Dangerous ideas from serious thinkers

Dangerous idea #31: “Allow athletes to use steroids.” Dangerous idea #29: “Let elephants and lions roam the Great Plains.” Dangerous idea #25: “Abolish primary elections.”

Big Think’s “Dangerous Ideas” blog, which began earlier this year [2010], presents a continuing series of radical ideas like these, submitted by serious thinkers. To date, the blog has published 32 “dangerous” ideas.  Authors include economists, sociologists, public policy conceptualizers and others considered “experts” in their fields.

What are these guys up to? Do they really support some of these ideas? The correct answer, literally, would be, “yes and no.” Big Think isn’t advocating for any of them. Rather, Big Think’s thinkers believe that we need to look at ideas that lie outside of the mainstream and evaluate them analytically. Describing its Dangerous Ideas blog, Big Think says:

Brace yourself: these ideas may at first seem shocking or counter-intuitive—but they are worth our attention, even if we end up rejecting them.  Every idea in this blog is supported by contributions from leading experts, from the world’s top theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, to Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker, to linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky.

But Big Think’s editors don’t just toss out unfiltered “crazy ideas.”  For each, Big Think begins by presenting a detailed description of the rationale postulated by the idea’s generator. Some of the ideas have been in circulation for a while [Idea #33: “Make the US presidency a single, six-year term”], while others may seem, to many readers, to be the result of watching one too many Star Trek episodes.  [Idea #5:  “Abandon Earth or face extinction.”]

After each initial rationale, Big Think offers a “takeaway” summary. Then comes the kicker: a counterpoint called “Why we should reject this,” in which other “expert” thinkers present opposing arguments.

For example, on Dangerous Idea #29: “Let lions and elephants roam the Great Plains,” the arguments in favor sound good at first read. Noting that mass extinctions have taken place over hundreds of millions of years and that human-driven extinctions continue to be a contemporary problem, conservationist and Cornell visiting fellow Josh Donlan claims that…

We could potentially work to reverse the damage by re-introducing these large animals to the Great Plains and the American southwest, where the once roamed. Not only could it save some endangered African and Asian species and restore biodiversity to North America, it might prove an economic stimulus to poor areas in the Midwest.

But at Dangerous Ideas, no idea escapes without some serious pushback.

“Remember the film, ‘Jurassic Park?,” Big Think asks, farther down the page.  “A group of conservation biologists from Cornell and Princeton say [the] Pleistocene re-wilding plan is ‘only a slightly less sensational proposal.’

Then, we’re treated to what seems an equally compelling argument against turning the Midwest into a place where the lions and the elephants roam.

And so it goes. Big Think initiated its Dangerous Ideas blog in August 2010, soliciting out-there ideas from well-known thinkers as well as from readers, in a feature called “The Month of Thinking Dangerously.” But the ideas didn’t end when the month did, so more points and counterpoints are still in the works.

Big Think offers this idea- and thought-provoking dialogue as part of its overall mission as “a global forum connecting people and ideas…We believe that not all information is equal. We believe that expertise is invaluable and should be shared.”

So, if you want to hear two, well-reasoned sides of the “Let Athletes Use Steroids” argument or the notion of “Selling American Citizenship [Dangerous Idea #8], check it out.