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VINE VOICEon June 16, 2007
It is an interesting and provocative question: what is your "dangerous idea"? John Brockman edited this compilation of short essays from a variety of "leading thinkers." This effort was inspired by the Edge Foundation, a "third culture" think-tank that sponsors "edge dot org," and has a mandate "...to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society."

In other words, Joe and Jane Citizen were not invited to participate in this project. Too bad... it would have been a worthy exercise to see "third culture intellectuals" spouting out alongside those who live in... our first and second culture?

Regardless, there are some interesting ideas presented here, even if the pool of writers has been high-graded through a filter that is not clearly specified.

There is an introduction and an afterward written by Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, respectively. These are both interesting essays in their own right. Pinker stated that "When done right, science (together with other truth-seeking institutions, such as history and journalism) characterizes the world as it is, without regard to whose feelings get hurt. Science in particular has always been a source of heresy, and today the galloping advances in touchy areas like genetics, evolution, and the environmental sciences are bound to throw unsettling possibilities at us" (p. xxv).

Pinker continues, "Another contributor to the perception of dangerousness is the intellectual blinkers that humans tend to don when they split into factions. People have a nasty habit of clustering in coalitions, professing certain beliefs as badges of their commitment to the coalition and treating rival coalitions as intellectually unfit and morally depraved. Debates between members of the coalitions can make things even worse, because when the other side fails to capitulate to one's devastating arguments, it only proves they are immune to reason" (p. xxvi-xxvii).

Ouch.

Pinker pulls no punches. "...it's hard to imagine any aspect of public life where ignorance or delusion is better than an awareness of the truth, even an unpleasant one. Only children and madmen [and I add, madwomen] engage in 'magical thinking,' the fallacy that good things can come true by believing in them or bad things will disappear by ignoring them or wishing them away" (p. xxix).

Double ouch.

And the answer? "'Sunlight is the best disinfectant,' according to Justice Louis Brandeis's famous case for freedom of thought and expression. If an idea really is false, only by examining it openly can we determine that it is false.... The moral order did not collapse when the earth was shown not to be at the center of the solar system, and so it will survive other revisions of our understanding of how the world works" (p. xxx).

And thus the essays begin, all 108 of them. They cover a wide gauntlet of topics, most related to the writer's specialization, but some ranging further afield. Some examples that stood out for me:

Sam Harris - "In the spirit of religious tolerance, most scientists are keeping silent when they should be blasting the hideous fantasies of a prior age with all the facts at their disposal" (p. 150).

Jordan Pollack - "There is a fine line between pushing God out of our public institutions and repeating the religious intolerance of regimes past" (p. 157).

Robert Provine - "The empirically testable idea that the here and now is all there is and that life begins at birth and ends at death is so dangerous that it has cost the lives of millions and threatens the future of civilization" (p. 159).

Jared Diamond - "...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 [damage their environments and make war], which only we evil citizens of state government do" (p. 186).

Susan Blackmore - "We humans can and do make up our own purposes, but ultimately the universe has none" (p. 188).

Rupert Sheldrake - "...there is a possibility that animal navigation may not be explicable in terms of present-day physics" (p. 201).

Simon Baron-Cohen - "What would it be like if our political chambers were based on the principles of empathizing?" (p. 205).

Philip Campbell - "These perceptions and discussions [of and by alternative science networks] may be half-baked but are no less powerful for all that, and they carry influence on the Internet and the media" (p. 220).

This is just a small sample that reflects what caught my eye. There is much, much more here, on physics, psychology, aging, and other topics. With 108 essays, this book is easy to pick up and put down.

Dawkins ends with a summary of the topics covered, and a comment on what he thought was missing: a discussion of eugenics, and why "pro life" always means "pro human life." But you do expect Richard Dawkins to cast a wide net, don't you?

What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable, is an interesting book. Consider this one as a book for your upscale reading group.
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on May 17, 2007
I wish all books were as hard to put down as this one!

The mini-essays are short enough to pick the book up, read several, put it down and mull them over for awhile. Often, two very well-articulated dangerous ideas will be in complete contradiction to one another and will thus be placed one right after the other.

Highly recommend reading.
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(Plus Richard Dawkins, who writes an Afterword.)

I'll give you some dangerous ideas. Take steps to reduce the human population worldwide to around a billion people and keep it there. Take the biological desire of people to play house and be mothers and fathers, and redirect it into responsible stewardship of the planet.

