Edge in the News: 2015

The New York Times [3.9.15]

ONE of the anxieties haunting the 21st century is a fear that technological change will soon make many human lives seem essentially superfluous.

It’s a fear as old as the Luddites, but the promise of computing, robotics and biotechnology has given it new life. It suddenly seems plausible that a rich, technologically proficient society will no longer offer meaningful occupation to many people of ordinary talents, even as it offers ever-greater wealth, ever-widening powers and, perhaps, ever-longer life to the elite.

That anxiety dominates the most provocative conversation you can eavesdrop on this week, between the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari on the website Edge.org.

Harari, the author of a recent history of the human species, “Sapiens,”argues that our own era’s breakthroughs will create new classes and class struggles, just as the Industrial Revolution did.

Soon, if not tomorrow, the rich may be able to re-engineer bodies and minds, making human equality seem like a quaint conceit. Meanwhile, the masses will lose their jobs to machines and find themselves choosing between bread and circuses (or drugs and video games) and the pull of revolutionary violence — with the Islamic State’s appeal to bored youths possibly a foretaste of the future.

Harari’s scenario, as he concedes, is only a projection, and one may doubt that technology can go as far as he imagines. But some of the dislocations he envisions are already here: Work is disappearing for the erstwhile working class, the rich are increasingly self-segregating and marrying among themselves, and virtual realities are replacing older forms of intimacy.

What I find most provoking, though, is Harari’s insistence that in dealing with these problems, “nothing that exists at present offers a solution,” and “old answers” are as “irrelevant” now as they were (allegedly) during the Industrial Revolution.

New Scientist [3.9.15]

Brain plasticity, godlessness, Malthusian notions - all should go according to the responses to John Brockman's latest question

THE physicist Max Planck had a bleak view of scientific progress. "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents..." he wrote, "but rather because its opponents eventually die."

This is the assumption behind This Idea Must Die, the latest collection of replies to the annual question posed by impresario John Brockman on his stimulating and by now venerable online forum, Edge. The question is: which bits of science do we want to bury? Which ideas hold us back, trip us up or send us off in a futile direction?

Some ideas cited in the book are so annoying that we would be better off without them, even though they are true. Take "brain plasticity". This was a real thing once upon a time, but the phrase spread promiscuously into so many corners of neuroscience that no one really knows what it means any more.

Other ideas, especially in the more anthropocentrically inclined sciences of economics and computer science, reflect more our natural bent for binary oppositions and good stories than they reveal real things about the world. This is where things get very interesting indeed, making Brockman's latest book essential, as well as enjoyable, reading.

More than any amount of pontification (and readers wouldn't believe how many new books agonise over what "science" was, is, or could be), Brockman's posse capture the essence of modern enquiry. They show where it falls away into confusion (the use of cause-and-effect thinking in evolution), into religiosity (virtually everything to do with consciousness) and cant (for example, measuring nuclear risks with arbitrary yardsticks).

This is a book to argue with – even to throw against the wall at times. Several answers, cogent in themselves, still hit nerves. When Kurt Gray and Richard Dawkins, for instance, stick their knives into categorisation, I was left wondering whether scholastic hand-waving would really be an improvement. And Malthusian ideas about resources inevitably generate more heat than light when harnessed to the very different agendas of Matt Ridley and Andrian Kreye.

On the other hand, there is pleasure in seeing thinkers forced to express themselves in just a few hundred words. I carry no flag for futurist Douglas Rushkoff or psychologist Susan Blackmore, but how good to be wrong-footed. Their contributions are among the strongest, with Rushkoff discussing godlessness and Blackmore on the relationship between brain and consciousness.

Every reader will have a favourite. Mine is palaeontologist Julia Clarke's plea that people stop asking her where feathered dinosaurs leave off and birds begin. Clarke offers lucid glimpses of the complexities and ambiguities inherent in deciphering the behaviour of long-vanished animals from thin fossil data. The next person to ask about the first bird will probably get a cake fork in their eye.

This Idea Must Die is garrulous and argumentative. I expected no less: Brockman's formula is tried and tested. Better still, it shows no sign of getting old.

Freakonomics Radio Podcast [3.9.15]

Are you an idea junkie? Of course you are! It’s exciting to hear about ideas, especially new ones. There’s a progression that happens when you hear a new idea – you run it through your brain, try to envision where it might lead. Who will benefit from this new idea? Who will it hurt? Will it be worth the cost? Is it legal; is it morally defensible? Is it, in fact, a good idea?

