Edge in the News

BLOGGINGHEADS TV [1.4.08]

 

• Edge.org’s annual question
• George’s answer to the Edge question
• John’s answer to the Edge question

 


John Horgan & George Johnson

John and George’s New Year resolutions; John softens his pessimism about neuroscience ; The soccer club theory of terrorism; The trouble with relying on experts; How George got hooked on garage-band science; Happiness is a burning bridge.

TORONTO STAR [1.4.08]

Ralph Waldo Emerson called consistency the hobgoblin of little minds, yet we live in a world where 'flip-floppers' are treated with contempt. An ambitious new survey of top thinkers, however, serves as a reminder of how healthy it is to change one's mind

Sandro Contenta
Staff Reporter

...Challenging this complacency is a project by the Edge Foundation, a group promoting discussion and inquiry into issues of our time. To kick off the New Year, the group put this statement and question to many of the world's leading scientists and thinkers:

"When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy. When God changes your mind, that's faith. When facts change your mind, that's science. What have you changed your mind about?"

Answers, posted on the website www.edge.org, came from 164 people, many of them physicists, philosophers, psychologists and anthropologists. They ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions. In short, they're calls for more people who can change their minds. ...

George Johnson, BLOGGINGHEADS TV [1.4.08]

John and George’s New Year resolutions; John softens his pessimism about neuroscience ; The soccer club theory of terrorism; The trouble with relying on experts; How George got hooked on garage-band science; Happiness is a burning bridge.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL [1.4.08]

CULTURE
Change of Mind Could Spur A Hardening of the Heart
• EDGE -- JAN. 4

When scientists and other prominent intellectuals change their mind about important things, their new outlook often is gloomier. That, at least, is the theme of responses to a survey conducted by online science-and-culture publication the Edge, which asked some influential thinkers: "What have you changed your mind about? Why?"
 

...Fittingly, Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert says he has changed his mind about the benefits of changing one's mind. In 2002, a study showed him that people are more satisfied with irrevocable decisions than with ones they can reverse. Acting on the data, he proposed to his now-wife. "It turned out that the data were right: I love my wife more than I loved my girlfriend."

...

John Horgan, BLOGGINGHEADS TV [1.4.08]

John and George’s New Year resolutions; John softens his pessimism about neuroscience ; The soccer club theory of terrorism; The trouble with relying on experts; How George got hooked on garage-band science; Happiness is a burning bridge.

TORONTO STAR [1.4.08]

A few years ago, while working in Yemen, I was invited by a tribal leader to his daughter's wedding in the remote mountain village of Asnaf.

Festivities began outdoors with a rowdy dance of men waving traditional daggers and Kalashnikovs. Women and men then ate in separate buildings, according to customs of segregation that had long ago passed into the unquestioned realms of knowledge and truth.

Substituting for after-dinner drinks were big bushy bundles of mildly narcotic khat leaves, plopped on the floor as the plates were cleared away. After two hours of chewing, eyes got glazed and the conversation a little weird.

"It's a fact – the Earth is flat," insisted a Bedouin sheikh, who carried himself with a noble demeanour.

The statement focused attention in what had become a rather lethargic group. A man with a fist-sized ball of khat stretching his cheek responded with ridicule: "The end of the Earth is your village."

Debate was lively, but the sheikh would not be moved. When a colleague, a Western journalist, argued through a translator that astronauts had looked down from space and seen the Earth as a big blue ball, the sheikh's grimace suggested an old canard had yet again invaded his sensibilities.

"Let's drop it," he said, reaching for more khat.

Flat Earthers are a tiny and insignificant lot. But their blind and deaf reaction to reason and evidence is widespread. Politicians seem especially afflicted, including those without the isolation of a Yemeni village as a possible excuse.

So fearful are politicians of the "flip-flop" label, they wear their obstinacy like a badge of honour. When former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's popularity was being battered by the Iraq war and public service reforms, he proudly told British voters: "I've not got a reverse gear."

