This is not a review. This is also mostly, not opinion. Consider it an opinion-colored summary of sorts.
«What should we be worried about? Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night» is a book produced ultimately by Edge magazine. Every year they go around asking its members to answer a particular question and the edited results—I guess—end up collected in a book and sold to the masses.
Now, from my language you might think I despise these books, I do not. This is the third or fourth in its kind that I’ve bought, read cover to cover and enjoyed. However…
The idea is good in paper: gather a group of highly intelligent people from all walks of life and ask them a somewhat open-ended question, record the answers. You’re bound to have good results, right?
Well, you do. But the book’s—or rather, the books’—apparent gift is a double edged sword.
You see, in order to get a sense for how nature works, we try an experiment. But one measurement might be wrong, or the experimenter might introduce mistakes, or the measuring apparatus doesn’t always work, or the conditions slightly change… so what do we do? We do the experiment multiple times and take the average. More measurements will help reach an average and thus a better view of how nature works. Sure, some measurements might be higher or lower, but most of them will be around some value, which is the one that best reflects the overall phenomenon.
Something similar happens with these books.
Imagine that, instead of presenting you with the promise of “over 150 experts weigh in on what should we be worried about,” I presented you with the question: “how interested are you in the research, results and discussions of these 150 experts?” The first is highly appealing. The second you might answer with a lukewarm “meh.”
And that’s the thing with this book. The people who write here are, no doubt, intelligent and more than capable in their own areas. I can concede that they genuinely care about the issues presented here, and I can believe without proof that they are not deliberately lying, but presenting situations that arise their worry in some kind of another. I will even skip over the question of why they are writing about such important matters in such a limited space—a choice I guess is not theirs, but imposed by editorial constraints for the book—and I will grant each and every one of them that it’s really hard to write about complex matters in only a few pages. I won’t present the simplicity of the small essays against them.
The matter of the book is that—like the scientific experiment—its pages reach an average: of interestingness, of usefulness, of originality… That, again, is not the fault of any one of the authors, but of the format chosen for the book.
Is it then a bad book? Not by a long shot, but it’s average. There are genuinely interesting chapters here, and some matters that I hadn’t considered. Given that I’m reading this 6 years after its initial publishing, I’m amazed at how some of these worries have already became reality. But some… well, again: average. Some seem to have missed their mark.
So unless the format for the books change, they all run this risk: of reaching average interestingness. So be mindful of that before buying one in the future. I’m not advocating against them, mind you, but I am saying that—in my opinion—these books’ real worth lies in being a starting point, on opening one’s eye to unconsidered matters, new and interesting authors and points of view.
But a monolithic edifice of eye-openers this is not. It cannot be. Just like that “average” cockpit couldn’t fit anyone, these books will hardly be a hit in each and every one of their pages.
Please note: These are the notes I wrote for myself as a summary of sorts after reading each chapter. They are compressed phrases, that come from attempting to summarize small chapters that themselves are a compressed version of the authors’ individual expertises. Do not take them as anything other than caricatures of the larger ideas behind.
Please also note: several of the following are written from a US-centric point of view and—I presume—with the supposition of a US-heavy readership. The irony of a US-centric book to discuss global, species-wide worries and problems is not lost on me.
Generally, these are the answer to the 2013 Edge Question:
WHAT SHOULD WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?
We worry because we are built to anticipate the future. Nothing can stop us from worrying, but science can teach us to worry better, and when to stop worrying. The responders to this year’s question were asked to tell us something that (for scientific reasons) worries them—particularly something that doesn’t seem to be on the popular radar yet, and why it should be. Or tell us about something they’ve stopped worrying about even if the others still do, and why it should drop off the radar.
Chess-like comments are mine. In general, exclamation marks are sign of ideas/chapters that I subjectively judge as interesting, well written, useful or are otherwise generally «good ideas». Question marks are the opposite.
- The real factors of war.
- The latent possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction.
- Denial about catastrophic risks.
- Long-term internet blackouts (Internet as a democratizing tool)
- The internet has no “Safe mode.” Or a backup even.
