What should we be worried about?

Big picture thinkers on ‘real scenarios that keep scientists up at night’


Since we can’t stop worrying, can science teach us at least how to worry better? What should and shouldn’t we be worried about – for scientific reasons?

The book was published today, based on the ‘annual question‘ of the Edge, ‘the world’s smartest website.’ (The Observer)

The Edge understands itself as both an expression of and contribution to the ‘third culture,’ which I like to understand in the context of global studies.

Here are the abbreviated responses by the 155 leading scientists and thinkers, and here is a review on Brain Pickings.

This is an overview with some of the highlights from Amazon.com. Lots of very stimulating food for thought. An important reminder of just how complex the world and just how limited our knowledge of it is, which should lead to greater epistemological and ethical humility:

Steven Pinker uncovers the real risk factors for war * Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi peers into the coming virtual abyss * Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek laments our squandered opportunities to prevent global catastrophe * Seth Lloyd calculates the threat of a financial black hole * Alison Gopnik on the loss of childhood * Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains why firefighters understand risk far better than economic “experts” * Matt Ridley on the alarming re-emergence of superstition * Daniel C. Dennett and George Dyson ponder the impact of a major breakdown of the Internet * Jennifer Jacquet fears human-induced damage to the planet due to “the Anthropocebo Effect” * Douglas Rushkoff fears humanity is losing its soul * Nicholas Carr on the “patience deficit” * Tim O’Reilly foresees a coming new Dark Age * Scott Atran on the homogenization of human experience * Sherry Turkle explores what’s lost when kids are constantly connected * Kevin Kelly outlines the looming “underpopulation bomb” * Helen Fisher on the fate of men * Lawrence Krauss dreads what we don’t know about the universe * Susan Blackmore on the loss of manual skills * Kate Jeffery on the death of death * plus J. Craig Venter, Daniel Goleman, Virginia Heffernan, Sam Harris, Brian Eno, Martin Rees, and more

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2 Responses to What should we be worried about?

  1. Elizabeth Gish says:

    Interesting, but I’m not sure worrying about anything is all that helpful. The question is, “how can we get people to act differently?” Better knowledge or assessment is not all that helpful unless there is a viable path to change. Thanks for all your thoughtful posts!

    • Wolfgang Brauner says:

      I see your point. I think at least some of the authors try to address it by getting us to worry better, i.e. focus our limited resources on those of the most important risks that ‘we’ (And who is that exactly? Surely varies a lot) can actually do something meaningful about rather than squander them either on largely imaginary threats or on ones that we really can’t do much about. Of course it remains primarily a scientific/academic/intellectual exercise and as such rather ineffectual when it comes to actually moving people to action – which is much more a function of effective emotional communication, as we well know. I am afraid this is our predicament: I am afraid there is not much we can do about the most existential threats, because they are a function of how the global system actually operates – but at least we can know why opposite claims are presumptuous. The net effect is that we get more and more agitated communication but less and less effective action, what Jennifer Jacquet of NYU calls the ‘Anthropocebo Effect.’

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