IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?"
of Journalism, New York University; formerly journalist, Science magazine;
Author, Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea
can be more dangerous than nothing.
always been uncomfortable with zero and the void. The
ancient Greeks declared them unnatural and unreal. Theologians
argued that God's first act was to banish the void by
the act of creating the universe ex nihilo, and Middle-Ages
thinkers tried to ban zero and the other Arabic "ciphers." But
the emptiness is all around us — most of the universe
is void. Even as we huddle around our hearths and invent
stories to convince ourselves that the cosmos is warm
and full and inviting, nothingness stares back at us
with empty eye sockets.
Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics and
Research Professor of History of Science, Harvard University;
Author, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought
medicination of the ancient yearning for immortality
the major absorption of scientific method into the research
and practice of medicine in the 1860s, the longevity
curve, at least for the white population in industrial
countries, took off and has continued fairly constantly.
That has been on the whole a benign result, and has begun
to introduce the idea of tolerably good health as one
of the basic Human Rights. But one now reads of projections
to 200 years, and perhaps more. The economic, social
and human costs of the increasing fraction of very elderly
citizens have begun to be noticed already.
glimpse one of the possible results of the continuing
projection of the longevity curve in terms of a plausible
scenario: The matriarch of the family, on her deathbed
at age 200, is being visited by the surviving, grieving
family members: a son and a daughter, each of age of
about 180, plus /their/ three "children" ,
around 150-160 years old each, plus all their offspring,
in the range of 120 to 130, and so on..... A touching
picture. But what are all the "costs" involved?
Physicist, Stanford University; Author, The
have been accused of advocating an extremely dangerous
to some people, the "Landscape" idea will eventually
ensure that the forces of intelligent design (and other
unscientific religious ideas) will triumph over true science.
From one of my most distinguished colleagues:
a political, cultural point of view, it's not that
these arguments are religious but that they denude
us from our historical strength in opposing religion.
have expressed the fear that my ideas, and those of my
friends, will lead to the end of science (methinks they
overestimate me). One physicist calls it "millennial
from another quarter, Christoph Schönborn, Cardinal
Archbishop of Vienna has accused me of "an abdication
of human intelligence."
you may have guessed the idea in question is the Anthropic
Principle: a principle that seeks to explain the laws of
physics, and the constants of nature, by saying, "If
they (the laws of physics) were different, intelligent
life would not exist to ask why laws of nature are what
the face of it, the Anthropic Principle is far too silly
to be dangerous. It sounds no more sensible than explaining
the evolution of the eye by saying that unless the eye
evolved, there would be no one to read this page. But the
A.P. is really shorthand for a rich set of ideas that are
beginning to influence and even dominate the thinking of
almost all serious theoretical physicists and cosmologists.
me strip the idea down to its essentials. Without all the
philosophical baggage, what it says is straightforward:
The universe is vastly bigger than the portion that we
can see; and, on a very large scale it is as varied as
possible. In other words, rather than being a homogeneous,
mono-colored blanket, it is a crazy-quilt patchwork of
different environments. This is not an idle speculation.
There is a growing body of empirical evidence confirming
the inflationary theory of cosmology, which underlies the
hugeness and hypothetical diversity of the universe.
string theorists, much to the regret of many of them, are
discovering that the number of possible environments described
by their equations is far beyond millions or billions.
This enormous space of possibilities, whose multiplicity
may exceed ten to the 500 power, is called the Landscape.
If these things prove to be true, then some features of
the laws of physics (maybe most) will be local environmental
facts rather than written-in-stone laws: laws that could
not be otherwise. The explanation of some numerical coincidences
will necessarily be that most of the multiverse is uninhabitable,
but in some very tiny fraction conditions are fine-tuned
enough for intelligent life to form.
the dangerous idea and it is spreading like a cancer.
is it that so many physicists find these ideas alarming?
Well, they do threaten physicists' fondest hope,
the hope that some extraordinarily beautiful mathematical
principle will be discovered: a principle that would completely
and uniquely explain every detail of the laws of particle
physics (and therefore nuclear, atomic, and chemical physics).
The enormous Landscape of Possibilities inherent in our
best theory seems to dash that hope.
further worries many physicists is that the Landscape may
be so rich that almost anything can be found: any combination
of physical constants, particle masses, etc. This, they
fear, would eliminate the predictive power of physics.
