6. Excessively conservative thinking
about risk possibilities
associated with memetic selection effects
In the book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of ideas as replicators circulating in society as an ecosystem, analogous to genes. He used the term “memes” to refer to ideas. In order to be protected from stupid or useless ideas, human minds have a natural ideological immune system that causes us to dismiss most novel ideas we run across. In general this is useful, but in the context of global risks, which may involve blue sky concepts such as the long-term future of humanity and the power of newly emerging technologies, it can be a stumbling block. Consider times in the past where useful new ideas were rejected but could have saved many lives or much misery. The concept of utilizing nitrogen oxide for anesthesia in surgery was discovered near the end of the 18th century, but it wasn't until 1840, almost 50 years later, that it was actually applied. There was a similar story with hand-washing as a tool for hygiene; Ignaz Semmelweis pioneered its use in the 1840s, when it lowered death rates in his clinic by a factor of 3 to 4 times, yet the practice didn't catch on with skeptical doctors until decades later. Semmelweis was so enthusiastic about handwashing that authorities had him committed to a mental institution, where he soon died. In the 21st century, a time of rapid changes, it would behoove us not to make the same mistakes, as the stakes could be much higher, and the punishment for ignorance greater.