To begin with, let me clarify that mystery: the discussion was in this case whether patients who suffer from potentially lethal medical conditions have the right not to know about these, and refuse a preventive medical checkup. My opinion on this is very case dependent. I definitely give you the right to die unexpectedly, but if you've been growing that funny thing in your face with twenty years solarium, and pretend not to notice it's been turning purple lately, then don't expect me to pay for your pain treatment if you don't drop dead as unexpectedly as you wished. (The situation is of course different if the medical checkup itself carries risks, or if you're suffering from something that has very little chances to be cured anyhow.)
- If one could predict the day you will die, would you want to know?
Anyway, I'll leave that question to you to consider next time you're sitting in the waiting room. Instead I want to tell you where my thoughts were running to with the Right not to Know. I don't have a TV and unless I'm at my mother's place I hardly ever read a (printed) newspaper. The information density in that part of the world I live in is so high what is important reaches me anyhow. People sometimes ask me: but don't you want to know? Fact is, there are many things I'd rather not know.
Every time I open a newspaper I read headlines like "38 year old man kills his two children, burns down the house with his mother in law, and hangs himself", "man kills wife in love triangle", "women kills 5 people and herself at an US post-office" (the latter happened to be next door at this time). My head is full with photos from wars around the world, mothers holding their dead children, men missing body parts, blood stained shirts, children searching through piles of dead bodies for their relatives. I am probably not the only one who still has the videos from 9/11 running in her head on trigger. And the recent details about the series of almost-accidents in German nuclear power plants, did I really want to know that?
- If someone prefers not to know what reality looks like, will you insist he has to know and be unhappy about it?
Now you can argue I have a duty to inform myself about the country I live in (milk prizes? Wait - actually, I don't even live in this country, so make that the world I live in). Be a responsible citizen, well educated who KNOWS what is happening to have a reasonable and INFORMED opinion about the war in what-was-the-name-again? My duty? My right?
Let me go a step even further. Since I'm a scientist, I want to ask that same question about scientific insights: Would you grant someone the Right not to Know that his genetic code indicates at 99% CL he'll most likely develop Huntington's disease . If it was possible to predict, would you grant someone the Right not to Know statistical data indicates at 99% CL she'll never make a top mathematician? If someone proved there is no afterlife (whatever that means), do you have the Right not to Know? (And, speaking of afterlife, do I have the Right not to Know what Jehovah's witnesses think will happen to my allegedly immortal soul after Armageddon or whatever they call it?)
Does someone have the Right not to Know our solar system is only one of many in the universe and not exceptional in any regard; the Right not to Know the earth is older than 20,000 years ? The Right not to Know all the cruelties in the history of mankind? Do you have a Right not to Know your military kills innocent people, farting could cause global warming, and these potato crisps you like so much have proven to cause cancer in animal tests?
- What right would I have to insist you realize that love is just a chemical reaction?
Knowledge, so said Francis Bacon, is power. Understanding helps you master your life, rational thinking is an evolutionary advantage, ignorance of the way the world works will be cured by natural selection. These are all the good reasons that came into my mind why every 'sane' person would want to know about the evolution of the species and the elementary constituents of matter. But in many cases this argument does not quite hold. In how far is the presently available knowledge really relevant for our lives? Knowing that the current data shows the universe presently undergoes accelerated expansion is definitely an advantage for my life. But it might not be tremendously relevant for Mike who stamps my passport in Chicago (sorry, Mike).
Plus, knowledge isn't necessarily an evolutionary advantage. If you sit in front of your laptop all day, scan newstickers and blog about, say, global warming your chances to reproduce aren't the best. More seriously, rational thinking takes time and energy, doesn't necessarily contribute to happiness, and can drive your supervisor nuts. In many cases, it's an advantage to live with good faith in semi-rational believes (true love exists), and not to question everything all the time: You might open the box, just to find that curiosity killed the cat.
However. Unfortunately, very little people consciously just don't know things, but fill in blanks with believes and made-up custom explanations. In which case passively not knowing the truth can turn into actively denying the truth. You see where I am heading?
- How much ignorance of facts can a society take?
But what good is a right to know or not to know without knowing what one should know or doesn't want to know? Do I really need to know 20 ways the world could end tomorrow, or that Britney Spears vomited all over her Gucci dress?
Most people consciously or unconsciously filter the information they gather - how else was it possible to deal with all these news and rumors that surround us every day? Every one of us needs to divide the information overflow into relevant, irrelevant and marginal. Should this ordering be left to Google?
The world wide web collects an increasing amount of statements that are just plain wrong. There is no qualified rating available on all this information. The number of links, comments, or diggs is far off being a reliable factor - yet one that people count on. We presently have no tools to deal with all that knowledge . So what all these random thoughts lead me to was the conclusion we'd actually not need a Right not to Know, but a right of information - including the possibility to filter and ban misinformation .
Project the present infotainment ten years into the future and we'll drown in an international sea of semi-fictitious news, unqualified commentaries, and people who echo these back and forth (in this regard it is interesting to note what psychological research tells us about the power of repetition). I certainly don't want to interfere with the freedom of speech, neither with the democratic/anarchic characteristics of the internet (that I actually put my hopes on). Say whatever you want to - just make sure it's clear this is your opinion , add your sources, your qualifications, don't blur the boundary between fiction as fact, and mind the frontiers of knowledge.
- "The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge."
credit crisis . Good to know that "The American economy is the most creative and enterprising and productive system ever devised." ~ G.W. Bush
 And if you do, would you grant his family members the Right not to Know he will become sick, and can they sue him if he tells them nevertheless?)
 With 'knowing' I don't only mean you hear the statement - which is hard to omit -, but learn about the details, data, facts and scientific conclusions.
 And don't give me that argument how the collective corrects misinformation, I don't want to end up with an information soup that has survived by minimizing objections. Wikipedia is an useful source to collect established knowledge, but it doesn't hold a patent on the truth.
 About 15 years ago I wrote a petition for the Jusos/SPD that suggested a right of information (and made sure no privacy/patent rights were violated). It failed mostly due to lack of interest. I'm still waiting for them to come back to the topic which I believe will only become more important.
 German law says websites needs to have a contact/author information.