Edge 273—January 30, 2009
(6,700 words)



Daniel Kahneman & Nassim Nicholas Taleb: A Conversation in Munich
(Moderator: John Brockman)

A Talk with Nathan Wolfe

George Dyson, Emanuel Derman, Karl W. Giberson, Kenneth R. Miller on Jerry Coyne's "Does The Empirical Nature Of Science Contradict The Revelatory Nature Of Faith?"

By Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges


By Ansgar Siemens, FOCUS online editor

By Ben McGrath

Nassim Taleb: "I Was Happy Lehman Went Bust"
Edited by Andrew Ross Sorkin

Taleb Says Nationalize Banks, You Can't Trust Them (Update2)
By Svenja O'Donnell and Francine Lacqua

A Rallying Cry to Claw Back Bonuses
Tom Redburn

Those genius financial doomsayers: a round-up
By Stephen Moss

How Bad Is The Crisis Going To Get
By Time Weber


Daniel Kahneman & Nassim Nicholas Taleb: A Conversation in Munich
(Moderator: John Brockman)

The greatest living psychologist and the foremost scholar of extreme events discuss hindsight biases, the illusion of patterns, perception of risk, and denial (1 hr video)

An EDGE @ DLD Event

January 28, 2009


Blame for the financial crisis is the nature of man, say two renowned scientists: Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and bestselling author Nassim Taleb ( "The Black Swan").

By Ansgar Siemens, FOCUS online editor

Two men sitting on the stage. Left. Daniel Kahneman, 74, bright-eyed, Nobel Prize winner. Right Nassim Taleb, 49, former Wall Street banker, best-selling author. Both speak on the future of Digital Life Design Conference (DLD) in Munich on the financial crisis, about the beginning—mainly they talk about people. They say it is due to our essence, that the crisis has broken out. And they choose harsh words in discussing the scale of the disaster.

Kahneman explains why there are bubbles in the financial markets, even though everyone knows that they eventually burst. The researchers used the comparison with the weather: If there is little rain for three years, people begin to believe that this is the normal situation. If over the years stocks only increase, people can't imagine a break in this trend.

"Those responsible must go—today and not tomorrow"

Taleb talks against the sharp bankers. The people in control of taxpayer's money are spending billions of dollars. "I want those responsible for the crisis gone today, today and not tomorrow," he says, leaning forward vigorously. The risk models of banks are a plague, he says, the bankers are charlatans.

It is nonsense to think that we can assess risks and thus protect against a crash. Taleb has become famous with his theory of the black swan described in his eponymous bestsellers described. Black swans, which are events that are not previously seen—not even with the best model. "People will never be able to control a coincidence," he says.

The early warner

Taleb had an early warning before the crisis. In 2003 he took note of the balance sheet of the U.S. mortgage finance giant Fannie Mae, and he saw "dynamite".

In autumn last year, the U.S. government instituted A dramatic bailout. Taleb said in the "Sunday Times" in 2008: "Bankers are very dangerous." And even now, he sees a scandal: He provocatively asks what have the banks done with the government bailout money. "They have paid out more bonuses, and they have increased the risks." And it was not their own money.

Taleb calls for rigorous changes: nationalize banks—and abolish financial models. Kahneman does not quite agree with him. Certainly, the models are not capable of predicting a collapse. But one should not ignore our human nature. People will always require and use models and get benefit from them—even if they are wrong.

We should be and we can be doing a much better job to predict and prevent pandemics. But the really bold idea is that we could reach a point—and this is a distant point in the future—where we become so good at this that we really reach a point where we have the "final plague," and where we are really capable of catching so many of these things that new pandemics become an oddity. I think that is something that we should certainly have as an ideal.

A Talk with Nathan Wolfe

INTRODUCTIONNathan Wolfe trained at Harvard under Marc Hauser (where he was Hauser's first doctoral student) and Richard Wrangham. "I started working with Richard and thinking about self-medicating behavior of chimpanzees," he says. "Richard encouraged me to understand what the chimps may be treating, and so I starting thinking about what are the viruses, what are the microorganisms of chimps that they may be consuming plants in order to treat. Then I never really came back from that."

Subsequently he lived in Malaysia for three years and then in Africa for close to seven years. He describes himself as "a nice Jewish boy from suburban Detroit", which opens up an interesting line of research for Edge scientists, given that our other pandemics expert, Larry Brilliant, Executive Director of Google.org. and the man credited with eliminating smallpox, is also "a nice Jewish boy from suburban Detroit"."I'm sure it was some kind of rebellion," Wolfe said, "but I'm not sure what it was. My grandmother, for years, even when I became an assistant professor at Hopkins, said, "Will this let you go back and get an MD now, Nathan?" Something like that. I do come from that sort of family background, but they just figure it is working out okay. They certainly wish I would make a lot more money. But I told them you were going to help me with that. "

John Brockman

NATHAN WOLFE is the Lorry Lokey Visiting Professor of Human Biology at Stanford University and directs the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (www.gvfi.org). His research combines methods from molecular virology, ecology, evolutionary biology, and anthropology to study the biology of viral emergence.

Nathan Wolfe's Edge Bio Page.



In a general sense what I'm interested in is very much a biological universe parallel to our own, which is the universe comprised of microorganisms. Of particular interest to me are viruses, but also bacteria—fascinating organisms—and a range of parasites.

These exist in the same moment in history that we exist, in the same space that we occupy, but inhabit a very different world. Yet, they respond to many of the exact same pressures we do, but in a much shorter time span. Of course, they are subject to natural selection. They are incredibly important to our planet, to us as a species, and the reality is that we understand very little about them. We are actually in a very interesting space with respect to the technologies that we have now, and these are some of the things that have come about through molecular biology.

