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January 20, 2008 / D.F.Dufty

The edge annual question: the condensed version

Every year, The Edge ( asks intellectual luminaries one question. The answers are usually a mixed bag. Some are throwaways, some are boring, some are entertaining, some are insightful, and some are just mindblowing. The 2008 question is “What have you changed your mind about?”

The Edge site has one-line headings for many of the responses, but there is no summary of all the responses. I wrote one, in part to have a record for myself, and in part to keep track of what I had read and what I hadn’t read. I’ve published it here in case anyone else finds it useful.

I’ve resisted the urge to editorialize the answers in all but a few cases.

MARTIN SELIGMAN, a one-time supporter of SETI, is now certain that we are alone. There are no aliens, Martin now believes, here or anywhere else.

JOSEPH LEDOUX changed his view of memory. It turns out that memories are used exactly once. On subsequent occasions we recall the ‘memory,’ we’re actually recalling the previous time that we remembered.

KARL SABBAGH realized that experts are no better than non-experts. Sabbagh suggests that we shouldn’t respect the opinions of others any more than our own. (so should we ignore this advice?)

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF is bitter and disillusioned about the internet not ushering in a new era of anarchic freedom and ideals.

PIET HUT has figured out that explanations and metaphors can distort or even strangle the subtleties of a complex concept. When you try to explain something, you may be in fact communicating something entirely different.

HOWARD GARDNER looks back on his hero Piaget, and realizes Piaget was wrong about a great many things.

DONALD HOFFMAN – we don’t perceive what is “true” or “out there”, we perceive what is “useful”. (in the sense – I think- that cockroaches don’t know much, but survive okay).

MICHAEL SHERMER no longer believes in the blank slate.

JAMES O’DONNELL, thinks the Romans were over-rated.

COLIN TUDGE sees the limits of science. Colin’s insights are insightful, but the specific targets he chooses to demonstrate science’s failings are patsies: namely behaviorism and genetically modified organisms. Behaviorism is a much-flogged dead horse, and the GMO scare may turn out to be a false alarm.

IRENE PEPPERBERG thinks falsification is over-rated. Irene despairs about mediocre science: “Many journal submissions lack any discussion of alternative competing hypotheses: Researchers don’t seem to realize that collecting data that are consistent with their original hypothesis doesn’t mean that it is unconditionally true.” (Do you truly think scientists are that ignorant, Irene?)

MARCELO GLEISER rejects the quasi-religious search for unification in physics.

FREEMAN DYSON does not believe that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasakimade any contribution to ending World War Two. It was effectively already over.

ED REGIS doesn’t believe forecasters, predictors and prognosticators. Some systems are computationally irreducible, says Ed. If that’s right, that means there are some places that science just can’t go. But should we give up trying?

DAVID BRIN sees America sliding into “bona fide future shock.”

RUDY RUCKER does not draw a distinction between humans and machines any more.

CHARLES SEIFE realized that science is not a cornerstone of democracy. Maybe not even a building block.

DAVID BODANIS finds the bible much more interesting now that he’s an adult.

HAIM HARARI thinks that definitions get in the way.

TIMOTHY TAYLOR says that all this relativism business has gone too far.

LEON LEDERMAN thinks scientists should be more politically active, so they can solve global warming, nuclear arms etc.

DAN SPERBER thinks evolutionary psychology rocks!

THOMAS METZINGER became an ethical skeptic.

MARC D. HAUSER ponders the limits of Darwin in explaining anything and everything.

KEITH DEVLIN rejects the Platonic notion of mathematics. Instead, says Keith, mathematics is a synthesis of objective reality and human perception… and imagination.

DAVID G. MYERS – has also lost his taste for the blank slate. He also thinks ECG is good, that some people are born gay, “personality is unrelated to birth order”, and “economic growth has not improved our morale”. On this last one, I hope he’s reading the list because this one gets busted later, Dave.

DANIEL EVERETT thinks Chomsky was wrong (about grammar)

DAVID DALRYMPLE is excited about distributed computing.

MAX TEGMARK sees “consciousness” as a separate field of inquiry from physics.

Defying childhood teachings, ROBERT SAPOLSKY now believes that the brain grows new neurons throughout life.

TOR NØRRETRANDERS points out that the mind is software, and the body is software too. Nice.

HELEN FISHER discovered that the seven year itch is a myth, but the four year itch is real and maybe even a biological imperative.

STEVE NADIS says that scientists are less objective than he previously thought.

PAUL STEINHARDT believes the inflationary theory of cosmology is wrong on many levels.

RODNEY A. BROOKS no longer believes in “computation” as the defining concept in understanding either humans or non-humans.

ROBERT TRIVERS gives a rambling, yet passionate and rich, account of his investigations of self-deception. One of his discoveries is that psychology is not crap after all. There’s hope for you yet, Bob.

