Every year Edge.org poses an Annual Question to dozens of scholars, scientists, writers, artists and thinkers. The respondents this year include the reasonably famous, such as Arianna Huffington, Steven Pinker, Brian Eno, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris and 13.7‘s own Stuart Kauffman, as well as the not so famous (like me).
The 2013 question is: “What should we be worried about?” Respondents were urged to raise worries that aren’t already on the public radar, or to dispel those that are.
The answers, released just this weekend, fall into a few common themes. Many worried about the impact of technology on individual minds and human relationships. My own entry was among them, raising the concern that fast and efficient access to information isn’t always better access to information. Thanks to features of human psychology, effortless information retrieval can engender illusions of knowledge and understanding. Others had related concerns:
… ours is an age of information glut, not deep knowledge. Noga Arikha, historian and author at the Paris College of Art
It is as if we have a populace that is well informed about the score of a game, but without any knowledge of the rules, and worse still no effective direction to find credible sources to explain them. Gavin Schmidt, climatologist with NASAs Goddard institute
Without the ability to question findings, we risk fooling ourselves into thinking we are capitalizing on the information age when we are really just making decisions based on evidence that no one, except perhaps the people who generated it, actually has the ability to understand. Victoria Stodden, computational legal scholar and Statistics Professor at Columbia University
We should be worried about online silos [news, information, opinion, and discussion communities that are dominated by a single point of view]. They make us stupid and hostile toward each other. Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia and Citizendium
One-touch knowledge can be an enormous boon. Yet I worry that in raising us all to a plane of unprecedented genius, it is creating a drearily level playing field. When each of us can learn so much, so easily, in the same way as everybody else, we are in danger of becoming mere knowledge tourists, hopping from attraction to attraction at 30,000 feet without respecting the ground that lies between. Nicholas Humphrey, author and emeritus professor at London School of Economics
A second theme concerned the growing disconnect between science and the rest of human knowledge and culture (a tendency this blog was largely founded to resist!). For example, Barbara Strauch, the science editor for the New York Times, worries about the decline of high-quality science and health coverage in the media despite great public interest. Leo M. Chalupa, an ophthalmologist and neurobiologist at George Washington University, worries about “the growing gap between the scientific elite and the vast ‘scientifically challenged’ majority.”
Where science and culture do meet, the result isn’t always a positive one. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and social scientist at Harvard, worries about “the unavoidable intrusion of sociopolitical forces into science.” Bruce Hood, a psychologist at Bristol, worries that the current emphasis on the immediate and practical impact of research is dangerously shortsighted, and Lisa Randall, an author and physicist at Harvard, agrees, worrying that there won’t be support for the long-term investments in research necessary for “big experiments,” like those conducted at the Higgs-discovering Large Hadron Collider near Geneva.
Some choice quotes on science and culture:
…science needs heroes for the same reason as the Olympics. If we abandon our heroes, we make science insipid. Roger Highfield, author and director of external affairs at the Science Museum Group
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. Neil Gershenfeld, author, physicist, and director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms
… it is not clear that the best science is the science that gets known best … “science by (social) media” raises the curious possibility of a general public that reads more and more science while becoming less and less scientifically literate. Michael I. Norton, author and professor of marketing at Harvard
Beyond these particular worries (and many others), some worried about worry itself. For example, Brian Knutson, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Stanford, worries that our worry is directed at the wrong targets. Others shared similar fears:
Our neural system for threat was attuned to dangers of the Pleistocene: the rustling in the thicket that might signal a predator lurking. But we have no perceptual apparatus, nor circuitry for alarm, that tunes us to the dangers we now face as a species. Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author
We don’t necessarily want to get rid of anxiety altogether, as it serves a purpose—it allows us to focus our energy on the future. What we should worry about is finding some way to use rather than be used by our anxiety. Joseph LeDoux, author and neuroscientist at NYU
Arguably, humans may require a certain amount of worry to function effectively, whether this worry is fear of hell or fear of the neighbors. If this is the case, it might be safer to focus on worrying about the Red Sox winning the pennant. Mary Catherine Bateson, author and professor emerita at George Mason University
Worrying for a few minutes about what to serve for dinner in order 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. Dan Sperber, author and social and cognitive scientist at CEU Budapest and CNRS Paris
What should worry us is that we seem to be worrying more about the possible disasters that might befall us than who we are becoming right now. Sarah-Jayne Blackmore, author and professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London
… as a scientist as well as a mother, I worry that much of our current worry about children is misdirected. We worry a lot about the wrong things and we don’t worry nearly enough about the right ones…The small variations in middle-class “parenting” make very little difference. But providing high-quality early childhood care to children who would otherwise not receive it makes an enormous and continuing difference up through adulthood. Alison Gopnik, author and psychology professor at UC Berkeley
…the worry is that there really are worries, that worries really do something, and that what they are, how they arise, and what they can do is, for now, a mystery.” Donald D. Hoffman, author and cognitive scientist at UC Irvine
Edge.org‘s annual questions are invariably provocative and often more hopeful than this year’s doom and gloom. For those after some corrective optimism, you can check out the responses to the 2007 question, “What are you optimistic about?” or last year’s question, “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” (which I wrote about at Psychology Today).
One positive lesson from this year’s answers is that worry isn’t always a bad thing, at least in small doses. Along these lines, Robert Provine, an author, psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, offers the following:
Too much worry strands us in an agitated state of despair, anxiety and paranoia; too little leaves us without motivation and direction … The bottom line? Stop worrying about worry. It’s good for you.
So don’t worry: go ahead and read all 150-plus responses to this year’s challenge. But in the interest of worrying just the right amount, you might not want to do so in a single sitting.
You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo