A point of clarification on infohazard terminology

TL;DR: “Infohazard” means any kind of information that could be harmful in some fashion. Let’s use “cognitohazard” to describe information that could specifically harm the person who knows it.

Some people in my circle like to talk about the idea of information hazards or infohazards, which are dangerous information. This isn’t a fictional concept – Nick Bostrom characterizes a number of different types of infohazards in his 2011 paper that introduces the term (PDF available here). Lots of kinds of information can be dangerous or harmful in some fashion – detailed instructions for making a nuclear bomb. A signal or hint that a person is a member of a marginalized group. An extremist ideology. A spoiler for your favorite TV show. (Listen, an infohazard is a kind of hazard, not a measure of intensity. A papercut is still a kind of injury!)

I’ve been in places where “infohazard” is used in the Bostromian sense casually – to talk about, say, dual-use research of concern in the biological sciences, and describe the specific dangers that might come from publishing procedures of results.

I’ve also been in more esoteric conversations where people use the word “infohazard” to talk about a specific kind of Bostromian information hazard: information that may harm the person who knows it. This is a stranger concept, but there are still lots of apparent examples – a catchy earworm. “You just lost the game.” More seriously, an easy method of committing suicide for a suicidal person. A prototypical fictional example is the “basilisk” fractal from David Langford’s 1988 short story BLIT, which kills you if you see it.

This is a subset of the original definition because it is harmful information, but it’s expected to harm the person who knows it in particular. For instance, detailed schematics for a nuclear weapon aren’t really expected to bring harm to a potential weaponeer – the danger is that the weaponeer will use them to harm others. But fully internalizing the information that Amazon will deliver you a 5-pound bag of Swedish Fish whenever you want is specifically a danger to you. (…Me.)

This disparate use of terms is confusing. I think Bostrom and his intellectual kith get the broader definition of “infohazard”, since they coined the word and are actually using it professionally.*

I propose we call the second thing – information that harms the knower – a cognitohazard.

Pictured: Instantiation of a cognitohazard. Something something red herrings.

This term is shamelessly borrowed from the SCP Foundation, which uses it in a similar way in fiction. I figure the usage can’t make the concept sound any more weird and sci-fi than it already does.

(Cognitohazards don’t have to be hazardous to everybody. Someone who hates Swedish Fish is not going to spend all their money buying bags of Swedish Fish off of Amazon and diving into them like Scrooge McDuck. For someone who loves Swedish Fish – well, no comment. I’d call this “a potential cognitohazard” if you were to yell it into a crowd with unknown opinions on Swedish Fish.)

Anyways, hope that clears things up.


* For a published track record of this usage, see: an academic paper from Future of Humanity Institute and Center for Health Security staff, another piece by Bostrom, an opinion piece by esteemed synthetic biologist Kevin Esvelt, a piece on synthetic biology by FHI researcher Cassidy Nelson, a piece by Phil Torres.

(UPDATE: The version I initially published proposed the term “memetic hazard” rather than “cognitohazard.” LessWrong commentor MichaelA kindly pointed out that “memetic hazard” already meant a different concept that better suited that name. Since I had only just put out the post, I decided to quickly backpeddle and switch out the word for another one with similar provinence. I hate having to do this, but it sure beats not doing it. Thank you, MichaelA!)

Internet Harvest (2020, 1)

First, a quick note and call for aid. For my final semester in George Mason’s biodefense program, I’m working on a capstone project. I’ll be researching and writing about list-based biosecurity in the US – places where biodefense systems identify risks based on a list of known pathogens.

I see why the systems work this way, and this was probably sufficient in the past – yet as far as I’m aware, it’s all but an unspoken consensus in the field that these won’t protect against engineered organisms – recombinant or genetically altered pathogens that are either totally novel, or “resemble” a harmless organism in most ways while posing significant danger to humans. I want to explore where list-based biosecurity shows up, what the risks are, and possible alternative systems. Ideally, this’ll eventually be published.

If you have thoughts on any of the above, or you know things that I should know, I’d love to chat. My email, as always, is eukaryotewritesblog (at) gmail.com.


Alright, on to the bounty. Internet Harvest is a selection of the most succulent links on the internet that I’ve recently plucked from its fruitful boughs.

I’m interested in feedback on what you think of the section, or the links therein. Feel free to discuss the links in the comments.


Are you following the Wuhan coronavirus/nCoV outbreak? Yeah, me too. This is the first major world event that I actually know anything about that I’m watching unfold live on Twitter, and the misinformation situation on a lot of the hashtags is so much worse than I thought. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security is publishing regular updates on the outbreak’s progress, and they know what they’re talking about.

Mystery drone swarms above US cities! Welcome to 2020. This is a thing that happens now, I guess.

An update to the colorful visual Euclid textbook in the last internet harvest: A gorgeous web version.

A confusing Youtube project: “meaningwave”, which features glitchy visuals, soft electronic music, and clips from motivational speakers. Notably Jordan Peterson, but also Alan Watts and Mr Rogers. Dozens of videos, all made by the same person. I don’t like Jordan Peterson but I can recognize when the universe drops something bizarre and beautiful into my lap. This one is my favorite, featuring Naval Ravikant on habits and clips from the Moomin TV show.

The website of, and videos from, a practicing professional Voodoo magician.

My views on gendered pronouns as a mainstay of language are well-exemplified by this classic Douglas Hofstadter essay (yes, the Gödel, Escher, Bach guy), Person Paper on Purity in Language. (Content warning: Lots of ironic racism.)

Speaking of racism, a horrific aspect of it in the US that I didn’t know much about: Sundown Towns. The linked research project includes maps and how to identify if a town was one. (Content warning: Discussion of intense racism, mostly anti-black, and antisemitism.)

Escape a frankly soul-sucking social media ecosystem, and make 2020 the renaissance of the personal website. If anyone wants to set up an unironic webring with me, hit me up.

(Indieweb looks like a decent place to start.)

