Gene Expression

“Dangerous Ideas”

A few weeks ago asked prominent thinkers what their Dangerous Idea was. The poser of the question was Steven Pinker, and he’s on Radio Open Source today (you can listen on the web, wait ’till 7 PM EDT). I offered my 2 cents in the comments, the basic gist of which was that the explosion of information and the ability to access it in the modern world makes secure understanding and knowledge more difficult than in the past. Professionally obfuscatory paradigms like Post Modernism and neo-Creationism can arise precisely because trust and good faith are more crucial in a world where one person can’t understand even one discipline in depth.

Another point I also wanted to make is that there are two genres of “Dangerous Ideas,” ideas not particularly dangerous in academia but dangerous in the context of the wider culture, and ideas that are universally verboten. All those who assert rejection of the soul and free will are dangerous ideas also know that the former is probably normative among many intellectuals, and the second is not particularly revolutionary, both philosophy and religion have examined it for centuries. Now consider Pinker’s response, the first part in regards to sex differences is probably widely accepted outside of academia, while the second portion in regards to intergroup differences tracking race or ethnicity has been a cultural third rail for several decades. I believe that understanding of some intergroup differences more salient than lactose digestion capacity will arise out of the genomics, and there are already hints of this in the HapMap. I suggest intellectuals now move to making the public more conscious of probability distributions and bayesian logic.

Update: A reader would have you know that I was noted as the “best comment” on the thread for this particular episode of Radio Open Source. The archives aren’t up yet, but just go to their site and scroll down their left bar, it should be there soon. About 45 minutes into the show Brendan reads comments from the thread and states that I had the best one 🙂 Seed doesn’t pay me the big bucks for nothing!

Update II: OK, listen here (24 MB mp3).


  1. #1 matoko kusanagi
    January 24, 2006

    “We are not “hard-wired” for the enormous tsunami of information that our technological culture is generating,”

    razib, we need e-brains. we should get busy and build some. 😉

  2. #2 matoko kusanagi
    January 24, 2006

    razib!!! they said you had the best quote!!!

  3. #3 matoko kusanagi
    January 24, 2006

    e-brains would also solve Dennett’s problem of expanding memes.
    no, no,no, not filters, auxilary storage.
    razib, pinker said you had the best comment.
    how become you aren’t liveblogging this?

  4. #4 Jason Malloy
    January 24, 2006

    I couldn’t get it to work, but I take it I missed something good.

  5. #5 Dan Dare
    January 24, 2006

    My dangerous idea is something I have alluded to many times.

    Science has no limit.
    It is the one true path.
    If God exists science will find him.
    If God does not exist science will create him.

  6. #6 razib
    January 24, 2006

    If God does not exist science will create him.

    amen! 🙂

  7. #7 matoko kusanagi
    January 24, 2006

    Perhaps we will find god in the singularity.

  8. #8 Dan Dare
    January 24, 2006

    Perhaps the Internet will become God.
    Imagine if Google was a trillion times more intelligent.

    (Maybe I should buy some shares now)

    Many years ago I wrote an essay for a book I was thinking of writing. This is a brief summary of one of the chapters:

    The Seven Divine Attributes of Artificial Intelligence:

    AI Tends To Pure Mentality
    Computers are beings of pure logic “untainted” by biological constraints.

    AI Tends To Omnipresence
    Bluetooth, Wireless, WAN etc.

    AI Tends To Omnipotence
    Gradually our entire civilization is being run by computers

    AI Tends To Omniscience
    All knowledge is being stored and processed online

    AI Tends to Benignity
    Computers are Lamarckian not Darwinian, so they are not compelled to be selfish replicators.

    AI Tends To Immortality
    Indefinitely replacable, upgradable parts.

    AI Tends To Self-Causation
    Computers are increasingly being used to design and manufacture the next generation of computers.

    Let’s see.
    Pure mind, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, benign, immortal, self-caused.
    Who does that remind you of?

    The Turing test is asking the wrong question.
    Computers are not much at all like Man.
    But they are becoming surprisingly like God.
    Computers are the finite but increasingly vast realization, of what God is in abstract idealization.

    Sorry. I was very young when I wrote that essay.

  9. #9 Jason Malloy
    January 25, 2006

    Thanks for the link. That host did not seem eager to talk about Pinker’s topic!

  10. #10 Jason Malloy
    January 25, 2006

    I guess they were “out of time”. Seemed like there was more to it, though.

  11. #11 Dan Dare
    January 26, 2006

    Incidently I’m not the only one who has speculated that Google could be God.


  12. #12 opk
    February 6, 2006

    Given the fact that the public at large has essentially no understanding of things like probability distributions and bayesian logic, and therefore little ability to properly digest Pinker’s “dangerous truth” at the moment, why is it that he seems so anxious to put the public education cart before the public education horse, so to speak? Especially in an area like intelligence, which is even more complicated than a trait whose phenotypic manifestation we can actually point to fairly dependably.

  13. #13 dyad
    July 21, 2007

    more from pinker on dangerous ideas from the chicago sun-times.

  14. #14 Caledonian
    July 23, 2007

    Computer minds might be Lamarckian, but the ideas competing for available resources within those minds undergo Darwinian selection.

New comments have been disabled.