Excellence, Warped Incentives, and Mutually Assured Destruction: Edge 2013 Questions, III

33) Michael Norton worries that the spread of science news through social media will have two adverse effects.  The first is that much of what gets passed around in social media is not the highest-quality science being done.  The second is that the source of research gets incorporated by people into their judgement of its quality.  If you were watching Fox News, would you be more likely to trust the reporting on a study that was anti-gun or one that was pro-gun?  Probably the former, as it runs counter to the bias people associate with that media outlet.

Science, Culture, Social Media

34) Jessica Tracy looks at the high-profile deception cases of Jonah Lehrer, Lance Armstrong, and Dietrich Stapel to examine a deeper problem which is fundamental to human nature — that of hubristic pride.  Hubristic pride is different from triumph because it is not earned and instead acts as a cover for other emotional issues.  She thinks the solution might lie in developing technology that is better able to catch liars and in more rigorously fact-checking stories — especially feel good success stories — which seem too good to be true.  They just might be.

Culture, Psychology

35) Haim Harari lays out seven areas in which mismatches between science and democracy give us enormous cause for worry.  These include the fact that technology is shortening attention spans while problems are spanning longer time periods, that skills which make one electable are not skills which make one an effective leader, that many senior decision makers have not the slightest understanding of current technology, and so on.

Science, Politics

36) Bruce Sterling thinks that one thing we should not be worried about is the Singularity.  Many are familiar with those who predict a coming age of self-improving machines which rapidly catapult into superhuman stratospheres of intelligence, greatly exceeding our ability to predict and control them.  Sterling is not concerned, however, as there are no major signs that we’re any closer to self aware machines or nonbiological minds than we were in the ‘60’s.

Singularity, Technology

37) Vernor Vinge is worried about good old-fashioned Mutually Assured Destruction, which he thinks is distinguished by the fact that it is relatively likely in the next few decades and capable of destroying civilization.  To be as prepared as possible, we should plan carefully around the possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction and study the early dynamics of the 20th centuries most destructive conflicts.  There are parallels to our current situation, he contends, in the tangle of alliances for example, and by better understanding what leads to global conflict we can try to avoid it.

Destruction, politics

38) Frank Wilczek is worried that many opportunities are not being seized upon, and cautions us to protect ourselves from the distractions of never-ending geopolitical conflicts and fundamentalism in its various guises.


39) Sam Harris begins by describing the perverse set of incentives which face a hypothetical young man who has just been sentenced to serve time in prison.  He believes that misaligned incentives underlie many of the failures of businessmen, politicians, and humans generally.  One titanic challenge for this and future generations is building cultural norms, institutions, and laws which are saner and better than we are.

Culture, Policy, Economics

40) Lee Smolin is worried that many of his fellow physicists trying to solve open cosmological problems within the framework of quantum mechanics are barking up the wrong tree.  While quantum physics remains our most powerful explanatory theory, there are aspects of it which Smolin finds deeply dissatisfying.  He believes that making the next leap forward in our knowledge will require building a quantum physics which accounts for space and time.

Quantum Physics

41) P. Murali Doraiswamy notes that the American model of diagnosing and treating mental illness is being exported far and wide, and that this might not be a good thing.  A variety of studies have illustrated the immense difficulty in correctly identifying psychiatric disorders, and many are aware of how pill-happy America has become.  Given how different mental illness is in its manifestation, identification, and treatment across cultures, we should be worried about the global trend of using American (but still highly subjective) criteria and pharmaceuticals to treat illness.

Mental health, Psychology, Culture

42) Marco Iacaboni sees a real problem in how science publishing happens.  For the most part, the only studies that get published are the ones that show unexpected results.  What is not published as often are studies replicating other studies, or studies which fail to find any effect at all.  This makes the scientific literature a difficult basis upon which to draw conclusions, which is a big problem for those involved in the day-to-day of research science.


43) Andrew Lih applauds the social-media fueled rise of the digital public square, in which billions of people have conversations with each and share content on a massive scale.  For a variety of legal and technical reasons, however, many people, both creators of content and those interested in studying it, are simply unable to access the treasure trove of information being generated.  The fact that such a potential goldmine will remain a sprawling wilderness for the foreseeable future should worry us.

Social Media, the internet

44) Erik R. Weinstein thinks too much has been made out of the pursuit of excellence, and that what has been lost in the process is a place for the sort of free-wheeling unmanageable genius which has lead to many of our biggest breakthroughs.

Excellence, Psychology

45) Richard Foreman believes that the act of picking problems to worry about is problematic because it focuses human thinking too much.  If we defocus for a moment then perhaps our minds will be able to generate a solution.

Art, Culture

46) Arianna Huffington is afraid that people are suffering from too much stress.  She makes the case that stress is a major contributor to long-term health problems and is expensive to boot.  Luckily, the cheapest solutions treat the causes of stress rather than its effects.  Practices like meditation and yoga, along with good sleeping habits, can go a long way in treating stress.


47) Xeni Jardin finds the fact that more progress hasn’t been made in the war on cancer distressing, particularly because a lot of attention and effort has been devoted to the problem.

Cancer, Health

48) Christine Finn believes that enhances in technology might cause us to lose touch – literally.  In a world filled with touch-screen smartphones, there is less and less for the hand to do.  But she notes that there are many activities, like cooking, which are still widely done by hand and which provide tactile stimulation.

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