Re: Meritocracies and freedom of information

From: Adrian Tymes (
Date: Sat Oct 13 2001 - 19:24:52 MDT

"Robert J. Bradbury" wrote:
> So I think the problem may be with the generality of my proposal.
> Some more specific examples and clay pigeon solutions follow.

As do my skeet-shot responses...and one possible counter-solution.

> 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.

A drop in the bucket as far as planning their entire operation is
concerned. Meanwhile, citizen activists who wish to protest nuclear
power plants, or counter-protestors who wish to get the facts about
just how many such plants are in operation, would be hamstrung since
they often have less resources than, say, someone willing to devote
every waking moment and all their possessions to a suicide mission.

> 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.)

It's not just non-foolproof, it would do exactly zero good - and some
harm. There are so many foreign students, the government could not
possibly monitor even a small fraction of them. (In fact, that *is*
the situation right now with student visas.) Terrorists would lie
about their motives unflinchingly; only the innocent, who rightly have
reason to fear they're being set up, would be "caught" by this. (The
reason: for the most part, prior innocents who were likewise caught,
once the system is in operation for a while. At first, just the usual
nervous types, or conspiracy theorists, et cetera...but even that's
too much, IMO.)

> 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?

No. There is a difference between merely obtaining knowledge, and
putting it into practice. For instance, I know how to fly an airplane,
to some extent: I've done plenty of simulators, and there are some
licensed pilots who know me and my skills well enough that they have
said they would, in an emergency, feel comfortable with me at the
controls of their plane if they were unable to pilot it themselves.
But I do not fly enough to be able to maintain an official pilot's
license - which certifies that my piloting skills are good enough for
day-to-day operation, and I agree they won't be without more frequent
use - therefore I am not currently allowed to fly a plane under normal

Likewise, one can study, say, medicine in order to better understand
the body even if one has no intention of becoming a doctor.

> 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.

Being an Extropian automatically qualifies you as "unusual", these
days. What normal person dares to dream of immortality, or
transcending the human body? (We would like to change that, of course,
but it's the reality today.) Merely citing "unusual" as good enough
evidence would put us all under investigation...and a case could be
made that the Extropy Institute is a plot to overthrow world
governments. (Reasoning: advanced tech means that gov't as we know it
today would have to change to stay in power...or maybe just association
with libertarians would be enough, since they dare to dream of a less
empowered government, which is technically closer to the "zero
government" of anarchy than what we now have.)

Loss of control over the physical is one thing. Loss of control over
the mind is not so easy to put a hard line on, and all proposals I've
seen to date err on the side of snagging innocents to make sure the
guilty don't get away...except they don't get all the guilty parties.

> 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.

Off-the-cuff idea: for sensitive materials, like details of GM crop
experiments, always include pointers to the "basics" even in
descriptions meant only to be read by fellow experts. This is similar
in nature to the "legal boilerplate" that has made law contracts so
obtuse, but keeps them (at least in theory, to a high enough degree for
the courts) from being misunderstood by complete amateurs that happen
to get ahold of them.

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