For example, we have metagenomic techniques, where we can take a drop of water or a drop of plasma and understand the incredible diversity of nucleic acids and different organisms that exist in those fluids, or in solids, in soil or in feces, or in saliva, whatever it is that you want to do.

For a biologist it is a fascinating point in time because we're not required to culture every one of these organisms. We can understand the genetic nature of them much more simply, so we have the luxury of going back and being natural historians in trying to explore the diversity of these microorganisms that we really understand very little of. Our knowledge of viral diversity on the planet is trivial. We don't even know the size of the iceberg. We know that most viral diversity is completely undiscovered and unknown. We don't know exactly what percentage of it is under water but it is probably a very high percentage.

That is my interest, and I am really just a biologist and a natural historian who happens to be interested primarily in microorganisms, but in the context of human evolution and in the context of mammalian diversity and biogeography. But I think it is a wonderful time when we really can go back and have the luxury of basic discovery. We discover novel viruses all the time. You can't discover new primates all the time. We have discovered most of them, but that is not the case with viruses.

Obviously, there is a tremendous interest in viruses that are deleterious. One of the things I would point out, first of all, is that there is so much diversity of viruses: most of them are probably neutral, many of them are ecologically important, some of them are actually mutualistic with their hosts. Having said that, there is a huge fascination with negative viruses, and negative microorganisms, that can spread like the 1918 influenza and HIV—SARS had the potential to do this. These are all agents, which have the potential to relatively quickly have a devastating impact on human populations.

Generally, if you look at global disease control, which is done mostly not by biologists and not in the realm of science, but instead is very much applied science and medical science, public-health science, effectively it is disease control. It is waiting for pandemics to occur, and it is doing the best that we can to try and control them once they have already happened.

But one of the things that we have found in analyzing the diversity of important infectious diseases is that most of them have animal origins. The way that almost all of these important diseases started is as diseases of animals that bubble up into humans who for whatever reason are exposed, through contact with water, mosquitoes, blood, by hunters, which is a lot of the work we do. They are exposed to these agents, these agents are constantly bubbling up, and you have this constant chatter, this viral chatter, individuals who are exposed to these agents.

Most of those things will go nowhere. They will almost instantaneously go extinct in either those individuals or, if they spread from person to person, which is really when these things start to have the potential to be very important and potentially dangerous, even those will mostly go extinct, burning out within local populations. You have to have the conditions be just right really to effectively jump through. At that point these agents are not perfectly adapted to humans. That is where most of the action occurs in these pandemics.

Yet global disease control only focuses on the very few that get to the top of the pyramid but have spread globally. If you think of HIV as an example, go back to 1981, right here down the street at UCLA where the first cases of AIDS were really sort of identified as a syndrome. But in 1981 it is estimated that there were at least 100,000 global infections with HIV, probably many more.

So you have missed a critical period where you could have really addressed this pandemic. By then it is too late. Obviously, this is an African disease, an African virus that has made its way to individuals at UCLA Medical Center. At that point it took three years to even identify the agent HIV that causes AIDS. It took seven years for the President of the United States to be able even to use the word ‘AIDS’.

Now I would like to spin a slightly different scenario. Let's say we had been studying more comprehensively this interface between humans and animals and trying proactively to predict these pandemic. We would have known about a neglected virus that existed in Central Africa. We would have known that it was transmitted through many, many different routes in Africa, most commonly through heterosexual forms of transmission. We would have potentially had diagnostics. It would have been a neglected tropical disease. But then when cases started really hitting, for example here in the United States, we would have had a tremendous head start.

If you think of this as the benefits of compounding interest, every month, every year of early warning that we get for these pandemics has huge gain in terms of the ultimate outcome. Now we are 30 years into this pandemic—we are really many more years, if you count when the thing really crossed over to humans, which is probably sometime in the early 20th century. In 50 or 100 years when people look back on this period of history, they will see that what we are doing is in some ways how we were treating heart disease in the '50s and '60s. We weren't preventing it. It wasn't about measuring cholesterol levels. It wasn't about measuring blood pressure and trying to change smoking activity. It was effectively waiting for a heart attack. When it comes to pandemics, we wait for the heart attacks.

The bold idea is that we should be and we can be doing a much better job to predict and prevent pandemics. But the really bold idea is that we could reach a point—and this is a distant point in the future—where we become so good at this that we have the "final plague," and where we are really capable of catching so many of these things that new pandemics become an oddity. That is something that we should certainly have as an ideal. And if you ask most people doing public health, they won't even have thought about whether we could have prevented HIV, let alone whether can we reach a point at which there won't any more plagues, which we don't have to think about going back and trying to eradicate.

Eradication right now in public health is the ideal. And obviously there is vaccination. I can't sit here as someone in this field and dent on eradication or vaccines. But on the other hand these are very reactive responses. They are certainly more cost effective than treatment but they are certainly a lot less cost effective than preventing the plague in the first place.

I'm in the process of looking for large amounts of resources to set up listening points around the world to actually monitor individuals who are highly exposed to wild animals, to catch this viral chatter, this movement of these agents from animals into humans and use this to get a sense, first of all, of what is out there.

What is the diversity of agents that are circulating? You can kind of think of this as the virome, or the microbiome. What is the diversity of microorganisms that are present in humans and the animals that we have contact with?

First of all, just to have a list so that in the future when we see things, we will be able to know what it is. And, second of all, to be able to catch things as they try to move into the space where we can have a preventative system for doing this. This is a particularly costly endeavor, but no matter how much we spend on it, all we have to do is catch one and we have instantly paid for this entire system. For SARS, which really at the end of the day affected only about 1,500 - 2,000 individuals, the estimates are billions of dollars of economic impact from even that, which was an aborted pandemic. It was a very short and aborted pandemic. Really what my work is about is trying to aim at this objective of achieving the final plague.

The way that I go about it is I study how pandemics are born, how they die and how we can move towards forecasting;prediction and prevention of these pandemics.