It's easy to see this attitude as endemic. So many of us are set in our ways, sure of our religions and ideologies, comfortably numb in our flat-Earth moment.

Challenging this complacency is a project by the Edge Foundation, a group promoting discussion and inquiry into issues of our time. To kick off the New Year, the group put this statement and question to many of the world's leading scientists and thinkers:

"When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy. When God changes your mind, that's faith. When facts change your mind, that's science. What have you changed your mind about?"

Answers, posted on the website www.edge.org, came from 164 people, many of them physicists, philosophers, psychologists and anthropologists. They ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions. In short, they're calls for more people who can change their minds.

Global warming, partly from the devouring of fossil fuels, emerges as the most pressing challenge and notes of urgency and alarm permeate some responses. Physicist and Nobel laureate Leon Lederman adds to that dire prognosis the dangers posed by 7,000 nuclear weapons in the U.S. alone, the spread of religious fundamentalism, an "endless" war in Iraq, and a "mindless" war on terrorism, used as an excuse to restrict freedoms.

He used to think the main duty of scientists was to conduct science. Now he urges them to political action.

"We need to elect people who can think critically," he says, calling on scientists to run for political office.

Colorado scientist Carolyn Porco, heading a team studying pictures of planets from the Cassini project, fears a return of "dark ages" when scientific inquiry – the separating of truth from falsehood through verifiable observations – was shunned and scientists jailed.

"When the truth becomes problematic, when intellectual honesty clashes with political expediency, when voices of reason are silenced to mere whisper, when fear alloys with ignorance to promote might over intelligence, integrity, and wisdom, the very practice of science can find itself imperiled. At that point, can darkness be far behind?"

Some responses suggest explanations for the general inability to change course while speeding toward a cliff. Harvard biologist Marc Hauser and Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, for example, both confess to now accepting the so-called Handicap Principle in evolution.

First proposed by Israeli zoologist Amotz Zahavi, the theory says natural selection favours those who suggest superior fitness by genuinely risking their lives. In the animal kingdom, it improves a male's chances of mating.

Hauser described watching female pigeons disregarding male suitors on a sidewalk and focusing on an apparently suicidal male pigeon strutting in the road.

"The females were oriented toward this male, as opposed to the conservative guys on the sidewalk, because he was playing with danger, showing off, proving that even in the face of heavy traffic, he could fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee, jabbing and jiving like the great Muhammad Ali," Hauser says.

The theory raises a perhaps pertinent question: Is the plunder of natural resources, the polluting of the planet and the penchant for war a human version of the macho pigeon strut? What's certain, at least from what scientists tell us, is that there's little we can be certain about. What seem like truths today might be lies tomorrow. Even our senses can't be trusted.

"Physical reality has turned out to be very different from how it seems, and I feel that most of our notions about it have turned out to be illusions," says MIT physicist Max Tegmark.

"The world looks like it has impenetrably solid and stationary objects, but all except a quadrillionth of the volume of a rock is empty space between particles in restless schizophrenic vibration. The world feels like a three-dimensional stage where events unfold over time, but Einstein's work suggests that change is an illusion," he adds.

The laws of physics, as Arizona University physicist Paul Davies says he now realizes, are not "fixed and absolute" but "intrinsically fuzzy and flexible." You wonder if you can be sure about anything.

Physicist Laurence Krauss, who like many in his field once thought the universe was "geometrically flat," is now convinced of an accelerating universe that "will carry away almost everything we now see, so that in the far future our galaxy will exist alone in a dark, and seemingly endless void."

More reason for skepticism and doubt comes from psychologists and neurologists, who note how little we even understand ourselves.

Neurobiologist Leo Chalupa, of the University of California, says all 100 billion neurons in the brain are in a constant process of breakdown and renewal. "Your brain is different than the one you had a year or even a month ago," he says, before adding the key question: "So how is the constancy of one's persona maintained?"

Neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux, of New York University, changed his mind about memory. Experiments have shown that "each time a memory is used, it has to be restored as a new memory in order to be accessible later," he says.

"The old memory is either not there or is inaccessible. In short, your memory about something is only as good as your last memory about it," Ledoux adds.

The overall portrait is of physical and conscious reality, including our sense of self, constantly reviewed and reconstituted – a process in stark contrast to the intransigence of dogma and ideology. It also belies the rote learning and encouraged passivity that dominates the school system at the expense of critical thought.

A note of optimism is introduced by Temple University mathematician John Allen Paulos, who cites the work of Nobel Prize-winning game theorist Robert Aumann.

Aumann's so-called Agreement Theorem stipulates that individuals form rational responses to bits of information, which gradually become common knowledge that forces beliefs to change and coincide in the long run.

But Paulos adds two notes of caution: In the long run, we'll all be dead, and Aumann is silent about the possible convergence of irrational responses.

In other words, it's unclear whether we'll evolve into life-preserving critical thinkers or doomed versions of flat Earthers.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL [1.4.08]

Margaret Wente Comment Column; Second Thoughts

If you want to start your year with a jolt of fresh thinking, I have just the thing. Each year around this time, a Web-based outfit called the Edge Foundation asks a few dozen of the world's brightest scientific brains one big question. This year's question: What have you changed your mind about?

The answers address a fabulous array of issues, including the existence of God, the evolution of mankind, climate change and the nature of the universe. Some of the most provocative responses deal with the bonanza of new evidence from the fast-evolving fields of genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake - bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up. For the full menu, go to www.edge.org. Meantime, here's a taste. ...

THE GLOBE AND MAIL [1.4.08]

Margaret Wente Comment Column; Second Thoughts

If you want to start your year with a jolt of fresh thinking, I have just the thing. Each year around this time, a Web-based outfit called theEdge Foundation asks a few dozen of the world's brightest scientific brains one big question. This year's question: What have you changed your mind about?

The answers address a fabulous array of issues, including the existence of God, the evolution of mankind, climate change and the nature of the universe. Some of the most provocative responses deal with the bonanza of new evidence from the fast-evolving fields of genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake - bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up. For the full menu, go to www.edge.org. Meantime, here's a taste. ...

...

WASHINGTON POST [1.3.08]

RFQ: What Have You Changed Your Mind About? (Plus: Last Chance on the Coin Contest)

...University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt says he used to consider sports and fraternities to be the height of American celebration of stupidity. "Primitive tribalism, I thought. Initiation rites, alcohol, sports, sexism, and baseball caps turn decent boys into knuckleheads. I'd have gladly voted to ban fraternities, ROTC, and most sports teams from my university." But Haidt has changed his mind: "I had too individualistic a view of human nature. I began to see us not just as chimpanzees with symbolic lives but also as bees without hives. When we made the transition over the last 200 years from tight communities (Gemeinschaft) to free and mobile societies (Gesellschaft), we escaped from bonds that were sometimes oppressive, yes, but into a world so free that it left many of us gasping for connection, purpose, and meaning. I began to think about the many ways that people, particularly young people, have found to combat this isolation. Rave parties and the Burning Man festival are spectacular examples of new ways to satisfy the ancient longing for communitas. But suddenly sports teams, fraternities, and even the military made a lot more sense." ...

WASHINGTON POST [1.3.08]

John Brockman has been making people notice his ideas for the better part of half a century, going back to the Happenings of the 60s. He's a publicity hound--a literary agent, he once promoted a movie starring The Monkees. More recently, he's created an online salon of ideas, including an annual New Year's question he poses to a long list of the planet's philosophers, thinkers and academics. This year's question:

"What Have You Changed Your Mind About?" Which also becomes the Random Friday Question here on the big blog.

Flexible, optimistic people live longer, the scientists tell us, so--are the world's leading thinkers ready and willing to admit that they've changed their views about big things?

Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog way back when and the early online community The Well more recently, has decided that his early passion for building preservation was dead wrong. "Good old stuff sucks," he writes. "Sticking with the fine old whatevers is like wearing 100% cotton in the mountains; it's just stupid.
Give me 100% not-cotton clothing, genetically modified food (from a farmers' market, preferably), this-year's laptop, cutting-edge dentistry and drugs."

Brockman surveys a whole lot of scientists and math types whose idea of changing their mind is to adapt to new findings and slightly shift a particular perspective or line of inquiry. This is not in the spirit of the question and I won't bore you with those folks' self-righteous, pedantic responses. There are also quite a few folks who describe their movement from faith to agnosticism or atheism, or vice versa, which is surely change of a sort, but one that probably tells us more about the author's personal, emotional state of mind than about an intellectual journey.

But every once in a while, one of Brockman's correspondents is honest and rigorous enough to admit to a real change:

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt says he used to consider sports and fraternities to be the height of American celebration of stupidity. "Primitive tribalism, I thought. Initiation rites, alcohol, sports, sexism, and baseball caps turn decent boys into knuckleheads. I'd have gladly voted to ban fraternities, ROTC, and most sports teams from my university." But Haidt has changed his mind: "I had too individualistic a view of human nature. I began to see us not just as chimpanzees with symbolic lives but also as bees without hives. When we made the transition over the last 200 years from tight communities (Gemeinschaft) to free and mobile societies (Gesellschaft), we escaped from bonds that were sometimes oppressive, yes, but into a world so free that it left many of us gasping for connection, purpose, and meaning. I began to think about the many ways that people, particularly young people, have found to combat this isolation. Rave parties and the Burning Man festival are spectacular examples of new ways to satisfy the ancient longing for communitas. But suddenly sports teams, fraternities, and even the military made a lot more sense."

A friend of Carl Sagan's writes about his own flip from the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe to his conviction that We Are Alone. Internet advocate Douglas Rushkoff says he has given up on his notion that the Web would change the world and alter human consciousness and has now reluctantly concluded that "cyberspace has become just another place to do business. The question is no longer how browsing the Internet changes the way we look at the world; it's which browser we'll be using to buy and sell stuff in the same old world." And TV writer Karl Sabbagh concludes that no, experts really are no wiser than the rest of us: "The people I know who are wise are not necessarily knowledgeable; the people I know who are knowledgeable are not necessarily wise. Most of us confuse expertise with judgment."

In some cases, the change of mind is a reinterpretation of events. The physicist Freeman Dyson took a new look at the end of World War II and decided that history was wrong: The dropping of the atomic bombs did not end the war. He lays out a pretty compelling case based on new historical studies and concludes that demolishing that myth might make the road to eliminating nuclear weapons a bit smoother. Not likely, but still, a splendid thought exercise.

All this change can make for bewildering and disturbing reading: A mathematician concludes that robots can see God. A philosopher loses trust, faith and belief in modern medicine. An evolutionary biologist reluctantly comes to see that there really are more differences among races than we would like to think.

I've changed my mind about many things in recent years. Here are just two of them: I used to think that slower was better than faster. I now believe the opposite. And this: For many years, I favored fat over salt. I have now switched sides.

What have you changed your mind about?

(And while you're thinking creatively, please remember to jump in on our D.C. quarter contest: You propose the image that ought to be on the new coin that will belatedly add the District to the U.S. Mint's 50-states quarters program. Our crack staff of judges will choose the most creative and persuasive proposal. The winner's image will be given to an artist who will produce a reasonably professional rendering of your idea for the folks over at the Mint--and you will win a very nice version of that artistic rendition.

(Here's how to play: Send your entries, in word description or, if you're really ambitious, in image, to tellus@washingtonpost.com We'll collect your entries through January 6th and report back to you soon thereafter.)

NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE [1.2.08]

Plato Had a Bad Year [John Derbyshire]

For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ... What a feast of egg-head opinionating!

