Edge Foundation: What Have You Changed Your Mind About and Why?

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.

Newest 5
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Dear Friends,

I am imagining that the following questions are rhetorical ones to many people in the EDGE community.

“Why are politicians and skeptics so willing to risk their future and everyone else’s future on blindly clinging to a course of action that has a high probability of leading to a seriously crippled future? If you even suspect that global warming represents a serious risk to your survival (and we have far more than suspicion these days), why wouldn’t you do everything protect and conserve your planet?”

It would please me to hear from others; but from my humble perspective the “answers” to these questions are all-too-obvious.

The leaders in my generation of elders wish to live without having to accept limits to growth of seemingly endless economic globalization, of increasing per capita consumption and skyrocketing human population numbers; our desires are evidently insatiable. We choose to believe anything that is politically convenient, economically expedient and socially agreeable; our way of life is not negotiable. We dare anyone to question our values or behaviors.

We religiously promote our shared fantasies of endless economic growth and soon to be unsustainable overconsumption, overproduction oand overpopulation activities, and in so doing deny that Earth has limited resources upon which the survival of life as we know it depends.

My not-so-great generation appears to be doing a disservice to everything and everyone but ourselves. We are the “what’s in it for me?” generation. We demonstrate precious little regard for the maintenance of the integrity of Earth; shallow willingness to actually protect the environment from crippling degradation; lack of serious consideration for the preservation of biodiversity, wilderness, and a good enough future for our children and coming generations; and no appreciation of the understanding that we are no more or less than human beings with “feet of clay.”

We live idolatrously in a soon to be unsustainable way in our planetary home and are proud of it, thank you very much. Certainly, we will “have our cake and eat it, too.” We will fly around in thousands of private jets, own fleets of cars, live in McMansions, exchange secret handshakes, go to our exclusive clubs and distant hideouts, and risk nothing of value to us. Please do not bother us with the problems of the world. We choose not to hear, see or speak of them. We are the economic powerbrokers, their bought-and-paid-for politicians and the many minions in the mass media. We hold most of the Earth's wealth and control the power it purchases. If left to our own devices, we will continue in the exercise of our ‘rights’ to ravenously consume Earth’s limited resources; to expand economic globalization unto every corner of our natural world and, guess what, beyond; to encourage the unbridled growth of the human species so that where there are now 6+ billion people, by 2050 we will have 9+ billion members of the human community and, guess what, even more people, perhaps billions more in the distant future, if that is what we desire.

We are the reigning, self-proclaimed masters of the universe. We have no regard for human limits or Earth’s limitations, thank you very much. We are idolaters of the global political economy. Please understand that we do not want anyone to present us with scientific evidence that we could be living unsustainably in an artificially designed, temporary world of our own making…… a manmade world filling up with distinctly human enterprises which appear to be approaching a point in human history when global consumption, production and propagation activities of the human species become unsustainable on the tiny planet God has blessed us to inhabit........and not to overwhelm, I suppose.


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Thanks for asking so incisive and provocative a question.

I have changed my mind about human prospects on Earth. Perhaps Stephen Hawking is correct about the necessity for humanity to find another home because we appear to be adamantly pursuing a path to the future that could lead us to an unimaginable calamity of some kind.

If it is all right to do so, let me explain briefly. The family of humanity appears not to have more than several years in which to make necessary changes in its conspicuous over-consumption lifestyles, in the unsustainable overproduction practices of big-business enterprises, and its overpopulation activities. Humankind may not be able to protect life as we know it and to preserve the integrity of Earth for even one more decade.

If we project the fully anticipated growth of increasing and unbridled per-capita consumption, of rampantly expanding economic globalization and of propagating 70 to 75 million newborns per annum, will someone please explain to me how our seemingly endless growth civilization proceeds beyond the end of year 2012.

According to my admittedly simple estimations, if humankind keeps doing just as it is doing now, without doing whatsoever is necessary to begin modifying the business-as-usual course of our gigantic, endless-growth-oriented global economy, then the Earth could sustain life as we know it for a time period of about 5 more years.

It appears to me that all the chatter, including that heard in most “normal science” circles, of a benign path to the future by “leap-frogging” through a ‘bottleneck’ to population stabilization in 2050, is nothing more than wishful and magical thinking.

Unfortunately, even most of our top rank scientists have not found adequate ways of communicating to humanity what people somehow need to hear, see and understand: the reckless dissipation of Earth’s limited resources, the relentless degradation of Earth’s frangible environment, and the approaching destruction of the Earth as a fit place for human habitation by the human species, when taken together, appear to be proceeding toward the precipitation of a catastrophic ecological wreckage of some sort unless, of course, the world’s colossal, ever expanding, artificially designed, manmade global economy continues to speed headlong toward the monolithic ‘wall’ called “unsustainability” at which point the runaway economy crashes before Earth’s ecology is collapsed.

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001
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Thank you for the interesting thoughts, guys. I'm not as pessimistic as Doctor Slack on the future of democracy.

Sid Morrison: you're right. Ambiguity of guilt (or more directly, the inherent inability to fully and conclusive determine guilt in all cases) is a big reason for me to change my mind on capital punishment, but I agree with your other points.

Orionriver: we've had a long and interesting (though I'm not sure anyone changed anyone else's mind) on the Second Amendment here.

Good to hear that you've recovered and are cancer-free, ruby!
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I know I will probably get mocked for this...but religion is the big thing I have changed my mind about. Growing up in a less than desirable household, I was sure God was non-existant. I spent my teens years switching from antheism to satanism to wicca finally landing on agnosticism, sure that we are here due to some primordial soup. I spent my 20's thinking this until I had a falling accident and ended up losing my ability to walk unaided. I had to use a quad cane and was on some heavy painkillers for 6 months. No one could figure out what was wrong with me, I become suicidal and tried to shoot myself. I was too weak to hold the gun to my head and so I remained trapped in my body. The docs came to believe I was quickly degenerating and would have less than a year to live. Long story made short, I prayed and gave in to God. A week later I was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer and two weeks later after the operation, I was walking again on my own. Even when we knew what kind of cancer I had, the docs thought that I would never walk again. I surprised everyone by walking on my own three days after the operation. The entire nursing staff and docs came to see me as proof of the removal success. Today, I am athletic and active 10 years later and still cancer free.

Looking back, I would never have guessed I'd ever make peace with God. We all make our own choices, and that was my big one.
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I change my ming about humanity.

There is no good in human. We're just animals.
Progress may allow us to behave "humanly", but the least loss of civilization leads us to animal like behaviour : New Orleans's Katrina, Terrorism, misuse of religions, practical communism, nazism and co.

Everyday we're sizing up our competitors males/females for fame, power, money, sex. Any false move and you'll be crunched. Who got the cute girl you had a cruch on? the alpha male!

No, humans are just animals.
I'm not expecting anything from them anymore.

"1 winner, 42 losers. I eat losers for breakfast". Lightning McQueen (OMG, cars too!)
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