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The Crime of Reason: And the Closing of the Scientific Mind [Hardcover]

Robert B. Laughlin

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Book Description

4 Sep 2008
The Nobel prize-winning author of "A Different Universe" argues that ours is an age of disinformation and ignorance, in which access to knowledge is becoming increasingly restricted and even criminalized. We like to believe that in our modern, technologically advanced world, information is more freely available and flows faster than ever before, and that this free flow of ideas is behind our remarkable creativity. The second part is right: the free flow of ideas is indeed essential to creativity. But according to Nobel Laureate Robert Laughlin, many forces in the modern world conspire to make acquiring information a danger or even a crime. More and more of the really valuable information is private property or a state secret, with the result being that it is now easy for a flash of insight, entirely innocently, to infringe a patent or threaten national security.Within the past ten years it has become illegal to circumvent anti-piracy measures (i.e. to understand encrypted communication) or to distribute code-cracking devices; it is now legal for corporations to monopolize certain forms of communication; and it is possible to patent sales techniques, hiring strategies, and gene sequences. Broad areas of two sciences, physics and biology, are now off limits to public discourse because they are national security risks. Our society is sequestering knowledge more rapidly and thoroughly than any before it.Thus we find ourselves dealing more and more with the bizarre concept of the Crime of Reason, the antisocial and sometimes outright illegal nature of certain intellectual activities. The increasing restrictions on such fertile scientific and technological fields as cryptography, biotechnology, and computer software design are creating a new Dark Age: a time characterized not by light and truth but by disinformation and ignorance. This short, passionately argued book, by a Nobel laureate in physics, offers a stern warning and protest against our apparent collective decision to relinquish our intellectual rights.

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'powerful but controversial.'

-- Financial Times

About the Author

Robert Laughlin is Professor of Physics at Stanford University, where he has taught since 1985. In 1998 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the fractional quantum Hall effect. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His previous book, A Different Universe was published by Basic Books in 2005. He lives in Stanford, California.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.9 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Ideas That Need More Elaboration 12 Mar 2009
By Josef K - Published on
THE CRIME OF REASON is about how knowledge sequestration and commoditization are destroying [or can destroy] individuals' intellectual and creative potential, thus harming society as a whole. For example, intellectual property law [i.e. knowledge restriction law] has expanded exponentially since the 1970s. More particularly, many forms of technical knowledge have actually been outlawed, with knowledge of nuclear technology being the prime example and test case. There is a very real danger, which Laughlin suggests is already manifest among young scientists today, that our most brilliant minds will be left impotent by a legal framework that disallows them from understanding the world around them, or from even attempting to understand it.

This is a strange book. Unlike some previous reviewers, I think the subject is extremely important and deep. Laughlin, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, utilizes an unforgiving sort of analytical reasoning that is often hard to follow. His logic is stated so directly, and with so little elaboration, that the ideas end up being ambiguous. He suggests thoughts and conclusions, but often fails to elaborate enough to make them clear.

Ultimately, I think the book ends up giving the subject short shrift. This is a musing book, and, probably to the author's horror, I would suggest that it is a little bit intellectually lazy. There is a sort of arm-chair philosopher's self satisfaction in the reasoning which does the reader little good and the author little credit. The sections of the book about hard sciences and technology are the most interesting and convincing, while the ones about society and economics are the least.

Laughlin is obviously brilliant, and it is fun to ride along with him, following his thought patterns, as it were. It is an intellectual adventure and there are many intriguing ideas to be found in these pages. I wish he had taken the time to expand on them a bit more.

The price of the hardcover is definitely too high for these ~ 150 large font, double spaced pages. It almost feels like textbook style pricing.
19 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An unsettling jeremiad about the crisis of our Information Age 26 Oct 2008
By Roy E. Perry - Published on
In this jeremiad against the stifling constraints of commercialized culture, Laughlin writes, "At the dawn of the Information Age we find ourselves dealing with the bizarre concept of the 'crime of reason,' the unsocial nature or outright illegality of understanding certain things."

A widespread attack on Enlightenment rationality, he gloomily asserts, threatens to end in the criminalization of learning. More and more, the act of reasoning something out for yourself is potentially a crime.

The author contends that the Information Age should be called "the Age of Amnesia." The Internet promises a wide dissemination of useful information, but paradoxically there has been a steep decline in public accessibility of important information.

Laughlin explains the problems clearly and well, but provides little hope and virtually no solutions to the crisis.

About the author: Robert B. Laughlin is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Physics at Stanford University, where he has taught since 1985. In 1998 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the fractional quantum Hall effect. He has also won the Oliver F. Buckley Prize, the Benjamin Franklin Medal for Physics, and the Department of Energy's Earnest O. Lawrence Award for Physics. The author of A Different Universe (2005), he lives in Stanford, California.
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Needed a strong editor 1 May 2009
By Baslim the Beggar - Published on
Looking over previous reviews, I see that others share my opinion that this book, while filled with some interesting ideas could be shorter and should have had better editing. A paragraph or two from a well-written argument, I would find myself confused about the direction of the present argument. The editor really needed to force Laughlin to write precise outlines of the individual chapters, and then shoould have made him stick with those outlines.

Make no mistake, there are intriguing ideas here. One important one is that the need for the government to preserve technological (particularly defense) secrets has led to an implied acceptance of the need for people to voluntarily suppress information. Then he shows that commercial secrets (which in this country really preceeded the defense secrets) have the same effect. It's interesting but the lack of proper editing muddles the effort.

From time to time, I review scientific papers for journals. While the criteria for editing this book are different, there still remains the need for a paper to not become adrift and bloated in arguments. Laughlin, I am sure also reviews scientific papers. He should have shown more discipline in the book.

Bottom line: I'm sorry I did not wait for the paperback. The book looked promising when I bought it. It is worth a read, but wait for the paperback or get it from the library.
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful 5 May 2014
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Dares to discuss elephant-in-the-room subjects. The title is a bit misleading and may turn some readers off. It is a good reality check but not gloomy at all.
5.0 out of 5 stars enjoyable, a bit disturbing 6 Jan 2014
By Matthew Carruth - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
a brilliant author takes on an unusual subject: is it a crime to think? it sounds crazy, but he makes.a good case. it's non-partisan and writen in a witty style: worth your time.
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