This month’s podcast recommendation is The Dream, on multi-level marketing schemes. It’s compassionate and cutting at the same time, as well as interesting and informative. I don’t come from an environment where these are common, so it’s boggling to see the scope of these – though I expect if you’re already more familiar with MLMs, you’ll still get something out of this.

You know about moon snails, right? Look ye upon moon snails. (If you live on the west coast of the USA, you can go find these guys on sandy beaches at low tide.)

Algorithmic horror

There’s a particular emotion that I felt a lot over 2019, much more than any other year. I expect it to continue in future years. That emotion is what I’m calling “algorithmic horror”.

It’s confusion at a targeted ad on Twitter for a product you were just talking about.

It’s seeing a “recommended friend” on facebook, but who you haven’t seen in years and don’t have any contact with.

It’s skimming a tumblr post with a banal take and not really registering it, and then realizing it was written by a bot.

It’s those baffling Lovecraftian kid’s videos on Youtube.

It’s a disturbing image from ArtBreeder, dreamed up by a computer.

PIctured: a normal dog. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.

I see this as an outgrowth of ancient, evolution-calibrated emotions. Back in the day, our lives depended on quick recognition of the signs of other animals – predator, prey, or other humans. There’s a moment I remember from animal tracking where disparate details of the environment suddenly align – the way the twigs are snapped and the impressions in the dirt suddenly resolve themselves into the idea of deer.

In the built environment of today, we know that most objects are built by human hands. Still, it can be surprising to walk in an apparently remote natural environment and find a trail or structure, evidence that someone has come this way before you. Skeptic author Michael Shermer calls this “agenticity”, the human bias towards seeing intention and agency in all sorts of patterns.

Or, as argumate puts it:

the trouble is humans are literally structured to find “a wizard did it” a more plausible explanation than things just happening by accident for no reason.

I see algorithmic horror as an extension of this, built objects masquerading as human-generated. I looked up oarfish merchandise on Amazon, to see if I could buy anything commemorating the world’s best fish, and found this hat.

If you look at the seller’s listing, you can confirm that all of their products are like this.

It’s a bit incredible. Presumably, no #oarfish hat has ever existed. No human ever created an #oarfish hat or decided that somebody would like to buy them. Possibly, nobody had ever even viewed the #oarfish hat listing until I stumbled onto it.

In a sense this is just an outgrowth of custom-printing services that have been around for decades, but… it’s weird, right? It’s a weird ecosystem.

But human involvement can be even worse. All of those weird Youtube kid’s videos were made by real people. Many of them are acted out by real people. But they were certainly done to market to children, on Youtube, and named and designed in order to fit into a thoughtless algorithm. You can’t tell me that an adult human was ever like “you know what a good artistic work would be?” and then made “Learn Colors Game with Disney Frozen, PJ Masks Paw Patrol Mystery – Spin the Wheel Get Slimed” without financial incentives created by an automated program.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a faceless adult hand pulling a pony figurine out of a plastic egg, while taking a break between cutting glittered balls of playdoh in half, silent while a prerecorded version of Skip To My Lou plays in the background, forever.

Everything discussed so far is relatively inconsequential, foreshadowing rather than the shade itself. But algorithms are still affecting the world and harming people now – setting racially-biased bail in Kentucky, potentially-biased hiring decisions, facilitating companies recording what goes on in your home, even career Youtubers forced to scramble and pivot as their videos become more or less recommended.

To be clear, algorithms also do a great deal of good – increasing convenience and efficiency, decreasing resource consumption, probably saving lives a well. I don’t mean to write this to say “algorithms are all-around bad”, or even “algorithms are net bad”. Sometimes it’s solely with good intentions, but it still sounds incredibly creepy, like how Facebook is judging how suicidal all of its users are.

This is an elegant instance of Goodhart’s Law. Goodhart’s Law says that if you want a certain result and issue rewards for a metric related to the result, you’ll start getting optimization for the metric rather than the result.

The Youtube algorithm – and other algorithms across the web – are created to connect people with content (in order to sell to advertisers, etc.) Producers of content want to attract as much attention as possible to sell their products.

But the algorithms just aren’t good enough to perfectly offer people the online content they want. They’re simplified, relies on keywords, can be duped, etcetera. And everyone knows that potential customers aren’t going to trawl through the hundreds of pages of online content themselves for the best “novelty mug” or “kid’s video”. So a lot of content exists, and decisions are made, that fulfill the algorithm’s criteria rather than our own.

In a sense, when we look at the semi-coherent output of algorithms, we’re looking into the uncanny valley between the algorithm’s values and our own.

We live in strange times. Good luck to us all for 2020.


Aside from its numerous forays into real life, algorithmic horror has also been at the center of some stellar fiction. See:

Internet Harvest (2019, 1)

Inspired by some other favorite bloggers, I’m trying a new post type: a selection of the most succulent links on the internet that I’ve recently plucked from its fruitful boughs.

I’m interested in feedback on what you think of the section, or the links therein. Feel free to discuss the links in the comments.

Biology

Best youtube videos of the month: Dubstep video of a sub-antarctic “brinicle” of super-cold saltwater. Zero narration. The drop hits perfectly.

Instead of a video loop of a crackling fire, why not put on BBC Earth’s “Deep Ocean: 10 Hours of Relaxing Oceanscapes” in the background of your winter party? Zero narration, just faint water sounds and lovely footage of spectacular seascapes and bizarre animals. (There are other videos for Open Ocean and other ocean environments.)

Possible method for assessing animal welfare, either in the wild or, in this case, in farms: If you give them antidepressants, do they get better? A Russian factory farm has tried giving antidepressants (lithium) to their pigs.

Culture

A journal specifically for works in the public domain.

Ethnography of an online roleplay based on the Warriors Cat series, which took place entirely on book reviews for the Nook e-reader. Humans will build culture in a handful of dust.

A timeline of when food and specific dishes came into being!

