Sunday, March 23, 2008

SIGMA More Than SciFi

I've heard rumours of a science fiction writers group that advises national/homeland security officials for years, but this is the first time I've actual confirmation of the group, called SIGMA. (Of course it's called SIGMA. They're science fiction authors, they're going to have a cool name.)

SIGMA is apparently a loosely organized group of around 24 authors who advise Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary Jay Cohen, head of the science and technology directorate. Aside from Cohen simply liking their ideas, this makes sense - science fiction often becomes science fact, not just because the authors inspire the people who become scientists (show me someone at NASA right now who wasn't a Star Trek fan growing up), but because they seem to have a knack for prognostication: the cell phone, cyborg, robot, MRI and CT scans, even the very idea of the internet itself, can all be traced back to science fiction. And the same can be said for the biological: I've mentioned Frank Herbet's The White Plague here before, and think it's still one of the most scarily accurate visions of what DIY bioterrorism will end up looking like.

Given this, it's with extreme disappointment that I read about the latest SIGMA offering, which comes from Larry Niven, best known for Lucifer's Hammer and his Ringworld books. Niven's suggestion is, and I'm just going to quote it, to
spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants.
Niven goes on to acknowledge, after his sometimes-writing partner and fellow SIGMA member Jerry Pournelle pointed out how politically incorrect the idea is, that while it might not be possible to implement, it would work, and that
"The problem [of hospitals going broke] is hugely exaggerated by illegal aliens who aren’t going to pay for anything anyway.
Not that I think it's necessary, but I'd like to just go on record saying that this is by far one of the stupidest ideas I've heard in a while (and I've spent most of the day reading about bad romance novel tropes, so that's really saying something), and that not only would it spectacularly fail in its intent, it would have several other major impacts on social health as a whole:
  1. It's not just illegal immigrants who speak Spanish. Put that rumour out there and it's going to fly around Spanish speaking communities and right into the English speaking community, and do nothing but reinforce the fears that doctors are evil, and willing to kill people for their organs. We have doctors being stupid all by themselves, and don't need the help of rumours to feed the persistent social fear that if you're an organ donor a medical team won't work nearly as hard to save your life.

  2. Public health. If we discourage people from being treated for their illnesses, we're going to have a public health nightmare on our hand, where people are not being treated for common problems, and those common problems will spread through the community. It might not sound bad until you contemplate being one of the many this year who came down with the hellflu - imagine that being a continual concern, or virulent strep throat, not to mention things like whooping cough, meningitis... the list goes on. It would be a health nightmare. And frankly, I don't know about the rest of you, but I have enough of those just knowing what I do about bioterrorism - I don't need any help not finding sleep, I do well enough on my own.

I remain grateful that other science fiction authors did speak up to tell Niven it was a bad idea, and only wish he'd never mentioned it in the first place.

On the, I don't want to say plus side, but other side of the coin, Pournelle spoke a bit about advances in security moving us more towards a republic. I don't know that I agree with him, but the ideas are interesting, nonetheless:
Pournelle said that once mobile phone technology and the devices tacked on them to take pictures and record video become more ubiquitous, then ordinary citizens will be empowered to take security into their own hands — a prediction some have said already has come to pass.

“My guess is we won’t need quite so many paid agents of the state to do that for us, which means maybe we can try being a republic instead of an incompetent empire,” he said, then railed against the Transportation Security Administration for treating passengers like “subjects” rather than “citizens.”

-Kelly, who thinks she ought to get cookies for resisting the urge to go the route of the gripping hand in this post

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