Latitudes of Acceptance

A Conversation with Matthew D. Lieberman [8.22.14]

I'll tell you about my new favorite idea, which like all new favorite ideas, is really an old idea. This one, from the 1960s, was used only in a couple of studies. It's called "latitude of acceptance". If I want to persuade you, what I need to do is pitch my arguments so that they're in the range of a bubble around your current belief; it's not too far from your current belief, but it's within this bubble. If your belief is that you're really, really anti-guns, let's say, and I want to move you a bit, if I come along and say, "here's the pro-gun position," you're actually going to move further away. Okay? It's outside the bubble of things that I can consider as reasonable.

We all have these latitudes around our beliefs, our values, our attitudes, which teams are ok to root for, and so on, and these bubbles move. They flex. When you're drunk, or when you've had a good meal, or when you're with people you care about versus strangers, these bubbles flex and move in different ways. Getting two groups to work together is about trying to get them to a place where their bubbles overlap, not their ideas, not their beliefs, but the bubbles that surround their ideas. Once you do that, you don't try to get them to go to the other position, you try to get them to see there's some common ground that you don't share, but that you think would not be a crazy position to hold.

(31:34 minutes)

MATTHEW D. LIEBERMAN is a professor of psychology at UCLA. He is the author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

Matthew D. Lieberman's Edge Bio Page


When people ask me what I’m interested in studying, the first thing I tell them is that I have Attention Deficit Disorder when it comes to science. They start out thinking that I have Attention Deficit Disorder, which I don't, but I do when it comes to science. So I tend to have ideas that range all over the place, and even though I was told early in graduate school to study one thing and study it very, very deeply, that never really worked for me, and I was lucky enough that I didn't have to. 

My ideas tend to all focus on what we call loosely the "social brain." How is it that our brain evolved to make us social? How does it successfully make us social? What are its limitations? How does it lead to a context where we think we understand what's going on, but we're mistaken? That can lead to all sorts of interpersonal issues.



In July, 2013, Edge invited a group of social scientists to participate in an Edge Seminar at Eastover Farm focusing on the state of the art of what the social sciences have to tell us about human nature. The ten speakers were Sendhil Mullainathan, June Gruber Fiery Cushman Rob KurzbanNicholas ChristakisJoshua GreeneLaurie SantosJoshua KnobeDavid PizarroDaniel C. DennettAlso participating were Daniel KahnemanAnne TreismanJennifer Jacquet.


We asked the participants to consider the following questions: 

"What's new in your field of social science in the last year or two, and why should we care?" "Why do we want or need to know about it?" "How does it change our view of human nature?"

And in so doing we also asked them to focus broadly and address the major developments in their field (including but not limited to their own research agenda). The goal: to get new, fresh, and original up-to-date field reports on different areas of social science.

What Big Data Means For Social Science (Sendhil Mullainathan) | The Scientific Study of Positive Emotion (June Gruber) | The Paradox of Automatic Planning (Fiery Cushman) | P-Hacking and the Replication Crisis (Rob Kurzban) | The Science of Social Connections (Nicholas Christakis) | The Role of Brain Imaging in Social Science (Joshua Greene) | What Makes Humans Unique (Laurie Santos) | Experimental Philosophy and the Notion of the Self  (Joshua Knobe) | The Failure of Social and Moral Intuitions (David Pizarro) | The De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change (Daniel C. Dennett)

HeadCon '13: WHAT'S NEW IN SOCIAL SCIENCE was also an experiment in online video designed to capture the dynamic of an Edge seminar, focusing on the interaction of ideas, and of people. The documentary film-maker Jason Wishnow, the pioneer of "TED Talks" during his tenure as director of film and video at TED (2006-2012), helped us develop this new iteration of Edge Video, filming the ten sessions in split-screen with five cameras, presenting each speaker and the surrounding participants from multiple simultaneous camera perspectives.  

We are now pleased to present the program in its entirety, nearly six hours of Edge Video and a downloadable PDF of the 58,000-word transcript.

The great biologist Ernst Mayr (the "Darwin of the 20th Century") once said to me: "Edge is a conversation." And like any conversation, it is evolving. And what a conversation it is! 

