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Dangerous Ideas by Steven Pinker & Richard Dawkins
Preface to Dangerous Ideas By Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and an author of The Blank Slate.
The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious.
..."dangerous ideas"...are 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. Writers who have raised ideas like the following have been vilified, censored, fired, threatened, and in some cases physically assaulted....
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 (An idea, point of view or teaching officially condemned by various authories, usually religious), and today the 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.
What makes an idea "dangerous"? In religious societies, the fear is that that if people ever stopped believing in the literal truth of the (Holy Book) they would also stop believing in the authority of its moral commandments. They fear that if people start to dismiss the part about God creating the earth in six days, then later they'll dismiss the part about "Thou shalt not kill." 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.
The conviction that honest opinions can be dangerous may even arise from a basis of unshakeable convictions. Decent people don't even think about selling their children or selling out (telling upon, giving evidence against) their friends or their spouses or their colleagues or their country. They reject these possibilities; they "don't go there." So the taboo on questioning sacred values makes 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.
Should we treat some ideas as dangerous? Let's 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, so only by examining and debating them can we find out.
The idea that ideas should be discouraged is self-refuting....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.
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 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 take this position are rightly condemned by intellectually responsible people.
"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. And if an idea is true, we had better accommodate our moral sensibilities to it, since no good can come from sanctifying a delusion. 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.
(There might be a) case for discouraging certain thinkers to air their dangerous ideas.
First, we are all responsible for the consequences of our actions, and that includes the consequences of our public statements...the mere act of making an idea common knowledge can change its effects. Individuals, for instance, may have a private opinion on differences between genders or among ethnic groups but keep it to themselves. But once the opinion is aired in public, they may act on their prejudice. Some people, for example, might discriminate against the members of an ethnic group despite having no 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. (Nazi Germany) 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 promoting ideas that justify their privileges, that blame or make light of society's victims, or that earn them attention for cleverness and iconoclasm (attacks upon cherished ideas or traditional institutions) such as the Marxist argument that ideas are always advanced to serve the interest of the ruling class.
Copernicus's original dangerous idea was that we are not the center of the universe, literally or metaphorically.
Whether you agree or disagree, are shocked or blasť, I hope that you ponder what makes ideas dangerous and what we should do about them.
What is it?
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