“Dangerous to Air Dangerous Ideas?”

By August 7, 2007

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? 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? Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism?

Steven Pinker, a philosophy professor at Harvard University, begins a recent article with these and other examples of what he terms “dangerous ideas.” By “dangerous ideas,” Pinker clarifies, he does not mean harmful technologies or evil ideologies. Instead, he refers to “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.” From a free speech perspective, these are often the ideas that society most vehemently seeks to censor and vilify, despite (or perhaps because of) the kernels of truth they may contain.

According to Pinker, history shows that people consistently “invest 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.” So, he asks, why haven’t we learned? Why does the intellectual mainstream continue to persecute those who discuss dangerous ideas?

Pinker posits that one motivation could be that the acceptance of a certain idea may lead to a harmful, but most often unrealistic, outcome.  In response to those who argue that the triumph of the “nature” side of the “nature vs. nurture” argument would lead to child abuse, Pinker says, “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.” Another motivation may be society’s tendency to split into factions and then don “intellectual blinkers,” discouraging the discussion or recognition of ideas that threaten the faction’s belief.  However, discouraging an idea a priori, he writes, “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.”

What is the solution? Pinker believes in our epistemological institutions: “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.” However, he worries that the academy, the place where we most expect rigorous truth-seeking, is instead one of society’s most intolerant factions.

In his conclusion, Pinker mentions The Shadow University in a disappointed observation that intolerance in the academy has persisted for some time and will probably persist in the future. With the school year approaching, let’s hope that professors, administrators, and students join Pinker in defending the right to discuss dangerous ideas and see the wisdom in his eloquent summary:

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.