LAURENCE C. SMITH has changed his mind about global warming. He now thinks it’s even more urgent than he previously thought (he previously thought it was pretty urgent).

LEE M. SILVER is fatalistic about the possibility of a science-literate educated elite. Irrationality prevails, it seems, even in educated people. A rational humanist populace that accepts even basic scientific facts will never appear.

GARY MARCUS thinks Chomsky was wrong.

LEE SMOLIN believes in time as a fundamental and important property of reality, in contrast to his quantum buddies, who see it as just an emergent property of the wavefunction of the universe. He also believes that physical laws evolve.

A. GARRETT LISI cannot answer the question, because nobody can really change their mind. Even when our mind seemingly changes, he says, the new knowledge does not replace the old, it is actually just stacked on top of the old knowledge. (Hmm, that’s not what my Intro to Psychology textbook said…)

JOHN BAEZ is disillusioned with quantum physics, in particular the search for quantum gravity. He blames Lee Smolin (another contributor), among others for igniting the “quantum-gravity debates” that eventually drove him away.

KEN FORD is saddened to realise that scientists are “only human”: there are just as many cheats, crooks, and liars among the ranks of scientists as the rest of the population.

JEFFREY EPSTEIN cannot answer the question, because the word “you” in “what have you changed your mind about” falsely assumes some kind of unitary identity separate from the rest of the world.

GARY KLEIN says that changing your mind often means changing the way you perceive the situation. In fact, this change can be so profound that the expression might be better said as exchanging your old mind for an entirely new one:

ALAN KRUEGER gets the award for the briefest entry: a single sentence. He cryptically says: “I used to think the labor market was very competitive, but now I think it is better characterized by monopsony, at least in the short run.” Being as I am in the labor market right now, I have no idea why he would say that. Perhaps next year we will get the second sentence in Alan’s train of thought.

SETH LLOYD has shifted from being a technophobe to a tentative technophile.

JOHN MCCARTHY has found that people use facts to support their pre-existing beliefs, rather than to challenge them. (I guess this is what psychologists call the confirmatory bias).

ERNST PÖPPEL is no longer a fan of Wittgenstein. In fact, Wittgenstein was a “straightjacket” from which he had to escape.

SCOTT SAMPSON now accepts that an asteroid killed the dinosoars (apparently this is still being debated in the paleontological research community)

PETER SCHWARTZ is a convert to nuclear power, in part to offset the dangers of global warming.

STEPHEN KOSSLYN thinks that independent levels of analysis (such as cognition and brain function) are ineffective.

MARCEL KINSBOURNE is a mirror neuron skeptic, but does see them as an important indicator to the interconnectedness between perception and memory.

KEVIN KELLY sees a new communitarian movement online, powered by Wikipedia.

MARTI HEARST had a conversion to “grandmother cells” when she learned about Wernicke’s aphasia. Yet she’s also a fan of co-occurrence, one of the blindest, not-knowingest approaches there is.

ALAN KAY learned at age 10 that vacuums don’t actually “suck.”

From her views as a 60’s feminist, DIANE F. HALPERN now takes the biological contribution to individual difference, especially sex differences, very seriously.

STEPHEN H. SCHNEIDER is concerned about global
, while in the 70’s he was concerned about global cooling.

XENI JARDIN now sees that online communities require active management.

CARLO ROVELLI was bored with quantum mechanics, until he realized that at a fundamental level, it is self-contradictory. Now he is re-energised as he works to save quantum mechanics from itself.

ROGER C. SCHANK once thought that AI was just around the corner. Now he thinks that AI will never arrive, at least not in the way he originally imagined.

JOHN HORGAN is no longer a mind-body mysterian. In fact, he thinks the brain will be completely decoded.

SHERRY TURKLE is against human-robot mixed marriage.

DANIEL GILBERT says that being able to change your mind isn’t as great as you think it is. And he’s got the data to prove it. (his studies show that irrevocable decisions cause more happiness than revocable ones).

STEWART BRAND says “good old stuff sucks.” The idea of an old house or antique furniture might seem quaint, but the truth is that a new house with new furniture will look nicer and be more comfortable.

OLIVER MORTON says, Let’s give up on human spaceflight. Our current efforts have been disappointing, there is no clear benefit, and maybe in a hundred years or so, it will be easier and more successful. “Leaving a technology fallow for a few decades and coming back with new people, tools and mindsets is not such a bad idea.”

JUDITH RICH HARRIS says that generalisation, a mainstay of Psych 101, is – in her polite words- “the exception, not the rule.” In fact, babies have a bias against generalizing.

GEORGE CHURCH worries about taking scientific claims “on faith”.

TERRENCE SEJNOWSKI says neurons can do a lot more than he ever imagined.