Art

Uncomfortable ASMR

A mid-1700’s series of etchings of cavernous fantasy prisons. I think I’ve had nightmares about this place before.

A colorful, visual version of Euclid’s proofs.

Assorted

“She sells sea shells by the sea shore” is frequently held to refer to Mary Anning, a major figure in palaeontology who found dinosaur and other fossils in Lyme Regis on the southern coast of England. I hold that it would also make sense if it referred to the Seychelles.

Semi-relatedly, the Seychelles are generally a matriarchal society.

I very much enjoyed the Bellingcat Podcast. If you like investigative journalism and careful analysis of fraught political situations, you may as well.

“Privacy-conscious” and open-source alternatives to apps and software you probably use regularly.

UrracaWatch: A biodefense twitter mystery

This is is an internet mystery that is now mostly defunct. I’m going to write it down here anyways in case someone can tell me what was going on, or will be able to in the future.

In July 2019, a few people on Professional Biodefense Twitter noted that they were getting follows or likes from some very idiosyncratic twitter accounts. (Some more screenshots are available at that link.)

The posts on these accounts had a few things in common:

  • Links to apparently random web pages related to chemical weapons, biological weapons, or health care
  • These links are routed through “UrracaWatch.com” before leading to the final link
  • No commentary

The accounts also have a few other properties:

  • Real-sounding usernames and display names
  • No other posts on the account
  • I tried reverse-image-searching a couple account-related images and didn’t see anything. James Diggans on Twitter tried doing the same for account profile photos (of people) and also didn’t find results.

The choice of websites linked were very strange. They looked like someone searched for various chem/bioweapon/health-related words, then chose random websites from the first page or two of search results. Definition pages, scholarly articles, products (but all from very different websites.)

Tweets from one of the UrracaWatch Twitter accounts.
Tweets from one of the UrracaWatch Twitter accounts.

Some example UrracaWatch bot account handles: DeterNoBoom, fumeFume31, ChemOrRiley, ChristoBerk, BioWeaP0n, ScienceGina, chempower2112, ChemistWannabe. All of these looked exactly like the Mark Davis @ChemPower2112. (Sidenote: I really wish I had archived these more properly. If you find an internet mystery you might want to investigate later, save all the pages right away. You’re just going to have to take me on faith. Alternatively, if you have more screenshots of any of these websites or accounts, please send them to me.)

if this actually is weird psy-op propaganda, I think “Holly England @VaxyourKid” represents a rare example of pro-vaccination English propaganda, as opposed to the more common anti-vaccination propaganda. Also, not to side with the weird maybe-psy-op, but vaccinate your kids.

And here are some facts about the (now-defunct) website UrracaWatch:

  • The website had a very simple format – a list of links (the same kinds of bio/chem/health links that end up on the twitter pages), and a text bar at the top for entering new links.
  • (I tried using it to submit a link and didn’t see an immediate new entry on the page.)
  • There were no advertisements, information on the creators, other pages, etc.
  • According to the page source code and the tracker- and cross-request-detecting Firefox app Ghostery, there were no trackers, counters, advertisers, or any other complexity on the site.
  • According to the ICANN registry, the domain UrracaWatch.com was registered 9-17-2018 via GoDaddy. The domain has now expired as of 9-17-2019, probably as part of a 12-month domain purchase.
  • Urraca is a spanish word for magpie, which was a messenger of death in the view of the Anasazi people. (The messenger of death part probably isn’t relevant here, but they mention the word as part of a real-life spooky historical site in The Black Tapes Podcast, and this added an unavoidable sinister flavor.) (Urraca is also a woman’s name.)

(I don’t have a screenshot of the website. A March 2019 Internet Archive snapshot is blank, but I’m not sure if that’s an error or was an accurate reflection at the time.)

As far as I can tell, nobody aside from these twitterbots have ever linked to or used UrracaWatch.com for anything at all, anywhere on the web.

By and large, the twitterbots – and I think they must be bots – have been banned. The website is down.

But come on, what on earth was UrracaWatch?

Some possibilities:

  • Advertisement scheme
  • Test of some kind of Twitter-scraping link- or ad-bot that happened to focus on the biodefense community on twitter for some reason
  • Weird psy-op

I’m dubious of the advertisement angle. I’ve been enjoying a lot of the podcast Reply All lately, especially their episodes on weird scams. There’s an interesting point made in my favorite episode (The Case of the Phantom Caller) in dissecting a weird communication, which I asked myself here – I just can’t see how anyone is making money off of this. Again, there were occasional product links, but they were to all different websites that looked like legitimate stores, and I don’t think I ever saw multiple links to the same store.

That leaves “bot test” and “weird psy-op”, or something I haven’t thought of yet. If it was propaganda, it wasn’t very good. If you have a guess about what was going on, let me know.

The Germy Paradox – Filters: A taboo

This is the fifth post in a sequence of blog posts on state biological weapons programs. (“A taboo” was originally going to be the second-to-last post, but has been switched with “The shadow of nuclear weapons”. The index has been rearranged in past posts accordingly.) Others will be linked here as they come out:

1.0 Introduction
2.1 The empty sky: A history of state biological weapons programs
2.2 The empty sky: How close did we get to BW usage?
3.1 Filters: Hard and soft skills
3.2 Filters: A taboo
3.3 Filters: The shadow of nuclear weapons
4.0 Conclusion: Open questions and the future of state BW   

In 3.1: Hard and soft skills, we discussed the possibility that the Germy Paradox exists because bioweapons aren’t actually easy to make. Today, we go into the past and discuss another possibility – that whether or not they’re effective, there’s some kind of taboo or cultural reason they aren’t used.

This is not a new idea, although there’s no real consensus. I separate scholarly explanations for the Taboo Filter into two schools: the humaneness hypothesis and the treachery hypothesis. In the humaneness hypothesis, people reject BW because they are unnecessarily cruel. The treachery hypothesis asserts that the taboo is an outgrowth of the ancient beliefs about poison and disease in warfare – that they are secretive, unfair, inexplicable, and fundamentally evil. This hypothesis has many facets and intermingles with evolutionary revulsion to poison and contamination.  

