The Big Idea

By BBC World Service

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What are the big ideas shaping our world now?

Episode Date
The Teenage Brain
Teenagers are an alien species. Well, that’s not exactly the conclusion of Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s research, but it’s a crude summary. Professor Blakemore is a leading neuroscientist who studies the teenage brain. When humans enter adolescence their brains, as well as their bodies, go through a period of transformation. And, during this period their behaviour alters. They become more risk-taking for example, and more acutely conscious of how they’re perceived by others. Professor Blakemore even has an explanation for why they can’t get out of bed. Presenter David Edmonds Producer Ben Cooper (Image: Parent with Teenager, Credit: Shutterstock)
Aug 12, 2018
How To Stop Murder
How can we reduce murder rates? Homicide is frequent in some countries, rare in others. The countries in which the homicide rate is very high include El Salvador and Honduras. The countries in which the murder rate is very low include Japan and Norway. The homicide rate in El Salvador is 100 times worse than the homicide rate in Norway. So what explains this extraordinary difference? Susanne Karstedt is a German-born criminologist who researches homicide around the world. She offers a surprising answer. Presenter David Edmonds Producer Ben Cooper This episode has been updated to correct that San Pedro Sula is in Honduras and not Guatemala (Image: Crime Scene, Shutterstock)
Aug 05, 2018
Democracy and Famine
What is the cause of famine? The obvious answer is shortage of food. But, says the Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen that misses a vital point. In his research on famines, he showed that there’s usually enough food to go around – it just doesn’t reach the people who need it. Often that’s because news of food scarcity hasn’t been widely publicised. In democracies people don’t starve to death, he says, because there’s always pressure on the politicians to alleviate suffering. Presenter David Edmonds Producer Ben Cooper (Image: Bengal Famine, Credit: Getty Images)
Jul 29, 2018
Dimensions of Discrimination
Do black woman face more prejudice than black men or white women? The legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced a new way of thinking about disadvantage in society. She called it ‘intersectionality’. It attempts to analyze how different forms of marginalization – race, class, gender and so on – overlap. And it has been hugely influential on those academics and policy makers who deal with the nature and impact of discrimination. Presenter David Edmonds
Jul 22, 2018
Inequality Makes Us Anxious
Inequality makes people anxious. How? Well, according to Kate Pickett, in unequal societies we become more conscious of our position in society, more aware of our status. That creates anxiety. And that in turn is linked to all sorts of bad outcomes, such as obesity, lower life-expectancy, and higher levels of teenage pregnancy. It’s also linked, claims Professor Pickett, to consumerism. In unequal societies, she says, we’re more likely to want the branded watch or handbag. Then, as you’ll hear, there’s the weird connection between inequality and female attraction to men…. Presented by David Edmonds Produced by Ben Cooper Image: John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in the Class Sketch from Frost Over England, 1967 (Credit: BBC)
Jul 15, 2018
Are We All Racist?
Are we all racist? Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji is the architect of what is arguably psychology’s most influential experiment. It’s called the Implicit Association Test (the IAT) and it has been taken millions and millions of times. It purports to be a measure of our unconscious bias towards various groups – e.g. blacks, women, the old or the disabled. Most people taking the IAT do exhibit some kind of bias. That leads to two questions – how worried should we be at these implicit attitudes, and what could be done about them? Presented by David Edmonds (Image: Question marks, Credit: Shutterstock)
Jul 08, 2018
The New Distrust
In an era of fake news, are we living through a crisis in trust? Without trust society couldn’t function. We need to know that individuals and organizations are competent and reliable, that they’re not corrupt and that they’ll honour their word. But now we have digital manipulation, allegations of fabricated news stories and ubiquitous social media spewing out much that is bogus and emotionally manipulative. What, then, can be done to counter these developments? And how much of a threat do they pose to democracy? We speak to the most trustworthy of philosophers, Onora O’Neill. Presented by David Edmonds (Image: Pinnochio on newspapers, Credit: Getty Images)
Jul 01, 2018
Contact Theory
How do you stop different groups hating each other? Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Palestinians and Jews in the Middle East. Muslims and Hindus in India. Is building walls between them the solution? According to Miles Hewstone, of Oxford University, what’s really needed is contact – the more you are exposed to people in another group, the less you distrust and fear them. Presented by David Edmonds (Image: doves, Credit: Shutterstock)
Jun 24, 2018
Economics and Mosquito Nets
What’s the best way of persuading parents in developing countries to immunize their kids? Do women politicians make a difference to what policies are pursued? If you want to reduce malaria is it best to give people mosquito nets for free or make them pay? The influential economist Esther Duflo has revolutionised the way we answer these questions. The secret is to introduce RCTs - Randomized Control Trials. Producer: Dave Edmonds (Image: Nurse with Needle, Credit: Shutterstock)
