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The 150 Things the World's Smartest People Are Afraid Of

The only things we have to fear.
January 16, 2013, 8:30pm

Every year, the online magazine _Edge_--the so-called smartest website in the world, helmed by science impresario John Brockman--asks top scientists, technologists, writers, and academics to weigh in on a single question. This year, that query was "What Should We Be Worried About?", and the idea was to identify new problems arising in science, tech, and culture that haven't yet been widely recognized.

This year's respondents include former presidents of the Royal Society, Nobel prize-winners, famous sci-fi authors, Nassem Nicholas Taleb, Brian Eno, and a bunch of top theoretical physicists, psychologists, and biologists. And the list is long. Like, book-length long. There are some 150 different things that worry 151 of the planet's biggest brains. And I read about them all, so you don't have to: here's the Buzzfeedized version, with the money quote, title, or summary of the fear pulled out of each essay. Obviously, go read the rest if any of the below get you fretting too.

What keeps the smartest folks in the world awake at night? Here goes:

1. The proliferation of Chinese eugenics. – Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist.

2. Black swan events, and the fact that we continue to rely on models that have been proven fraudulent. – Nassem Nicholas Taleb

3. That we will be unable to defeat viruses by learning to push them beyond the error catastrophe threshold. – William McEwan, molecular biology researcher

4. That pseudoscience will gain ground. – Helena Cronin, author, philospher

5. That the age of accelerating technology will overwhelm us with opportunities to be worried. – Dan Sperber, social and cognitive scientist

6. Genuine apocalyptic events. The growing number of low-probability events that could lead to the total devastation of human society. – Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society

7. The decline in science coverage in newspapers. – Barbara Strauch, New York Times science editor


8. Exploding stars, the eventual collapse of the Sun, and the problems with the human id that prevent us from dealing with them. -- John Tooby, founder of the field of evolutionary psychology

9. That the internet is ruining writing. – David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist

10. That smart people--like those who contribute to Edge--won't do politics. –Brian Eno, musician

11. That there will be another supernova-like financial disaster. –Seth Lloyd, professor of Quantum Mechanical Engineering at MIT

12. That search engines will become arbiters of truth. --W. Daniel Hillis, physicist

13. The dearth of desirable mates is something we should worry about, for "it lies behind much human treachery and brutality." –David M. Buss, professor of psychology at U of T

14. "I'm worried that our technology is helping to bring the long, postwar consensus against fascism to an end." –David Bodanis, writer, futurist

15. That we will continue to uphold taboos on bad words. –Benhamin Bergen, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science, UCS

16. Data disenfranchisement. –David Rowan, editor, Wired UK

17. That digital technologies are sapping our patience and changing our perception of time. –Nicholas G. Carr, author

18. An "underpopulation bomb." –Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large, Wired.

19. That funding for big experiments will dry up, and they won't happen. –Lisa Randall, Harvard physicist

20. "I worry that as the problem-solving power of our technologies increases, our ability to distinguish between important and trivial or even non-existent problems diminishes." –Evgeny Morozov, contributing editor, Foreign Policy

21. Not much. I ride motorcycles without a helmet. –J. Craig Venter, genomic scientist

22. Catharsis is a transcendent joy that—can you repeat question? –Andrian Kreye, editor, German Daily Newspaper

23. "I've given up asking questions. l merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me... and marvel stupidly." (complete answer)--Terry Gilliam

24. "We should be worried about the new era of Anthropocene—not only as a geological phenomenon, but also as a cultural frame."–Jennifer Jacquet, clinical assistant professor of environmental studies, NYU

25. Cultural extinction, and the fact that the works of an obscure writer from the Caribbean may not get enough attention. –Hans Ulrich Obrist. curator, Serptine Gallery

26. The Danger Of Inadvertently Praising Zygomatic Arches. --Robert Sopolsky, neuroscientist


27. That we will stop dying. –Kate Jeffery, professor of behavioural neuroscience

28. That there are an infinity of universes out there, but that we are only able to study the one we live in. –Lawrence M. Krauss, physicist/cosmologist

29. The rise of anti-intellectualism and the end of progress. "We've now, for the first time, got a single global civilization. If it fails, we all fail together." –Tim O'Reilly, CEO and founder of O'Reilly Media

