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Spreading a scientific gospel of reason

SANTA FE, N.M. — What can we expect from a guy who says stupidity is the world’s number one problem?

David Krakauer is president of the Santa Fe Institute. (Courtesy of the Santa Fe Institute)

David Krakauer is president of the Santa Fe Institute. (Courtesy of the Santa Fe Institute)

Quite a bit, apparently, if one is to judge from a host of ideas thrown out by the Santa Fe Institute’s new president, David Krakauer, at a media luncheon this week on the campus overlooking Santa Fe.

He’s looking to spread the scientific gospel of reason and evidence to the general public and has come up with some proposals for how the Santa Fe Institute might do that. They range from a festival to a “multiversity” to complexity science awards for innovators.

“I want rationality to diffuse into the world,” Krakauer said.

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One approach he suggests involves forming partnerships with universities, similar to the Center for Biosocial Complex Systems that SFI already has in place with Arizona State University.

Perhaps five students, for example, from each of four or five partner schools would be designated as headed toward an SFI certification in complexity science along with their regular degree.

Those students would attend a sort of summer school at SFI. In keeping with the institute’s famous purpose of bringing together great thinkers from different scientific fields, as well as artists like novelist Cormac McCarthy and playwright Sam Shepard, the students would be exposed to ideas and research from an array of disciplines, breaking through the separation of academic “silos” and sparking awareness of how one field of research might affect or interact with another.

The result, he said, could be “a vibrant community of smart young people and faculty” in Santa Fe. He added that he’d like to include students before they reach the graduate school level. Another idea would be to reach out to companies such as Google and Pixar that would pay $40,000 to $50,000 per year to take part in a business network with SFI.

“It would be like a gym for the mind,” Krakauer said.

They would send staff members to SFI for a week or two, similar to retreats they might already hold, but with the extra stimulation the institute’s faculty could offer. The exchange of ideas and information could enrich both sides, Krakauer said. “We get from them what they know,” he said. “We give them ideas.”

A third proposal involves setting up prizes that recognize significant contributions in complexity science – one for a significant contribution to increasing our understanding of the world of nature and another for someone who has had a major impact in applying what is known in science to solving or ameliorating a problem in the real world. That latter prize would not have to do with the technical difficulty of ideas, but to those that make a real, positive difference in the world, Krakauer said.

Saying he hopes to have the awards program in place by next year, he added, “The scale will depend on the underwriters, so I’m guessing we’ll start modestly.”

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The “most out-there thing” Krakauer said he’s looking at is some type of festival bringing together creative thinkers. The idea he put forward for a theme is interplanetary travel and how one would accomplish it. Such brain-storming would bring together fields of engineering, psychology, biology and far more – all the aspects of what it would take to sustain human life in an enclosed environment. “It’s a code for complexity,” Krakauer said.

And, he added, “These are all components required to assure Earth survives – the interplanetary aspect is a conceit,” but it concentrates thinking in a way people can understand the issues.

“We have a fixation on single variables,” Krakauer said, explaining that people need to broaden their scientific thinking to considering how numerous factors can interact and contribute to solving or worsening the issues we face.

A graduate of the University of London, where he earned degrees in biology and computer science, Krakauer received a D.Phil. from Oxford University in evolutionary theory. He was a visiting professor of evolution at Princeton University and then a professor at SFI, where he was named faculty chairman in 2009 both in biological systems, such as cells, and in culture. He left a couple of years later for the University of Wisconsin-Madison to direct the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. In 2012, Wired UK magazine named Krakauer among 50 people who will change the world.

He was chosen to succeed Jerry Sabloff as SFI president by the institute’s board late last year.

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