The new Edge question page is now available for 2013. Edge asked a selection of the world’s top minds (and this year, also some top journalists and independent pundits): What should we be worried about?

What resulted isn’t your usual recounting of the big Hollywood-style threats (such as a giant meteor hitting Earth, a new ice age, bio-terrorism and new plagues, aliens from space, military invasion or robot takeover, nation-scale electricity blackouts, etc). On the other hand there is perhaps a little too much middle-aged angst in the answers, unwittingly projecting personal gloom onto the future — suggesting that one of the things we might usefully worry about is how to stop a growing number of grumpy middle-age people throwing up their hands in useless despair. But mostly the worries identified by the 2013 Edge question are fascinating and often unexpected.

For the benefit of lay readers not at all likely to plough through the page’s full 126,000 words (the length of two novels, densely argued and using advanced and often scientific/techie vocabularies), I’ve taken the liberty of assembling a digest of the dangers I found the most notable. I’ve selected key quotes and/or given a summary of the author’s central worry. The new thematic groupings and subheads are mine. Enjoy.

 


The potential for a new elitism:

* Geoffrey Miller: We should worry about the Chinese state’s scientific human breeding programme, and the western response to it.

* Tor Norretranders: “Attempts to shortcut [human] mating preferences and the [partner-]matching process through clinical control [through biotechnologies and screening of eggs, sperm, partners and embryos] could lead not only to a[n unexpected] loss of quality in the offspring but also to a loss of cultural fertility.”

* David Bodanis: New and expensive body/intelligence enhancement technologies may stimulate envious new political movements among the poor.

* Michael Vassar: We should worry that an essentially submissive western population needs all… “the rare intelligent authoritarian dominants it can find” in order to lead it, but it can find few leaders suitable for the 21st century, and the current leaders cannot “build the abstract models needed to innovate seriously. For such innovations, we depend on the few self-actualizers we still get…”

* Dylan Evans: “I think we should worry that democracy may turn out to be a historical cul-de-sac, a place that looks pleasant enough from far away, but that doesn’t lead anywhere better.”

* Haim Harari: The consequences of modern technology may ultimately threaten the survival of democracy [because it] “amplifies a dangerous lack of balance between our ideals and today’s reality.” [and because] modern liberal democracy [has not yet started to] evolve and adapt to the new technologies.”

* Nicholas G. Carr: Our increasing experience of speed and efficiency in the online world may spill over into a new dissatisfaction with slow clumsiness in the real world.

* John Naughton: “What worries me is that we are increasingly enmeshed in incompetent systems” [in the real world, and] “Even more worrying is the suspicion that liberal democracy as currently practiced around the world, itself has become an incompetent system.” […] “a perception that even nominally ‘representative’ democracies no longer produce administrations that serve the interests of their citizens.”

* Larry Sanger: Our “critical knowledge — the only kind there is, about anything difficult — requires a robust marketplace of ideas.” but “We should be worried about [our increasing desire to inhabit] online silos [media and friendship circles which enclose us in a single worldview]. They make us stupid and hostile toward each other.” […] “silos tend to become hostile to dissent, empowering fanatics and power-seekers at the expense of the more moderate and the truth-seekers.”

* David Berreby: We should worry that “one consequence [of a much older population, in nations such as Italy and Japan] might be an upsurge in xenophobic nationalism”.

* Steven Pinker: Among “the real risk factors” [we should pay attention to are] “narcissistic leaders” [appealing to] “the glory of the group — the tribe, religion, nation, class, or race” stirring up inter-group grievances. Additional risk factors in such cases are “utopian ideologies” espousing and glorifying “violent struggle”. To stop such violence we need to be alert to “psychological stuff like ideologies and norms” rather than “physical stuff like weaponry and resources”.


The threat of national decline:

* David Dalrymple: We haven’t even yet started to think about the “serious restructuring [that] will be needed in our economic, legal, political, social, and cultural institutions” as a result of “robotics and artificial intelligence” and aggregations of mind-to-mind intelligence. Technology will erode the manpower-aggregation ability “that gives power to [corporations and nation states].”