- We rely on complex and fragile systems (see the solar flare of 1859)
- Synthetic biology: “resurrecting” species, unforeseen consequences.
- We have no good definition or benchmark of consciousness.
- Thoughts on transhumanism and the Singularity. Will it happen soon? We don’t know, and maybe should worry about not knowing.
- Singularity: There’s no there there.
- Capture: the regulator becomes a tool of the regulated.
- A new generation that will have a blurry barrier between reality and virtual reality (videogames) (?)
- Technology-induced loss of patience. Its effect on time perception.
- We know relatively little about the development of the teenage brain.
- Who’s afraid of the big bad words?
- The «Engineer/Druid» dichotomy, widening of its gulf and forgetting its middle point. (?)
- The «smart» solutions to everything.
- Human intuitions (e.g. moral/social) may stifle technological advances and adoption of them.
- The rise of Anti-Intellectualism (another Dark Age)
- Armageddon as a herald idea for a new Dark Age.
- Superstition (as in: Argument from Authority)
- We may be rats trapped in this Pale Blue Dot (see: perspective from the Voyager)
- Being «listened» to by aliens, silencing ourselves is impractical and useless.
- Augmented reality, lack of attention.
- Too much coupling in the world’s systems (the experiment with metronomes)
- Homogenization of the human experience (culture, language, etc.)
- Homogenizing (read «exporting») models of mental health from the US.
- Social media, erosion of… discussion. (?)
- Internet: abundance of words, devaluing of the same.
- Children have too much screen time and not enough alone time. (!?)
- Too many Incompetent Systems (have pathological behavior but can’t fix themselves)
- «Democracy is like the appendix.» It makes it harder for other political systems to develop.
- The «is-ought» fallacy. Science—and scientists—should have a voice in determining human values & morals.
- The idea of what a «good life» is, is not part of policy, economy, public discourse and data.
- [Economic] Growth, lack of in the future.
- Total population is not as bad (in the future) as growth [of standards of living] for large sectors of population.
- Underpopulation after the population worldwide peaks. It’s possible and a completely new scenario.
- Population stabilization might bring the loss of lust as a driving force [of reproduction] and that could have weird consequences. (??)
- Current demographic shifts (e.g. aging) will increase demand for robots and it might not be met adequately.
- Error catastrophe threshold: beyond which the errors in reproduction (read: copying information) are too much and reproduction is impossible. We might not be (able to) using it in our favor against viruses.
- A Fearful Asymmetry: The Worrying World of a would-be Science. (???)
- There’s well placed worries and misplaced worries. The many types of new problems might be making it difficult to know the difference.
- There is nothing to worry about. And there never was.
- Worrying has biological and conscious aspects. How they are connected to each other is a mystery, perhaps?
- «So what we have is high interest and a lot of misinformation floating around. And we have fewer places that provide real information to a general audience that’s understandable (…) The disconnect is what we should all be worried about.»
- «Science by (social) media»—Becomes increasingly unfiltered by scientific experts and carries the biases of the media outlets that do the reporting. (!!)
- Unfriendly, large-scale physical phenomena in the universe. Monsters from the Id. Self-selecting groups and their delusions.
- Myths about Men (as opposed to Women, regarding relationships). Both sexes are more similar than popular belief makes us think.
- Humans have a mate-value (as in, mating). The competing desires behind it seem to cause many troubles. (!?)
- We (?) don’t do politics, and expect others to do it for us.
- Analogies between physics and economy. The 2008 crisis modeled as a gas.
- Semantic data [in search engines] and its human biases. Search engines’ editorial[ized] POV. (!!)
- Technology-generated fascism (!)
- Clarke’s Third Law, and its inverse.
- Data Disenfranchisement.
- Big experiments won’t happen.
- The LHC will be successful in confirming the Standard Model… and nothing more.
- No surprises from the LHC, no worries for theoretical physics.
- «Crisis at the Foundations of Physics». Problems with Quantum Mechanics/Relativity/Locality (!)
