Monday, January 02, 2006

What is your dangerous idea?

Edge has posted its Annual Question for 2006. This year it's a real doozy: What is your dangerous idea?
The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, 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?

John Brockman -- founder of Edge, literary agent par excellence for science writing, and agent provocateur working on behalf of what he calls the Third Culture -- provides background about Edge and the Annual Question at this article on the Huffington Post. (There are many interesting replies to this article.)

There are 117 essays written in answer to this question, by such people as Steven Pinker (whom Brockman thanks for suggesting the question), George and Freeman Dyson, Brian Greene, Martin Rees, Leonard Susskind, Craig Venter, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Ray Kurzweil, Lynn Margulis, Lee Smolin, Jaron Lanier, Stewart Brand, Rudy Rucker, Gregory Benford, and... well you get the idea. Quite a roster. Interested yet?

It's simply impossible to pick out the most interesting ideas from the list, let alone to discuss adequately even a few of them right here, right now. Instead, of course, these questions will form inspiration for thought all year, and beyond. (Even if -- or because -- most of the essays leave plenty of room for disagreement.) As Brockman aptly puts it, quoting Ernst Mayr (shortly before his death), "It's a conversation."

An idea may be considered dangerous for several reasons. It may be an idea that one agrees with, and which one considers to be capable of having seriously destabilizing effects on the world. Or it may be an idea that one disagrees with -- but expects the same sort of effect. So one should not assume that any of the ideas suggested are actually favored by the suggester. It could be either way, though most people can't help tipping their hands.

Many who responded discussed ideas with which they themselves are closely identified. But by asking for ideas that are "dangerous", Brockman challenges everyone to contemplate ideas that are dangerous precisely because one fears they might be true -- whether or not one wants them to be true.

Putting the question this way is especially important for a simple reason: It forces thinkers to consider ideas seriously even though the truth of those ideas might be contrary to what one has invested heavily in.

This is how science should work. We should not stint on thinking about those very possibilities that contradict our favorite beliefs. At least, the thinking process will better equip us to better defend and substantiate those beliefs. We must be careful not to hold a belief simply because we want it to be true.

I expect to examine many of these ideas here over the coming months. This is more than just a little food for thought. It's a substantial smörgasbord.

Just to give a taste of how this can go, here's one comment that struck me, from Haim Harari:
When, in the past two years, Edge asked for brilliant ideas you believe in but cannot prove, or for proposing new exciting laws, most answers related to science and technology. When the question is now about dangerous ideas, almost all answers touch on issues of politics and society and not on the "hard sciences". Perhaps science is not so dangerous, after all.

Perhaps it's not the science and technology we humans produce that is the greatest threat to our continued existence. Maybe it's us. We're our own worst threat. We have met the enemy, and it is us.


Already (and unsurprisingly) there have appeared discussions of Edge's question for 2006. Here are a few of them:

Not Even Wrong: What is Your Dangerous Idea?

Cosmic Variance: Dangerous, stupid, or simply dishonest?

Luboš Motl's Reference Frame: Dangerous ideas

The Slimmer List of Edge Dangerous Ideas

Other reports:

Gene discoveries highlight dangers facing society




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Blogger James Aach said...

Stewart Brand (quoted in the Edge article) posited a number of "dangerous" (if not new) ideas for environmentalists in a May 2005 Technology Review article. This included a re-consideration of nuclear power, due to global warming concerns. Mr. Brand has also recently endorsed a novel about the American nuclear power industry written by a longtime nuclear engineer that's designed to give the general public a clear picture of how a US nuclear plant is operated (warts and all) and how an accident might be handled. This book is available at no cost on the net. See

1/03/2006 03:57:00 PM  

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