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What Is Your Dangerous Idea

ed John Brockman

'What do you believe to be true, even tho you can't prove it?

Has the environment improved in last 50yrs?
Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no long term damage?
Did the crime rate go down in the 1990's bc two decades earlier poor women got access to legal abortions?
Would society be better off if marijuana was legal?
Is homosexuality a symptom of an infectious disease?
Do parents have any effect on kids character and intelligence?
Have religions killed more people than the Nazis ever did?
Is the average intelligence decreasing because dumb people are having more babies than smart people?

These sort of Q's cause moral panic, partly bc people imagine consequences: if people stopped believing that Bible literally true, they wd have no reason to keep commandments like Thou shalt not kill; if people acknowledge differences between races they will feel justified in discriminating against them.

About 0.5% world's population is descended from Genghis Khan

Evolution vs Creationism - where science takes a stand against superstition

Thinking Revolutions

1. Copernican system dethroned earth as centre of cosmos
2. Darwin showed that far from being the climax of an 'intelligent design' we are just an ape that is a bit smarter than its cousins
3. Freud showed that although you think you have free will, your behaviour is in fact driven by drives and motives of which you are largely uncs
4. Discovery of DNA and genetic code implies that everything is just molecules
5. Neuroscience revolution leads to hypothesis that even our thoughts are just chem processes, by products of neural activity

Global Warming

Too late to do anything much about it, but evidence that world will be worse off is flimsy - some bits will be worse off, some better. Populations will have to move, just as they have had to in the past. The poor will suffer most, and some species will die out. Yet few take greenies seriously when they try to tell us the whole planet is in peril.

Science Must Destroy Religion

by Sam Harris

Most people believe that the Creator of the universe wrote (or dictated) one of their books. Unfortunately, there are many books that pretend to divine authorship, and each makes incompatible claims about how we all must live. Despite the ecumenical efforts of many well-intentioned people, these irreconcilable religious commitments still inspire an appalling amount of human conflict.

In response to this situation, most sensible people advocate something called "religious tolerance." While religious tolerance is surely better than religious war, tolerance is not without its liabilities. Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us incapable of criticizing ideas that are now patently absurd and increasingly maladaptive. It has also obliged us to lie to ourselves — repeatedly and at the highest levels — about the compatibility between religious faith and scientific rationality.

The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science. It is time we conceded a basic fact of human discourse: either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not. When a person has good reasons, his beliefs contribute to our growing understanding of the world. We need not distinguish between "hard" and "soft" science here, or between science and other evidence-based disciplines like history. There happen to be very good reasons to believe that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Consequently, the idea that the Egyptians actually did it lacks credibility. Every sane human being recognizes that to rely merely upon "faith" to decide specific questions of historical fact would be both idiotic and grotesque — that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad's conversation with the angel Gabriel, or to any of the other hallowed travesties that still crowd the altar of human ignorance.

Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe such propositions when reasons fail. The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so. The distinction could not be more obvious, or more consequential, and yet it is everywhere elided, even in the ivory tower.

Religion is fast growing incompatible with the emergence of a global, civil society. Religious faith — faith that there is a God who cares what name he is called, that one of our books is infallible, that Jesus is coming back to earth to judge the living and the dead, that Muslim martyrs go straight to Paradise, etc. — is on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas. The difference between science and religion is the difference between a genuine openness to fruits of human inquiry in the 21st century, and a premature closure to such inquiry as a matter of principle. I believe that the antagonism between reason and faith will only grow more pervasive and intractable in the coming years. Iron Age beliefs — about God, the soul, sin, free will, etc. — continue to impede medical research and distort public policy. The possibility that we could elect a U.S. President who takes biblical prophesy seriously is real and terrifying; the likelihood that we will one day confront Islamists armed with nuclear or biological weapons is also terrifying, and it is increasing by the day. We are doing very little, at the level of our intellectual discourse, to prevent such possibilities. 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.

