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[ Sun. Jan. 13. 2008 ]

History Shows That Famous Thinkers Also Get It Wrong. And they admit it

Cover Story, Sunday Magazine

When the world's great scientific thinkers change their minds

One hundred and sixty-five eminent thinkers, researchers, and communicators, at the annual request of the edge.org website, answered the following question: "What Have You Changed Your Mind About? Why?"

Ana Gerschenfeld

Click here for PDF of Portuguese Original

From particle physics to evolutionary theory, to the atomic bomb, to global warming, to the battle of the sexes, to the equality of human beings, to God and the paranormal, and to the dogmatism of scientists themselves, dozens of the big thinkers in the world explained online, at the start of 2008, what the most important things that they’ve change their minds about during their lives are.

The project takes place on the website www.edge.org, a kind of informal think tank, a forum for ideas and scientific debates (see adjoining article), which asks such questions annually online and later publishes the result in book form.  

Many of the names here are well known to the interested public—the physicist Freeman Dyson, the "genome decoder" Craig Venter, the biologist Richard Dawkins (author of the controversial book The God Delusion), the Nobel laureate physicist Leon Lederman. Other participants, such as actor Alan Alda or the musician Brian Eno, may be surprising departures, but are just as interesting. And there are a number of science journalists, as well, including Steve Connor of the Independent, Roger Highfield of theTelegraph, and Philip Campbell, editor of Nature. The following are some examples of the ideas that they are re-evaluating.

The atomic bomb won the war

Freeman Dyson, renowned physicist and mathematician, Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study

I changed my mind about an important historical question: did the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bring World War Two to an end? Until this year I used to say, perhaps. Now, because of new facts, I say no.
We have stopped evolving

Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, Harvard University

Ten years ago I wrote, "Are we still evolving? Biologically, probably not much." The completion of the Human Genome Project was several years away. But new results have suggested that thousands of genes, perhaps as much as ten percent of the human genome, have been under strong recent selection, and the selection may even have accelerated during the past several thousand years. Currently, evolutionary psychology assumes that any adaptation to post-agricultural ways of life are 100% cultural. If these results hold up, and apply to psychologically relevant brain function, then that simplifying assumption might have to be reconsidered.
The paranormal exists

Susan Blackmore, psychologist, consultant to the journalSkeptical Inquirer

When I was a student at Oxford in 1970, I became became fascinated with occultism, mediumship and the paranormal. I did the experiments. I tested telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance; I got only chance results. I trained fellow students in imagery techniques and tested them again; chance results. I tested twins in pairs; chance results. I worked in play groups and nursery schools with very young children (their naturally telepathic minds are not yet warped by education, you see); chance results. I trained as a Tarot reader and tested the readings; chance results. I was lying in the bath trying to fit my latest null results into paranormal theory, when it occurred to me for the very first time that I might have been completely wrong, and my tutors right. Perhaps there were no paranormal phenomena at all. I had hunted ghosts and poltergeists, trained as a witch, attended spiritualist churches, and stared into crystal balls. But all of that had to go. Once the decision was made it was actually quite easy.
We are all equal

Simon Baron-Cohen, psychologist, Autism Research Center, Cambridge University

When I was young I believed in equality as a guiding principle in life. My mind has been changed. I still believe in some aspects of the idea of equality, but I can no longer accept the whole package. Striving to give people equality of social opportunity is still a value system worth defending, but we have to accept that equality has no place in the realm of biology.
The obligation of a scientist to do science

Leon Lederman, Nobel Laureate in Physics (author of The God Particle)

I have always believed that the scientist’s most sacred obligation is to continue to do science. Now I know that I was dead wrong. I am driven to the ultimately wise advice of my Columbia mentor, I.I. Rabi, who, in our many corridor bull sessions, urged his students to run for public office and get elected. He insisted that to be an advisor (he was an advisor to Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, later to Eisenhower and to the AEC) was ultimately an exercise in futility and that the power belonged to those who are elected. Then, we thought the old man was bonkers. But today... A Congress which is overwhelmingly dominated by lawyers and MBAs makes no sense in this 21st century in which almost all issues have a science and technology aspect.
Men are at the top because they are smarter