But first, how do weapons taboos break?

The reason this filter explanation is particularly interesting is that taboos exist at the whim of the culture, and don’t have particular concrete reasons for existence. If we are protected by a taboo against BW usage, how resilient is that protection?

Trying to assess the strength of a taboo is difficult. We cannot reliably predict the future or the vicissitudes of future policy decisions, particularly when it comes to rare events like BW development or usage.

This is especially true when we are not even certain of the origin of the taboo. But we can perhaps compare it to another event: the chemical weapons taboo. Chemical and biological weapons are, while not terribly similar, often treated similarly in policy (Smith 2014), and are often seen lumped under the categories of “biochemical weapons”, “CBW” (Chemical and Biological Weapons), “CBRN” (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons), or “WMD” (weapons of mass destruction), so it is appropriate to compare policy decisions. 

Chemical weapons have been used much more frequently than BW, and hence, the taboo has been broken on multiple occasions. The Hague Convention was broken by the use of poison gas in WW1; and the Geneva Protocol was broken by chemical and biological weapons use by, among others, Japan, Iraq, and Syria. (Jefferson 2014) Weapon usage is subject to “popularity”, and the up to 161 usages of chemical weapons in Syria have probably built upon each other and reduced psychological and political barriers to future attacks.(Revill 2017) This taboo may already be on unsteady ground. 

More directly, the USSR created the largest biological weapons program of all time after signing the Biological Weapons Convention treaty, and Iraq operated an enormous program secretly until 1991. (Wheelis and Rózsa, 2009) In addition to a handful of bioterror efforts in modern times, several states are currently suspected of having biological weapons programs. (A list and sources can be found in Aftergood, 2000.) The BW taboo, as well, may not be as resilient as it appears. That said, it seems likely that an outright declaration or usage of biological weapons by a state would both provoke a stronger response, and erode the taboo severely. The likelihood of this last possibility is what seems most concerning. However, to understand it, we must understand what factors are behind the apparent taboo today. 

Humaneness

The first school of thought I consider holds that a taboo exists because biological and chemical weapons are seen as unacceptably inhumane compared to conventional weapons. This seems to have been the motivation of one of the earliest modern explicit taboos against chemical and biological weapons usage, the 1863 Lieber Code (Jefferson 2014). This set of guidelines for humane warfare in the US Army included the following: 

Article 16: “Military necessity does not admit of cruelty – that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions. It does not admit of the use of poison in any way, nor of the wanton devastation of a district. It admits of deception, but disclaims acts of perfidy; and, in general, military necessity does not include any act of hostility which makes the return to peace unnecessarily difficult.”

Article 70: “The use of poison in any manner, be it to poison wells, or food, or arms, is wholly excluded from modern warfare. He that uses it puts himself out of the pale of the law and usages of war.”

Leiber, 1863

This code influenced other guidelines for warfare, leading to the forbidding of use of chemical and bacteriological weapons in the Hague Conventions and later the Geneva Protocol. 

As a principle, the humaneness taboo relies implicitly on at least one of two assumptions – first, that death or injury from BW is worse than the same from conventional weapons. Second, that BW are more likely to be used against civilian populations, or otherwise inflicting harm on people who would not be affected by conventional weapons. It is easy to imagine that the days-long struggle of a lethal case of smallpox is less humane than an instantaneous death from a bomb, or that biological weapons are frequently targeted at civilians. But these assumptions should be assessed. 

There is some evidence that soldiers affected by chemical weapons during World War 1 had higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (Jefferson 2014), and diseases are obviously capable of causing protracted suffering. Still, objections have been raised to the notion that biological weapons harm targets more than conventional weapons. Early US responses to the Lieber Code, quoted above, point out that effects from “poison” weapons are not necessarily worse than sinking ships and causing enemy soldiers to drown. (Zander 2003) BW may even be better – many pathogens give infected enemies “a fighting chance” to recover completely, rather than a kinetic attack that maims or kills outright. (Rappert 2003) A minority objection is that since war-makers are motivated to end wars quickly, it may be inhumane to ban any kind of battlefield weapon, on the grounds that removing a country’s best strategy will cause the war to go on longer, and thus extend the suffering that goes along with it. (Rappert 2003) These utilitarian frameworks are important to consider, although when understanding the route of norms, it is important to note that the actual tradeoffs involved are less important than the perception of what the tradeoffs are. Either way, it seems as though neither academia nor military decision-makers have considered these points in detail when making choices about BW, suggesting that this kind of reasoned analysis is not being done anywhere. 

The second assumption that the humaneness hypothesis may rely upon is that biological weapons are more likely than conventional to be used on civilians. There is some evidence for this, in that Japanese BW were extensively used against civilians (Barenblatt 2004) and targets of later BW programs during the Cold War included cities and agriculture. (Wheelis and Rózsa 2009) But the far larger and more influential nuclear war plans during the Cold War included the destruction of cities and billions of civilian lives (Ellsberg 2017), even after both Soviet and American governments agreed to give up their BW programs. Sparing civilian lives in worst-case scenarios cannot have been a military priority. 

If the humaneness hypothesis is true, we should expect states to be more comfortable with facing and wielding nonlethal BW. For chemical weapons and perhaps biological weapons as well, this seems to be true. (Pearson 2006, Martin 2016) The American, Soviet, and Japanese BW programs had vast programs to develop agricultural weapons, damaging crops or livestock without affecting humans. (Wheelis and Rózsa 2009) Nonlethal anti-personnel weapons were major component of the American BW program (Alastair 1999) as well as an end goal of the South African BW program. (Wheelis and Rózsa 2009) As far as chemical weapons go, the nonlethality of defoliants is considered to have been a major reason those weapons in particular were used by Kennedy during the Vietnam War (Martin 2016) (although other explanations have been proposed as well, as described later in this piece). It is less clear that revelations of a nonlethal BW program today would provoke less fear than revelations of a lethal program – recent literature has not discussed this question. 