* Paul Kedrosky: We should worry about how to clear away or change the organizations [that are] “long beyond their [sell-by] date, or [are] weirdly vestigial, and yet remain widespread and worryingly important.” [They] “persist, largely for historical reasons, not because they remain the best solution to the problem for which they were created. They are often obstacles to much better solutions.”

* Charles Seife: We should be worried that many “regulatory agencies are systematically drained of their ability to check the power of [that which they are meant to police]. Even more strikingly, they’re gradually drawn into the orbit of [those] they’re charged with regulating […] Any profession that depends to some degree on objectivity, and whose work affects the fortunes of a group of people with power and money, is subject to capture.” and often individuals are not even aware they are working within a framework that has been captured by special interests.

* David Berreby: “the coming vast increase in the number of elderly people and the general rise in average age, as middle-aged and older people come to represent a greater share of humanity.” […] “Awareness of this demographic shift [and what it may mean] is partial and piecemeal.”

* Kevin Kelly: Worry about absolute population decline, as the population of some advanced nations falls “way below replacement level”.

* Eduardo Salcedo-albaran: Worry about nation states being taken over by criminal thugs, whence they unleash such massive levels of corruption it means there are no “good guys” left to oppose them. History offers many examples, but many worrying examples are allowed to exist today.


Anti-science attitudes:

* Leo M. Chalupa: We should worry that… “the gap between the scientifically informed and the uninformed continues to grow [and that] the vast majority of even intelligent and highly educated people “are to put it kindly “scientifically challenged” and lacking in even a basic knowledge of science. The way we teach science doesn’t help… “Far too often, [children’s] science courses involve memorization of a vast array of seemingly unrelated ‘facts’, many of which are of questionable validity.”

* Helena Cronin: It’s worrying to see the politically-correct attacks on the scientific exploration of human gender, an exploration which is uncovering unpalatable truths.

* Simon Baron-Cohen: “What worries me is that the debate about gender differences still seems to polarize nature vs. nurture, with some in the social sciences and humanities wanting to assert that biology plays no role at all, apparently unaware of the scientific evidence to the contrary.” There is overwhelming evidence about “the complex interplay between biology and culture in producing human behavior. Scientists find the idea of a biology-culture interaction unsurprising — almost truistic.”

* Stuart Firestein: Due to a few percieved failures of mega science (such as the lack of a major anti-cancer breakthrough, or CERN’s $9bn Large Hadron Collider) there is a worry that… “we will become irrationally impatient with science, with its wrong turns and occasional blind alleys, with its temporary results that need constant revision.” [but in doing so we fail to consider…] “all the ancillary benefits that weren’t in the original prediction — vaccines, improved drug delivery methods, sophisticated understanding of cell development and aging, new methods in experimental genetics, discoveries that tell us how genes are regulated — all genes not just cancer genes — and a host of other goodies that never get counted as resulting from the war on cancer.”

* Jennifer Jacquet: We should be worried about the effects of environmentalist pessimism, and be worried that “framing humans as the dominant driver of [environmental] change will lead to further negative change” [possibly via unexpected effects from climate quick-fixes?]

* Timothy Taylor: “We should be worried” [that the mindset that lies behind secular and religious beliefs in various forms of Armageddon] “seems to be flourishing despite unparalleled access to scientific knowledge.” […] “We should not underestimate the glamour and influence of anti-science ideologies.”

* Nicholas A. Christakis: “Lately, I’ve been seeing what seem like a lot of alarming and non-beneficial interventions by government in science […] Politicians and pundits take to the Internet and television, like priests of old, to scornfully denounce science in ways that sound almost Medieval to my ears.”

* Matt Ridley: “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 […] There is a particular reason to worry that superstition is on the rise today […] the fundamentalists are breeding at a faster rate than the moderates within all the main religious sects [and in nations] with low birth rates, the effect could be startling.”

* Neil Gershenfeld: “We’re in danger of becoming a cargo cult, living with the inventions of Ancestors from a mythical time […] Accepting the benefits of science with having to accept the methods of science offers the freedom to ignore inconvenient truths about the environment, or the economy, or education.”

