John Horgan Interview

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Introduction

John Horgan writerJohn Horgan is one of the most colorful and thought-provoking science writers of the last several decades. He defies pigeonholing and enjoys challenging conventional wisdom. In the best Socratic tradition, he has been a gadfly to the scientific community, constantly urging it to be more self-reflective and to strive for sober understanding of the scientific enterprise---its prospects, possibilities, and pitfalls.

TheBestSchools.org is grateful to Mr. Horgan for this opportunity to interview him. Given his longstanding interest in the work of Mr. Horgan, it is doubly appropriate that Erik Larson, our new Science and Technology Editor, conduct this interview.
 

Erik Larson, on behalf of TheBestSchools.org:

Thanks very much for your willingness to do this interview. As is customary with most of our interviews at TBS, could we start by asking about your background? In what circumstances were you born? What were some of the key formative experiences in your early years? Briefly describe your education. What was the preparation that led you to become the contrarian science writer that we all know and love?

John Horgan:

Columbia UniversityLove? Really? I think I evoke irritation more than love, but thanks for your kind words, Erik. I was a privileged white boy, born in 1953 into an upper middle class family, who to the horror of his parents dropped out and became an itinerant hippy before finishing college and graduate school (in journalism, at Columbia) in his late 20s. My key formative experiences were those of many in my generation: terror of nuclear war, moral revulsion toward the Vietnam war (into which I was eligible to be drafted), ingestion of psychedelics, fascination with bogus gurus, skepticism toward authority of all kinds. I'm still a hippy at heart.

Erik Larson:

How did you become a science writer? What does it mean to be a science writer? How much science does a science writer need to know? What would you say to a budding writer who would like to follow in your footsteps? How would you distinguish your career before you began to write books and after? Does a science writer, to be taken seriously, need to write an influential book? What was your most intellectually satisfying book, and why?

John Horgan:

When I was a kid, I couldn't decide what I wanted to be more, a writer or a scientist. It took me three decades to figure out I could be... a science writer! As for what it takes to be one, I was an English major, and I know many great science journalists who had no formal scientific training.

The End of Science by John HorganI'd say the prerequisite for science writing is curiosity, to the point of obsession, about science, and a desire always to learn more. You should also have the desire---and the egotism---to tell people what you've learned, and what you think about what you've learned. You certainly don't need to write books to be taken seriously, and I love short-form journalism, but books let you go into topics in depth, and experiment stylistically, in ways that, for me, have been immensely satisfying. I love all my books, but I have a special fondness for my first book, The End of Science, which was just reissued this year in a new edition, and continues to rile people.

Erik Larson:

Some have argued that you are too pessimistic about science. Are you a pessimist about science? What would it mean to be an optimist about science? What is the stance one should take in properly understanding the role and aspirations of science?

John Horgan:

I like to call myself a hopeful skeptic, and a realist. I became a science writer because I believe science is the most consequential of all human endeavors. But over the course of my career, I have become acutely aware of the limits of science, and how far science falls short of scientists' aspirations. I also loathe the relentlessly boosterish presentation of science that characterizes much science communication, by journalists, scientists, universities, corporations, etc. This sort of public relations campaigning for science does it a disservice. Also, when people say I'm too pessimistic, I like to point out that my last book, The End of War, is almost absurdly optimistic.

Erik Larson:

In your 1996 best seller, The End of Science, you suggest that science may have reached an end point in human history, with major theories in place already, such as Einstein's relativity and Darwin's theory of evolution. The end of science is, in this sense, the end of the great quest to discover the ultimate structure of the universe. Have we succeeded? Or, to put it more provocatively, is nothing left to discovery today?

John Horgan:

I still stand by the thesis of The End of Science, that the era of truly monumental, paradigmatic discoveries has ended. In fact, the argument seems even more compelling today than it did 20 years ago when the book was first published. My guess is that some of the great remaining mysteries---How, exactly, did the universe begin? How did life begin on earth? Does life exist elsewhere in the universe? How does a brain make a mind?---will turn out to be intractable. But I hope I'm proven wrong, and we can certainly never stop trying to solve these mysteries. And even if I'm right about these huge mysteries, I'm still hopeful that science---and especially applied science---can improve our lives in countless ways by discovering better medicines, energy sources and so on.