On one level, the final plague is an ideal. If you take a look at the 20th century, there is constant chatter and there will always be constant chatter. Every time you walk down the beach in Venice and you see somebody licking their dog. I'm not saying that is a dangerous activity but you're seeing an exchange of microorganisms. It's happening constantly. There is constant movement of microorganisms from individual to individual, within a species and between species.

As I said, most of those are unimportant. But still, if you look within the 20th century, there are a number of agents, many of which were never even caught, which had this movement from animal to human, and spread globally. Some of them may not have caused tremendous disease. Some of them may have been confused with other things that we knew were diseases and we thought it was probably just that. There is entirely new malaria, which is now spreading in Southwest Asia, which is a malaria of macaques, an Asian monkey, called Plasmodium knowlesi.

When people in public health actually diagnose malaria, they look under a microscope and they are forced to call a parasite as one of four human parasites, so all these things were misdiagnosed. You couldn't know it unless you went back and you studied the thing. Lo and behold, Plasmodium knowlesi was spreading and it was just identified as another kind of parasite. It is a deadly malarial parasite of animals.

During the 20th century I can't even tell you how many pandemics there were, but there were many pandemics. The point is, if we get good at these sorts of things, and probably we will never be focused on the things that don't cause disease. For example, one out of every three to five individuals is infected with a virus called GBV virus. It is a virus that is very transmissible. It doesn't cause much in the way of disease. Maybe the prevalence is slightly lower. But whatever it is, it's a pandemic virus. Who cares?

It's interesting to know about and in the future it could be something of significance, but really at the end of the day we are interested in the ones that are causing disease. If we start on a course where we get better at predicting and preventing these things and aren't just focused on controlling them, then over time the idea is that the century-by-century rate of novel pandemics will decrease. I'm not saying that we will be able to really nail it at a moment—"OK, this is the final plague"—but our objective should be not only eradicating existing diseases but really eradicating novel diseases. It is going to take a long time to get there, but we need to change our conception to the point where that is the objective. Eradication can no longer be the ultimate objective.

If you want to think about my work, one way to think of me is as a curator of microbial collections. I have these massive repositories. I have sites all around the world that are aimed at collecting interesting microorganisms, and then I enter into collaborations with different groups. Instead of coming to look at my beetle collections, I send them specimens that I think they are likely to find of interest, and they study them for novel agents. Really it's sort of a microbial museum. As a consequence, I have a very low footprint in the USA. I have an office not much bigger than your suite. It's not huge. Even though my enterprise is very costly to sustain, it is very easy for me to move around.

I don't actually do all of the lab work myself. What I do is find experts in the world who are either using techniques to do work to identify novel agents, like Forest Rohwer or Joe Derisi or Eric Delwart, or who study specific groups, like the best flavovirologists in the world or the best molecular parasitologists. In addition to the laboratories I have in field sites throughout the world, I have 12 different collaborating labs, each of which I send specimens to.

My work is a counterpoint to HIV vaccine development. When HIV was discovered, we were promised by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, that within one year there would be a vaccine against HIV. This is 30 years later. A range of organizations have spent billions of dollars on research to come up with a HIV vaccine. The benefits of this investment has been questionable.

To make a long story short, it is really hard to create vaccines. The easy vaccines are actually ones that aren't really created by humans. They are ones that are discovered. Vaccinia, smallpox vaccine: it's not like we did anything technical to it. All we did was we took a cowpox virus, and what we do today is really not much more complicated than what Pasteur did, scraping a little bit, scraping it into an arm and it's a closely related virus. The person has a viral infection, and it protects him against the next one.

I got started when I went to Harvard to work with Marc Hauser and Richard Wrangham. I was Marc Hauser's first doctoral student. I was interested in the evolution of consciousness. I was fascinated by evolution. I had read Dawkins's The Selfish Gene in high school and was captured by it, and honestly that was probably was one of the things that made me fascinated by biology. I came into it with interest in evolution and ecology more than mechanism. I'm not mechanistically focused. Sometimes I have to use those tools or think about mechanism.

I studied biological anthropology at Harvard. I started working with Richard and thinking about self-medicating behavior of chimpanzees. Richard encouraged me to understand what the chimps may be treating, and so I starting thinking about what are the viruses, what are the microorganisms of chimps that they may be consuming plants in order to treat. Then I never really came back from that.

At the time I was frustrated in my reading and thinking about the evolution of consciousness. I just felt like it was a moving target. As soon as people would try to say, "OK, we see evidence in this species” the bar would shift … I have left this area. I was frustrated with the methods to really capture the questions that I was most interested in that area. And then viruses—they are fascinating stories, they evolve very rapidly.

I got to viruses because I was looking at self-medicating behavior and I started looking into the viruses of chimpanzees. The stories were so phenomenally interesting. The story of HIV origins—it's a fascinating story and it was just alive and vibrant at that moment. It hadn't quite been captured.

Everyone was close to discovery of the origins of HIV but they hadn't quite captured it. And even malaria parasites. That was when I became interested in the origins of malaria. How is it that with something that is so profoundly important to human populations, we can know such excruciating detail about the intricate processes of malaria as an individual organism yet we have little clue as to where it came from?

I believe that is partially just a function of the biases in laboratory science in organizations like NIH, which are much less interested in big questions. They're interested in small questions. Not to say that there is anything wrong with small questions, if you have good scientific policy.

What I would love to do with this work is to make the study of pandemics a subset of biology. Not that what I care about is disciplinary boundaries, but I think what it needs is biologists to tackle it. A physician is very biased. Physicians are going to be like the people on the street who think viruses are all negative. A good virologist 20 years from now, or 50 years from now, if the field goes in the proper direction, will be like a herpetologist, like somebody studying snakes, who acknowledges that maybe the public is most interested in the venomous snakes, but would never delude themselves into thinking the venomous snakes weren't more than just a small percentage of their species and that there is much more of importance in the taxa.

