Edge in the News

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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THE INDEPENDENT [12.31.07]

Helena Cronin, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, turns her attention to why men appear far more successful than women, by persistently walking off with the top positions and prizes in life — from being heads of state to winning Nobels.

Dr Cronin used to think it was down to sex differences in innate talents, tastes and temperament. But now she believes it has also something to do with the fact that women cluster around a statistical average, whereas men are more likely to be represented at the extreme ends of the normal spectrum — both at the top and the bottom.

Some replies to the Edge question ponder the perennial problem of God. Professor Patrick Bateson of Cambridge University has changed his mind on what to call himself after meeting a virulent creationist. He is no longer an agnostic but an atheist. Meanwhile the actor and writer Alan Alda said that he has changed his mind about God — twice.

What have you changed your mind about? Why?

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS [12.31.07]

"The partisan bickering that ensued throughout the 1790s suggested . . ."

Hold it right there. The 1790s? Does the historian Joseph J. Ellis, who wrote those words in his fine 2007 book American Creation, mean to say that "partisan bickering" dates almost from the founding of the American republic, when political parties themselves were still looked upon as divisive embarrassments?

He certainly does.

Partisan bickering - sometimes mild but often shockingly vicious - has characterized every decade of this nation's history, although you'd hardly know it to hear the many complaints about partisanship today. It's worth keeping this history in mind as the election season unfolds and presidential candidates once again pledge to end the rancor in Washington, restore civility and respect, and stop the political squabbling.

Barack Obama is most associated with this superficially pleasing theme. He promises to "change politics," uniting Americans around a "politics of purpose" that transcends "partisan calculation."

Alas for Obama, he has set himself an impossible task - however appealing it might seem to many Americans fed up with the routine nastiness of Washington debates. The "bickering" reflects not only a struggle for power, after all, but also real policy differences. And no, it won't end, ever, unless one side manages to silence the other - presumably not what Obama or anyone else running for the White House actually has in mind.

Science snubbed

The Western world has split into "two cultures," the British scientist C.P. Snow declared nearly half a century ago, in which scientists and literary intellectuals no longer know how to speak to each other.

Snow's lengthy thesis was sloppy and attracted well-aimed barbs. Yet the cliche "The Two Cultures" has survived, I suspect, in part because it does help to explain the oblivious attitude toward science exhibited by so many otherwise educated people.

Take the fact that The New York Times' "100 Notable Books of the Year" from its Book Review includes no science books. The reader who pointed this out to me saw it reported on John Brockman's Edge Web site. Brockman's indignant assessment: "Given the well-documented challenges and issues we are facing as a nation, as a culture, how can it be that there are no science books (and hardly any books on ideas) on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year list; no science category in the Economist Books of the Year 2007; only Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker's list of Books From Our Pages?"

Since Brockman wrote those words nearly two weeks ago, the Times' three daily reviewers have published lists of their favorite books, too. Only one is about science - although science decades old (Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science).

Brockman argues that "Elite universities have nudged science out of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum" and thus produce graduates "who don't even know that they don't know." Maybe so, but those graduates, if they work at a paper like the Times, must know this much: Their readers include many people trained in the sciences who might prefer a book on what scientists think, about our future, say, to a book on what Tina Brown thinks about Princess Diana.

Yes, The Diana Chronicles actually made the Times' "notable" list.

Tim O'Reilly, O'REILLY RADAR [12.31.07]

...I eventually offered some ideas and he jumped on one: my skepticism about the term "social software" after Clay Shirky's "Social Software Summit" in November 2002. As it turns out, Clay was right and I was wrong. This was a powerful meme indeed, just five years early.

Here's what I wrote for the 2008 Edge question. As I suspected, it's a meager offering at a remarkable feast of the intellect. Use it, if you must, as an entry point to an amazing group of reflections on science, culture, and the evolution of ideas. Reading the Edge question is like being invited to dinner with some of the most interesting people on the planet.

O'REILLY RADAR [12.31.07]

Every year, John Brockman of the Edge Foundation asks a group of scientists and other thinkers a big question, and publishes their answers. This year, the question was framed as follows:

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? WHY?

Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?"

John asked me to contribute. At first I demurred, both because I didn't have anything to say to match what I expected from the august company of scientists he'd assembled to answer his question and because I'm more in the "when thinking changes your mind" camp. Working as I do to shape how people think about social and technology trends, I'm less involved with facts that can be right or wrong than how what we believe changes what we see and do. Besides, my thinking tends to evolve rather than reverse itself. As I retell my story, I'm continually updating and revising.

John persisted. I eventually offered some ideas and he jumped on one: my skepticism about the term "social software" after Clay Shirky's "Social Software Summit" in November 2002. As it turns out, Clay was right and I was wrong. This was a powerful meme indeed, just five years early.

Here's what I wrote for the 2008 Edge question. As I suspected, it's a meager offering at a remarkable feast of the intellect. Use it, if you must, as an entry point to an amazing group of reflections on science, culture, and the evolution of ideas. Reading the Edge question is like being invited to dinner with some of the most interesting people on the planet. . 

THE GUARDIAN [12.31.07]

The changes of mind that gave philosophers and scientists new insights

James Randerson, science correspondent

They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds.

When tackling subjects as diverse as human evolution, the laws of physics and sexual politics, scientists and philosophers, includingSteven PinkerDaniel DennettPaul Davies and Richard Wrangham, all confessed yesterday to a change of heart.

The display of scientific modesty was brought about by the annual new year's question posed by the website edge.org, which drew responses from more than 120 of the world's greatest thinkers.

THE GUARDIAN [12.31.07]

The changes of mind that gave philosophers and scientists new insights

They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds.

When tackling subjects as diverse as human evolution, the laws of physics and sexual politics, scientists and philosophers, including Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Paul Davies and Richard Wrangham, all confessed yesterday to a change of heart.

The display of scientific modesty was brought about by the annual new year's question posed by the website edge.org, which drew responses from more than 120 of the world's greatest thinkers.

Edge's publisher, John Brockman, asked the intellectual cream what they had changed their mind about and why. "Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?" said the brief.

A common theme in the responses is that what distinguishes science from other forms of knowledge and from faith is that new ideas can rapidly overturn old ones as new evidence emerges. So there's nothing to be ashamed about in admitting an intellectual switch. Some responses, such as Dennett's change of heart on how the mind works, resist paraphrasing in 100 words, but here is a selection of the rest.

What was the turning point in human evolution?

Richard Wrangham, British anthropologist who studied under Jane Goodall. Now at Harvard University, his research includes primate behaviour and human evolution.

"I used to think that human origins were explained by meat-eating. After all, the idea that meat-eating launched humanity has been the textbook evolutionary story for decades, mooted even before Darwin was born.

"But in a rethinking of conventional wisdom I now think that cooking was the major advance that turned ape into human ... Cooked food is the signature feature of human diet. It not only makes our food safe and easy to eat, but it also grants us large amounts of energy compared to a raw diet, obviating the need to ingest big meals. Cooking softens food too, thereby making eating so speedy that as eaters of cooked food, we are granted many extra hours of free time every day."

Why do men dominate society?

Helena Cronin, philosopher at the London School of Economics and director of Darwin@LSE, a research group devoted to what Darwinism can tell us about human nature.

"I used to think that patterns of sex differences resulted mainly from average differences between men and women in innate talents, tastes and temperaments ... Add to this some bias and barriers - a sexist attitude here, a lack of childcare there - and the sex differences are explained. Or so I thought ... But they alone don't fully explain the differences ... Females are much of a muchness, clustering round the mean. But, among males, the variance - the difference between the most and the least, the best and the worst - can be vast.

