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Misguided Science Fiction Writers Advise U.S. on Homeland Security

SigmaUSA Today has reported in “Sci-fi writers join war on terror” that a small group of science fiction writers have been contacted by the U.S. government to advise on new and innovative ways that security could be improved. The group, called Sigma, was formed about 15 years ago by writer Arlan Andrews and was specifically intended to advise the government on advanced technology issues.

Their motto seems ominous in context of recent-history political trends and frighteningly nationalistic: “Science Fiction in the National Interest“. I think their involvement is a bit horrifying, misguided, and more than a bit egotistically self-grandiose. Read on for more details.

Six writers – nicknamed the “Sigma Six”, after “Six Sigma” (a set of practices for reducing defects through process improvements – see related Dilbert cartoon), met with the Homeland Security group with members of the government’s High Impact Technology Solutions (“HITS”) program leaders to speculate on innovative ways that technology could improve the government’s ability to monitor individuals, identify and assess threats. The six writers involved were Greg Bear, Sage Walker, and Arlan Andrews, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, and Yoji Kondo “Eric Kotaniâ€? (USA Today apparently failed to mention Kondo’s involvement).

Sigma has previously consulted with Sandia’s Advanced Concepts group on future national threats. Many Sigma members have already been involved in industrial and Federal consulting over the years, at the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Association (DARPA), the CIA, and NASA.

The Sigma Group apparently has two primary criteria for membership: potential members must have written speculative fiction, and they must have a doctorate degree in a science/technology discipline. I think their membership criteria is rather snobby and elitist, considering that three main factors define a writer’s ability to write prophetically futuristic fiction and come up with innovative ideas that are within the realm of scientific possibility. Those three factors would be: good scientific/technological knowledge; the ability to project out societal/economic/business/political trends into likely future outcomes; and the pairing of both of these to imagination – the intuitive leap to make connections in ways that others have not. These three factors are not gaged by having a Ph.D.

I would think that to have any credibility and advantage whatsoever, Sigma would’ve needed to also have William Gibson and Neal Stephenson in the group advising the government. Perhaps they should consider allowing existing members to nominate other authors to join up, and vote on their individual merits.

But, my main criticism about Sigma’s advising the federal government on security really isn’t due to their obvious and stupidly limiting elitism, nor from their egotistical and narcissistic need to prove their intelligence by promoting themselves in this way. (It rather reminds one of how movie stars are constantly pushing themselves into political involvement, despite any credible experience in solving complex problems, and in many cases a complete lack of post-high-school education in anything other than acting.)

No, my main beef with the Sigma Group doing this is the apparent total lack of any consideration about the long-term ramifications of their assistance to the government. There’s no website that I could find which outlines any sort of ethical considerations which the group might have, and based on the various news stories and author’s statements about the group, it would appear that they’re just naively lobbing snips of their disruptive tech/scientific ideas over to the government to use in any way they see fit.

They apparently are more concerned about trying to promote themselves and reassure themselves that they have scientific respectability than they are concerned about the welfare of the human race. One would wish that they had learned the lessons of scientists and engineers of the past who later saw that the willy-nilly deployment of new technologies could cause more destruction and problems for the human race, sometimes outweighing the improvements they originally intended. One great example would be the scientist Alfred Nobel who invented dynamite, and later sought to counteract the negative effects of his life’s work by founding the Nobel Prize.

It’s odd an astounding that they would now lend their support to a government which has used fear-mongering to erode human rights and expand the military-industrial complex more extensively than any time in the past.

Security experts such as Bruce Schneier have pointed out the folly of many of the Homeland Security policies which have been more focussed on addressing a single symptom than looking for holistic approaches to addressing real problems. Of course, many intellectuals have pointed out that doing things like requiring people to take off their shoes at the airport doesn’t reduce risk whatsoever, and is ultimately more about giving the false appearance that something substantive has been done while perpetuating citizen’s illogical perceptions of relative risk. One lunatic on an airplane in the UK tried to set off a bomb in his shoes – a very low percentage risk considering how many flights happened up until that point, yet now convenience is impacted for millions across the board as all shoes are now X-rayed. Yet, individuals could carry loads of plastique explosive taped to their torsos and fly right through checkpoints with no problem.

