Tales of the City 'The whiff of Sixties hippiedom and Nelson Mandela saintliness are, I'm sure, unconscious'

[ Wed. Jul. 9. 2008 ]

John Brockman, the straw-hatted literary agent who looks after the fortunes of the world's major science writers, has had a smart idea. He's contacted 100-odd scientists, psychologists, evolutionary biologists and laboratory-based thinkers and asked them, "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?" The results, published next month, are provocative, if not exactly scary. It seems the most alarming idea is the possibility that the laws of physics may turn out to be local phenomena - that they hold true only in certain circumstances (like, say, living on Earth, specifically in south London) but might be completely different in a potentially infinite number of different universes - and that the world is (dammit) fundamentally inexplicable to the human brain. This is called "the anthropic principle" and you'll hear it being aired at a pretentious London dinner party, any day now, by the kind of person who used to bang on about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle....

...My favourite Dangerous Idea, however, comes from Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge psychopatho-logist, who suggests we try a political system based on empathy. He points out that parliaments and congresses across the world base their systems on combat, from waging war to the dirty-tricks campaigns currently enfuming the US airwaves. Isn't it time, he asks, that we tried the principle of empathising? It would mean "keeping in mind the thoughts and feelings of other people" rather than riding roughshod over them. It would mean acquiring completely different politicians and election strategies. Instead of choosing party leaders and prime ministers because of their kick-ass, "effective" leadership traits, we'd choose them for their readiness to understand other people's feelings, to ask genuinely interested questions and respond "flexibly" to different points of view.

The whiff of Sixties hippiedom and Nelson Mandela saintliness are, I'm sure, unconscious. Mr Baron-Cohen is a serious psychologist and his theory deserves sober reflection by political scientists, provided they can stop corps-ing at the image of Prime Minister's Questions as a murmurous chamber of thoughtful, non-adversarial debaters, muttering, "How interesting - I never thought of it that way before," as their leader, no longer forced to behave like a stag at bay, tells the leader of the Opposition, "I wouldn't dream of arguing over this point because I know you're very sensitive to contradiction???" If media journalists joined in, Newsnight would become a Shavian dialogue with no conclusions, and Radio 4's Today a warm and fuzzy group hug in which John Humphrys and John Reid strove to find their common humanity in the maelstrom of ideas. I don't know about dangerous, but Mr Baron-Cohen's idea is certainly radical. If only I could stop thinking it's all a spoof masterminded by Simon's cousin Sacha???

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