CULTURE

Office For Anticipating Surprise

[8.14.15]


To enter or not to enter? Obama's choice before the capture of Bin Laden. Scene from the film Zero Dark Thirty. Photo: Jonathan Olley

Andrian Kreye, Feuilleton Editor
English translation by Arya Kamangar

For the psychology professor Philip Tetlock, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is a classic example of the insufficiency of secret-service agencies. When Barack Obama gave the green light for that operation four years ago, he knew he was making one of the most difficult decisions in his life—one that would not only mean life or death for those involved, but also sway the course of history and help determine his legacy. The prognoses offered by the secret-service agencies were inconclusive: some put the likelihood for success at 40%, others at 80%. In the movie based on this operation, Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA agent Maya insists she is 100% certain of success. In reality, Obama determined the chances stood at fifty-fifty and gave the green light against the advice of his secretary of defense. 

In Tetlock's view, such imprecisions present an unacceptable risk. Forecasts alleging complete certainty are, of course, unscientific. But Tetlock argues that a historic decision must not be based on imprecise reports. While Obama may have enjoyed luck on a historic scale, with his special task force finding Bin Laden and killing him, Tetlock insists that the work of secret-service agencies must change—fundamentally.

Since the eighties Tetlock has worked on precisely this endeavor. For four years now he has pursued research at the University of Pennsylvania at the behest of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which the NSA and the CIA, together with fourteen other American secret-service agencies, established in 2006, in order to develop new methods for secret-service work in the post-9/11 era. Among IARPA’s divisions are the Office for Anticipating Surprise, the Office of Smart Collection, and the Office of Incisive Analysis.

Psychologists' "forecasting tournaments" capture the interest of the NSA and the CIA

This past weekend Tetlock met with twenty scientists and engineers on a vineyard north of San Francisco. Two European journalists were invited; otherwise, the meeting was closed to the public. Tetlock wanted to discuss the results of his Good Judgment Project, which he has worked on for 24 years. The scientists discuss the project under ideal circumstances: sheltered from the summer heat in the cool living room of a stately Victorian house. With palms in the garden, a front porch and wainscoting, the house exudes colonial splendor. The air is redolent with the rose beds in front of the windows and the precious woods of the furniture. The host is John Brockman of Edge Foundation, Inc. (http://edge.org), which is the best network for such debates in the country. That explains the presence of such intellectual heavyweights as the Nobel Laureate in Economics Daniel Kahneman, the political scientist and National Medal of Science winner Robert Axelrod, the political scientist Margaret Levi, and Google Vice President Salar Kamangar. It isn’t easy to hold one’s own in such a group. Kahneman in particular, the cleverest of them all, is skeptical.

Tetlock begins by recounting the history of the Good Judgment Project. In 1984 he began holding "forecasting tournaments" in which selected candidates are asked questions about the course of events. In the wake of a natural disaster, what policies will be changed in the United States? When will North Korea test nuclear weapons? Candidates examine the questions in teams. They are not necessarily experts, but attentive, shrewd citizens. One of the best forecasters so far is Bill Flack, a former official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from Nebraska.

We Need A Modern Origin Story: A Big History

Topic: 

  • CULTURE
https://vimeo.com/126516234

In modern science, and I include the humanities here, science in a German sense of science—rigorous scholarship across all domains—in modern science we've gotten used to the idea that science doesn't offer meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past. I'm increasingly thinking that this idea that modernity puts us in a world without meaning—philosophers have banged on about this for a century-and-a-half—may be completely wrong. We may be living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed.

We Need A Modern Origin Story: A Big History

[5.21.15]

In modern science, and I include the humanities here, science in a German sense of science—rigorous scholarship across all domains—in modern science we've gotten used to the idea that science doesn't offer meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past. I'm increasingly thinking that this idea that modernity puts us in a world without meaning—philosophers have banged on about this for a century-and-a-half—may be completely wrong. We may be living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed. It's vastly more powerful than the previous stories because it's the first one that is global. It's not anchored in a particular culture or a particular society. This is an origin story that works for humans in Beijing as well as in Buenos Aires. 

It's a global origin story, and it sums over vastly more information than any early origin story. This is very, very powerful stuff. It's full of meaning. We're now at the point where, across so many domains, the amount of information, of good, rigorous ideas, is so rich that we can tease out that story. 