"So males are almost bound to be over-represented both at the bottom and at the top. I think of this as 'more dumbbells but more Nobels'... Unfortunately, however, this is not the prevailing perspective in current debates, particularly where policy is concerned."

Are there genetic differences between "races"?

Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist at Reading University. His research includes work on language and cultural evolution.

"Flawed as the old ideas about race are, modern genomic studies reveal a surprising, compelling and different picture of human genetic diversity. We are on average about 99.5% similar to each other genetically. This is a new figure, down from the previous estimate of 99.9%. To put what may seem like minuscule differences in perspective, we are somewhere around 98.5% similar, maybe more, to chimpanzees, our nearest evolutionary relatives.

"The new figure for us, then, is significant. It derives from among other things, many small genetic differences that have emerged from studies that compare human populations ... Like it or not, there may be many genetic differences among human populations - including differences that may even correspond to old categories of "race" - that are real differences in the sense of making one group better than another at responding to some particular environmental problem.

"This in no way says one group is in general "superior" to another ... But it warns us that we must be prepared to discuss genetic differences among human populations.

Are humans still evolving?

Steven Pinker, leading psychologist and language expert at Harvard University. Author of The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate.

"I've had to question the overall assumption that human evolution pretty much stopped by the time of the agricultural revolution ... New [laboratory] results have suggested that thousands of genes, perhaps as much as 10% of the human genome, have been under strong recent selection, and the selection may even have accelerated during the past several thousand years ... If these results hold up, and apply to psychologically relevant brain function ... then the field of evolutionary psychology might have to reconsider the simplifying assumption that biological evolution was pretty much over and done with 10-000-50,000 years ago."

Is the universe flat?

Laurence Krauss, physicist at Case Western Reserve University and prominent opponent of the Intelligent Design movement. His books include The Physics of Star Trek.

"I was relatively certain that there was precisely enough matter in the universe to make it geometrically flat ... according to general relativity [geometrically flat] means there is a precise balance between the positive kinetic energy associated with the expansion of space, and the negative potential energy associated with the gravitational attraction of matter in the universe so that the total energy is precisely zero ... We are now pretty sure that the dominant energy-stuff in our universe isn't normal matter, and isn't dark matter, but rather is associated with empty space! And what is worse (or better, depending upon your viewpoint) is that our whole picture of the possible future of the universe has changed. An accelerating universe 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. And that is what I find so satisfying about science ... that the whole community could throw out a cherished notion, and so quickly! That is what makes science different than religion."

Should we use brain-boosting drugs?

Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of the leading scientific journal Nature

"I've changed my mind about the use of enhancement drugs by healthy people. A year ago, if asked, I'd have been against the idea, whereas now I think there's much to be said for it. The ultimate test of such a change of mind is how I'd feel if my offspring (both adults) went down that road, and my answer is that with tolerable risks of side effects and zero risk of addiction, then I'd feel OK if there was an appropriate purpose to it ... Research and societal discussions are necessary before cognitive enhancement drugs should be made legally available for the healthy, but I now believe that that is the right direction in which to head.

Does God exist?

Alan Alda, perhaps best-known as Hawkeye in the 70s series MASH. He now hosts Scientific American Frontiers on US television.

"Until I was 20 I was sure there was a being who could see everything I did and who didn't like most of it. He seemed to care about minute aspects of my life, like on what day of the week I ate a piece of meat. And yet, he let earthquakes and mudslides take out whole communities, apparently ignoring the saints among them who ate their meat on the assigned days. Eventually, I realised that I didn't believe there was such a being ... I still don't like the word agnostic. It's too fancy. I'm simply not a believer."

THE INDEPENDENT [12.31.07]

It's becoming something of a New Year ritual. For almost a decade, the website www.edge.org has been asking a selection of eminent thinkers and scholars to answer a single question and publishing the results on 1 January.

