This author said (when in Auckland) that he's a determinist 
-  says that each human being is a computer programmed for the 
obdurate belief in free will but actually determined. 
	You can see throughout this article that he finds himself 
unable to act on that slogan.  He is evidently assuming free will, 
contrary to his claim.
	His list of q's is useful. 
	What he says about Summers (penult para)will infuriate many 
PC ideologues.


	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.

July 15, 2007

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?

This essay was first posted at Edge ( and is reprinted 
with permission. It is the Preface to the book 'What Is Your 
Dangerous Idea?: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable,' 
published by HarperCollins. Write to [log in to unmask]
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 

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 

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.

Explore all relevant ideas
Should we treat some ideas as dangerous?  Let's exclude outright 
lies, deceptive propaganda, incendiary conspiracy theories from 
malevolent crackpots and technological recipes for wanton 
destruction.  Consider only ideas about the truth of empirical claims 
or the effectiveness of policies that, if they turned out to be true, 
would require a significant rethinking of our moral sensibilities. 
And consider ideas that, if they turn out to be false, could lead to 
harm if people believed them to be true.  In either case, we don't 
know whether they are true or false a priori, so only by examining 
and debating them can we find out.  Finally, let's assume that we're 
not talking about burning people at the stake or cutting out their 
tongues but about discouraging their research and giving their ideas 
as little publicity as possible.  There is a good case for exploring 
all ideas relevant to our current concerns, no matter where they 
lead.  The idea that ideas should be discouraged a priori is 
inherently self-refuting. Indeed, it is the ultimate arrogance, as it 
assumes that one can be so certain about the goodness and truth of 
one's own ideas that one is entitled to discourage other people's 
opinions from even being examined.

Also, it's hard to imagine any aspect of public life where ignorance 
or delusion is better than an awareness of the truth, even an 
unpleasant one.  Only children and madmen engage in "magical 
thinking," the fallacy that good things can come true by believing in 
them or bad things will disappear by ignoring them or wishing them 
away.  Rational adults want to know the truth, because any action 
based on false premises will not have the effects they desire. 
Worse, logicians tell us that a system of ideas containing a 
contradiction can be used to deduce any statement whatsoever, no 
matter how absurd.  Since ideas are connected to other ideas, 
sometimes in circuitous and unpredictable ways, choosing to believe 
something that may not be true, or even maintaining walls of 
ignorance around some topic, can corrupt all of intellectual life, 
proliferating error far and wide. In our everyday lives, would we 
want to be lied to, or kept in the dark by paternalistic 
"protectors," when it comes to our health or finances or even the 
weather?  In public life, imagine someone saying that we should not 
do research into global warming or energy shortages because if it 
found that they were serious the consequences for the economy would 
be extremely unpleasant.   Today's leaders who tacitly take this 
position are rightly condemned by intellectually responsible people. 
But why should other unpleasant ideas be treated differently?

There is another argument against treating ideas as dangerous.  Many 
of our moral and political policies are designed to preempt what we 
know to be the worst features of human nature.  The checks and 
balances in a democracy, for instance, were invented in explicit 
recognition of the fact that human leaders will always be tempted to 
arrogate power to themselves.  Likewise, our sensitivity to racism 
comes from an awareness that groups of humans, left to their own 
devices, are apt to discriminate and oppress other groups, often in 
ugly ways.  History also tells us that a desire to enforce dogma and 
suppress heretics is a recurring human weakness, one that has led to 
recurring waves of gruesome oppression and violence.  A recognition 
that there is a bit of Torquemada in everyone should make us wary of 
any attempt to enforce a consensus or demonize those who challenge it.

"Sunlight is the best disinfectant," according to Justice Louis 
Brandeis' famous case for freedom of thought and expression.  If an 
idea really is false, only by examining it openly can we determine 
that it is false.  At that point we will be in a better position to 
convince others that it is false than if we had let it fester in 
private, since our very avoidance of the issue serves as a tacit 
acknowledgment that it may be true.  And if an idea is true, we had 
better accommodate our moral sensibilities to it, since no good can 
come from sanctifying a delusion.  This might even be easier than the 
ideaphobes fear.  The moral order did not collapse when the Earth was 
shown not to be at the center of the solar system, and so it will 
survive other revisions of our understanding of how the world works.

Dangerous to air dangerous ideas?
In the best Talmudic tradition of arguing a position as forcefully as 
possible and then switching sides, let me now present the case for 
discouraging certain lines of intellectual inquiry.  Two of the 
contributors to this volume (Gopnik and Hillis) offer as their 
"dangerous idea" the exact opposite of Gilbert's: They say that it's 
a dangerous idea for thinkers to air their dangerous ideas.  How 
might such an argument play out?