Don't like that one? Seems too draconian? How about this? End all tax exempt status for churches, mosques, etc. (Resounding voice coming onstage: "Only when they tear my cold, dead fingers from the collection plate!")

Here's another: realize that to know all is to forgive all, and that we are all just biological automations acting out our genetic drives and have no more free will than an ant on the pheromone trail. Deal with people acting in antisocial ways by (1) curing them with psychopharmacology, surgery, retraining, or (2) euthanasia.

Decriminalize street drug use. Allow Phillip Morris to get into the cannabis business and Merck to process opium into heroin. If some people become dysfunctional, see previous dangerous idea and employ it.

Well, none of John Brockman's esteemed contributors came up with anything quite THAT dangerous, probably because the danger of such ideas is most immediately to the person who would advance them! Psychiatrist Randolph M. Nesse gives us some guidance on why such ideas are not being advanced in this book in his modest essay on "Unspeakable Ideas." (pp. 193-195) Here's one: "when your business group is trying to deal with a savvy competitor, say, `It seems to me that their product is superior, because they are smarter than we are.'" Also unspeakable is, "I will only do what benefits me." Nesse writes that saying something like that is akin to committing "social suicide."

David Lykken thinks that parents ought to be required to get licenses to parent and prove they are twenty-one years old, married, and self-supporting. (pp. 175-176)

Jordan Pollack urges us (tongue in cheek, I presume) to embrace "faith-based science." He writes, "physics could sing the psalm that perpetual motion would solve the energy crisis..." with God "on our side to repeal the second law of thermodynamics!" "Astronomy could embrace astrology and do grassroots PR with daily horoscopes to gain mass support for a new space program." (pp. 156-158)

John Allen Paulos joins the Buddha and David Hume and presents the self as "an ever-changing collection of beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes, that is not an essential and persistent entity but a conceptual chimera." (p. 152)

Some of the other "dangerous ideas" concern such things as science versus religion (e.g., Sam Harris's "Science Must Destroy Religion" and Philip W. Anderson's "The Posterior Probability of Any Particular God Is Pretty Small"); exciting speculations (Terrence Sejnowski's "When Will the Internet Become Aware of Itself?"), cosmological conjectures (Brian Greene's "The Multiverse," and Leonard Susskind's "The `Landscape'").

Some of the ideas are not dangerous at all of course, and some are only dangerous to certain segments of society. The idea that the Christian God does not exist is no skin off my teeth and no Buddhist feels threatened by it, but television evangelicals find it downright scary. Judith Rich Harris advances the idea that parents really don't shape their children's mores (their peers and the larger society does). This idea isn't threatening at all unless you are a Pygmalion sort of parent infused with a weighty sense of responsibility, and in that case, her idea can help you to chill out.

Some other ideas may or may not be seen as dangerous. Karl Sabbagh suggests that "The Human Brain Will Never Understand the Universe," and Lawrence M. Krauss wants us to know that "The World May Be Fundamentally Inexplicable." Personally I think they're both right, but that shouldn't keep us from trying to expand the range of our knowledge and understanding. Seth Lloyd even goes so far as to suggest that one of our ideas "is likely to have the unintended consequence of destroying everything we know." He adds that "we cannot stop creating and exploring new ideas. The genie of ingenuity is out of the bottle. To suppress the power of ideas will hasten catastrophe, not avert it." (p. 101)

There are several essays on how drugs might, can, and will affect us (e.g., "Drugs May Change the Patterns of Human Love" by Helen Fisher, and "Using Medications to Change Personality" by Samuel Barondes). There are essays on politics and economics (e.g., Michael Shermer's ode to fiscal conservative and social liberalism, "Where Goods Cross Frontiers, Armies Won't" and Matt Ridley's "Government Is the Problem, Not the Solution"), and on the dangers and promises of futuristic technologies by Ray Kurzweil, Freeman J. Dyson and others. In fact there is so much in this book that a reader could study the ideas for decades--seriously--and hardly scratch the surface of what is implied, hoped for, dreamed of, and feared. It is a great collection of ideas, a masterful work of compilation and editing by science's most talented and creative editor, John Brockman. Don't miss this book. It's even better than Brockman's previous collection "What We Believe But Cannot Prove."