This whole other range: they are ecologically important, they are fascinating organisms. The reason we think of viruses as negative entities is that physicians are the drunks looking under the lamppost for their keys. If you're just looking for negative viruses, that is all you're going to find. I think physicians have a lot to offer, but generally in a specific context. We're looking at biological phenomena and so it should be biologists who study them.

I will be honest with you. I try to go where my mind takes me, and I try to focus on the things I find of interest. For whatever reason, I am more interested in stopping the next malaria and understanding where malaria is from. I'm not as focused on trying to stamp malaria out. There are a lot of people who do that, and you have to make it your expertise to be good at it, and I'm not that interested in it.


Science and Religion are here to stay. When President Obama announced that we will restore science to its rightful place in government, the implication is that we will also restore religion to its rightful place--in the Church. Rick Warren was invited to Washington to deliver an invocation, not an opinion on science education or funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Robert Boyle, pioneering experimental chemist and a founder of the Royal Society, helped launch the current trend (in 1691) with his delightful "Christian virtuoso: Shewing, That by being addicted to Experimental Philosophy, a Man is rather Assisted, than Indisposed, to be a Good Christian... to which are Subjoyn'd, A Discourse about the Distinction, that represents some Things as Above Reason, but not Contrary to Reason."

Boyle's is still the best answer to the question of whether the empirical nature of science contradicts the revelatory nature of faith. That an incessant stream of books attempting to reconcile Science and Religion keeps rolling off the assembly line is more a testament to the success of the Templeton Foundation than to the failure of Boyle and his followers to make their case.


I think scientists should stop wasting their time trying to beat up on the idea of God in the name of science.

My son recently completed his PhD in history on Max Weber's intellectual reception and introduced me to his (Max Weber's) century-old "Science as a Vocation" article. In it, Weber says, approvingly, that whereas Europeans look at professors as role models and expect them to be wise men, an American's "… conception of the teacher who faces him is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father's money, just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage. … And no young American would think of having the teacher sell him a Weltanschauung or a code of conduct."

I think that's a healthy attitude. Professional scientists have no special expertise other than at science. Nobel Prize winners in anything cannot claim a morally superior insight into the Vietnam or any other war. The universe may indeed have started in a big bang (and if you think about the chain of logic and inference and concepts that have had to be invented in order to understand that sentence you will realize what a stretch it is), but that doesn't negate anything deep. Mental reality is as real as physical reality, and, in fact, a necessary precursor to theorizing about physical reality.

Personally, I like Schrodinger's attitude, and no one can quibble with his physics.

"My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature," he wrote. "Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I fore see the effects, that may be fateful and all-important, in which case I feel and take full responsibil ity for them." Therefore, he continued, "I – I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt 'I' – am the person, if any, who controls the ‘motion of the atoms' according to the Laws of Nature."


I enter this conversation feeling vaguely like a wishbone being stretched. On the one hand, I believe that the world is the creation of transcendent God that I perceive dimly behind the almost opaque curtain of my experience; but I also believe in the extraordinary power of science to unfold the nature of that world with astonishing clarity and conviction. I have one foot in each of Gould's non-overlapping magisteria and the space between them seems, at least in this conversation, uncomfortably large.

Discussions like this that juxtapose "empirical science" with "revealed religion" rarely seem like appropriately balanced encounters to me. When Ken Ham and his merry band of biblical literalists talk disparagingly about science, I can barely recognize it. But I had the same problem with Dawkins's send-up of believers in The God Delusion.

Coyne, who affirms Dawkins's approach, speaks of "theologians with a deistic bent" who inappropriately presume to "speak for all the faithful." The implication is that the "faithful" are the more authentically religious and the theologians are an aberration. This seems unfair to me. The great unwashed masses of these "faithful" should be juxtaposed with the great masses of people who "believe" in science but are not professionals. Most Americans—and the rest of the world, for that matter— are attached to both iPods and a belief that medical science is their best hope when they are sick. They "believe" in science. What do you suppose "science" would look like, were it defined by these "believers"? The physics would be Aristotelian; astrology and aliens would accepted as real; General Relativity would be unknown; quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind. And yet all of these people would have had far more education in science than the typical religious believer has in theology. Science as "lived and practiced by real people" is quite different than the science promoted by the intellectuals in this conversation.

Empirical science does indeed trump revealed truth about the world as Galileo and Darwin showed only too clearly. But empirical science also trumps other empirical science. Einstein's dethronement of Newton was not the wholesale undermining of the scientific enterprise, even though it showed that science was clearly in error. It was, rather, a glorious and appropriately celebrated advance for science, albeit one not understood by most people. Why is this different than modern theology's near universal rejection of the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament, so eloquently skewered by Dawkins? How is it that "science" is allowed to toss its historical baggage overboard when its best informed leaders decide to do so, even though the ideas continue to circulate on main street, but religion must forever be defined by the ancient baggage carried by its least informed?

The world disclosed by science is rich and marvelous, but most people think there is more to it. Our religious traditions embody our fitful and imperfect reflections on this mysterious and transcendent intuition—an intuition that, as articulated by some of our most profound thinkers, seeks an understanding of the world that is goes beyond the empirical.

Coyne is correct that books like those he reviewed—Ken Miller's Only a Theory and my Saving Darwin—have not been particularly successful in securing a peaceful overlap for the magisteria, at least not for most people. Coyne would say there is no such peaceful overlap. But there are many well-informed believers who have come to peace with science, and who live happily on the rich, but thinly populated, turf where the magisteria overlap.

