e dial up researchers investigating climate change in Antarctica; plus, internet guru Clay Shirky explains his answer to this year's Edge Question
This year, Brockman asked: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" He took as his starting point James Flynn's notion of "shorthand abstractions" -- "concepts drawn from science that have become part of the language and make people smarter by providing widely applicable templates ('market', 'placebo', 'random sample', 'naturalistic fallacy', are a few of his examples)". If we have a shorthand linguistic means of expressing the notion, Flynn suggested, we can use it as an element in thinking and debate. "This is the most challenging question we've put forth to date," Brockman said. Daniel Kahneman, the father of behavioural economics, said: "It is my favourite question ever. You will get great responses and actually move the culture forward."
On Saturday Brockman published this year's submissions, more than 150 answers from the likes of Craig Venter, Brian Eno and Steven Pinker (mostly men, it has to be said, with contributors such as Alison Gopnik and Lisa Randall making up a small female minority). A number of Wired contributors have sent in answers this year, writers such as Jonah Lehrer, David Eagleman and Matt Ridley. Some journalists and editors were also invited to add their thoughts, which is how I submitted a proposal for "personal data mining" as part of the symposium.
So what concepts did the contributors suggest that we need? The answers included:
Paul Kedrosky has a wonderful piece for the deep-thinking site Edge.org about shifting baseline syndrome. It explains precisely why thinking that we're living in some anomalous "new normal" is a little silly. We're always living in a new normal, and the cognitive challenge is to remember that things haven't always been this way, nor will they remain this way.
In 1995 fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined a phrase for this troubling ecological obliviousness -- he called it "shifting baseline syndrome". Here is how Pauly first described the syndrome: "Each generation of fisheries scientist accepts as baseline the stock situation that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species..."
It is blindness, stupidity, intergeneration data obliviousness. Most scientific disciplines have long timelines of data, but many ecological disciplines don't. We are forced to rely on second-hand and anecdotal information -- we don't have enough data to know what is normal, so we convince ourselves that this is normal.
“Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” That may have been fine advice for the 20th century, but to survive in 2011 and beyond we need to step it up—a lot. We need to, say, embrace the concepts that many mental illnesses are just extremes of personality traits, that humans tend to accept credit for their successes but not blame for their failures, and that “wholes have properties not present in the parts,” as sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University writes on the online salon Edge (edge.org).
Christakis is one of scores of contributors to an annual exercise in which Edge, run by literary agent and author John Brockman, poses a question to scientists, technology gurus, philosophers, and other thinkers. Last year’s query was about how the Internet is changing the way we think, while 2008’s asked what the scholars had changed their mind about and why. This year’s: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Technology scholar Douglas Rushkoff nominates the concept that technologies have an “embedded bias” rather than being blank slates from which any outcome can arise. Cars have an embedded bias toward suburban sprawl; guns, an embedded bias toward killing people. By adding this concept to our cognitive toolkit, Rushkoff argues, we will have a better chance of using technologies “consciously and purposefully” and of resisting that bias. The embedded bias of the keyboardless iPad, for example, is toward passive consumption rather than active creation. To resist, get the add-on keyboard. ...
... In the Anglo-Saxon culture things are different, and science certainly has continued in its global appeal. Thus, early English modern naturalism, founded by Humphry Davy, had a reputation not only for spectacular discoveries, they also for paying attention to public communication. The goal was the transfer of knowledge into the auditorium. This is clever, because science has, as much as any other movement since the French Revolution, changed the lives of everyone on the planet and it has by no means lost this position of leadership.
On the contrary. Today when more and more people assume that the death penalty does not have a deterrent effect, it's not a new belief in a higher justice. Rather, it is the triumph of that thinking that the tools of rationality — language logic and statistics — are being used to make a statement that contradicts the common assumptions.
It is, however, necessary to acquire language logic, statistics and other skills. Do not give a claim to power with a fath-based knowledge, but also mediate what knowledge is. This is not only an honorable task — it pplaces scientific researchers in the realm of medical doctors who take the Hippocratic oath. Knowledge is vital, and — this is the flip side — knwoledge can be abused: the great anti-human ideologies of the 20th Century were themselves scientific. The science community needs to communicate better.
It's ever more delectable that the Edge Foundation— the network of prominent scientists and intellectuals founded by literary agent John Brockman in New York — has worked against the reciprocal ignorance of literary cultures and sciences of each other. Successfully. If you take the algorithms developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which measure the value of links, Edge's website ranks seven on a global scale of ten. The New York Times ranks nine, eBay at eight.
A highlight of the Edge's activities in each January, the answers to the question of the year. In 2010 there were more than 130 short essays on how the Internet is changing the way we think. The question now presented byEdge: What scientific concept woud improve everyone's cognitive tookiit? ...