To win this war of ideas, scientists and other rational people will need to find new ways of talking about ethics and spiritual experience. The distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and non-ordinary states of consciousness from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being rigorous about what is reasonable to conclude on their basis. We must find ways of meeting our emotional needs that do not require the abject embrace of the preposterous. We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity — birth, marriage, death, etc. — without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality.

I am hopeful that the necessary transformation in our thinking will come about as our scientific understanding of ourselves matures. When we find reliable ways to make human beings more loving, less fearful, and genuinely enraptured by the fact of our appearance in the cosmos, we will have no need for divisive religious myths. Only then will the practice of raising our children to believe that they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu be broadly recognized as the ludicrous obscenity that it is. And only then will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world..

Connecting The Dots

20/20 hindsight. After 9/11 books and articles pointing out how 'obvious' it was what th plotters were doing. Problem that a huge number of other people dong the same potentially threatening things and simply not possible to distinguish the real dangers.

The Art of Failure

Sportsmen 'choke' bc suddenly start worrying about how to play their shots. When they relax and let the 1,000 hours of training guide their play, they win. But sometimes they start trying to do it consciously, and fail.

Blow Up

Challenger O-ring - conventional view that NASA hadn't done its job.In fact, a series of individually harmless decisions incrementally moved toward disaster. The potential for catastrophe is inherent in normal functioning of complex systems. Three Mile Island - a series of minor blockages, stuck valves and faulty dials - each trivial by itself, but cumulative effect nearly disastrous.

Late Bloomers

Cezanne, who's paintings were crap right up until middle age. Until he got really good, supported by famous friends, dealers and father. Without their support he wd have sunk without trace.

Most Likely To Succeed

Teachers: the worst ones will teach 1/2 year's learning in a year; the best, 1 and 1/2 years - ie a difference of a year's learning. Teacher ability far more impt than class size or quality of school. But when you test teachers, it's impossible to predict ability ahead of time - IQ, university quals or teaching certs have no effect at all. Best system wd be to make teaching open to virtually everyone with a degree. Use an apprenticeship system where try 4 candidates to find the one good one. And change the pay scales - pay apprenticeship rates to the starters, then pay superstar rates to keep the top performers who can teach the 1 and 1/2 years.

Dangerous Minds

How psychics work:

Rainbow Ruse - statement which gives you both a personality trait and its exact opposite "I wd say that on the whole you can be quit and self-effacing, but when the station is right you can be the life and soul of the party."

Jacques Statement tailors prediction to age of subject - eg to a 40 o: "You get to wondering what happened to all those dreams you had when you were younger"

Barnum Statement so general that applies to all: "You're having problems with a friend or relative". "You're sometimes insecure, especially with people you dont know very well"

Fuzzy Fact "I can see a connection to Europe, possibly Britain, or is it the warmer Mediterranean part?"

Fine Flattery So complimentary that no-one wd deny it eg "You are sometimes too honest with yr feelings"

Green Grass Technique "You wish you cd be just a little more popular with yr friends".

Polyanna Pearls tell you what you want to hear - "Despite a succession of bad relationships you will apply the life lessons from these failures and will soon have a successful relationship."

Sugar Lumps flattering statements that will lower yr intellectual defences: "You are quite perceptive".

Vanishing Negative "You don't work with children, do you?"
(No I don't) "No I thought not. That's not really yr role."
(Yes I do actually)"Yes I thought so."

The New Boy Network

Harvard U study where they wanted people to rate teachers just on expressions and physical cues. They wanted at least 1 minute of tape, but found that they had at most just 10 secs of teacher without students in frame. But that 10 secs was enough, and in some cases 5 secs was all that was needed, and then a 2 sec flash. Turns out need just a flash of insight, and that corresponds to the assessment of students who've had the teacher for whole semester.

Similar conclusion from a study which looked at first 15 secs of an interview - coming through the door, shaking hands with interviewer and sitting down.

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