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Forbidden Knowledge?

A piece in The New York Times raises a dilemma about which I have been thinking much recently. Is some knowledge too dangerous to be released? Is some knowledge so dangerous that people (usually scientists) should not even be allowed to pursue it?

We philosophers are pretty good at thinking up examples that muddy the waters. Suppose you have a friend who is suicidal and he asks you if you have twenty bucks he could borrow and do you know the address of the nearest store where he could buy a large bottle of acetaminophen? I take it that knowledge in this case would not be a good thing—even though Kant would jump all over you if you told a lie (Plato would be on your side)—but what about generally?

It turns out that a couple of research groups have discovered how to make the lethal H5N1 bird flu virus. Naturally, pleased with their work, they wanted to publish in prominent places. They have now done so, one paper in Nature and the other in Science. The publications were delayed, however, when—on the grounds that criminal or other badly disposed groups might use the information for evil ends—the National Science Advisory Board for Bioscience Security asked that details be suppressed. Later, the World Health Organization ruled otherwise and so the papers have been published.

Whatever the merits of the case may have been, the issue was heated right up when a spokesman for one of the groups said he had done “something really, really stupid” and that he had created something that was “very, very bad news.”  The effect was a bit like a professor explaining that the reason why all of the students in his class got an A was because he had slept with each and every one of them. Later denials were treated with hollow laughter.

The reason why I have been thinking about this topic is that I am just back from Brazil, where I have been lecturing on science and film.

One of the movies on which I lectured was the original Planet of the Apes.  I find this movie endlessly fascinating, not the least because it shows that Charlton Heston in his prime was a pretty good actor.  (Before he became a parody of a Reagan Republican, he was as deservedly honored for his support of civil rights.)  There are some interesting riffs on racial themes, with the gorillas being black thugs, the chimps being nerdy intellectuals who (if given the chance) would write blogs for the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the orangs being wise and in control—are they ever!  The film has some pretty good jokes too, not the least being when Charlton Heston’s figure is threatened with castration. But the best is when the female psychologist chimp, Dr Zira, has to kiss the Heston character.  “All right, but you’re so damned ugly.”  Remember, this was the guy who played not only Moses but also Ben Hur and El Cid.

The most interesting theme in the movie is about forbidden knowledge. The wise old orang, Dr Zaius, knows all about humans (who in the movie are presented, like the Eloi in The Time Machine—another of the movies on which I lectured) as childlike innocents, where innocence is not necessarily considered a virtue.  With their nuclear knowledge, they destroyed the planet on which they lived, and only now have the apes been able to retake it and build a civilization. If the humans are ever allowed to realize their potential and gain the upper hand, there is reason to think that disaster will repeat itself. So Zaius does all he can to suppress this knowledge and, at the end of the movie, the cave containing the information about humans is blasted shut.

The movie was made in the 1960s, and I recall that we worried more back then than now about the danger of knowledge. The Bomb was still very much a threat to humankind—it still is, but in the Cold War we worried more—and genetic engineering was just around the corner.  Could some mad dictator like Idi Amin in Uganda rejig viruses on the cheap and poison the water supplies of American cities?

But not thinking about things is not necessarily a solution. My sense is that there will always be so many pros and cons that it is impossible to have general rules. Yes, the flu virus could kill. No, without knowing how to make the flu virus, we won’t be on the way already to finding a vaccine against it. Yes, the Bomb can kill. No, without knowing how to make the Bomb, we cannot hope to deter rogue states like Iran.

But as someone once said, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.  So although I suspect that the World Health Organization made the right decision in this case, I don’t think we should be complacent.  Sometimes the truth will not set you free. It will kill you.

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