Jesse Dylan's Documentary On The Edge Question — 2014

An Edge World Premier

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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


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


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



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. 


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

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. 


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


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.

David Rand: "How Do You Change People's Minds About What Is Right And Wrong?"

HeadCon '14

There are often future consequences for your current behavior. You can't just do whatever you want because if you are selfish now, it'll come back to bite you. In order for any of that to work, though, it relies on people caring about you being cooperative. There has to be a norm of cooperation. The important question then, in terms of trying to understand how we get people to cooperate and how we increase social welfare, is this: Where do these norms come from and how can they be changed? And since I spend all my time thinking about how to maximize social welfare, it also makes me stop and ask, "To what extent is the way that I am acting consistent with trying to maximize social welfare?"

[34:37 minutes]

DAVID RAND is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Economics, and Management at Yale University, and Director of Yale University’s Human Cooperation Laboratory. David Rand's Edge Bio page


I'm a professor of psychology, economics and management at Yale. The thing that I'm interested in, and that I spend pretty much all of my time thinking about, is cooperation—situations where people have the chance to help others at a cost to themselves. The questions that I'm interested in are how do we explain the fact that, by and large, people are quite cooperative, and even more importantly, what can we do to get people to be more cooperative, to be more willing to make sacrifices for the collective good?

There's been a lot of work on cooperation in different fields, and certain basic themes have emerged, what you might call mechanisms for promoting cooperation: ways that you can structure interactions so that people learn to cooperate. In general, if you imagine that most people in a group are doing the cooperative thing, paying costs to help the group as a whole, but there's some subset that's decided "Oh, we don't feel like it; we're just going to look out for ourselves," the selfish people will be better off. Then, either through an evolutionary process or an imitation process, that selfish behavior will spread.

SALT: Seminars About Long-term Thinking



It's the case that a lot of the SALT speakers are book authors, and sometimes we get them when they're on book tour. But usually I'm finding them because I want the same body of research and analysis that they’ve done at book scale. These are not tweets. They're not even TED Talks, brilliant as those are. Those are short form; these are the long form. For somebody to hold forth for the better part of an hour, whatever it is they have to say, they have to have mastered quite a bit.  

[31 minutes]


Over the past few years on a nearly monthly basis, Stewart Brand gets on a stage in San Francsico to do a Q&A with an eclectic array of interesting speakers, ranging from world-famous bestselling authors to young researchers and thinkers still under the radar. "My job is curator," he says, "but also I find the people, I get in touch with them, I invite them; they're not getting paid. They do get visibility in a serious context and a fantastic audience. I give a Q&A with them on the stage and then I summarize, which for me is the hardest, in some ways most interesting part because when Steven Pinker or Elaine Pagels or Jared Diamond or whoever talks for an hour, how do you summarize what they said in a couple hundred words and send that out to everybody? It's a form of writing compression that is hard, but I think worth doing. People like it."

The summaries of the SALT Talks, emailed to the membership and then posted on the Long Now website, are a highlight of the program. Check them out, and watch the videos of the talks at the Long Now Seminar page.

Last month I sat down with Brand in San Francisco, at the new Interval Cafe near the Golden Gate Bridge, the latest addition to the many projects coming out of his Long Now Foundation. I was particularly eager to talk to him as it's coming up on the 50-year mark of our first meeting in 1965 at the USCO psychedlic/cybernetic tabernacle in a converted church in Garnerville, NY.  We've been in touch regularly ever since,  talking about ideas, working on an occasional project. It's always interesting.

John Brockman

STEWART BRAND is Founder of the The Whole Earth Catalog, Co-founder and Co-chair of The Long Now Foundation, author of Whole Earth Discipline.

Stewart Brand's Edge Bio Page

SALT: Seminars About Long-term Thinking

For 12 years now we've been doing monthly talks to the public called "Seminars About Long-term Thinking" that the Long Now Foundation sponsors in San Francisco. I don’t have a rap about the SALT Talks—Seminars for Long-term Thinking—this is one of those cases where the acronym rules. SALT talks are an ongoing territorial exploration of people who are talking, writing, thinking about things that bear relation—sometimes tangential—to long-term thinking, bearing in mind that the Long Now, as defined by Brian Eno and Peter Schwartz for the Long Now Foundation, is the last 10,000 years and the next 10,000 years. So we're building a 10,000 Year Clock, we’re bringing back extinct species, we’re cataloging all the languages in the world, and we're giving a pretty highly visible stage to current thinkers.

