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2006

"WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?"


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CONTRIBUTORS


Alun Anderson

Philip W. Anderson

Scott Atran

Mahzarin Banaji

Simon Baron-Cohen

Samuel Barondes

Gregory Benford

Jesse Bering

Jeremy Bernstein

Jamshed Bharucha

Susan Blackmore

Paul Bloom

David Bodanis

Stewart Brand

Rodney Brooks

David Buss

Philip Campbell

Leo Chalupa

Andy Clark

Gregory Cochran
Jerry Coyne

M. Csikszentmihalyi

Richard Dawkins

Paul Davies

Stanislas Deheane

Daniel C. Dennett
Keith Devlin
Jared Diamond
Denis Dutton
Freeman Dyson
George Dyson
Juan Enriquez

Paul Ewald

Todd Feinberg

Eric Fischl

Helen Fisher

Richard Foreman

Howard Gardner

Joel Garreau

David Gelernter

Neil Gershenfeld

Danie Gilbert

Marcelo Gleiser

Daniel Goleman

Brian Goodwin

Alison Gopnik

April Gornik

John Gottman

Brian Greene

Diane F. Halpern

Haim Harari

Judith Rich Harris

Sam Harris

Marc D. Hauser

W. Daniel Hillis

Donald Hoffman

Gerald Holton
John Horgan

Nicholas Humphrey

Piet Hut

Marco Iacoboni

Eric R. Kandel

Kevin Kelly

Bart Kosko

Stephen Kosslyn
Kai Krause
Lawrence Krauss

Ray Kurzweil

Jaron Lanier

David Lykken

Gary Marcus
Lynn Margulis
Thomas Metzinger
Geoffrey Miller

Oliver Morton

David G. Myers

Michael Nesmith

Randolph Nesse

Richard E. Nisbett

Tor Nørretranders

James O'Donnell

John Allen Paulos

Irene Pepperberg

Clifford Pickover

Steven Pinker

David Pizarro

Jordan Pollack

Ernst Pöppel

Carolyn Porco

Robert Provine

VS Ramachandran

Martin Rees

Matt Ridley

Carlo Rovelli

Rudy Rucker

Douglas Rushkoff

Karl Sabbagh

Roger Schank

Scott Sampson

Charles Seife

Terrence Sejnowski

Martin Seligman

Robert Shapiro
Rupert Sheldrake

Michael Shermer

Clay Shirky

Barry Smith

Lee Smolin

Dan Sperber

Paul Steinhardt

Steven Strogatz
Leonard Susskind

Timothy Taylor

Frank Tipler

Arnold Trehub

Sherry Turkle

J. Craig Venter

Philip Zimbardo

CHARLES SEIFE
Professor of Journalism, New York University; formerly journalist, Science magazine; Author, Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea

Nothing

Nothing can be more dangerous than nothing.

Humanity's always been uncomfortable with zero and the void. The ancient Greeks declared them unnatural and unreal. Theologians argued that God's first act was to banish the void by the act of creating the universe ex nihilo, and Middle-Ages thinkers tried to ban zero and the other Arabic "ciphers." But the emptiness is all around us — most of the universe is void. Even as we huddle around our hearths and invent stories to convince ourselves that the cosmos is warm and full and inviting, nothingness stares back at us with empty eye sockets.


GERALD HOLTON
Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics and Research Professor of History of Science, Harvard University; Author, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought

The medicination of the ancient yearning for immortality

Since the major absorption of scientific method into the research and practice of medicine in the 1860s, the longevity curve, at least for the white population in industrial countries, took off and has continued fairly constantly. That has been on the whole a benign result, and has begun to introduce the idea of tolerably good health as one of the basic Human Rights. But one now reads of projections to 200 years, and perhaps more. The economic, social and human costs of the increasing fraction of very elderly citizens have begun to be noticed already.

To glimpse one of the possible results of the continuing projection of the longevity curve in terms of a plausible scenario: The matriarch of the family, on her deathbed at age 200, is being visited by the surviving, grieving family members: a son and a daughter, each of age of about 180, plus /their/ three "children" , around 150-160 years old each, plus all their offspring, in the range of 120 to 130, and so on..... A touching picture. But what are all the "costs" involved?


