Conversations

ON KAHNEMAN

[3.27.14]

Introduction

On the occasion of Daniel Kahneman's 80th birthday on March 5, 2014, Edge celebrated with a reprise of a number of his contributions to our pages. (See Edge Master Class 2007, "A Short Course in Thinking About Thinking";  Edge Master Class 2008, "A Short Course in Behavioral Economics"; Kahneman's talk on "The Marvels and Flaws of Intuitive Thinking" at the Edge Master Class 2011, "The Science of Human Nature."

In the first Edge Master Class, "Thinking About Thinking"  (2007), Kahneman was the teacher and the students were the founders and architects of Microsoft, Amazon, Google, PayPal, and Facebook, i.e. the individuals responsible for rewriting our global culture. Why did Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Page (Google), Sergey Brin (Google), Nathan Myhrvold (Microsoft), Sean Parker (Facebook), Elon Musk (Space X, Tesla), Evan Williams (Twitter), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), among others, travel to Napa that year, and again in 2008, to listen to Kahneman? Because all kinds of things are new. Entirely new economic structures and pathways have come into existence in the past few years: New ideas in psychology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, law, and medicine that take a new look at risk, decision-making, and other aspects of human judgment.

"Danny Kahneman is simply the most distinguished living psychologist in the world, bar none," writes Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. "Trying to say something smart about Danny's contributions to science is like trying to say something smart about water: It is everywhere, in everything, and a world without it would be a world unimaginably different than this one."

"It's not an exaggeration to say that Kahneman is one of the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today," adds Harvard research psychologist Steven Pinker. "He has made seminal contributions over a wide range of fields including social psychology, cognitive science, reasoning and thinking, and behavioral economics, a field he and his partner Amos Tversky invented."

His longtime colleague, (and co-teacher of the 2008 Edge Master Class, behavioral economist Richard Thaler, suggested that Edge follow up the birthday announcement by doing what it does best—asking Edgies who work in fields including, but not limited to, psychology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, law, and medicine a question.

For their responses to Thaler's question—"How has Kahneman's work influenced your own? What step did it make possible?"—we asked a select group of Edgeis to include inspired leaps off of Kahneman's shoulders, not just applications of his ideas. We used a comment made by Steven Pinker in the Q&A following Kahneman's talk at the 2011 Edge Master Class, as an example. Pinker said:

If somebody were to ask me what are the most important contributions to human life from psychology, I would identify this work [by Kahneman & Tversky] as maybe number one, and certainly in the top two or three. In fact, I would identify the work on reasoning as one of the most important things that we've learned about anywhere. When we were trying to identify what any educated person should know in the entire expanse of knowledge, I argued unsuccessfully that the work on human cognition and probabilistic reason should be up there as one of the first things any educated person should know.

One way to consider the long and illustrious career of a great thinker such as Kahneman is not as a summation, but as a commission, one that gives us permission to move forward in certain ways. (Think Newton's "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.") As social psychologist Richard Nisbett noted, "It's not just a celebration of Danny. It's a celebration of behavioral science."

— John Brockman

The World Mind That Came In From The Counter Culture

John Brockman: A Portrait
[1.10.14]

10.01.2014 • Be imaginative, exciting, compelling, inspiring: That's what John Brockman Expects of himself and others. Arguably, the planet's most important literary agent Brockman brings its cyber elite together in his Internet salon "Edge." We paid a visit to the man from the Third Culture.

At the age of three John Brockman announced: "I want to go to New York!" For decades he has been a leading light behind the scenes in the city's intellectual life.  Foto wowe

DELAYED GRATIFICATION HURTS CLIMATE CHANGE COOPERATION

A Conversation with
[11.4.13]

Introduction

Interesting news this week from Nature Climate Change which published a study by Jennifer Jacquet (Edge's Roving Editor!) and her colleagues at two Max Planck Institutes, Kristin Hagel, Christoph Hauert, Jochem Marotzke, Torsten Röhl and Manfred Milinski. The study, designed by Jacquet, who is Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at NYU sparked global press coverage which included articles in Time, Der Spiegel, and a 5-minute segment on Fareed Zakaria's GPS national news program on CNN on "Why in the world can't the world get consensus on climate change?" Harvard psycholgist Steven Pinker noted that the paper is "an insightful analysis of why it's so hard to come to grips with climate change." Special thanks to Rory Hawlett, Chief Editor of Nature Climate Change for opening the paywall for one month—until the end of November—to allow public access to the paper. And a tip of the hat to Nature Editor-in-Chief and Edge contributor, Philip Campbell for his continued interest and support.

John Brockman
    Editor

JENNIFER JACQUET is Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU, researching shame, cooperation and the tragedy of the commons. She is also Edge's Roving Editor (see interviews with Adam Alter and Joseph Heinrich).

Jennifer Jacquet's Edge bio page 

THE REALITY CLUB: Freeman Dyson, Lee Smolin


WHAT IN THE WORLD: A CLIMATE CHANGE GAME
Why in the world can't the world get consensus on climate change? Fareed Zakaria takes a look at a new study.