- Multiverse models re not falsifiable. Are we misguided in our Theory of Everything?
- That Quantum Mechanics is not a complete description of quantum phenomena.
- We can do science in only 1 universe that is—also—expanding.
- We have a heavy obsession with imagination, perhaps beyond healthy.
- Antivax (movement, people), antibiotic resistance, etc. (!)
- Medical knowledge is accumulating, and its discoveries lead us to new societal questions for which the answer is not clear or easy to approach. How to handle it?
- Catharsis is always an empty promise and we might never be liberated from it.
- «I’ve given up worrying. I merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me… and marvel stupidly.»
- Our (collective cognitive) blind spots to the dangers to the species.
- The Anthropocebo effect as a pessimist view framing our destruction.
- The relative obscurity of Édouard Glissant and the consequent lack of discussion on homogenization and extinction. (!?)
- «It’s difficult to believe there’s no free will when so many of the threads of causality are not yet known (…) This difficulty is something we should all worry about.»
- The belief/lack of belief in free will is not a scientific matter, but themata.
- Not enough is being done to prevent or eliminate old age/death. (!?)
- The problems that come with long lifespans/loss of death.
- Global graying.
- «An excess of Testosterone» in China: biased sex ratios.
- «Modern technology» amplifies the lack of balance between ideals and reality. Modern, liberal democracy needs to evolve.
- The Fourth Culture—Pop Culture—and its growing influence in everything.
- «About “modern” states shaped by crime and about the classic scientists trying yo explain them.»
- A lot of the new Public Sphere is not public (who actually has the data?) (!!)
- Missed opportunities; the diversion of intellectual effort from innovation to exploitation.
- Bad incentives, and the vicious cycles they create and sustain.
- Problems in science publishing: bias towards the novel and away from replication studies and null effects. (!)
- «Excellence» as the single model for human (and individual) achievement. Lack of available opportunities for other, needed and useful modes/models. (!)
- Unmitigated arrogance. Hubristic pride and the ills that it fuels.
- The decline of the scientific hero. (?)
- «Authoritarian submission» (???)
- Too much connectivity (in academia) might be «discouraging the oddball, the maverick or the individual who wants to let a wild idea rumble around in the mind for a while.» (!!)
- Stress, as a single causal for many ills, physical and psychological.
- We’re not putting our anxieties to work.
- Science has not brought us closer to fundamentally understand cancer in decades. (?)
- We (as a society) seem unable to think about uncertainty, long time scales, high risk in academia.
- Genomic instability is on the rise (by measure of de novo mutations) relative to the speed of evolution.
- Current research «ignores» the role of pathogens in causing cancers.
- «The failure of genomics for mental disorders»
- We might get «Irrationally impatient with science, with its wrong turns (…) we will lose our trust and belief in science…» (!)
- Losing—metaphorically—our hands, disconnecting with out bodies. «We seem to be worrying more about the possible disasters that might befall us than who we are becoming right now.»
- Losing touch [with the physical world]
- The human/nature chasm widening, and our lack of emotional drive about it.
- Power & the internet: everyone is empowered, including the already powerful (!!)
- Smart people focusing on what to worry about instead of what and how to solve. (?)
- The paradox of material progress.
- A lack of close observation and precision? A lack of citizen scientists?
- The increasing focus on «impact» in academia.
- Water as a resource and system; is deeper than it’s currently being handled. We’re not meeting up with its complexity.
- The Newtonian paradigm (the stating of «laws of motion») does not apply to most other spheres of knowledge.
- Facts and numbers are not routinely verified—or are even verifiable—and we are not leveraging the powers of the Information Age.
- There are relationships between IQ and economic indicators. Variances in average IQ can lead to vicious/virtuous cycles. (!???)
- The disconnect between news and understanding. One needs to know context (which is not «new» or «newsworthy») to better understand «the news».
- Super AIs can’t rule if they don’t get culture first. (?)
- Posthuman Geography: there’s little work being done about the transition from our world into the next societal paradigm.
