Sorry I haven't been posting here more regularly. The biotech issue I've been working on has really claimed all my attention. I've been learning a lot about bacteria...
So far, conversations have mostly gone like this: I say to an expert, "What ____ is doing seems potentially very dangerous, because ___ could happen, or at least no one has shown me a reason it can't, and I've talked to several experts already."
I get one of three replies:
1) "I don't think that's worth worrying about, and I'm not inclined to look further."
2) "I don't think it will happen, because of _____." Then I look up _____ and find that it's factually incorrect.
3) "It seems like this is worth looking into further. You should talk to more experts."
Is it just me, or should I be getting more worried as I get more and more responses of type 2 and 3?
So far, I haven't managed to get any experts in the field to say "Yes, this is really worrisome, and I'll use my reputation to try to get the researchers to back off." Of course, this is a very hard thing for any scientist to say. There's a chasm to be crossed between "This might be a problem" and "This might be a problem I should act on, even if it means criticizing eminent fellow scientists." And the magnitude of the potential problem does not seem to make it easier to cross that chasm.
This has some similarities with molecular manufacturing, and some differences. One major difference is that molecular manufacturing is still in the future, while the potentially dangerous bio research is going on today.
A major similarity is that there appears to be a potential for self-replicating systems to be immensely powerful - more powerful than most specialists' intuitions - but that potential is only visible to generalists and systems thinkers. The experts don't easily see it, don't want to see it, and usually either dismiss it or treat it as someone else's theoretical problem.
For the past week or so, I've been in communication with the researcher who's actually doing the work I (and several other experts in various related fields) think is dangerous. As long as he's talking, I'm avoiding taking action that could start a grassroots movement against his work. Such a movement could be very powerful in the short run - and would probably create a lot more heat than light, causing future research along the same lines to be obscured and harder to regulate.
If any of you have experience with a case where a scientist was successfully convinced that their research was riskier than they thought - risky enough to substantially modify their plan and delay their work - then please let me know how that was accomplished. If no one has heard of such a thing happening... then what does that say about how the scientific community handles newly discovered risk?
(Yes, I know about Asilomar. That was one event, decades ago. How common are such things?)