* Clifford Pickover: “Should we be so worried that we will not really be able to understand subatomic physics, quantum theory, cosmology, or the deep recesses of mathematics and philosophy? Perhaps we can let our worries slightly recede and just accept our [computer augmented] models of the universe when they are useful.”

* Roger Highfield: Worry about the increasing lack of heroes in science. “The culture of scepticism, testing and provisional consensus-forming in scientific research is the most significant achievement of our species, and it is time that everyone understood that [by telling them of our] amazing and supremely important endeavor [through the stories of individual heroes].”

* Kirsten Bomblies: “The mass propagation of a factually incorrect, divisive, or misleading idea is not uncommon […] “we should probably consider what detrimental properties might propagate in a global culture, and how their troublesomeness scales with culture-size and complexity. Is there, or could there be, a cultural immune system — for example, is the system sufficiently self-policing with [regard to] the infusion of counterviews from diverse people?”

* David Gelernter: Serious writing and reading is being devalued, and student writing skills have demonstrably declined since the 1960s. The obvious cause would be the Internet, but may also be the “toxic mix” provided to students by inadequate schooling.

* Michael I. Norton: Worry about the decline in the public understanding of science, when its findings are increasingly dumbed down by the media — and are then dumbed down further by Twitter and other social media. Some of the news reporting of science amounts to fiction: “Fully one quarter of the science that laypeople encountered [in news stories] was not solid enough to pass muster when reviewed by experts.”

* J. Craig Venter: Myths about science create phenomena such as irrational parental “avoidance of [child] vaccination”. This may create “a public health hazard” and may even lead to “a potential disaster” for humanity. [perhaps aided by our vast over-use of antibiotics]


Squandering science:

* Bruce Sterling: quoting Vernor Vinge — the worry is that we will have “a glut of technical riches [which may] never [be] properly absorbed.” because they will come too fast and politicians simply won’t have provided enough trained and funded brains to explore them all.

* Paul Saffo: We need more flexible and subtle thinking about technology. “My worry is that [our] collective minds change at a snail’s pace while technology races along an exponential curve.”

* Frank Wilczek: Many fundamental scientific breakthroughs are coming, but may be squandered because of… “the diversion of intellectual effort from innovation to exploitation, the distraction of incessant warfare, rising fundamentalism”.

* Michael Shermer: “We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing — just as the research tools for doing so are coming online through such fields as evolutionary ethics, experimental ethics, neuroethics, and related fields.”

* John Tooby: The decline of scientific ideals, arising from… “ingroup tribalism, self-interest, prestige-seeking, and moral one-upsmanship” within scientific institutions, opening the door to… “self-organizing collective delusions” which are deployed before being checked, thus having terrible negative effects. Example: biofuels.

* Marco Iacoboni: We should worry that “the only publishable data in life science and biomedical literature are novel findings.” […] “no one wants to publish your replication data” which tests an experiment by doing it again. Details of experiments that produce no results are also difficult to publish. Lack of such published articles erodes science’s understanding of what is empirically solid or not, and this makes wild claims (the denial of evolution, etc) more likely to weasel their way into science.


Conformism in academia:

* Anton Zeilinger: “What I worry most about is that we are more and more losing the formal and informal bridges between different intellectual, mental and humanistic approaches to seeing the world. […] Looking at today’s world, all these activities, scientific, artistic or whatsoever, have been compartmentalized to an unprecedented degree, and […] I am worried that this trend might go on. And I worry that in the end we loose significant parts of our cultural heritage and therefore of our very identity as humans.”

* Eric R. Weinstein: The rise of conformist groupthink in science, in which “the spectacle of an individual moving against his or her expert community […] is generally viewed as a cause for alarm — independently of whether that individual is a malfunctioning fool or a genius about to invalidate community groupthink.” We now have a “cult of Excellence” in “centers of excellence” — but ironically these cannot tolerate the genuinely excellent person who is usually somewhat eccentric. Managerial conformism casts out the genius of the “skirt chasing, hard drinking, bigoted, misogynistic, childish, slutty, lazy, politically treacherous, incompetent, murderous, meddlesome, monstrous and mentally unstable individuals” who have historically given us some of our biggest breakthroughs. But there is some hope, in “the rise of an archipelago of alternative institutions”.

