By Pippa Murray and Will Stanley
Ask most people what is worrying them and their answer is often personal. Ask leading thinkers and you could end up worried yourself. The latter was put to the biggest science minds for this year’s annual question – What should we be worried about? – from the good people at Edge.
Each year, this online literary salon poses a new question – previous examples include ‘What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?’ and ‘What will change everything?’ – and requests that each contributor responds with a scientifically informed argument. The aim is to step away from the pressing news of the day, and share something new and thought provoking.
With this in mind it seems right to start with Larry Sanger’s essay, the co-founder of Wikipedia and Citizendium, which looks at the rise of internet silos. In Sager’s opinion, these online websites for news or opinion breed hostility and single mindedness by hosting ‘objectively unsupportable views that stroke the egos of their members,’ that make us ‘overconfident and uncritical’ about the world around us.
Continuing on the theme of modern technologies, Nicholas Humphrey, Emeritus School Professor at the London School of Economics, raises his concerns on fast knowledge. While many view today’s easy access to smartphones, search engines and the information that they provide us at the click of a button as a good thing, Humphrey argues the opposite. He states that nowadays, ‘everyone finds themselves going to the same places, when it’s the arrival and not the journey that matters, when nothing whatever memorable happens along on the way, I worry that we end up, despite our extraordinary range of experience, with less to say.’
In contrast to Sanger and Humphrey, Simon Baron-Cohen dissects an age old debate, that of C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ from 1969. In his essay, Baron-Cohen recognizes the efforts of literary agents and publishers to make science more accessible, particularly to non-scientists, but states that in other fields of science, such as sex differences in the brain, these two cultures remain separated by a deep chasm.
Among these 140 contributors is one from our own Director of External Affairs, Roger Highfield, who argues the need for more science heroes to step forward, stating that ‘When it comes to selling the magic of science we need to accept that the most powerful way is through heroic stories.’ Highfield worries about the decline of scientific heroes, because their function as ‘viral transmitters of science in the crowded realm of ideas’ is of vital importance. He concludes that scientific literacy is vital for a modern democracy to function.
Other contributors, such as Steven Pinker, take an alternative approach, eliminating some of the problems that people fixate on. In Pinker’s case he looks at the causes of war, suggesting new and more relevant approaches to these worries. Kevin Kelly chose to turn the focus of a well known topic on its head, sharing the lesser-known worry of under-population.
And while reading all these essays may lead you to worry about many more things than you usually do, a common theme of these essays is the importance of sharing knowledge and challenging the status quo in today’s society, which is not such a bad idea after all.
Read more of what you should be worying about here