In our latest episode of Freakonomics Radio, we run that progression in reverse. Rather than asking if a new idea is a good one, we ask whether it’d be better if some of the ideas we cling to were killed off. The episode is called “This Idea Must Die.” ...

The episode is drawn from a fascinating book of the same name: This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (Edge Question Series). It’s the latest edition in an annual series of books put out by the intellectual salon Edge.org and its ringleader John Brockman. ...

Forbes Magazine [3.8.15]

There’s something ironic about seeing a promotion for John Brockman’s latest collection of science musings, This Idea Must Die, right under his Edge site’s featured conversation, Death is Optional.

Because a lot of ideas don’t die. They recede for a while–like Lamarck’s notion of the inheritance of acquired traits–and then insinuate their way back into scientific consciousness.

But that’s a minor complaint. Brockman’s new anthology, in which he asks a host of leading intellectuals what ideas should be consigned to the dustbin, is engaging.

All the usual suspects are here: Steven Pinker, Ian McEwan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett. Not to take anything away from their contributions, but as you browse, it’s the lesser known scientists and philosophers who provide the more interesting posts.

For example, philosopher-novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein attacks the idea that science makes philosophy obsolete. ...

South China Morning Post [3.21.15]

This Idea Must Die
Edited by John Brockman
(read by David Colacci and Susan Ericksen)
(audiobook)

John Brockman's collection of writings shows that not only do new ideas triumph by replacing old ones, but also that new ideas respond to "new information made possible by new measurements", as Jared Diamond argues in one of 175 mini-essays from many of the world's most eminent brains. Linguist Steven Pinker joins novelist Ian McEwan, ethologist Richard Dawkins, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb and scores of others in presenting scientific theories that they believe must die because they are blocking progress. Some of these ideas are clearly dated, including those about IQ, race, nature vs nurture, and altruism. Those listening to narrators David Colacci and Susan Ericksen will probably jump around the book as they look for arguments justifying their own conclusions. Psychologist Adam Waytz will find supporters who feel Aristotle's aphorism that man is a social animal should be retired. Helen Fisher's thoughts on love and addiction will gain her an audience, as will Jane Gruber's ideas about so-called negative emotions such as sadness and fear.

American Conservative [3.6.15]

We think of ISIS as anti-human, and we are right to. But what if the greater threat to humanity is not among the barbaric brigades of the Levant, but among the far more sophisticated barbarians at work in Silicon Valley? This discussion between economist Daniel Kahneman and historian Yuval Noah Harari is … illuminating on that question. ...

...Really and truly, read the whole thing [http://edge.org/conversation/yuval_noah_harari-daniel_kahneman-death-is-optional]. It’s important. Cosimanian Orthodoxy really is the religion of the future. Note well that Harari is not saying he wants these things to happen (though he might). He is saying that current trends are leading in this direction.

Will you people who sneer at the Benedict Option and think that it’s only about trying to get away from the queers finally understand that this stuff Harari is talking about is the kind of thing I say we must prepare to resist? As I wrote here, same-sex marriage is not the heart of the challenge to Christianity, but rather an especially potent manifestation of the essential challenge, which is metaphysical — and which Harari has deftly explained in this interview (though he never once mentions gay marriage).

At issue is what it means to be authentically human. Is our humanity something we discover, or is it something we manufacture? If it’s the latter, and if human nature is malleable, as Harari and many others believe it is, then the future belongs to those elites who, in Harari’s chilling phrase, have learned “to produce bodies and minds.”

These are the new Dark Ages, and their darkness consists in large part of the belief that they are, in fact, an age of enlightenment, of progress.

Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution Is True [3.1.15]

John Brockman has collected his “angels”: all of the many scientists, philosophers, psychologists, techno-geeks, and mathematicians that he either is an agent for or whom he simply knows, and posed to them a provocative question: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” The results, in the form of 1-4 page mini-essays, are compiled in a new book,This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories that are Blocking Progress. You can buy it for only $11.81 on Amazon.

Although I’m not a fan of “idea anthologies” in general, this one is good, and well worth reading. For one thing, you’ll be surprised at the ideas that people say must be deep-sixed, including “Theories of everything” (Geoffrey West), “Entropy” (Bruce Parker), “Falsifiablity” (Sean Caroll, and I disagree with him), “Humans are by nature social animals” (Adam Waytz), “Mind versus matter” (Frank Wilczek), “Culture” (Pascal Boyer), and “The illusion of scientific progress” (Paul Saffo, whose essay I again disagree with). You can see the entire list of contributors, which number about 150) at the Amazon page, simply by clicking on the bookcover link here. 

...For a mini-education in contrarian thinking in science, this book is essential.