Erik Larson:

You've been openly skeptical of fashionable trends in computer science, such as “Big Data.” What, really, is the problem with finding patterns in and drawing conclusions from Big Data, whether in commercial contexts or even in the pursuit of scientific knowledge? With regard to science, is this confirmation of your ongoing concern about the dominance of mere technicalities of science in the absence of novel, deep theory?

John Horgan:

Big DataThe rhetoric of Big Data recycles that of chaos and complexity, two previous faddish fields that in The End of Science I lumped together under the term “chaoplexity” and criticized harshly. Advances in digital technology have been astonishing; they have transformed my profession, journalism, as well as science and other endeavors. But I get annoyed when Big Data boosters---like the chaoplexity folks before them---talk about computers as though they are magic wands that will instantly solve all our practical and intellectual problems. Big Data can help turn up correlations, but the task of determining causation remains extraordinarily difficult.

Erik Larson:

Artificial Intelligence remains a hot topic. Indeed, the question of whether machines can really “want” or have sentience continually beguiles scientists and the public at large. Yet, the history of AI is fraught with failure. At the core of our culture, we seem to desire things from technology that it can never deliver. Can you comment on this? In particular, in your books The End of Science and The Undiscovered Mind, you raise questions about the limits of science that are unwelcome in polite scientific company. Is AI a case in point here?

John Horgan:

TerminatorI became a science writer in the early 1980s, when I briefly believed the hype that computers were going to become sentient and start evolving in unpredictable ways. I no longer take these predictions---which are still spouted by members of the Singularity cult---seriously. They seem childish to me. What I do take seriously is the possibility that robots and digital technologies might start replacing human workers in ways that cause economic and political havoc, especially by increasing inequality.

Erik Larson:

Consciousness---why there should be conscious experience---is a perennial mystery in neuroscience and related fields: cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and neurobiology. Yet as you've pointed out, the neural “map” of conscious experience remains undiscovered. Science advances by removing mystery, but can it remove this mystery? More specifically, is there a fundamental theory of consciousness lurking out there, or do you feel that, as you argued in The End of Science, we've likely exhausted what can be explained about consciousness?

John Horgan:

Neural codeI've written a lot over the last 15 years about the neural code, which is the software that transforms action potentials and other physiological processes in the brain into thoughts, memories, emotions, decisions and all the other components of minds. If scientists can crack the neural code, they might be able to solve the mind-body problem, finally. But the neural code is the toughest problem science has ever confronted. It makes particle physics look like tic tack toe. I'm still hopeful that neuroscientists can make progress, and I see neuroscience as a field with the most potential for truly revolutionary discoveries. But recently serious neuroscientists like Christof Koch have advocated panpsychism, which holds that consciousness pervades everything, even rocks. That's a sign of desperation and frustration, not progress.

Erik Larson:

Talk to us about heretics in science. At issue here are not uninformed people who espouse ridiculous views because they don't know any better. Rather, these are individuals who have been thoroughly trained and socialized in a given scientific discipline, have even contributed to it significantly, but then stake out theories and positions that violate the mainstream consensus. Do these scientific heretics provide any benefit for science? Who are some of the most interesting scientific heretics that you've engaged?

John Horgan:

I love the heretics! The line between genius and crank is often hard to discern, and sometimes it runs through individuals. Fred Hoyle, the great astrophysicist, who coined the phrase “Big Bang,” believed that viruses pervade outer space. Linus Pauling espoused the wacky vitamin-C treatment for cancer. Freeman Dyson believes in ESP, and so does Rupert Sheldrake, the British biologist. I'm extremely conservative in my views of what counts as real science; I'm a hard-core skeptic, who doesn't find the evidence for ESP (for example) compelling. But even if I don't agree with their specific heresies, I like seeing these brilliant iconoclasts shake things up.

Erik Larson:

John Stuart MillIn line with the last question, what do you think about the proper role of dissent in science? John Stuart Mill famously argued for the need of dissenters because otherwise people come to accept issues uncritically, after which true inquiry stops. And yet censorship and vilification seem common in science (witness the controversy over climate change). What do you say to those who argue that once science has reached a consensus on a given question, people should just shut up and accept it? What advice do you have for the general public as it tries to navigate the claims of scientists insofar as these impinge on public policy?

