Book Report: What Should We Be Worried About

What Should We Be Worried About“In all sorts of complex systems, this is the general trend: Increasing the coupling between the parts seems harmless enough at first. But then, abruptly, when the coupling crosses a critical value everything changes. The exact nature of the altered state isn’t easy to foretell. It depends on the system’s details. But it’s always something qualitatively different from what came before. Sometime desirable, sometimes deadly.” (Too Much Coupling)

Title: What Should We Be Worried About – Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night

Author: (edited by) John Brockman

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Publication Date: 2014

Origin: I saw the book while perusing the gift shop at the (friggin’ excellent!) Museum of Science and Industry, in Chicago, a few weeks ago.

We’re in a world where (comparatively) trivial worries are raised to enormous proportions by a click-seeking media and manipulative politicians, so I was curious about what – you know – actual informed people think is worth worrying about.

Summary: Are you familiar with Edge? You’re not? Neither was I. Edge is basically a forum in which intellectual folk talk about important things; like the coffee shops of yesteryear. Here’s the gist: “To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.”

OK, with that out of the way… Every year, a question is put out to the Edge-folk, and they submit essay-style responses (you can see the questions here): the 2013 question was “What *Should* We Be Worried About?”

These responses are available online and are packaged into a book, and that’s what I read.

Summarizing it would be futile, because there are such rich and varied responses…so I encourage you instead to just pop on over to Edge and give some of the essays a read.

My Take: Well, I certainly feel more informed…like I know what I *should* be worried about. It’s actually a bit tough to read so many essays back-to-back, because it can be really overwhelming to bounce from topic to topic.

Like, damn, this stuff is deep and important, and someone has expressed a significant topic very articulately in three pages. You’re processing that, and then you flip the page and there’s another equally interesting and thoughtful topic. And then you do that a couple of hundred times.

But don’t get me wrong – it was worthwhile to read each and every essay, like a crash course in things about which we should be genuinely concerned.

Read This Book If: …you want to worry responsibly.

Notes and Quotes:

Note: for each essay that I’ve quoted, I’ve provided a link to the online version. Enjoy!