DELAYED GRATIFICATION HURTS CLIMATE CHANGE COOPERATION

[JENNIFER JACQUET:] My colleagues from UBC, the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology, and the Max-Planck-Institute for Meteorology, and I published a study this week in Nature Climate Change where we show that when the rewards of cooperation are delayed, cooperation significantly declines. We used a 6-player collective risk game—a variant on the threshold public-goods experiment, which requires a minimal investment into the common pool (in our case 120 Euros) for the public good to be provided (in our case, an additional 45 Euros each). No single player is capable of ensuring the group's success, and a majority of players who donate nothing guarantees that the target cannot be met. As an environmental scientist interested in large-scale social dilemmas, like overfishing and climate change, this set-up is perfect to explore some of the nuances of cooperation.

THE THIRD CULTURE

[9.9.91]

 

The third culture consists 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.

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, 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. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

In 1959 C.P. Snow published a book titled The Two Cultures. On the one hand, there were the literary intellectuals; on the other, the scientists. He noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring to themselves as "the intellectuals," as though there were no others. This new definition by the "men of letters" excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.

How did the literary intellectuals get away with it? First, people in the sciences did not make an effective case for the implications of their work. Second, while many eminent scientists, notably Arthur Eddington and James Jeans, also wrote books for a general audience, their works were ignored by the self-proclaimed intellectuals, and the value and importance of the ideas presented remained invisible as an intellectual activity, because science was not a subject for the reigning journals and magazines.

In a second edition of The Two Cultures, published in 1963, Snow added a new essay, "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," in which he optimistically suggested that a new culture, a "third culture," would emerge and close the communications gap between the literary intellectuals and the scientists. In Snow's third culture, the literary intellectuals would be on speaking terms with the scientists. Although I borrow Snow's phrase, it does not describe the third culture he predicted. Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists. Scientists are communicating directly with the general public. Traditional intellectual media played a vertical game: journalists wrote up and professors wrote down. Today, third-culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavor to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public.

The recent publishing successes of serious science books have surprised only the old-style intellectuals. Their view is that these books are anomalies--that they are bought but not read. I disagree. The emergence of this third-culture activity is evidence that many people have a great intellectual hunger for new and important ideas and are willing to make the effort to educate themselves.

The wide appeal of the third-culture thinkers is not due solely to their writing ability; what traditionally has been called "science" has today become "public culture." Stewart Brand writes that "Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn't change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly." We now live in a world in which the rate of change is the biggest change. Science has thus become a big story.

Scientific topics receiving prominent play in newspapers and magazines over the past several years include molecular biology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, superstrings, biodiversity, nanotechnology, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, space biospheres, the Gaia hypothesis, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. Among others. There is no canon or accredited list of acceptable ideas. The strength of the third culture is precisely that it can tolerate disagreements about which ideas are to be taken seriously. Unlike previous intellectual pursuits, the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: they will affect the lives of everybody on the planet.

The role of the intellectual includes communicating. Intellectuals are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesizer, a publicist, a communicator. In his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals, the cultural historian Russell Jacoby bemoaned the passing of a generation of public thinkers and their replacement by bloodless academicians. He was right, but also wrong. The third-culture thinkers are the new public intellectuals.

America now is the intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia. This trend started with the prewar emigration of Albert Einstein and other European scientists and was further fueled by the post- Sputnik boom in scientific education in our universities. The emergence of the third culture introduces new modes of intellectual discourse and reaffirms the preeminence of America in the realm of important ideas. Throughout history, intellectual life has been marked by the fact that only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for everybody else. What we are witnessing is a passing of the torch from one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a new group, the intellectuals of the emerging third culture.

John Brockman
1991 

Dennett on Wieseltier V. Pinker in The New Republic

Let's Start With A Respect For Truth
[9.10.13]

Introduction

"The third culture consists 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." (From The Emerging Third Culture", 1991) 

Last month, The New Republic published Steven Pinker's article "Science Is Not The Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historian" (August 6, 2013). A link to a  3-minute video attacking the article  was inserted in the middle of Pinker's text—"WATCH: Leon Wieseltier's rejoinder: Science doesn't have all the answers". Billed as one of "An irregular video-interview series with New Republic Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier", the video was conveniently ready for posting within minutes of the publication of Pinker's article.
 
Now, a month later, Wieseltier is back with a 5,650-word attack in the magazine entitled "Crimes Against Humanities: Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don't let it happen." (September 3, 2013).
 

This is not a new debate. In my 1991 essay "The Emerging Third Culture", I wrote:

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, 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. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

In 1959 C.P. Snow published a book titled The Two Cultures. On the one hand, there were the literary intellectuals; on the other, the scientists. He noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring to themselves as "the intellectuals," as though there were no others. This new definition by the "men of letters" excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.

How did the literary intellectuals get away with it? ... 

In a second edition of "The Two Cultures", published in 1963, Snow added a new essay, "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," in which he optimistically suggested that a new culture, a "third culture," would emerge and close the communications gap between the literary intellectuals and the scientists. In Snow's third culture, the literary intellectuals would be on speaking terms with the scientists. Although I borrow Snow's phrase, it does not describe the third culture he predicted. Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists. Scientists are communicating directly with the general public.  ...