(6 hours of video; 58,000 words) 

John BrockmanEditor
Russell WeinbergerAssociate Publisher

Download PDF of Manuscript
 | Continue to Video and Online Text 


The Way We Live Our Lives in Stories

A Conversation with Jonathan Gottschall [7.28.14]

We think of stories as a wildly creative art form but within that creativity and that diversity there is a lot of conformity. Stories are very predictable. No matter where you go in the world, no matter how different people seem, no matter how hard their lives are, people tell stories, universally, and universally the stories are more or less like ours: the same basic human obsessions, and the same basic structure. The structure comes down to: stories have a character, the character has a predicament or a problem—they're always problem-focused—and the character tries to solve the problem. In its most basic terms, that's what a story is—a problem solution narrative. 

(31:38 minutes)

JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL is a Distinguished Research Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College. He is the author or editor of six books, including The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (a New York Times Editor’s Choice Selection and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize). 

Jonathan Gottschall's Edge Bio Page


There's a big question about what it is that makes people people. What is it that most sets our species apart from every other species? That's the debate that I've been involved in lately.

When we call the species homo sapiens that's an argument in the debate. It's an argument that it is our sapience, our wisdom, our intelligence, or our big brains that most sets our species apart. Other scientists, other philosophers have pointed out that, no, a lot of the time we're really not behaving all that rationally and reasonably. It's our upright posture that sets us apart, or it's our opposable thumb that allows us to do this incredible tool use, or it's our cultural sophistication, or it's the sophistication of language, and so on and so forth. I'm not arguing against any of those things, I’m just arguing that one thing of equal stature has typically been left off of this list, and that’s the way that people live their lives inside stories.


Expanded Curation

A Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist [7.2.14]
Introduction by

One of the things that Julia Peyton-Jones and I try to do with the Serpentine Gallery Marathons, on which we've collaborated with Edge many times, is to provide a format that isn't like a normal conference: it takes place over 24 or 48 hours. And it happens in the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, so this creates a connection between art and architecture. And then one connects to all the other disciplines through the invited speakers. It's a kind of knowledge festival. The marathon is a hybrid. It's a group show, because artists are doing performances, but they're given time and not space. But it's also a conference because there are lectures and presentations. This year's Marathon, which takes place at The Serpentine Gallery the weekend of October 18-20, will be about "Extinction". 

(37:55 minutes)

John Brockman

Hans Ulrich Obrist is Co-director of the Serpentine Galleries, and the initiator of numerous international art projects and exhibitions. One example is the current Serpentine event  (through August 14th), a new durational performance by Marina Abramović entitled "Nothing" in which the artist is in residence for 512 hours.

It is for this kind of signature event that, in 2009, HUO was ranked #1 in Art Review's annual "Art Review Power 100" list of the contemporary art world’s most powerful figures, and #2, #2, #5, in 3 out of the past 4 years. It is a measure of his unique stature, that in today's contemporary art world, one that often seems dominated by money, HUO, who, in the 25 years I've known him, has never mentioned money, prices, or the art market, is arguably the contemporary art world's most influential figure.

"I don't talk about the art market", he explains, "as I don't know much about it. It's not part of my work. I have always worked on public exhibitions towards the end of making the best work accessible for everyone. As Gilbert and George say, 'art for all'."

What interests him is the exhibition as ritual. "A crowd of people is not a crowd but rather a number of individuals gathered in a space who are, contra the experience of an opera or a theatrical performance, not subject to a collective control of attention....Attention is neither monopolized nor homogenized. The exhibition is a very democratic and liberal ritual where the viewer decides the duration of his or her stay. "

I recently visited HUO at his office at the Serpentine Gallery to talk about the forthcoming "Marathon" on "Extinctions," an event that bridges the humanities and the sciences alike. "The spectre of extinction looms over the ways in which we understand our being in the world today," he says. "In response, artists and writers embed these concerns into the products of their creative endeavours. Environmental degradation, genocide, atomic weapons, threats to small, isolated communities, threats to languages, global warming economics and extinction, catastrophes in nature, life wiped out by disease and hunger—the constellation of topics around extinction is ever-expansive and as urgent now as ever before".

Some of the questions on the agenda for the participants to explore include "What is extinction and what are we losing? How do we understand loss and endings? How can an individual understand themselves in relation to a collective responsibility? What is the artist’s role in responding to mass extinction? What happens after the end has come and gone? How can artists, scientists and thinkers imagine new visions of the future? How has the spectre of extinction come to inform artistic and literary practice?" Edge once again plans to be there, collaborating with HUO as in previous marathon events: Maps For The 20th CenturyInformation GardensFormulae For The 21st CenturyTable-Top Experiments Marathon. 