In the meantime, there’s a rich discussion of aspects of this question on Edge.org, a forum for all manner of minds, curated by the agent and intellectual impressario John Brockman. Once or twice a year since 1998, Edge has tossed provocative questions to variegated batches of scientists, writers, artists and innovators.
What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? (The phrase "scientific concept" has a very broad meaning, explained at the link.)
You can read my Edge contribution, centering on a concept I call anthropophilia, below, with links to relevant context added (the Edge format is straight text).
I’m in the early stages of reading the other contributions. There’s much to chew on and enjoy. Here are a few highlights: ...
Each year, the Scientific Club "The Edge" poses a question. 2011 will be explored that is lacking in people to the knowledge nor
If the theory of the "multiverse" is true, then it is at least one universe in which we do not die. Because the concept assumes that each possible universe has to actually occur - including universes, which have already defeated the doctors in our lifetimes the death. That we die in our universe is indeed annoying, but not the end of the world. This is the response of the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey on this year's "Edge" question: "What scientific concept would improve the cognitive abilities of all people?"...
... In a time when economic studies that scientifically "prove" that certain groups of people are smarter than others (Thilo Sarrazin keeps Muslim immigrants for less intelligent than German, while other studies show that leftists are smarter than right), like Conservatives and multicultural friends feel encouraged by Matt Ridley's statement that the individual intelligence or the intelligence of sub-groups for the welfare of a society are relatively unimportant. The decisive point is the "collective intelligence", says Ridley, which is not simply the sum of the individual intelligence quotient, but a function of networking, of labor and openness of a society.
Adam Smith and Karl Popper already knew this. Too bad that we do not inhabit the parallel universe in which they live.
Planet's biggest brains answer this year's Edge question: 'What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?'
Being comfortable with uncertainty, knowing the limits of what science can tell us, and understanding the worth of failure are all valuable tools that would improve people's lives, according to some of the world's leading thinkers.
The ideas were submitted as part of an annual exercise by the web magazine Edge, which invites scientists, philosophers and artists to opine on a major question of the moment. This year it was, "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"
The magazine called for "shorthand abstractions" – a way of encapsulating an idea or scientific concept into a short description that could be used as a component of bigger questions. The responses were published online today.
Many responses pointed out that the public often misunderstands the scientific process and the nature of scientific doubt. This can fuel public rows over the significance of disagreements between scientists about controversial issues such as climate change and vaccine safety. ...
Qual será o conceito científico que, se toda a gente o dominasse, poderia representar um salto imenso na capacidade que as pessoas têm de perceber e participar activamente nos assuntos do mundo?
This is, in essence, the question that John Brockman, the American literary agent and director of the site edge.org, presented in late December to a constellation of world famous scientists. The results were published online this morning.
The question was formulated more precisely as follows: "What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?"
Since this question is not as direct and explicit as some of its predecessors (the question last year, for example, was "How the Internet is changing the way we think?") Edge is quick to contextualize it.
The point is that, according to James Flynn, an expert on human intelligence from the University of Otago, New Zealand, there are words and short phrases — such as "market", "natural selection", etc.. — Which constitute "conceptual abbreviations" (shorthand abstractions, or SHA) that actually represent a constellation of such abstract concepts as complex and that "although extremely brief, have immense utility to perceive the world."
The idea is that the SHA, according to Flynn, "penetrated the cognitive repertoire of educated people, expanding their intellectual capabilities to become available in the form of cognitive units that can be used as elements of reasoning and debate." In other words, an economist, when he speaks of "market" or a biomedical specialist when he thinks of a "control group" or a statistician when he speaks of "random sample", knows very well that there's no need to lose time to reprocess these concepts each time you use them.
By Friday evening 115 people, scientists from various fields of knowledge, had already responded to the challenge. Some answers are extensive and very complex. Others do not respond exactly the question. But there are, as always, approaches to suit all tastes and most are interesting enough to make it worth going to have a look.
Theories of social nets and their relationship with the contemporary sociology, dangerous ideas of scientists on Radio3 Scienza on Radio3.
Does the Internet affect our brains? 170 scientists and artists are trying to answer that question.
Since 1998, John Brockman of The Edge Foundation, an association of scientists and intellectuals, asks his members every year a question which they must answer with a short essay. Examples from recent years include "What do you think is true, but you can not prove?" and "What did you change your mind about? The question last year is also the title of this book. It is of course a very topical issue although the Internet has no really been around long enough to have serious statements about the impact on our brains or our way of thinking, yet in recent years there have been dozens of works published describing the investigated effects.
Here you get 170 scientists and artists, including big names such as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel C. Dennet, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Brian Eno, each of whom has a few pages to explain the advent of the Internet and what it has meant to them.
