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 in the first paragraph, 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. — Steven Pinker (From The Preface)
WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?
The 2006 Edge Question — "What Is Your Dangerous Idea" — has now been published in book form in the US and the UK. The question was posed by Steven Pinker:
For the book version, Steven Pinker wrote the Preface and Richard Dawkins wrote the Afterword. I am pleased to present both pieces below.
Edge is a conversation. The conversation continues.
"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)
WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN
"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian
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 in the first paragraph, 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.
Preface to Dangerous Ideas
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 fifty 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? Are Ashkenazi Jews, on average, smarter than gentiles because their ancestors were selected for the shrewdness needed in money lending? 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?
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 in the first paragraph, 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
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 liable to be enraged
by our own infidels and heretics whom history may some day vindicate?
I suggested to John Brockman that he devote
his annual Edge question to dangerous ideas because I believe
that they are likely to confront us at an increasing rate and that
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.
makes an idea "dangerous"?
One factor is an imaginable train of events in which acceptance of the idea
could lead to an outcome that only recently has been recognized as harmful.
In religious societies, the fear is that 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
There is a good case for exploring all
ideas relevant to our current concerns, no matter where they lead. The very
act of engaging in rational discourse presupposes a commitment to evaluating
ideas on their intellectual warrant alone. Otherwise how could one even make
the case that dangerous ideas should be discouraged, in the face of someone
else arguing (as Dan Gilbert does in this volume) that the idea of discouraging
ideas is itself morally dangerous? Should proponents of keeping dangerous ideas
private then be forced to keep that idea private, because their opponents
deem it to be dangerous? If not, why should the proponents' judgment
about dangerousness and nondangerousness be granted a privilege they
deny to others? 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.
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
There is another argument against treating
ideas as dangerous. Many of our moral and political policies are designed to
pre-empt 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's 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.
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?
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.
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
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."
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 (the mindset that leads
us to blind review, open debate, and statements of possible conflicts of interest)
should make one wary of "dangerous" hypotheses that are
no skin off the nose of their hypothesizers.
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.
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.
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 and 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.
The essays in the present volume offer a startling variety of stimulating thoughts. Some are frankly speculative, others are ideas about an unrecognized danger, and many are versions of Copernicus's original dangerous idea — that we are not the center of the universe, literally or metaphorically. Whether you agree or disagree, are shocked or blasé, I hope that these essays provoke you to ponder what makes ideas dangerous and what we should do about them.
Where scientists are concerned, John Brockman has the most enviable address book in America. His annual Edge Question yields a book whose Table of Contents on its own is well worth reading. Here is a set of authors with something to say, and with outstanding credentials to say it, all faced with the same seemingly simple question — in this case "What is your dangerous idea?” What answers will the Brockman circle come up with? What surprising meanings, indeed, will they discover for the question? Dangerous to whom? Or to what?
Afterword to Dangerous Ideas
Dangerous ideas are what has driven humanity onward, usually to the consternation of the majority in any particular age who thrive on familiarity and fear change. Yesterday's dangerous idea is today's orthodoxy and tomorrow's cliché. Surely somebody must have said that? If not I'll have to say it myself, although only to pull back in a hurry. Such seductive generalizations conceal a dangerous asymmetry. Although it is true that hindsight can recognize accepted norms that were once dangerous ideas, it is also true that most dangerous ideas from the past neither deserved nor received eventual acceptance. It is not enough for an idea to be dangerous. It must also be good.
The 109 contributors to this book ply the spectrum. There's danger to the world or to the future of humanity and life. There's danger to vested interests whose amour propre might be threatened. There's danger to one's own personal peace of mind or sense of cosmic worth. There's danger in the sense of ideas that are intellectually daring or bold — pushing the envelope, to employ the fashionable cliché — which doesn't necessarily imply danger in any of the other senses. Happily, in modern America there is no need to talk about ideas that threaten the thinker's life because they are deemed unacceptable by the prevailing society. Galileo was prevented, on pain of physical harm, from publishing his dangerous ideas. Darwin was more fortunate in his time, although he arguably censored his dangerous idea for two decades for fear of upsetting his wife, and the society of which she was a part. Closer to our own time, in Lysenko's Russia, ideas that today's geneticists consider commonplace — indeed, simply true — could not be uttered without danger of public humiliation and imprisonment.
Those tallies are not mutually exclusive. I did, however, recognize one exclusive pair of categories, and I forced myself to place every contribution in one or other of them. It seemed to me that there is a non-overlapping and exhaustive distinction between ideas that are false or true about the real world — factual matters in the broad sense — and ideas about what we ought to do — normative or moral ideas, for which the words true and false have no meaning. It is perhaps unsurprising that a group predominantly made up of scientists should favour 'is' ideas (factual, true-or-false ideas) over 'ought' (normative, policy) ideas, but not by a great margin. I make it 68 factual to 41 policy ideas.
Are there any dangerous ideas that are conspicuously under-represented in this book? I have two suggestions, both of which can be spun into either the 'is' or the 'ought' box. First, I noticed only fleeting references to eugenics, and they were disparaging. In the 1920s and 30s, scientists from the political left as well as right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous — though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, even under the license granted by a book like this, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change. Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from 'ought' to 'is' and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed and dogs for herding skill, why on earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as 'These are not one-dimentional abilities' apply equally to cows, horses and dogs, and never stopped anybody in practice.
I wonder whether, sixty years after Hitler's death, we might at least venture to ask what is the moral difference between breeding for musical ability, and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or, why is it acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers, but not breed them? I can think of some answers, and they are good ones which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn't the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?
My other surprise omission from this list of 109 dangerous ideas concerns the unspoken assumption of human moral uniqueness. It is harder than most people realise to justify the unique and exclusive status that Homo sapiens enjoys in our unconscious assumptions. Why does 'pro life' always mean 'pro human life.' Why are so many people outraged at the idea of killing an 8-celled human conceptus, while cheerfully masticating a steak which cost the life of an adult, sentient and probably terrified cow? What precisely is the moral difference between our ancestors' attitude to slaves and our attitude to nonhuman animals? Probably there are good answers to these questions. But shouldn't the questions themselves at least be put?
One way to dramatize the non-triviality of such questions is to invoke the fact of evolution. We are connected to all other species continuously and gradually via the dead common ancestors that we share with them. But for the historical accident of extinction, we would be linked to chimpanzees via an unbroken chain of happily interbreeding intermediates. What would — should — be the moral and political response of our society, if relict populations of all the evolutionary intermediates were now discovered in Africa? What should be our moral and political response to future scientists who use the completed human and chimpanzee genomes to engineer a continuous chain of living, breathing and mating intermediates — each capable of breeding with its nearer neighbours in the chain, thereby linking humans to chimpanzees via a living cline of fertile interbreeding.
I can think of formidable objections to such experimental breaches of the wall of separation around Homo sapiens. But at the same time I can imagine benefits to our moral and political attitudes that might outweigh the objections. We know that such a living daisy chain is in principle possible because all the intermediates have lived — in the chain leading back from ourselves to the common ancestor with chimpanzees, and then the chain leading forward from the common ancestor to chimpanzees. It is therefore a dangerous but not too surprising idea that one day the chain will be reconstructed — a candidate for the 'factual' box of dangerous ideas. And — moving across to the 'ought' box — mightn't a good moral case be made that it should be done. Whatever its undoubted moral drawbacks, it would at least jolt humanity finally out of the absolutist and essentialist mindset that has so long afflicted us.
RICHARD DAWKINS, an Evolutionary Biologist, is Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science, Oxford University, and author of The God Delusion.
John Brockman, Editor and Publisher