Are Some Ideas Too Dangerous to Discuss?


In a fascinating op/ed, Harvard cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, lists a number of taboo ideas that have been soundly denounced by various people. To wit:

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 suggests that many readers will be appalled by some of these questions. I personally find most of them interesting. He continues:

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.

While people of good will can disagree, I believe that there are no dangerous truths. It is always better to know than to remain ignorant. For the sake of argument, Pinker entertains the notion that some ideas may, indeed, be too dangerous to air publicly. Why? Perhaps because malevolent people may seize on the ideas to justify harming other people or groups. He also properly urges us to be "suspicious when the danger in a dangerous idea is to someone other than its advocate."

But in the end, Pinker concludes:

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.

I am very proud to say that reason does not shy away from taboo topics such as, organ transplant markets, legalizing drugs, the improving natural environment, economic development in Africa, and genetic enhancement, to name a few. 

Whole Pinker op/ed here. reason's 2002 interview with Pinker here.