If there's a common tendency running through many of these pieces, it is the fast-rising waters of naturalism, released by a half-century of discoveries in genetics, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, submerging every other way of looking at the human world.

We are part of nature, a twig on the tree of life. If we are to have any understanding of ourselves, we must start from that. Final answers to ancient questions are beginning to come in. You may not be happy about the answers; but not being happy about them will be like not being happy about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE [1.2.08]

Pop-math author par excellence Keith Devlin drops Platonism.

In doing so, Keith edges a bit closer than I’d like to the social-contruction arguments of Reuben Hersh. I seriously doubt that “other cognitive creatures in another part of the universe might have different mathematics.” I don’t think, when we eventually get to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, we shall find that two plus two equals five over there, or that the angles of plane triangles add up to 190 degrees. In any case, according to Martin Seligman (see below) there’ll be no-one there to discuss the matter with.

Still, the anti-Platonism is surely correct. The beginning of mathematics is abstraction — forming those stable mental structures we call “concepts” from repeated observations of the world around us. Abstraction, and math, then advance by forming hierarchies of concepts, the concepts at each level dealing with the concepts at the lower as if they were objects in the physical world. That is, as Keith points out, the only way we are equipped to treat them. The fact that we can only think about concepts as if they were objects, does not mean they are objects, though. Score one for Nietzsche. Still, anyone who seizes on this as an excuse to teach “feminist math” or “African math” should be tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail.

Devlin’s piece is one of many brief contributions to science webzine Edge.org‘s Annual Question round robin: “What Have You Changed Your Mind About? Why?” addressed to notable intellectuals, with a bias towards the human sciences. For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. Try, according to your own interests:

What a feast of egg-head opinionating!

If there’s a common tendency running through many of these pieces, it is the fast-rising waters of naturalism, released by a half-century of discoveries in genetics, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, submerging every other way of looking at the human world.

We are part of nature, a twig on the tree of life. If we are to have any understanding of ourselves, we must start from that. Final answers to ancient questions are beginning to come in. You may not be happy about the answers; but not being happy about them will be like not being happy aboutHeisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Sing it, Bobby:

Come gather ‘round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the minds they are a-changin’.

DIE ZEIT [1.1.08]

Even the best minds of this world sometimes have to accept that they were wrong. Scientists to answer the question of Edge Foundation, which they change their mind — and why.

The responses of the intellectuals are personal, sometimes very technical, but also political. They cover a wide range of what people employed: Climate change, the difference between men and women, but also the question of the existence of God.

DIE ZEIT [1.1.08]

Even the best minds of this world sometimes have to accept that they were wrong. Scientists answer the question of the Edge Foundation, which they have changed their minds - and why.

? What would you have changed your mind and why "that question the Edge Foundation's leading scholars and thinkers have asked - and got surprising answers. The organization is an informal group of intellectuals who want to work together to find answers to questions that move the company. For each year presents its coordinator, the publisher John Brockman, the members remains a tricky task. "What is your dangerous idea?", "What do you think is true, although you can not prove?" Were issues of recent years. The answers are on the website www.edge.org read. 

The question this year was: 
When thinking changes your opinion, that's philosophy. 
When God changes your opinion, that's faith. 
When facts change your opinion, that's science. 
What would you have changed your opinion and why? 

More than 120 scientists have racked their brains over this small issue and found that they had at least something from which they were firmly convinced revise. Perhaps it is because they are scientists. For a scientist, at least once in his career does not think his change in, be narrow-minded, stuck, rigid and dogmatic, writes Richard Dawkins , evolutionary biologist and author of the bestseller The God Delusion. In this, the members of this profession would be fundamentally different from politicians who are afraid of being accused of being a little flag in the wind, if they change their mind. 

The responses of the intellectuals are personal, sometimes quite technical, but also political. They cover a wide range of what concerns people: climate change, the difference between men and women, but also the question of the existence of God. 