I think we can all agree though that, wherever we stand, there is a great need for a discussion of how America's conversation on origins should proceed. We need to wake up to the reality that current strategies have been an abysmal failure and ask some tough questions about why that is. There is a widespread fear on America's main streets that evolution is destroying a cherished belief in God. As a consequence, anti-evolution has assumed the proportions of a military-industrial complex but the battle is a proxy war, aimed not at evolution, but at materialism. I wonder what would happen if, in the name of pluralism and diplomacy, we could all agree that it was OK for people to believe that evolution was a part of God's plan. I suspect that cultural changes would be inaugurated that would eventually make both Eugenie Scott and Ken Ham irrelevant.


An Exclusionist View of Science

My colleague and friend Jerry Coyne is a brilliant scientist, an excellent writer, and a thoughtful, outspoken atheist. He believes that God does not exist, and that any reasonable person should think as he does, rejecting the elixir of faith as pointless delusion. In taking that position, even though it is one with which I disagree, he places himself in distinguished company, no question. If Dr. Coyne's review of recent books by Karl Giberson and myself (Only a Theory, and Saving Darwin, respectively) sought only to make that argument, thereby to distance himself from a couple of deluded Christians, I wouldn't have much to complain about. On the issue of faith, there's plenty of distance between us, even if I think Coyne is on the wrong side of the question.

But Coyne did something quite different from that.

In addition to making the usual claims about the lack of evidence for God, Coyne flatly states that faith and science are not compatible, arguing that the empirical nature of science contradicts the revelatory nature of faith. What about the tens of thousands of scientists, now and in the past who were people of faith (including roughly 40% of all working scientists in the US, members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science)? Coyne waves them away with scorn, literally comparing them to "adulterers" who have subverted their vows to be true to science—or at least to Coyne's view of science. More on that later.

Coyne claims that "theistic evolutionists" like me exhibit three of the four hallmarks of creationism, making me really no different from the folks I opposed at the Kitzmiller trial. He couldn't be more wrong about that. I share exactly one thing in common with creationists, which is my belief in God. The other points of supposed agreement are figments of Coyne's imagination—or of his overwrought efforts to slander any believer by placing them in the "creationist" camp.

He seems to argue that a person of faith who accepts evolution must also believe God "micro-edited DNA" to guide evolution. While it's certainly true that a Divine author of nature could intervene in his world at any time, I have never argued for the sort of divine tinkering that Coyne finds so disturbing. In fact, I have argued exactly the opposite. Evolution is not rigged, and religious belief does not require one to postulate a God who fixes the game, bribes the referees, or tricks natural selection. Unfortunately, Coyne does not seem to appreciate this point.

And, just to quibble, he claims that only 25% of Americans believe we evolved from apelike ancestors. The actual figure (unlike Coyne, I will cite a reference) is 40% (Miller, Scott, and Okamoto. Science 313: 765, August 2006).

Coyne's eagerness to close out any possibility that there is an author to the natural world leads him into a curious position of self-contradiction on the appearance of the human species on our planet. As I pointed out in Only a Theory, evolution did indeed produce the grand and beautiful fabric of life that covers our planet, including our own species. Therefore, we are not a "mistake" of nature, but a full-fledged product of the natural world. If God is the creator of that world, including the laws of chemistry and physics and even the unpredictable events of the quantum universe, then it would be perfectly reasonable for a religious person to see our emergence, through the process of evolution, as part of God's plan for that universe. This doesn't mean, as I took care to point out in my book, that nature is rigged to produce big-brained, hairless, bipedal primates who would invent football, canned beer, and reality television. Rather, it means that the universe in which we live is sufficiently hospitable to life that on this one planet, at the very least, it has supported an evolutionary process that gave rise to intelligent, self-aware, reflective organisms, who would then be capable of arguing about the meaning, purpose, and nature of existence.

I made no argument that this happy confluence of natural events and physical constants proves the existence of God in any way—only that it could be understood or interpreted as consistent with the Divine by a person of faith.

To Coyne, however, even the mere possibility that someone might understand nature in a Divine context is absolute heresy. As a result, while he strictly rules out anything but natural causes in the evolutionary process (as would I), he then must argue that the same process could never, ever happen again. Why? Because if conditions in our universe are such that they make the emergence of intelligent life, sooner or later, pretty much a sure thing, then people might wonder why. And if they were to come to the conclusion this might mean that there was a Creator who intended that as part of his work, they would be guilty of the very thoughts that Coyne finds so outrageous that he wishes to banish them from the scientific establishment.

So, despite his frank admission that "convergences are striking features of evolution," he rules any possibility that human-like intelligence could also be a convergent feature. His only reason for so doing seems to be that such intelligence evolved "only once, in Africa." Apparently, to satisfy his standards, it should have evolved many times. Actually, of course, if an observer had checked as recently as 5 million years ago, it wouldn't have evolved at all. Nonetheless Coyne has absolutely no empirical reason for claiming that what happened once could not happen again—and he surely knows that. But, to borrow a phrase, he is "forced" into that conclusion by his own anti-theist views.

For someone so insistent on empirical evidence, Coyne is remarkably quick to invoke faith when it suits his purposes. Realizing that the anthropic principle could indeed be seen as friendly to religion, he knows he just doesn't have enough evidence to reject it. So Coyne dreams that "perhaps some day, when we have a ‘theory of everything' that unifies all the forces of physics, we will see that this theory requires our universe to have the physical constants that we observe." Indeed. Perhaps we will. But even if we achieve that theory, we will still have to ask where the laws and principles of that theory come from, something that even Coyne at his speculative and hopeful best does not seem to appreciate.

Finally, what of his central criticism—the claim that science and religion are not only different, but incompatible and mutually contradictory?

