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EDGE Big Thinkers Miss a BIG Worry

Getting risk wrong leads to dangers all by itself, and we will remain vulnerable to these mistakes until we let go of our naïve post-Enlightenment faith in reason and accept that risk perception is inescapably an affective system, not just a matter of rationally figuring out the facts. 

The Big Question this year was, “What ‘should’ we be worried about?” 155 selected “…scientists, artists, philosophers, technologists, and entrepreneurs who are at the center of today’s intellectual, technological, and scientific landscape…” were asked for their thoughts, in the hope that they might “…teach us how to worry better, and when to stop worrying”.  It turns out that many contributors worry about the same thing the Risk: Reason and Reality blog is all about. We sometimes worry too much or too little, human risk perception doesn’t deal well with many of the complex modern risks we now face, and the risk of getting risk wrong is a risk all by itself.

         As insightful as many of the responses are, however, none of the EDGE big thinkers mentions an even bigger problem, the failure of many – especially among big thinkers and policy makers –  to accept that risk perception is not the purely intellectual objective ‘rational’ process we’d like it to be. We know from decades of research that risk perception – how we worry – is a mix of facts and feelings, reason and gut reaction, intellect and instinct. We know it, but many still refuse to accept it.

        That’s something to worry about, because getting risk wrong leads to dangers all by itself, and we will remain vulnerable to these mistakes until we let go of our naïve post-Enlightenment faith in reason and accept that risk perception is inescapably an affective system, not just a matter of rationally figuring out the facts. Only with such acceptance can we then begin to apply our rich understanding of how that system actually operates to the task of “worrying better”. So here’s a worry to add to those raised by the EDGE thinkers. We need to worry about the intellectual arrogance that denies the truth of how cognition about risk really works.  

     Several EDGE contributors worry about how the Risk Perception Gap creates danger;

      Joel Gold notes that “Worry in and of itself can be extremely corrosive to our lives.” 

        Arianna Huffington worries that stress from too much worry can cause all sorts of serious health damage. 

          Kai Krause and Brian Knutson worry that worrying about the wrong things distracts us from bigger threats, and diverts our minds away from important ideas and issues.

                   Other contributors worry about what they suggest are flaws in human cognition that cause the Risk Perception Gap;

                Victoria Stodden; “We make quick decisions based on instinct, intuition, heuristics, and shortcuts honed over millions of years.”

                  Daniel Goleman  writes that when dealing with risks like climate change “the amygdala tunes out. We have no perceptual apparatus, nor circuitry for alarm, that tunes us to the dangers we now face as a species.”

                    Robert Sapolsky notes that our conscious perceptions, choices and behaviors are just the post-hoc products of pre- and sub-conscious basic biological processes, not the result of purposeful conscious thought and control. We have, he says, no free will. But it’s not the lack of free will itself that worries him. It’s the pretense that we have free will…our refusal to believe that we’re not as smart and in charge as we pretend to be. What really worries me is that it is so hard for virtually anyone to truly act as if there is no free will. And that this can have some pretty bad consequences.”

                      The danger, in other words, is not the inherent cognitive limits to reason and the problems they produce. The real danger is in not recognizing and accepting those limits…in denying the robust findings from multiple fields of research that have taught us that risk perception is an inescapably subjective, instinctive, and mostly subconscious process that relies on facts and feelings. Yet some of the EDGE replies reflect just such denial, and no small amount of intellectual arrogance.

                        Science writer Matt Ridley dismissively calls the human inability to be perfectly rational ‘superstition’. Ridley goes on to worry, as does Douglas Kenrick, that reproductive patterns favor greater population growth among those “…who harness the human capacity for superstition and panic.In essence,the dumb, who can’t reason as well, are outbreeding the smart (i.e. the people who read and write for EDGE), threatening “…the triumph of faith over reason.”

                          Classical scholar James J. O’Donnellarrogantly‘deplores’ that anyone who fails to “engage in rational (especially quantitative) analysis’ is doing nothing less than ‘generalized cringing before what our own imaginations show us.’

                            Psychologist and computer scientist Roger Schankis more blunt and arrogant. In his essay, Worrying About Stupid, he writes that “I am worried that people can’t think, can’t reason from evidence, and don’t even know what would constitute evidence. People don’t know how to ask the right questions, much less answer them.