* Gino Segre: In science the early pressure to play the careerist academic game, to participate in the cult of collaboration, to be hyper-connected, and to engage in constant fundraising/publication may all be… “discouraging the oddball, the maverick or simply the individual who wants to let a wild idea rumble around his or her mind for a while”.

* Bruce Hood: There are new moves to allocate academic rewards according to the wider ‘impact’ of research. But “focusing on [the] impact [of academic research, in terms of journal citations, economic performance, public engagement, media attention, etc] is a case of putting the cart before the horse or at least not recognizing the value of theoretical work.” […] measuring “impact is incompatible with good science”.

* Daniel L. Everett: We should worry about the potential erasure of the “livelihood of the [teaching] scholar and scholarship […] due to employability-focussed massive online courses [offered to] “students [who] are more interested in finding employment than finding truth”.


Dangerous politics:

* Brian Eno: Worry that most intelligent and creative people avoid politics like the plague.

* Haim Harari: Worry that “electability to high office requires talents that are totally unrelated to those [now] required by governing and leading.”

* Jessica L. Tracy: Worry about a recent “epidemic” of lying and cheating, and its root cause in our cultivation of a baseless personal sense of self-esteem.

* Nassim Nicholas Taleb: A number of standard tools used by economists are obviously wrong.

* Helen Fisher: Worry about the false “myths about men” and love, peddled by “journalists, academics and laymen” alike.

* Benjamin Bergen: Worry that “protect the children” panics will succeed in setting aside “the constitutional right to free speech” in the USA.

* Bruce Parker: “the Internet has […] given a voice to the ignorant. A voice they never had before. A loud and emotional voice.” [we can only hope that it does] “not turn out to be destructive on a large scale”.

* Daniel Haun: Our global decison-making systems are not up to the job asked of them. We don’t yet really know… “how humans [global institutions can best] interact in these new and extraordinary [global] scenarios and” [how we can] “build structures for global cooperation that bring out the cooperative side of human nature.”


Lack of personal control over our lives:

* David Rowan: Lack of control over the reams of personal data we generate every day.

* Andrew Lih: Lack of control over the archive of personal chit chat that we generate on social media.

* Juan Enriquez: “even if you acted impeccably [online], according to today’s norms and customs, electronic immortality still presents enormous challenges.” But many, especially the young, do not act impecably and thus they forever scar their reputations and future opportunities. “These overall records of our lives will be visible, accessible, hard to erase for a long, long time.”

* Melanie Swan: Society is not yet considering the issues around a citizen’s “neural data privacy rights [arising from data gathered by such devices as] sleep-monitoring devices […] data from eye-tracking glasses, continuously-worn consumer EEGs [‘smart wrist-watches’], and portable MRIs [‘body scanners’].”

* David M. Buss: Worry about the “great shortage of desirable mates” [and] “the difficulties of attracting viable marriage partners” of the right type and class, in a bumbling world of ad-hoc encounters and the ineffective use of Internet dating.

* Alison Gopnik: Worry about the wasted potential among the class of… “children [who] grow up without fathers, [and who] grow up without grandparents or [other older carers] either, and with parents who are forced to spend long hours at unreliable jobs that don’t pay enough in the first place [while leaving their children with low-quality] child-care workers [who earn] next to nothing.”

* Christine Finn: We should worry about losing our rich sense of fingertip touch, in an age where human-to-machine commands are gestured or spoken (or even transmitted by brainwaves). But there are some encouraging signs of tactile finger-work being valued again — if only in ‘the new crafts’ movement and the renewed interest in real cooking.

* Susan Blackmore: “Our minds are losing touch with our bodies and the world around us, and being absorbed into the evolving technosphere. […] Our hands now spend little time making or growing things and a lot of time pressing keys and touching screens.”

