Daily Archives: June 6, 2016

Curbs on free speech are growing tighter. It is time to speak out

Economist – Free speech is under attack in three ways.

First, repression by governments has increased. Several countries have reimposed cold-war controls or introduced new ones.

Second, a worrying number of non-state actors are enforcing censorship by assassination.

Third, the idea has spread that people and groups have a right not to be offended. This may sound innocuous. Politeness is a virtue, after all.

Since offence is subjective, the power to police it is both vast and arbitrary. Nevertheless, many students in America and Europe believe that someone should exercise it.

So it is worth spelling out why free expression is the bedrock of all liberties.

Free speech is the best defense against bad government. Politicians who err (that is, all of them) should be subjected to unfettered criticism. Those who hear it may respond to it; those who silence it may never find out how their policies misfired.

In all areas of life, free debate sorts good ideas from bad ones. Science cannot develop unless old certainties are queried. Taboos are the enemy of understanding.

The law should recognize the right to free speech as nearly absolute. Exceptions should be rare.

Blasphemy laws are an anachronism.

A religion should be open to debate. Laws against hate speech are unworkably subjective and widely abused. Banning words or arguments which one group finds offensive does not lead to social harmony. On the contrary, it gives everyone an incentive to take offence—a fact that opportunistic politicians with ethnic-based support are quick to exploit. more> http://goo.gl/xXhTtN

Who Will Own Your Data If the Tech Bubble Bursts?

By Kaveh Waddell – Researchers at Berkeley’s Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity gamed out five different scenarios based on current trends in online security—and this one is by far the most alarming.

If stock prices plunge, the researchers ask, what will be left of the Facebooks and Twitters of the world? Like a broken-down car that can only be scrapped for parts, the only thing worth salvaging from the shells of former tech companies may be user data.

Desperate companies will resort, if they can, to selling the detailed data they’ve meticulously collected about their users—whether it’s personally identifiable information, data about preferences, habits, and hobbies, or national-security files.

That data, formerly walled-off and spoon-fed only to paying advertisers, would be attractive to both licit and criminal buyers. Easily searchable datasets could generate new innovations and investments—but it would be difficult to know who’s buying up sensitive datasets, and why. more> http://goo.gl/mpdpyT

Is the World Ready for Synthetic Life?

By Shelly Fan – At its core, synthetic biology is a marriage between engineering principles and biotechnology.

If DNA sequencing is about reading DNA, genetic engineering is about editing DNA, synthetic biology is about programming new DNA — regardless of its original source — to build new forms of life.

The field has a plug-and-play mentality, says Jay Kiesling, a pioneer of synthetic engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. “When your hard drive dies, you can go to the nearest computer store, buy a new one, swap it out,” he says, “Why shouldn’t we use biological parts in the same way?”

Similar to genetic engineering, synthetic biology gives scientists the power to tinker with natural DNA. The difference is mostly scale: genetic editing is a cut-and-paste process that adds foreign genes or changes the letters in existing genes. Often, only a few sites are changed.

Synthetic biology, on the other hand, creates genes from scratch. This allows scientists far more opportunities to make extensive changes to known genes, or even design their own. The possibilities are nearly endless. more> http://goo.gl/zHPFIi

How Economists Killed Your Conscience

By Lynn Stout – What’s the best way to get people to behave themselves?

Legal and policy experts often assume people are basically selfish creatures who respond only to punishments and rewards, and who can’t be trusted to do a good job or refrain from lying, cheating and stealing unless given the right “incentives.”

This emphasis on “incentives” and “accountability” relies on a homo economicus model of purely selfish human behavior that was developed for theoretical economics, but has since spread to be embraced by policymakers, business leaders, and experts in a wide range of fields from political science to philosophy.

Today, it’s hard to find a serious discussion of the possibility that we might encourage or discourage particular behaviors by appealing not to selfishness, but instead to the force of conscience.

Many modern experts would snicker at the very idea. Conscience is viewed as the province of religious leaders and populist politicians, not lawyers, businessmen, or regulators.

This collective blindness to our own capacity to act conscientiously—or, as behavioral scientists might put it, our capacity to act prosocially—can lead us to overlook the reality, and importance, of goodness, leading us to neglect the crucial role our better impulses could play in shaping society.

Rather than leaning on the power of greed and selfishness to channel human behavior, our laws and policies might often do better to focus on and promote the force of conscience—the cheapest and most effective police force one could ask for. more> http://goo.gl/Ngd1JP