Thursday, July 26, 2007

And this is why we have to ask nasty questions

I've liked Stephen Pinker since former co-worker SK introduced me to The Language Instinct. And he's one of the few public intellectuals who's an atheist and not constantly under fire for being so. (Witness Hitchens' series of ass-handing-tos debates with mail-order Rev. Al Sharpton or anything Richard Dawkins says)

In defense of dangerous ideas :: CHICAGO SUN-TIMES :: Other Views
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 50 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?
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?

The question is: should you be allowed to ask?
My answer is yes. Sometimes we have to overturn conventional wisdom and received knowledge to get ahead. Sometimes it means we were right the first time around. Sometimes we have to take a long hard look at ourselves.
And we have to debate these things. And whatever policy or social consequences that may or may not flow from them.
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.

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