* Scott Sampson: We should worry that “we’ve never been more disconnected from the natural world” [and that] “fear of strangers and an obsession with screens” [has meant that] children’s first-hand encounters with nature in the developed world have dropped precipitously to less than 10% of what they were just one generation ago.” [and the few encounters with nature kids do get are much more tightly controlled and policed, and they take place in much more sanitised environments than a generation ago].

* Sherry Turkle: “talking to others through technology leads children to substitute mere connection for the complexities and the nuance of developing conversation.” […] “the shiny objects of the digital world encourage a sensibility of constant connection, constant distraction, and never-aloneness.” [Yet] “Solitude is a precondition for creativity [and] it is also where we find ourselves so that we can reach out and have relationships with other people where we really appreciate them as other people.” […] “I worry we have yet to have a conversation about what seems to be a developing ‘new normal’ about the presence of screens in the playroom and kindergarten.”


Drugs:

* P. Murali Doraiswamy: “Should we worry about the consequences of exporting America’s view of an unhealthy mind to the rest of the world?” [meaning, the view of the upset or eccentric mind as being host to] “solid scientific entities treatable by trusted pharmaceuticals”.

* Douglas Rushkoff: Worry that “we’re supposed to take medication in order to alter our perceptions of and responses to social phenomena that should rightly make any healthy person depressed.”

* Arianna Huffington: We should worry about stress and its many ramifications, and find genuine ways to combat it. Suggested solutions are workplace naps, meditation, and new wearable monitoring devices.

* Esther Dyson: “We should be worried about the consequences of our increasing knowledge of what causes disease, and its consequences for human freedom.” Will we force people into treatment and living “healthy” lifestyles? But then what if the drugs / treatments / health and lifestyle fads turn out later to have been wrong, ineffective, or damaging, as so many already have? What if by “curing” mental distress or eccentricity we find we can no longer produce the innovative scientists and crazy creatives our culture needs?

* Thomas Metzinger: “The number of untested, but freely available psychoactive substances [recreational drugs] is dramatically rising. […] All of the new compounds reported in 2011 were synthetic. They are cooked up in underground labs, but increasingly organized crime begins to develop the market and import them, for example from China. Almost nothing is known about pharmacology, toxicology, or general safety; almost all of these substances have never been tested [in medical trials]”.

* Joel Gold: Our culture doesn’t have any real understanding that individuals suffer terribly when their normal anxiety and worry tips over into being a deeply ingrained and compulsive morbid type of anxiety.


Knowledge lite:

* Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: “Recent research on the human brain has demonstrated that many brain regions undergo protracted development throughout adolescence and beyond in humans. It is hugely worrying that so many teenagers around the world don’t have access to education at a time when their brains are still developing […] according to UNICEF, 40% of the world’s teenagers do not have access to secondary school education.”

* William Poundstone: “I worry about a world in which everyone is only pretending to pay attention.” […] “We will need to invent a new social infrastructure to deal with” the distraction of mobile devices, and the seductive ‘augmented reality’ that is coming soon.

* Tania Lombrozo: “What does worry me is the illusion of knowledge and understanding that can result from having information so readily and effortlessly available.”

* Nicholas Humphrey: As we move toward a world in which “no one will be more or less knowledgeable than anyone else” we are not so much standing on the shoulders of giants as “in danger of becoming mere knowledge tourists, hopping from attraction to attraction at 30,000 feet without respecting the ground that lies between.” In this we loose the pride in achieving and comprehending certain hard-won summits, from which we might look down at the way we came up and feel a certain heady “flirtatiousness that leads to the marriage of ideas”.

* Noga Arikha: “Almost everything is archived; but nothing can be found unless one knows to look for it [and has the search skills to locate it]. Many may be reinventing the wheel, unaware that the historical permafrost is full of [similar and earlier] treasures.”