With so many people are discussed, this is a very diverse book. Optimists like Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine, may hold a hymn to the possibilities of the Internet, while several pages later another describes the worldwide web as "the biggest distraction from serious thinking since television was invented." Some authors point to the disastrous consequences that the Internet already has on our brains, while an evolutionary biologistsays that the Internet so far has changed our very little because the information we find there is still viewed through our lenses as hunter-gatherers. That we can not handle this, for example, leads to a greater sense of insecurity.
Publishers, I was told by an august member of that tribe soon after I first wrote about them, are exactly like farmers. Whatever the weather, whatever the harvest, they just love to moan. Much in the world of books has changed since that moment, but not the propensity to grumble. During 2010, the "we're all doomed" tendency fed us on a bumper crop of of gloomy prognostications. Will almost-free digital distribution drain cash and credit out of the entire book-supply system? Do electronic books as a whole threaten to bankrupt publishers and pauperise authors? Has the spread of new media destroyed an appetite for reading any text tougher than a tweet among the born-digital generation?
Can anybody stop Google (with Amazon and Apple not far behind) seizing control of humanity's written heritage and using it to promote their partisan corporate agendas? Will independent high-street booksellers, well-stocked local libraries and reasonable advances for authors who don't appear on TV fade into the mists of bookish history, along with quill pens and lazy lunches? And can we ever hope to resist the takeover of publishing by celebrity clout when our Christmas chart-topper – Jamie Oliver's Jamie's 30-Minute Meals - comes from an author who cheerily admits that "I've never read a book in my life, ever, apart from my own". Respect to the recipes, though.
So book lovers need to embark on a chapter of hope. Every new year, John Brockman of the online intellectual powerhouse Edge (www.edge.org) asks its virtual community of scientists and social thinkers one question. In 2007, it was this: "What are you optimistic about?" To strike a less than despondent chord this January, I put the same question to a few people in the British book world who are best placed to know. Read their answers on these page
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his Christmas, a bevy of elegant models are on display. Not just the long-legged female variety (although you can see those at this season’s parties in New York); instead, regulators, bankers and investors have been flaunting their own smart models, as they attempt to predict what 2011 might deliver.
But as this economic catwalk gets underway, it is shot through with irony. When the financial crisis hit, many observers blamed the disaster on the misuse of financial models. Not only had these flashy computer systems failed to forecast behaviour in the sub-prime mortgage world, but they had also seduced bankers and investors to take foolhardy risks or been used to justify some crazy behaviour.
But these days, in spite of all those mis-steps, there is little sign that financiers are falling out of love with those models; on the contrary, if you flick through the recent plethora of reports from the Basel Committees — or look at the 2011 forecasts emanating from investment banks — these remain heavily reliant on ever-more complex forms of modelling.
So what are investors to make of this? One particularly thought-provoking set of ideas can be seen in the current work of Emanuel Derman, a former physicist-turned banker who shot to fame within the banking industry two decades ago by co-developing some ground-breaking financial models, such as the Black-Derman-Toy model (one of the first interest rate models) and the Derman-Kani local volatility model (the first model consistent with the volatility smile). *
At first glance, Derman’s past might suggest he should be a model-lover — or "modeliser" — par excellence. In the banking world, he is often hailed as one of the great, original "quants", who paved the way for the derivatives revolution. Yet in reality, Derman has always been pretty cynical about those models that won him, and other quants, earlier accolades. For while investment bank salesmen might have treated his creations as near infallible, in truth Derman — like many brilliant scientists-turned-quants — has always recognised their flaws. ...
Some of the world’s greatest thinkers came together recently to answer the really big question — what will change the world? Roger Highfield, editor ofNew Scientist, reveals their predictions, from crowd-sourced charity to space colonisation and built-in telepathy.
It is not hard to think of examples of wide-eyed predictions that have proved somewhat wide of the mark. Personal jetpacks, holidays on the moon, the paperless office and the age of leisure all underline how futurologists are doomed to fail.
Any predictions should thus be taken with a heap of salt, but that does not mean crystal ball-gazing is worthless: on the contrary, even if it turns out to be bunk, it gives you an intriguing glimpse of current fads and fascinations.
A few weeks ago, a science festival in Genoa, Italy, gathered together some leading lights to discuss the one aspect of futurology that excites us all: cosa farà cambiare tutto — this will change everything.
The event was organised by John Brockman, a master convener, both online and in real life, and founder of the Edge Foundation, a kind of crucible for big new ideas.
With him were two leading lights of contemporary thought: Stewart Brand, the father of the Whole Earth Catalog, co-founder of a pioneering online community called The Well and of the Global Business Network; and Clay Shirky, web guru and author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. ...
