What *Should* We Be Worried About? January 13, 2013

What *Should* We Be Worried About?

Every year, John Brockman asks his braintrust at The Edge a thought-provoking question and compiles their answers. This year’s question has just been released: What *should* we be worried about? Click that link and prepare to be absorbed for a while.

A sampling of my favorite responses are below.

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith:

The Power Of Bad Incentives:

A prison is perhaps the easiest place to see the power of bad incentives. And yet in many other places in our society, we find otherwise normal men and women caught in the same trap and busily making life for everyone much less good than it could be. Elected officials ignore long-term problems because they must pander to the short-term interests of voters. People working for insurance companies rely on technicalities to deny desperately ill patients the care they need. CEOs and investment bankers run extraordinary risks — both for their businesses and for the economy as a whole — because they reap the rewards of success without suffering the penalties of failure. Lawyers continue to prosecute people they know to be innocent (and defend those they know to be guilty) because their careers depend upon winning cases. Our government fights a war on drugs that creates the very problem of black market profits and violence that it pretends to solve….

We need systems that are wiser than we are. We need institutions and cultural norms that make us better than we tend to be. It seems to me that the greatest challenge we now face is to build them.

Leo M. Chalupa, Neurobiologist, George Washington University:

The Growing Gap Between The Scientific Elite And The Vast “Scientifically Challenged” Majority:

So here is the crux of my worry: the growing gap between the small minority of Americans who are part of the scientific elite and the vast majority who are to put it kindly “scientifically challenged.” This is a worry on several different levels. For one thing, support and funding for research is vitally dependent on informed voters, and even more so on scientifically literate elected representatives. Moreover, as our world faces progressively more challenges (think climate change) how we deal with these complex issues is dependent on an understanding of science and the scientific method.

It is also a worry that for the most part our educational institutions (from grade school through college) do not teach science the way scientists actually do science. Far too often, science courses involve memorization of a vast array of seemingly unrelated “facts,” many of which are of questionable validity.

Matt Ridley, science writer:


I worry about superstition. Rational Optimists spend much of their energy debunking the charlatans who peddle false reasons to worry. So what worries me most are the people who make others worry about the wrong things, the people who harness the human capacity for superstition and panic to scare us into doing stupid things: banning genetically modified foods, teaching children that the earth is 6,000 years old, preventing the education of girls, erecting barriers against immigrants or free trade, preventing fossil fuels taking the pressure off rain forest — that sort of thing.

Daniel C. Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell:

Living Without The Internet For A Couple Of Weeks:

… it would be prudent to start brainstorming about how to keep panic at bay if a longterm disruption of large parts of the Internet were to occur. Will hospitals and fire stations (and supermarkets and gas stations and pharmacies) keep functioning, and how will people be able to get information they trust? Cruise ships oblige their paying customers to walk through a lifeboat drill the first day at sea, and while it isn’t a popular part of the cruise, people are wise to comply. Panic can be contagious, and when that happens people make crazy and regrettable decisions. As long as we insist on living in the fast lane, we should learn how to get on and off without creating mayhem.

Read the full set of responses here.

Your turn: What *should* we be worried about? (“Religion” is off the table. Too easy.)

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