LEONARD SUSSKIND
Physicist, Stanford University; Author, The Cosmic Landscape

The "Landscape"

I have been accused of advocating an extremely dangerous idea.

According to some people, the "Landscape" idea will eventually ensure that the forces of intelligent design (and other unscientific religious ideas) will triumph over true science. From one of my most distinguished colleagues:

From a political, cultural point of view, it's not that these arguments are religious but that they denude us from our historical strength in opposing religion.

Others have expressed the fear that my ideas, and those of my friends, will lead to the end of science (methinks they overestimate me). One physicist calls it "millennial madness."

And from another quarter, Christoph Schönborn, Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna has accused me of "an abdication of human intelligence."

As you may have guessed the idea in question is the Anthropic Principle: a principle that seeks to explain the laws of physics, and the constants of nature, by saying, "If they (the laws of physics) were different, intelligent life would not exist to ask why laws of nature are what they are."

On the face of it, the Anthropic Principle is far too silly to be dangerous. It sounds no more sensible than explaining the evolution of the eye by saying that unless the eye evolved, there would be no one to read this page. But the A.P. is really shorthand for a rich set of ideas that are beginning to influence and even dominate the thinking of almost all serious theoretical physicists and cosmologists.

Let me strip the idea down to its essentials. Without all the philosophical baggage, what it says is straightforward: The universe is vastly bigger than the portion that we can see; and, on a very large scale it is as varied as possible. In other words, rather than being a homogeneous, mono-colored blanket, it is a crazy-quilt patchwork of different environments. This is not an idle speculation. There is a growing body of empirical evidence confirming the inflationary theory of cosmology, which underlies the hugeness and hypothetical diversity of the universe.

Meanwhile string theorists, much to the regret of many of them, are discovering that the number of possible environments described by their equations is far beyond millions or billions. This enormous space of possibilities, whose multiplicity may exceed ten to the 500 power, is called the Landscape. If these things prove to be true, then some features of the laws of physics (maybe most) will be local environmental facts rather than written-in-stone laws: laws that could not be otherwise. The explanation of some numerical coincidences will necessarily be that most of the multiverse is uninhabitable, but in some very tiny fraction conditions are fine-tuned enough for intelligent life to form.

That's the dangerous idea and it is spreading like a cancer.

Why is it that so many physicists find these ideas alarming? Well, they do threaten physicists' fondest hope, the hope that some extraordinarily beautiful mathematical principle will be discovered: a principle that would completely and uniquely explain every detail of the laws of particle physics (and therefore nuclear, atomic, and chemical physics). The enormous Landscape of Possibilities inherent in our best theory seems to dash that hope.

What further worries many physicists is that the Landscape may be so rich that almost anything can be found: any combination of physical constants, particle masses, etc. This, they fear, would eliminate the predictive power of physics. Environmental facts are nothing more than environmental facts. They worry that if everything is possible, there will be no way to falsify the theory — or, more to the point, no way to confirm it. Is the danger real? We shall see.

Another danger that some of my colleagues perceive, is that if we "senior physicists" allow ourselves to be seduced by the Anthropic Principle, young physicists will give up looking for the "true" reason for things, the beautiful mathematical principle. My guess is that if the young generation of scientists is really that spineless, then science is doomed anyway. But as we know, the ambition of all young scientists is to make fools of their elders.

And why does the Cardinal Archbishop Schönborn find the Landscape and the Multiverse so dangerous. I will let him explain it himself:

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, faced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism and the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again defend human nature by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of 'chance and necessity' are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.

Abdication of human intelligence? No, it's called science.


JARED DIAMOND
Biologist; Geographer, UCLA; Author, Collapse

The evidence that tribal peoples often damage their environments and make war.

Why is this idea dangerous? Because too many people today believe that a reason not to mistreat tribal people is that they are too nice or wise or peaceful to do those evil things, which only we evil citizens of state governments do. The idea is dangerous because, if you believe that that's the reason not to mistreat tribal peoples, then proof of the idea's truth would suggest that it's OK to mistreat them. In fact, the evidence seems to me overwhelming that the dangerous idea is true. But we should treat other people well because of ethical reasons, not because of naïve anthropological theories that will almost surely prove false.


STEWART BRAND
Founder, Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder; The Well; cofounder, Global Business Network; Author, How Buildings Learn

What if public policy makers have an obligation to engage historians, and historians have an obligation to try to help?

All historians understand that they must never, ever talk about the future. Their discipline requires that they deal in facts, and the future doesn't have any yet. A solid theory of history might be able to embrace the future, but all such theories have been discredited. Thus historians do not offer, and are seldom invited, to take part in shaping public policy. They leave that to economists.

But discussions among policy makers always invoke history anyway, usually in simplistic form. "Munich" and "Vietnam," devoid of detail or nuance, stand for certain kinds of failure. "Marshall Plan" and "Man on the Moon" stand for certain kinds of success. Such totemic invocation of history is the opposite of learning from history, and Santayana's warning continues in force, that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

A dangerous thought: What if public policy makers have an obligation to engage historians, and historians have an obligation to try to help?

And instead of just retailing advice, go generic. Historians could set about developing a rigorous sub-discipline called "Applied History."

There is only one significant book on the subject, published in 1988. Thinking In Time: The Uses of Hustory for Decision Makers was written by the late Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, who long taught a course on the subject at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. (A course called "Reasoning from History" is currently taught there by Alexander Keyssar.)

Done wrong, Applied History could paralyze public decision making and corrupt the practice of history — that's the danger. But done right, Applied History could make decision making and policy far more sophisticated and adaptive, and it could invest the study of history with the level of consequence it deserves.


TODD E. FEINBERG, M.D.
Psychiatrist and Neurologist, Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Author, Altered Egos

 

 

 

Myths and fairy tales are not true

"Myths and fairy tales are not true." There is no Easter Bunny, there is no Santa Claus, and Moses may never have existed. Worse yet, I have increasing difficulty believing that there is a higher power ruling the universe. This is my dangerous idea. It is not a dangerous idea to those who do not share my particular world view or personal fears; to others it may seem trivially true. But for me, this idea is downright horrifying.

I came to ponder this idea through my neurological examination of patients with brain damage that causes a disturbance in their self concepts and ego functions.

Some of theses patients develop, in the course of their illness and recovery (or otherwise), disturbances of self and personal relatedness that create enduring delusions and metaphorical confabulations regarding their bodies, their relationships with loved ones, and their personal experiences. A patient I examined with a right hemisphere stroke and paralyzed left arm claimed that the arm was actually severed from his brother's body by gang members, thrown in the East river, and later attached to the patient's shoulder. Another patient with a ruptured brain aneurysm and amnesia who denied his disabilities claimed he was planning to adopt (a phantom) child who was in need of medical assistance.

These personal narratives, produced by patients in altered neurological states and therefore without the constraints imposed by a fully functioning consciousness, have a dream-like quality, and constitute "personal myths" that express the patient's beliefs about themselves. The patient creates a metaphor in which personal experiences are crystallized in a metaphor in the form of an external real or fictitious persons, objects, places, or events. When this occurs, the metaphor serves as a symbolic representation or externalization of the patient's feelings that the patient does not realize originate from within the self.

There is an intimate relationship between my patients' narratives and socially endorsed fairy tales and mythologies. This is particularly apparent when mythologies deal with themes relating to a loss of self, personal identity or death. For many people, the notion of personal death is extremely difficult to grasp and fully accommodate within one's self image. For many, in order to go on with life, death must be denied. Therefore, to help the individual deal with the prospect of the inevitability of personal death, cultural and religious institutions provide metaphors of everlasting life. Just as my patients adapt to difficult realities by creating metaphorical substitutes, it appears to me that beliefs in angels, deities and eternal souls can be understood in part as wish fulfilling metaphors for an unpleasant reality that most of us cannot fully comprehend and accept.

