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?
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.
Great point, Heather: these days, mostly due to climate change, there is a confusion between skepticism (always healthy) and denial. Propaganda really works; marketing experts know a lot about human psychology and they are pros at giving the "right spin" to induce doubt. Not only to induce doubt, sometimes to eliminate doubt. Very well said: the only dangerous idea is one that remains un-analyzed.
There is also a confusion about what a scientific fact is; many don't realize that all of science is by definition, subject to revision. Absolute truths and certainties do not belong in the realm of science. This also creates confusion among some people, because they assume that this means that anyone, anytime, can raise doubt about scientific theories or findings, such as the creationists who think they can challenge evolution by asking a stupid question such as "explain the eye!" (sigh). Yes, science always involves uncertainty, but the level of uncertainty varies from theory (in the scientific sense) to theory. Ask anyone who brings up science's uncertainties as if this means anything is questionable and fair game: if you drop a coin from the top floor of a building, do you predict that it will fall to ground, or that it will float up into a cloud?
For me the real question has always been when will we be able to engineer our population to match resources/goals, which begs the questions "what are our goals?" The math of the matter is inescapable: we cannot continue increasing our population, increasing the percent of our population consuming 'modern levels' of energy, AND increasing 'modern levels' of energy consumption indefinitely. Something has to give and they only people addressing the issue seem to be those who would like to keep China out of the petroleum trough (too late).
The concept of engineering our population (possibly incorporating passive eugenics) is one that seems 'too dangerous' for most people to even speak about.
there is a confusion between skepticism (always healthy) and denial.
if you drop a coin from the top floor of a building, do you predict that it will fall to ground, or that it will float up into a cloud?
Inference is a useful thing!
Heather, I think you are right in that this is an argument for critical thinking. However, I also think Adriana is right in that some of the questions are not very "dangerous" at all. Just stupid. However, at some point in time some of the were considered dangerous or taboo. After all, homosex was considered a disease, and still is by some.
I think it is important to at least acknowledge though that Pinker is not fooled by such stupid questions. I suspect he probably knows which are worth entertaining. But hoi polloi? Probably not.
And Charlton Heston is a fucktard!