When Steven Pinker writes his book, The Better Angels of our Nature—the book is incredible, his news is fantastic, that things are getting better in terms of violence and cruelty and injustice in a pretty constant long-term way—everyone wants to hear him say it and tell it with words and presence and slides and quizzing on the stage. 

Simone Schnall: "Moral Intuitions, Replication, and the Scientific Study of Human Nature"

HeadCon '14

In the end, it's about admissible evidence and ultimately, we need to hold all scientific evidence to the same high standard. Right now we're using a lower standard for the replications involving negative findings when in fact this standard needs to be higher. To establish the absence of an effect is much more difficult than the presence of an effect.


SIMONE SCHNALL is a University Senior Lecturer and Director of the Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion Laboratory at Cambridge University. Simone Schnall's Edge Bio Page

[NOTE: For my talk at HeadCon '14, I explored my personal experience with a replication project. In the talk, I shared some reflections on this experience, and on how replication efforts are currently carried out. In this regard, I was talking to a group of colleagues in my field who are mostly acquainted with the relevant scientific issues. Edge readers unfamiliar with some of the discussion points can find further details on what some have called "replication bullying" in an article in ScienceSS]


I'm Simone Schnall. I'm a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge and I study all kinds of judgments, namely how people make judgments about the physical world but also about the social world. One thing I'm particularly interested in is moral judgments and how people's intuitions and feelings shape their moral judgments. At the moment, the field of social psychology is an interesting context in which to study people's judgments. There are all kinds of discussions going on, in particular about replication.

What's a replication? It sounds simple enough. You do the same study again and you see if you get the same result again. But when it comes to social psychology it's a little more complicated because what we usually do is to test a specific question with various different experiments. For example we've done some work with Jon Haidt, Jerry Clore and Alex Jordan to look at the influence of physical disgust on moral disgust. For example, we induce physical disgust by a disgusting smell and then look at participant's moral judgment and we find it makes them more severe.

HeadCon '13 Part I - Sendhil Mullainathan: What Big Data Means For Social Science



What Big Data Means For Social Science

Sendhil Mullainathan is Professor of Economics, Harvard; Assistant Director for Research, The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), U.S. Treasury Department (2011-2013); Coauthor, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Social Pain


Showing that some of the same neural regions that are involved in physical pain are involved in social pain can be very validating for people. For anyone who's felt the pain of losing somebody or who's felt the hurt feelings that come from being ostracized or bullied, there's something very validating in seeing this scientific work that shows it's not just in our head. It is in our head because it's in our brain. It's not just in our head, there is something biological going on that's interpreting the pain of social rejection as something that really is a painful experience. 

NAOMI EISENBERGER is a professor in the Social Psychology Program at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory as well as co-director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. Naomi Eisenberger's Edge Bio Page


The kinds of questions that I'm interested in have to do with the feelings that come up in our closest social relationships. I've been on both sides of this equation, the negative side and the positive side. I've been very curious about both the painful feelings that we have when we lose our closest social relationships or we feel disconnected from others, as well as the pleasurable feelings that we have when we feel close and connected to those that we love. One of the things that we've been exploring in my Lab at UCLA is where those feelings come from. One way that we've been doing this is by turning to the brain to try to understand those feelings of social closeness or social distance.

We started off on the negative side. I started off with this question of: why do people talk about feeling hurt by social rejection? Why do they talk about the pain that comes up when they feel left out or excluded? It's a very palpable experience. Most people, if you ask them to think back to some very painful event in their life, instead of bringing up something that involves a broken bone they’ll often bring up an experience that involves losing a social relationship or being rejected. We all have these memories of being left out on the school playground or fears of being left out on the school playground. So I was very curious. Where do those fears and where do those feelings come from?




I'll tell you about my new favorite idea, which like all new favorite ideas, is really an old idea. This one, from the 1960s, was used only in a couple of studies. It's called "latitude of acceptance". If I want to persuade you, what I need to do is pitch my arguments so that they're in the range of a bubble around your current belief; it's not too far from your current belief, but it's within this bubble.


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