The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself (and 150 Other Things)

thinning-of-research-fundingMy longtime friend Ryan, sent me a thought-provoking list of things “we should be worried about” as answered by 150 top scientists and scholars from a variety of fields. Most of these have many books written about them, so it’s not anything new but because the list itself is made up of quotes from these insightful minds, the list does have a certain charm and mystery to it with a pinch of wit and humor mixed in.

A lot of the concerns are straight forward and like economic collapse, low probability black swan events, the declining status of scientific reasoning and knowledge in society, etc, so I’ll just mention the ones that caught my eye and comment on them…

“Funding for big experiments will dry up”

Since most of the comments came from scientists, there was a recurring fear that our society is de-valuating science to a point where it’s almost becoming anti-scientific. Not only does that have implications for funding and social support of the scientific community, but it has broader implications about how the average Joe thinks about the world. The less inclined we are to use scientific reasoning, the more susceptible we become to the many forms of propaganda (any kind of information campaign not grounded in rationality). But this particular concern is not about funding for research in general, but about funding for BIG projects. I think that’s a real concern because one of the  side effects (exciting but burdensome) of scientific development is that we uncover more and more mysteries, thus leading to a thinning of “focus”. Of course, things like a world war or a cold war tend to focus us back up. Fundamental science is important, but so are huge engineering projects that make us look up to the sky and dream.

“We will stop dying”

I read, talk, and think a lot about death as the driving force behind human development on an individual and societal level. So, given that, the “concern of immortality” phrased in a pragmatic way caught me off-guard. Over-population is a constant worry for resource hawks (isn’t everyone a resource hawk?), because the trends are scary when taken out a few decades in to the future. Of course, you can do the same thing with the trends in medicine, where exponential growth can make even immortality seem like a possibility. I don’t see this as a realistic concern, but it is just another reminder that science can do some awfully bad things in its search for furthering the good things.

“We will literally lose touch with the physical world”

Just in the last decade the online world and the technology that connects us to it has grown by leaps and bounds. While it may seem impossible for those who are 20+ that our brains become more computer and less human, people who are born today will grow up in a world that may have more computer-based interaction than “real world” interaction. Depending on where our current technology trends drift, the “real world” may have to drastically change its definition. I think this is a concern only for those who are afraid of uncertainty. Technological advances (or any kind of change) are often a source of concern for a large fraction of the population. This kind of concern fades with time and evolving habits.

In general, I’m optimistic about the 21st century, the questions it will answer, and new questions it will ask.

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