30. We should worry about several "modern" States that, in practical terms, are shaped by crime; States in which bills and laws are promulgated by criminals and, even worse, legitimized through formal and "legal" democracy. – Eduardo Salcedo-albaran, Colombian philosopher

31. "We should worry that so much of our science and technology still uses just five main models of probability—even though there are more probability models than there are real numbers." –Bart Kosko, information scientist

32. "It is possible that we are rare, fleeting specks of awareness in an unfeeling cosmic desert, the only witnesses to its wonder. It is also possible that we are living in a universal sea of sentience, surrounded by ecstasy and strife that is open to our influence. Sensible beings that we are, both possibilities should worry us." Timo Hannay, publisher

33. Men. –Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist

34. The social media-fication of science writing. –Michael I. Norton, Harvard Business School prof

35. Humanity's unmitigated arrogance. –Jessica L. Tracy, professor of psychology

36. That technology may endanger democracy. –Haim Harari, physicist

37. Don't worry—there won't be a singularity. –Bruce Sterling, sci-fi author

38. Mutually-assured destruction. –Vernor Vinge, mathematician, computer scientist, author

39. "The diversion of intellectual effort from innovation to exploitation, the distraction of incessant warfare, rising fundamentalism" may trigger a Dark Age. –Frank Wilczek, MIT physicist

40. We need institutions and cultural norms that make us better than we tend to be. It seems to me that the greatest challenge we now face is to build them. –Sam Harris, neuroscientist

41. "I worry that we don't really understand quantum phenomena" –Lee Smolin, physicist

42. That Americans are homogenizing and exporting their view of a normal mind around the world. –P. Murali Doraiswamy, professor of psychiatry

43. The future of science publishing. --Marco Iacoboni, neuroscientist

44. That the new digital public sphere isn't really so public. –Andrew Lih, journalism professor

45. "I further postuate we should in fact be "Worried" not just about a single selected problem, but about all possible problems." –Richard Foreman, playwright and director

46. Stress. –Arianna Huffington, aggregationist extraordinaire

47. "We should be worried that science has not yet brought us closer to understanding cancer." Xeni Jardin, Boing Boing

48. That we will literally lose touch with the physical world. –Christine Finn, archaeologist.


49. "We should all be worried about the gaping psychological chasm separating humanity from nature" –Scott Sampson, dinosaur paleontologist.

50. That we are becoming too connected. –Gino Segre, professor of physics & astronomy

51. That we will worry too much. –Joseph LeDoux, neuroscientist

52. "What worries me is that we are increasingly enmeshed in incompetent systems, that is, systems that exhibit pathological behaviour but can't fix themselves." –John Naughton, Edge editor

53. Too much coupling. –Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics, Cornell

54. That the internet will end up benefiting existing power structures and not society in general. –Bruce Schneier, security technologist

55. That this year's Edge topic has been poorly chosen. –Kai Krause, software pioneer

56. That we will see the end of fundamental science –Mario Livio, astrophysicist

57. The paradox of material progress. –Rolf Dobelli, journalist and author

58. That we will become like rats stuck in a blue marble trap. –Gregory Benford, prof of physics and astronomy

59. That humankind will stop pursuing close observation. –Ursula Martin, computer scientist

60. "What worries me is the ongoing "greying" of the world population, which is uneven globally but widespread." --David Berreby, journalist and author

61. "We should be worrying about a growing dominance of the Fourth [pop] Culture and how it may directly or indirectly affect us all." –Bruce Parker, professor

62. The coming fight between engineers and druids. –Paul Saffo, technology forecaster

63. "As someone fairly committed to the death of our solar system and ultimately the entropy of the universe, I think the question of what we should worry about is irrelevant in the end." –Bruce Hood, mondo-bummer

64. A scarcity of water resources. –Giulio Boccaletti, physicist

65. That we "are inarticulately lost in Modernity. Many of us seem to sense the end of something, perhaps a futile meaninglessness in our Modernity." -- Stuart A. Kauffman, professor of biological sciences, physics, and astronomy

66. " I worry about the lost opportunity of denying the world's teenagers access to education." Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

67. Augmented reality. –William Poundstone, journalist.

68. That big data and new media will mean the end of facts. --Victoria Stodden, computational legal scholar, statistics professor

