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We are a worldwide social network of freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

In defense of dangerous ideas
In every age, taboo questions raise our blood pressure and threaten moral panic. But we cannot be afraid to answer them.

by Steven Pinker

Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?

Were the events in the Bible fictitious -- not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?

Has the state of the environment improved in the last 50 years?

Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage?

Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape?

Do men have an innate tendency to rape?

Did the crime rate go down in the 1990s because two decades earlier poor women aborted children who would have been prone to violence?

Are suicide terrorists well-educated, mentally healthy and morally driven?

Would the incidence of rape go down if prostitution were legalized?

Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white men?

Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?

Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized?

Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease?

Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would consign them to a life of pain and disability?

Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children?

Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism?

Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?

Would Africa have a better chance of rising out of poverty if it hosted more polluting industries or accepted Europe's nuclear waste?

Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people?

Would unwanted children be better off if there were a market in adoption rights, with babies going to the highest bidder?

Would lives be saved if we instituted a free market in organs for transplantation?

Should people have the right to clone themselves, or enhance the genetic traits of their children?

Perhaps you can feel your blood pressure rise as you read these questions. Perhaps you are appalled that people can so much as think such things. Perhaps you think less of me for bringing them up. These are dangerous ideas -- ideas that are denounced not because they are self-evidently false, nor because they advocate harmful action, but because they are thought to corrode the prevailing moral order.

Think about it

By "dangerous ideas" I don't have in mind harmful technologies, like those behind weapons of mass destruction, or evil ideologies, like those of racist, fascist or other fanatical cults. I have in mind statements of fact or policy that are defended with evidence and argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to challenge the collective decency of an age. The ideas listed above, and the moral panic that each one of them has incited during the past quarter century, are examples. Writers who have raised ideas like these have been vilified, censored, fired, threatened and in some cases physically assaulted.

Every era has its dangerous ideas. For millennia, the monotheistic religions have persecuted countless heresies, together with nuisances from science such as geocentrism, biblical archeology, and the theory of evolution. We can be thankful that the punishments have changed from torture and mutilation to the canceling of grants and the writing of vituperative reviews. But intellectual intimidation, whether by sword or by pen, inevitably shapes the ideas that are taken seriously in a given era, and the rear-view mirror of history presents us with a warning.

Time and again, people have invested factual claims with ethical implications that today look ludicrous. The fear that the structure of our solar system has grave moral consequences is a venerable example, and the foisting of "intelligent design" on biology students is a contemporary one. These travesties should lead us to ask whether the contemporary intellectual mainstream might be entertaining similar moral delusions. Are we enraged by our own infidels and heretics whom history may some day vindicate?

Unsettling possibilities

Dangerous ideas are likely to confront us at an increasing rate and we are ill equipped to deal with them. When done right, science (together with other truth-seeking institutions, such as history and journalism) characterizes the world as it is, without regard to whose feelings get hurt. Science in particular has always been a source of heresy, and today the galloping advances in touchy areas like genetics, evolution and the environment sciences are bound to throw unsettling possibilities at us. Moreover, the rise of globalization and the Internet are allowing heretics to find one another and work around the barriers of traditional media and academic journals. I also suspect that a change in generational sensibilities will hasten the process. The term "political correctness" captures the 1960s conception of moral rectitude that we baby boomers brought with us as we took over academia, journalism and government. In my experience, today's students -- black and white, male and female -- are bewildered by the idea, common among their parents, that certain scientific opinions are immoral or certain questions too hot to handle.

What makes an idea "dangerous"? One factor is an imaginable train of events in which acceptance of the idea could lead to an outcome recognized as harmful. In religious societies, the fear is that if people ever stopped believing in the literal truth of the Bible they would also stop believing in the authority of its moral commandments. That is, if today people dismiss the part about God creating the Earth in six days, tomorrow they'll dismiss the part about "Thou shalt not kill." In progressive circles, the fear is that if people ever were to acknowledge any differences between races, sexes or individuals, they would feel justified in discrimination or oppression. Other dangerous ideas set off fears that people will neglect or abuse their children, become indifferent to the environment, devalue human life, accept violence and prematurely resign themselves to social problems that could be solved with sufficient commitment and optimism.