Unfortunately, just as my patients' myths are not true, neither are those that I was brought up to believe in.


ALUN ANDERSON
Senior Consultant, New Scientist

Brains cannot become minds without bodies

A common image for popular accounts of the "The Mind" is a brain in a bell jar. The message is that inside that disembodied lump of neural tissue is everything that is you.

It's a scary image but misleading. A far more dangerous idea is that brains cannot become minds without bodies, that two-way interactions between mind and body are crucial to thought and health, and the brain may partly think in terms of the motor actions it encodes for the body's muscles to carry out.

We've probable fallen for disembodied brains because of the academic tendency to worship abstract thought. If we take a more democratic view of the whole brain we'd find far more of it being used for planning and controlling movement than for cogitation. Sports writers get it right when they describe stars of football or baseball as "geniuses"! Their genius requires massive brain power and a superb body, which is perhaps one better than Einstein.

The "brain-body" view is dangerous because it requires many scientists to change the way they think: it allows back common sense interactions between brain and body that medical science feels uncomfortable with, makes more sense of feelings like falling in love and requires a different approach for people who are trying to create machines with human-like intelligence. And if this all sounds like mere assertion, there's plenty of interesting research out there to back it up.

Interactions between mind and body come out strongly in the surprising links between status and health. Michael Marmot's celebrated studies show that the lower you are in the pecking order, the worse your health is likely to be. You can explain away only a small part of the trend from poorer access to healthcare, or poorer food or living conditions. For Marmot, the answer lies in "the impact over how much control you have over life circumstances". The important message is that state of mind — perceived status — translates into state of body.

The effect of placebos on health delivers a similar message. Trust and belief are often seen as negative in science and the placebo effect is dismissed as a kind of "fraud" because it relies on the belief of the patient. But the real wonder is that faith can work. Placebos can stimulate the release of pain-relieving endorphins and affect neuronal firing rates in people with Parkinson's disease.

Body and mind interact too in the most intimate feelings of love and bonding. Those interactions have been best explored in voles where two hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin, are critical. The hormones are released as a result of the "the extended tactile pleasures of mating", as researchers describe it, and hit pleasure centres in the brain which essentially "addict" sexual partners to one another.

Humans are surely more cerebral. But brain scans of people in love show heightened activity where there are lots of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. Oxytocin levels rise during orgasm and sexual arousal, as they do from touching and massage. There are defects in oxytocin receptors associated with autism. And the hormone boosts the feeling that you can trust others, which is key part of intimate relations. In a recent laboratory "investment game" many investors would trust all their money to a stranger after a puff of an oxytocin spray.

These few stories show the importance of the interplay of minds and hormonal signals, of brains and bodies. This idea has been taken to a profound level in the well-known studies of Anthony Damasio, who finds that emotional or "gut feelings" are essential to making decisions. "We don't separate emotion from cognition like layers in a cake," says Damasio, "Emotion is in the loop of reason all the time."

Indeed, the way in which reasoning is tied to body actions may be quite counter-intuitive. Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered "mirror neurones" in a part of the monkey brain responsible for planning movement. These nerve cells fire both when a monkey performs an action (like picking up a peanut) and when the monkey sees someone else do the same thing. Before long, similar systems were found in human brains too.

The surprising conclusion may be that when we see someone do something, the same parts of our brain are activated "as if" we were doing it ourselves. We may know what other people intend and feel by simulating what they are doing within the same motor areas of our own brains.

As Rizzolatti puts it, "the fundamental mechanism that allows us a direct grasp of the mind of others is not conceptual reasoning but direct simulation of the observed events through the mirror mechanism." Direct grasp of others' minds is a special ability that paves the way for our unique powers of imitation which in turn have allowed culture to develop.

If bodies and their interaction with brain and planning for action in the world are so central to human kinds of mind, where does that leave the chances of creating an intelligent "disembodied mind" inside a computer? Perhaps the Turing test will be harder than we think. We may build computers that understand language but which cannot say anything meaningful, at least until we can give them "extended tactile experiences". To put it another way, computers may not be able to make sense until they can have sex.