69. That we will spend too much time on social media. --Marcel Kinsbourne, neurologist

70. That Idiocracy is looming. –Douglas T. Kenrick, psychology professor

71. That the gap between news and understanding is widening. --Gavin Schmidt, NASA climatologist

72. "I worry we have yet to have a conversation about what seems to be a developing "new normal" about the presence of screens in the playroom and kindergarten" --Sherry Turkle, pshcyhologist, MIT

73. "That we will become irrationally impatient with science" --Stuart Firestein, professor who is working as hard as he can, dammit

74. That we will get our hopes up for interstellar space travel, because it's not going to happen. --Ed Regis, science writer

75. That global cooperation is failing and we don't know why. --Daniel Haun

76. That we worry too much. –Joel Gold, psychiatrist

77. "I worry more and more about what will happen to the generations of children who don't have the uniquely human gift of a long, protected, stable childhood." --Alison Gopnik

78. That synthetic biology will spiral out of control. –Seirian Summer, lecturer in behavioral biology

79. The death of mathematics. --Keith Devlin, mathematician

80. That we will outsource too many skills to machines. –Susan Blackmore, psychologist

81. "We should be worried about online silos. They make us stupid and hostile toward each other." –Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia

82. That we worry too much. –Gary Klein, scientist at MacroCognition

83. That the human species will lose the will to survive. –Dave Winer, Blogging and RSS software pioneer

84. The surplus of testosterone caused by a gender gap in China. –Robert Kurzban, psychologist

85. "A worry that is not yet on the scientific or cultural agenda is neural data privacy rights" --Melanie Swan, systems-level thinker, futurist

86. Armageddon. –Timothy Taylor, archaeologist

87. There's nothing to worry about, even though the Large Hadron Collider hasn't turned up any new discoveries. --Amanda Gefter, editor

88. "What I worry most about is that we are more and more losing the formal and informal bridges between different intellectual, mental and humanistic approaches to seeing the world." --AntonZeilinger, physicist

89. That we worry too much. –Donald D. Hoffman, cognitive scientist

90_._ The Growing Gap Between The Scientific Elite And The Vast "Scientifically Challenged" Majority -- Leo M. Chalupa**,** ophthalmologist and neurobiologist

91. "I worry about the prospect of collective amnesia." –Nogra Arikha, historian of ideas

92. That we worry too much. –Brian Knutson, associate professor of psychology

93. That we do not understand the dynamics of our emerging global culture. –Kirsten Bomblies, assistant professor of organismic and evolutionary biology

94. "We should worry about losing lust as the guiding principle for the reproduction of our species." –Tor Norretranders, science writer

95. That we worry too much, but about fictional violence. –Jonathan Gottschall, English professor

96. "We should be worried about the consequences of our increasing knowledge of what causes disease, and its consequences for human freedom" –Esther Dyson, Catalyst, Information Tech Startups

97. Natural death. --Antony Garrett Lisi, theoretical physicist

98. "What worries me is that the debate about gender differences still seems to polarize nature vs. nurture, with some in the social sciences and humanities wanting to assert that biology plays no role at all, apparently unaware of the scientific evidence to the contrary" -- Simon Baron-Cohen, psychologist

99. The demise of the scholar. --Daniel L. Everett, linguistic researcher

100. The Unavoidable Intrusion Of Sociopolitical Forces Into Science. --Nicholas A Christakis, physician

101. "I am worried about who gets to be players in the science game—and who is left out." –Stephon H. Alexander, physicist

102. **"**The fact that so many people choose to live in ways that narrow the community of fate to a very limited set of others and to define the rest as threatening to their way of life and values is deeply worrying because this contemporary form of tribalism, and the ideologies that support it, enable them to deny complex and more crosscutting mutual interdependencies—local, national, and international—and to elude their own role in creating long-term threats to their own wellbeing and that of others." --Margaret Levi, political scientist

103, 104. That we will be unable to facilitate effective synergies. --Stephen M. Kosslyn**,** Robin S. Rosenberg, psychologists, synergy fans

105. I'm not worried about Super-AIs ruling the world. --Andy Clark, philosopher and cognitive scientist

106. The posthuman geography that will result when robots have taken all our jobs. –David Dalrymple, MIT researcher

107. That aliens pose a danger to human civilization. --Seth Shostak, SETI astronomer

108. That the role of microorganisms in cancer is being ignored by the current sequencing strategies employed by the medical community. –Azra Raza, M.D.

