Perils of Wisdom

[ Tue. Jul. 10. 2007 ]

We talk about thinking out of the box but some ideas don't even get off the ground because of cultural taboos or political correctness. Here, five experts – including Richard Dawkins – propose the unthinkable …

Today's most shocking pro posals are those that provoke outrage: not among the religious or political establishments, but in the heart of every well-meaning, peace-loving, Make Poverty History-marching denizen of the world. Dangerous ideas, according to psychologist Steven Pinker, "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" and "challenge the collective decency of an age".

Are suicide bombers driven by sane, moral motives? Do African-American men tend to have higher levels of testosterone than whites? Could it be that some sexual abuse victims suffer no lifelong damage? Have religions caused more human suffering than the Nazis? Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease? Pinker reels off a long list of suggestions that have caused "moral panics" during recent decades. Which of them makes your blood boil?

But hurt feelings are not a measure of the legitimacy of a scientific hypothesis, and Pinker's point is that in attempting to advance our understanding, progressive thinkers must be prepared to question sacred values and break the taboos of political correctness. Scientists, he adds, have always been heretics, and today, "the galloping advances in touchy areas like genetics, evolution and the environment sciences are bound to throw unsettling possibilities at us. Moreover, the rise of glo bal isation and the internet are allowing heretics to find one another and work around the barriers of traditional media and academic journals."

The website, www.edge.org, founded by writer John Brockman, allows leading thinkers to engage in uncensored debate, by inviting responses to one provocative question each year. In 2006, Steven Pinker was asked to come up with a query designed to get their intellectual juices flowing. Pinker dared the Edge community to propose "an idea that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true". The responses are collected in a new book published this week. Overleaf, we present a selection of the most explosive ideas of our age.

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