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See Inside September 2007

What's the Big Idea?

When the lightbulb above your head is truly incendiary

Recently I entered a bookstore. After ambling by the coffee and dessert area and passing the CDs and DVDs, I found actual books! The title of one of them stopped me: What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Potential answers came quickly:

Test the hypothesis first posited as a child that a red towel tied around the neck will indeed confer the ability to fly.

Go all in against a poker player named after a city or state, such as Amarillo or Colorado.

Wear a Yankees jacket in the bleachers at Fenway Park.

Carry a book called What Is Your Dangerous Idea? through airport security.

A closer inspection, however, revealed the book to be a collection of dangerous intellectual ideas, concepts that in many quarters might be considered to be literally unthinkable. In his introduction, Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker (who came up with the dangerous idea idea) throws examples around, including: “Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?” “Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease?” “Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?” To test whether the mere asking of these questions might be dangerous, pose the first to Hillary Clinton, the second to Ellen DeGeneres and the third to William J. Bennett, author of the Book of Virtues, who nonetheless lost millions in venues dominated by guys named Amarillo and Colorado.

The book is edited by John Brockman, editor and publisher of Edge (www.edge.org), a Web site devoted to “inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society,” and whose “informal membership includes some of the most interesting minds in the world.” One can therefore find in Edge critiques of the antievolution essay of presidential candidate Sam Brownback, but not the antievolution essay itself. (The New York Times published that work, which immediately dropped P. J. O’Rourke down to second funniest conservative commentator.)

In his preface, Brockman notes that a provocative question is an annual Edge feature. The roots of this exercise date back to 1971, when artist James Lee Byars identified his 100 most brilliant people on the planet. His plan was to have them ask one another the same questions they had been asking themselves. Byars “called each of them,” Brockman explains, “and asked them what questions they were asking themselves. The result: 70 people hung up on him.” Which may prove that Byars was in fact only 70 percent successful in his personal assessment of brilliant minds.

The book includes 108 contributions, some of which go egghead-to-egghead. For example, physicist and computer scientist W. Daniel Hillis’s dangerous idea is “the idea that we should all share our most dangerous ideas.” Whereas psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s dangerous idea is “the idea that ideas can be dangerous.” I both agree and disagree with both.

Nature’s chief news and features editor Oliver Morton has the dangerous idea that “our planet is not in peril,” although he quite rightly points out that many inhabitants of the planet are in great jeopardy because of environmental crises. Actually, George Carlin covered this territory years ago when he said, “The planet is fine. The people are f*^#ed ... the planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.”

My personal favorite entry is that of philosopher and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, who knows a dangerous idea when he sees one and so simply quotes Bertrand Russell’s truly treacherous notion: “I wish to propose ... a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe in a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for supposing it true.” The danger of ignoring this doctrine can almost certainly be found in the politics or world events stories on the front page of today’s New York Times. On whatever day you read this.

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