Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Most Dangerous Question ... has their latest annual question. This year it is
What is your most dangerous idea ?
Like last year, when the question was 'What you believe to be true that cannot be proved', a number of thinkers (117 in all) in different areas were asked this question.

All the answers (72,500 words) can be perused @ The answers are all across the spectrum, with themes like the evanesence of human existence, the unknowability of it all, the inevitable doom (or lack thereof) of humankind, and open source currency ! Many of the answers reflect on the boundary between mind and matter.

Bart Kosko warned us of the imminent demise of thin-tailed distributions, his point being that heavy-tailed distributions are more prevalent around us than we think (well, not if you're a computer scientist :)), and that classical statistical inference is completely inadequate to deal with the world outside the Central Limit Theorem. Considering that even Darwin and Einstein communicated in heavy-tailed distributions, maybe he's right !

Stephen Strogatz asked an interesting question: are we at the end of mathematical insight ? He worries that
insight is becoming impossible, at least at the frontiers of mathematics. Even when we're able to figure out what's true or false, we're less and less able to understand why.
It reminds me of a quote attributed to John von Neumann:
In mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them.
Karl Sabbagh (author of a great book on the Riemann Hypothesis) generalized this idea to the notion that
The human brain and its products are incapable of understanding the truths about the universe
As can only be expected in 2005, the issue of science and religion came up. Carolyn Porco wonders what would be so horrible about a Church of the Latter-Day Scientists and 'Einstein Witnesses' going door-to-door singing relativistic paeans. As a card-carrying geek, how can I argue with this:
And today's museums, expositional halls, and planetaria may then become tomorrow's houses of worship, where these revealed truths, and the wonder of our interconnectedness with the cosmos, are glorified in song by the devout and the soulful. "Hallelujah!", they will sing. "May the force be with you!"
Alas, Jordan Pollack and Sam Harris take a far grimmer point of view, pointing out (correctly) that the idea that science is "just another religion" is extremely dangerous, and that in fact science must destroy religion:
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.
Read them all ! As a new parent, I will take comfort in this dangerous idea from Judith Rich Harris:
parents have no power at all (other than genetic) to shape their child's personality, intelligence,or the way he or she behaves outside the family home?



  1. Can someone explain what the heck Bart Kosko is talking about? (My naive thought was just that the failure of the CLT is because events of interest aren't actually independent...)

    Posted by Anonymous

  2. As to Jordan Pollack and Sam Harris' essays; if anything there is a resurgence of non-traditional and traditional religious beliefs in the US and around the world.

    Good luck to them with their "Dangerous Question". 

    Posted by vargas

  3. What’s the question again? Most dangerous idea? The most dangerous idea is not my idea. However, I do wonder who had the idea first. Let me start by saying, I believe the only way to any idea first starts with a question. Therefore the question becomes what is the most dangerous question that leads to the most dangerous idea. Follow? Great!

    I regretfully must bring this message to humanity, and it isn’t good news. Not by choice but as a function of my genetic code. For some unknown reason my preprogrammed genes have opened a “window” (I’m speaking metaphorically using simple computer terms) and brought to the forefront of my “operating system” a message as bleak as bleak can be. The message ironically has to do with the Edge question of 2006.

    Science is on the verge of discovering what we are. It will use all kinds of fancy terms and complex mathematic formulas and tests which will be empirically proven. The bad news is; the implications of such will ultimately destroy who we are. Maybe this is something that our ancestors, the leap frogs, discovered 600 billion years ago and as a result of their discovery, found themselves back in the pond. I fear our fate is sealed to such an unfortunate outcome. Because when we finally discover what we are we will have no choice but to systematically dismantle who we are and how we define existence. In other words, the one discovery science so desperately seeks, when achieved, will seal the fate of all humanity. I’m talking about the extinction of the species, the extinguishing of man kind!

    Let me put it this way. When you’re sitting across from that person at the banquet table and you look them square in the eye and you both realize that which is so obvious it requires no elaboration. You look at each other the same way that the people on the Titanic looked at each other moments before they were nothing more than a ripple on the surface of the ocean.

    What does all this have to do with the Question proposed? The most dangerous idea can only come from the most dangerous question. What if?


    Posted by amazinggrapes


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