JONATHAN HAIDT once had contempt for fraternities and sports. He now sees them as important and healthy cultural phenomena.

PATRICK BATESON had dinner with a creatonist and shifted from agnosticism to atheism.

ALAN ALDA has changed his mind twice about the existence of God.

STEVEN PINKER is swayed by new evidence that humans are still evolving, and may even be evolving rapidly.

PAUL DAVIES now thinks that the laws of the universe are changeable.

GEORGE B. DYSON views the Russian occupation of American territories to have been better than it is usually portrayed.

JUAN ENRIQUEZ recognises that applied science is the key ingredient to national survival in today’s world.

REBECCA GOLDSTEIN is no longer a believer in falsifiability.

EDUARDO PUNSET is impressed at new scientific insights that show how the brain links past and future.

JOHN ALLEN PAULOS, due to a severe case of cerebral stenosis, is unable to answer the question.

LEO CHALUPA’s enthusiasm for brain plasticity has been tempered by the evidence against it.

SCOTT ATRAN has found that group membership – “fictive kinship”- is a more powerful driver than religion or politics, even for terrorists.

MARCO IACOBONI- thought science would slowly eradicate irrational thinking in the public, but this is far from inevitable.

RICHARD WRANGHAM figured out that humans evolved to eat neither raw meat nor raw vegetables, but cooked food.

SEAN CARROLL no longer enjoys being an anti-establishment rebel. Leave it to the youth!

LINDA STONE has discovered the importance of breathing.

STANISLAS DEHEANE is excited about Friston’s law, neuroscience’s answer to superstring theory. Its tenuous relationship to data does not bother him at all.

MARY CATHERINE BATESON doesn’t have an answer because she thinks we don’t change our mind about facts, we simply “rearrange” them.

WILLIAM CALVIN used to think global warming was a serious problem. Now he thinks it’s a really serious problem.

CAROLYN PORCO fears we are entering a time not unlike the Dark Ages, “when the practitioners of science were discredited, imprisoned, and even murdered.” She may be confusing scientists with witches.

BRIAN GOODWIN has converted to a new religion, which he calls “pan-sentience.

LISA RANDALL finds the ‘solar neutrino puzzle’ much more interesting these days.

NICHOLAS CARR fears the internet and its sinister consolidation of power.

AUBREY de GREY thinks scientists should be less curious. He also sees scientists and technologists as less similar than he once believed.

HELENA CRONIN accepts the “larger variance” argument for why there are more male Nobel laureates.

DANIEL C. DENNETT realized that he wasn’t reductionist enough.

NICHOLAS A. CHRISTAKIS thinks culture can influence human evolution.

RUPERT SHELDRAKE is skeptical about skeptics. Quote from Rupert: “The more militant the skeptic, the stronger the belief.” (in the opposite point of view).

CHRIS ANDERSON has shifted from climate skeptic to carbon zealot.

FRANK WILCZEK replaced religion with science.

TIM O’REILLY thought online social networks would never take off.

JAMES GEARY thinks neuroeconomics rocks. (neuroeconomics is just a fancy word for ‘the psychology of economics’)

DANIEL GOLEMAN found two Tibetan monks with some really weird brain patterns.

ANDRIAN KREYE’s intuitions about the ascendancy of secularism were overturned by scientific evidence about the thousands of new religions that bloomed in the twentieth century. Andrean has a newfound respect for the persistence and cultural power of religious faith.

DAVID BUSS still doesn’t understand women.

YOSSI VARDI is more skeptical of scientific modeling these days.

SAM HARRIS does not trust mother nature: “There may be current threats to civilization that we cannot even perceive, much less resolve, at our current level of intelligence.” The moral:
we should be prepared to try anything to keep on surviving and prospering, including tampering with the genome.

ROBERT SHAPIRO has learned the hard way that good ideas can be killed by simply being ignored. Or as Oscar Wilde said, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

HANS ULRICH OBRIST thinks that clinging to the past by clinging to buildings and objects may be futile. This leads him to wonder about the value of museums.

BRIAN ENO got sucked in by Maoism, until he underwent “a long process of re-evaluation.” He continues “I had to accept that I was susceptible to propaganda, and that propaganda comes from all sides — not just the one I happen to dislike.” A humble and powerful admission.

SEIRIAN SUMNER has downgraded the importance of kin selection theory in social evolution.

PAUL EWALD doesn’t trust expert opinions, especially when they talk about topics that they are not actually experts on. Well, there goes the Edge annual survey.

NICHOLAS HUMPHREY has salvaged the “Cartesian theater of consciousness” from the intellectual junkyard and has given it a new polish.

ADAM BLY thinks that technology is important to science.

PZ MYERS can’t answer the question because “there is a substantive context in which we do not change our minds.”

Widespread ignorance about basic statistics makes GERD GIGERENZER pessimistic about the advent of a new age of health literacy.