When I received the invitation to write here, there was the question of whether the new columns would have names different than those of their authors. I was thinking about some possibilities. The first idea was to be a "name dropper," the English term for those in the habit of naming names of important people to impress listeners. I even thought about beginning all the texts with some name and gradually forming an idiosyncratic biographical catalogue, which could be useful for adventurous spirits.
The fact that I have not found a good ironic translation for such an expression in English, made me give up the gam in the end. So thought about the title "Frontier". In the background, still thinking in English: I movied towards "the border" in the direction of "edge". The columns would deal with only the cultural production that crossed limits established for the common place, transforming the world or inventing new ways to think about life. My inspiration came from a number of different things such as "Close to the Edge" or Brian Eno's Edge feature"A Big Theory Of Culture". But mostly, I wanted to emulate, in absurdly individual and uselessly pretentious way, the site http://www.edge.org/.
I tracked the trajectory of John Brockman, the man who founded Edge before the Web existed. I bought the first book in his series "The Reality Club" at the time of its launch in 1990. I was impressed with such an interesting gathering of thinkers, coming from different areas such as the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the biologistLynn Margulis, or psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I learned that what was published there was only a sample of much greater diversity. The Reality Club’s monthly "invitation only" meetings in New York — which began in 1981 — is a fascinating group that includes the physicist Freeman Dyson to theater directorRichard Foreman, almost all of my idols. The motto of the club was ambitious: "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves."
Today, the meeting room has become the website Edge. The transformation has not exactly been democratizing. The club remains as elitist (not a criticism, an observation) as before, maybe even more, since its members have become celebrities (sign of the times: today scientists can be more pop than Mick Jagger) and many of them are incredibly rich. It is not an open site where anyone can contribute, but remains invitation-only, editorially driven. The difference: the general reader can now monitor the selected conversation almost in real time, after a light filter. Brockman still decides who may speak at the forum. Currently he is one of the more powerful literary agents in the world (specialized mainly in science books), managing to convince the major publishing houses to pay millions in advances to his clients. (One of the legends that revolve around his working method is that if a book begins to earn royalties, he says that he's failed — because he didn't get a large enough advance from the publisher). Brockman is the agent of Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Martin Rees and others of the same caliber.
"An invitation to the 2010 dinner was not easy to come by as the figures who were present were the owners of Google, Twitter, Huffington Post, Bill Gates, Benoit Mandelbrot (fractals), Craig Venter (Human Genome Project). Do I need to drop more names? A bomb at dinner and we would lose much of a certain creative intelligence that drives our world and our future, or the future that these people have created for all of us. The nerd on the edge has now became the center of power."
The site has several sections. In one of them, a sort of "lifestyles of the rich and famous" — of the people Edge considers the most interesting and intelligent in the world — is an album of photos of an annual event hosted by Brockman, originally named "The Millionaires' Dinner" which was later upgraded to "The Billionaires' Dinner." An invitation to the 2010 dinner was not easy to come by as the figures who were present were the owners of Google, Twitter, Huffington Post, Bill Gates,Benoit Mandelbrot (fractals), Craig Venter (Human Genome Project). Do I need to drop more names? A bomb at dinner and we would lose much of a certain creative intelligence that drives our world and our future, or the future that these people have created for all of us. The nerd on the edge has now become the center of power.
Another very popular section is the Edge Annual Question. Every year a new question is asked. In November, Richard H. Thaler, the father of "behavioral economics" (the hottest area in economic studies), asked the following question:"Can you name your favorite examples of wrong scientific belief that were held for long periods of time". So far 65 responses have been received, authored by, among others, the physicist Lee Smolin and artist Matthew Ritchie. This week a special question was published. The inquisitor is Danny Hillis, pioneer in super computing, who — under the impact of Wiki-Leaks — wants to know if we can or if we must keep secrets in the age of information.
But this is the festive aspect of the Edge. What makes my neurons burn are the regular features, which are frequently brilliant texts, such as the most recent:"Metaphors, Models and Theories", by Emanuel Derman, one of those physicists in the past decades who has left the university to attempt to discover the laws of financial markets. (I will go deeper into this subject in a future column.) And this is why I always come back to Edge. In the world of Anglo-Saxon ideas (that still prevail throughout the whole world, or among the elite of the world), there is no smarter guide.
Hermano Vianna is a Brazilian anthropologist and writer who currently works in television. The original Portugese-language column, published behind O Globo's subscription pay-wall, is available, with an introduction, on Hermano Vianna's blog.
• Edge.org has a solid collection of essays addressing these questions: "When does my right to privacy trump your need for security? Should a democratic government be allowed to practice secret diplomacy? Would we rather live in a world with guaranteed privacy or a world in which there are no secrets? If the answer is somewhere in between, how do we draw the line?"