What *Should* We Be Worried About?

Every year, John Brockman asks his braintrust at The Edge a thought-provoking question and compiles their answers. This year’s question has just been released: What *should* we be worried about? Click that link and prepare to be absorbed for a while.

A sampling of my favorite responses are below.

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith:

The Power Of Bad Incentives:

A prison is perhaps the easiest place to see the power of bad incentives. And yet in many other places in our society, we find otherwise normal men and women caught in the same trap and busily making life for everyone much less good than it could be. Elected officials ignore long-term problems because they must pander to the short-term interests of voters. People working for insurance companies rely on technicalities to deny desperately ill patients the care they need. CEOs and investment bankers run extraordinary risks — both for their businesses and for the economy as a whole — because they reap the rewards of success without suffering the penalties of failure. Lawyers continue to prosecute people they know to be innocent (and defend those they know to be guilty) because their careers depend upon winning cases. Our government fights a war on drugs that creates the very problem of black market profits and violence that it pretends to solve….

We need systems that are wiser than we are. 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.

Leo M. Chalupa, Neurobiologist, George Washington University:

The Growing Gap Between The Scientific Elite And The Vast “Scientifically Challenged” Majority:

So here is the crux of my worry: the growing gap between the small minority of Americans who are part of the scientific elite and the vast majority who are to put it kindly “scientifically challenged.” This is a worry on several different levels. For one thing, support and funding for research is vitally dependent on informed voters, and even more so on scientifically literate elected representatives. Moreover, as our world faces progressively more challenges (think climate change) how we deal with these complex issues is dependent on an understanding of science and the scientific method.

It is also a worry that for the most part our educational institutions (from grade school through college) do not teach science the way scientists actually do science. Far too often, science courses involve memorization of a vast array of seemingly unrelated “facts,” many of which are of questionable validity.

Matt Ridley, science writer:


I worry about superstition. Rational Optimists spend much of their energy debunking the charlatans who peddle false reasons to worry. So what worries me most are the people who make others worry about the wrong things, the people who harness the human capacity for superstition and panic to scare us into doing stupid things: banning genetically modified foods, teaching children that the earth is 6,000 years old, preventing the education of girls, erecting barriers against immigrants or free trade, preventing fossil fuels taking the pressure off rain forest — that sort of thing.

Daniel C. Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell:

Living Without The Internet For A Couple Of Weeks:

… it would be prudent to start brainstorming about how to keep panic at bay if a longterm disruption of large parts of the Internet were to occur. Will hospitals and fire stations (and supermarkets and gas stations and pharmacies) keep functioning, and how will people be able to get information they trust? Cruise ships oblige their paying customers to walk through a lifeboat drill the first day at sea, and while it isn’t a popular part of the cruise, people are wise to comply. Panic can be contagious, and when that happens people make crazy and regrettable decisions. As long as we insist on living in the fast lane, we should learn how to get on and off without creating mayhem.

Read the full set of responses here.

Your turn: What *should* we be worried about? (“Religion” is off the table. Too easy.)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Tim Breeden

    It seems the link is broken.

  • Tim Breeden
  • MegaZeusThor

    Try: http://edge.org/responses/q2013

    (I had to click around a bit, but I think the above works.)

  • http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/ Counter Apologist

    I’m worried about people using bad methods to identify truth. Too often in religious (or homeopathy, etc) thinking they will resort to non-falsifiable claims that could be used to justify belief in almost anything. It’s a form of self rationalization that can be used (but doesn’t necessarily lead to!) good people doing bad things.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I’ve had the discussion about falsifiability a number of times, and I’m afraid a lot of people (in particular the ones who need to get it) don’t get it. I’m not sure how to explain the difference between ‘false’ and ‘falsifiable’.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    Elected officials ignore long-term problems because they must pander to the short-term interests of voters.

    this is incorrect. elected officials in america mostly no longer worry about the voters at all. this is due to gerrymandering. most incumbents are reelected, despite polls showing their popularity somewhere below that of used car salesmen and rapists.

    the american public is not given real choices in politics because both parties have spent decades gaming the system in favor of the duopoly and purging their ranks of people who actually care about the issues the voters care about. the vast majority of politicians answer exclusively to the very wealthy, and are chosen by the super-rich to pass legislation that makes life easier than ever for them at the expense of the working people and the poor.

    there is a famous graph floating around there out there which shows the transfer of wealth over the last four decades; the 1% have never had more, while the working and middle classes have not had less since the Depression.