All these outcomes, needless to say, would be deplorable. But none of them actually follows from the supposedly dangerous idea. Even if it turns out, for instance, that groups of people are different in their averages, the overlap is certainly so great that it would be irrational and unfair to discriminate against individuals on that basis. Likewise, even if it turns out that parents don't have the power to shape their children's personalities, it would be wrong on grounds of simple human decency to abuse or neglect one's children. And if currently popular ideas about how to improve the environment are shown to be ineffective, it only highlights the need to know what would be effective.

Another contributor to the perception of dangerousness is the intellectual blinkers that humans tend to don when they split into factions. People have a nasty habit of clustering in coalitions, professing certain beliefs as badges of their commitment to the coalition and treating rival coalitions as intellectually unfit and morally depraved. Debates between members of the coalitions can make things even worse, because when the other side fails to capitulate to one's devastating arguments, it only proves they are immune to reason. In this regard, it's disconcerting to see the two institutions that ought to have the greatest stake in ascertaining the truth -- academia and government -- often blinkered by morally tinged ideologies. One ideology is that humans are blank slates and that social problems can be handled only through government programs that especially redress the perfidy of European males. Its opposite number is that morality inheres in patriotism and Christian faith and that social problems may be handled only by government policies that punish the sins of individual evildoers. New ideas, nuanced ideas, hybrid ideas -- and sometimes dangerous ideas -- often have trouble getting a hearing against these group-bonding convictions.

The conviction that honest opinions can be dangerous may even arise from a feature of human nature. Philip Tetlock and Alan Fiske have argued that certain human relationships are constituted on a basis of unshakeable convictions. We love our children and parents, are faithful to our spouses, stand by our friends, contribute to our communities, and are loyal to our coalitions not because we continually question and evaluate the merits of these commitments but because we feel them in our bones. A person who spends too much time pondering whether logic and fact really justify a commitment to one of these relationships is seen as just not "getting it." Decent people don't carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of selling their children or selling out their friends or their spouses or their colleagues or their country. They reject these possibilities outright; they "don't go there." So the taboo on questioning sacred values make sense in the context of personal relationships. It makes far less sense in the context of discovering how the world works or running a country.


Read the rest here.

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Replies to This Discussion

If this article was published BEFORE Pinker published "The Stuff of Thought, it is quite a few years old. I like Pinker, but at that time he was totally enamored of this "defense of dangerous ideas"; the problem is that, as he correctly says, we cannot pay attention  to all "dangerous ideas" because many are put forth simply to manipulate, as propaganda; scientists cannot go about testing all these "dangerous ideas"; for us to test hypothesis, there must be some grounding in what we currently know: does the hypothesis even make sense? For example, take "Do men have an innate tendency to rape?" as a hypothesis: why would one ever come up with such hypothesis. The vast majority of men on the planet do not rape; if it was an innate tendency, why wouldn't it be something the vast majority of men do? It's cute to come up with provocative questions to prove your point, but most of these examples are cheap shots at getting your attention. A critical thinker can dismantle most of them the way I just did with that example.


And many of his "untouchable" ideas, those that would raise the reader's blood pressure, according to Pinker, have been subject to plenty of investigation, speculation, etc. For example the one about women having different aptitudes than men; or parents influencing the intelligence of their children, or morality being a product of evolution, or if homosexuality is the symptom of a disease (infectious or otherwise). Nice try, Dr. Pinker, but you're not having any effect on my blood pressure, you're just making me smile.

Yeah, I knew it was several years old. And yes, I'm glad he does point out that we can't test all dangerous ideas. I think at one point he said "credible" or perhaps "legitimate" ideas.


Nice try, Dr. Pinker, but you're not having any effect on my blood pressure, you're just making me smile.