Environmental facts are nothing more than environmental
facts. They worry that if everything is possible, there
will be no way to falsify the theory — or, more to
the point, no way to confirm it. Is the danger real? We
danger that some of my colleagues perceive, is that if
we "senior physicists" allow ourselves to be
seduced by the Anthropic Principle, young physicists will
give up looking for the "true" reason for things,
the beautiful mathematical principle. My guess is that
if the young generation of scientists is really that spineless,
then science is doomed anyway. But as we know, the ambition
of all young scientists is to make fools of their elders.
why does the Cardinal Archbishop Schönborn find the
Landscape and the Multiverse so dangerous. I will let him
explain it himself:
at the beginning of the 21st century, faced with
scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse
hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming
evidence for purpose and design found in modern science,
the Catholic Church will again defend human nature
by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in
nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain
away the appearance of design as the result of 'chance
and necessity' are not scientific at all, but, as
John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.
of human intelligence? No, it's called science.
Geographer, UCLA; Author, Collapse
evidence that tribal peoples often damage their environments
and make war.
is this idea dangerous? Because too many people today believe
that a reason not to mistreat tribal people is that they
are too nice or wise or peaceful to do those evil things,
which only we evil citizens of state governments do. The
idea is dangerous because, if you believe that that's the
reason not to mistreat tribal peoples, then proof of the
idea's truth would suggest that it's OK to mistreat them.
In fact, the evidence seems to me overwhelming that the dangerous
idea is true. But we should treat other people well because
of ethical reasons, not because of naïve anthropological
theories that will almost surely prove false.
Earth Catalog, cofounder; The Well; cofounder, Global
Business Network; Author, How Buildings Learn
if public policy makers have an obligation to engage
historians, and historians have an obligation to try
historians understand that they must never, ever talk about
the future. Their discipline requires that they deal in facts,
and the future doesn't have any yet. A solid theory of history
might be able to embrace the future, but all such theories
have been discredited. Thus historians do not offer, and
are seldom invited, to take part in shaping public policy.
They leave that to economists.
discussions among policy makers always invoke history anyway,
usually in simplistic form. "Munich" and "Vietnam," devoid
of detail or nuance, stand for certain kinds of failure. "Marshall
Plan" and "Man on the Moon" stand for certain
kinds of success. Such totemic invocation of history is the
opposite of learning from history, and Santayana's warning
continues in force, that those who fail to learn from history
are condemned to repeat it.
dangerous thought: What if public policy makers have an obligation
to engage historians, and historians have an obligation to
try to help?
instead of just retailing advice, go generic. Historians
could set about developing a rigorous sub-discipline called "Applied
is only one significant book on the subject, published in
1988. Thinking In Time: The Uses of Hustory for Decision
Makers was written by the late Richard Neustadt and
Ernest May, who long taught a course on the subject at Harvard's
Kennedy School of Government. (A course called "Reasoning
from History" is currently taught there by Alexander
wrong, Applied History could paralyze public decision making
and corrupt the practice of history — that's the danger.
But done right, Applied History could make decision making
and policy far more sophisticated and adaptive, and it could
invest the study of history with the level of consequence
TODD E. FEINBERG, M.D.
and Neurologist, Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Author, Altered
and fairy tales are not true
and fairy tales are not true." There is no Easter Bunny,
there is no Santa Claus, and Moses may never have existed.
Worse yet, I have increasing difficulty believing that there
is a higher power ruling the universe. This is my dangerous
idea. It is not a dangerous idea to those who do not share
my particular world view or personal fears; to others it
may seem trivially true. But for me, this idea is downright
came to ponder this idea through my neurological examination
of patients with brain damage that causes a disturbance in
their self concepts and ego functions.
Some of theses patients develop, in the course of their illness
and recovery (or otherwise), disturbances of self and personal
relatedness that create enduring delusions and metaphorical
confabulations regarding their bodies, their relationships
with loved ones, and their personal experiences. A patient
I examined with a right hemisphere stroke and paralyzed left
arm claimed that the arm was actually severed from his brother's
body by gang members, thrown in the East river, and later attached
to the patient's shoulder. Another patient with a ruptured
brain aneurysm and amnesia who denied his disabilities claimed
he was planning to adopt (a phantom) child who was in need
of medical assistance.
personal narratives, produced by patients in altered neurological
states and therefore without the constraints imposed by a
fully functioning consciousness, have a dream-like quality,
and constitute "personal myths" that express the
patient's beliefs about themselves. The patient creates a
metaphor in which personal experiences are crystallized in
a metaphor in the form of an external real or fictitious
persons, objects, places, or events. When this occurs, the
metaphor serves as a symbolic representation or externalization
of the patient's feelings that the patient does not realize
originate from within the self.