The Third Culture: The Frontline of Global Thinking

A Conversation with Hong-Shu Teng [7.1.14]

After years of fermentation, the third culture finally yielded superior results in the 1990s. In 1996, John Brockman, American author and founder of the famous knowledge platform, published The Third Culture, a compilation of top scientists’ reflections on and explanations of the mysteries of life, formally declaring the arrival of the third culture...These emerging new scientists, combining scientific acuteness with literary sensitivity, intervene in those areas traditionally guarded by the humanities scholars. In the age of the third culture, scientists also want to explore the meaning of life and its ultimate secret. More and more scientists write for the general public. Their works embody literary science writing, distinctly exemplifying the spirits of the third-culture: the exploration of the eternal mysteries of life through scientific probing.

HONG-SHU TENG is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, National Taitung University, Taiwan. 

Hong-Shu Teng's Edge Bio Page

Following the trend of literary science writing, more and more scientists in the frontline of new thinking write for the general public. Their works embody the spirits of the third culture: probing the eternal mysteries of life through science.


In his new book The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses published on June 12, Harvard history/literature scholar Kevin Birmingham points out that it was syphilis that caused the modernist maestro’s decaying eyesight and paralysis. When Joyce’s fans celebrate Bloomsday on June 16 in memory of Ulysses, Birmingham’s work offers them an uneasy glimpse into the novelist’s dark life.

That Joyce probably had syphilis was nothing new, because it had been rumoured since the writer’s lifetime. Mainstream critics and biographers largely ignore it perhaps because it suggests celebrity gossip.

Birmingham found from Joyce’s 1928 letters that the novelist received unusual injections made of arsenic and phosphorus compound. He further found that, at the time, there was only one little-known medication called Galyl that went with the description—a prescription specifically for syphilis patients.

Medical knowledge leads this history/literature scholar to present irrefutable proof to solve a mystery whose key lies beyond the reach of literature scholars. The case is arguably closed.


Touched By The Tremendum (March 27, 1990)

From the Reality Club Archives Terence McKenna [6.24.14]

"This is our birthright. It is profoundly our birthright in the same way that our sexuality is our birthright. The notion that a person would call themselves intelligent and aware and present in the world and that they would go from the cradle to the grave without ever having a psychedelic experience is nothing short of obscene; it's absurd. It makes my flesh crawl in the same way that celibacy and virginity make my flesh crawl. What a horrible, horrible waste of a human life."

TERENCE MCKENNA (1946—2000) was one of the leading authorities on the ontological foundations of shamanism and a fixture of popular counterculture. An innovative theoretician and spellbinding orator, he traveled extensively in Asia and the New World Tropics and specialized in shamanism and ethnomedicine in the Amazon Basin and emerged as a powerful voice for the psychedelic movement and the emergent societal tendency he called The Archaic Revival. He is the author of: Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide; The Archaic RevivalFood of the GodsTrue Hallucinations; and coauthor, with his brother Dennis McKenna, of The Invisible Landscape.

Terence McKenna's Edge Bio page


First of all, I am delighted to be here. The great thing about being here in New York is you don’t have to worry if you’re the smartest person in the room. What impels me to talk to groups like this is the conviction that a major aspect of what it means to be a human being has received short shrift in our civilization for at least a couple of millennia. And that, to some degree, the solution to the mega-crisis that is bearing down on Western institutions is to be found in a revivifying of the archaic. And this takes many different kinds of forms. It's nothing to do with what is popularly presented as the new age. It's, to my mind, a much larger and deeper and persistent phenomenon than that. In fact, the entire intellectual tone of the 20th century can be seen as a groping toward a recapturing of this archaic mentality.

This is what psychoanalysis was about. This is what cubism, surrealism, and—in the political zone—negative phenomena, such as national socialism. All of these various intellectual concerns, to my mind, can be traced back to a kind of unconscious nostalgia for the archaic.


THINKING — On Sale Now

The "Best of Edge" Book Series John Brockman [10.29.13]


Every year, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman summons some of our eras greatest thinkers and unleashes them on one provocative question, whether its the single most elegant theory of how the world works or the best way to enhance our cognitive toolkit. This year, he sets out on the most ambitious quest yet, a meta-exploration of thought itselfThinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (public library) collects short essays and lecture adaptations from such celebrated and wide-ranging (though not in gender) minds as Daniel DennettJonathan HaidtDan Gilbert, andTimothy Wilson, covering subjects as diverse as morality, essentialism, and the adolescent brain.

