During this week's pilgrimage to Sand Hill Road, I relented and picked up editor John Brockman's What is Your Dangerous Idea?. About 100 top thinkers in the "Third Culture" Brockman posse provided compact answers, forming a collection of brief essays perfect for picking up and starting anywhere. Evidently, the idea of collecting 100 smart people in a room and having them "ask each other the questions they are asking themselves" began as an art project in 1971 - and was returned to recently. Every year sees a new question.
It looks like the entire book is available for free, piecemeal, at the Edge site.
Here are a few that stuck out. Note that the author doesn't necessarily agree with the idea; it's simply the author's candidate as a dangerous idea. Stephen Pinker's introduction explains, "By 'dangerous idea' I don't have in mind harmful technologies, like those behind weapons of mass destruction, or evil ideologies, like those of racist, fascist, or other fanatical cults. I have in mind statements of fact or policy that are defended with evidence and argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to challenge the collective decency of an age... Writers who have raised ideas like these have been vilified, censored, fired, threatened, and in some cases physically assaulted."
Many of the contributions dealt with atheism or the rejection of the "soul" as something other than electro-chemical. I don't know if this mirrors the common state of mind in the academic world, or if it is biased sampling due to the group in which outspoken critics of religion like Dawkins and Dennett play a part. In any case, here are a few to start with:
(For J-Fav) Roger Schank: No More Teacher's Dirty Looks ("My dangerous idea is one that most people immediately reject without giving it serious thought: school is bad for kids — it makes them unhappy and as tests show — they don't learn much...")
Matin Rees: Science May Be Running Out of Control
Jeremy Bernstein: The Idea That We May Understand Plutonium (this one surprised me)
Denis Dutton: A "Grand Narrative" ("The humanities have gone through the rise of Theory in the 1960s, its firm hold on English and literature departments through the 1970s and 1980s, followed most recently by its much touted decline and death...")
David Gelernter: What Are People Well Informed About in the Information Age?
Steven Strogatz: The End of Insight ("In my own field of complex-systems theory, Stephen Wolfram has emphasized that there are simple computer programs known as cellular automata whose dynamics can be so inscrutable that there's no way to predict how they'll behave. The best you can do is simulate them on the computer, sit back, and watch how they unfold. Observation replaces thought. Mathematics becomes a spectator sport...")
Stewart Brand: Applied History ("...What if public policy makers have an obligation to engage historians, and historians have an obligation to try and help?")
And finally, something that I should have realized but didn't:
Michael Shermer: Where Goods Cross Frontiers, Armies Won't