What are you optimistic about: Science and The Decline of Magic

Michael Shermer is more optimistic on the decline of superstition than I am — I certainly hope he is correct:

I am optimistic that science is winning out over magic and superstition. That may seem irrational, given the data from pollsters on what people believe. For example, a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” The situation is even worse when we examine other superstitions, such as these percentages of belief published in a 2002 National Science Foundation study:

60% ESP

30% UFOs

40% Astrology

32% Lucky numbers

70% Magnetic therapy

88% Alternative medicine

Nevertheless, I take the historian’s long view, and compared to what people believed before the Scientific Revolution, there is much cause for optimism. Consider what people believed a mere four centuries ago, just as science began lighting candles in the dark. In 16th- and 17th-century England, for example, almost everyone believed in sorcery, werewolves, hobgoblins, witchcraft, astrology, black magic, demons, prayer, and providence…

What are you optimistic about: Renewal of Science for the Public Good

Physicist Lawrence Krauss:

I am optimistic that after almost 30 years of sensory deprivation in the field of particle physics, during which much hallucination (eg. string theory) has occurred by theorists, within 3 years, following the commissioning next year of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, we will finally obtain empirical data that will drive forward our understanding of the fundamental structure of nature, its forces, and of space and time…

…I am also completely optimistic that within what I hope will be my lifetime we will unlock the secret of life, and finally take our understanding of evolutionary biology back to that remarkable transition from non-biological chemistry to biology. Not only will we be able to create life in the laboratory, but we will be able to trace our own origins back, and gain insight into the remarkable question of how much life there is in the universe. We will surely discover microbial life elsewhere in our solar system, and I expect we will find that it is our cousin, from the same seed, if you will, rather than being truly alien. But all of this will make living even more fascinating.

Technorati Tags: ,

What are you optimistic about: Systemic Flaws In the Reported World View

Chris Anderson, Curator of the TED Conference, explains his optimism [apologies for the way these Edge URLs work – I can’t do anything about it]:

Paradoxically, one of the biggest reasons for being optimistic is that there are systemic flaws in the reported world view. Certain types of news — for example dramatic disasters and terrorist actions — are massively over-reported, others — such as scientific progress and meaningful statistical surveys of the state of the world — massively under-reported.

Although this leads to major problems such as distortion of rational public policy and a perpetual gnawing fear of apocalypse, it is also reason to be optimistic. Once you realize you’re being inadvertently brainwashed to believe things are worse than they are, you can… with a little courage… step out into the sunshine.

How does the deception take place?

The problem starts with a deep human psychological response. We’re wired to react more strongly to dramatic stories than to abstract facts. There are obvious historical and Darwinian reasons why this should be so. The news that an invader has just set fire to a hut in your village demands immediate response. The genes for equanimity in such circumstances got burned up long ago.

Although our village is now global, we still instinctively react the same way. Spectacle, death and gore. We lap it up. Layer on top of that a media economy that’s driven by competition for attention and the problem is magnified. Over the years media owners have proven to their complete satisfaction that the stories that attract large audiences are the simple human dramas. Rottweiler Savages Baby is a bigger story than Poverty Percentage Falls even though the latter is a story about better lives for millions.

Today our media can source news from 190 countries and 6 billion people. Therefore you can be certain that every single day there will be word of spectacularly horrifying things happening somewhere. And should you get bored of reading about bombs, fires and wars, why not see them breaking live on cable 24/7 with ever more intimate pictures and emotional responses.

Meta-level reporting doesn’t get much of a look-in.

So for example, the publication last year of a carefully researched Human Security Report received little attention. Despite the fact that it had concluded that the numbers of armed conflicts in the world had fallen 40% in little over a decade. And that the number of fatalities per conflict had also fallen. Think about that. The entire news agenda for a decade, received as endless tales of wars, massacres and bombings, actually missed the key point. Things are getting better

In fact, most meta-level reporting of trends show a world that is getting better. We live longer, in cleaner environments, are healthier, and have access to goods and experiences that kings of old could never have dreamed of. If that doesn’t make us happier, we really have no one to blame except ourselves. Oh, and the media lackeys who continue to feed us the litany of woes that we subconsciously crave.

Carry on reading with the other 159 thinkers who reply to the Edge World Question!

What are you optimistic about: Bart Kosco: Computers Will Let Data Tell More Of Their Own Story

USC electrical engineer Bart Kosco offers an excellent criticism of model-based science and engineering [the classical methods that I learned]. Kosco is optimistic that statistical methods, especially bootstrap resampling will enhance the progress of science:

Bootstrap resampling has started to invade almost every type of statistical decision making. Statisticians have even shown how to apply it in complex cases of time-series and dependent data. It still tends to appear in statistics texts as a special topic after the student learns the traditional model-based methods. And there may be no easy way to give student scientists and engineers an in-class exam on bootstrap resampling with real data.

Kosco’s brief is easy to follow – don’t miss it.