In the past it has presented such posers as "What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?" and "What is the most important invention of the past 2,000 years?"

This year Edge wanted to know: "What have you changed your mind about and why?" As usual, it's a good question. And the responses of the likes of Steven Pinker and Helena Cronin are as fascinating and weighty as one would imagine.

ARTS & LETTERS DAILY [12.31.07]

What have you changed your mind about, and why? John Brockman’s Edge put the question to over a hundred scientists and scholars... more»

Slashdot [12.31.07]

Posted by Zonk on Tuesday January 01, @12:41PM
from the read-dawkins'-it's-awesome dept. chrisd writes

"The Edge 2008 question (with answers) is in. This year, the question is: 'What did you change your mind about and why?'. Answers are featured from scientists as diverse as Richard DawkinsSimon Baron-CohenGeorge ChurchDavid BrinJ. Craig Venter and the Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, among others. Very interesting to read. For instance, Stewart Brand writes that he now realizes that 'Good old stuff sucks' and Sam Harris has decided that 'Mother Nature is Not Our Friend.' What did Slashdot readers change their minds about in 2007?"

GUARDIAN UNLIMITED [12.31.07]

What did you change your mind about in 2007? The world's intellectual elite spread some New Year humility.When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy.

When God changes your mind, that's faith.

When facts change your mind, that's science.

So goes the preamble to the annual New Year question from online intellectual salon edge.org. Publisher John Brockman has gathered philosophers, scientists, futurists, thinkers and journalists to answer the question, "What have you changed your mind about? Why?"

Since I wrote my piece on this year's show of scientific humility for the New Year's day paper some big names have added their thoughts to the mix.

Here's evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on how being a "flip-flopper" is no bad thing in science:

When a politician changes his mind, he is a "flip-flopper". Politicians will do almost anything to disown the virtue - as some of us might see it - of flexibility. Margaret Thatcher said, "The lady is not for turning." Tony Blair said, "I don't have a reverse gear." Leading Democratic presidential candidates, whose original decision to vote in favour of invading Iraq had been based on information believed in good faith but now known to be false, still stand by their earlier error for fear of the dread accusation: "flip-flopper".

How very different is the world of science. Scientists actually gain kudos through changing their minds. If a scientist cannot come up with an example where he has changed his mind during his career, he is hidebound, rigid, inflexible, dogmatic!

The controversial geneticist Craig Venter has had a change of heart about the capacity of our planet to soak up the punishment humanity is throwing at it:

Like many or perhaps most I wanted to believe that our oceans and atmosphere were basically unlimited sinks with an endless capacity to absorb the waste products of human existence. I wanted to believe that solving the carbon fuel problem was for future generations and that the big concern was the limited supply of oil not the rate of adding carbon to the atmosphere.

The evidence is now "irrefutable" that global warming is caused by humans and is a serious threat, he said.

Our planet is in crisis, and we need to mobilise all of our intellectual forces to save it. One solution could lie in building a scientifically literate society in order to survive. There are those who like to believe that the future of life on Earth will continue as it has in the past, but unfortunately for humanity, the natural world around us does not care what we believe. But believing that we can do something to change our situation using our knowledge can very much affect the environment in which we live.

There are also interesting contributions from Simon Baron-Cohen, the University of Cambridge autism researcher who has changed his mind about equality; psychologist Susan Blackmore, who has gone from embracing the paranormal to debunking it; and artist and composerBrian Eno, who was once seduced by Maoism, but now believes it is a "monstrosity".

What did you change your mind about in 2007?

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)...

ARTS & LETTERS DAILY [12.31.07]

What have you changed your mind about, and why? John Brockman’s Edge put the question to over a hundred scientists and scholars...more»

THE INDEPENDENT [12.31.07]

It takes a lot to admit that you have changed your mind about something but dozens of leading scientists, scholars and intellectuals have done just that for a New York-based website that describes itself as an influential on-line salon for free thinkers.

