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What Me Worry?
Keeping up with the eggheads.
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Although not afflicted with a crippling deficiency of self-esteem, I once in a while get to wondering whether my opinions on the passing charivari are perhaps ill-informed, warped by personal prejudice, absurdly reactionary, derivative, shallow, jejune, incoherent, or worthless. (Commenters, please restrain yourselves.)

“Once in a while” actually translates to “about once a year.” That is fortunate, because once a year the greatest living eggheads of our civilization tell us what they think about the issues of our time on, “the world’s smartest website.” I thus get to compare.

Yes, it’s time for the Annual Question, posed this year to 152 extremely smart people: scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, entrepreneurs, social commentators, and ex-candidates for the governorship of California. This year’s question is: What should we be worried about?

Plainly there will be some overlap here with my own recent excursion into futurology on this very website. Indeed, in the list of contributors—hereunder “Edge-heads”—I see at least three names (Rees, Pinker, Vinge) I referred to either explicitly or via links in my piece.

So I, deep in the trough of my annual self-esteem cycle, scrutinized the answers on offer from this impressive collection of smartypants and compared them with the contents of my own cranium. I came away, as I do every year, thinking that for a burned-out old COBOL programmer, I don’t come off too badly.

In the leadoff answer, for example, Geoffrey Miller worries about the ChiComs steaming ahead with a eugenics program to create a super-smart super-race, while we round-eyes, sunk in our “anti-hereditarian political correctness,” slide down into idiocracy. Well, pshaw: I was worrying about that twelve years ago. I yield to no one in my contempt for the inanities of political correctness, and I have no doubt that the ChiComs will indeed steam ahead on this. Steaming ahead is one thing, though; attaining actual success is another. The Titanic was steaming ahead pretty confidently there for a while. I urge Prof. Miller to meditate on the phrase “Chinese fire drill.”

Similarly, no less than three of the contributors invoke old C. P. Snow, the British scientist/novelist who let the “two cultures” meme loose upon the world (i.e., the humanities scholars and the scientists do not understand, nor even like, each other). I covered this whole area three years ago. Why don’t you listen? Simon Baron-Cohen‘s contribution is all built around a variant of Snow’s thesis: The humanities folk are clinging grimly to nurture in their ideas about human nature, he says, while the science geeks are accepting nature. Not bad, but are you really an egghead if you don’t know the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested”?


Lord Rees does what he does best: He makes our flesh creep with lurid error-or-terror scenarios. This stuff isn’t as flesh-creepy the umpteenth time you read it as it was the first. Familiarity breeds contempt. Still, if you pause to think about His Lordship’s closing sentence, it doesn’t seem contemptibly improbable:

I’m worried that by 2050 desperate efforts to minimize or cope with a cluster of risks with low probability but catastrophic consequences may dominate the political agenda.

Steven Pinker concentrates his worries more narrowly on the prospects for war. It’s not the drones (which “minimize loss of life”) or nukes (“world leaders, though stupid and short-sighted, are not that stupid and short-sighted”) that bother him, though, but the Old Adam: narcissistic leaders, tribalism, group revenge, and utopianism. Thank goodness none of that is relevant here in the USA!

Mass enstupidation worries a lot of the Edge-heads. David Gelernter cruelly reproduces part of a piece Sean Penn wrote for the Huffington Post. That you can be rich, famous, and admired by millions while having the IQ of a nematode is not news, but reminders never hurt. (Penn’s words are the penultimate graf in Gelernter’s piece: The editors forgot to indent it. God bless the editors of Taki’s Mag, who never fail to follow my indentation instructions!)

Roger Schank lets fly at stupidity in general, along the way committing some stupidities of his own:

We say a prescription drug works miracles but fail to ask about what we really know about what else it does.

Do we? So why does every drug ad on TV consist of 15 seconds of promotional praise followed by 45 seconds of hair-raising warnings about side effects?

Matt Ridley likewise fails to spot the beam in his own eye when he worries about sinister forces manipulating us into “doing stupid things.” Like what? Like “erecting barriers against immigrants.” So I guess the Japanese, Israelis, and Swiss are stupid. I guess the postwar USA was seriously stupid until Ted Kennedy came along to destupidate us.

Fashionable worries about demography get an airing. Did you know that while forty years ago our parents were worrying about overpopulation, we are nowadays more bothered by worldwide graying? Or that China has a shortage of females? Or that religious fundamentalists are outbreeding the less zealous? Zzzzzz.

Virginia Heffernan, who to judge by her picture should worry mainly about love-smitten male Edge-heads committing mass suicide beneath her windows, takes the contrarian view:

We have nothing to worry about but worry itself.

A couple of contributors cleave to the instructions that Calvin Coolidge gave to the Massachusetts State Senate: “Be brief. Above all, be brief.” Terry Gilliam‘s entire response is:

I’ve given up asking questions. I merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me…and marvel stupidly.

I’m not sure one can actually float on a tsunami—not for long, anyway—but holding the line at 22 words when asked for an opinion on some large general topic shows powers of self-restraint all too rare nowadays and utterly unknown in our political classes.


There is, in short, not much here that I haven’t already worried about in print or pixels. Far be it from me to claim I’m out in front of the Edge-heads, but so far as keeping up with worry-worthy issues is concerned, I have nothing to worry about.

(Republished from Takimag by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science 
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