I just saw his examples of being representational of the kind of ideas/questions that usually get people in an uproar -- as if to say, How dare you ask such things? And a lot of people are that way.

Yes, I know why he asks these questions, and I know they get a lot of people upset. But some of these would get me upset exactly because they make no sense. Shouldn't he be asking "dangerous" questions that make sense to be asked, to start with, and then figure out why they make people uncomfortable? These questions are confusing, because that's not how we ask questions in science: we formulate hypothesis that come from a previous body of knowledge, that they make sense to investigate. We don't investigate "dangerous ideas" just because they are dangerous. they may be dangerous, and stupid. He makes it look as if scientists shouldn't skirt from these questions. I think it's confusing for the general public. Sometimes Pinker rubs me the wrong way, trying to be the "pure" scientist.

These questions are confusing, because that's not how we ask questions in science: we formulate hypothesis that come from a previous body of knowledge, that they make sense to investigate.


I see what you're saying.


I like Pinker a lot, but I'm not really qualified to critique him. Though there are some links to critiques of his work on his Wiki page that I may check out one day.

Of course you are qualified to critique him. You are a critical thinker, and this article is opinion anyway, it's not about cognitive psychology or language. I did love his book "The stuff of Thought". His current wife, Rebecca Goldstein, a philosopher, humanist, atheist, has an interesting work of fiction out there that I'm tempted to read: "36 arguments for the existence of god: a work of fiction"

Well, I may be a critical thinker, but he's a Harvard Psychologist. He's way more educated than I am. I'm not so arrogant as to forget that. But of course that does not mean that I don't have opinions, it's just that I don't have his training.


GWB was also way more educated than you, with a Yale MBA :-)

I wouldn't put too much faith in that. He was bound to graduate with an MBA no matter what. The son of a family with deep pockets will not get failed from Yale. So he may have worked hard, or he may of blew it off -- I don't know. To me, it is meaningless.


But getting back to my original point: What I'm trying to say is that when non-scientific people try to dismiss evolution or when they try to deny the science of climate change, that they are talking about things which they are unqualified to speak on.


I am not scientist, but I have read A LOT about climate change, including reports, publications, books, articles, etc. I have watched many documentaries, too. Although I feel very informed about the science of climate change, I cannot (with certainty) put my opinions or predictions on the same level as a man or woman with 5 PhDs and years of experience in the field. That's all I'm trying to say.


Heh, I'm trying to be humble here! : )

Then there is Kurt Wise - a Harvard PhD in Geology who is a young earth creationist.  Wow.
To me ideas only become dangerous when they escape the mind that thought them up. Until that happens they are just another thought in the sea of minds.
Yes, but that's what ideas want -- to escape. Which is why we talk so much!
I think this entire article is just a nice argument for teaching critical thinking skills. What makes some ideas 'dangerous' is the inability of most people to thoroughly analyze them to test whether or not they hold any merit. The only 'dangerous' ideas are those which are not properly examined.

To this end, I would like to bring up Ernst Zundel, "Holocaust Denier". Holocaust denial is such an emotionally charged issue that most people can't even make valid rebuttals to Zundel's 'facts', and I think that is a shame. I think the real dangerous idea here is to make the 'thought' illegal rather than present the rebuttals to it.

Had I been a history teacher in the 80's I would have loved to use Zundel's material to teach critical thinking skills in historical methodology because I truly believe the average high school student would have had a field day discovering all the fallacies in Zundel's pamphlets. Such a lesson might have fostered excellent skills for dealing with all sort of modern political rhetoric.

I also feel such lessons would have empowered many students to face a current phenomenon that I call 'doubt propaganda'. Today, more than ever, it seems that there is a lot of mis-information being spread about science. As an example, I love the 'documentary' called Mysterious Origins of Man, hosted by Charlton Heston. The show uses many of Zundel's techniques to create doubt about scientific findings in general - and I've actually encountered atheists and self-proclaimed 'skeptics' that buy into these fallacies, feeling they represent a 'skeptical' point of view.


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