This year's annual question posed by www.edge.org asks visitors to the site to submit a short explanation to address the issue of what you have changed your mind about and why? Previous questions on the site have been along the lines of, what is your most dangerous idea? And, what are you optimistic about? "When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy. When God changes your mind, that's faith. When facts change your mind, that's science. And science is what's on the minds of the world-class scientists and thinkers on Edge," said John Brockman, the New York literary agent behind the website.

Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and language expert, said he has changed his mind about whether humans are still evolving. He used to believe people have so isolated themselves from natural selection that evolution had stopped, but now he is not so sure.

"I've had to question the overall assumption that human evolution pretty much stopped at the time of the agricultural revolution," Professor Pinker said. New studies suggest that thousands of genes have been subjected to strong natural selection over the past several thousand years, which means evolution is far from over for man."

David Buss of the University of Texas, an evolutionary psychologist, has changed his mind about the complexity of female sexuality. He now believes women are far more complex and devious in their sexual strategies than he had imagined. "Researchers discovered 28 tactics women use to derogate sexual competitors, from pointing out that her rival's thighs are heavy to telling others that the rival has a sexually transmitted disease," Dr Buss said. "Women's sexual strategies include at least 19 tactics of mate retention, ranging from vigilance to violence and 29 tactics of ridding themselves of unwanted mates, including having sex as a way to say goodbye," he said.

Helena Cronin, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, turns her attention to why men appear far more successful than women, by persistently walking off with the top positions and prizes in life from being heads of state to winning Nobels.

Dr Cronin used to think it was down to sex differences in innate talents, tastes and temperament. But now she believes it has also something to do with the fact that women cluster around a statistical average, whereas men are more likely to be represented at the extreme ends of the normal spectrum both at the top and the bottom.

Some replies to the Edge question ponder the perennial problem of God. Professor Patrick Bateson of Cambridge University has changed his mind on what to call himself after meeting a virulent creationist. He is no longer an agnostic but an atheist. Meanwhile the actor and writer Alan Alda said that he has changed his mind about God twice.

THE TIMES [12.31.07]

Even the world’s best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge

Lewis Smith, Science Reporter

The new year is traditionally a time when people tend to look back and try to work out where it all went wrong – and how to get it right in the future.

The new year is traditionally a time when people tend to look back and try to work out where it all went wrong – and how to get it right in the future.

This time the Edge Foundation asked a number of leading scientists and thinkers why they had changed their minds on some of the pivotal issues in their fields. The foundation, a chat forum for intellectuals, posed the question: “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? Why?”

The group’s responses covered controversial issues, including climate change, whether God or souls exist and defining when humanity began.

This time the Edge Foundation asked a number of leading scientists and thinkers why they had changed their minds on some of the pivotal issues in their fields. The foundation, a chat forum for intellectuals, posed the question: “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? Why?”

The group’s responses covered controversial issues, including climate change, whether God or souls exist and defining when humanity began.

Foreign Policy [12.31.07]

They are some of the world’s most introspective philosophers and rabble-rousing clerics. A few write searing works of fiction and uncover the mysteries of the human mind. Others are at the forefront of modern finance, politics, and human rights. In the second Foreign Policy/Prospectlist of top public intellectuals, we reveal the thinkers who are shaping the tenor of our time.

[ED. NOTE: Among the FP/Prospect Top 100 list are 10 ten Edgecontributors. Congratulations to Richard DawkinsDaniel C. Dennett,Jared DiamondHoward GardnerNeil GershenfeldDaniel Kahneman,Steven PinkerV.S. RamachandranLee SmolinJ. Craig VenterE.O. Wilson]

...

THE TIMES [12.31.07]

The new year is traditionally a time when people tend to look back and try to work out where it all went wrong – and how to get it right in the future.

This time the Edge Foundation asked a number of leading scientists and thinkers why they had changed their minds on some of the pivotal issues in their fields. The foundation, a chat forum for intellectuals, posed the question: “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? Why?”

