The Hogan & Hartson Lecture series is known for attracting global experts in thought-provoking fields at the intersection of law and science. Past guests have lectured about the not-so-futuristic engineered evolution of humans, public policy issues regarding embryonic stem cell research, and the science of the brain. Laughlin's topic is no less stimulating, said Gary Marchant, the Center's Executive Director.
"Professor Laughlin argues that converging and growing trends of government classification of data, excessive intellectual property protection, and privatization of information is increasingly impeding not only scientific research, but is shutting down our capacity for an informed society and electorate," Marchant said. "This is a provocative and alarming thesis that needs to be widely heard and considered."
Laughlin's lecture is based on his book, The Crime of Reason and the Closing of the Scientific Mind (2008, Basic Books), in which he argues that acquiring information is becoming a danger, or worse, a crime. The legitimate protection of information, such as defense secrets, has led to an implied and voluntary acceptance of suppressing other types of knowledge, he says.The book offers many examples of regulations on "the right to learn," dating back to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. It imposed sweeping restrictions on what could be publicly stated about nuclear energy in public, including disclosing what knowledge is classified."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."Educated at the University of California, Berkeley, and at MIT, Laughlin landed his first job as a theoretical physicist at AT&T Bell Laboratories. During his time there, and later as a research scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Laughlin experienced "formative moments" that got him thinking "The Information Age" was a misnomer.
He began tracking trends in Congress, among patent attorneys and in advertising that restrict and sometimes criminalize the use of knowledge. Laughlin noticed a steep decline in public accessibility to information, and he re-dubbed it "The Age of Amnesia."
Decisions to export the manufacturing of industries such as automobiles and electronics share in the blame, Laughlin says. "This problem is the devil's bargain you made when you allowed industry to leave," he said. "If you don't make things anymore, the only way you can make money is by preventing people from knowing things. And when that happens, people will stop inventing."A more recent example of the criminalization of reasoning is the prosecution of physicians treating disease by using their knowledge of genes, whose sequences may be patented, Laughlin says."The patenting of genes really raises my hackles," he says. "I'm willing to pay for hamburger and bread, but I don't want to pay for life. No one made that. It doesn't belong to anyone. These laws have been made by Congress to protect the pharmaceutical industry."Laughlin, with former Bell colleagues Horst L. Stormer and Daniel C. Tsui, shared the Nobel Prize for their research into the behavior of electrons. They discovered a new form of quantum fluid with fractionally charged excitations, and proved that electrons acting together in strong magnetic fields and very low temperatures can form new types of composite particles.The Hogan & Hartson lecture honors the late Lee Loevinger, a former partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm that has provided an endowment to the college for a lecture series on Jurimetrics, the scientific study of the law. Prior to his association with Hogan & Hartson, Loevinger served as an Associate Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court, as the Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice in charge of its Antitrust Division, and as a Commissioner for the Federal Communications Commission.