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
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
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
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?
This essay was first posted
at Edge (www.edge.org) 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
Would the incidence of rape go down if prostitution were
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
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
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
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
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
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
Explore all relevant
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
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 harm."
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
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
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 cause.
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
Steven Pinker is professor
in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. His new
book, The Stuff of Thought, will be out in