Disconcertingly, Susan Pearson suggests that the promise of incapacitating nonlethal BW may inspire development of other BW tactics. (Pearson 2006) While nonlethal weapons were an eventual goal of the South African weapons program (Wheelis and Rózsa 2009), they planned on developing anthrax weapons first, so there is precedent for this claim. Any erosion of this norm may open the door for more overall use of BW, humane or not. (Ilchmann and Revill 2014)

Powerful and invisible: The treachery hypothesis

A separate body of thought holds that biological warfare exists in the public mind in a category that can be described as “treacherous”. This is related to what Jessica Stern calls the “dreaded” nature of BW: it is invisible, unfamiliar, and triggers a disproportionately degree of disgust and fear. (Stern 2003) In explaining this nature, proponents generally refer to the history of revulsion to poison and disease. This would have begun in the evolution of the species, creating an intuitive revulsion of sickness and contamination that kept our ancestors alive. (Cole, 1998)

 This trend can be observed in a huge variety of cultures: in Hindu laws of war from 600 AD (Cole 1998), to poison’s association in Christianity with the devil and witchcraft (van Courtland Moon 2008), to South American tribes that allowed warriors to poison their arrows when hunting but not for war. (Cole 1998) Poison and disease are often seen as acceptable tools against subhumans, but not against equals. (Zanders 2003)

It’s important not to overstate it – the taboo is not a human universal. Both the Bible and the Quran contain provisions on how to wage war, but do not forbid poison, disease, or the like as weapons. (Zanders 2003) In Europe, despite official prohibitions beginning in the Renaissance era, their use was defended until 1737. (Price 1995) Nonetheless, the taboo is still notably common in human culture. It is hard to imagine early taboos existing for humanitarian reasons, when conventional warfare before guns and modern medical treatment was so disabling. Instead, it may be because toxic weapons were seen as unbalanced – hard to detect, difficult to explain, and near-impossible to treat. 

Proponents of this view rarely address an apparent contradiction this presents – that poison weapons are taboo because they are too powerful. This seems, on its face, absurd. Richard Price addresses this and suggests that despite the conception of poison as a “woman’s weapon” and a treacherous “equalizer” between forces, it is not actually very effective as a weapon. (Price 1995) Similarly, in modern settings, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley makes a compelling case that the threat of biological weapons programs has been overstated and underwhelming compared to their actual accomplishments. (Ben Ouagrham-Gormley 2014)

Additionally, the persistence of these taboos throughout the modern age has not been fully explained. In the treachery lens, poison and disease are thought of as “the unknown” and often associated with magic. (Price 1995) Today, we understand much more about biology. Does this imply that the taboo is weaker now than it has been? If not, why has the taboo on biological weapons remained constant throughout recent history, but not, for instance, one against bullets, fire, and explosions? This theory does seem generally robust, and the comparisons to historical taboos are compelling indeed, but existing research does not explain why the taboo persists and is so specific to biology.

Taboos into the future

What kills a taboo? Susan Martin discusses the idea in the context of US chemical weapons usage in Vietnam. In this case, Martin argues, politicians were able to override one norm by asserting another – that usage of defoliant chemical weapons was acceptable because the viable alternative was use of nuclear weapons, also taboo. (Martin 2016) Kai Ilchman and James Revill assert that this is part of a string of incidents that have been eroding the biological and chemical weapons taboos over time. (Ilchman and Revill 2014) In addition, many believe that the Biological Weapons Convention is nearly or entirely useless, since it contains no provisions for verification and since it allows for “defensive research” that is practically indistinguishable from offensive research. (Zanders 2003, McCauley and Payne 2010, Koblentz 2016)

The two hypotheses presented here are not the only ones. Further research or thinking in this area might identify more solidly the source of the taboo, and otherwise help determine how it can be strengthened.

The upcoming section will discuss the idea that there is no taboo, or at least no functional taboo any more. If this is the case, then the lack of observed weapons programs or usage is a purely strategic decision.


References

Aftergood, Steven. “States Possessing, Pursuing or Capable of Acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Federation Of American Scientists, July 29, 2000. https://fas.org.

Barenblatt, Daniel. A plague upon humanity: The secret genocide of axis Japan’s germ warfare operation. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Sonia Ben. Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development. Cornell University Press, 2014.

Cole, Leonard A. “The Poison Weapons Taboo: Biology, Culture, and Policy.” Politics and the Life Sciences 17 (September 1, 1998): 119–32. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0730938400012119.

Courtland Moon, John Ellis van. “The Development of the Norm against the Use of Poison: What Literature Tells Us.” Politics and the Life Sciences 27, no. 1 (2008): 55–77.

Ellsberg, Daniel. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2017.

Hay, Alastair. “Simulants, stimulants and diseases: the evolution of the United States biological warfare programme, 1945–60.” Medicine, Conflict and Survival 15, no. 3 (1999): 198-214.

Ilchmann, Kai, and James Revill. “Chemical and Biological Weapons in the ‘New Wars.’” Science and Engineering Ethics 20, no. 3 (September 1, 2014): 753–67. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-013-9479-7.

Jefferson, Catherine. “Origins of the Norm against Chemical Weapons.” International Affairs 90, no. 3 (May 1, 2014): 647–61. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2346.12131.

Koblentz, Gregory D. “Quandaries in contemporary biodefense research.” In Biological Threats in the 21st Century: The Politics, People, Science and Historical Roots, pp. 303-328. 2016.

Martin, Susan B. “Norms, Military Utility, and the Use/Non-use of Weapons: The Case of Anti-plant and Irritant Agents in the Vietnam War.” Journal of Strategic Studies 39, no. 3 (2016): 321-364.