* Victoria Stodden: We don’t yet have a robust on-demand infrastructure for fact-checking the “findings, conclusions, and statistics” that flow over us every day. “I’m not saying we should independently verify every fact that enters our daily life — there just isn’t enough time, even if we wanted to — but the ability should exist where possible, especially for knowledge generated with the help of computers. Even if no one actually tries to follow the chain of reasoning and calculations, more care will be taken when generating the findings when the potential for inspection exists.”

* Gavin Schmidt: The gap between the new and the old [in news reporting] is widening and that should be profoundly worrying. [for example] “Understanding the forces driving the Arab Spring requires a background in the [history of the] breakup of the Ottoman empire” […] Any efforts that can be made to make it easier to access [historical] depth and context must therefore be applauded and extended. New online tools can be developed to scaffold information by providing entry points that are appropriate for any level of knowledge.”


Culture lite:

* Noga Arikha: “For many, and not only for students [who lack much knowledge of history], history is of the modern, not of what precedes the modern, when science was magic, all art was the same and all politics autocratic: history is not so much simplified [in the limited and skills-based teaching of it to the young] as disappeared.” There is a “stunning historical blankness” of students arriving at French universities. […] “Anything beyond 1945, if then, is a messy, remote landscape [to them]; the centuries melt into each other in an insignificant magma. […] I worry about the prospect of collective amnesia [in a] world [that] is geared at keeping up with a furiously paced present with no time for the complex past; and the fact that a very large number of literate people with unprecedented access to advanced education and scanned sources have no sense of [history].”

* Hans Ulrich Obrist: We should worry about “Cultural homogenisation [via globalisation, which] is nothing less than cultural extinction.” [but…] “art is the primary form of resistance to [such] homogenisation and extinction”.

* Scott Atran: The world is loosing a living knowledge of “the true scope and limits of human thought and behavior”, as a result of the global homogenisation of the human experience.

* David Christian: Worry that there is such “little public debate […] about the real meaning of ‘a good life'”, in terms of the modern world rather than the conception of the good life that arises from our classical past.

* Marcel Kinsbourne: Worry that “we lose” [the wealth of evolutionary advantages inherent in face-to-face talking] “when interaction between people is shrunk to […] a throwaway electronic twittering of words and acronyms.”


Business:

* Robin S. Rosenberg: We don’t yet have sound ways of selecting staff and/or placing staff in effective goal-oriented teams. The research shows that human resources staff and managers who pre-vet and recruit new staff, and who assemble new work teams, are most often making… “decisions based on […] intuitions [that] are not necessarily any better than chance”. We also need better ways of analysing tasks, in order to better fit them to teams.

* Gregory Benford: It’s worrying that the very real option now to allow private companies to open a new frontier in outer space is currently hardly visible in the public sphere.

* Rodney A. Brooks: “What worries me most right now is that we will not find a way to make our robots smart enough quickly enough to take up the slack in all the jobs we will need them to do over the next few decades. […] We need productivity tools in the east and in the west, new forms of automation and robots to increase our manufacturing productivity.”

* Aubrey De Grey: “there is virtually no appreciation of what the natural progression [of] the automation of service jobs […] could mean for the future of work […] rather than plan for and design a world in which it is normal either to work for far fewer hours per week or for far fewer years per lifetime, societies across the world have acquiesced in a political status quo” around traditional overwork/unemployment practices.

* Seth Lloyd: We should worry if “banks leverage to the hilt again” [i.e.: if they loan more money than they could ever collect back from those loans].


Infrastructure:

* Randolph Nesse: We should worry about “the hidden fragility of [our] complex systems”, and about the interconnection of different complex systems.

* Laurence C. Smith: We are worrying about overall world population growing to 9 to 10 billion, rather than about how to provide those new billions with decent and optimal lifestyles in a sustainable manner.

* Giulio Boccaletti: We need to find viable ways to increase resource productivity for water supplies. New infrastructure, anti-pollution measures, changes in industrial policy, and sustaining ecosystems would all help.

* George Dyson: “Sooner or later — by intent or by accident — we will face a catastrophic breakdown of the Internet. Yet we have no Plan B in place […] We need a low-bandwidth, high-latency store-and-forward message system that can run in emergency mode on an ad-hoc network assembled from mobile phones and laptop computers even if the main networks fail.”