Let me throw in one more dangerous idea not in the book (lest I wax too sanguine): suppose that by bioengineering violent aggression out of the human genome (which seems like a good idea) we end up with something like H.G. Wells' Eloi? Can it be true that humans must be violently aggressive, and if not, will become stagnant and exploitable? One might argue that there would then be no exploiter, but should one appear what would--could--we do?
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on June 11, 2009
In 2006, John Brockman asked some prominent thinkers what they considered to be their most dangerous idea. This book is a collection of some of the most striking answers. Brockman managed to get some leading minds to contribute, including Paul Davies, John Allen Paulos, Daniel C. Dennett, Freeman J. Dyson, Michael Shermer, and includes an introduction by Steven Pinker and an afterword by Richard Dawkins. That in itself makes the book remarkable.

Pinker raises high expectations in his introduction by including some dangerous, thought provoking and disturbing ideas that people have thought in the past. Unfortunately, the majority of the ideas presented in this book pale in comparison. Many contributors came up with ideas that only a religious fundamentalist or a completely uneducated person would find dangerous (e.g., there is no soul, much of our behaviour is controlled by genes, ...), whereas others were just playing games. However, I did come across some genuinely interesting ideas that result from thinking outside the box (e.g., the fact that our ethical snap decisions are sometimes irrational refutes the idea of a divine origin of morality), and one genuinely disturbing one (all pregnant single moms should undergo a forced abortion). And I came across the main concept of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Despite the weaknesses, this is an enjoyable read. The contributions are so short that you never really get annoyed about a weak idea, and there are enough gems in this collection to make up for the rest.
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According to founder and editor, John Brockman, the Edge Question was first posed in 1998: "What questions are you asking yourself?" There are 110 contributors and then, after editing, their responses were published in this volume. Each year since then, another question was asked and responses to it were published, also be Harper Perennial.

There were 155 contributors and 154 responses to the 2006 Edge Question, suggested by the psychologist Steven Pinker:

"The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?" What was Pinker's choice? "The year 2005 saw several public appearances of what I predict will be the most dangerous idea of the next decade: that groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments." (Page 13)

Here are some of the others, each of which is discussed further in context:

o John Horgan: "The dangerous (probably true) idea I'd like to dwell on is that we humans have no souls." (Page 1)

o Paul Bloom: The idea that "mental life has a purely material basis. The dangerous idea, then, is that Cartesian dualism is false. If what you mean by `soul' is something immaterial and immortal, something that exists independently of the brain, the souls do not exist." (4)

o David Buss: "The idea that evil has evolved is dangerous on several counts...The danger comes from people who refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology, or exposure to media violence. The danger comes from failing to gaze into the mirror and come to grips with the capacity for evil in all of us.7 & 9)

o V.S. Ramachandran: "An idea that would be `dangerous if true' is what Francis Crick referred to as the `astonishing hypothesis' - that notion that our conscious experience and sense of self consists entirely of the activity of 100 billion bits of jelly, the neurons that constitute the brain." (22)

o Daniel Goleman: "The dangerous thought: The Internet may harbor social perils that our inhibitory circuitry was not evolutionarily designed to handle." (75)

o Kevin Kelly thinks that "more anonymity is good; that's a dangerous idea." (82)

o Ray Kurzweil: "My dangerous idea is the near-term inevitability of radical life extension and expansion. The idea is dangerous, however, only when contemplated from current linear perspectives." (215)

o Freeman J. Dyson: "There are two severe and obvious dangers: First, smart kids and malicious grown-ups will find ways to convert biotech tools to the manufacture of lethal microbes; ambitious parents will find ways to apply the biotech tools to the genetic modification of their babies. The great unanswered question is whether we can regulate domesticated biotechnology so that it can be applied freely to animals and vegetables but not to microbes and humans." (218)

o Howard Gardner: Although sustaining two hopeful assumptions about the prospects for human survival, "Yet I lie awake at night with the dangerous thought that pessimists might be right. For the first time in history (as far as we know), we humans live in a world we could completely destroy." (290)

o Richard Dawkins: "Dangerous ideas are what has driven humanity onward, usually to the consternation of the majority in any particular age who thrive on familiarity and fear change. Yesterday's dangerous idea is today's orthodoxy and tomorrow's cliché." (297)

Although taken out of context, these brief excerpts do suggest the thrust and flavor as well as the diversity of perspective of the contributions by these and other cutting-edge thinkers. If asked to answer the given question, what would your response be?
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on October 10, 2010
Cue omininous organ music - there are some things Man Is Not Meant To Know!

