Monday, August 27, 2007

Steven Pinker on Dangerous Ideas

Click on the title to this post to read an essay by Steven Pinker in the Chicago Sun Times, "In Defense of Dangerous Ideas." While Steven Pinker lists a bunch of heretical statements that can certainly raise your blood pressure, his central thesis is that we should not be afraid to contemplate dangerous ideas, and that parameters of dangerous ideas change over time. Here is a snippet:

What makes an idea "dangerous"? One factor is an imaginable train of events in which acceptance of the idea could lead to an outcome recognized as harmful. In religious societies, the fear is 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.

All 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. Another 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. (snip)

New ideas, nuanced ideas, hybrid ideas -- and sometimes dangerous ideas -- often have trouble getting a hearing against these group-bonding convictions. The 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.
Explore all relevant ideas
Should 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 as possible.
Wow! Even that last statement is a controversial one in library circles. My first published article (Librarians and the New Censorship, 7 Public Library Quarterly 23, Spring/Summer 1986. Reprinted in Alternative Library Literature, 1988 (feminist theory of pornography as civil rights violation)) considered the possibility that librarians might have a moral obligation to not collect certain types of material that damage disadvantaged groups -- rather than purchase materials on both sides of issues. That was enough to seem incendiary in public library circles, apparently.

It's easy to come up with "dangerous ideas" that have lost their punch with time: slavery, women's inability to work or play sports, the sun at the center of the solar system. I suppose other ideas that seem dangerous now are easy to come up with, too --Pinker's essay lists a bunch. As Pinker indicates, test may be whether the ideas lead to political action or to wrong or unethical action if carried to an extreme. I do like the idea of trying to separate the controversial but testable root from the dangerous fruit. I suppose the foundation of this blog as a debate over the speed and completeness of moving libraries from print to digital is a good example of dangerous ideas that should be explored, but might also lead to dangerous actions if misunderstood or carried to extremes.Pinker's essay also considers the dangerousness of dangerous ideas:
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. Not 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 groups themselves.

Of 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.
Pinker ends his excellent and thought-provoking essay with a call to universities to do a better job of encouraging debate on dangerous ideas and to fight against political suppression of inconvenient facts (as with the climate debate). Librarians are at the center of the struggle to test truth and protect it from suppression. We need to think hard about Pinker's dangerous ideas.

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