Science

Friday Mini Book Review: What is Your Dangerous Idea?

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Mini Book Reviews of yesterday.

What is Your Dangerous Idea?, edited by John Brockman (Harper Perennial, 2007). Dozens of thinkers from the hepcat sciences of evolutionary biology and psychology, cutting-edge neuroscience, artificial intelligence, biotech and computer tech contribute very short essays laying out ideas that might be considered "dangerous," a locution never defined with great sharpness here, but roughly falls into categories such as "politically incorrect," or "could lead to technologies of domination or destruction" or "destructive of certain notions held dear by many of us" (whether religious or philosophical).

Editor Brockman runs the site edge.org, where the science and tech types who he thinks are superseding traditional humanities/literary/social science intellectuals here in the fabulous 21st century gather to think big

Thousand word (approx.) essays are not where anyone expresses their full intellectual effulgence, of course, but this book still manages to be disappointing even when considering that limitation, like an overly long and bloated Wired mag roundtable feature with an ill-defined context.

Some of the essays are mind-blowing, sure, but without the actual scientific reasoning or evidence behind them presented because of lack of space, they tend to come across more druggy-goofy than profound or smart ("what if time doesn't exist?" "What if the Internet becomes self-aware?"). Some of them just drip with scientistic hubris, like Carolyn C. Porco's call for a literal Fritz Leiberesque "church of Science."

A lot of its is basic, and pretty old, religion-baiting: there is no God (and so what if there was?), there is no soul, murder is embedded in our DNA; much of it is a newer variant on same (we have no wills or choices, and are just robots and puppets of our genes and chemicals in our brain). Essays touching on some variation of those two overarching ideas makes up at least a third of the book.

Then there's some chewing over global warming, with a lean toward non-alarmism. Some of the book is quite interesting and relatively fresh (of course, what strikes any individual reader as "fresh" is dependent on how closely he pays attention to various fields), like Judith Rich Harris's declaration that there is "zero parental influence" on children's personality or intelligence or behavior outside the home (environmental influence, not genetic), or the controversial Rupert Sheldrake's thought that our lack of full understanding of how animals navigate may mean we are all wrong about the nature of life itself.

Of course, people come forward to declare both that it's dangerous to think any idea is dangerous; and dangerous to encourage people to think of dangerous ideas. There are encouraging (to the libertarian…) flashes of libertarianism in not just some, but most, of the political entries, including Roger C. Schank's call to end organized public education. It's nice to see libertarianism so casually accepted (generally not self-consciously) among Brockman's science and tech elite.

If the book ultimately feels as if it did not reward the time it took to read, it's more the fault of the length restrictions than the writers or their thinking. Still, the short length does make it a more-than-usually interesting variant on the "bathroom reader."

NEXT: The Friday Political Thread: Plumbing New Heights

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  1. Didn’t Time Magazine Online do a feature on this about six months ago?

    IIRC, they ranged from intriguing to idiotic. With a few gratuitous “there is no such thing as a dangerous idea, except perhaps the idea that an idea can be dangerous is dangerous”.

    (Suck it, Quine.)

  2. A “Church of Science” ?
    Where do I sign up for the Crusade to put down this Heresy?

  3. Elemenope—Could be; the book’s been out for awhile (2007 copyright date)–but I didn’t see any such piece.

  4. that there is no such thing as information

  5. If the government would just send everyone a check for a million dollars, we’d all be rich!

  6. Elvis Chess Set

  7. that there is no such thing as information

    That would fuck up my metaphysical opinions something fierce.

  8. Nothing about the singularity?

  9. LoneWacko is correct in all that he says.

  10. God is an athiest. If God belived in Himself, that would be prideful. Pride is a sin. God is without sin. Therefore, God is an athiest.

  11. What is Your Dangerous Idea?, edited by John Brockman (Harper Perennial, 2007). Dozens of thinkers from the hepcat sciences of evolutionary biology and psychology, cutting-edge neuroscience, artificial intelligence, biotech and computer tech contribute very short essays laying out ideas that might be considered “dangerous,”

    Pikers. If Congress wrote on the subject it would take numerous volumes.

  12. “What if the Internet becomes self-aware?”

    It would engage in auto-fellation from all the readily available porn.

  13. Was there a piece on bundling mortgages as securities?

  14. “It’s nice to see libertarianism so casually accepted (generally not self-consciously) among Brockman’s science and tech elite.”

    Ah, yes, it’s nice to see that market funadmentalist dogmas are just part of the mental baggage of science elites. What a crock of shit! You people make the Moonies seem rational.

  15. Today a young man on acid realised that all matter is just energy condensed to a slow vabration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream and we are the imagination of ourselves.

  16. You people make the Moonies seem rational.

    yah, but Edweirdoooo, aren’t they?

    I know compared with me, a schizophrenic labradoodle-chimera-circus freak is certainly more rational.

    And as for dogmatic fundamentalism combined with science elites, guilty as charged!

    In fact, when I bludgeon people over the head with the Fountainhead, I ritualistically chant, “F = MA” “F = MA”, so I can simultaneously appeal to both of those primal forces!

    In fact, I overdubed the Mongo-enters-the-bar scene from Blazing Saddles. When Ice Cream Parlor Johnson (Actor John Hillerman) was talking about Pasteur and how anthrax will be a thing of the past, instead of the next line, “never mind that shit. here comes Mongo”, I have “oh yeah, well, Howard Roark is like, A.”

    then I say twelve “goldbug” prayers, and pretend that there is a great conspiracy in economics keeping the true ideas down.

    [reaches for the moist towelettes]

    ahem.

    what do the rest of you do?

  17. God is an athiest

    Not really dangerous, but the chronic inability
    of some to properly spell atheist is always amusing.