is an intimate relationship between my patients' narratives
and socially endorsed fairy tales and mythologies. This is
particularly apparent when mythologies deal with themes relating
to a loss of self, personal identity or death. For many people,
the notion of personal death is extremely difficult to grasp
and fully accommodate within one's self image. For many,
in order to go on with life, death must be denied. Therefore,
to help the individual deal with the prospect of the inevitability
of personal death, cultural and religious institutions provide
metaphors of everlasting life. Just as my patients adapt
to difficult realities by creating metaphorical substitutes,
it appears to me that beliefs in angels, deities and eternal
souls can be understood in part as wish fulfilling metaphors
for an unpleasant reality that most of us cannot fully comprehend
just as my patients' myths are not true, neither are those
that I was brought up to believe in.
Consultant, New Scientist
cannot become minds without bodies
common image for popular accounts of the "The Mind" is a
brain in a bell jar. The message is that inside that disembodied
lump of neural tissue is everything that is you.
a scary image but misleading. A far more dangerous idea is
that brains cannot become minds without bodies, that two-way
interactions between mind and body are crucial to thought
and health, and the brain may partly think in terms of the
motor actions it encodes for the body's muscles to carry
probable fallen for disembodied brains because of the academic
tendency to worship abstract thought. If we take a more democratic
view of the whole brain we'd find far more of it being used
for planning and controlling movement than for cogitation.
Sports writers get it right when they describe stars of football
or baseball as "geniuses"! Their genius requires massive
brain power and a superb body, which is perhaps one better
The "brain-body" view
is dangerous because it requires many scientists to change
the way they think: it allows back common sense interactions
between brain and body that medical science feels uncomfortable
with, makes more sense of feelings like falling in love and
requires a different approach for people who are trying to
create machines with human-like intelligence. And if this
all sounds like mere assertion, there's plenty of interesting
research out there to back it up.
between mind and body come out strongly in the surprising
links between status and health. Michael Marmot's celebrated
studies show that the lower you are in the pecking order,
the worse your health is likely to be. You can explain away
only a small part of the trend from poorer access to healthcare,
or poorer food or living conditions. For Marmot, the answer
lies in "the impact over how much control you have over life
circumstances". The important message is that state of mind — perceived
status — translates into state of body.
effect of placebos on health delivers a similar message.
Trust and belief are often seen as negative in science and
the placebo effect is dismissed as a kind of "fraud" because
it relies on the belief of the patient. But the real wonder
is that faith can work. Placebos can stimulate the release
of pain-relieving endorphins and affect neuronal firing rates
in people with Parkinson's disease.
and mind interact too in the most intimate feelings of love
and bonding. Those interactions have been best explored in
voles where two hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin, are critical.
The hormones are released as a result of the "the extended
tactile pleasures of mating", as researchers describe it,
and hit pleasure centres in the brain which essentially "addict" sexual
partners to one another.
are surely more cerebral. But brain scans of people in love
show heightened activity where there are lots of oxytocin
and vasopressin receptors. Oxytocin levels rise during orgasm
and sexual arousal, as they do from touching and massage.
There are defects in oxytocin receptors associated with autism.
And the hormone boosts the feeling that you can trust others,
which is key part of intimate relations. In a recent laboratory "investment
game" many investors would trust all their money to a stranger
after a puff of an oxytocin spray.
few stories show the importance of the interplay of minds
and hormonal signals, of brains and bodies. This idea has
been taken to a profound level in the well-known studies
of Anthony Damasio, who finds that emotional or "gut feelings" are
essential to making decisions. "We don't separate emotion
from cognition like layers in a cake," says Damasio, "Emotion
is in the loop of reason all the time."
the way in which reasoning is tied to body actions may be
quite counter-intuitive. Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered "mirror
neurones" in a part of the monkey brain responsible for planning
movement. These nerve cells fire both when a monkey performs
an action (like picking up a peanut) and when the monkey
sees someone else do the same thing. Before long, similar
systems were found in human brains too.
surprising conclusion may be that when we see someone do
something, the same parts of our brain are activated "as
if" we were doing it ourselves. We may know what other people
intend and feel by simulating what they are doing within
the same motor areas of our own brains.
