the next step in the journey is based on what is already known. The 9/11 terrorists had knowledge of airplanes, but noone stopped them gaining from the necessary training to go from knowledge to action. With terror-aimed use of knowledge and technology, we should continue the path taken in Iraq and Afghanistan: the dead have no knowledge, nor the means to abuse it.
6.27.2005 10:43am