DAVID CHRISTIAN is Professor of History, Macquarie University, Sydney; Author, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. David Christian's Edge Bio Page 

Death Is Optional

[3.4.15]

Once you really solve a problem like direct brain-computer interface ... when brains and computers can interact directly, that's it, that's the end of history, that's the end of biology as we know it. Nobody has a clue what will happen once you solve this. If life can break out of the organic realm into the vastness of the inorganic realm, you cannot even begin to imagine what the consequences will be, because your imagination at present is organic. So if there is a point of Singularity, by definition, we have no way of even starting to imagine what's happening beyond that. 

YUVAL NOAH HARARI, Lecturer, Department of History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari's Edge Bio Page

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, 2002 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2013. He is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and author of Thinking Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Nicholas Carr, Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari, Kevin Kelly



Death Is Optional


DANIEL KAHNEMAN: Before asking you what are the questions you are asking yourself, I want to say that I've now read your book Sapiens twice and in that book you do something that I found pretty extraordinary. You cover the history of mankind. It seems to be like an invitation for people to dismiss it as superficial, so I read it, and I read it again, because in fact, I found so many ideas that were enriching. I want to talk about just one or two of them as examples.

Your chapter on science is one of my favorites and so is the title of that chapter, "The Discovery of Ignorance." It presents the idea that science began when people discovered that there was ignorance, and that they could do something about it, that this was really the beginning of science. I love that phrase.

And in fact, I loved that phrase so much that I went and looked it up. Because I thought, where did he get it? My search of the phrase showed that all the references were to you. And there are many other things like that in the book.

How did you transition from that book to what you're doing now?

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: It came naturally. My big question at present is what is the human agenda for the 21st century. And this is a direct continuation from covering the history of humankind, from the appearance of Homo Sapiens until today, so when you finish that, immediately, you think, okay, what next? I'm not trying to predict the future, which is impossible, now more than ever. Nobody has a clue how the world will look like in, say, 40, 50 years. We may know some of the basic variables but, if you really understand what's going on in the world, you know that it's impossible to have any good prediction for the coming decades. This is the first time in history that we're in this situation.

I'm trying to do something that is the opposite of predicting the future. I'm trying to identify what are the possibilities, what is the horizon of possibilities that we are facing? And what will happen from among these possibilities? We still have a lot of choice in this regard.

Death Is Optional (Yuval Noah Harari & Daniel Kahneman)

Topic: 

  • CULTURE

Once you really solve a problem like direct brain-computer interface ... when brains and computers can interact directly, to take just one example, that's it, that's the end of history, that's the end of biology as we know it. Nobody has a clue what will happen once you solve this. If life can basically break out of the organic realm into the vastness of the inorganic realm, you cannot even begin to imagine what the consequences will be, because your imagination at present is organic.

Jesse Dylan's Documentary On The Edge Question — 2014

An Edge World Premier
[12.17.14]

[Click icon  in video image to expand to full-screen viewing.]

Following January's publication of the Edge Question—2014, "What Scientific Idea Is Ready for Retirement?," the director Jesse Dylan approached Edge regarding putting together a documentary film on the project. 

The result: Edge is pleased to present the world premiere of Dylan's interesting and engaging four-minute impressionistic montage, featuring appearences by a number of Edgies: Jerry Coyne, Daniel C. Dennett, George Dyson, David Gelernter, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Alison Gopnik, Kevin Kelly, Alex Pentland, Irene Pepperberg, Steven Pinker, Lee Smolin, Paul Steinhardt, and Frank Wilczek.

JESSE DYLAN is a filmmaker and founder, Creative Director and CEO of Wondros, a production company based in LA. He has created media projects for a diverse group of organizations, including George Soros and the Open Society Foundations, Clinton Global Initiative, Council on Foreign Relations, MIT Media Lab, the Columbia Journalism School, and Harvard Medical School. Among his best known works is in the Emmy Award-winning  "Yes We Can—Barack Obama Music Video."  Jesse Dylan's Edge Bio Page

 

Entwined Fates

[11.24.14]

We keep coming back to the issue of a community of fate: can it be for good or for bad, right? We can imagine the beer hall in Munich and what happened there that created a community of fate, and we can imagine the left-wing union organizers developing a different kind of community of fate. The real distinction between them is not just the ethical principles that inform them—that's clearly an important distinction—but what kind of community of fate it is. The terminology that I use there, and I keep repeating and want to get that through, is between an inclusive and an expansive community of fate versus an exclusive and narrowing community of fate. That's the difference.

