2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Author,Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Five Minds for the Future

Early Detection of Learning Disabilities or Difficulties

When, at John Brockman's urging, I don the hat of "scientific optimism," I think of the early detection of learning disabilities or difficulties, coupled with interventions that can ameliorate or even dissipate these difficulties. In the near future we will be able to use neural imaging techniques to determine which infants or toddlers are at risk of having problems in reading, writing, calculating, spelling, mastery spatial relations, mastering social relations, and the like. (We may even have genetic markers for these risk factors). And I believe that the more specific the detection of the disorder (i.e. which kind of reading problem, what sort of social deficit), the more likely that we can ultimately devise interventions that directly address a particular problem.

But as soon as I have unloaded this optimistic view, another less happy scenario immediately floods my consciousness. The same means of early detection can so easily be put to malevolent purposes. First of all, we won't just determine deficits that can be addressed, but also ones that cannot be addressed. Second, we run the risk of stigmatizing children from birth—"Oh, you are destined to be illiterate," or "you'll never be likeable, because of your social deficits." Moreover, we will be likely soon to turn not just to deficits, but to efforts to produce the perfect child—to enhance perfectly adequate capacities through genetic, neural, or pharmacological interventions. Not only does this seem to go against human nature and fate as we have known it; it will also privilege further those who are already privileged.

Thus, challenging the spirit of The Edge Annual Question, I think that to speak to science apart from its use and its users, its misuse and its misusers, is simply naïve. And so, I have to add some political remarks.

In recent years in the United States, we have seen ample examples of how science can be distorted for political purposes. In this context I recall a remark made to me several years ago, by John Gardner, the great American civic leader (no relation). Gardner said "There've never been so many young people in America involved in public service, community service, social entrepreneurship, and other efforts to promote the common good." But, Gardner added somberly, "This commitment won't add up unless these young people become involved in the political process. Because while they may be helping dozens or even hundreds of individuals, laws are being passed that harm thousands or millions of persons."

After the election of November 7, 2006, I feel a shade more optimistic about America. More young people are engaged in politics, and more idealistic youths are running or considering a run for office. America will be in better shape when the leaders and graduates of organizations like Teach for America or City Year meld their sense of public service with political involvement. And this realignment should benefit the rest of the world as well. And, most important for the Edge community, such individuals may be able to help ensure that science and technology—never good nor evil in themselves—will be put to benevolent purposes.