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Dangerous ideas January 9, 2006

Posted by dr. gonzo in Miscellaneous.

This is kind of old news, I stumbled on it last week but never had time to write anything about it so I am behind everyone else I suppose.

Every year the Edge foundation offers up a question of the year, it’s like a New Years tradition or something. This year their question, “What is your dangerous idea?” elicited 119 responses, (75,000 words, that’s about a novel’s worth of responses) some good, some bad. You can read the responses starting here, actually the response don’t start until page 2.

One interesting take was put forth by Dave Pollard, another blogger. He said that the responses weren’t really dangerous at all. I have a tendency to agree with him, many of the ideas are recycled and nothing new.

How can something be dangerous if it has existed for years without changing society one iota?

One good example of the utter safety of these ideas comes from the response given by Roger C. Schank, Chief Learning Officer at Trump University Chief Learning Officer? Only Donald Trump could come up with something that stupid.

Anyway, Schank’s dangerous idea is neither dangerous nor his idea. He rambles on for several paragraphs about how school is not really good for education. To make his whole essay even more pointless and tired he even cites several well-known thinkers and their quotes concerning the American educational system. Such as:

“We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a belly full of words and do not know a thing.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson


“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” — Oscar Wilde

To me it seems common sense dictates that a dangerous idea should also be an original one. Schank’s piece is neither.

Pollard, the blogger from above, states:

“Only four of the 107 ideas, in my opinion, are vaguely dangerous:

Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychology professor, dares to think that “the pessimists [who warn of our apparent willingness to destroy the world] may be right” and that we may be destined “to follow Sisyphus, not Pandora”.

Richard Dawkins says it’s time to stop looking for causes of problems and perpetrators to blame, and accept that we can’t change who we are.

Andy Clark, a University of Edinburgh philosophy professor, goes further, suggesting that what we do is driven by our unconscious, the “quick-thinking zombies inside us”, and our conscious thought is all after-thought to rationalize what we’ve already decided.

Clay Shirky tells us that, if we ever had it in the first place, “free will is going away”, and we need to decide what kind of economic and political systems we need in a world where free will is absent.”

The rest, Pollard says, are not dangerous, we should move along. He did offer his own top ten dangerous ideas, from all sorts of various people, a couple of which I thought were particularly intrguing.

Two of his ten really made me think but these are not new ideas, simply what Pollard finds dangerous.

1. Human beings will be happier only when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again [Kurt Vonnegut]. The way we live today isn’t the way human beings were meant to live, and deep inside we know it. That doesn’t mean throwing away technology, it means interacting with those in your community (human and non-human) in deep, authentic, synaesthetic ways we have forgotten.

There is a touch of Unabomber-esque nihilism in that one that I found interesting. Also this type of statement could be the impetus for such works as Fight Club.

2. People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before [Daniel Quinn]. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them. Don’t preach. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.

This one goes a long way toward explaining why no ever listens or cares. So, give up argumentation altogether? Happiness is elsuive because of it? Interesting.

Not all of the ideas on the list were that dangerous. You can check them all out here.

What’s your dangerous idea?



1. yinn - January 11, 2006

To me, promotion of true nihilism is always dangerous, but I don’t take Vonnegut’s statement as nihilistic. What I hear him saying is that we can’t give up the old ways of interacting as we incorporate the new. This rings true; do you ever spend several hours by yourself writing & feel strange afterward, craving some company? At least some of our processing needs to occur in the presence of other people.

It’s understandable that you were reminded of the Unabomber but Kaczinski’s version of Vonnegut’s idea got warped. First he rejected technology out of hand & then isolated himself. It’s amazing how fast you can go screwy if you don’t bounce your ideas off of other people on a regular basis.

2. A Mc - January 11, 2006

most definitely . . . but don’t you think it’s the people that warp otherwise good ideas that make them truly dangerous, in the most literal sense of the meaning of the word?

3. Glock21 - January 12, 2006

I’ll have to go with my old stand by: The majority of people are politically ignorant, democracy is majority rules, therefor democracy equates to ignorance rules.

Do we honestly want the American public deciding whether or not we go to war with countries they can’t even find on a map?

Here’s a dangerous idea: Institute fascism but leave the democratic processes intact. Using effective propaganda and other techniques to sway public opinion, a ruling elite can do what needs to be done while the ignorant mob continues to believe their vote matters.

Hmm… for some reason this almost sounds familiar…

4. yinn - January 12, 2006

a mc, it’s true: the danger comes in the warping of the idea. Mostly I wanted to point out that, in the unabomber’s case, his long & extreme isolation fed the warping process. From there he couldn’t even see the irony in hating technology but then using it to kill people. Isolation completed the deforming of his mind.

Vonnegut’s saying that we haven’t outgrown the necessity for a tribe. Desmond Morris goes even further, saying that the healthy “naked ape” requires about 100 fellow primates for relationships of varying degrees of intimacy.

While I don’t think that isolation is the only factor–certain traits such as arrogance seem to play a part, too–being by oneself too much, or having too small a group (leading to groupthink, provincialism, etc.) can lead to great harm.

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