  • pxxvi, on the origin of worry: “We worry because we are built to anticipate the future. Nothing can stop us from worrying, but science can teach us how to worry better, and when to stop worrying.”
  • In The Real Risk Factors for War, Steven Pinker explains how misleading risk factors have in common that, “they contain the cognitive triggers of fear documented by Slovic, Kahneman, and Tversky: They are vivid, novel, undetectable, uncontrollable, catastrophic, and involuntarily imposed on their victims.” (p3) Well, it’s clear that today’s politicians know how to manipulate these factors. Also…once again Kahneman and Tversky make an appearance in my reading.
  • p5: “It’s natural to worry about physical stuff like weaponry and resources. What we should really worry about is psychological stuff like ideologies and norms.”
  • Randolph Nesse, in The Fragility of Complex Systems, writes that, “Complex systems like the markets, transportation, and the Internet seem stable, but their complexity makes them inherently fragile. Because they are efficient, massive complex systems grow like weeds, displacing slow market, small farmers, slow communication media, and local information-processing systems. When they work, they are wonderful, but when they fail, we will wonder why we did not recognize the dangers of depending on them.” (p19)
  • What is Conscious, by Timo Hannay: “It is possible that we are rare, fleeting specks of awareness in an unfeeling cosmic desert, the only witnesses to its wonder. It is also possible that we are living in a universal sea of sentience, surrounded by ecstasy and strife that is open to our influence. Sensible beings that we are, both possibilities should worry us.”
  • The Contest Between Engineers and Druids, by Paul Saffo: “There are two kinds of fools: one who says this is old and therefore good, and the other who says this is new and therefore better.” (p51)
  • “We live in a time when the loneliest place in any debate is the middle.” (p51)
  • “Unexamined inclinations amount to dangerous bias, but once known, the same inclination can become the basis for powerful intuition.” (p52)
  • Smart, by Evgeny Morozov (which reminds me, I still need to read To Save Everything, Click Here): “Change usually happens in rambunctious, chaotic, and imperfectly designed environments; sterile environments, where everyone is content, are not known for innovation, of either the technological or the social variety. When it comes to smart technologies, there’s such a thing as too ‘smart,’ and it isn’t pretty.” (p55) …that passage reminded me of Where Good Ideas Come From.
  • The Rise of Anti-intellectualism and the End of Progress, by Tim O’Reilly: “Civilizations do fail. We have never seen one that hasn’t. The difference is that the torch of progress has, in the past, always passed to another region of the world. But we now for the first time have a single, global civilization. If it fails, we all fail together.” (p59)
  • Armageddon, by Timothy Taylor: “Belief in a fixed and recent start to the world is invariably matched by belief in an abrupt and (usually) imminent end. The denial of antiquity, and of Darwinian evolution, psychologically defines the form and scope of any imagined future. And that has implications for the way individuals and communities make decisions about resource management, biodiversity, population control, and the development of technologies.” (p61)
  • “Ignorance is easy and science is demanding.”
  • Too Much Coupling, by Steven Strogatz…echoing the message of Emergence: “In all sorts of complex systems, this is the general trend: Increasing the coupling between the parts seems harmless enough at first. But then, abruptly, when the coupling crosses a critical value everything changes. The exact nature of the altered state isn’t easy to foretell. It depends on the system’s details. But it’s always something qualitatively different from what came before. Sometime desirable, sometimes deadly.” (p78)
  • “Too much (coupling) makes a complex system brittle. In economics and business, the wisdom of the crowd works only if the individuals within it are independent, or nearly so. Loosely coupled crowds are the only wise ones.” (p79)
  • A World Without Growth, by Satyajit Das: “The simultaneous end of financial engineered growth, environmental issues, and the scarcity of essential resources now threatens the end of an unprecedented period of growth and expansion.” (p111)
  • “It is not clear how, if at all, printing money or financial games can create real ongoing growth and wealth.” (p112)
  • “As Henry Wallich, a former governor of the U.S. Federal Reserve, accurately diagnosed, ‘So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differences tolerable.'” (p112)
  • Misplaced Worries, by Dan Sperber: “Worrying is an investment of cognitive resources laced with emotions from the anxiety spectrum and aimed at solving some specific problem. It has its costs and benefits, and so does not worrying. Worrying for a few minutes about what to serve for dinner in order to please one’s guests may be a sound investment of resources. Worrying about what will happen to your soul after death is a total waste.” (p131)
  • We Don’t do Politics, by Brian Eno: “Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics.” (p158)
  • “But we don’t do politics. We expect other people to do it for us, and we grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that, we’re as laissez-faire as we can get away with.” (p158)
  • Technology-Driven Fascism, by David Bodanis: “Because of what fascism led to in the past, it’s easy to forget how attractive it can be for most citizens in troubled times. With a good enemy to hate, atomized individuals get a warm sense of unity.” (p166)
  • Magic, by Neil Gershenfeld: “There is a cognitive dissonance in the idea of fundamentalists using satellite phones in their quest for a medieval society, or creationists who don’t believe in evolution getting flu shots.” (p168)
  • “We’re in danger of becoming a cargo cult, living with the inventions of ancestors from a mythical time of stable long-term research funding.” (p168)
  • “Accepting the benefits of science without having to accept the methods of science offers us a freedom to ignore inconvenient truths about the environment of the economy or education.” (p169)
