Thanks For Asking

Each year the website Edge.org — which I will recommend once again to you all, as it is one of the Web’s most stimulating destinations — asks the intellectual community a carefully chosen question, presents the answers on its website, and then gathers them together into a book. Previous questions have included What Questions Are You Asking Yourself?, What Do You Believe is True, Even Though You Cannot Prove It, and What Is Today’s Most Important Underreported Story? (you can see the whole list here).

Last year’s question was What is YOUR Dangerous Idea?. Here is the question in full:

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. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

There were, as usual, many provocative answers, and the book is now out. Here is an excerpt from Steven Pinker’s introduction, which is a frontal assault on the deplorable tendency these days to sweep awkward questions under the rug in the name of political sensitivity:

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?

Perhaps you can feel your blood pressure rise as you read these questions. Perhaps you are appalled that people can so much as think such things. Perhaps you think less of me for bringing them up. These are dangerous ideas — ideas that are denounced not because they are self-evidently false, nor because they advocate harmful action, but because they are thought to corrode the prevailing moral order.

Read Pinker’s complete introduction here — and the afterword, by another controversial figure, here.

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