First, one can remind people that we are all responsible for the 
foreseeable consequences of our actions, and that includes the 
consequences of our public statements.  Freedom of inquiry may be an 
important value, according to this argument, but it is not an 
absolute value, one that overrides all others.  We know that the 
world is full of malevolent and callous people who will use any 
pretext to justify their bigotry or destructiveness.  We must expect 
that they will seize on the broaching of a topic that seems in 
sympathy with their beliefs as a vindication of their agenda.

Not only can the imprimatur of scientific debate add legitimacy to 
toxic ideas, but the mere act of making an idea common knowledge can 
change its effects. Individuals, for instance, may harbor a private 
opinion on differences between genders or among ethnic groups but 
keep it to themselves because of its opprobrium.  But once the 
opinion is aired in public, they may be emboldened to act on their 
prejudice -- not just because it has been publicly ratified but 
because they must anticipate that everyone else will act on the 
information.  Some people, for example, might discriminate against 
the members of an ethnic group despite having no pejorative opinion 
about them, in the expectation that their customers or colleagues 
will have such opinions and that defying them would be costly.  And 
then there are the effects of these debates on the confidence of the 
members of the stigmatized groups themselves.

Of course, academics can warn against these abuses, but the 
qualifications and nitpicking they do for a living may not catch up 
with the simpler formulations that run on swifter legs.  Even if they 
did, their qualifications might be lost on the masses.  We shouldn't 
count on ordinary people to engage in the clear thinking -- some 
would say the hair-splitting -- that would be needed to accept a 
dangerous idea but not its terrible consequence.  Our overriding 
precept, in intellectual life as in medicine, should be "First, do no 

We must be especially suspicious when the danger in a dangerous idea 
is to someone other than its advocate.  Scientists, scholars and 
writers are members of a privileged elite.  They may have an interest 
in promulgating ideas that justify their privileges, that blame or 
make light of society's victims, or that earn them attention for 
cleverness and iconoclasm.  Even if one has little sympathy for the 
cynical Marxist argument that ideas are always advanced to serve the 
interest of the ruling class, the ordinary skepticism of a 
tough-minded intellectual should make one wary of "dangerous" 
hypotheses that are no skin off the nose of their hypothesizers.

(The mind-set that leads us to blind review, open debate and 
statements of possible conflicts of interest.)

But don't the demands of rationality always compel us to seek the 
complete truth?  Not necessarily.  Rational agents often choose to be 
ignorant.  They may decide not to be in a position where they can 
receive a threat or be exposed to a sensitive secret.  They may 
choose to avoid being asked an incriminating question, where one 
answer is damaging, another is dishonest and a failure to answer is 
grounds for the questioner to assume the worst (hence the Fifth 
Amendment protection against being forced to testify against 
oneself).  Scientists test drugs in double-blind studies in which 
they keep themselves from knowing who got the drug and who got the 
placebo, and they referee manuscripts anonymously for the same 
reason.  Many people rationally choose not to know the gender of 
their unborn child, or whether they carry a gene for Huntington's 
disease, or whether their nominal father is genetically related to 
them.  Perhaps a similar logic would call for keeping socially 
harmful information out of the public sphere.

Intolerance of unpopular ideas
As for restrictions on inquiry, every scientist already lives with 
them.  They accede, for example, to the decisions of committees for 
the protection of human subjects and to policies on the 
confidentiality of personal information.  In 1975, biologists imposed 
a moratorium on research on recombinant DNA pending the development 
of safeguards against the release of dangerous microorganisms.  The 
notion that intellectuals have carte blanche in conducting their 
inquiry is a myth.

Though I am more sympathetic to the argument that important ideas be 
aired than to the argument that they should sometimes be suppressed, 
I think it is a debate we need to have.  Whether we like it or not, 
science has a habit of turning up discomfiting thoughts, and the 
Internet has a habit of blowing their cover.

Tragically, there are few signs that the debates will happen in the 
place where we might most expect it: academia.  Though academics owe 
the extraordinary perquisite of tenure to the ideal of encouraging 
free inquiry and the evaluation of unpopular ideas, all too often 
academics are the first to try to quash them.  The most famous recent 
example is the outburst of fury and disinformation that resulted when 
Harvard president Lawrence Summers gave a measured analysis of the 
multiple causes of women's underrepresentation in science and math 
departments in elite universities and tentatively broached the 
possibility that discrimination and hidden barriers were not the only 

But intolerance of unpopular ideas among academics is an old story. 
Books like Morton Hunt's The New Know-Nothings and Alan Kors & Harvey 
Silverglate's The Shadow University have depressingly shown that 
universities cannot be counted on to defend the rights of their own 
heretics and that it's often the court system or the press that has 
to drag them into policies of tolerance.  In government, the 
intolerance is even more frightening, because the ideas considered 
there are not just matters of intellectual sport but have immediate 
and sweeping consequences. Chris Mooney, in The Republican War on 
Science, joins Hunt in showing how corrupt and demagogic legislators 
are increasingly stifling research findings they find inconvenient to 
their interests.

Steven Pinker is professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard 
University.  His new book, The Stuff of Thought, will be out in