    a very tiny portion of all that wealth they control, which is as much as all of the wealth the bottom 50% control, is spent on politics. politicians answer to money above all else, and this guarantees that meaningful reform and dealing with our shared problems will not happen.

    instead, we get politicians who introduce bills to “protect” the christian right to pray in school, or proclaiming Jan 17 “national appreciation of rich guy” day, or banning birth control funding… the list goes on and on.

    the solutions to our shared problems are not hard. increase taxes on the wealthy. make multinational corporations actually pay taxes (they don’t, mostly). properly fund and staff government departments with competent people free from ideological zeal. develop and increase the use of alternative energies. medicare or a similar program for all, without insurance companies. employ millions currently unemployed in a national WPA style work program that focuses on these things. end the wars and cut the defense budget by 75%. stop the corporate rape of our environment. millions of jobs would be created and prosperity would return if we did even half of those things.

    but expecting politicians to do any of that is plain foolishness, at this point, and shows a crippling misunderstanding of how politics work in an oligarchic age of corruption that rivals 18th France. i recommend a similar solution as they found back then.

  • 3lemenope

    Access to fresh potable water. Water will be this century’s oil, and the wars fought over it will make the conflicts we’ve seen over oil look like mere skirmishes.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

    Whoops! All fixed.

  • C Peterson

    Any method that actually identifies the truth seems to me to be a good method.

    I think the problem you are worried about is when people invent methods to justify a “truth” they’ve already settled on.

    (Non-falsifiable claims are not intrinsically invalid, but they certainly don’t rise to the quality of falsifiable ones.)

  • Question Everything

    Food, water, energy. Those are the resources (in order) that I’m worried about in the coming decades for major portions of the population. Water ties into food (and energy as well), of course, and people die faster without water than they do without food, but overall I think lack of food resources because of lack of water and other issues will be one of the worst things we face as a society.

  • Cecelia Baines

    We should be worried that we may have crossed the rubicon in regards to climate change and sanity.


    I just got back from a business trip to New York City. The people in NYC seem to be the sane ones, meaning, there are more people who recognize the value of science, fact and research there than throughout the “heartland” of the USA. Yet, the “heartland” is constantly held up as the shining beacon of Americana; you know, apple pie, football and “family values” (whatever the fuck those are). Sanity comes in the recognition of the bastions of erudition and integrity to face facts with courage – you know “grace under pressure”.

    But it is (on the whole) the people in the “heartland” that ignore fact, accept myth as truth and ignore the consequences of ignorance.

    That keeps me awake at night.

  • MagicPanties

    We should have some fun this year. Support the Flying Spaghetti Monster white house petition: http://wh.gov/EYoj

  • C Peterson

    But the issue of denial of man-made climate change is really just a symptom of a combination of other problems, already identified: a growing lack of critical thinking, growing scientific illiteracy, growing distrust and lack of respect for expert opinions (and even the inability to recognize true experts from self-proclaimed ones), a growing lack of skepticism in general, an increasing susceptibility to advertising methods. These problems (many of which are tied to religion) create many of our societal problems, not just ignored global warming.

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    I worry that science is too corrupted by money. Scientists disagree frequently especially when those in one industry/field have things/ideas for sale to the general public regardless of the negative impacts. Be it nuclear energy, pesticides, car/transportation design, or food safety and environmental consequences, conflicts exist and money weighs far too heavily.

  • Pseudonym

    I’m worried about the community fragmentation.

    The Internet has helped us gain access to the world’s information, which is a good thing, but it’s also allowed us to surround ourselves with information that confirms our biases. There is a serious danger that public discourse may disappear, and be replaced by a set of non-overlapping echo chambers, which only interact when forced to by circumstance, and only do so in unhealthy ways.

    There are powerful people who have a vested interest in keeping the barriers up. It’s up to the rest of us to break the barriers down. All of us, whoever we are, need to talk honestly, openly and respectfully with those we would, if left to our own devices, consider to be “them”.

    (To head off an objection, I was thinking specifically of red state/blue state when I wrote this, but it works for atheist/theist, too.)

  • Revyloution

    “Whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’ over.”
    -Samuel Clemens

  • Revyloution

    Browsing the entire post was interesting, but I was shocked by the ignorance of the very first post, Chinese Eugenics by Geoffrey Miller.

    I’d thought eugenics was widely dismissed, I had no idea that there was still support for its failed ideas (ideals?) We still don’t understand intelligence or creativity to be able to identify its genes. Einstein had fairly average parents, and a huge number of extraordinary people have been born to abominable sires. If China decides to limit birth rates to people who have no history of mental disease, they may very well be hamstringing their entire society for lack of creative individuals.