The idea of being able to eradicate all risk in life is completely irrational. Once you face that fact, you should be able to see that more and more little fixes may not be good for sustainable, long-term solutions to security concerns. You will lose in such arms races as more and more privacy and rights are eroded with each intrusive innovation. The abusive misuse of governmental power against innocent individuals is not worth the false perception of improved security. Do these authors not see this as a problem?!?
The general public is unable to understand math, and is therefore unable to effectively assess most risks. With the government perpetuating bad risk assessment as a pretext for reducing privacy, reducing individual rights, and increasing hassles for all citizens, it’s really bad for otherwise brilliant intellectuals such as the Sigma Group to fail to have really assessed the current trends, ethics, and societal implications of their involvement. They are helping the expansion of a police state and an erosion of the very sorts of rights and idealism that they normally would promote through their writing.

Harlan Ellison wouldn’t have fallen for this naive and egotistical temptation! Shame on these guys for doing so.

I’ve written before in somewhat glowing terms of some science fiction writers, particularly in their ability to predict future technological advances and their impacts on our day-to-day lives. (See here and here.) I like Sci-Fi writers, and I think it’s good and helpful to society in general for people to write speculatively about possible futures. If we can foresee possible impacts of new and emerging technologies we might be able to figure out how to make such things work well for us, in non-destructive ways. But, Sigma’s efforts appear on the surface to be devoid of any ethical constraints, and lacking of wise consideration of whether technical advances might be more beneficial than destructive in the balance. I expect more of science fiction writers, particularly if they’re moving out of the realm of entertainment into active involvement with the government and military.

I’m not alone in criticizing Sigma’s involvement. The Chrononautic Log also ridicules the SciFi writers, and John C. Dvorak also criticizes both the ability of SF writers to predict the future, and the way the government simultaneously lauds them while making them out to be borderline crackpots. Techdirt sums it up eloquently:

…the likely result is more pointless methods to try to combat specific scenarios brought up by the writers, rather than anything more comprehensive or useful. While it’s at least nice to hear that Homeland Security is willing to listen to those with “outside the box” ideas, it’s tough to have much confidence in the idea that they’ll do anything useful with the information.

Sigma Group should post a webpage to state what their aims are, and what, IF ANY, ethically progressive policies they use before pushing tech/scientific solutions to societal problems. At best, their involvement currently seems short-sighted and more about pushing their own self-interests rather than altruistic goals of improving the human condition. If they had any ability to be visionary outside the narrow fields of science and technology, I don’t think they could be involved at all with the Department of Homeland Security – an agency which has focussed upon reducing privacy and individual rights while increasing oppressive policies.

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Posted by of Silvery on 05/31/2007

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9 comments for Misguided Science Fiction Writers Advise U.S. on Homeland Security »

  1. MyAvatars 0.2

    Sci-Fi on the defense!…

    join war on terror" that a small group of science fiction writers have been contacted by the U.S. government to advise on new and innovative ways that security could be improved. The group, called Sigma, was formed about 15 years ago by writer Ar….

    Trackback by Small Press Exchange — 5/31/2007 @ 11:41 am

  2. MyAvatars 0.2

    What a perfect example of a “Strawman argument!” You don’t know what ideas they have presented, but you have already rejected them as short-sighted, naive, and unethical. Further, you imply that the Sigma Six are the source of the ineffective PR-based measures taken thus far. Fascinating. You also hint that these authors forced themselves into their position as advisors in order to boost their egos, and that their counsel itself is evidence that they support all policies of the current government. So…that means that if YOU were invited to participate in a government commission where you could possibly inject your own ideas into existing policy, you’d refuse? What’s wrong with working to reform the system from the inside?
    One of Larry Niven’s catchphrases from his books is “Think it through.” No one is perfect of course, but the chances that he or his friend and frequent co-author Pournelle will throw out ideas with no thought of consequences are unlikely in the extreme.