109. That humankind's social and moral intuitions will stifle technological process. –David Pizarro, psychologist

110. "The illusion of knowledge and understanding that can result from having information so readily and effortlessly available." -- Tania Lombrozo, assistant professor of psychology

111. The end of hardship inoculation –Adam Alter, psychologist

112. The exploding number of illegal drugs. –Thomas Metzinger, philosopher

113. Superstition. –Matt Ridley, science writer

114. That historically entrenched institutions will prevent technological progress. --Paul Kedrosky, editor

115. That "in one or two generations children will grow up to be adults who will not be able to tell reality from imagination." --Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist

116. That we worry too much. –Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News correspondent

117. "We should be worried about how we go about finding the wisdom to allow us to navigate developments as we begin to improve our ability to cheaply print human tissue, grow synthetic brains, have robots take care of our old parents, let the Internet educate our children" –Luca De Biase, journalist

118. That genomics may fail us when it comes to mental disorders. --Terrence J. Sejnowski, computational neuroscientist

119. "What really keeps me awake at night is that we face a crisis within the deepest foundations of physics. The only way out seems to involve profound revision of fundamental physical principles." –Steve Giddings, theoretical physicist

120. "The most worrying aspect of our society is the low index of suspicion that we have about the behavior of normal people." –Karl Sabbagh, writer, TV producer

121. "Many people worry that there is not enough democracy in the world; I worry that we might never go beyond democracy." –Dylan Evans, CEO of Projection Point

122. Not population growth, but prosperity growth—the prospect of the entire world consuming resources like Americans and Westerners do. –Laurence C. Smith, geography professor

123. That we'll begin to treat technology like magic. –Neil Gershenfeld, MIT physicist

124. The rise in genomic instability. –Eric J. Topol, M.D., professor of genomics

125. That authorities and companies will soon be able to read people's brains. –Stanislas Dehaene, neuroscientist

126. That economic growth will halt. –Satyajit Das, financial expert

127. "I worry that free imagination is overvalued, and I think this carries risks." –Carlo Rovelli, theoretical physicist

128. That we worry too much. –James J. O'Donnell, classical scholar

129. That we worry too much. –Robert Provine, neuroscientist

130. That we won't have enough robots to do all the jobs we'll need them to do in coming decades. –Rodney A. Brooks, roboticist

131. That we will have no Plan B when the internet inevitably breaks down. –George Dyson, science historian

132. The Singularity. That we "are curiously complacent about life as we know it getting transformed. What we should be worried about is that we're not worried." –Max Tegmark, MIT physicist

133. "There are known knowns and known unknowns, but what we should be worried about most is the unknown unknowns." –Gary Marcus, cognitive scientist

134. That the brain is unable to conceive of our most serious problems. –Daniel Goleman, psychologist

135. "We should be worried that scientists have given up the search for determining right and wrong and which values lead to human flourishing just as the research tools for doing so are coming online" –Michael Shermer, publisher, Skeptic magazine

136. The loss of our collective cognition and awareness. –Douglass Rushkoff, media analyst

137. The decline of the science hero. –Roger Highfield, Director, Science Museum Group

138. That we are unable to identify "the good life." –David Christian, historian

139. Electric tattooing on Facebook and beyond. –Juan Enriquez

140. Federal regulatory capture—ie, the fox watching the hen house in industries like oil and coal extraction. –Charles Seife, journalism professor

141. "Society's Parlous Inability To Reason About Uncertainty" –Aubrey De Grey, Gerontologist

142. That knowledge is getting too fast. –Nicholas Humphrey, prof. at the London School of Economics

143. The "Nightmare Scenario" For Fundamental Physics. Peter Woit, mathematical physicist

144. The homogenization of the human experience. –Scott Atran, anthropologist

145. That we won't be able to understand everything. –Clifford Pickover, math author

146. That we worry too much, and "package our worries" in a deleterious fashion. –Mary Catherine Bateson, professor emerita

147. That because of climate change, resource shortages, drones, or other unanticipated reasons, a major war will arise. –Steven Pinker, psychologist

148. Stupidity. –Roger Schank, psychologist

149. I have stopped worrying about the problem of free will, because it will never be settled. –Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education

150. That science is in danger of becoming the enemy of humankind. –Colin Tudge, biologist, editor at New Scientist

151. That we will be unable to live without the internet. –Daniel C. Dennet, philosopher


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