JUDITH RICH HARRIS
Independent Investigator and Theoretician; Author,
The Nurture Assumption

The idea of zero parental influence

Is it dangerous to claim that parents have no power at all (other than genetic) to shape their child's personality, intelligence, or the way he or she behaves outside the family home? More to the point, is this claim false? Was I wrong when I proposed that parents' power to do these things by environmental means is zero, nada, zilch?

A confession: When I first made this proposal ten years ago, I didn't fully believe it myself. I took an extreme position, the null hypothesis of zero parental influence, for the sake of scientific clarity. Making myself an easy target, I invited the establishment — research psychologists in the academic world — to shoot me down. I didn't think it would be all that difficult for them to do so. It was clear by then that there weren't any big effects of parenting, but I thought there must be modest effects that I would ultimately have to acknowledge.

The establishment's failure to shoot me down has been nothing short of astonishing. One developmental psychologist even admitted, one year ago on this very website, that researchers hadn't yet found proof that "parents do shape their children," but she was still convinced that they will eventually find it, if they just keep searching long enough.

Her comrades in arms have been less forthright. "There are dozens of studies that show the influence of parents on children!" they kept saying, but then they'd somehow forget to name them — perhaps because these studies were among the ones I had already demolished (by showing that they lacked the necessary controls or the proper statistical analyses). Or they'd claim to have newer research that provided an airtight case for parental influence, but again there was a catch: the work had never been published in a peer-reviewed journal. When I investigated, I could find no evidence that the research in question had actually been done or, if done, that it had produced the results that were claimed for it. At most, it appeared to consist of preliminary work, with too little data to be meaningful (or publishable).

Vaporware, I call it. Some of the vaporware has achieved mythic status. You may have heard of Stephen Suomi's experiment with nervous baby monkeys, supposedly showing that those reared by "nurturant" adoptive monkey mothers turn into calm, socially confident adults. Or of Jerome Kagan's research with nervous baby humans, supposedly showing that those reared by "overprotective" (that is, nurturant) human mothers are more likely to remain fearful.

Researchers like these might well see my ideas as dangerous. But is the notion of zero parental influence dangerous in any other sense? So it is alleged. Here's what Frank Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association, told a journalist in 1998:

[Harris's] thesis is absurd on its face, but consider what might happen if parents believe this stuff! Will it free some to mistreat their kids, since "it doesn't matter"? Will it tell parents who are tired after a long day that they needn't bother even paying any attention to their kid since "it doesn't matter"?

Farley seems to be saying that the only reason parents are nice to their children is because they think it will make the children turn out better! And that if parents believed that they had no influence at all on how their kids turn out, they are likely to abuse or neglect them.

Which, it seems to me, is absurd on its face. Most chimpanzee mothers are nice to their babies and take good care of them. Do chimpanzees think they're going to influence how their offspring turn out? Doesn't Frank Farley know anything at all about evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology?

My idea is viewed as dangerous by the powers that be, but I don't think it's dangerous at all. On the contrary: if people accepted it, it would be a breath of fresh air. Family life, for parents and children alike, would improve. Look what's happening now as a result of the faith, obligatory in our culture, in the power of parents to mold their children's fragile psyches. Parents are exhausting themselves in their efforts to meet their children's every demand, not realizing that evolution designed offspring — nonhuman animals as well as humans — to demand more than they really need. Family life has become phony, because parents are convinced that children need constant reassurances of their love, so if they don't happen to feel very loving at a particular time or towards a particular child, they fake it. Praise is delivered by the bushel, which devalues its worth. Children have become the masters of the home.

And what has all this sacrifice and effort on the part of parents bought them? Zilch. There are no indications that children today are happier, more self-confident, less aggressive, or in better mental health than they were sixty years ago, when I was a child — when homes were run by and for adults, when physical punishment was used routinely, when fathers were generally unavailable, when praise was a rare and precious commodity, and when explicit expressions of parental love were reserved for the deathbed.

