Dangerous ideas


Jason Collins


May 27, 2011

Recently, I was asked whether the idea that I was espousing - considering human evolution in economics - was dangerous. For a perspective on debating dangerous ideas, it was suggested that it was worthwhile reading Steven Pinker’s introduction to the book What is Your Dangerous Idea? (HT Erik Postma).

Pinker argues both for and against treating some ideas as dangerous and possibly limiting their discussion. In addition to the usual arguments such as sunlight being the best disinfectant and that people will twist the debates to suit their own purposes, Pinker made some interesting observations.

One of them mirrors an argument that I use when people suggest that there are eugenic or Social Darwinistic implications to accepting that there is a genetic basis to human behaviour. Pinker notes that discrimination and oppression are deplorable, but that:

[N]one of them actually follows from the supposedly dangerous idea. Even if it turns out, for instance, that groups of people are different in their averages, the overlap is certainly so great that it would be irrational and unfair to discriminate against individuals on that basis. Likewise, even if it turns out that parents don’t have the power to shape their children’s personalities, it would be wrong on grounds of simple human decency to abuse or neglect one’s children.

The example I often use is IQ and education. If we accept that there is a genetic basis to IQ, this does not mean that we should shunt those who fall below a certain threshold up to the salt mines. Instead, schools can tailor their teaching to a range of capabilities and potentials.

The second point I found interesting related to who is making the argument. Pinker writes:

We must be especially suspicious when the danger in a dangerous idea is to someone other than its advocate.  Scientists, scholars, and writers are members of a privileged elite. They may have  an interest in promulgating ideas that justify their privileges, that blame or make light of society’s victims, or that earn them attention for cleverness and iconoclasm.

I expect that I am in the target audience for this point. I am a white, educated male in a developed country and am exploring how human evolution is relevant to economic questions such as the origin of economic growth. My research, if twisted in certain ways, could be argued to be justifying privilege. It could certainly be argued that I have an interest in earning attention for cleverness and iconoclasm.

So, how should I respond to this point? I like to think I am exploring these questions because I find them interesting and I don’t know all the answers. I want to understand them better. Perhaps it is signal that I should always bear in mind what my motivations are.

*As a footnote, I tried to buy an ebook copy of this book last night but the sellers blocked the purchase as I am in a territory in which it is not available. As is often the case, I found a free substitute. For those interested in reading the essays that formed the basis of the book, you can find them here (click on the contributors name for the essay). The essays range between the interesting and rehashes of old arguments that we’ve had for a very long time.