The group’s responses covered controversial issues, including climate change, whether God or souls exist and defining when humanity began.

Todd Feinberg 
Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the US

“I have come to believe that an individual consciousness represents an entity that is so personal and ontologically unique that it qualifies as something that we might as well call ‘a soul’.”

He previously believed that the notion of a soul was a fanciful religious invention but became convinced that the brain and the mind could be regarded as separate, though dependent, entities. He says that the soul dies with the body.

Daniel Gilbert 
Professor of Psychology, Harvard

“Six years ago I changed my mind about the benefit of being able to change my mind. The willingness to change one’s mind is a sign of intelligence, but the freedom to do so comes at a cost.”

In 2002 he and Jane Ebert discovered that people were usually happier with decisions that they could not change because they concentrated on the positive aspects. When thinking about reversible decisions they were more objective. The finding, he said, suggested that marriage could prompt love, so he proposed to his girlfriend: “She said yes, and it turned out that the data were right: I love my wife more than I loved my girlfriend.”

Roger Schank 
Psychologist and computer scientist, Engines for Education Inc.

In the 1970s he was convinced that machines as smart as people would be created within his lifetime. But the complexities of human thinking have persuaded him he was wrong. “AI in the traditional sense will not happen in my lifetime nor in my grandson’s lifetime,” he said. “Perhaps a new kind of machine intelligence will one day evolve and be smarter than us, but we are a long way from that.”

Patrick Bateson 
Professor of Ethology, Cambridge

A confirmed agnostic, he was converted to atheism after attending a dinner where he tried to converse with a woman who was a creationist.

“For many years what had been good enough for Darwin was good enough for me. Not long after that dreadful dinner, Richard Dawkins wrote to me to ask whether I would publicly affirm my atheism. I could see no reason why not.”

Laurence Smith 
Professor of Geography, UCLA

As a believer in global warming, the reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and droughts in the US hardened his conviction that man-made climate change was real. “The sea ice collapse changed my mind that it will be decades before we see the real impacts of the warming. I now believe they will happen much sooner.”

Richard Wrangham 
Professor of Biology and Anthropology, Harvard University

“I used to think that human origins were explained by meat-eating. In a rethinking of conventional wisdom I now think that cooking was the major advance that turned ape into human. Cooked food is the signature feature of human diet.”

Timothy Taylor 
Archaeologist, University of Bradford

“Where once I would have striven to see Incan child sacrifice ‘in their terms’, I am increasingly committed to seeing it in ours,” he said. He felt that relativism had a role to play but should be limited because researchers had a duty to employ moral discrimination when assessing ancient cultures. The Incas, he said, must be understood as having had a sadistic leadership.

Rupert Sheldrake 
Biologist, London He came to the conclusion that scepticism was a weapon rather than a virtue after watching creationists employ it to denigrate theories on fossils, natural selection and evolution. “Is this because they are seeking truth? No. They believe they already know the truth. Scepticism is a weapon to defend their beliefs by attacking their opponents.”

Slashdot [12.31.07]

chrisd writes

"The Edge 2008 question (with answers) is in. This year, the question is: 'What did you change your mind about and why?'. Answers are featured from scientists as diverse as Richard DawkinsSimon Baron-CohenGeorge Church,David BrinJ. Craig Venter and the Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, among others. Very interesting to read. For instance, Stewart Brand writes that he now realizes that 'Good old stuff sucks' and Sam Harris has decided that 'Mother Nature is Not Our Friend.' What did Slashdot readers change their minds about in 2007?"

THE TELEGRAPH [12.30.07]

The best men really do outperform the best women, drugs should be used to enhance our mental powers, and marriages suffer from a “four year itch”, not a seven year one.

These are among the provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures who have been asked what has changed their minds about some of the biggest issues.