McCauley, Phillip M., and Rodger A. Payne. “The Illogic of the Biological Weapons Taboo.” Strategic Studies Quarterly 4, no. 1 (2010): 6-35.

Lieber, Francis. “INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE GOVERNMENT OF ARMIES OF THE UNITED STATES IN THE FIELD, ‘The Lieber Code.’” Government Printing Office, April 24, 1863. Lillian Goldman Law Library, The Avalon Project.

Pearson, Alan. “Incapacitating biochemical weapons: Science, technology, and policy for the 21st century.” Nonproliferation Review 13, no. 2 (2006): 151-188.

Price, Richard. “A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo.” International Organization 49, no. 1 (1995): 73–103.

Rappert, Brian. “Coding ethical behaviour: The challenges of biological weapons.” Science and engineering ethics 9, no. 4 (2003): 453-470.

Revill, James. “Past as Prologue? The Risk of Adoption of Chemical and Biological Weapons by Non-State Actors in the EU.” European Journal of Risk Regulation 8, no. 4 (December 2017): 626–42. https://doi.org/10.1017/err.2017.35.

Smith, Frank. American biodefense: How dangerous ideas about biological weapons shape national security. Cornell University Press, 2014.

Stern, Jessica. “Dreaded risks and the control of biological weapons.” International Security 27, no. 3 (2003): 89-123.

Wheelis, Mark, and Lajos Rózsa. Deadly cultures: biological weapons since 1945. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Zanders, Jean Pascal. “International Norms Against Chemical and Biological Warfare: An Ambiguous Legacy.” Journal of Conflict and Security Law 8, no. 2 (October 1, 2003): 391–410. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcsl/8.2.391.

The Germy Paradox – Filters: Hard and soft skills

This is the fourth post in a sequence of blog posts on state biological weapons programs. Others will be linked here as they come out:

1.0 Introduction
2.1 The empty sky: A history of state biological weapons programs
2.2 The empty sky: How close did we get to BW usage?
3.1 Filters: Hard and soft skills
3.2 Filters: A taboo
3.3 Filters: The shadow of nuclear weapons
4.0 Conclusion: Open questions and the future of state BW 

Welcome to the second half of our series. (This is post 3.1.) I’ve established that despite extensive historical weapons programs, biological weapons haven’t really been used in a major way since WWII. We don’t ever seem to have been a “close call” away from biological warfare. Why not?

I don’t have a complete answer. I have some pieces of the answer, though. The first piece, and one very good answer, is that BW are not as cheap and deadly as commonly thought, and that substantial resources and expertise are needed to successfully create biological weapons. This argument is well-made by Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley in her book Barriers to Bioweapons – a combination between hard technical skills and soft skills like poor management. I’ve written a summary of the book on this blog before.

That post will act as Part 1 of this section.

References

Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Sonia. Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development. Cornell University Press, 2014.

The Germy Paradox – The empty sky: How close did we get to BW usage?

This is the third post in a sequence of blog posts on state biological weapons programs. Others will be linked here as they come out:

1.0 Introduction
2.1 The empty sky: A history of state biological weapons programs
2.2 The empty sky: How close did we get to BW usage?
3.1 Filters: Hard and soft skills
3.2 Filters: A taboo
3.3 Filters: The shadow of nuclear weapons
4.0 Conclusion: Open questions and the future of state BW 

 I’ve heard a lot about “nuclear close calls.” Stanislav Petrov was, at one point, one human and one uncomfortable decision away from initiating an all-out nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR. Then that happened several dozen more times. As described in Part 1, there were quite a few large state biological weapons programs after WWII. Was a similar situation unfolding there, behind the scenes like the nuclear near-misses? Were any biological apocalypses-that-weren’t quietly hidden in the pages of history? What were the actual usage plans for biological weapons, and how close did any of them come to deployment?  

First, to note that there are a few examples of state uses of BW in modernity – the most major being the Japanese BW program’s use of lethal weapons against Chinese civilians in the 1940’s. More recently, the Rhodesian BW program used weapons against their own citizens on small scales in the 1970’s, and South Africa program operatives attempted to sicken a refugee camp’s water supplies with cholera in 1989 (but failed). There are also a few ambiguous incidents, and the possibility of unnoticed usage. These incidents and possibilities are concerning, but are rare and on small scales. 

The claim I assert is that since the 1940’s, there have been no instances of the sort of large-scale usage of BW in international warfare, like that which the imagination conjures upon hearing the phrase “biological weapons.” My research suggests, more tentatively, that not only were there no such uses, but there were no close calls – that even in major state programs that created and stockpiled weapons in quantity, these weapons were virtually never included into war plans, prepared for usage or, especially, used. The strategies they were intended for were were generally vague and retaliatory to offensive uses of biological or nuclear weapons.  This has another bonus: understanding what biological weapons were ever made in mass quantity, or were ever seen to have particular strategic value.

Ways of classifying BW

Note two failure modes which are common in existing literature which tries to extrapolate from past bioweapons plans: first, an overly narrow reference class limited to weapons that were actually used in combat, of which there are very few; second, an overly broad class composed of every pathogen or plan that programs ever experimented with. The latter would include many plans that were impractical or undesirable and eventually abandoned. No literature thus far has focused on this middle ground between these extremes, or analyzed the strategic goals of such usages in depth. 

Addressing BW under a framework of planned usage is rare. Categorizations of weapon usage are also uncommon. Most commonly found is the sorting of BW strategies into the theater of war – strategic, tactical, and operational uses (Koblentz 2009, Leitenberg et al 2012). This categorization system is broadly applicable and not agent-based, and thus may apply to future weapons with novel agents as well as to past programs. On the other hand, three abstract categories are not enough to be predictive, and many usages could plausibly be described as affecting multiple theaters. Any new categorization system should factor in historical strategies and motivations as a reference class to understand possible future uses.