* Daniel C. Dennett: “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.”

* Max Tegmark: “What we should be worried about is that we’re not worried [about the future possibilities of] machines with superhuman intelligence [that] could rapidly design even better machines”.

* Seirian Sumner: “I worry 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.” [specifically our ability to create] “the larger, more charismatic organisms, specifically the fluffy and endangered ones [that we will be able to create or re-create from ancient remains, such as Ice Age mammoths].

* Vernor Vinge: we should worry about the resurrection of “a doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)” among proliferating nuclear-armed nation states — made all the more dangerous because the infrastructure required may have to be under the control of hair-trigger software bots in order to work “MAD” as intended.


We are worrying about the wrong things, in the wrong way:

* Dan Sperber: Worry that we are worrying about the wrong things. Some worries do more harm than good.

* Gary Marcus: “What we really should be worried about is that we are not quite doing enough to prepare for the unknown.”

* Brian Knutson: “I worry that our [ancestral] worry engines [about dangerous creatures, outsiders, food supply, keeping mates etc] will not retune their direction to focus on [new] rapidly changing threats fast enough to take preventative action.”

* David Pizarro: “It is increasingly clear that human intuitions — particularly our social and moral intuitions — are ill-equipped to deal with the rapid pace of technological innovation. [and so] adoption of these technologies has suffered”. Suffered because we intuitively worry that the new technology has human-like characteristics that it doesn’t actually have.

* James J. O’Donnell: We should worry that “worrying about things is a modern passion”, a passion that gets taken up into groups where it is amplified and distorted, and where worries inter-breed with ersatz anxieties to produce useless life-debilitating pathologies.

* Gary Klein: “I worry that the shrillness of worries keeps increasing. In a sea of worries, a new worry can only stand out if its consequences are almost apocalyptic.” […] The pressure is on scientists and media specialists to show that the new issue is not only dangerous, it is highly dangerous. […] And I worry about the proposed remedies for each new danger. To be worth its salt, a new threat has to command rapid and extreme reactions. These reactions have to start immediately, eliminating our chance to evaluate them for unintended consequences. The more over-the-top our fears, the more disproportionate the reactions and the greater the chances of making things worse, not better.”

* Peter Schwartz: Our perception of the probability of violence is distorted. “Steven Pinker has elegantly shown us that the real threat of violence in most of our lives has diminished dramatically. Yet most of us believe — because of the constant drumbeat of reporting on violence — that the threat is far greater than it actually is. The absence of children playing on suburban streets is a sign of how scared parents are of the threat of kidnapping, which actually remains very small.”

* Jonathan Gottschall: “We worry too much about fictional violence [which in fact may have] helped reduce [actual] criminal violence”.

* Martin Rees: We’re often worrying about trivial “low probability” risks.

* Aubrey De Grey: “the main problem […] is the public’s catastrophic deficiency in probabilistic reasoning” alongside the lack of long-term thinking.

* Bart Kosko: We are using “just five main models of probability” when there are many more. We need a “revolution in probabilistic computing” [i.e.: in working out the chances that something will happen, or not].

* Evgeny Morozov: Worry that “our ability to distinguish between important and trivial or even non-existent problems” is diminishing. We [as a civilisation] need a new science of prioritization, and also a new resigned awareness that… “some problems and imperfections are just the normal costs of accepting the social contract of living”.

* Brian Knutson: “Since the brain has limited energy, we [as individuals] should probably view worry as a resource to be conserved and efficiently allocated.”

* Richard Foreman: “What should we be worried about? Perhaps the failure to stop worrying […] “de-focusing on obsessive worrisome problems often leads, in the end, to the sudden emergence of a solution where previous directed effort had often failed.”

* Robert Provine: Worrying “has served us well throughout our evolutionary history.” We might be more worried about the consequences of “chirpy, unbridled optimism”.

* Joseph LeDoux: “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.”


That’s it! See the Edge questions page for all the full texts.