Thinking is excellent and mind-expanding in its entirety. Complement it with Brockman's This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, one of the best psychology books of 2012. 

—Maria Popova,  Brain Pickings

"For ... readers interested in keeping up with what serious thinkers are thinking about thinking, this book offers nourishing food for thought". —Kirkus Reviews 

Contributors: Daniel C. Dennett, Philip Tetlock, Gerd Gigerenzer, Daniel Gilbert, Vilayanur Ramacahndran. Timothy D. Wilson, Sarah-Jane Blakemore, Bruce Hood, Simon Baron-Cohen, Gary Klein, Simon Schnall, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Alva Noë, Daniel L. Everett, Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, Sam Harris, Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloo, Daivd Pizarro, Joshua Knobe, Daniel Kahneman


Writing In The 21st Century

A Conversation with Steven Pinker [6.9.14]
Introduction by

What are the arts but products of the human mind which resonate with our aesthetic and emotional faculties? What are social issues, but ways in which humans try to coordinate their behavior and come to working arrangements that benefit everyone? There's no aspect of life that cannot be illuminated by a better understanding of the mind from scientific psychology. And for me the most recent example is the process of writing itself. 

(37 minutes)


Psychologist Steven Pinker's 1994 book The Language Instinct discussed all aspects of language in a unified, Darwinian framework, and in his next book, How The Mind Works he did the same for the rest of the mind, explaining "what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows us to see, think, feel, laugh, interact, enjoy the arts, and ponder the mysteries of life".

He has written four more consequential books: Words and Rules (1999), The Blank Slate (2002), The Stuff of Thought (2007), and The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011)The evolution in his thinking, and the expansion of his range, the depth of his vision, are evident in his contributions on many important issues on these pages over the years: "A Biological Understanding of Human Nature", "The Science of Gender and Science", "A Preface to Dangerous Ideas", "Language and Human Nature""A History of Violence", "The False Allure of Group Selection", "Napoleon Chagnon: Blood Is Their Argument", and "Science Is Not Your Enemy". In addition to his many honors, he is the Edge Question Laureate, having suggested three of Edge's Annual Questions: "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?"; What Is Your Favorite Deep, Elegant, Or Beautiful Explanation?"; and "What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?". He is a consummate third culture intellectual.

In the conversation below, Pinker begins by stating his belief that "science can inform all aspects of life, particularly psychology, my own favorite science. Psychology looks in one direction to biology, to neuroscience, to genetics, to evolution. And it looks in another direction to the rest of intellectual and cultural life—because what are the arts but products of the human mind which resonate with our aesthetic and emotional faculties? What are social issues but ways in which humans try to coordinate their behavior and come to working arrangements that benefit everyone? There's no aspect of life that cannot be illuminated by a better understanding of the mind from scientific psychology. And for me the most recent example is the process of writing itself."...

John Brockman

STEVEN PINKER is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He is the author of ten books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Sense of Style (September). Steven Pinker's Edge Bio page


I believe that science can inform all aspects of life, particularly psychology, my own favorite science. Psychology looks in one direction to biology, to neuroscience, to genetics, to evolution. And it looks in another direction to the rest of intellectual and cultural life—because what are the arts but products of the human mind which resonate with our aesthetic and emotional faculties? What are social issues but ways in which humans try to coordinate their behavior and come to working arrangements that benefit everyone? There's no aspect of life that cannot be illuminated by a better understanding of the mind from scientific psychology. And for me the most recent example is the process of writing itself. 

I'm a psychologist who studies language—a psycholinguist—and I'm also someone who uses language in my books and articles to convey ideas about, among other things, the science of language itself. But also, ideas about war and peace and emotion and cognition and human nature. The question I'm currently asking myself is how our scientific understanding of language can be put into practice to improve the way that we communicate anything, including science?

In particular, can you use linguistics, cognitive science, and psycholinguistics to come up with a better style manual—a 21st century alternative to the classic guides like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style?

Writing is inherently a topic in psychology. It's a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind. The medium by which we share complex ideas, namely language, has been studied intensively for more than half a century. And so if all that work is of any use it ought to be of use in crafting more stylish and transparent prose. 


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