Edge in the News: 2006 Annual Question

[3.31.06]

"Woran glaubst du, obwohl du es nicht beweisen kannst?", wollte Edge-Herausgeber John Brockman letztes Jahr wissen. Zuvor waren Fragen wie "Welches ist die wichtigste unerzählte Geschichte?", "Was ist die bedeutsamste Erfindung der letzten zweitausend Jahre?", "Was sind die akutesten wissenschaftlichen Probleme?" oder schlicht "Was nun?", die in die Runde geworfen worden. Mit der Fragestellung für 2006 ist es gelungen, die Atmosphäre der Dringlichkeit im Generellen noch weiter anzuheizen. "Was ist deine gefährlichste Idee?", will Edge wissen. Geantwortet haben 172 Wissenschaftler, die sich als der [extern] Third Culture-Community zugehörig begreifen und das Ideal eines Intellektuellentypus hochhalten, der den Naturwissenschaften statt der Literatur als Leitdisziplin zugewandt ist.

[1.28.06]

La afirmación políticamente más incorrecta, a cuyo autor pueden acusarlo de racista si no de nazi, es que hay grupos humanos cuyas características genéticas los hacen más inteligentes que otros.

Lo malo es que esto lo afirman algunos científicos al contestar a la pregunta que hace cada año The Edge (www.edge.org), órgano de un club de sabios de todo el planeta que se plantean problemas aparentemente simples que son comple- jísimos. La cuestión de 2006, que responderán hasta 2007 miles de investigadores, la presentó Steven Pinker, psicolingüista, profesor de psicología en Harvard. Recuerda Pinker que la historia de la ciencia está repleta de descubrimientos que fueron considerados social, moral y emocionalmente peligrosos; los más obvios, la revolución copernicana y la darwiniana.

[1.20.06]

Most of the contributors appear to have interpreted "dangerous" as meaning something like "subversive," challenging to one or another received orthodoxy. ... In that spirit, here is my dangerous idea: Every child in school deserves an individual IQ test. ... And the corollary: Every statistical analysis of school- and district-level data should include individual IQ as one of the variables measured. ... Why is that subversive? Because so many people, especially in education, are terrified to admit that individual IQ has anything to do with academic achievement, because it is not evenly distributed demographically.

[1.10.06]

The results (collected at www.edge.org) give an insight into how philosophically minded scientists are thinking: the result is somewhere between a multi-disciplinary seminar and elevated high table talk. The responses to Brockman's question do not directly engage with each other, but they do worry away at a core set of themes. Many agree that neuroscience at the micro level and evolutionary psychology at the macro level have abolished free will. Richard Dawkins is typical: "Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world." Holding people responsible for their behaviour is, in his view, completely irrational.

[1.10.06]

Theories of social nets and their relationship with the contemporary sociology, dangerous ideas of scientists on Radio3 Scienza on Radio3.

[1.8.06]

Forget for a moment the substance of the arguments in defense of Darwin, Intelligent Design and the Bible. These arguments will take care of themselves in real time, by the clock and according to the calendar. No one proves or disproves any of the theories about the origin of our planet.

But how we choose to conduct these debates, the knowledge we bring to the argument, is crucially important. Intellectual revolutions have a way of changing how we think. The way we frame the argument, the idols, gods or the God we celebrate, ultimately informs politics and dictates policy.

You could visit a provocative cyber salon known as The Edge (www.edge.org) to test yourself against the edgiest thinking on these subjects. John Brockman, who likes being described as a "cultural impresario," poses a question every year that would tempt an answer from Dr. Faustus. This year he asks contributors for "dangerous ideas." "The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious," he writes. "What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?"

[1.8.06]

What is a dangerous idea? One not assumed to be false, but possibly true?What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" These are the questions of the last two years that Edge Foundation asked of 120 free thinkers. The audacious and stimulating answers have been reproduced by in hundreds of newspapers such as The New York Times or Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Among the hundreds of ideas are the demonstration of life in other planets, or that life has been a unique chance of existing; concerns over the fact that there are genetic differences relating to intelligence between ethnic groups and between the sexes; the inference that global warming is not so worrisome, the notion that there are alternatives to the free market.

[1.7.06]

Free will does not exist. We are not always created equal. Science will never be able to address our deepest concerns. These are just three of some of the most controversial theories advanced by some of the world's leading thinkers in answer to the question: "What is your dangerous idea?"

The survey, conducted by the New York-based Website The Edge, produced 116 responses that were all the more striking for being put forward by experts in relevant fields.

Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel argues, for instance, that by observing someone's brain activity we know what they're going to do even before they do, which begs the question "Is one to be held responsible for decisions that are made without conscious awareness?" Free will, he says, is therefore an illusion.

Geneticist J. Craig Venter argues that "there are strong genetic components associated with most aspects of human existence", from intelligence to willpower, and that a growing awareness of these essential inequalities will lead to more social conflict.

So next time you fall off your cabbage soup diet or alcohol-free January plan, don't beat yourself up, just tell yourself you lack the willpower gene.

[1.7.06]

Der New Yorker Literatur-Agent John Brockman schafft es immer wieder zum Jahreswechsel, auf seiner Website einen "Think Tank" aus namhaften Wissenschaftlern und KŸnstlern zu versammeln. Viele Dutzend Persšnlichkeiten der unterschiedlichsten Fachrichtungen antworten ihm jeweils auf eine bestimmte Frage. Diesmal bat Brockman seine Adressaten um "gefŠhrliche Ideen", die schon bald vielleicht Šhnliche Verwerfungen bewirken kšnnten wie die Darwinsche Evolutionstheorie oder die Kopernikanische Revolution. Wir stellen kurze Auszuge, die Kernthesen, aus einigen Antworten vor.

[1.7.06]

canvassed scientists for their "most dangerous idea." David Buss, a psychologist at the University of Texas, chose "The Evolution of Evil."

The dangerous idea is that all of us contain within our large brains adaptations whose functions are to commit despicable atrocities against our fellow humans — atrocities most would label evil.

The unfortunate fact is that killing has proved to be an effective solution to an array of adaptive problems in the ruthless evolutionary games of survival and reproductive competition: Preventing injury, rape, or death; protecting one's children; eliminating a crucial antagonist; acquiring a rival's resources; securing sexual access to a competitor's mate; preventing an interloper from appropriating one's own mate; and protecting vital resources needed for reproduction. ...

The danger comes from people who refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology, or exposure to media violence.

[1.7.06]

Each Christmas, the Manhattan literary agent John Brockman gives his pals a "riddle me this."

A year ago he brain-teased: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" And this time: "What is your dangerous idea?" Brockman's challenge is noteworthy because his buddies include many of the world's greatest scientists: Freeman Dyson, David Gelertner, J. Craig Venter, Jared Diamond, Brian Greene. Yet their ideas, delineated in brief and engaging essays, are not just for tech-heads. The 119 responses Brockman received to the most recent question -- posted at www.edge.org -- are dangerous precisely because they so often stray from the land of test tubes and chalkboards into the realms of morality, religion and philosophy.

[1.6.06]

"The danger rests with what we already know: that we are not all created equal."

Genome sequencing pioneer Craig Venter suggests greater understanding of how genes influence characteristics such as personality, intelligence and athletic capability could lead to conflict in society (Edge.org magazine, 1 January)

[1.5.06]

He asked his roster of thinkers - V.S. Ramachandran, Paul Davies, Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond, Daniel Goleman, Matt Ridley, Simon Baron-Cohen, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Martin Seligman, among the most famous - to nominate an idea, not necessarily their own, they consider dangerous not because it is false, but because it might be true.

Two ideas with enormous ramifications for the arts resonated though the tens of thousands of words of text.

[1.4.06]

Per quanto spaventevole e surreale possa apparire l'idea di ventiquattrore senza connessione alcuna, se non con i propri pensieri o con la mancanza dei suddetti, considerare la solitudine addirittura una minaccia per l'umanità così come la conosciamo sembrerebbe una provocazione. E infatti lo è. Sul filo del paradosso, così ha risposto il neurobiologo californiano Leo Chalupa alla domanda posta dalla rivista Edge: qual è, secondo lei, l'idea più pericolosa oggi in circolazione? Pericolosa non perché è falsa, ma perché potrebbe rivelarsi vera? Chalupa argomenta appunto che l'iper-informazione che ci bombarda è una forma di totalitarismo, serve a intasare l'attività neuronale, cioè a impedirci di pensare. E che un'intera giornata di solitudine sarebbe perciò eversiva: molti, pensando e ripensando, metterebbero in discussione la società in cui viviamo.

[1.4.06]

Laweb Edge.org penjarà l’1 de gener la pregunta de l’any. La del 2005 va ser resposta per 120ments de l’anomenada ‘tercera cultura’, que van reflexionar sobre l’enunciat “Què creus que és veritat tot i no
poder-ho demostrar?”. Amb l’any nou, coneixeremla nova pregunta i, sobretot, les noves respostes.

