Don't be afraid of dangerous ideas

[ Fri. Sep. 21. 2007 ]

Who's the most odious man in the world today? Some people might name Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust ever happened and seems quite happy at the thought of unleashing nukes against the Jews. These unsavoury views didn't deter Columbia University from issuing him an invitation to speak on campus. The university's president, Lee Bollinger, described the event as part of "Columbia's long-standing tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate."

Or perhaps it's Larry Summers, the man who created such a storm with his remarks about women and science that he had to step down as president of Harvard. This week, he was disinvited from a regents' dinner at the University of California, where he was going to speak, after a bunch of faculty members protested that his views were too repellent. "I was appalled and stunned that someone like Summers would even be invited to speak to the regents," said biology professor Maureen Stanton, who helped put together a petition drive. "I think many of us who were involved in the protest believed that it wouldn't reflect well on the university that he even received the invitation."

So much for the notion that our universities are supposed to champion fearless free inquiry and debate. Obviously some ideas - such as the idea that innate differences between men and women might affect their aptitudes and career preferences - are too dangerous to even have.

The renowned psychologist Steven Pinker (whose new book is reviewed in today's Books section) recently got to thinking about some of the other ideas that are too dangerous to discuss. In an essay first posted at Edge (www.Edge.org), he wrote: "By 'dangerous ideas' I don't have in mind harmful technologies, like those behind weapons of mass destruction, or evil ideologies, like those of racist, fascist or other fanatical cults. I have in mind statements of fact or policy that are defended with evidence and argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to challenge the collective decency of an age." ...

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