Steven Pinker recently wrote a book preface that was posted in The Edge and reprinted in the Chicago Sun. “In Defense of Dangerous Ideas” has gotten accolades from atheists, but I believe it deserves review by all thinking people. His premise is that we should allow all ideas to take their course regardless of taboos, because the ideas will not have the extreme negative impact their opposition fears, and they may turn out to be true and to our benefit to know. Ironically, in the midst of his argument, Pinker reveals that he is a purveyor of the bigotry which he attempts to expose. Following are some with comments, including some caveats:
Pinker says, “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..” By “heresy” Pinker means the way the idea is viewed by the dominant coalition, regardless of whether it is true, so in this case heresy is good. I have to agree with both his assertion that these ideas are treated as heresy, and that science should be the place to sort them out. I’m not seeing that any of the three are living up to their potential, though I agree that they should.
“[I]t’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.” Blinkered they are, but how he sees science (previously-cited paragraph) as the hero and academia as the problem I don’t see. They are often, though not always, one-and-the-same, and science suffers from the same self-delusion he recognizes in academia and government. I will exemplify later.
“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.” I have never seen this point better stated. This is exactly the sense I get from the strong opposition to an idea which Pinker confesses that he considers dangerous — perhaps he fears it might be true. Why else would they fight so hard to keep the idea from getting exposure. Why else would it so consistently be misrepresented?
“And if an idea is true, we had better accommodate our moral sensibilities to it, since no good can come from sanctifying a delusion.” I again agree, but notice how frequently reference is made to moral viewpoints. The use of the term “sanctifying” is no mere metaphor. Pinker’s entire argument is that the rejection or suppression of ideas is for moral reasons, and he fails to associate them with economics or even personal pride. Perhaps he is right — all economic and pride issues ultimately turn into, or are at least framed as, moral issues.
The author then groups together some possible objections to his approach, in which he mentions the common suspicion that scientists might be included in the problem:
“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.”
He groups the objections together under one heading, perhaps “corrals them” would be a better way to put it, and then ignores them, offering no counters. Yes, scientists do have interests in promulgating their own ideas, and may act on this interest against the interest of science. This may or may not be sinister. Squelching ideas doesn’t have to be conscious to be effective.
“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 should make one wary of “dangerous” hypotheses that are no skin off the nose of their hypothesizers.” What Marx actually said was, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,” but he correctly represents Marx here. It is one place where I have difficulty disagreeing with Marx. Fortunately the suppression of other ideas is seldom complete. I also agree that we should be skeptical of anyone who can be advanced or protected by the ideas that they defend, but I’m afraid that this includes everyone.
Pinker closes with a downer. He offers no hope that government or academia can overcome their censoring biases.
“Tragically, there are few signs that the debates [of heretical issues] 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.” Alas, tenure does not remove the advantage to professors of protecting the association of their name over 20 or 30 years of investment in an idea, however wrong it is.
He ends his article with little hope, saying governments are no better than the academics they sometimes try to police. But there is real irony in this article. Though the author bemoans the unjust shelving of “dangerous ideas,” he fails to recognize that he himself participates in one such example. At the very beginning of the article he makes the following statement:
“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.” He suggests that the suppression of Copernican ideas and the “foisting” of intelligent design ideas on biology students are both examples of tragedies. Intelligent design therefore becomes the only idea in the entire article that the author believes SHOULD be suppressed. This is in spite of the fact that the “foisted” idea is no where in the country required or even protected in its presentation, except in some private schools. The mention of this idea has neither relevance nor justification in an article defending dangerous ideas. Why selectively devalue an idea in an article that supposedly defends the consideration of all ideas? It is thus a complete contradiction of his premise. And a perfect example of it.