MARGARET LEVI is the Director of the Center For Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. She is the Jere L. Bacharach Professor Emerita of International Studies at the University of Washington. Margaret Levi's Edge Bio Page


ENTWINED FATES

The thing that interests me has to do with how we evoke, from people, the ethical commitments that they have, or can be encouraged to have, that make it possible to have better government, that make it possible to produce collective goods, that make it possible to have a better society. 

I'm a political scientist, political economist, so I think about this not so much from the perspective of moral reasoning, or philosophy, or psychology for that matter—though all those disciplines come into play in my thinking—but I think about it in terms of the institutional arrangements and contextual arrangements in which people find themselves. It is about those that evoke certain behaviors as opposed to other kinds of behaviors, and certain attitudes as opposed to other kinds of attitudes, that ultimately lead to actions. I'm ultimately interested not just in how the individual's mind works, but how individual minds work together to create an aggregate outcome.

Jennifer Jacquet on Extinction

[11.6.14]

 

I dream about the sea cow or imagine what they would be like to see in the wild, but the case of the Pinta Island giant tortoise was a particularly strange feeling for me personally because I had spent many afternoons in the Galapagos Islands when I was a volunteer with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Lonesome George’s den with him. If any of you visited the Galapagos, you know that you can even feed the giant tortoises that are in the Charles Darwin Research Station. This is Lonesome George here.

 

He lived to a ripe old age but failed, as they pointed out many times, to reproduce. Just recently, in 2012, he died, and with him the last of his species. He was couriered to the American Museum of Natural History and taxidermied there. A couple weeks ago his body was unveiled. This was the unveiling that I attended, and at this exact moment in time I can say that I was feeling a little like I am now: nervous and kind of nauseous, while everyone else seemed calm. I wasn’t prepared to see Lonesome George. Here he is taxidermied, looking out over Central Park, which was strange as well. At that moment realized that I knew the last individual of this species to go extinct. That presents this strange predicament for us to be in in the 21st century—this idea of conspicuous extinction. 

 
[13:44]

JENNIFER JACQUET is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU; Researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons; Author, Is Shame Necessary? Jennifer Jacquet's Edge Bio Page


MOLLY CROCKETT: Our next speaker is Jennifer Jacquet. She’s an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University. She’s an environmental social scientist interested in large-scale cooperation dilemmas with interests in overfishing, climate change and the wildlife trade. She has a new book coming out in early 2015 called Is Shame Necessary? It’s about the evolution function and future of the use of social disapproval. Hopefully she’ll tell us a little bit about that in her talk. Let’s welcome Jennifer to the stage.

Jennifer Jacquet: "Shaming At Scale"

HeadCon '14
[11.18.14]

Shaming, in this case, was a fairly low-cost form of punishment that had high reputational impact on the U.S. government, and led to a change in behavior. It worked at scale—one group of people using it against another group of people at the group level. This is the kind of scale that interests me. And the other thing that it points to, which is interesting, is the question of when shaming works. In part, it's when there's an absence of any other option. Shaming is a little bit like antibiotics. We can overuse it and actually dilute its effectiveness, because it's linked to attention, and attention is finite. With punishment, in general, using it sparingly is best. But in the international arena, and in cases in which there is no other option, there is no formalized institution, or no formal legislation, shaming might be the only tool that we have, and that's why it interests me. 

 
[31:58]

JENNIFER JACQUET is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU; Researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons; Author, Is Shame Necessary? Jennifer Jacquet's Edge Bio Page


SHAMING AT SCALE

My name is Jennifer Jacquet. I'm an assistant professor in environmental studies at NYU and I'm interested in large-scale cooperation dilemmas. A lot of those are environmental in nature. I wonder about what it's going to take to leave 1,700 billion barrels of oil in the ground, or half the fish in the ocean, or to remove nitrous oxide from the atmosphere so that we don't deplete the ozone.

The interesting thing about conservation, and science in general, is that it's moving into the social sciences and into questions about human nature. You would say, especially someone like Josh Knobe might say, well, that's not that interesting because a lot of fields, including philosophy, are doing more empirical work. Gender studies are also moving more into the social domain and empirical data collection. The same pertains to African-American studies. But the interesting thing here is that with conservation science it was epistemologically and institutionally a discipline in the natural sciences, rather than the humanities.

I find this move interesting and also challenging for a lot of hardcore biologists and ecologists who have traditionally dominated the field to recognize that the most important interrelationship is not between the plants and animals, or the animals in the ecosystem, but between humans and the environment. I view there being a big wave of environmental social science coming on board, and I'm part of that wave.

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