Re: Meritocracies and freedom of information

From: Robert J. Bradbury (
Date: Sat Oct 13 2001 - 10:46:48 MDT

I was unaware of the gene migration issue Harvey pointed out
and he is to some extent correct, that there may be concerns with
this problem that merit regulations to address it. However, I'd
counter it with the fact that I expect us to be able to engineer
genomes with altered genetic codes, perhaps within the next
decade, that effectively eliminate that problem. From my perspective,
in the time it will take for the problem to become a serious concern,
our abilities will have developed solutions to it. (And yes I know
most people probably are sufficiently unaware of this process to
accept that argument without a very long paper to back it up.)

Anders has made a good case for the greater efficiency of open
societies and pretty much squashed the "enlightened despot"
concept of the Aristoi.

So I think the problem may be with the generality of my proposal.
Some more specific examples and clay pigeon solutions follow.

Lets assume there is a web site that lists all of the locations
of nuclear power plants in the U.S. Lets assume that terrorists
seek to use this information for terrorist acts. Can a case
be made that there are benefits associated with this "free"
information that exceed the risks posed by having it free?
Sure, terrorists can find the locations of nuclear power
plants by searching the archives of local newspapers --
but that will take more time. By minimizing ease of access
to "sensitive" information (e.g. building plans) or requiring
that people demonstrate a "need to know" (i.e. you are an
architect with a contract to design offices for the 6th floor)
you retard the ability of terrorists achieve the greatest
results with the least investment.

Similarly, should students enrolling in classes involving
nuclear physics or molecular biology be required to undergo
interviews to ascertain their motives? Or if they are foriegn
students should their names be forwarded to government agencies
so they may be monitored? (Note that this isn't foolproof
since at least one person on the terrorist most-wanted list
was a U.S. citizen.)

We *do* in Western societies accept the "meritocracy" argument
to a certain degree. Only people with the proper degrees,
who have passed the required exams demonstrating their competancy
are allowed to practice medicine, law, drive trucks, fly planes,
etc. This makes sense because people who "malpractice" in these
professions have the possibility of seriously harming other
individuals. Most branches of science have not had similar
requirements. Should that begin to change?

There are restrictions on the professions that people who experience
epileptic fits may practice (because the loss of control of their
body can present a danger to others). Presumably suicidal terrorists
have "lost control" of a rational (or perhaps a "social") mind -- to
what degree should one regulate (or at least track) information that
such individuals have had access to? Data mining can easily demonstrate
"unusual" information access patterns.

I've taken sufficient courses that with sufficient financial
resources, I could easily design a nasty bioweapon. I'm
moderately confident that given the resources and material
I could also design a nuclear weapon. I'm a case in point
of an individual whose motives should be "certified" before
one granted me access to university laboratories.

I don't think one should entirely restrict access to information.
I do think a lot more thought needs to be devoted to determining
that it is indeed going to be utilized responsibly.


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