(But we'd be better off if we did!)

As a long time SF buff I have to say that very few of the ideas expressed were that unusual or dangerous, and some were somewhat predictable. The book consists of 110 visions (including the forward by Stephen Pinker and afterword by Richard Dawkins) that the various authors consider to be disruptive or game changing. The "guest list" is fairly impressive, however most wrote of ideas that I've come across either in story form or in other writings - perhaps reassuring that very bright people swim in the same pool of memes as the rest of us. Quite a few worried about our reaching limits of scientific knowledge. About a dozen dealt with atheism (ho hum) or conceptualizations of religion that were at the level of a high school squeal session. Quite a few expressed concern over our concepts of self or society.

Danny Hillis' non response that the ideas he had in mind are too dangerous to express is intriguing if you are aware of his work on Clock Of The Long Now a research initiative to store important human knowledge so that it can be recovered in the far future - how to recreate the such as where are nuclear waste sites located - held against the collapse of civilization. He's been thinking of the truly dangerous for over a decade - it would have been quite interesting to know what possible calamities he's come up with!

So what is it that makes for a dangerous idea? To my mind it is not the idea itself that is dangerous, but the potential outcome that might occur if that idea is either acted upon or not acted upon. Thus the idea that God might require human sacrifice is not particularly dangerous as Aztec and Canaanite cults are none too popular at the moment, whereas global warming is dangerous because we either might on act on it, or act on it improperly. Wallet sized nuclear bombs (or home brew nuclear energy - covered in one essay) is only dangerous if technically feasible, which at the moment it is not.

On the plus side most of the contributors have produced well polished summaries of their thoughts and this does. Among the more interesting pieces were Rushkoff's "Open Source Currency" which I thought was an interesting recasting of the economic value of reputation in a social context, Judith Harris who states that there is no proof that parents have any influence on children (I disagree with the conclusion - our influence may not be what we intended but it's often, not always, there, however the lack of studies was surprising). I've always enjoyed Stewart Brand, and though his idea was stimulating - historians should advise politicians - not very new - I just read that this was done in preparation for the Paris 1919 peace conference - however the material created did not show great evidence of being used. I didn't think it dangerous, however I did get a good book reference out of it. Ray Kurzweil has 2 big ideas - he chose immortality in our time and over the singularity.

I do think that the discussion itself is interesting. For example about a week ago there was a "Dangerous Idea" conference in Sydney Australia. And with that in mind I've started a discussion group below.

Overall not quite up to expectations but that's more me than the text itself which isn't bad and does the job as a springboard for considering a few basic questions. It's also another example IMHO of why Amazon's 1-5 rating isn't fine tuned enough. I'd rate it about 3.4/5 and in spite of the inexpensive price I'd recommend giving it a browse in a bookstore or library before buying.
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on November 20, 2008
This is a book that has to be read twice to properly appreciate the depth and subtlety of the vast range of bright ideas. Not all of them are dangerous or unthinkable but they are all, nevertheless, thought-provoking. Not all of the 108 contributions will speak to you - but even if you find only one - that will have repaid your efforts handsomely.

Here are some of my favorites:

Evolutionary psychologist, David Buss, says that evolution programmed us with the capacity to "commit despicable atrocities against our fellow humans - atrocities that most of us would label evil" and that "The danger comes from people who refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology, or exposure to media violence."

Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker's dangerous idea is that genetically there are such things as races, that different races have genetically different average levels of intelligence and genetically different "life priorities". Presumably Pinker is making an oblique reference to the works of Phillipe Rushton Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective, Jon Entine Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It and Murray & Herrnstein The Bell Curve: Intelligence And Class Structure In American Life. As Professor Richard Dawkins observes in the Afterword: if we can breed horses for speed, why not humans for athletic ability? The sub-text is that the vagaries of racial differentiation over the millennia have already done that in the case of black domination of sprinting and white domination of swimming.

Cosmologist Paul Davies' idea is that the fight against global warming is futile and anyway already lost. But his dangerous idea is that the world will be a better place for it. This chimes with Nature editor, Oliver Morton's view that the earth doesn't need ice-caps and that even a quintupling of carbon dioxide levels will not reach the levels of the late Permian.

Philosophy professor, Denis Dutton debunks "social construction theory" which he categorizes as "... a series of fashion statements, clever slogans and postures imported from France in the 1960s...". His dangerous idea is that a Darwinian approach would provide a true theory for understanding and analyzing art, music, and literature.