Andrian Kreye, [1.4.06]

Who controls humans? God? The genes? Or nevertheless the computer? The on-line forum Edge asked its yearly question — and the answers raised more questions.

Once a year self-styled head of the Third Culture movement and New York literary agent John Brockman asks his fellow thinkers and clients a question, who publishes their answers every New Year's Day in his online forum edge.org. Thus Mr. Brockman fulfills the promise that is the basic principle of Third Culture.

The sciences are asking mankind's relevant questions he says, while the humanities busy themselves with ideological skirmishes and semantic hairsplitting. It is about having last words, which have never been as embattled as in the current context of post-ideological debates and de-secularization. That's why this year's question 'What is your dangerous idea' seemed unusually loaded. Since it's inception in 1998 the forum had mainly dealt with the basic questions of science culture per se. But maybe that's why this year the debate has brought out the main concerns of Third Culture more direct than in the years before.

[1.3.06]

...Richard Dawkins, of Oxford University, said our increased understanding of how our brains work would lead to difficult questions in defining morality.

"As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics," Dawkins said.

"When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software. Isn't the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes?" he said. ...

[1.3.06]

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[1.2.06]

"TechCrunch's Vivek Wadhwa has a great article that takes a look at difference between startups and "established" tech companies and what they each mean to the economy and innovation in general. Wadhwa examines statistics surrounding job creation and innovation and while big companies may acquire startups and prove out the business model, the risk and true innovations seems to be living at the startup level almost exclusively. 'Now let’s talk about innovation. Apple is the poster child for tech innovation; it releases one groundbreaking product after another. But let’s get beyond Apple. I challenge you to name another tech company that innovates like Apple—with game-changing technologies like the iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad. Google certainly doesn’t fit the bill—after its original search engine and ad platform, it hasn’t invented anything earth shattering. Yes, Google did develop a nice email system and some mapping software, but these were incremental innovations. For that matter, what earth-shattering products have IBM, HP, Microsoft, Oracle, or Cisco produced in recent times? These companies constantly acquire startups and take advantage of their own size and distribution channels to scale up the innovations they have purchased.'"
Link to Original Source

[1.1.06]

What you will find emerging out of the 117 essays written in response to the 2006 Edge Question — "What is your dangerous idea?" — are indications of a new natural philosophy, founded on the realization of the import of complexity, of evolution. Very complex systems — whether organisms, brains, the biosphere, or the universe itself — were not constructed by design; all have evolved. There is a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the universe, and all of the things we know in it.

[1.1.06]

The cyber salon styles itself, with unabashed pomposity, as a purveyor of the Third Culture, a potpourri of current science, futurology and philosophy. An annual highlight is the Edge question, posed every January by Brockman to set the theme for the coming year. The 2006 teaser, announced yesterday, is this: what is your dangerous idea? Brockman describes it as “an idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?”.

The answers have already started rolling in (Edge contributors have a particular disdain for the divine, so they probably haven’t got much to do at this time of year), and how very provocative they are. Here is my pick of the crop:

Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large of Wired magazine, cautions that the preservation of anonymity, usually viewed as admirable in this identity-obsessed world, is not necessarily a good thing. “There’s a dangerous idea circulating that . . . it is a noble antidote to technologies of control . . . Privacy can only be won by trust, and trust requires persistent identity,” he writes. He points to the damage done to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia by its policy, now abandoned, of allowing anonymous sources to place information on its public records.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the director of the Quality of Life Research Centre at Claremont Graduate University in California, argues that the simplicity of the free market cannot meet the complex needs of humankind. “The dangerous idea on which our culture is based is that the political economy has a silver bullet — the free market — that must take precedence over any other value, and thereby lead to peace and prosperity.

“It is dangerous because, like all silver bullets, it is an intellectual and political scam that might benefit some, but ultimately requires the majority to pay for the destruction it causes.” When health, the environment and public safety are eroded by the free market, he says, we should think carefully about allowing it to reign unchallenged.

  • THERE IS ONE dangerous idea that still trumps them all: the notion that, as Steven Pinker describes it, “groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments”. For “groups of people”, read “races”.

    With the advent of genetics, the tinkle of The Bell Curve, reviled for its thesis that whites are smarter than blacks, refuses to fade away. The idea of genetic racial difference — accepted for physical traits such as skin colour and hair texture — is discarded as irrelevant and even dangerous when applied to mental characteristics such as intelligence.