Rizzolatti puts it, "the fundamental mechanism that allows
us a direct grasp of the mind of others is not conceptual
reasoning but direct simulation of the observed events through
the mirror mechanism." Direct grasp of others' minds is a
special ability that paves the way for our unique powers
of imitation which in turn have allowed culture to develop.
bodies and their interaction with brain and planning for
action in the world are so central to human kinds of mind,
where does that leave the chances of creating an intelligent "disembodied
mind" inside a computer? Perhaps the Turing test will be
harder than we think. We may build computers that understand
language but which cannot say anything meaningful, at least
until we can give them "extended tactile experiences". To
put it another way, computers may not be able to make sense
until they can have sex.
JUDITH RICH HARRIS
Independent Investigator and Theoretician; Author, The
idea of zero parental influence
it dangerous to claim that parents have no power at all (other
than genetic) to shape their child's personality, intelligence,
or the way he or she behaves outside the family home? More
to the point, is this claim false? Was I wrong when I proposed
that parents' power to do these things by environmental means
is zero, nada, zilch?
confession: When I first made this proposal ten years ago,
I didn't fully believe it myself. I took an extreme position,
the null hypothesis of zero parental influence, for the sake
of scientific clarity. Making myself an easy target, I invited
the establishment — research psychologists in the academic
world — to shoot me down. I didn't think it would
be all that difficult for them to do so. It was clear by
then that there weren't any big effects of parenting, but
I thought there must be modest effects that I would ultimately
have to acknowledge.
establishment's failure to shoot me down has been nothing
short of astonishing. One developmental psychologist even
admitted, one year ago on this very website, that researchers
hadn't yet found proof that "parents do shape their
but she was still convinced that they will eventually find
it, if they just keep searching long enough.
comrades in arms have been less forthright. "There are dozens of
studies that show the influence of parents on children!" they
kept saying, but then they'd somehow forget to name them — perhaps
because these studies were among the ones I had already demolished
(by showing that they lacked the necessary controls or the
proper statistical analyses). Or they'd claim to have newer
research that provided an airtight case for parental influence,
but again there was a catch: the work had never been published
in a peer-reviewed journal. When I investigated, I could
find no evidence that the research in question had actually
been done or, if done, that it had produced the results that
were claimed for it. At most, it appeared to consist of preliminary
work, with too little data to be meaningful (or publishable).
I call it. Some of the vaporware has achieved mythic status.
You may have heard of Stephen Suomi's experiment with nervous
baby monkeys, supposedly showing that those reared by
"nurturant" adoptive monkey mothers turn into calm,
socially confident adults. Or of Jerome Kagan's research with
nervous baby humans, supposedly showing that those reared by "overprotective"
(that is, nurturant) human mothers are more likely to remain
like these might well see my ideas as dangerous. But is the
notion of zero parental influence dangerous in any other
sense? So it is alleged. Here's what Frank Farley, former
president of the American Psychological Association, told
a journalist in 1998:
thesis is absurd on its face, but consider what might
happen if parents believe this stuff! Will it free
some to mistreat their kids, since "it doesn't
matter"? Will it tell parents who are tired after
a long day that they needn't bother even paying any
attention to their kid since
"it doesn't matter"?
seems to be saying that the only reason parents are nice
to their children is because they think it will make the
children turn out better! And that if parents believed that
they had no influence at all on how their kids turn out,
they are likely to abuse or neglect them.
it seems to me, is absurd on its face. Most chimpanzee mothers
are nice to their babies and take good care of them. Do chimpanzees
think they're going to influence how their offspring turn
out? Doesn't Frank Farley know anything at all about evolutionary
biology and evolutionary psychology?
idea is viewed as dangerous by the powers that be, but I
don't think it's dangerous at all. On the contrary: if people
accepted it, it would be a breath of fresh air. Family life,
for parents and children alike, would improve. Look what's
happening now as a result of the faith, obligatory in our
culture, in the power of parents to mold their children's
fragile psyches. Parents are exhausting themselves in their
efforts to meet their children's every demand, not realizing
that evolution designed offspring — nonhuman animals
as well as humans — to demand more than they really
life has become phony, because parents are convinced that
children need constant reassurances of their love, so if
they don't happen to feel very loving at a particular time
or towards a particular child, they fake it. Praise is delivered
by the bushel, which devalues its worth. Children have become
the masters of the home.
