Dangerous Ideas? July 23, 2007

Dangerous Ideas?

The author and psychologist Steven Pinker wrote the preface to a book called What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable. In it, he poses a number of questions that have gotten many intelligent people in trouble merely for asking them in the first place:

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?

Pinker says this about the “dangerous ideas” above — these are “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.”

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.

Pinker’s own new book The Stuff of Thought comes out in September.

(via Reason Magazine)

[tags]Steven Pinker, What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable, bible, religion, Christian, sexual abuse, Native Americans, rape, abortion, Nazism, Africa, intelligence, cloning, The Stuff of Thought[/tags]

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

    Several points, in the case of the ability to imagine and rotate a figure in the imagination, which I believe is the only really documented aggregate difference between the gender groups tested, there is only a very small documented difference and there is the documented ability to improve the ability with training.

    These kinds of studies are usually reported as some kind of average of each gender. Of course, the average isn’t a person, it’s a number which is in a sense an agreed upon myth. This mythical person doesn’t exist, the people studied did.

    Pinker is an ass who has gotten by on celebrity, probably in part due to his hair sense. He is a prop for the establishment, a citation for those who want to suppress the rights and aspirations of women. I’ve heard and read other, less flashy, scientists in his area who think he’s pretty much fact free.

  • Maria

    sounds like an interesting book. I’ll be on the lookout

  • The crime rate in the 90s probably went down because Clinton wasn’t wedded to the conservative idea that keeping the unemployment rate high was a good way to suppress the demand for higher wages. It was a lot easier to find a job around here during his administration.

    It’s interesting that the assumption is that women who had abortions were more likely to produce children who would be “prone to violence”. Where are the hard numbers from various sources that support the idea? Considering that the Bush Crime Family has produced more violence than just about any other family you could name it’s a pretty far fetched assumption for even the always sucking up to the establishment Pinker to have a part in. And people consider this kind of thing science.

  • All politics aside, some of these questions are very interesting. It’s good to see that, for whatever reason, they are being given a platform for examination.

    You know, this whole idea reminds me of an earlier post I saw on this blog:


    Asking these kinds of questions may seem outrageous at times, but they will inevitably need to be addressed if people who stand for reason want to be taken seriously. Which isn’t really a problem, as most of them are easily addressed, anyway–but a select few people feel that some of the answers are obvious enough to warrant calling the questions “stupid.”

  • Polly

    I applaud this post.
    I hate how conversation about “sensitive” topics has a tendency to get shut down quickly, often running into the brick wall of political correctness. PC stifles intellect by arbitrarily demarcating and limiting the horizon of imaginative question-asking by deeming certain thoughts as “racist” or “bigoted” or “chauvenistic” or any other label.
    We should be allowed to ask questions and demand answers. Only those who doubt the strength of their ideology hide behind PC.
    It amounts to soft censorship.

    My contributing outrageously eevil question: “Is post-mortem cannibalism more desirable, due to its greater resource efficiency, than burial or cremation? Or are the risks of disease transmission too great?”

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