What have you changed your mind about?

In the title of this post is last year’s Edge.org question to a group of noted intellectuals. I just got my copy of the book and have eagerly jumped into it. The premise is quite interesting to me; in the past decade, we’ve been drilled over and over with the importance of “staying on message” and keeping things soundbite-simple, even when reality is more complex, more nuanced, and more interesting.  Hearing from this group of people on their grappling, not so much with the specifics of their changed views, but with how to communicate those nuances to an audience in a short essay is both interesting and enlightening.

Science and medicine

Some time ago, at the suggestion of my good friend, Daniel Hornbaker, I read an interesting but poorly-argued book by Steve Salerno that detailed the fraudulence and predatory practices of the 8G$ self-help industry. Recently, Salerno published an article in the Wall Street Journal that discussed some of the fraudulent activities in the complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) field. The disturbing part of the article for me was that despite continual failures to show any efficacy of CAM treatments, the NCCAM, a federally-funded part of the National Institutes of Health, is still being funded.

While I’m very interested in scientific investigations of the traditional pharmacopia, such as what the Bent Creek Institute is doing here in town – i.e. lots of extractions and chromatography – I’m concerned that mainstream emphasis on unscientific treatments will lead to a lot more deaths like this one.

Dennett and modern positivism

Philosopher Daniel Dennett contributed an essay to the John Brockman edited collection What Are You Optimistic About? about the role that modern information technology might have on the growth of rationality and consequently, an increase in secularism and atheism. The essay, like most of the essays that Brockman solicits, is thought-provoking. Alas, the first thought it provoked for me was something along the lines of, “Clearly, Dennett has no faith in humanity’s ability to be stupid with greater speed and efficiency than before!”

The existence of technology will no more prevent religious fundamentalists of either the Muslim or Christian stripe from acting irrationally, anymore than the technology of the first Industrial Revolution caused an expansion of Enlightenment rationality as the 19th century positivists believed.