What is Your Dangerous Idea? by John Brockman

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What is Your Dangerous Idea? by John Brockman

Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Containing 108 short essays by the world's leading thinkers, this anthology of responses from online forum The Edge is the most stimulating book you'll read this year. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: November 2006
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
ISBN: 0743295536

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The digerati evangelize, connect people, adapt quickly. They like to talk with their peers because it forces them to go to the top of their form and explain their most interesting new ideas.

This how how the people over at Edge.org see themselves. Humble they ain't. The Edge is a leading online forum headed by John Brockman and each year Mr Brockman asks its contributors a question. This year, the question was What is your dangerous idea? The resulting collection contains 108 dangerous ideas from some of the world's leading scientists and thinkers.

I freely admit that when it comes to science, I'm a bit of a duffer. As a confirmed atheist, I often feel as though I should do better. I don't have - or want - a faith on which to rely. For me, it's science all the way. Sadly, I find it all so incomprehensible. Even popular science books by luminaries such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins (writers of this book's foreword and afterword) leave me confused and irritable. I just don't understand them, even when they're obviously talking down to me. Edge contributors may well enjoy going to the top of their game in explaining their new ideas to their peers, but they were going to have to go to the top of their game and exceed it too, if they were going to explain those new ideas to me.

And this is exactly what they did. I haven't felt so invigorated by a book since I can't remember when.

Do you think ideas can be dangerous? Uncomfortable? Disturbing? Do some scientific advances worry you? How do you feel about the idea that homosexuality is the symptom of an infectious disease? What about the thought that parents and parenting have no effect on the character or intelligence of their children? What if somebody told you that you don't have free will? Are you prepared to entertain the idea that black men really are more virile than white men? How about dismissing global warming as no threat to the planet whatsoever?

The ideas are loosely grouped together by theme. Often one dangerous idea is immediately contradicted by the next. It all depends on your idea of what is dangerous. Contributions from physicists, neurobiologists, mathmeticians, anthropologists and philosophers all make their case for the most dangerous idea.

The joy in this book is that it is easy to understand. Science duffer that I am, I had no difficulty with any of the concepts or theories. The Edge contributors really had exceeded their game. These ideas don't challenge the reader to understand them; they challenge the reader to think about them. Reading Steven Pinker's foreword, I had thought that the idea I would find the most dangerous was the one about parenting having no effect upon children. It seemed rather close to home for me, a mother of two little boys. The danger in this idea could be that parents cease to parent, could it not? I decided not. If children are hardwired, then so are parents. And if parents are hardwired for anything, it is for loving their children. Those who don't are as aberrant in a world of hardwired brains as they are in a world without.

The idea that I actually found most disturbing was the idea that free will was nothing but a chimera. Dwell on accepting that one and pfft goes the two hundred years of thinking since the Enlightenment, not to mention the collapse of the criminal justice system. I find that a distinctly uncomfortable idea. But perhaps it's dangerous ideas themselves that are the most dangerous. Conversely, perhaps the most dangerous thing is the suppressing of dangerous ideas.

It took me almost a fortnight to read What Is Your Dangerous Idea. Such slow reading is almost unheard of for me. It wasn't because the book was a chore to read. It was a delight to read. It's just so incredibly stimulating. You can't turn a page without taking pause for thought. I dog eared pages, I scribbled notes in the margins, I sat and simply pondered. I feel considerably better informed for reading it. And best of all, not a sentence went over my head.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. Neither can I wait for the question in 2007.

Thanks to the publishers, Simon and Schuster Ltd for forwarding the book.

Booklists.jpg What is Your Dangerous Idea? by John Brockman is in the Top Ten Non-Fiction Books To Make You Think.
Buy What is Your Dangerous Idea? by John Brockman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy What is Your Dangerous Idea? by John Brockman at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy What is Your Dangerous Idea? by John Brockman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy What is Your Dangerous Idea? by John Brockman at Amazon.com.


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Magda said:

OOOOOH! I am going to buy it NOW. I am so glad I saved these Amazon vouchers! Even though I probably have heard of many of the ideas there. But anything framed by Pinker and Dawkins will be at least stimulating (if often infuriating).

By the way, the free will thing I deal with in the ethical sphere - not scientific, as science cannot, I am afraid, help us with morality. The way I think of it is, it doesn't matter really if we are totally determined or if we do have free will indeed by some mechanism or another (quantum effects in the brain, anybody?). Because the only way to actually LIVE your life is to live as if you did indeed have free will, otherwise morality is impossible.

I don't think there is any inevitable conflict as such between religion (spiritual belief) and science; I think they belong to separate realms, same as with morality and science. Of course, organised religion/religious institutions is a different matter.

This is a book that I have read ages and ages ago and which addresses this one (and other issues to do with ethics and determinism). Don't let the fact that it uses the Christian parable put you off, it's a remarkable little book. In fact, I might review it now it has appeared in English again.

I just had a look at the Edge site and it's wonderful. Thank you. Why haven't I found it before!

Jill replied:

Yay! I got there before you!