The Galileo effect: dangerous ideas waiting to happen A group of scientists has been given freedom to express heretical theories. Steve Farrar reports

[ Tue. Jul. 10. 2007 ]

Scientists and empirical thinkers have always generated dangerous ideas as they wrestle with evidence and theories that appear to contradict conventional wisdom and widely accepted social mores. Dawkins sees this as healthy for society. "Dangerous ideas are what has driven humanity onward, usually to the consternation of the majority in any particular age who thrive on familiarity and fear change," he says. "Yesterday's dangerous idea is today's orthodoxy and tomorrow's cliché." He adds, however, that it is patently not enough for an idea just to be dangerous. It must also be good.

It was, of course, a particularly good idea to bring this remarkable group of scientists and thinkers together. Few would have been capable of doing so. But not for nothing has Brockman been described by Dawkins as having "the most enviable address book in the English-speaking world". More than that, though, he has an insatiable hunger for ideas and intellectual debate. Back in the 1960s, when Brockman was working alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and Hunter S Thompson as an avant-garde arts promoter, he was invited regularly to dine and debate with John Cage, the composer and philosopher, and a small group of fiercely bright young artists and scientists. The experience had a profound impact on him." Out of that I got an appreciation for almost the purity of ideas and the excitement of rubbing shoulders with people that could challenge you," he says.

When his friend, the late conceptual artist James Lee Byars, proposed getting together 100 of the world's greatest thinkers to debate with one another in a single room, Brockman shared his excitement at the prospect of an explosion of ideas. And although the project — the World Question Centre — never got off the ground, the concept lived on. Working with Heinz Pagels, the physicist, Brockman later founded the Reality Club so that top thinkers could spar with and inspire one another over dinner. In 1997 he took this informal conversation into cyberspace with the online magazine Edge. It is here that the intellectual elite that he has gathered now thrash out their often contrary views. And it is here that each year on January 1, Brockman posts the group's answers to a different, deceptively simple question. In 2005 it was: "What do you believe to be true, but cannot prove?" Last year it was: "What is your dangerous idea?"

The question was proposed by the psychologist Steven Pinker, a prominent member of the group. "I suggested to John Brockman that he devote his annual Edge question to dangerous ideas because I believe that they are likely to confront us at an increasing rate and that we are ill-equipped to deal with them," Pinker says. He notes that such ideas get loaded with ethical implications that in retrospect often seem ludicrous. The urge to suppress heretical views is, Pinker declares, a recurring human weakness.

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