John Horgan:

This is a tough question. I'm not a hard-core postmodernist. I believe that sometimes scientists achieve consensus because they have arrived at the truth. They have actually figured things out, and hence you see widespread agreement on the big bang theory, relativity, quantum mechanics, natural selection, the genetic code. But at other times---string theory, genetic theories of war, and chemical theories of depression come to mind---consensus is achieved for non-scientific reasons, which have more to do with politics and economics and other social factors. The hard part is knowing the difference between legitimate and bogus consensus. I believe that all citizens have the right and even the responsibility to question any given consensus, although you also have a responsibility to do your homework and not challenge a consensus lightly.

Erik Larson:

Let's now turn to the nature of science. How fixed an entity is science? If science is wedded to an Enlightenment vision of materialism---matter in motion, and that's it---might the answer to your skepticism in The End of Science be that science itself has to expand, past brute materialism? What are your thoughts on a possible “Reformation” of science itself?

John Horgan:

Rational Mysticism by John HorganAs I said above, I'm actually quite conservative in the way I judge scientific theories, and skeptical of calls for a non-materialist science, one that takes out-of-body experiences and ESP, for example, seriously. But as someone who is interested in altered states, I sometimes feel that we have barely scratched the surface of the subjective and objective realms. Perhaps we can explore these realms in ways that draw upon science as well as literature, journalism, and philosophy. In fact, that's something I've tried to do in my writing (see Rational Mysticism).

Erik Larson:

Many thinkers have a central theme or animating impulse, out of which they develop their thoughts on different topics and issues. Is there a central theme to your work, and if so, what is it?

John Horgan:

Being a genuine optimist means recognizing all that's wrong with the world and still finding reasons to be hopeful.

Erik Larson:

A rich literary tradition stretching back to Dostoevsky and other “existentialist” thinkers from the 19th century views science as just one way of coming to truth. Today, this approach to science gets branded as “romanticism” or “mysticism.” Yet, science (as you point out) does seem to have limits when aimed at explaining the entirety of human experience. Can you comment on the differences between the liberal arts, or the arts, and science? Is our age so hopelessly technocratic that in fact the life blood of art and literature might be jeopardized?

John Horgan:

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins

I'm reading, and loving, Brothers Karamazov right now! We are in a disturbing period of scientism, in which leading scientists---Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss and Jerry Coyne come to mind---have derogated non-scientific ways of engaging with reality, including the arts and humanities as well as religion. By espousing scientism, these scientists just reveal their own arrogance and small-mindedness. Precisely because science is limited, we are fortunate indeed that we have other ways of knowing the world and sharing our experiences with each other. I recently wrote a piece arguing that James Joyce, in his masterpiece Ulysses, revealed more about the working of our minds than any scientist. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Erik Larson:

The Web has been a great boon for humanity, but it also has raised questions about the limits of technology to make us happy and fulfilled. With social media, for instance, the focus seems away from the better part of our natures and intellects, and more toward the transient and the crassly entertaining. Is this a perennial problem with technology (like television before the advent of the Web), or in your view does today's technology represent a new and palpable danger to human thriving?

John Horgan:

SmartphonesI'm hopelessly addicted to my laptop, cellphone, the internet, but I love them, because they let me do things as a journalist that I couldn't imagine 20 years ago. I resist both the utopian and dystopian claims made for digital technologies. As with all tools, we must try to maximize the upside and minimize the downside.

Erik Larson:

If there were one thing you wished the public at large would consider, that at present is left out of the broad cultural conversation---about science, technology, religion, or anything else---what would it be? Where do you hope to see this conversation in five years? Ten years?

John Horgan:

The End of War by John HorganMy great concern lately is the profound militarization of the U.S., which has had an impact on science as well as politics and other realms of our culture. The popularity of American Sniper, which celebrated a killer of women and children, is evidence of our pathological hawkishness. My concern over this trend led me to write The End of War, in which I try to get people to see war as a parasitic meme that we can and must eradicate. My hope is that over the next decade, more people will recognize the terrible problem of militarism and start talking about how we can solve it.

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