  • No Surprises from the LHC: No worries for Theoretical Physics, by Amanda Gefter: “Physicists are funny that way. Their worst nightmare is to be right.” (p180)
  • “The only way to resolve a paradox is to drop the offending assumption.” (p182)
  • The Dangerous Fascination of Imagination, by Carlo Rovelli: “It is one thing to have ideas; it is another to have good ideas. There is value in producing ideas. There is value in screening them.” (p198)
  • The Promise of Catharsis, by Andrian Kreye: “The problem with catharsis, though, is that it will always remain an empty promise. There is no paradise, no salvation, no ultimate victory. Progress, be it biological, scientific, or social, is a tedious process of trial and error. If we work toward an unobtainable goal, much effort is wasted, and the appearance of false prophets is almost a given. Catharsis thus becomes the ultimate antagonist of rational thinking. If there is a Paradise in the Beyond, why bother with the Here-and-Now?” (p207)
  • Natural Death, by Antony Garret Lisi: “But why is it so damaging to share and believe pleasant fantasies of an afterlife, when nonexistence is both inevitable and too horrific to confront? It is damaging because it leads to bad decisions in this life, the only one we have.” (p225)
  • “There is no reason, from physics, why our healthy human lives cannot be radically extended by thousand of year or longer. It’s just a tricky engineering problem.” (p226)
  • Technology May Endanger Democracy, by Haim Harariwas excellent in its entirety, and I couldn’t be bothered to reproduce the whole thing =)
  • Excellence, by Eric R. Weinstein: “Genius, at a technical level, is the modality combining the farsightedness needed to deduce the existence of a higher peak with the character and ability to survive the punishing journey to higher ground. Needles to say, the spectacle of an individual moving against his or her expert community, away from carrots and towards sticks, is generally viewed as a cause for alarm regardless of whether that individual is a malfunctioning fool or a genius about to invalidate community groupthink.” (p266)
  • The Decline of the Scientific Hero, by Roger Highfield: “There is a human predilection to make narratives out of whatever we see around us, to see agency in dark shadows and messages in the stars.” (p274)
  • Is Idiocracy Looming?, by Douglas T. Kenrick…another one that’s just all-around terrific
  • Communities of Fate (I love that term), by Margaret Levi: “We all live in communities of fate; our fates are entwined with others in ways we perceive and ways we cannot.” (p358)
  • “To expand the community of fate beyond the actual member of an organization depends on the desire and ability of leaders to convince members that their welfare is tied up with a larger set of others, often unknown others.” (p359)
  • The Behavior of Normal People, by Karl Sabbagh: “There is much psychological research into the nature of evil. This usually proceeds from the assumption that people are naturally good and tries to explain why some depart from this ‘norm.’ Isn’t it time we took the opposite view and looked into why some people, perhaps not many, are ‘good’?” (p369)
  • Metaworry, by Brian Knutson: “Since the brain has limited energy, we should probably view worry as a resource to be conserved and efficiently allocated.” (p372)
  • Worrying About Children, by Alison Gopnik: “Childhood is one of the most distinctive evolution features of human beings; we have a much longer childhood than any other primate. This extended childhood seems, at least in part, to be an adaptation to the variability and unpredictability of human environments. The period of protected immaturity we call childhood gives humans a chance to learn, explore, and innovate without having to plan, act, and take care of themselves at the same time…Our long protected childhood arguably enables our distinctive human cognitive achievements.” (p380)
  • Illusions of Understanding and the Loss of Intellectual Humility, by Tania Lombrozo: “Forfeiting skills like spelling, navigation, and even certain kinds of social knowledge to our gadgets doesn’t worry me much. What does worry me is the illusion of knowledge and understanding that can result from having information so readily and effortlessly available.”(p396)
  • The End of Hardship Inoculation, by Adam Alter: “The ‘ideal’ world – the one that looks more and more like the contemporary world with each passing generation – is the same world that fails to prepare us to memorize, compute, generate, elaborate, and, more generally, to think.” (p400)
  • The Growing Gap Between the Scientific Elite and the Vast “Scientifically Challenged” Majority, by Leo M. Chalupa was excellent, frightening, and spot-on
  • Do We Understand the Dynamics of Our Emerging Global Culture, by Kirsten Bomblies: “The mass propagation of a factually incorrect, divisive, or misleading idea is not uncommon. Is this a disease state or a beneficial and natural part of the dialog in a free society?” (p432)
  • A World of Cascading Crises, by Peter Schwartz: “Living in a world of high anxiety often leads us to do the wrong things. We adopt short-term and local solutions rather than taking a systematic and long-term view.” (p437)
  • Who Gets to Play in the Science Ballpark, by Stephon H. Alexander: “In the spirit of my friend Brian Eno’s contribution, I have taken the challenge to bring up something that may make people uncomfortable – because it is more productive to do so than to be polite.” (p439)
  • What We Learn from Firefighters: How Fat are the Fat Tails, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: great in its entirety, and summed up by: “Only a rule of skin in the game – that is, direct harm from one’s errors, can puncture the game aspect of such research and establish some form of contact with reality.”
  • Worrying – The Modern Passion, by James J. O’Donnell, is hereby recommended to many compulsive worriers I know

Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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Posted in Books, Everything, Finance, Math and Science

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