  18. OK, in all seriousness, this is dangerous.

  19. And here I was hoping for a review of Harlan Ellison’s classic Dangerous Visions

  20. Libertarianism = bottomless reservoir of certitudes

  21. Lefiti | October 18, 2008, 11:22am | #
    Libertarianism = bottomless reservoir of certitudes

    now, edweirdoooo, now now. I am absolutely CERTAIN there is a bottom to the reservoir.

    certain

  22. You’re sooooo clever, VM.

  23. Libertarianism = bottomless reservoir of certitudes

    I don’t think it’s the libertarians who consistently come up with, “Here’s how the government can certainly fix [insert real or imagined problem].”

  24. Lefiti | October 18, 2008, 11:47am | #
    You’re sooooo clever, VM.

    thank you, edweirdooo, I got your book, “How to be clever”. and someone read it to me.

    Apparently, I had been going about it all wrong. I just waited, having faith that the market would make me clever.

    But then I got your book, and everything changed.

  25. HAY, LEFITI. YOU’RE THE ONE WHO IS CLEVER. THAT MOOSE IS PALIN FODDER. AND THEN HE’LL BE BANTHA FODDER. THAT’S RIGHT.

    FODDER GAP.

  26. i’ve honestly heard that compared to squirrels, moose as fodder palin comparison.

  27. Does the Palin even like the flava of moose taint?

  28. at least it’s not withered taint.

    hrumphs. ambles off

  29. I don’t think you all grasp the full implications.

    Elvis.

    Chess set.

  30. Elvis chess set.

    I’m intrigued. And bored.
    I’m chairman of the bored.

  31. He’s selling books to self-appointed “intellectuals,” who love dry effectless bloviation.

    Beats action for keeping the sofa warm.

  32. Hopefully the day will come when genetic splicing becomes cheap enough that it will be just another hobby that takes place in people’s garages on the weekends. There could even be school clubs for that shit and a battle show on Comedy Central.

  33. He’s selling books to self-appointed “intellectuals,” who love dry effectless bloviation.

    Beats action for keeping the sofa warm.

    So…why are you posting here, again?

    Are you one of them there “intellectuals”?

  34. I have an idea!

    Now, all I need is a hopey-changey advocate for my principles…

  35. another hobby that takes place in people’s garages on the weekends. There could even be school clubs for that shit and a battle show on Comedy Central.

    Speaking of which, the whole ‘robot wars’ has got to be the shortest lived pop culture phenomenon of my lifetime. For a while there were versions on at least three different networks, and countless references on other shows. It’s all but disappeared now. I’m not even sure if they still cover the annual MIT competition on NOVA or whatever inherited the spot of that other PBS Smithsonian show.

  36. Elvis chess set.

    I’m intrigued. And bored.
    I’m chairman of the bored.

    Rat Pack Chess Set?

  37. Karl Marx | October 18, 2008, 4:10pm | #

    I have an idea!

    Now, all I need is a hopey-changey advocate for my principles…

    You must be absolutely frantic, TallDave. You’re dropping these turds on every thread.

    Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder.
    Yes, it’s true, it’s actual.
    Everything is satisfactual.

    Zip-a-dee-doo-dah
    Zip-a-dee-ay!
    My oh my, what a wonderful day!

  38. This actually has lots of odd and interesting ideas; I don’t know how dangerous though…

    http://www.jamesphogan.com/heretics/toc.php

  39. My dangerous idea:

    The essence of life is self-organization. So all self-organizing systems, are, in effect, alive. Including the economy, and for that matter, the entire universe.

  40. I vote Leftiti leave the island next.

  41. Stupid people breed more than smart people. We practice eugenics or go back to the apes.

  42. My dangerous idea: citizens should be allowed to ask Presidential candidates questions.

    “It actually upsets me,” Mr. Wurzelbacher said. “I am a plumber, and just a plumber, and here Barack Obama or John McCain, I mean these guys are going to deal with some serious issues coming up shortly. The media’s worried about whether I paid my taxes, they’re worried about any number of silly things that have nothing to do with America. They really don’t. I asked a question. When you can’t ask a question to your leaders anymore, that gets scary. That bothers me.”

  43. My Dangerous Idea | October 19, 2008, 12:50am | #
    Stupid people breed more than smart people. We practice eugenics or go back to the apes.

    Giving homo saps too much credit there.

    My dangerous idea: if a utilitarian measure or hypothesis can not be as equally applied to a gang of monkey purse snatchers in India as it can to, say, a high school in Denver, or any other human social organization than the hypothesis or measure is culturally biased and unscientific on it’s very basis. Take that Comte!

  44. My dangerous idea: If you stick food up your ass you will crap out your mouth.

  45. I second the idea of leaving Lefiti on a deserted island.

  46. a gang of monkey purse snatchers

    Who the hell is stealing purses from monkeys?

  47. Quoting Joe Quirk from H+ seems appropriately dangerous:

    Here’s another moral imperative you transhumanist fools haven’t considered: we owe something to people who don’t exist yet. People who don’t exist yet are waiting in line to take our places. They can’t do that unless we die. Don’t nonexistent people have rights? Damn right they do. The right to demand our deaths. Luckily, nonexistent people have Bill McKibben and Frances Fukayama speaking up for their right to kill you. Which they can’t do, since they don’t exist. So Kass and Fukayama will kill you for them, by legislating against doctors interfering with your long slow death.

  48. Xeones | October 20, 2008, 9:27am | #
    a gang of monkey purse snatchers

    Who the hell is stealing purses from monkeys?

    (With an Al Gore like sigh) Trying to free the language of its inherent species bias, Xeones. Try substituting man and you’ll see the inherent inefficiency created when applying multispecie-ism to the language. It gets even more complicated when you deal with pronominal formations and you attempt to parse out meaning depending on the species in question.

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