                              And in There Is Nothing To Worry About, And There Never Was,Virginia Heffernan  pretentiously decries the ghastly Western idée fixe that even a pixel of freedom or insight is gained in the miserable practice of worrying, in the chronic braincell-bruising overexercise of our lizard impulses to fight or flee.”

                                      No, the Risk Perception Gap is not the result of ‘faith and superstition’. No, it’s not because of ‘generalized cringing’. No, it’s not theoverexercise of our lizard impulses to fight or flee.” And frankly, calling people stupid because “they can’t think, can’t reason from evidence” grossly ignores the evidence about the inherent nature of human cognition, and is, well, patently stupid.

                                     Such intellectual arrogance is dangerous. It clings to Sophocles’ belief that “Reason is God’s crowning gift to man”. It denies how decades of research have born out the wisdom of philosopher Nicholas Abagnnano, who decades ago observed that “Reason itself is fallible, and that fallibility must find a way into our logic.” We can use what we know about how risk perception actually works, and why it leads us to sometimes get risk wrong, to ‘worry better’ and make wiser and safer choices about human and environmental health. But we won’t get there until many more big thinkers and policy makers let go of their blind belief in the power of reason and, in the name of making smarter choices, admit that we simply can’t be as smart as we’d like to think we are. Given some of what the big thinkers of the EDGE worry about, I worry that there will be a lot of unnecessary suffering before we reach that point.

                                   By the way, given that the EDE question this year was akin to what I write about, here’s a summary of several of the other interesting pieces regarding worry from my first run through all 155 replies;

                                         Several worry about loss of faith in science (Stuart Firestein), growing denial of scientific evidence (Frank Wilczek calls this “the triumph of barbarism and religion”), and generally “the rise of anti-intellectualism and the end of progress” (Tim O’Reilly)

                                        Several writers worried that the internet is homogenizing our words and ideas and experiences and culture (Nicholas Humphrey, Steven StrogatzScott AtranGino Segre), magnifying the worst aspects of human nature (Bruce Parker, Jessica L. Tracy), or setting us up for huge trouble by relying so much on a system that could crash. (Martin Rees, George Dyson,Daniel C. Dennett)

                                      There were various worries about technology generally. Susan Blackmore worries about the loss manual dexterity because of reliance on machines.

                                Adam Alter worries about “which cognitive capacities will be usurped by machines and gadgets’ since ease of access to information fails to prepare us to memorize, compute, generate, elaborate, and, more generally, to think.

                                W. Daniel Hillis worries that semantic search will start to define our worlds by learning about us and then determining what to tell us when we search, defining our truths.

                                In Illusions Of Understanding And The Loss Of Intellectual Humility, Tania Lombrozo worries that as the modern technological age makes information easier to take in, subconscious cognitive processing makes us more confident about that information – simply because we didn’t have to work as hard to take it in in the first place –  than we ought to be. Seirian Sumner worries about “…where synthetic biology is going next, and specifically what happens when it gets out of the lab into the natural world and into the public domain.”

                                      Regarding population and demographics, Robert Kurzban  worries about “All the T in China”…too many men…too much Testosterone.

                                David Berreby (blogger at BigThink) worries about too many old people by 2050.

                                Kevin Kelly worries about too few people after the 2050 population peak.

                                Rodney A. Brooks worries about too few robots, to make up for too few people.

                                       And a handful of other interesting pieces included;

                                Margaret Leviworries that we are failing to recognize the ‘communities of fate’ we’re in, the larger but not-so-obvious groups with shared risks who have to work together to reduce those threats.

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                                Nicholas G. Carr worries about how the information age is speeding up and warping our sense of time.

                                Tor Nørretranders worries about The Loss Of Lust; “Attempts to rationalize reproduction through biotechnologies and screening of eggs, sperm, partners and embryos will interfere with the lust-dominated process. It is worrying that this could mean the loss of an evolved expertise in survivability.” “…our lust holds considerable prudence.” “The stabilization of the population means that it is ever more important that the biological preferences expressed in lust dominate the reproduction since fewer babies are born and they will live longer.”

                                And in perhaps a corollary to that one, Helen Fisher worries about negative stereotypes about men that are unfair and unsupported by research.


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