    A pair of academics trod this perilous territory recently, when they suggested that the disease-causing genes unique to Ashkenazi Jews — such as those responsible for Tay-Sachs disease and Gaucher disease — continue to be passed on because they offer a counter benefit: enhanced intelligence.

    Henry Harpending and Gregory Cochran, from the University of Utah, cite circumstantial evidence for their theory: a handful of papers that link those same disease-causing genes to increased neural growth. This, they suggest, fits with the observation that Ashkenazis favoured “cognitively demanding” jobs, such as setting up businesses.

    The Bell Curve, incidentally, suggested that Ashkenazi Jews had the highest average IQ of any ethnic group. Einstein was an Ashkenazi (although it’s safe to assume he was so exceptional as to be untypical). The Utah academics, whose study has been denounced as “bullshit” by some commentators, point out that Jews — not necessarily Ashkenazi — punch well above their weight in the Nobel Prize league. They comprise 3 per cent of the American population but 27 per cent of US laureates.

    Of course, others confronted with genius do not invoke genes, brains and diseases — rather a cultural emphasis among Jewish parents on scholarship and academic achievement. What . . . pushy Jewish mothers nagging their precious sons to do well? Now there’s a dangerous idea.

Alok Jha, [1.1.06]

Mankind's increasing understanding of the way genes influence behaviour and the issue's potential to cause ethical and moral dilemmas is one of the biggest dangers facing society, according to leading scientists. The concerns were voiced as part of an exercise by the web magazine Edge, which asked more than 100 scientists and philosophers: "What is your dangerous idea?". The responses were published online yesterday.

Craig Venter, founder of the J Craig Venter Science Foundation, said the genetic basis of personality and behaviour would cause conflicts in society. He said it was inevitable that strong genetic components would be discovered at the root of many more human characteristics such as personality type, language capability, intelligence, quality of memory and athletic ability. "The danger rests with what we already know: that we are not all created equal," he said.

[12.31.05]

The composer John Cage leaned across the table and handed me a copy of Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. The year was 1966. We were at a weekly dinner gathering of young artists at the townhouse of Fluxus pioneer Dick Higgins. Cage would cook a meal--a mushroom dish--and we would sit around discussing his latest ideas.

I had been invited to meet with Cage because of my work on The Expanded Cinema Festival at Film-maker's Cinematheque in New York, a month-long program in late 1965 of performances by artists, dancers, poets, film-makers, and “happenings” performers, the connecting thread being the incorporation of cinema into their work.

Painter Robert Rauschenberg mounted a kinetic collage, a living version of his famous art pieces of the 1960s. Sculptor Claes Oldenburg presented an oddly designed movie projector that looked like the sphinx, placed it on the stage and projected light onto the audience. Video artist Nam June Paik, standing on a step-ladder behind a large opaque screen, over a period of hours, slowly cut out an ever-widening square revealing more of himself to the audience. I was sitting next to the artist Joan Miró, who was in town for a dinner in his honor that evening at the Museum of Modern Art. Despite the curator’s pleadings, Miró refused to budge and sat through the entire performance.

It was during this period that I first became cognizant of science. The artists, unlike their literary counterparts, were avidly interested in, and reading, the scientists. I started reading books by physicists Jeans, Eddington, Einstein, and poets such as Wallace Stevens, who had deep insights into ideas in the sciences. I received an invitation to meet with Marshall McLuhan. I recall that we talked a lot about his theme that art can serve as a beacon — a distant early warning system that can tell the old culture what is beginning to happen, to interpret what scientists are doing. The value was not in explanation, or the popularizing of science; rather, it was in description, rendering visible the questions the scientists were asking.

Twenty-seven years later, in 1992, in an essay entitled "The Emerging Third Culture," I put forth the following argument:

Leo M. Chalupa, [12.31.05]

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

Respondents include many whose work has appeared on Boing Boing before, including: J. Craig Venter, Sherry Turkle, Danny Hillis, Jaron Lanier, Rodney Brooks, David Gelernter, Kevin Kelly, Freeman Dyson, George Dyson, Rudy Rucker, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Clay Shirky, Ray Kurzweil, and Clifford Pickover.

Roger Highfield, [12.31.05]

The Earth can cope with global warming, schools should be banned and we should learn to love bacteria. These are among the dangerous ideas revealed by a poll of leading thinkers.

ohn Brockman, the New York-based literary agent and publisher of The Edge website posed the question: what is your dangerous idea? in reference to a controversial book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett that argued that Darwinism was a universal acid that ate through virtually all traditional beliefs.

Brockman received 116 responses to his challenge from Nobel laureates, futurists and creative thinkers.