He's right on one score, obviously. That is that certain religious claims, including the age of the earth, a global worldwide flood, and the simultaneous creation of all living things are empirical in nature. As such, they can be tested scientifically, and these particular claims are clearly false. Claims of demonstrative miracles in the past, such as the virgin birth or the resurrection cannot be tested empirically, because there are no data from which to work. On such claims, science has nothing to say one way or the other. Coyne's complaint on such things, paradoxically, is that they must not have happened because there is no scientific explanation for them. That amounts, in essence, to saying that these things could not have happened because they would be miracles. Well, that's exactly what most Christians take them for, so Coyne's only real argument is an a priori assumption that miracles cannot happen. Make that assumption, and miracles are nonsense. But it is an assumption nonetheless, something that Coyne fails to see.

How, then, should we take his claim that scientists who profess religious faith are akin to adulterers? An adulterer, of course, is one who has taken the marriage vow of faithfulness and exclusivity, and then broken that vow to have sex with another. Have scientists who profess faith broken some vow of philosophical naturalism that is implicit in the profession?

I, for one, don't remember any such vow in my training, my PhD exam, or my tenure review—although perhaps things work a little differently at the University of Chicago.

What science does require is methodological naturalism. We live in a material world, and we use the materials of nature to study the way nature works. By definition, that confines science to purely naturalistic explanations, because only those are testable, and only those have validity as science. I agree, and would defy Dr. Coyne to point to any claim made in the books he has reviewed that defines science in any other way. He cannot do that, of course, because there are no such claims. I would also ask that he point out scientific flaws in the work of biologists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky, Francisco Ayala, or Francis Collins that may have derived from their personal religious faith. He won't be able to do that, either, of course. Every scientist makes mistakes—and I've made plenty in my career. But the real issue is whether a scientist's view on the question of God is incompatible with their scientific work. Clearly, it is not.

Coyne's entire critique, then, is based upon an unspoken assumption he expects his readers to share, namely, that science is the only legitimate form of knowledge. To Coyne, any deviation from that view is an adulterous contradiction of the sacred scientific vow to exclude any possibility of the spiritual, not just from one's scientific work, but from the entirety of one's philosophical world view.

With all due respect to my distinguished colleague, that is nonsense. One can indeed embrace science in every respect, and still ask a deeper question, one in which Coyne seems to have no interest. Why does science work? Why is the world around us organized in a way that makes itself accessible to our powers of logic and intellect? The true vow of a scientist is to practice honest and open empiricism in every aspect of his scientific work. That vow does not preclude the scientist from stepping back, acknowledging the limitations of scientific knowledge, and asking the deeper questions of why we are here, and if existence has a purpose. Those questions are genuine and important, even if they are not scientific ones, and I believe they are worth answering.

To Jerry Coyne, a person of faith like the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, could not possibly have been a true scientist because of his faith in a loving and provident God. That would make Father Lemaître, in Coyne's eyes, nothing more than a creationist. Too bad, because as I'm sure Jerry knows, it was Georges Lemaître who provided the first detailed mathematical arguments for cosmic expansion, which today we call the "big bang." Remarkable how Lemaître rose above his adulterous tendencies, isn't it?

The genuine tragedy of Coyne's argument is the way in which it seeks to enlist science in a frankly ideological crusade—a campaign to purge science of religionists in the name of doctrinal purity. That campaign will surely fail, but in so doing it may divert those of us who cherish science from a far more urgent task, especially in America today. That is the task of defending scientific rationalism from those who, in the name of religion would subvert it beyond all recognition. In that critical struggle, Jerry, scientists who are also people of faith are critical allies, and you would do well not to turn them away.

...Across the world, people believe that devotion to sacred or core values that incorporate moral beliefs — like the welfare of family and country, or commitment to religion and honor — are, or ought to be, absolute and inviolable. Our studies, carried out with the support of the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department, suggest that people will reject material compensation for dropping their commitment to sacred values and will defend those values regardless of the costs.

In our research, we surveyed nearly 4,000 Palestinians and Israelis from 2004 to 2008, questioning citizens across the political spectrum including refugees, supporters of Hamas and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. We asked them to react to hypothetical but realistic compromises in which their side would be required to give away something it valued in return for a lasting peace.

By Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges

SCOTT ATRAN, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, John Jay College and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is the author of In Gods We Trust. JEREMY GINGES is a professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research.

Scott Atran's Edge Bio Page
Jeremy Ginges's Edge Bio Page



As diplomats stitch together a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, the most depressing feature of the conflict is the sense that future fighting is inevitable. Rational calculation suggests that neither side can win these wars. The thousands of lives and billions of dollars sacrificed in fighting demonstrate the advantages of peace and coexistence; yet still both sides opt to fight.

This small territory is the world’s great symbolic knot. "Palestine is the mother of all problems" is a common refrain among people we have interviewed across the Muslim world: from Middle Eastern leaders to fighters in the remote island jungles of Indonesia; from Islamist senators in Pakistan to volunteers for martyrdom on the move from Morocco to Iraq.

Some analysts see this as a testament to the essentially religious nature of the conflict. But research we recently undertook suggests a way to go beyond that. For there is a moral logic to seemingly intractable religious and cultural disputes. These conflicts cannot be reduced to secular calculations of interest but must be dealt with on their own terms, a logic very different from the marketplace or realpolitik.

Across the world, people believe that devotion to sacred or core values that incorporate moral beliefs—like the welfare of family and country, or commitment to religion and honor—are, or ought to be, absolute and inviolable. Our studies, carried out with the support of the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department, suggest that people will reject material compensation for dropping their commitment to sacred values and will defend those values regardless of the costs.

In our research, we surveyed nearly 4,000 Palestinians and Israelis from 2004 to 2008, questioning citizens across the political spectrum including refugees, supporters of Hamas and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. We asked them to react to hypothetical but realistic compromises in which their side would be required to give away something it valued in return for a lasting peace.