Is my idea dangerous? I've never condoned child abuse or neglect; I've never believed that parents don't matter. The relationship between a parent and a child is an important one, but it's important in the same way as the relationship between married partners. A good relationship is one in which each party cares about the other and derives happiness from making the other happy. A good relationship is not one in which one party's central goal is to modify the other's personality.

I think what's really dangerous — perhaps a better word is tragic — is the establishment's idea of the all-powerful, and hence all-blamable, parent.


DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF
Media Analyst; Documentary Writer; Author, Get Back in the Box : Innovation from the Inside Out

Open Source Currency

It's not only dangerous and by most counts preposterous; it's happening. Open Source or, in more common parlance, "complementary" currencies are collaboratively established units representing hours of labor that can be traded for goods or services in lieu of centralized currency. The advantage is that while the value of centralized currency is based on its scarcity, the bias of complementary or local currencies is towards their abundance.

So instead of having to involve the Fed in every transaction — and using money that requires being paid back with interest — we can invent our own currencies and create value with our labor. It's what the Japanese did at the height of the recession. No, not the Japanese government, but unemployed Japanese people who couldn't afford to pay healthcare costs for their elder relatives in distant cities. They created a currency through which people could care for someone else's grandmother, and accrue credits for someone else to take care of theirs.

Throughout most of history, complementary currencies existed alongside centralized currency. While local currency was used for labor and local transactions, centralized currencies were used for long distance and foreign trade. Local currencies were based on a model of abundance — there was so much of it that people constantly invested it. That's why we saw so many cathedrals being built in the late middle ages, and unparalleled levels of investment in infrastructure and maintenance. Centralized currency, on the other hand, needed to retain value over long distances and periods of time, so it was based on precious and scarce resources, such as gold.

The problem started during the Renaissance: as kings attempted to centralize their power, most local currencies were outlawed. This new monopoly on currency reduced entire economies into scarcity engines, encouraging competition over collaboration, protectionism over sharing, and fixed commodities over renewable resources. Today, money is lent into existence by the Fed or another central bank — and paid back with interest.

This cash is a medium; and like any medium, it has certain biases. The money we use today is just one model of money. Turning currency into an collaborative phenomenon is the final frontier in the open source movement. It's what would allow for an economic model that could support a renewable energies industry, a way for companies such as Wal-Mart to add value to the communities it currently drains, and a way of working with money that doesn't have bankruptcy built in as a given circumstance.


MARCELO GLEISER
Physicist, Dartmouth College; Author,
The Prophet and the Astronomer

Can science explain itself?

There have been many times when I asked myself if we scientists, especially those seeking to answer "ultimate" kind of questions such as the origin of the Universe, are not beating on the wrong drum. Of course, by trying to answer such question as the origin of everything, we assume we can. We plow ahead, proposing tentative models that join general relativity and quantum mechanics and use knowledge from high energy physics to propose models where the universe pops out of nothing, no energy required, due to a random quantum fluctuation. To this, we tag along the randomness of fundamental constants, saying that their values are the way they are due to an accident: other universes may well have other values of the charge and mass of the electron and thus completely different properties. So, our universe becomes this very special place where things "conspire" to produce galaxies, stars, planets, and life.

What if this is all bogus? What if we look at sciece as a narrative, a description of the world that has limitations based on its structure? The constants of Nature are the letters of the alphabet, the laws are the grammar rules and we build these descriptions through the guiding hand of the so-called scientific method. Period. To say things are this way because otherwise we wouldn't be here to ask the question is to miss the point altogether: things are this way because this is the story we humans tell based on the way we see the world and explain it.

If we take this to the extreme, it means that we will never be able to answer the question of the origin of the Universe, since it implicitly assumes that science can explain itself. We can build any cool and creative models we want using any marriage of quantum mechanics and relativity, but we still won't understand why these laws and not others. In sense, this means that our science is our science and not something universally true as many believe it is. This is not bad at all, given what we can do with it, but it does place limits on knowledge. Which may also not be a bad thing as well. It's OK not to know everything, it doesn't make science weaker. Only more human.


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