Craig Venter: Saving the Earth 
The gene pioneer Craig Venter believed for years that only future generations must also consider how they solve the problem of dwindling natural energy resources. He believed that ultimately only the diminishing oil reserves go - and not the CO2 emissions. This idea he had to revise the increase in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is irrefutable, wrote the researchers. His answer is also an appeal: "Our planet is in crisis and we must mobilize all our intellectual powers to save him." 

Helena Cronin: Stupid men, wise men 
Helena Cronin, a Evolutionstheoretikerin at the London School of Economics addressed the question of why men seem more successful at work and the thesis that the different talents of both sexes are innate. Men are more aggressive, risk-taking and ambitious. With these capabilities, they are superior to women who are more socially competent and more talk. This opinion has it fundamentally changed talents, tastes and temperament were not sufficient to explain why men are more successful than women, notes the scientist. Their new argument: Take one to a normal distribution, be it simple so that the women are rather average, while men occupy the extremes. "More dumbbels but more Nobels", that is either extremely stupid or extremely smart is the male sex, it sums up their knowledge. 

Leon Lederman: Scientists in politics! 
The physics Nobel laureate Leon Lederman Max is worried about what the responsibilities of a researcher. He concludes: Do not just research and teaching should address a scientist, but also in politics, he wants the thinking elite, "A Congress that is dominated by lawyers and economists, makes no sense in the 21st Century in which it is almost always for scientific and technological issues. " 

Patrick Bateson: Well but godless 
Sometimes a single call to change a fundamental review. It happened to the behavioral scientist Patrick Bateson of the University of Cambridge. He has always said he was an agnostic, someone who could affirm the existence of God nor deny. The term "atheism" was it always been too aggressive. Until he was placed at dinner next to a staunch supporter of creationism. The table conversation with his neighbor has left the scientist tracks. The narrowness of his interlocutor has taken him to call himself an atheist today.

Correre Della Sera — Italy [1.1.08]

UN'ASSOCIAZIONE CULTURALE HA CHIESTO A LUMINARI E 

FILOSOFI DI RACCONTARE I PROPRI ERRORI

Quando lo scienza confessa: ho sbagliato
Dalle teorie sull'evoluzione alle differenze tra razze, 
in rete i mea culpa degli studiosi

LONDRA — «Quando pensare modifica la tua opinione è filosofia, quando Dio ti fa cambiare idea è fede. Quando i fatti ti fanno vedere le cose in modo diverso è scienza». Questa l'introduzione al quesito per l'anno posto da un'associazione culturale cui aderiscono i principali pensatori del momento, da Richard Dawkins, lo zoologo britannico autore del libro culto Il gene egoista e più recentemente L'illusione di Dio, allo psicologo Steven Pinker passando per il musicista produttoreBrian Eno.

Se nel 2006 aveva domandato ai suoi iscritti quale fosse l'idea più pericolosa e nel 2007 su che cosa si sentissero ottimisti, per il 2008Edge (il sito è www.edge.org) ha lanciato una provocazione: su cosa avete cambiato idea? E perché? L'obiettivo era spingere gli scienziati, gli scrittori e i ricercatori che utilizzano regolarmente il sito ad ammettere, in un certo senso, i propri errori.

Centinaia di loro hanno raccolto l'invito (a tanta solerzia ha forse contribuito il fatto che le ultime edizioni delle risposte sono state pubblicate sotto forma di libro), rivelando una gamma di dietro front tra il clamoroso e il simpatico.

ZOOM: Edge Question
EL MUNDO — Spain [1.1.08]

At the beginning of each year is a great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture, or rather, in the social life of that culture...The event is called the Edge Annual Question, bringing together much of the most interesting 

Anthropologist Richard Wrangham has introduced a subtle shift in the explanation of the evolutionary history of man: he once believed it to be caused by eating meat, now he believes that the decisive factor is the kitchen, ie, changing from raw to cooked. The response from the musician Brian Eno explains how he went from revolution to evolution, and how he left Maoism for Darwin. ...

