The Crime of Reason

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305

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R. B. Laughlin, The Crime of Reason (Basic Books, New York, 2008).

Will Progress Kill Learning?

Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin says the Information Age is anything but.

Stanford Magazine, Nov/Dec 2008, p. 39.

"When I teach and when I speak and when I relate to people and when I write, I try to have humor in the right places."

So notes Robert B. Laughlin, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in physics and author of a potent new book about the doors being slammed on broad swaths of contemporary knowledge. In The Crime of Reason and the Closing of the Scientific Mind, Laughlin explores the implications of a variety of trends—in legislation, patents and advertising—that restrict or even criminalize the use of knowledge. One stark example: the work of a medical researcher being halted by fee demands from the owner of a gene patent.

But what separates Crime of Reason from other discussions of these issues is Laughlin's sometimes light and almost impish style. Consider the way he warms up readers for an examination of the "dangerous knowledge" a society will or won't embrace. In some cases, he argues, people are innately programmed to seek out risk. "The obsession with dangerous things keeps worsening," he observes drily, "until you get to bungee jumping, hang gliding, and skiing way too fast, although by that time it's not your problem anymore."

Laughlin, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Physics, gravitated to the subject of restricted knowledge as he saw the stakes being raised by the influence of the Internet, technology and fast-advancing research in genetics. The "granddaddy" of all such problems, says Laughlin, was the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which he summarizes in his book as imposing "sweeping restrictions on what you can say about nuclear energy in public, including disclosing what knowledge is classified." Control of the Internet—regularly at issue in legal battles about music and video piracy - and debates over the ethics of cloning are examples brimming with relevance and alarm in daily life.

"What I argue has happened," Laughlin says, "is there was born in 1954 a fundamental conflict between the needs of our society to be safe and to be economically prosperous on the one hand, and a human right that you thought you had on the other, which is the right to better yourself by learning - and, of course, there's no such civil right, there's no such law."

Photo: L. A. Cicero

Laughlin makes his case throughout The Crime of Reason by focusing on big-picture assertions and leaving much of the justification to copious footnotes. As a result, the book maintains a basic readability no matter how thick the topic—laws designed against encryption systems, intellectual property rights and the economics of spam, to name a few. Some assertions ("the Information Age should probably be called the Age of Amnesia") have a counterintuitive bite that makes for delicious debate.

Just wait until enough people read Laughlin's suggestion that, in addition to the open announcements of cloned animals, "It is very likely that we also got Hal (or Heather) the human. . . . There was, however, no public announcement of a cloned human, presumably because of the storm of public outrage that would have ensued."

Is he serious? "I cannot prove it," says Laughlin, throwing in a charming smile while emphasizing that the speculation is scientifically sound.

The Crime of Reason was released this fall in the United States by Basic Books. It previously was published in Germany by the Suhrkamp Verlag company, kicking off a series being planned in collaboration with Stanford, whose faculty will write books for at least initial release overseas.

As Laughlin plunged into appearances promoting The Crime of Reason, he was finishing another manuscript - an account of his tumultuous stint from mid-2004 to mid-2006 as president of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

"It was one of those bizarre things that never happened before and never will again," he says. "So it was an event in history, and I have to tell about it."

(Basic Books, New York, 2008). (Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, 2008).
(Brun Mondatori, Milan, 2009).

Last updated: 4 Nov 11