Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

I just read this post by Charles Dodgson, that I must say, scares me a little. I haven't been able to check out the sourcing of this, but if it is true, then the comment by Ronald Atlas is not hyperbole. The story says that the Bush Admin. wants to censor scientific journal output in microbiology (they are asking for self-censorship), so that information useful to terrorists who wanted to make anthrax powder, for example, couldn't get the info they need. I think this is an absolutely terrible idea. The core of science is reproducibility, and the way that scientific ideas are tested is by having other labs repeat the work. Admittedly, this often does not happen right away, because the nature of competitive academic science is such that repeating other people's experiments is not a good way to get ahead. Nevertheless, the information must be public, so that other professionals can adequately and accurately critique your work. This system has worked well for ~100 years in microbiology. By the way, for those who are interested, Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) was one of the first microbes discovered in the early days of bacterial isolation and culture, so there are no shortage of references for someone who wanted to get the organism. There are also many, many other ways to skin this particular cat, in terms of spreading difficult to treat disease quickly to a large number of people. Any trained microbiologist (or graduate student) could probably think of a dozen different potential bioweapons without even trying. Does this make you afraid? It really shouldn't. It is not as if there aren't a lot of good people working not only to prevent these sorts of things, but to cure or effectively treat all of these diseases. The ability for a single or relatively small group of people to spread epidemic disease intentionally has been around for a long time (think Typhoid Mary), but it has been a rare event in history, at best, and is probably going to be a rare event in the future.
Of course, all that said, Instapundit links to a story in which some Moroccans were arrested with a large amount of cyanide and a map of Rome with the American Embassy highlighted, so we can't stop being on our guard. My (muddled) point is just that the information is already out there to do harm, but the guys in white hats can only help us stop this sort of thing if they can share information quickly in the well-worn, time-tested manner of peer-reviewed publication. The collaborative effort can bear fruit, and scientists can help fight terrorism the best way they know how.