Read the full article →

EL MUNDO — Spain [1.1.08]

At the beginning of each year is a great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture, or rather, in the social life of that culture...The event is called the Edge Annual Question, bringing together much of the most interesting 

Anthropologist Richard Wrangham has introduced a subtle shift in the explanation of the evolutionary history of man: he once believed it to be caused by eating meat, now he believes that the decisive factor is the kitchen, ie, changing from raw to cooked. The response from the musician Brian Eno explains how he went from revolution to evolution, and how he left Maoism for Darwin. ...

Correre Della Sera — Italy [1.1.08]

From theories of evolution to differences among races, some scholars' mea culpa are online

LONDON — "When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy, when God changes your mind, that's faith, when facts change your mind, that's science". This is the introduction to the year’s question as posed by a cultural association to which belong the principal thinkers of this moment, from Richard Dawkins, British evolutionary biologist and author of cult book The Selfish Gene, to psychologist Steven Pinker, passing through music producer Brian Eno.

Hundreds responded to the challenge (perhaps in part because the answers to preceding questions were published as books) and revealed widespread reversals of opinions—sometimes dramatic, sometimes gracious.

...

Paul Kedrosky, INFECTIOUS GREED [12.31.07]

This year's Big Question at Edge from John Brockman, et al., is this, What have you changed your mind about? This is, at least, an interesting question, so I'll start by saying that what I've changed my mind about is whether, in general, the Edge's annual question is worth reading. Okay, sometimes it is.

That said, are any specific answers to this year's Big Question worth reading? Somewhat surprisingly, yes. Granted, some of the answers are just wankery, scientists and others saying that they used to think we wouldn't solve Problem X, and now they think we will, someday, etc. Or, worse yet, there is a passel of up-with-the-environment puffery, where the previously unconverted become carbon holy-rollers. ...

Here are a couple worth reading. Feel free to add more.

Economist Dan Kahneman on the aspiration treadmill
Clay Shirky
 on science and religion
Nassim Taleb
 on .... nothing (okay, incomplete, but I still like the semiotic pun)...

IN BRIEF: What Are You Optimistic About?
THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT [12.31.07]

To non-scientists, it may not be obvious that science tends to be an optimistic endeavour.  While academics working in the arts or humanities may be more equivocal abut the state of the world, those working in science tend to be hopeful, at least about furthering the limits of human knowledge and the possibilities of what can be known in the future.  These are essentially optimistic goals.

What Are You Optimistic About? is a collection of essays from "the world’s leading scientists and thinkers" addressing the 2007 annual question posed by John Brockman on his website www.edge.org.  Like its predecessors from previous years, it covers an impressively wide range of topics, including the futures of religion, the origins of the universe, climate change, neuroscience, human relationships, medicine, artificial intelligence, communications and psychology, among others.  Inevitably, many important ideas get brief, superficial discussion, but as a whole the collection provides an overview of where the work in a number of interesting fields is heading, and makes both engaging and consoling predictions about the future.  As Brockman is careful to articulate in his introduction, not all of these things will come to pass, but some certainly will.

Almost all the contributions are written by scientists or at least "thinkers in the empirical world": people Brockman considers to be the new intellectuals of modern culture.  Steven Pinker explains why the decline in violence in the world will continue; Dan Sperber considers altruism on the web; and Oliver Morton writes on how solar energy can save the planet.  A number of these essays assert confidently that we are living in a time of shifting paradigms, but they rarely agree on precise terms, and some hopes for the future openly contradict others.  The most memorable moments in the collection do not come from ambitious contributions on the showstopper science of torpedoed religion, cancer cures and climate reversals.  Instead they come when the contributors address wider hopes for human ingenuity, our capacity for progress and problem-solving.  The edge question for 2008 is: what have you changed your mind about?  This will surely provoke another stimulating array of responses, profiling issues and ideas where recent data are challenging preconceptions and highlighting the topics on the brink of breakthrough and development

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