Behavioral geneticist David Lykken observes that "Traditional societies in which children are socialized collectively, the method to which our species is naturally adapted, have very little crime." Lykkens' dangerous idea is that parents should only be allowed to make babies when they are over twenty-one, married and self-supporting.

Psychologist and author of The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Judith Rich Harris in a colorful and pithy piece says that there is no proof that "parents do shape their children". Moreover, "Parents are exhausting themselves in their efforts to meet their children's every demand not realizing that evolution designed offspring... to demand more than they really need." Her dangerous idea is that the "establishment's idea of the all-powerful, and hence all-blamable, parent" is incorrect.

Kai Krause writes a witty piece on his haunting realization that "Individuals, families, groups, neighborhoods, cities, states, countries all just barely hang in there between debt and dysfunction." We need to re-evaluate priorities: while we are looking at the horizon the ground beneath us is crumbling. "The anthill could go to ant hell!"

Matt Ridley says "everywhere there is too much government". Weak governments, as in eighteenth century England, allowed the country to develop the world's first industrial revolution. Strong central government (as in Argentina, Cuba, Stalinist Russia, imperial Spain) leads to "parasitic, tax-fed officialdom, a stifling of innovation, relative economic decline and usually war." His dangerous idea is that "the more we limit the growth of government, the better off we will all be."

Cognitive psychologist Roger Schank makes the case "School is bad for kids". Professor Clay Shirky argues that: "everyone from advertisers to political consultants increasingly understands, in voluminous biological detail, how to manipulate consciousness in ways that weaken our notion of free will". Logician Andy Clark notes that our brains make decisions for us in the split second before our consciousness informs us of the event. His dangerous idea is: "that we are indeed designed to cut conscious choice out of the picture whenever possible."

In writing this I see that my choices strongly accentuate evolutionary biology. I guess as a nutritional anthropologist and author Deadly Harvest that this is only to be expected. However there is something in this book for everyone, whatever your particular vocation or interest.
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on June 15, 2008
I got this book as a gift and really knew nothing about it. Almost immediately upon starting, I felt drawn in, eager to continue reading.

The book is very well-edited, so that essays that discuss similar dangerous ideas are grouped together. The result is that the reader develops an increasingly nuanced and detailed understanding of concepts -- such as the "anthropic view" of physical laws -- that might have been entirely unfamiliar before starting the book.

The essays are generally excellent at explaining why the topics are relevant to modern life. Authors are asked to answer the question, "Why is your idea dangerous?" In so doing, they help the reader to understand why topics like the philosophy of mind, comparative religion, and evolutionary theory really matter. Many of the dangerous ideas presented really do challenge the political, economic, and sociological structures of our world.

It's also nice that the essays are short. If one essay fails to spark your interest, you only need to wade through 3 or 4 pages before the next one begins.

I highly recommend this book.
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on May 24, 2010
I love this book. I haven't read all of it yet, but the subject list in the table of contents is very enticing (and more extensive than I expected). From what I have read, the authors take important ideological controversies of today and, in few words, portray them in ways that get to the heart of the matter: what these ideas actually _mean_ to people, and what their likely ramifications are in the larger sociological context. You might suspect that, in order to do this, they vacuously gloss over key elements or important details of the subject matters, but from what I've seen this is not at all true: if anything, their keenness in recapping the issues offers refreshing overall perspectives that could save *hours* (or days) of research just trying to see the forest for all the trees. It's written by some of the most prominent thinkers alive today, I don't feel they abscond from a fair analysis.

What really struck me about this book is that the authors go out and do what few of the most fervent protagonists and antagonists of the respective ideas seem ever to bother themselves with, which is to truly think about or explain what their ideas mean in the bigger picture. In chess, you simply follow the rules of the game and see who wins - why the player want to win is their own business. In world-changing ideas it's not so simple: there are more important consequences than just "being right," and why one is so angrily (or happily) for or against an ideology also outlines their probable biases and blindspots in their evaluation of The Truth (where there even is such a thing). Anyone interested in philosophy for reasons that pertain to the actual world at large should read this book, IMO.
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on September 12, 2007
Ever wanted to go to a conference and hear 25 of the top people in their fields talk about what's on their minds? This book does exactly that, and saves you all the aggravation of travel and lodging. You might be surprised how hard it is to put this book down--unlike actual conferences, where so many speakers take forever to get around to something really surprising...
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