    Comment by BobApril — 6/3/2007 @ 7:27 am

  3. MyAvatars 0.2

    It’s not a strawman argument at all.

    I know at least one of the ideas presented, as reported by the article: they suggested taking dogs which are used to sniff for explosives and use a brain scanner in combination with them so that they’d be able to tell what type of explosives could be in cartage. While on the surface, that doesn’t sound that bad, if it were practical to do it, dog’s olfactory senses are so acute that they’d be able to detect a whole lot more about stuff that has nothing to do with bombs and “homeland security”. In the past, sniffing of individuals by drug dogs, for instance, was halted by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional – random search and siezure, I believe. Yet in an era where they’re randomly sending individuals through machines which do this very thing at the airport, there’s apparently little safeguards in place to keep the government from extended to sense for a wide variety of additional information beyond specific substances involved in bombs.

    The apparent focus was at least in part on detection and the ferreting out of individual’s secrets — so I believe I do have a completely valid argument that these authors must be either defacto supportive of the erosion of individual rights, or else they were so focused upon making themselves feel important or in impressing others that they lost sight of the negative consequences which could go hand-in-hand with their ideas. You’re welcome to choose which of these motives was behind their actions. I’m inclined to think it was self-important hubris, since their membership criteria is already rather elitist – that pretty well indicates where their focus is placed.

    Note that by all published accounts, they weren’t advising in this instance on policy so much as tech innovations in furtherance of the existing approaches. They weren’t advising the White House – they were advising the Dept of Homeland Security – an office whose charter is only that of protection of US territory and response to natural disasters. Wouldn’t it be cool to come up with ways to use foreign policy, public policy, and other non-violent means to spark the changes which would diffuse the violence of religious extremism before it ever reached the point of suicide terrorists? Wouldn’t it be cool to come up with clever ways to improve the situation, rather than just keep working on individual symptoms? But, working with the Dept of Homeland Security is already so limited by their charter that higher-level policy would be virtually untouchable by any recommendation they could make.

    There’s no sign at all that they were working to change the system from the inside. They were merely bolstering the existing prowess of the increasing police state.

    But, let the Sigma Group speak for themselves. It’s dirt-cheap to put up a webpage — let them show some transparency about their philosophy and methodology. I’d love for them to point out how wrong my assumptions were by publishing their already-existing ethics policy.

    Comment by Chris Silver Smith — 6/3/2007 @ 5:06 pm

  4. MyAvatars 0.2

    I’m not sure where you got your information about Sigma’s degree requirements. Niven has a BA in math, and Bear has a BS degree. Pournelle, on the other hand, has two PhDs, so maybe it helps average out the group.

    I’d find it hard to believe that this group is as ethically challenged as you think.

    Larry Niven in particular has written books that tend to favor the individual over any collective group; I’d find it hard to believe he’d participate just to get some sort of egoboo from the government.

    Pournelle served in the Army during the Korean War and did research at Boeing and North American Rockwell (Space Division). Despite these close ties with the government, he’s been critical of NASA, so he’s not reflexively pro-government, either.

    I’ve interviewed Greg Bear (for his book Quantico) and although he supports the troops on the ground in Iraq, he’s extremely critical of their leadership and the national policies that put them there. So I don’t think he’s reflexively pro-government, either.

    Also, keep in mind that in 1980, group of science-fiction writers including Pournelle, Bear, Poul Anderson and Robert Heinlein, astronauts including Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad and Philip K. Chapman, space scientists and engineers, aerospace industry executives, computer scientists, military officers and others, met at Larry Niven’s house in California. They formed an ad hoc group called Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy. They provided most of the background for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), presented by Reagan in 1983.

    So, they’ve been at this for a while; their input might be more useful than you think, and I don’t think any of the above-named individuals would have any problem telling the government exactly what they thought about the current administration and its “ethically challenged” policies.

