The Value of Information - Freedom and Inquiry

I often hear people talk about the value of information being available in a very general sense. These kind of claims seem to arise during discussions about freedom of speech or the marketplace of ideas. In these arguments the claim is often made that one would rather have the offensive/dangerous/obscure/unusual information out there in the world somewhere, even if one has no personal need or interest in the information.

Another similar type of argument is made about academic and scientific freedom - that intellectuals should be free to at least investigate and possibly disseminate any and all types of information.

Heather Douglas wrote an interesting philosophy paper that discusses “The Moral Responsibility of Scientists (Tensions between Autonomy and Responsibility.” She describes just such a laissez-faire attitude arising during the 1940s in the Freedom of Science movement. She quotes Bridgman (1947):

The challenge to the understanding of nature is a challenge to the utmost capacity in us. In accepting the challenge, man can dare to accept no handicaps. That is the reason that scientific freedom is essential and that the artificial limitations of tools or subject matter are unthinkable.

Douglas goes onto to make a solid argument that there is no reason why the role responsibilities of scientists to seek out new knowledge should trump the general moral responsibilities of scientists to act in a proper manner.

At this level the value of information is very abstract. Arguments are made in the hypothetical instead of the actual. The suggestion is made that one should be comforted merely by the fact that someone, somewhere is investigating the world. Accumulation of information is a value in itself.

There is also a claim that a piece of information may not have a value now but sometime in the future conditions may change. I’ve heard people express this by saying that “at least the information is out there if I ever need to find it.” So there is no current value to the information, and there may never be any value to the information, but at least it exists.

References

  • Bridgman, P. W. 1947. “Scientists and Social Responsibility.” Scientific Monthly, vol. 65, no. 2, pp. 148–154.
  • Douglas, H. E. 2003. “The Moral Responsibility of Scientists (Tensions between Autonomy and Responsibility.” American Philosophic Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 1. pp. 59-68