Nature publishes instructions on how to make a Frankenstein monster
Today, a scientific journal published a study that some people thought might never be made public at all.
The paper describes experiments that suggest just a few genetic changes could potentially make a bird flu virus capable of becoming contagious in humans, and causing a dangerous pandemic.
For months, a fierce debate has raged over this study and another one like it. The question was whether the full details should be kept secret, because of fears that the work might provide a recipe for turning bird flu into a bioweapon.
Right. Short version: this paper puts in the public domain a detailed blueprint for how H5N1 might … ummm … become contagious. Controversy? You bet – read the rest of that article.
Most of what gets published in scientific journals goes in service of legitimate interests and serves society by increasing the store of knowledge about the world we live in. I’m not a scientist, but I’m a fan and have devoted a good bit of my time to studying the history and philosophy of science. Which means I’m also aware that while science usually does things because it should, there is also an attendant arrogance that leads some researchers to do things because they can. In 1818, Mary Shelley began teaching us to be cautious, if not outright terrified, of scientific hubris, but the lesson has never been fully learned.
I’m profoundly disturbed by the publication of this paper. We have a constitution that views prior restraint against speech and publication as anathema, but one wonders about the judgment of Nature. Further, I can’t help wondering what the researchers themselves are thinking. From an institutional standpoint, the tenure and promotion committee isn’t going to give much credence to not publishing, so maybe there’s a feeling that there’s a legacy to be made here. If that’s it – and I’m just free associating here – that would mean we have a system that rewards rank sociopathy over the common weal, which is the precise opposite of what the scientific community is supposed to be about. Or maybe the researchers legitimately believe that the benefits outweigh the risks. If so, I’d like to sit down with them to discuss their risk assessment processes.
In recent years I have, like many of you, had plenty of chances to discuss 9/11, al Qaeda, and the campaign of terrorism against the US. I have argued that bin Laden and his cronies really don’t understand America at all, because if they did they would have followed up the Trade Center attack with… And then I outline what I’d have done had I been al Qaeda. I assure you, my idea would have worked. It would have been easy to execute and would have ripped the fabric of our society apart like cheap one-ply toilet paper. Just about any American hearing the scenario would agree that yeah, that would be easy and it would send us over the edge (even further than we’ve already gone). It isn’t that I’m an especially brilliant criminal mind, it’s just that I know my country and I understand better than an outsider where some of our leverage points are.
I thought about writing a piece on it here at S&R. Specifically I thought about it for maybe two seconds. But immediately I found myself considering the what-if. I’m pretty sure that we don’t have many terrorist readers. I cannot reasonably concoct a plausible scenario whereby my thoughts would wind up being acted on. But anything I publish is out there in the public domain, and maybe there’s a one in a million shot.
No possible reward from writing that article could be worth even that minute a risk.
But today, I bet there are some unsavory types showing an unusual interest in Nature. People who hate the US and know a little about biology.
So here’s your seminar question for the day: Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka and the publishers of Nature have the legal right to ease the path to weaponization of the H5N1 virus. But they have a moral and social responsibility not to. Discuss.