The poll of Nobel laureates, scientists, futurists and creative thinkers is published by John Brockman, the New York-based literary agent and publisher of The Edge website.

...

THE INDEPENDENT [12.30.07]

Changes of mind lie at the core of almost every breakthrough in science, art and thought

This is the season when, for a day or two, millions of people delude themselves into thinking that fixed goals, firm purposes and rock-like convictions will bring happiness. Set up some distant destination whether of weight loss or career progression and trudge doggedly towards it, advise the secular priests of self-improvement. But every lifestyle guru makes one basic mistake. They confuse integrity, which matters, with inflexibility, which doesn't. So why not abandon the narrow path to disappointment and opt instead for some new year's irresolution?

Make 2008 the year in which you choose to change your mind. Because truth, like time, is forever on the march. You will be in the best possible company.

Changes of mind lie at the core of almost every breakthrough in science, art and thought. From Copernicus to Einstein, Leonardo to Picasso, James Joyce to Bob Dylan, lasting innovations rest on a rupture with the principles of the past. Darwin's long struggle with his own evidence for evolution by natural selection stands as one of the greatest feats of self-persuasion in history.

Ludwig Wittgenstein created one revolution in philosophy with his Tractatus. Later he decided it was fundamentally misconceived and created another with the Philosophical Investigations. And if Alan Turing had never revised his view about the practicality of his highly abstract research on "computable numbers", then the machine on which I write this piece would not exist.

The constant testing of doctrines and axioms is how cultures evolve. For that matter, the kind of modern urban life that hosts paradigm-shifters in art and science became survivable only because Victorian-era doctors had changed the mind of civic authorities about the true sources of epidemic disease. Apocryphal it may be, but the motto of every free-thinker should be the reply John Maynard Keynes reportedly gave when accused of altering his stance on monetary policy: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

From tomorrow morning, we can all sample the reasoning that drives shifts in position by a selection of leading scientists and social thinkers. Since 1998, the splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. This time, the new-year challenge runs: "What have you changed your mind about? Why?". I strongly recommend a visit to anyone who feels browbeaten by fans of that over-rated virtue: mere consistency.

Yet in public life, mind-changing attracts the charge of weakness, even when it reveals strength. The taint of flip-flops and U-turns lingers, however justified the altered course. "The lady's not for turning," trumpeted Margaret Thatcher even though she frequently did. Besides, she had come to power precisely because an intellectual project of mass persuasion had convinced many voters that the unchained market would deliver better results than welfare corporatism had.

From the anti-slavery pamphlets of Thomas Clarkson to the global-warming movies of Al Gore, every significant social movement has been fuelled by reformers with changed minds. And one abiding flaw of the centre-ground politics that governs Britain is that it benefits the dark arts of presentation over the open warfare of persuasion. If many voters seem to have drifted lately from brand Brown to brand Cameron, then that has less to do with any deep-seated shift in outlook than with the reduction of political choice to preference-switching on the consumer model.

All parties, and much of the media, share the blame for this debauching of debate. Vince Cable gained acclaim as a modern Demosthenes because he floored the PM with his Stalin-to-Mr Bean quip. How sad that a custodian of the party of supreme persuaders from John Stuart Mill to Gladstone and Lloyd George should win brief fame thanks to a knack for glib soundbites.

Starved of genuine argument, fearful of straying off-message, the political class bows down to the tricks of the roadside hoarding and the commercial break. Outside the intellectual desert of Westminster, thankfully, the business of changing minds carries on as energetically as ever. Human responsibility for climate change ranks as the strongest example today of the interplay between new discoveries, revised opinions and even modified behaviour.

I have changed my mind about everything from country-and-western music to the concept of human nature. I hope and expect to make more changes in the coming year. In the meantime, it would violate the spirit of openness and flexibility to push this proposition too far down the road of dogma. So, if you planned to give up smoking during 2008: please don't change your mind.

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