Science, technology and politicians

What is it about politicians that makes them believe that they, with a few minutes' cursory review, know better than people who have studied in an area for decades? Whatever the case, it far from a rare condition. The most recent example of this attitude is the copyright protection proposals currently in front of Congress.

Just about universally, the people responsible for the technical development and operation of the Internet have said that the DNS-blocking proposals would break vital Internet technology while at the same time being entirely ineffectual against people who are serious about violating copyright laws and largely ineffectual against those who do so casually. But the warnings of those who actually know what they are doing were dismissed as unimportant. A long holiday break and some White House action may have slowed down the train, but why should it have taken so long?

BACKGROUND: SOPA, PIPA opponents prepare for Capitol Hill piracy showdown

Skeptics, or maybe realists, say that it is an indication of the corruption of the political system -- politicians who will do anything, no matter how bad, for the people and companies that donate money to them. I would not be shocked to learn that is a major factor, but it does not explain the extent of the observed phenomena. People, and yes, politicians are people in spite of some who would claim otherwise, have a remarkable ability to not be able to balance conflicting information. Even though 90% or more of the relevant scientific community agree that global warming as a result of atmospheric change is real, a significant number of politicians, as well as members of the general public, dismiss the scientists and opinions.

Maybe this is related to many people's inability to relate to risks. It may be a hundred times more dangerous to take a taxi 10 miles to an airport than it is to fly halfway around the world, but large number of people are much more worried about the plane ride. People work with very sensitive information on their laptops all the time and it is well documented that many laptops go missing every year and that losing a laptop with some types of confidential information on it would cost a company a great deal of money. Yet, too many companies do not bother to encrypt those laptops. There is no logic that can explain the failure to encrypt laptops -- even those machines that you do not expect to be used with confidential information. Along the same lines, there is no logic that can explain the failure to wear a seatbelt in a car. The only thing that might explain it is the inability of the people in charge to understand risk and consequence.

The business of security is dependent on understanding and balancing risk and consequence. Human inability to do this well makes security a lot harder. It also, along with money flowing like water, can make the business of lawmaking a lot harder.

Disclaimer: Some people, like Larry Lessig, at Harvard are quite worried about the impact of money on Congress. But the above is more about understanding risk and is my own view, not one from them.

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