Can the public be trusted with dangerous knowledge? This might seem like a silly question to ask in the age of the internet where just about everything is already available to the public.
However, it’s an important issue that is still highly debated. Books are still being banned, people being censored, journalists imprisoned.
I recently saw a documentary called American Anarchist which features ‘The Anarchist Cookbook’ and it’s author William Powell. The Anarchist Cookbook is a book that contains recipes for all kinds of things, from survival gear to explosives and drugs, but also a few philosophical passages. A perfect example for the issue in question.
The author is deeply filled with regret for having made such information easily accessible. This stems from the fact that the book has been connected with various tragedies. Such as being found in the homes of perpetrators of attacks like the one that happened at the Virginia Tech massacre and several others.
An understandable reaction, even the possibility that it might have been his fault must be extremely uncomfortable. However, at the very beginning of the documentary he explains where all these recipes come from. He had gathered them from publicly available books at the library. Mostly military manuals.
Which means the information was already available. Therefore I have to conclude that if these people were after such information they could have gained access to it without going through any considerable trouble. So is the author of this book really to blame?
Especially in this day and age information is very easy to come by. I would like to argue that attempts to censor dangerous information only creates more danger.
Unfortunately there will always be people who wish to do harm. And they will be able to get their hands on the information they need to do so no matter how well we hide it from the public.
Instead we could attempt to reduce harm by making sure that the general public is well informed and can make wiser decisions regarding dangerous activities.
In the case of The Anarchist Cookbook it should be known that many of the recipes found in it are unreliable, a danger in its own.
“Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” –Unknown
There are many kinds of information that are considered dangerous and the consequences of using this information is equally varied.
Through knowledge and common sense we can avoid many disasters. For something like explosives the knowledge necessary to avoid harm may vary from knowing not to try something you can’t handle, to proper safety measures required for detonating explosives.
Somebody who is determined to make use of dangerous things is going to do it either way. I would rather we try and make sure that the guy making LSD in his bathtub doesn’t poison all of his friends rather than try to keep the proper procedures from him.
Other kinds of “dangerous information”
Information considered dangerous doesn’t have to be as in your face as techniques for making explosives, weapons and drugs.
Various philosophies throughout history have also been considered dangerous. Prime examples are books such as Adolf Hitlers Mein Kampf which is banned in several countries. I have not read it myself but I am well versed in the history surrounding Adolf Hitler. And the same goes for this kind of dangerous information, people with common sense aren’t going to turn into Nazis for reading about Nazism.
In fact it might help avoid it. If people can’t learn about dangerous philosophies, who will have the knowledge to criticize them?
Any form of censorship is just going to make people more curious about what kind of information might be so controversial that it warrants being banned. Information is always going to be possible to get hold of, especially in this day and age.
Therefore it only makes sense to prepare people to handle such information with care, rather than censoring it, which may result in the opposite of harm reduction.
There’s also the question of things like military intelligence? How much should be in the public’s hands? Because if it’s in the public’s hands it’s also in potential enemies hands.
We call ourselves “The Free World” and we call these times “times of peace”. If that is so then we can presume that most things could be made public. However this is more a question of the right to know how tax money is spent than it is a question of how to handle dangerous information.
Even technology we use every day could turn into a danger if people are unaware of their inner workings. A quote by Carl Sagan comes to mind:
“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology.
This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
For example there are many ways you could blow up a gasoline powered car, even more ways you could electrocute yourself in your home. The solution isn’t to limit information pertaining to these technologies to a select few people like we try to do now.
Rather we could ensure that people know at the very least enough not to harm themselves.
We would love to hear your opinion on this in the comments below!