Edge.org: Optimism

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With the new year comes new resolutions, and new questions, including the new Edge.org question. The science super-hero club house that brought you dangerous ideas in 2006 wants to bring you optimism in 2007.

As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put.

What are you optimistic about? Why? Surprise Us!

Edge.org, 1/1/07

Edge has gathered 160 responses to their annual query, and in our second annual dive into Edgeland we’ll hear some of the most provocative.

With so much going wrong in the world (you know, the usual stuff: war, famine, disease, global warming) this year’s question seems willfully contrarian. Do you agree with any of the Edge authors that Google Earth can stop wars or that Malthus was wrong? What are you optimistic about this January? Give us your own concise responses to this year’s question.

Juan Enriquez

CEO, Biotechonomy

Founding Director, Harvard Business School’s Life Sciences Project

Author, The Untied States of America

Steven Pinker

Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

Author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate, among many others

Clay Shirky

Social & Technology Network Topology Researcher

Adjunct Professor, NYU Graduate School of Interactive Telecommunications Program

Chris DiBona

Open Source Programs Manager, Google Inc.

Editor, Open Sources: Voices From the Open Source Software Revolution

Paul Steinhardt

Albert Einstein Professor of Science, Princeton University

Co-author, Endless Universe: A New History of the Cosmos

James O’Donnell

Classicist and Cultural Historian

Provost, Georgetown University

Author, Augustine: A New Biography

Extra-Credit Reading

Juan Enriquez, A Knowledge Driven Economy Allows Individuals to Lead Millions Out of Poverty In a Single Generation, The Edge Annual Question 2007, Edge

Steven Pinker, The Decline of Violence, The Edge Annual Question 2007, Edge

Clay Shirky, Evidence, The Edge Annual Question 2007, Edge

Chris DiBona, Widely Available, Constantly Renewing, High Resolution Images of the Earth Will End Conflict and Ecological Devastation As We Know It, The Edge Annual Question 2007, Edge

Paul Steinhardt, Bullish on Cosmology, The Edge Annual Question 2007, Edge

James O’Donnell, Scientific Discoveries Are Surprisingly Durable, The Edge Annual Question 2007, Edge

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  • mynocturama

    OK, let me be the contrarian here. Sometimes I wonder if these guys aren’t a bit too earnest and literal-minded.

    Don’t get me wrong. I really like Edge.org, and feel a deep kinship with it. Just thought I’d play, as they say, devil’s advocate, and express a sneaking suspicion I sometimes have while reading through the site. For what it’s worth.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    “As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better.”

    This strikes me as a somewhat limited statement. The activity of science, not as a handmaiden for technology, is neither an optimistic nor pessimistic enterprise. One example of many: doctors deliver uncomfortable, statistically pessimistic news on a daily basis. The people involved in scientific inquiry may be optimistic, but it’s not a requirement for adhering to the process. Sorry for seeing the glass half-empty.

  • Sutter

    I’ll bite. At the risk of stealing PLNelson’s thunder, I am hopeful that 2007 might bring a return to empiricism in numerous areas. The “reality-based community” has been striking back against faith-based factuality, truthiness, and all that jazz. Look at the seriousness with which people are starting to take global warming, or the way perceptions of the Iraq war have tipped so far in one direction, or the public response to the stem cell issue. One hopes these examples (I wish I could think of a few that weren’t so blatantly partisan, because I don’t think it’s a partisan issue, but I can’t at the moment) just scratch the surface, and that we’re getting real about looking at our problems through the pragmatic, empricicist lens rather than the mystical lens that seems to have obscured so much to so many of us for so long. And if that hope pans out, we stand a much better chance of working toward solutions in 2007 than we did in 2006.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Expanding knowledge for human consumption sometimes requires explaning inherent limitations. Gene Roddenberry can’t get us by Godel, Turings, Bohr, et al results.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    The rhetorical strategic objects in the U.S. political area regarding foriegn policy shift to avoid tests of falsifiability.

  • ClayShirky

    Apropos Chris’sgreat comments, check ou tthis unbelievable FT story on Bahrain:


  • ClayShirky

    Chris just started talking about it, in fact.

  • ChrisDiBona

    Thanks for linking to that Clay!

  • jazzman

    For my money optimism is always superior to pessimism. I used to be pessimistic and still occasionally fall in to the old gloom and doom engrams that were carefully inculcated (by authority figures and incomplete information / observation on my part) and remain buried in my psyche (especially after parsing plnelson’s worldview or listening to the news (with which I engage less and less as for the most part it’s a fear-based agenda composed of secondary information designed to keep people tuned in.)

    The problem with pessimism is that it requires its assumptions to fail short of the ideal to justify its gloomy outlook, optimism is sanguine even if the ideal is not achieved. Pessimists, like insurance beneficiaries and bet hedgers can only win by losing; I’d rather be optimistic and dead wrong than be pessimistic and dead right. Optimistically believing the best will occur instead of imagining the worst case scenario avoids the stress pessimism tends to create.

    I’m eternally optimistic that all human challenges are surmountable and we humans are infinitely adaptable to whatever situations we create.

  • Conquered spirit rise

    The pulse of fallen Angles

    Beats against the night

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    A wonderful and thought provoking show. Excellent guests. Prof. Steinhardt ideas brought to mind some of the creation myths of the Far East.

  • Wow, I dunno, the last thing I heard from scientists is that Polar Bears are in grave danger. I guess the optimism about that was they thought that now the White House would HAVE to do something about global warming… but is this optimism? or gallows humor?

    (the show has not come on yet out here but ah, a reminder that the world is round and rotating. I do find that comforting)

    Sidewalker: again, thanks for the haiku. I may find more optimism in poetry than in science.

  • (one hour later) Good show… I feel more optimistic!

    Here is something the Dalai Lama said when asked about the future in an interview by Claudia Dreifus in a NYT Magazine:

    Q: What will religions be like in a hundred years if there is little nature left on earth?

    A: The world itself is nature. The sun, the moon, they are nature. Even if there were no animals, nature would still be here. For those religions that believe in a creator, they would have to find reasons to explain why our beautiful blue planet became a desert.

    If you ask me whether it’s good or bad, of course it’s bad. But in the Buddhist tradition, something like that would not change our attitude. We believe the whole world will come and disappear, come and disappear – so eventually the world becomes a desert and even the ocean dries up. But then again, another new world is reborn. It’s endless.

    So to answer Chris’s question as to whether to take the repetative big bang expanding universe theory to the Pope… I’d say nah… take it the Dalai Lama.

  • Edward Helmrich

    It seems of course, in discussing the experiment to determine if anything existed before the big bang or not, that facts need theories to have any meaning. Would one finding or another disprove religious belief? No. The comment about Galileo and “What would Pope Benedict say?” indicates a popular misunderstanding of the Galileo trial (see ‘Galileo’s Mistake’ 2003), and the nature of religious truth. Science helps us continue to interpret religious truth. Today is Epiphany, when the wise men say the star and traveled to give praise to God. We can use science like this: to go from wonder, to praise of God, we don’t have to use science to try to disprove God, which it can’t do, the quetion is out of it’s realm.

    Also, is this the least violent time? Including the unborn, who are slaughtered at a rate of 3,000 per day in the United States, violence is still with us.

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