Jun 17, 2018
Memory Wars
Many criminal court cases rest on eye-witness accounts of what happened. There’s a problem though. Elizabeth Loftus – one of the world’s most influential psychologists – has shown in numerous experiments that memory is not nearly as reliable as we once believed. It is easy to alter memories. It’s even quite easy to implant entirely false memories – making people believe they remember something which never occurred. Presented by David Edmonds (Photo: Brain and eraser, Credit: Shutterstock)
Jun 10, 2018
A World Without Livestock?
What is the biggest cause of climate change? According to biomedical researcher Pat Brown it’s an extremely inefficient technology – aka cows. Maintaining livestock is hugely expensive. It produces greenhouse gases. And it takes up much of the land we use on the planet. So what’s the solution? Professor Brown believes it’s the creation of a new meat – meat which is made without animal flesh. Presented by David Edmonds (Image: Cow, Credit: Shutterstock)
Jun 03, 2018
Outrage and Moral Conscience
Why is there so much outrage on social media? And what does this have to do with our moral conscience? Molly Crockett is a neuroscientist who runs her own lab at Yale University. She believes that concern about reputation may explain both the operation of our conscience and our frequent expressions of indignation. Presented by David Edmonds (Image: Flaming fists, Credit: Shutterstock)
May 27, 2018
A great advantage of the internet and social media is that they allow us to keep in touch with all our friends, even when they move away. That means our group of friends can carry on expanding indefinitely. Except, says anthropologist Robin Dunbar, it can’t. There’s a limit to the number of friends we can have. It is known as Dunbar’s number. Presented by David Edmonds (Image: Group of friends, Credit: Shutterstock)
May 20, 2018
Baby Boffins
Babies know little and learn slowly. Right? Not according to child psychologist Alison Gopnik. She has spent decades investigating the extraordinary talents and abilities of babies and young children. Her conclusion: they’re much smarter than you might think. The presenter is David Edmonds (Image: Clever Baby, Credit: Shutterstock)
May 19, 2018
One day – and Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom believes it may not be far away – computers could become super-intelligent. At that stage they’ll far surpass human intelligence. They may be able to solve our most intractable problems – like find a cure for every disease. But will we be able to control these computers – or will they control us? David Edmonds presents (Image: Computer code, Credit: Shutterstock)
May 17, 2018
Social Physics
Professor Sandy Pentland is the modern pioneer of what’s called ‘Social Physics’ - the analysis of human interactions using so called Big Data. Mining data - from credit cards, electronic ticketing and mobile phones - we can now take a reading of the city, its pulse. Sandy Pentland tells us why some cities are richer and more successful than others. Presented by David Edmonds (Image: Busy city scene at night, Credit: Getty Images)
May 16, 2018
The Growth Mindset
The Growth Mind Set. Is there such a thing as innate talent? Possibly. We’re not all capable of winning a Nobel physics prize. But according to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck children who believe that talent is fixed do worse at school. For kids to succeed, they need what she calls ‘a growth mindset’. Her theories have had an enormous influence on education around the world. Presented by David Edmonds (Image: Children in classroom, Credit: Shutterstock)
May 15, 2018
Can our experiences be passed down biologically to our children and grandchildren? Quite a thought given for a long time now the orthodoxy has been that our traits are transmitted through our genes meaning that how your father or mother behaves can’t affect your biology. However, this evolutionary theory may itself be evolving. In one study, mice who were psychologically stressed, seemed to pass on this stress to their descendants. It’s controversial, but Professor Eva Jablonka argues, that the impact of what happens to us in life could be felt by future generations. Presented by David Edmonds (Image: Illustration of DNA, Credit: Shutterstock)
May 14, 2018
Future Gazing
We’re used to seeing political pundits on our television screens predicting future events – who will win an election, whether a war or social unrest might break out, whether an international treaty will be signed. How accurate are these forecasts? Well, this is something Philip Tetlock has studied, and it turns out, not very. And oddly, the more famous the pundit, he says, the worse their predictive record. Presented by David Edmonds (Image: Crystal ball, Credit: Shutterstock)
May 13, 2018
Monkey Money
What can monkeys tell us about the stock market? Apes and monkeys are our closest animal relatives. We share a common evolutionary history. Through studying them, Laurie Santos believes we can learn a bit about ourselves and our attitude to money. Laurie Santos has taught monkeys to use money (or tokens). And it turns out that in experiments, monkeys make some ‘financial’ decisions which are remarkably similar to those made by humans. This may explain why we humans keep facing financial crises! Presented by David Edmonds (Image: Rodin/Thinking Gorilla, Credit: Shutterstock)
May 12, 2018
The Big Preview: The Big Idea
The search for the most interesting ideas around - ideas which are shaping our understanding of the world and our place within it. Written and presented by David Edmonds, who will be talking to leading thinkers from fields such as economics, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and anthropology.
May 11, 2018