All those surveyed responded to the same set of deals. First they would be given a straight-up offer in which each side would make difficult concessions in exchange for peace; next they were given a scenario in which their side was granted an additional material incentive; and last came a proposal in which the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice of one of its sacred values.

For example, a typical set of trade-offs offered to a Palestinian might begin with this premise: Suppose the United Nations organized a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians under which Palestinians would be required to give up their right to return to their homes in Israel and there would be two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Second, we would sweeten the pot: in return, Western nations would give the Palestinian state $10 billion a year for 100 years. Then the symbolic concession: For its part, Israel would officially apologize for the displacement of civilians in the 1948 war

Indeed, across the political spectrum, almost everyone we surveyed rejected the initial solutions we offered—ideas that are accepted as common sense among most Westerners, like simply trading land for peace or accepting shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. Why the opposition to trade-offs for peace?

Many of the respondents insisted that the values involved were sacred to them. For example, nearly half the Israeli settlers we surveyed said they would not consider trading any land in the West Bank—territory they believe was granted them by God—in exchange for peace. More than half the Palestinians considered full sovereignty over Jerusalem in the same light, and more than four-fifths felt that the "right of return" was a sacred value, too.

As for sweetening the pot, in general the greater the monetary incentive involved in the deal, the greater the disgust from respondents. Israelis and Palestinians alike often reacted as though we had asked them to sell their children. This strongly implies that using the standard approaches of "business-like negotiations" favored by Western diplomats will only backfire.

Many Westerners seem to ignore these clearly expressed "irrational" preferences, because in a sensible world they ought not to exist. Diplomats hope that peace and concrete progress on material and quality-of-life matters (electricity, water, agriculture, the economy and so on) will eventually make people forget the more heartfelt issues. But this is only a recipe for another Hundred Years’ War—progress on everyday material matters will simply heighten attention on value-laden issues of "who we are and want to be."

Fortunately, our work also offers hints of another, more optimistic course.

Absolutists who violently rejected offers of money or peace for sacred land were considerably more inclined to accept deals that involved their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures. For example, Palestinian hard-liners were more willing to consider recognizing the right of Israel to exist if the Israelis simply offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war. Similarly, Israeli respondents said they could live with a partition of Jerusalem and borders very close to those that existed before the 1967 war if Hamas and the other major Palestinian groups explicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist.

Remarkably, our survey results were mirrored by our discussions with political leaders from both sides. For example, Mousa Abu Marzook (the deputy chairman of Hamas) said no when we proposed a trade-off for peace without granting a right of return. He became angry when we added in the idea of substantial American aid for rebuilding: "No, we do not sell ourselves for any amount."

But when we mentioned a potential Israeli apology for 1948, he brightened: "Yes, an apology is important, as a beginning. It’s not enough because our houses and land were taken away from us and something has to be done about that." His response suggested that progress on sacred values might open the way for negotiations on material issues, rather than the reverse.

We got a similar reaction from Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-line former Israeli prime minister. We asked him whether he would seriously consider accepting a two-state solution following the 1967 borders if all major Palestinian factions, including Hamas, were to recognize the right of the Jewish people to an independent state in the region. He answered, "O.K., but the Palestinians would have to show that they sincerely mean it, change their textbooks and anti-Semitic characterizations."

Making these sorts of wholly intangible "symbolic" concessions, like an apology or recognition of a right to exist, simply doesn’t compute on any utilitarian calculus. And yet the science says they may be the best way to start cutting the knot.

[First published by the OpEd Page of The New York Times, January 24, 2009.]

January 26, 2008


Among contemporary doomsayers

By Ben McGrath

Collapse makes good sport for amateur historians, and as many would-be pundits raced backward through the bearish landmarks of American financial history—l998, 1987, 1974, 1929, 1907, 1873, 1837—in search of an impressively jarring analogy for current events, Nassim Taleb, the "Black Swan" theorist, was busy rereading Cicero and Herodotus ("the ancients saw things very clearly") and thinking more along the lines of 483 B.C., when Xerxes ordered the waters of the Hellespont whipped, out of frustration over the destruction of his bridges. Xerxes' superstitious arrogance, Taleb felt, was no different from our own scientific arrogance, which had been building steadily since the Enlightenment to the point where investment bankers believed they could eliminate the consequences of risky behavior through the use of complex mathematics. "We're just puppets to the gods," he said. "The gods don't want us to be too ambitious, too aggressive. The gods just want us to be subservient to nature. Leave the planet the way we got it." …

Taleb wonders how serious people can fail to understand how crazy the world really is. "I got two million e-mails from people saying, 'You're right,'" Taleb said. "About a million people read my book before the crisis, but nobody got protection!" He calls the new book he is working on, for which he received a reported four million-dollar advance, "my mission to discredit most of organized knowledge". Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who responded to the crash of 1837 by writing of the "good" in "such emphatic and universal calamity as the times bring," Taleb sees reason for encouragement in, for instance, the rapid shrinking of certain institutional endowments: "Universities will have less funding, so economists will lay low and won't burden us with as much nonsense." (If his own position as Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at N.Y.U's Polytechnic Institute is jeopardized, so be it.)

Taleb's perspective is not for the anxious or weak-willed. In an effort to protect yourself from too much dependence, you begin with the certainty that a side effect of globalization is "fragility": a problem in Icelandic banks depresses the lobster-fishing market in Maine. ("Everybody should be told that Thomas Friedman is dangerous to society.") Capitalism itself, through the relentless pressure of quarterly reports, introduces too much efficiency and socially destabilizing leverage, so you recommend a reversion to something like an Islamic banking system, in which debt-based lending is forbidden, or at least heavily discouraged. (Taleb grew up in Lebanon, where an ongoing civil war had the beneficial effect of dissuading people from trusting banks.) You begin to question the Internet, which represents "one degree of complexity too much to handle," and advocate withdrawing from "the idiotic race" for a life of maximum inefficiency and leisure. ...

