Flu researchers impartially decide dangerous flu research is safe

Flu researchers have looked deeply at their own field, and decided that everything they were doing is all fine. Where the potentially hideously dangerous H5N1 bird-flu virus is concerned,

They said that the benefits of the research in preventing and dealing with a future flu pandemic outweigh the risks of an accidental leak of the mutant virus from a laboratory or the deliberate attempt to create deadly strains of flu by terrorists or rogue governments.

Outside scientists were instead of the opinion that:

[...] if airborne transmission became possible it would lead to a deadly flu pandemic killing millions of people because most of the individuals who are known to have been infected with H5N1 die from the virus.

and even other virologists claim:

The risks are clear for all to see and the benefits are qualitative, and that’s rather weak. Civil scientists are not here to increase the risk from microbes. We are not here to make the microbial world more dangerous.

It’s quite simple here. The flu researchers are not evil people, and they certainly believe they’re doing the right thing. But it is blatantly clear that people inside their own research community, are unavoidably biased in assessing the risks of their own research.

When you think you’re doing the right thing, but all outsiders are screaming for you to stop, that is the moment to step outside your own self-assessment and stop doing what you’re doing, and think deeply before continuing.

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2 Responses to Flu researchers impartially decide dangerous flu research is safe

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    “When you think you’re doing the right thing, but all outsiders are screaming for you to stop, that is the moment to step outside your own self-assessment and stop doing what you’re doing.”

    Not necessarily. If they scream because you might upset traditional and undetectable spirits you have a good reason to suspect their reasons are not terribly good, but if they scream because they have some sort of rational argument you should probably take note. The question is whether they are your epistemic peers, or whether they are close enough to peerhood to have a valid argument.

    In the case of flu research presumably outside epidemiologists can make valid judgement about risks of flu pandemics and accidental releases from labs. Flu researchers might know far more about the actual value of the research than others, but they should recognize that outsiders are less likely to be biased on the risk side of the benefit/risk analysis.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      Yes, good points – slightly reworded the conclusion to allow for the more complicated scenario.

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