Given Wieseltier's screed, we can all be thankful that this is happening. His clueless attack is evidence that he doesn't know, and doesn't even know that he doesn't know. It's no accident that Prospect Magazine has scientists (and Edge contributors) Richard DawkinsSteven PinkerDaniel Kahneman, and Jared Diamond at, or near, the top of their "World's Greatest Thinkers 2013" poll ("a snapshot of the intellectual trends that dominate our age"). Or that The Guardian has proclaimed Edge the world's smartest website

Edge is pleased to publish the following response to Wieseltier from philosopher Daniel C. Dennett.

 

DANIEL C. DENNETT is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University. Among his books are Intuition Pumps; Darwin's Dangerous Idea; and Consciousness Explained.

Daniel C. Dennett's Edge Bio page 

__

Further Reading on Edge:  "The Emerging Third Culture" (1991); "The New Humanists" (2000), "The Expanding Third Culture" (2006).


DENNETT ON WIESELTIER V. PINKER IN THE NEW REPUBLIC

Leon Wieseltier sees that the humanities are in a deep crisis, but his essay, "Crimes against the Humanities," is not a helpful contribution to its resolution. Name-calling and sarcasm are typically the last refuge of somebody who can't think of anything else to say to fend off a challenge he doesn't understand and can't abide. His response to Steven Pinker's proposed conciliation of science and the humanities is neither polite nor fair, and amounts, in the end, to a blustery attempt to lay down the law:

It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science.  

This is true enough, if carefully interpreted, but Wieseltier asserts it without argument, showing that he himself is not even trying to be a philosopher, but rather a Wise Divulger of the Undeniable Verities. He knows—take it from him. So this simple passage actually illustrates the very weakness of the humanities today that has encouraged scientists and other conscientious thinkers to try their own hand at answering the philosophical questions that press in on us, venturing beyond the confines of their disciplines to fill the vacuum left by the humanities.

THREE ADDITIONAL POINTS

[8.2.13]

I might add three points that were not included in the piece I wrote for FAZ in Germany and also published by Edge, roughly:

1) The Corona program was of such immense historical and strategic importance because the intelligence it produced showed that the USSR did not have nearly as many missiles and launchers as we feared they did. Corona served as a much-needed damper on the Cold War arms race (pushed vigorously by that military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned about) which might have been even worse without reliable intelligence.

2) PRISM etc. could well produce the same result--if we capture all the e-mails in the world, and break all the encryption, we may discover that the world is not nearly as full of terrorists actually threatening the homeland as certain factions are warning us to be afraid of. It may really turn out to just be mostly cat videos (and normal criminal activity). The question is, will the security-industrial complex inform us of that?

3) The current security hysteria has all the indicators of an autoimmune disease--when the organism starts reacting against itself.

CARR RESPONDS TO DYSON

[7.31.13]

 

Dyson , in his essay "NSA: The Decision Problem", has done us a favor by connecting the dots, both backward to the origins of modern predictive algorithms and forward to the potentially stifling effect of using such algorithms to spy on personal action and speech. I wonder whether there’s another set of dots to be connected to the commercial use of data-mining and prediction tools. 

NICHOLAS G. CARR, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, writes and speaks on technology, business, and culture. He is the author of The Shallows and The Big Switch.

Nicholas G. Carr's Edge Bio Page

NSA: THE DECISION PROBLEM

[7.27.13]

The ultimate goal of signals intelligence and analysis is to learn not only what is being said, and what is being done, but what is being thought. With the proliferation of search engines that directly track the links between individual human minds and the words, images, and ideas that both characterize and increasingly constitute their thoughts, this goal appears within reach at last. "But, how can the machine know what I think?" you ask. It does not need to know what you think—no more than one person ever really knows what another person thinks. A reasonable guess at what you are thinking is good enough.

GEORGE DYSON, Science Historian, is the author of Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, and Darwin Among the Machines.

[ED. NOTE: George Dyson's piece was commissioned by Frank Schirrmacher, co-publisher of the national German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), where he is Editor of the Feuilleton, cultural and science pages of the paper. First published by FAZ on July 26, 2013.]

THE REALITY CLUB: Nicholas Carr, George Dyson

NSA: THE DECISION PROBLEM

Shortly after noon, local time, on 19 August 1960, over the North Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, a metal capsule about the size and shape of a large kitchen sink fell out of the sky from low earth orbit and drifted by parachute toward the earth. It was snagged in mid-air, on the third pass, by a C-119 "flying boxcar" transport aircraft from Hickam Air Force base in Honolulu, and then transferred to Moffett Field Naval Air Station, in Mountain View, California—where Google's fleet of private jets now sit parked. Inside the capsule was 3000 feet of 70mm Kodak film, recording seven orbital passes over 1,650,000 square miles of Soviet territory that was closed to all overflights at the time. 

This spectacular intelligence coup was preceded by 13 failed attempts. Secrecy all too often conceals waste and failure within government programs; in this case, secrecy was essential to success. Any reasonable politician, facing the taxpayers, would have canceled the Corona orbital reconnaissance program after the eleventh or twelfth unsuccessful launch.

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