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Dangerous ideas: what would YOU contribute?
on 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).
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).
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.