Sunday, April 15, 2012

Lunch Chat (4/19): Dangerous Knowledge?

We talked in our last lunch chat about whether poetry could provide us with knowledge — whether it was a distinctive source for knowledge. I thought that this time we could talk about a more general question about knowledge: whether the fact that knowledge is sometimes dangerous entails that we should sometimes constrain scientific investigation or censor results.

This is related to a recent controversy surrounding the research of the Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier, who created a more virulent strain of the H5N1 bird flue virus. The work is scientifically significant and reveals (we're told) something interesting about the virus that could help us respond to natural variants of the virus. But many people were very concerned about Fouchier publishing his lab's results. Prominent journals like Nature and Science agreed to at least delay publication (here's a letter published by Fouchier and colleagues in Nature about the case). Journalist Michael Specter discusses this case in the New Yorker Outloud podcast (here) in relation to the article he wrote about the controversy (there's also been good coverage in the Times).

The thought that we should squelch the research runs counter to a strong argument for free inquiry. Here's how E.O. Wilson put it in defending his work in Sociobiology:
All political proposals, radical and otherwise, should be seriously received and debated. But whatever direction we choose to take in the future, social progress can only be enhanced, not impeded, by the deeper investigation of the genetic constraints of human nature, which will steadily replace rumor and folklore with testable knowledge. Nothing is to be gained by a dogmatic denial of the existence of the constraints or attempts to discourage public discussion of them. Knowledge humanely acquired and widely shared, related to human needs but kept free of political censorship, is the real science for the people. ("Academic Vigilantism and the Political Significance of Sociobiology" in A. Caplan, The Sociobiology Debate, p. 302)
It's not clear in the bird flu case whether the censorship is political in nature — nor that it matters. Perhaps Wilson's claim could be extended to any sort of epistemic censorship. To modify the NRA's famous slogan: Knowledge doesn't hurt people, people hurt people. So it follows that there should be no constraints placed on inquiry.

Clearly there are a number of interesting questions lurking here. If it is sometimes appropriate to squelch knowledge (for fear that it may "fall into the wrong hands", say), then would it also be appropriate to forbid or otherwise prevent that research from being conducted in the first place — or is there a difference? In matters of risk-assessment, who decides whether the potential benefits exceed the potential risks? What about cases where the risks and rewards and their probabilities are inscrutable?

This — along with some pizza — should give us plenty to chew on this Thursday. Hope to see you at noon in the Philosophy Lounge!