Dennett’s Law of Needy Readers

On any important topic, we tend to have a dim idea of what we hope to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments. Needy readers have an asymptote at illiteracy; if a text doesn’t say the one thing they need to read, it might as well be in a foreign language. To be open-minded, you have to recognize, and counteract, your own doxastic hungers.

From the 2004 Edge Annual Question.

The Edge Annual Question 2005

What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?

A lot of food for thought, like in this quote:

What I believe, though cannot yet prove, is that belief is a content-independent process. Which is to say that beliefs about God – to the degree that they are really believed – are the same as beliefs about numbers, penguins, tofu, or anything else. This is not to say that all of our representations of the world are acquired through language, or that all linguistic representations are on the same logical footing. And we know that different regions of the brain are involved in judging the truth-value of statements drawn from different content domains. What I do believe, however, is that the neural processes that govern the final acceptance of a statement as “true” rely on more fundamental, reward-related circuitry in our frontal lobes – probably the same regions that judge the pleasantness of tastes and odors. Truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, in more than a metaphorical sense. And false statements may, quite literally, disgust us.

Sam Harris

And, look for the The Edge Annual Question 2004 here

What’s your dangerous idea?

Edge begins 2006 as mind provokingly as last year. Scientists answer the question what the most dangerous idea is they know.

Or do they?

Ideas can be dangerous. Darwin had one, for instance. We hold all sorts of inventors and other innovators responsible for assaying, in advance, the environmental impact of their creations, and since ideas can have huge environmental impacts, I see no reason to exempt us thinkers from the responsibility of quarantining any deadly ideas we may happen to come across. So if I found what I took to be such a dangerous idea, I would button my lip until I could find some way of preparing the ground for its safe expression. I expect that others who are replying to this year’s Edge question have engaged in similar reflections and arrived at the same policy. If so, then some people may be pulling their punches with their replies. The really dangerous ideas they are keeping to themselves.

Daniel C. Dennett

What are you optimistic about?

Edge’s question of the year 2007: What are you optimistic about. Why?.

Previously mentioned here:
2006: What’s your dangerous idea?
2005: What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?
2004: What’s your law?

The Edge Question of the Year 2008

What have you changed your mind about, and why?

previously, The Edge Questions of the Years 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007

The Edge Question of the Year 2009

What will change everything.

previously, The Edge Questions of the Years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

The Edge Question of the Year 2010

How is the internet changing the way you think?

previously, The Edge Questions of the Years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009.

The Edge Question of the Year 2011

I spoke too soon. The Edge Question of the Year 2011 is:

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

previously, The Edge Questions of the Years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

The Edge Question of the Year 2012

What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?

previously, The Edge Questions of the Years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, & 2011.

The Edge Question of the Year 2013

What should be we worried about?

If we have a million photos, we tend to value each one less than if we only had ten. The internet forces a general devaluation of the written word: a global deflation in the average word’s value on many axes. As each word tends to get less reading-time and attention and to be worth less money at the consumer end, it naturally tends to absorb less writing-time and editorial attention on the production side. Gradually, as the time invested by the average writer and the average reader in the average sentence falls, society’s ability to communicate in writing decays. And this threat to our capacity to read and write is a slow-motion body-blow to science, scholarship, the arts—to nearly everything, in fact, that is distinctively human, that muskrats and dolphins can’t do just as well or better.

The internet’s insatiable demand for words creates global deflation in the value of words. The internet’s capacity to distribute words near-instantly means that, with no lag-time between writing and publication, publication and worldwide availability, pressure builds on the writer to produce more. Global deflation in the value of words creates pressure, in turn, to downplay or eliminate editing and self-editing. When I tell my students not to turn in first-drafts, I sometimes have to explain, nowadays, what a first draft is.

David Gelernter

previously, The Edge Questions of the Years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 & 2012.

The Edge Question of the Year 2014

What scientific idea is reday for retirement?

We should retire the idea that goes by the name “information overload.” It is no longer useful.

The Internet scholar Clay Shirky puts it well: “There’s no such thing as information overload. There’s only filter failure.” If your filters are bad there is always too much to attend to, and never enough time. These aren’t trends powered by technology. They are conditions of life.

Filters in a digital world work not by removing what is filtered out; they simply don’t select for it. The unselected material is still there, ready to be let through by someone else’s filter. Intelligent filters, which is what we need, come in three kinds:

  • A smart person who takes in a lot and tells you what you need to know. The ancient term for this is “editor.” The front page of the New York Times still works this way.
  • An algorithm that sifts through the choices other smart people have made, ranks them, and presents you with the top results. That’s how Google works— more or less.
  • A machine learning system that over time gets to know your interests and priorities and filters the world for you in a smarter and smarter way. Amazon uses systems like that.

Here’s the best definition of information that I know of: information is a measure of uncertainty reduced.

Jay Rosen, on ‘Information Overload’

previously, The Edge Questions of the Years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, & 2013

The Edge Question of the Year 2015


What’s wrong with turning over the drudgery of thought to such high-tech marvels? Nothing, so long as (1) we don’t delude ourselves, and (2) we somehow manage to keep our own cognitive skills from atrophying.

(1) It is very, very hard to imagine (and keep in mind) the limitations of entities that can be such valued assistants, and the human tendency is always to over-endow them with understanding—as we have known since Joe Weizenbaum’s notorious Eliza program of the early 1970s. This is a huge risk, since we will always be tempted to ask more of them than they were designed to accomplish, and to trust the results when we shouldn’t.

(2) Use it or lose it. As we become ever more dependent on these cognitive prostheses, we risk becoming helpless if they ever shut down. The Internet is not an intelligent agent (well, in some ways it is) but we have nevertheless become so dependent on it that were it to crash, panic would set in and we could destroy society in a few days. That’s an event we should bend our efforts to averting now, because it could happen any day.

The real danger, then, is not machines that are more intelligent than we are usurping our role as captains of our destinies. The real danger is basically clueless machines being ceded authority far beyond their competence.

Daniel C. Dennett

previously, The Edge Questions of the Years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, & 2014

The Edge Question of the Year 2016

What do you consider the most interesting recent [scientific] news? What makes it important?

Why are we scared of what most likely will not kill us? Psychology provides us with an answer. It is called fear of dread risks. This fear is elicited by a situation in which many people die within a short time. Note that the fear is not about dying, but about suddenly dying together with many others at one point of time. When as many—or more—people die distributed over the year, whether from gun violence, motorcycle accidents, or in hospital beds, it is hard to conjure up anxiety.

For that reason terrorists strike twice. First with physical force, and second by capitalizing on our brains, that is, our propensity for dread risk fear.

Gerd Gigerenzer

previously, The Edge Questions of the Years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, & 2015.

The Edge Question of the Year 2017

What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

Negativity Bias
One of the most understated effects in all cognitive science is the psychology behind why negative events, emotions, and thoughts trump by a wide margin those that are positive. This bias was discovered and documented by the psychologists Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman in 2001, showing that across almost all domains of life, we seem almost preternaturally pessimistic:

  • Negative stimuli command more attention than positive stimuli. In rats, for example, negative tastes elicit stronger responses than positive tastes. And in taste aversion experiments a single exposure to a noxious food or drink can cause lasting avoidance of that item, but there is no corresponding parallel with good tasting food or drinks.
  • Pain feels worse than no pain feels good. […]

Michael Shermer

previously, The Edge Questions of the Years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, & 2016.