20 July 2007

Hey, you can't say that on television!

In an op-ed Sunday, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker lists 'dangerous ideas,' ideas that seem to be widely perceived as too dangerous to even talk about. (HT: H&R.) A few of the taboo topics I found most interesting:

Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?

Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape?

Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white

Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?

Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children?

Pinker only offers two mechanisms by which certain ideas become 'too dangerous': slippery-slope thinking and us-them polarization. It seems to me that there must be some more interesting reasons why this happens around certain ideas -- maybe some evolutionary psychology is in order here? In fact, if your answer to the fourth question above is Yes, then a nice circularity emerges: our evolutionarily-designed moral feelings might very well dictate that certain moral questions are never to be considered or talked about. On the other hand, some of the taboo subjects seem to be loaded on a more obvious political basis -- there are perfectly understandable political reasons why no one wants to say that black men have higher testosterone levels than white men.

I think the perception that discussion of these ideas is widely condemned depends an awful lot on who you spend your time talking with. There are some people, mostly friends, to whom I wouldn't hesitate to pose any one of these questions, because interesting debate would ensue. There are some people, mostly family, in whose company I would never bring these subjects up, at all, ever, because for them it is never okay to talk about this stuff. However, I'm sometimes caught by surprise when I learn which group someone fits into -- I have family members, by all appearances quite conservative, who are more than willing to entertain some of these 'dangerous ideas' in a pretty matter-of-fact way, and I have friends who certainly seem to be socially progressive and scientifically minded, but who reject some of these possibilities out of hand, with a superciliously raised eyebrow.