January 29, 2009


Nassim Taleb: "I Was Happy Lehman Went Bust"
Edited by Andrew Ross Sorkin

But before the conversation turned, Mr. Taleb had some fighting words for Wall Street that surprised many in the room. He said, "I was happy when Lehman went bust," explaining how he had shorted the company and literally danced when he heard the news. (The dinner was off the record, but Mr. Taleb and some of the others said they were so passionate about the issues that they could — and in Mr. Taleb's case "should" — be quoted.) He went on to say, "I hate traders" and explained that the business of creating and trading derivatives is solely about finding a way to take advantage of clients.

January 29, 2009

Taleb Says Nationalize Banks, You Can't Trust Them (Update2)
By Svenja O'Donnell and Francine Lacqua

Bank nationalizations are "absolutely necessary" to stop them damaging the financial system further with more losses, said Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the best-selling finance book "The Black Swan."

"You cannot trust the banks in taking risks," Taleb said in an interview with Bloomberg Television in Davos. "We have a very strange situation in which it's the worst of capitalism and socialism, a situation in which profits were privatized and losses were socialized. We taxpayers have the worst."

The global economy will slow close to a halt this year as more than $2 trillion of bad assets in the U.S. help sink economies from there to the U.K. and Japan, the International Monetary Fund said yesterday. Taleb echoed comments from New York University Professor Nouriel Roubini, who says the majority of U.S. banks are insolvent. ...

January 28, 2009


A Rallying Cry to Claw Back Bonuses
Tom Redburn

The wisdom of crowds?

That was the thought behind an early-afternoon session Wednesday labeled “2009 World Economic Brainstorming: What Happened to the Global Economy?”

Chaired by Maria Bartiromo of CNBC, it brought together roughly 200 people to discuss in small groups what policy, regulatory and market failures led to the current economic downturn. Unlike most of the discussions here in Davos, which tend to call on only a few experts on background, this event was on the record, with cameras and microphones recording the comments as they were presented to the larger group.

Which may be why it turned into a bit of a lynch mob, Davos-style. After a lot of high-minded talk about a failure to take account of systemic risk and the like, the group finally cheered and clapped when Nassim Nicholas Taleb of New York University, best known for his book “The Black Swan,” and a couple of other individuals said the biggest problem was that nobody was willing to pay the price for failure. It is time for some punishment, it was suggested. ...


January 25, 2009

Those genius financial doomsayers: a round-up
By Stephen Moss

Gordon Brown may not have seen the financial meltdown coming, but quite a few economic forecasters did - and each week we hear about a new one who brilliantly predicted what the government did not. So many foresaw the crisis, in fact, that it seems amazing it took so long for the penny (cent, yen and krona) to drop.

Nassim Taleb Lebanon-born Taleb used to be a derivatives trader, so he knows what he's talking about. His 2001 book, Fooled by Randomness, argued that all patterns are an illusion, most theories bogus. In his 2007 book, The Black Swan, Taleb described the coming collapse with remarkable prescience. "The financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks," he wrote. "When one fails, they all fall." ...

January 29, 2009

How bad is the crisis going to get?

By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News website, in Davos

...This crisis, several economists said, started two years earlier and was "bound" to lead to a financial meltdown - whether it was a bank like Washington Mutual or the likes of Lehman and other parts of the lightly regulated shadow banking system of investment banks, hedge funds and broker dealers.

"How could banks be so stupid?," several panellists asked, and allow things go so wrong so quickly?

The root causes for the economic crisis were too much debt, a culture of short-term rewards for long-term risk-taking and fatally flawed mathematical risk models. And plain old greed.

"Derivatives trading is all about how to make a bonus and how to screw your client," said Nassim Taleb, a former derivatives trader and author of "The Black Swan," a book about expecting the unexpected. ...


Edited by John Brockman
With An Introduction By BRIAN ENO

The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now."
San Francisco Chronicle

"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture."
El Mundo

Contributors include: STEVEN PINKER on the future of human evolution • RICHARD DAWKINS on the mysteries of courtship SAM HARRIS on why Mother Nature is not our friend NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB on the irrelevance of probability ALUN ANDERSON on the reality of global warming ALAN ALDA considers, reconsiders, and re-reconsiders God LISA RANDALL on the secrets of the Sun RAY KURZWEIL on the possibility of extraterrestrial life BRIAN ENO on what it means to be a "revolutionary" HELEN FISHER on love, fidelity, and the viability of marriage…and many others.

Praise for the online publication of
What Have You Change Your Mind About?

"The splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. I strongly recommend a visit." The Independent

"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture." El Mundo

"As fascinating and weighty as one would imagine." The Independent

"They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds." The Guardian

"Even the world's best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge." The Times

"Provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures."The Telegraph

The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now." San Francisco Chronicle

"As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity." The News & Observer

"A jolt of fresh thinking...The answers address a fabulous array of issues. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake—bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up." The Globe and Mail

"Answers ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions." The Toronto Star

"For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ...What a feast of egg-head opinionating!" National Review Online

Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by DANIEL C. DENNETT


"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal

"Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine

"Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed

"Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday

Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by STEVEN PINKER


"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant bok: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald

"Provocative" The Independent

"Challenging notions put forward by some of the world's sharpest minds" Sunday Times

"A titillating compilation" The Guardian

"Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover

Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by IAN MCEWAN


"Whether or not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." LA Times

"Belief appears to motivate even the most rigorously scientific minds. It stimulates and challenges, it tricks us into holding things to be true against our better judgment, and, like scepticism -its opposite -it serves a function in science that is playful as well as thought-provoking. not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." The Times

"John Brockman is the PT Barnum of popular science. He has always been a great huckster of ideas." The Observer

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle—a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed

"Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian

"Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe

"Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4

"Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer







"deeply passionate"









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