The advent of quantum information has helped ANTON ZEILINGER not be ashamed of being a “useless” quantum physicist any more.

ESTHER DYSON isn’t worried about online privacy any more.

MARTIN REES says we should be planning for the post-human era.

JANNA LEVIN thinks the universe is finite.

JARON LANIER underestimated the healing power of virtual reality.

DIMITAR SASSELOV could not conceive of a planet having an orbital period as short as 4.2 days.

A book called “What is really science” opened FRANCESCO DE PRETIS to the idea that science has a strong social component.

ROGER HIGHFIELD is disillusioned with science. Contrary to popular myth, facts rarely topple theories, even when they should. More often, scientists squeeze theories into facts.

DANIEL ENGBER says ethics committees, by their very existence, let scientists off the hook from thinking about the ethics of their own research. They encourage an attitude of thinking that ethics means ‘getting it past the ethics committee.’

AUSTIN DACEY sees the concept of “I” as an illusion, but values and reasons are real, biologically driven phenomena.

SIMON BARON-COHEN is an equality skeptic.

DAVID SLOAN WILSON is a latecomer to complexity.

J. CRAIG VENTER is very worried about global warming and overpopulation.

NEIL GERSHENFELD wonders about the true relationship between computing and physics.

ALISON GOPNIK sees the ubiquity of imagination as a clue to fundamental questions about what it means to be human. Specifically, our talent
is not for perceiving reality, but creating and molding reality.

JORDAN POLLACK sees email (non) privacy as a threat that the public does not yet understand.

PAUL SAFFO anticipates the day when “prediction engines” are better forecasters than humans, thus putting him out of a job.

CHRIS DIBONA found that programmers are more productive the less they are supervised.

BEATRICE GOLOMB says the field of medicine chases after fads and ineffective remedies (such as HRT) because of widespread ignorance among doctors about research methods, statistics, and inferential reasoning.

STEPHON ALEXANDER thinks the problems with the theory of cosmic inflation will be solved by somehow incorporating quantum non-locality.

GEORGE JOHNSON got bored with modern physics, so he amuses himself by replicating great experiments of the past.

GEOFFREY MILLER says that psychologists who want to study fear should talk to lion tamers.

STEVE CONNOR thinks that global warming will destroy the planet. Steve says ominously, “the four horsemen of the apocalypse will ride again.”

BARRY SMITH sees neuroscience as the key to understanding consciousness. The normally functioning mind is a marvel that astounds.

JESSE BERING: “I Have No Destiny (and Neither Do You)” This is the one that stayed with me the most.

ROGER BINGHAM has lost his faith in the Church of Evolutionary

RICHARD DAWKINS admits that Zahavi’s theory of prestige is correct, after publicly trashing it years ago in a book. However Dawkins neutralizes the appearance of humility when he complains: “Although I was wrong in my scepticism, and I have now changed my mind, I was still right to have been sceptical in the first place!” Note to Richard: you weren’t “wrong in your skepticism” as you put it, you were wrong. The verbal contortions are unseemly.

GREGORY BENFORD wonders if we can have a “law of laws,” a theory of how the laws of physics might have come about.

LERA BORODITSKY has learned through studies that language can shape low-level perception.

JAMSHED BHARUCHA once thought that one of the goals of education was to “Settle eventually on a framework or set of frameworks that organize what you know and believe and that guide your life as an individual and a leader.” Jamshed now sees this as clutching for certainty, which is seductive, but best avoided.

DENIS DUTTON has realized that human sexual selection allows intentionality into evolution “through a side door.” Says Dennis, “Though it is directed toward other human beings, it is as purposive as the domestication of those wolf descendents that became familiar household pets.” Dutton’s thoughts are a must read for devotees of Evolutionary Psychology, especially advocates of Caveman Psychology.

CLAY SHIRKY says that science and religion are incompatible.

KAI KRAUSE says that software is ephemeral. Its lifespan is so fleeting that it should be referred to as “performance art”.

LINDA S. GOTTFREDSON is intrigued by the cumulative power of small but consistent effects, in for example, human evolution.

RANDOLPH M. NESSE says that “Universities may be best show in town for truth pursuers, but most stifle innovation and constructive engagement of real controversies, not just sometimes, but most of the time, systematically.” And we need to understand “how hard it is for even the smartest experts to offer objective conclusions”.

BART KOSKO prefers the sample median over the sample mean, because means are not robust (especially with Cauchy distributions).

Computer users are far more adaptable and willing to embrace the new than DAVID GELERNTER once gave them credit for.

W.DANIEL HILLIS says that hot water freezes faster than cold water.

NASSIM TALEB has lost faith in the concept of “probability”.

DANIEL KAHNEMAN learned from scientific studies that money does buy happiness.
And probably love, too.

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