- The ideas and promises of interstellar travel.
- Communities of fate [what are they?] and shared problems, how to leverage the inclusion of others (?) for good. (??)
- Modern problems require working in groups, yet there’s little research and education on how to identify skill, people and now their interaction.
- Individual humans are cooperative, but global cooperation is failing, why? Cooperation in small groups doesn’t translate well to large groups, representatives and other differences in kind.
- The assumption that normal people are «good» by default and the lost windows of opportunity when asking a wrong question.
- Our worry engines are relatively misattuned to the modern world; ideas for refocusing it.
- «Morbid anxiety»—Anxiety disorders (and their differences with «regular» worries)
- The rise of neurodivergency, subsequent degradation of human cognitive abilities—or rise in emotion-dampening medication.
- Too much focus on the nuances of «parenting» (that have little variance overall) and too little on the overall practice of child care beyond just «parenting». (!)
- The death of deep mathematical advances (see: rise of
- We might not be able to understand everything—mathematics is reaching unprecedented levels of abstraction and specialization.
- «The Demise of the Scholar» coming from advances in education technology. (!?)
- «Science (…) is in danger of losing it integrity and its intellectual independence.»
- Illusions of understanding (coming from technology). «We have to give up the idea that fast and easy access to information is always better access to information» (!?)
- Technology is «inoculating» us and our children to mental hardships.
- Internet Silos (defined by one predominant POV) (you fucking what mate??????)
- The Age of Anxiety: there’s more things to worry about than ever.
- «Now we have the means to survive, but do we have the will?»
- Neural data privacy rights; lack of. More discussion is needed on the matter.
- Despite the advances, it’s still impossible to «read a mind» with current methods and theories. (so what’s the worry, then?)
- Compartmentalization of the many branches of life (scientific, artistic, etc.) and loss of people who bridge them.
- C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures [sciences and humanities?]: their hap might be narrowing in parts, widening in others (sex differences)
- «The age-old and unavoidable intrusion of sociopolitical forces» into science; its modern incarnation and the Catch-22 that surrounds public support of science.
- The growing gap between the scientific elite and «scientifically challenged» populations
- «The prospect of collective amnesia», Present-ism and… ? (?)
- The emerging global culture: we don’t know how it behaves, even though we have useful analogies from biology.
- Too much worry on fictional violence. «Our understandable pain and fear lead us to respond ineffectively to real violence.»
- High interconnection of systems lead to one crisis cascading into another. And there’s high (over)awareness of the crises, which may lead to incorrect responses.
- Who gets to play in the science ballpark (and why)
- Increasing number of new illegal drugs, unknown short- or long-term effects on individuals or populations.
- Institutions/technologies that exist largely for historical reasons. «History increasingly traps us, creating paths (…) that must be traveled before we can change directions, however desirable those new directions might be.»
- Unknown unknowns, particularly in biotechnology, nanotechnology and Artificial Intelligence. (?)
- Digital tattoos: the permanency of [personal] data. (!!!)
- Fast knowledge—little appreciation for the journey, little devotion to building one’s own edifice of knowledge.
- Not enough systematic thinking/research on the social psychology of anxiety.
- The rise and glorification of stupidity. (!?)
- «We should be worried about how we go about finding the wisdom to allow us to navigate develop,emts, as we begin to improve our ability [on several technologies]»
- Lesson from firefighters about risk: having skin in the game (being able to be damaged by one’s own errors). (!? Written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, so I may be dumb and missing a lot here)
- Our [over?]reliance in five big probability models («Lamplight models» because they illuminate something and we look there, refer to the joke about the drunkard) (!!!!!)
- «Perhaps the failure to stop worrying when stopping can (all by itself, after the proper preparing of the ground with concentration and “worry”) lead to sudden vision.»
- «Worrying is a worry. Identifying a serious problem and taking action to analyze and mitigate it: excellent behavior. Identifying a serious problem, taking what steps you can to mitigate it, and recognizing that you can’t do more: excellent behavior.»
- The gift of worry (!?)