What are you optimistic about: Ray Kurzweil

The Edge Annual Question now has 160 answers from scientists around the world. The 2007 question is:

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!

There are many, many fascinating answers. To begin, here are Ray Kurzweil’s comments. His point on solar energy is a good one — that nano-scale assembly with create cheap, efficient solar cells within twenty years, and that the storage problem will be overcome by distributed, safe nanotechnology-based fuel cells. For some reason such optimism isn’t favored by such as the NY Times…

I’m Confident About Energy, the Environment, Longevity, and Wealth; I’m Optimistic (But Not Necessarily Confident) Of the Avoidance Of Existential Downsides; And I’m Hopeful (But Not Necessarily Optimistic) About a Repeat Of 9-11 (Or Worse)

Optimism exists on a continuum in-between confidence and hope. Let me take these in order.

I am confident that the acceleration and expanding purview of information technology will solve the problems with which we are now preoccupied within twenty years.

Consider energy. We are awash in energy (10,000 times more than we need to meet all of our needs falls on the Earth) but we are not very good at capturing it, but that will change with full nanotechnology based assembly of macro objects at the nano scale controlled by massively parallel information processes, which will be feasible within twenty years. Even though our energy needs are projected to triple within 20 years, we’ll capture that .0003 of the sunlight needed to meet all of our energy needs with no use of fossil fuels using extremely inexpensive, highly efficient, lightweight, nano engineered solar panels, and store the energy in highly distributed (and, therefore, safe) nanotechnology-based fuel cells. Solar power is now providing one part in a thousand of our energy needs but that percentage is doubling every two years, which means multiplying by a thousand in 20 years. Almost all of the discussions I’ve seen about energy and its consequences such as global warming fail to consider the ability of future nanotechnology based solutions to solve this problem. This development will be motivated not just by concern for the environment, but by the $2 trillion we spend annually on energy. This is already a major area of venture funding.

Consider health. As of just recently, we now have the tools to reprogram biology. This is also at an early stage but is progressing through the same exponential growth of information technology, which we see in every aspect of biological progress. The amount of genetic data we have sequenced has doubled every year and the price per base pair has come down commensurately. The first genome cost a billion dollars, NIH is now starting a project to collect a million genomes at a thousand dollars a piece. We can turn genes off with RNA interference, add new genes (to adults) with new reliable forms of gene therapy, and turn on and off proteins and enzyme at critical stages of disease progression. We are gaining the means to model, simulate, and reprogram disease and aging processes as information processes. These technologies will be a thousand times more powerful than they are today in ten years, and it will be a very different world in terms of our ability to turn off disease and aging.

Consider prosperity. The inherent 50 percent deflation rate inherent in information technology and its growing purview is causing the decline of poverty. The poverty rate in Asia, according to the World Bank, declined by 50 percent over the past ten years due to information technology, and will decline at current rates by 90 percent in the next ten years. All areas of the world are being affected, including Africa which is now undergoing a rapid invasion of the Internet. Even Sub Saharan Africa had a 5% growth rate last year.

Okay, so what am I optimistic, but not necessarily confident, about?

All of these technologies have existential downsides. We are already living with enough thermonuclear weapons to destroy all mammalian life on this planet, which incidentally are still on a hair trigger. Remember these? They’re still there, and they represent an existential threat.

The existential bio-terror threat is a very real worry. The Kurzweil-Joy rapid response proposal should be getting a LOT more attention:

We have a new existential threat which is the ability of a destructively minded group or individual to reprogram a biological virus to be more deadly, more communicable, or (most daunting of all) more stealthy (that is, having a longer incubation period so that the early spread is not detected). The good news is that we do have the tools to set up a rapid response system, like the one we have for software viruses. It took us five years to sequence HIV, but we can now sequence a virus in a day or two. RNA interference can turn viruses off since viruses are genes albeit pathological ones. Bill Joy and I have proposed setting up a rapid response system that could detect a new virus, sequence it, design an RNAi medication (or a safe antigen-based vaccine) and gear up production in a matter of days. The methods exist, but a working rapid response system does not yet exist. We need to put one in place quickly.

So I’m optimistic that we will make it through without suffering an existential catastrophe. It would be helpful if we gave the two existential threats I discuss above a higher priority.

And, finally, what am I hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic, about?

Who would have thought right after September 11, 2001 that we would go five years without another destructive incident at that or greater scale? That seemed very unlikely at the time, but despite all the subsequent turmoil in the world, it happened. I am hopeful that this will continue.

On the bio-terror threat, Kurzweil is in a good position to know what is being done [or rather Not Done] today. His 2005 Glenn Reynolds interview:

I’m on the Army Science Advisory Group (a board of five people who advise the Army on science and technology), and the Army is the institution responsible for the nation’s bioterrorism protection. Without revealing anything confidential, I can say that there is acute awareness of these dangers, but there is neither the funding nor national priority to address them in an adequate way.