2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Psychologist, UC, Berkeley; Author, The Philosophical Baby
A cacophony of

It may not be good to encourage scientists to articulate dangerous ideas.

Good scientists, almost by definition, tend towards the contrarian and ornery, and nothing gives them more pleasure than holding to an unconventional idea in the face of opposition. Indeed, orneriness and contrarianism are something of currency for science — nobody wants to have an idea that everyone else has too. Scientists are always constructing a straw man "establishment" opponent who they can then fearlessly demolish. If you combine that with defying the conventional wisdom of non-scientists you have a recipe for a very distinctive kind of scientific smugness and self-righteousness. We scientists see this contrarian habit grinning back at us in a particularly hideous and distorted form when global warming opponents or intelligent design advocates invoke the unpopularity of their ideas as evidence that they should be accepted, or at least discussed.

The problem is exacerbated for public intellectuals. For the media too, would far rather hear about contrarian or unpopular or morally dubious or "controversial" ideas than ones that are congruent with everyday morality and wisdom. No one writes a newspaper article about a study that shows that girls are just as good at some task as boys, or that children are influenced by their parents.

It is certainly true that there is no reason that scientifically valid results should have morally comforting consequences — but there is no reason why they shouldn't either. Unpopularity or shock is no more a sign of truth than popularity is. More to the point, when scientists do have ideas that are potentially morally dangerous they should approach those ideas with hesitancy and humility. And they should do so in full recognition of the great human tragedy that, as Isiah Berlin pointed out, there can be genuinely conflicting goods and that humans are often in situations of conflict for which there is no simple or obvious answer.

Truth and morality may indeed in some cases be competing values, but that is a tragedy, not a cause for self-congratulation. Humility and empathy come less easily to most scientists, most certainly including me, than pride and self-confidence, but perhaps for that very reason they are the virtues we should pursue.

This is, of course, itself a dangerous idea. Orneriness and contrarianism are in fact, genuine scientific virtues, too. And in the current profoundly anti-scientific political climate it is terribly dangerous to do anything that might give comfort to the enemies of science. But I think the peril to science actually doesn't lie in timidity or self-censorship. It is much more likely to lie in a cacophony of "controversy".