Every year, the Edge Foundation, an organization for science and technology intellectuals, asked a bunch of smart people one question. For 2008, the question is: What have you changed your mind about and why?
Over 165 people, including the who's who in science and technology answered.
Here are a few that caught my attention (the whole list is quite interesting - you could easily lose an hour or two reading everything):
- Alan Alda, actor and writer, who changed his mind about God - twice!
Until I was twenty I was sure there was a being who could see everything I did and who didn't like most of it. He seemed to care about minute aspects of my life, like on what day of the week I ate a piece of meat. And yet, he let earthquakes and mudslides take out whole communities, apparently ignoring the saints among them who ate their meat on the assigned days. Eventually, I realized that I didn't believe there was such a being. It didn't seem reasonable. And I assumed that I was an atheist.
As I understood the word, it meant that I was someone who didn't believe in a God; I was without a God. I didn't broadcast this in public because I noticed that people who do believe in a god get upset to hear that others don't. (Why this is so is one of the most pressing of human questions, and I wish a few of the bright people in this conversation would try to answer it through research.)
But, slowly I realized that in the popular mind the word atheist was coming to mean something more: a statement that there couldn't be a God. God was, in this formulation, not possible, and this was something that could be proved. But I had been changed by eleven years of interviewing six or seven hundred scientists around the world on the television program Scientific American Frontiers. And that change was reflected in how I would now identify myself.
- Xeni Jardin, Boing Boing co-editor, on the value of having comments on blogs and the logic behind hiring a comment moderator.
I grew to believe that the easier it is to post a drive-by comment, and the easier it is to remain faceless, reputation-less, and real-world-less while doing so, the greater the volume of antisocial behavior that follows. I decided that no online community could remain civil after it grew too large, and gave up on that aspect of internet life.
My co-editors and I debated, we brainstormed, we observed other big sites that included some kind of community forum or comments feature. Some relied on voting systems to "score" whether a comment is of value — this felt clinical, cold, like grading what a friend says to you in conversation. Dialogue shouldn't be a beauty contest. Other sites used other automated systems to rank the relevance of a speech thread. None of this felt natural to us, or an effective way to prevent the toxic sludge buildup. So we stalled for years, and our blog remained more monologue than dialogue. That felt unnatural, too.
Finally, this year, we resurrected comments on the blog, with the one thing that did feel natural. Human hands.
- Freeman Dyson, who changed his mind about the importance of the atom bomb in ending World War II
When facts change your mind, that's not always science. It may be history. I changed my mind about an important historical question: did the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bring World War Two to an end? Until this year I used to say, perhaps. Now, because of new facts, I say no. This question is important, because the myth of the nuclear bombs bringing the war to an end is widely believed. To demolish this myth may be a useful first step toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
- Charles Seife, who used to think that a modern, democratic society had to be a scientific one.
I used to think that a modern, democratic society had to be a scientific society. After all, the scientific revolution and the American Revolution were forged in the same flames of the enlightenment. Naturally, I thought, a society that embraces the freedom of thought and expression of a democracy would also embrace science.
However, when I first started reporting on science, I quickly realized that science didn't spring up naturally in the fertile soil of the young American democracy. Americans were extraordinary innovators — wonderful tinkerers and engineers — but you can count the great 19th century American physicists on one hand and have two fingers left over. The United States owes its scientific tradition to aristocratic Europe's universities (and to its refugees), not to any native drive.
In fact, science clashes with the democratic ideal. Though it is meritocratic, it is practiced in the elite and effete world of academe, leaving the vast majority of citizens unable to contribute to it in any meaningful way. Science is about freedom of thought, yet at the same time it imposes a tyranny of ideas.
What have you changed your mind about? And Why? I'll start - you can read what I changed my mind about in the comment.