Helena Cronin, philosopher, London School of Economics

I used to think that these patterns of sex differences resulted mainly from average differences between men and women in innate talents, tastes and temperaments. After all, in talents men are on average more mathematical, more technically minded, women more verbal; in tastes, men are more interested in things, women in people; in temperaments, men are more competitive, risk-taking, single-minded, status-conscious, women far less so. But I have now changed my mind. It is not a matter of averages, but of extremes. 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'.
It is possible to unify the forces of physics

Marcelo Gleiser, Brazilian physicist and astronomer, Dartmouth College

I was always fascinated by the idea of unification of the forces of nature. I wrote dozens of papers related to the subject of unification, even my Ph.D. dissertation was on the topic. I was fascinated by the modern approaches to the idea, supersymmetry, superstrings, a space with extra, hidden dimensions. A part of me still is. But then, a few years ago, I started to doubt unification, finding it to be the scientific equivalent of a monotheistic formulation of reality, a search for God revealed in equations. Of course, had we the slightest experimental evidence in favor of unification, of supersymmetry and superstrings, I'd be the first popping the champagne open. But it's been over twenty years, and all attempts so far have failed.
Global warming is not an urgent problem

Craig Venter, human genome decoder, J. Craig Venter Institute

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 data is irrefutable. We are conducting a dangerous experiment with our planet. One we need to stop. Now.
Humans emerged because they began to eat meat

Richard Wrangham, British anthropologist, student of Jane Goodall, Harvard University

I used to think that human origins were explained by meat-eating. But I now think that cooking was the major advance that made us human. Cooked food allows our guts, teeth and mouths to be small, while giving us abundant food energy and freeing our time. Cooked food, of course, requires the control of fire; and a fire at night explains how Homo erectus dared sleep on the ground. So, in a roast potato and a hunk of beef we have a new theory of what made us human.
Races do not exist

Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist, Reading University

There is an overbearing censorship to the way we are allowed to think and talk about the diversity of people on Earth. Officially we are all the same: there are no races. Flawed as the old ideas about race are, modern genomic studies reveal a surprising, compelling and different picture of human genetic diversity. What this all means is that, 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, or that one group should be preferred over another. But it warns us that we must be prepared to discuss genetic differences among human populations.

John Brockman intersects the cultures
Edge: brilliant, essential and addictive

Edge is a bimonthly newsletter and a website. It is a single publication, run by North American John Brockman, a literary agent with a constellation of world-famous scientists (most, but not all, are from the Anglo-Saxon world). Brockman, born in Boston in 1941, now resides in New York. He is the author and editor of 19 books, including The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution.

Brockman writes in his presentation of the site that the "traditional intellectual", i.e. one with a 1950s education "in Freud, Marx, and modernism" no longer has sufficient qualifications to be a thinking person in the world today. One cannot be just a "literary intellectual"—that self-defined term used in the 1930s by "men of letters" to the exclusion of scientists such as Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg. "The traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time", he says.

"The third culture" is defined by Brockman as consisting of "those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are." The mandate of the Edge Foundation is "to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society."

The online world of Edge clearly benefits from a suspension of the fear of not being politically correct or addressing issues that are not the specialty of the participant. All the invited participants play the game, presenting controversial ideas, confessing doubts, casting proposals for the future. "There is no canon of acceptable ideas" notes Brockman. "The strength of the Third Culture is precisely that it can tolerate those disagreements." The result of this ambitious venture, for those who have already experienced navigating the web pages of edge.org, is not only brilliant, but addictive. It interprets, it interrogates, it provokes. Each text can be a world in itself.

Although little known to the greater European public—just looking at the list of periodical articles referenced on the website’s press page is enough to see that Edge has become an indispensable point of passage essential for all—specialists and fans—who like to perceive and reflect on the great scientific, social, cultural, and policy questions that are shaped by the arguments of these "new intellectuals", who work and think "at the edge of the world's knowledge" (Brockman's words, of course). Ana Gerschenfeld

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