No concrete intentions

To illustrate why considering usage plans is valuable, note that many sophisticated BW programs did not in fact make war plans that incorporated their weapons. In many cases, this is because early conceptual research was time-consuming and unsuccessful, and the results were considered inferior to conventional or nuclear weapons. UK, South African, Canadian, and French programs never resulted in mass-production of a finalized weapon, much less strategies for such a weapon’s use (Balmer 1997, Wheelis et al 2006). The South African and UK programs both explored unusual intended uses (assassinations and fertility control (Purkitt and Burgess 2002), and area-denial, respectively (Wheelis et al 2006), but no weapons were created which would fulfill them. Even the USSR program, which weaponized more agents than any other BW program in history (Leienberg et al 2012), failed to make concrete war plans involving BW (Wheelis et al 2006). The broader intents of these programs are still interesting, but clearly the relative importance of various programs changes when considering concrete war plans. 

“No first use” of BW

Many state biological weapons programs post-WWII, and their strategies for weapons usage, were heavily intertwined with nuclear policy. The UK BW program, since 1946, was guided by a principle of “no first use” that echoes that of their nuclear program – that they would not use biological weapons unless the UK was first attacked with biological or nuclear weapons (Balmer 1997). This was also the original stated purpose of the US program, although the “no first use” doctrine was officially rescinded in 1956 (Wheelis et al 2006). Information revealed after the Iraq BW program survey group investigation in 2004 revealed Saddam Hussein’s intent in 1991 to use BW to retaliate against “unconventional” weapon attacks by the US (“Iraq Survey Group” 2004). The USSR was likely also interested in using weapons after a nuclear exchange with the US (Leitenberg et al 2012). In this way, BW join with nuclear weapons as a facet of mutually-assured destruction dynamics. 

BW have long been considered “the poor man’s nuclear weapon”. Numerous studies and documents have suggested that biological weapons are cheaper per death-caused than nuclear weapons (Koblentz 2004), are relatively simple to construct, and could be developed by less-wealthy states to give them the MAD protection or bargaining capability of a full-fledged nuclear power. This idea has been criticized in several ways – for instance, by Gregory Koblentz, who points out that biological attacks are not reliable in the same way that nuclear attacks are and thus do not fulfil the major goals of deterrence (Koblentz 2009), and by Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, who observes that biological weapons are in fact significantly more difficult to produce than commonly believed (Ben Ouagrham-Gormley 2014).

Nonetheless, the perception that biological weapons are an alternative to nuclear weapons is widespread, including by powerful figures like Hillary Clinton (Reuters 2011) and Bill Gates (Farmer 2017). In light of this, it is interesting to observe that all three programs for which “no first use” was a primary strategic goal – the UK, US, and Iraq programs – were also nuclear powers or pursuing nuclear weapons.  The UK and US BW programs were indeed later abandoned in favor of developing and relying on on nuclear weapons programs for defense and deterrence (Balmer 1997).

Non-lethal weapons

The popular image of BW as lethal antipersonnel weapons does not describe the whole of BW development, but certainly describes large swathes of it. The USSR, US, and Iraq programs all mass-produced lethal weapons; for example, anthrax-filled munitions. Of these, it seems that the Iraq program was the only one that actually deployed such weapons. Saddam Hussein was particularly interested in anthrax, not just for its virulence, but for its ability to remain active in soil and potentially cause death over many years.

Despite the prominence of the above, both in actuality and in the public eye, a great deal of effort focused on biological weapons has been focused on non-lethal weapons. These may be incapacitating antipersonnel weapons, or weapons with non-human targets such as plants or animals to attack the enemy’s agricultural system. Desiderata between lethal and non-lethal biological weapons has not been well-explored by the literature. It has been suggested that caring for incapacitated soldiers, particularly those who are sick over a long period of time, can be more burdensome on an enemy than in simply burying and replacing killed soldiers (Pappas et al, 2006). While strongly dependent on the pathogen and expected death rates, this is a practical reason these weapons may be preferred. Inflicting nonlethal or economic damage is also seen as more humane than lethal damage, and perhaps more politically acceptable. Political acceptability was, for instance, part of the internal US motivation for using anti-plant chemical weapons rather than human-targeted weapons in the Vietnam War (Pearson 2006). However, humanitarian or political motivations for developing biological weapons have not been described or well-documented in research.

Some of the first modern BW production was for weapons aimed at cattle: before WWII, the US and UK collaborated on producing anthrax-infected cow cakes, meant to be scattered over German fields to damage agriculture. Later, the US program explored agricultural weapons until 1958 (Hay 1999), and two of the twelve weapons finalized by the US program were agricultural – rice blast and wheat stem rust (Wheelis et al 2006). The USSR did not stockpile anti-agriculture weapons, but a variety of them were developed by a sub-program of the BW apparatus code-named Ecology (Koblentz 2009), and production was designed to scale quickly if needed (Alibek 1999). These would not be used in conditions of total war with the US, but in smaller wars with smaller nations (Alibek 1999).            

Both the US and the USSR also invested in incapacitating weapons for use against humans. The USSR weaponized the rarely-lethal Brucella sp. and Burkholderia mallei, as well as Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEEV), which causes flu-like symptoms. The US also invested heavily in incapacitating weapons. Four out of ten standardized antipersonnel weapons produced by the US BW program were not intended to be lethal: Brucella suis, Coxiella burnetti and VEEV, as well as the staphylococcus-derived Enterotoxin B (Wheelis 2006). In what may have been the closest call of major use of a BW since WWII, airplanes were loaded with VEEV-containing weapons during the Cuban missile crisis (Guillemin 2004). This was unauthorized, but nonetheless seems to have come very close to real battlefield usage.           

