Writing for The New Yorker, cognitive scientist Gary Marcus alerted me to the existence of 155 responses to our title question at edge.org—what should we be worried about?
Each December for the past fifteen years, the literary agent John Brockman has pulled out his Rolodex and asked a legion of top scientists and writers to ponder a single question: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive tool kit? (Or: What have you changed your mind about?)
This year, Brockman’s panelists (myself included) agreed to take on the subject of what we should fear. There’s the fiscal cliff, the continued European economic crisis, the perpetual tensions in the Middle East.
But what about the things that may happen in twenty, fifty, or a hundred years? The premise, as the science historian George Dyson put it, is that “people tend to worry too much about things that it doesn’t do any good to worry about, and not to worry enough about things we should be worrying about.” A hundred fifty contributors wrote essays for the project. The result is a recently published collection, “What *Should* We Be Worried About?” available without charge at John Brockman’s edge.org.
Such a list of essays is like honey to the bee for me because the 155 invited respondents are allegedly among the smartest, most conscious people on the planet, and their responses taken altogether, constitute a comprehensive catalogue of the Human Cluelessness I've described and explained on this blog. However, there is so much material to analyze that I can not possibly review it all without duplicating many of the posts I've published over the last three years. So I will mostly stick with Gary Marcus' summary today and post about some of those responses in the future. Still, Gary's summary does yield some insight into the kind of foolishness we can expect to see.
Before I move on, I should also point out that I was not invited to respond to John Brockman's question. We should bear in mind that the respondents are also among the most successful human beings on this planet, which is why Mr. Brockman asked them to respond, whereas I am in almost all respects an abysmal failure as a human being. On the other hand, given what humans are, I think of being a successful human as a dubious distinction
In Gary Marcus' account, let's start here—
We might also worry about demographic shifts. Some are manifest, like the graying of the population (mentioned in Rodney Brooks’s essay) and the decline in the global birth rate (highlighted by Matt Ridley, Laurence Smith, and Kevin Kelly). Others are less obvious.
The evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, for example, argues that the rising gender imbalance in China (due to the combination of early-in-pregnancy sex-determination, abortion, the one-child policy, and a preference for boys) is a growing problem that we should all be concerned about. As Kurzban puts it, by some estimates, by 2020 “there will be 30 million more men than women on the mating market in China, leaving perhaps up to 15% of young men without mates.” He also notes that “cross-national research shows a consistent relationship between imbalanced sex ratios and rates of violent crime. The higher the fraction of unmarried men in a population, the greater the frequency of theft, fraud, rape, and murder.” This in turn tends to lead to a lower G.D.P., and, potentially, considerable social unrest that could ripple around the world. (The same of course could happen in any country in which prospective parents systematically impose a preference for boys.)
In fact, Kevin Kelly's essay is called The Underpopulation Bomb, and contains the following text—
While the global population of humans will continue to rise for at least another 40 years, demographic trends in full force today make it clear that a much bigger existential threat lies in global underpopulation.
That worry seems preposterous at first. We've all seen the official graph of expected human population growth. A steady rising curve swells past us now at 6 billion and peaks out about 2050. The tally at the expected peak continues to be downgraded by experts; currently UN demographers predict 9.2 billion at the top. The peak may off by a billion or so, but in broad sweep the chart is correct.
But curiously, the charts never show what happens on the other side of the peak.
I should note again that like the others, Kevin Kelly, who is the editor of Wired, has been a very successful human being. As such, he believes without question that the Human Enterprise in which he has played such a distinguished role will go on and on without limit, forever.
Marcus reviews some techno-optimist fantasies that we needn't worry about at all, but then there is this glimmer of hope amidst this giant pile of Human Delusion.
Another theme throughout the collection is what Stanford psychologist Brian Knutson called metaworry — the question of whether we are psychologically and politically constituted to worry about what we most need to worry about.
Yes! And it's not even a question! Humans were not designed by Nature to worry about the things they need to worry about, which is primarily themselves. For example, they need to worry about why they are so delusional as to think that they can grow human populations and material confort without limit on a finite planet. (It is the greater material comfort which leads to Kelly's Underpopulation Bomb.)
In my own essay, I suggested that there is good reason to think that we are not inclined that way, both because of an inherent cognitive bias that makes us focus on immediate concerns (like getting our dishwasher fixed) to the diminishment of our attention to long-term issues (like getting enough exercise to maintain our cardiovascular fitness) and because of a chronic bias toward optimism known as [the] just-world fallacy (the comforting but unrealistic idea that moral actions will invariably lead to just rewards)...
A chronic bias toward optimism. The "just-world" fallacy (which is popular with political "progressives").
These are real insights, and since I want to end on a positive note today, I will stop my review right here.