what has all this sacrifice and effort on the part of parents
bought them? Zilch. There are no indications that children
today are happier, more self-confident, less aggressive,
or in better mental health than they were sixty years ago,
when I was a child — when homes were run by and for
adults, when physical punishment was used routinely, when
fathers were generally unavailable, when praise was a rare
and precious commodity, and when explicit expressions of
parental love were reserved for the deathbed.
my idea dangerous? I've never condoned child abuse or neglect;
I've never believed that parents don't matter. The relationship
between a parent and a child is an important one, but it's
important in the same way as the relationship between married
partners. A good relationship is one in which each party
cares about the other and derives happiness from making the
other happy. A good relationship is not one in which one
party's central goal is to modify the other's personality.
think what's really dangerous — perhaps a better word
is tragic — is the establishment's idea of the all-powerful,
and hence all-blamable, parent.
Analyst; Documentary Writer; Author, Get
Back in the Box : Innovation from the Inside
not only dangerous and by most counts preposterous; it's
happening. Open Source or, in more common parlance, "complementary" currencies
are collaboratively established units representing hours
of labor that can be traded for goods or services in lieu
of centralized currency. The advantage is that while the
value of centralized currency is based on its scarcity, the
bias of complementary or local currencies is towards their
instead of having to involve the Fed in every transaction — and
using money that requires being paid back with interest — we
can invent our own currencies and create value with our labor.
It's what the Japanese did at the height of the recession.
No, not the Japanese government, but unemployed Japanese
people who couldn't afford to pay healthcare costs for their
elder relatives in distant cities. They created a currency
through which people could care for someone else's grandmother,
and accrue credits for someone else to take care of theirs.
most of history, complementary currencies existed alongside
centralized currency. While local currency was used for labor
and local transactions, centralized currencies were used
for long distance and foreign trade. Local currencies were
based on a model of abundance — there was so much of
it that people constantly invested it. That's why we saw
so many cathedrals being built in the late middle ages, and
unparalleled levels of investment in infrastructure and maintenance.
Centralized currency, on the other hand, needed to retain
value over long distances and periods of time, so it was
based on precious and scarce resources, such as gold.
problem started during the Renaissance: as kings attempted
to centralize their power, most local currencies were outlawed.
This new monopoly on currency reduced entire economies into
scarcity engines, encouraging competition over collaboration,
protectionism over sharing, and fixed commodities over renewable
resources. Today, money is lent into existence by the Fed
or another central bank — and paid back with interest.
cash is a medium; and like any medium, it has certain biases.
The money we use today is just one model of money. Turning
currency into an collaborative phenomenon is the final frontier
in the open source movement. It's what would allow for an
economic model that could support a renewable energies industry,
a way for companies such as Wal-Mart to add value to the
communities it currently drains, and a way of working with
money that doesn't have bankruptcy built in as a given circumstance.
Physicist, Dartmouth College; Author, The
Prophet and the Astronomer
science explain itself?
have been many times when I asked myself if we scientists,
especially those seeking to answer "ultimate"
kind of questions such as the origin of the Universe, are not
beating on the wrong drum. Of course, by trying to answer such
question as the origin of everything, we assume we can. We
plow ahead, proposing tentative models that join general relativity
and quantum mechanics and use knowledge from high energy physics
to propose models where the universe pops out of nothing, no
energy required, due to a random quantum fluctuation. To this,
we tag along the randomness of fundamental constants, saying
that their values are the way they are due to an accident:
other universes may well have other values of the charge and
mass of the electron and thus completely different properties.
So, our universe becomes this very special place where things "conspire" to
produce galaxies, stars, planets, and life.
if this is all bogus? What if we look at sciece as a narrative,
a description of the world that has limitations based on
its structure? The constants of Nature are the letters of
the alphabet, the laws are the grammar rules and we build
these descriptions through the guiding hand of the so-called
scientific method. Period. To say things are this way because
otherwise we wouldn't be here to ask the question is to miss
the point altogether: things are this way because this is
the story we humans tell based on the way we see the world
and explain it.
we take this to the extreme, it means that we will never
be able to answer the question of the origin of the Universe,
since it implicitly assumes that science can explain itself.
We can build any cool and creative models we want using any
marriage of quantum mechanics and relativity, but we still
won't understand why these laws and not others. In sense,
this means that our science is our science and not something
universally true as many believe it is. This is not bad at
all, given what we can do with it, but it does place limits
on knowledge. Which may also not be a bad thing as well.
It's OK not to know everything, it doesn't make science weaker.
Only more human.