Here’s a summary of my findings by program:

CountryProgram active periodUsageStrategic goal for weaponsDegree of progress in creation
USSR1925-1990Never usedSomewhat unclear, as second-strike capability (to ensure complete destruction), as a first-strike weapon against small countriesMultiple biological weapons created and stockpiled
UK1942-1956Never usedAs second-strike capabilityNo weapons ever developed to completion
USA1942-1970Never used, nonlethal weapon loaded onto plane in one instanceUnclear, complement to conventional weaponsMultiple biological weapons created and stockpiled
Canada1940’sNever usedUnclearNo weapons ever developed to completion
French1940’sNever usedUnclear No weapons ever developed to completion
Japan1940’sUsed weapons in international warfare.Death, area denial, regular weapon of warMultiple biological weapons created, stockpiled, and used
Israel1948 – ???Probably never usedUnclear, perhaps as deterrenceUnclear
Rhodesia1975-1979Used weapons against dissidents inside the country.As internal tool.Crude weapons created and used (e.g. placing cholera in food and water supplies.)
Iraq1980s-1996Never usedAs deterrence, second-strikeMultiple biological weapons created and stockpiled
South Africa1983-1988One instance of attempted use (failed)Assassination, fertility control, control, possibly as regular weapon of warNo weapons ever developed to completion

[Bold country name = BW used. Italics: BW use attempted or “almost used.”]


References

Alibek, Kenneth. “The Soviet Union’s Anti-Agricultural Biological Weapons.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 894, no. 1 (December 1, 1999): 18–19. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.1999.tb08038.x.

Balmer, Brian. “The drift of biological weapons policy in the UK 1945–1965.” The Journal of Strategic Studies 20, no. 4 (1997): 115-145.

Farmer, Ben. “Bioterrorism Could Kill More People than Nuclear War, Bill Gates to Warn World Leaders.” The Telegraph, February 17, 2017. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/17/biological-terrorism-could-kill-people-nuclear-attacks-bill/.

Guillemin, Jeanne. Biological weapons: From the invention of state-sponsored programs to contemporary bioterrorism. Columbia University Press, 2004.

Hay, Alastair. “Simulants, Stimulants and Diseases: The Evolution of the United States Biological Warfare Programme, 1945–60.” Medicine, Conflict and Survival 15, no. 3 (July 1, 1999): 198–214. https://doi.org/10.1080/13623699908409459.

“Iraq Survey Group Final Report.” Iraq Survey Group, September 30, 2004. https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/report/2004/isg-final-report/.

Koblentz, Gregory. Living Weapons. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Koblentz, Gregory. “Pathogens as weapons: The international security implications of biological warfare.” International security 28, no. 3 (2004): 84-122.

Leitenberg, Milton, Raymond Zilinskas, and Jens Kuhn. The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Ouagrham-Gormley, Sonia Ben. Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development. Cornell University Press, 2014.

Pappas G, Panagopoulou P, Christou L, Akritidis N. Brucella as a biological weapon. Cell Mol Life Sci 2006; 63: 2229-36.

Pearson, Alan. “Incapacitating Biochemical Weapons.” The Nonproliferation Review 13, no. 2 (July 1, 2006): 151–88. https://doi.org/10.1080/10736700601012029.

Purkitt, Helen E., and Stephen Burgess. “South Africa’s Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme: A Historical and International Perspective.” Journal of Southern African Studies 28, no. 2 (2002): 229–53.

Reuters, Thomas. “Hillary Clinton Warns Terror Threat from Biological Weapons Is Growing.” The National Post, December 7, 2011. https://nationalpost.com/news/biological-weapons-threat-growing-clinton-says.

Wheelis, Mark, Lajos Rozsa, and Malcolm Dando. Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons since 1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

The Germy Paradox – The empty sky: A history of state biological weapons programs

This is the second post in a sequence of blog posts on state biological weapons programs. Others will be linked here as they come out:

1.0 Introduction
2.1 The empty sky: A history of state biological weapons programs
2.2 The empty sky: How close did we get to BW usage?
3.1 Filters: Hard and soft skills
3.2 Filters: A taboo
3.3 Filters: The shadow of nuclear weapons
4.0 Conclusion: Open questions and the future of state BW 

A lot of ink has been consecrated in describing the history of modern BW programs. Martin et al’s “Chapter 1: History of Biological Weapons: From Poisoned Darts to Intentional Epidemics.” In Medical Aspects of Biological Warfare (2018) [PDF] is a superb short summary with a focus on the agents and weapons explored by these programs. It’s far better than I could write, and relevant to the rest of this sequence. I recommend reading it.

I present a condensed timeline of state BW programs within the last century here as well:

CountryProgram active periodNotes
USSR1925-1990Major expansion and resurgence during approximately 1970.  By far the largest BW program to have ever existed. A great deal of our information on it is gleaned from Ken Alibek’s memoir Biohazard.
Japan1940’sWeapons were extensively tested and used against the Manchurian Chinese population.
USA1942-1970A fairly large and well-run program, similarly technically competent as the USSR program, despite having 10-fold less funding. Ended with the US beginning the Biological Weapons Convention, which came into effect in 1975.
UK1942-1956Worked closely with the US BW program. Later helped introduce the Biological Weapons Convention.
Canada1940’sPartially sponsored/encouraged by the US.
French1940’sDetails are scarce.
Israel1948 – ???Details are scarce.
Rhodesia1975-1979Crude weapons created and used (e.g. placing cholera in food and water supplies.)
Iraq1980s-1996Created in response to the external threat represented by Israel. The Iraq Survey Group Final Report is a comprehensive summary.
South Africa1983-1988Mostly controlled by one person. Focus was on weapons against internal threats and assassination, not large-scale offensive weapons against other nations.

References

The reference mentioned in the first paragraph is: Martin, James W, George W Christopher, and Edward M Eitzen. “Chapter 1: History of Biological Weapons: From Poisoned Darts to Intentional Epidemics.” In Medical Aspects of Biological Warfare, 20. Textbooks of Military Medicine. Fort Sam Houston: Office of the Surgeon General, Borden Institute, 2018.

Iraq: See the 2004 US Iraq Survey Group Final Report. (Available here.)

Israel: See the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s summary (available here.)

Other country’s details are either in the Martin et al piece linked above, or may be cross-pollinated from other sources.