    Millers praise (worship?) of the Chinese eugenics program is disturbing. We should be denouncing it.

  • Barefoot Bree

    Question for you: do you think that’s really changed all that much since the internet came of age? It seems to me that in any given area (religion and politics being the two biggest and always have been), people have ALWAYS surrounded themselves with and listened to those who they agree with. I’m not convinced that the internet has increased that tendency to any great degree. It might only make it more visible and obvious.

  • Patterrssonn

    Apparently we should also be worried about the pat just so stories that pass for science in evolutionary psychology.

  • baal

    So here is the crux of my worry: the growing gap between the small
    minority of Americans who are part of the scientific elite and the vast
    majority who are to put it kindly “scientifically challenged.

    As someone with more than a little science training, the scientific elite try to push for relevant education but the religionists endless attempts to write evolution or the age of the planet or global warming or … or …. are louder and backed by more money. It’s an uphill struggle.

    My worry is that the US democracy is barely a democracy and that we are suffering from (in gaming terms) a broken OP (over powered) class that distorts and breaks a functioning society. This class is pretty small and played by less than 1000 people (probably). All members of the class are Oligarchs.

  • Patterrssonn

    “Given what I understand of evolutionary behavior genetics, I expect—and hope—that they will succeed.”

    Not to worry then given what Miller appears to understand of evolution, it’s likely to be a complete failure.

  • Patterrssonn

    How soon before some fundie finds AGW predicted in Revelation as part of the apocolypse, or has it revealed that AGW is necessary in order for the rapture.

  • Whitney

    I worry about the number of people I speak to who seem to be unable to think for themselves. I hope, for all our sakes, that it’s just because I work on the phone that it seems to be spreading. This isn’t limited to one group, creed, religion, color, or preference, either. I suppose part of it is because thinking for oneself requires more work than having others do the work instead. I just find it to be frightening when someone tells me I should agree with them because ____________ says so. That’s not logic or reason, that’s a cop-out. There is no reasoning or compromise that I can do with that, either, because this means that the other person works on an entirely alien thought process.

    I cannot stress just how much this worries me. It has for some time now, truthfully. What worries me the most is I can’t figure out how people get through life this way. There’s a good reason I don’t trust just anyone to make decisions for me, so how does this work for other people?

  • Thegoodman

    I have not seen much “disagreement” amongst scientists. I see politicians disagreeing with scientists and I see companies disagreeing with scientists.

    Politicians and corporate lobbyists would have us believe there is dissension amongst the ranks of scientists, the reality is that there rarely is.

  • Thegoodman

    This type of geographical elitism is one of the reasons the heartland rejects many ideas. The common perception that middle Americans are stupid, fat, morons that is perpetuated by the coasts is not entirely accurate. This is a chicken egg situation, I happen to think that the coasts enjoy having “lesser” Americans that they can blame for all of our woes. After all, most of the money and political clout lies on the coasts, so the policy established by our government is much more heavily influenced by the coasts. Why isn’t this policy as elite as you would have us believe?

    I am from Indiana and now live in Florida; I can promise you both states are equally ignorant of facts.

  • Blacksheep

    I’m worried about society abandoning the idea of God simply because the concept cannot be proven using scientific methods.

    (those who know me here know that I have a deep interest and respect for science).

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Doesn’t that also depend on your individual concept of God? If God is something that you fear and demands your worship, then yes, that would be a problem. Even in my more agnostic deist days I’ve always felt that that image of God seemed too petty, too human. Maybe God would be fine with us growing up and moving out on our own? And sure, we want our kids to visit for the holidays, so I get that from your POV completely abandoning that God would still be sad.

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    Oil will be this century’s oil. China has a growing middle class, all of whom want the trappings of success: cars and a beef-based diet. China already cannot produce enough oil for its automobiles and has a serious mechanic shortage.

  • Pseudonym

    I think that the problem existed before the Internet (the red state/blue state problem in particular has been around since the late 1970s), but the Internet made it a lot more stark.

    There used to be fewer ways to get your information about the world, through a very small number of media outlets. There have always been sources with a consistent bias, but there used to be a higher barrier to opting in to them (e.g. you had to subscribe to that newsletter).

    Today, source bias is even done for you automatically whether you want it or not by search engines which track your searches and what you click on, and then start returning results which are like that which you click on.

  • http://twitter.com/blamer ɹǝɯɐןq

    You’ll find examples online already. Poe’s Law.