    Comment by Bill — 6/4/2007 @ 2:42 pm

  5. MyAvatars 0.2

    Bill, I respectfully disagree regarding Niven. While I like him as a fiction author, have you ever read any of his non-fiction? The man’s as ego-centric as they come. More importantly, allow me to quide National Defense Magazine–
    “a good way to help hospitals stem financial losses is to spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants.

    ‘The problem [of hospitals going broke] is hugely exaggerated by illegal aliens who aren’t going to pay for anything anyway,’ Niven said.”

    In other words, let’s scare people away from hospitals. People in communities that are the most likely place for epidemics to begin.

    Comment by John — 4/30/2008 @ 12:26 pm

  6. MyAvatars 0.2

    Oops, one more thing . . .

    Stating that Niven, Bear, etc. were instrumental in presenting Reagan with the SDI program (into which we’ve wasted billions of dollars) isn’t exactly a positive thing.

    And I say this (again) as someone who likes their fiction.

    The people the gov’t needs to listen to are already in the FBI, CIA, and NSA (this administration, like those that got us into Vietnam, ignore the expert advice they don’t want), and individuals like Clancy (who has already been consulted on related issues by the Pentagon).

    Comment by John — 4/30/2008 @ 12:30 pm

  7. MyAvatars 0.2

    I stumbled upon this interesting conversation by pure accident…

    SDI was the cold-war straw that broke the USSR’s back. When you can keep up, you lose. It was that simple. Whether or not this was a good thing… well, time will tell.

    I don’t know where you get the idea that these sf writers are ego-driven publicity hounds who have no agenda other than to boost their already secure egos. Sure, many have very strong personalities. As a person who knew Arlan well back when he worked at Bell Labs in Indianapolis in the 1980s, I can tell you that he is nothing more than a multifaceted, imaginative person who cares deeply about our country, and about preserving our individual freedoms. If you do a little research, you might learn that Arlan once ran for governor of a southern state on the Libertarian ticket.

    While some Libertarian Party views lean a tad far to the right for my personal taste, its view on personal liberty and individual freedoms certainly don’t.

    This “Sigma” group is about as diverse as is possible for a small group. I also take issue with the idea that we leave the idea-making to FBI and CIA bureaucrats–that’s what caused 9/11.


    Comment by Don — 7/29/2008 @ 1:57 am

  8. MyAvatars 0.2

    Oops… second graph, second sentence should read: “When you can’t keep up, you lose.”


    Comment by Don — 7/29/2008 @ 2:05 am

  9. MyAvatars 0.2

    Wow, I came across all this discussion a couple of years late, but feel I have to comment. As the founder of SIGMA, I have to say you were wrong on almost every statement. “Sometimes a cigar…”

    The nefarious “dog’s mind-reading cap” was “invented” by Greg Bear, Sage Walker and me within 30 seconds, while we were being interviewed by the USA Today reporter, when she asked what we could do any differently than the standard consultants. It was totally spontaneous, and no, we never considered using dogs for sniffing anything other than explosives or drugs, mostly the former.

    We now have a website for the “transparency” you so desired, so feel free to browse over the Members list and the philosophical statements that I wrote there.

    As someone who worked in D.C., including the White House Science Office back in the early 1990s (and who wrote the first White House endorsement of molecular nanotech, BTW, and arranged the first briefing of NASA and the incoming Clinton Administration about the SSTO project, DC-X), I saw the desperate need for SFnal futurism that only could come from SF writers. Hell, any given SF con panel was better than most DC meetings!

    I formed SIGMA out of disgust with the conventional think tank participants, who couldn’t see the future for the linear-extrapolation charts. I felt that the nation was overlooking its finest futurism resource.

    After reviewing the members’ bios, see if you don’t agree. (And never assume that because some SF writer you think should have been a member doesn’t show up, that they weren’t asked by me. Some folks have other lives and careers, and we all have our priorities.)

    That was the total reason for SIGMA’s founding and its continuing existence. Anything else is pure fiction on your part.


    -Arlan (the “misguided”)

    Comment by Arlan Andrews, Sr. — 10/5/2009 @ 1:41 pm

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