Dangerous Ideas

I once had the honor of sharing a meal with Steven Pinker. He was as fun and brilliant in person as he is in his writing.

The Chicago Sun-Times recently published a piece by him (which we’ve mentioned before) that’s also the preface to a book entitled “What is Your Dangerous Idea? Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable.”

The article begins with a long series of questions:

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

Were the events in the Bible fictitious — not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?

Has the state of the environment improved in the last 50 years?

Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage?

Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape?

Do men have an innate tendency to rape?

Did the crime rate go down in the 1990s because two decades earlier poor women aborted children who would have been prone to violence?

Are suicide terrorists well-educated, mentally healthy and morally driven?

Would the incidence of rape go down if prostitution were legalized?

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

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

Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized?

Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease?

Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would consign them to a life of pain and disability?

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

Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism?

Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?

Would Africa have a better chance of rising out of poverty if it hosted more polluting industries or accepted Europe’s nuclear waste?

Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people?

Would unwanted children be better off if there were a market in adoption rights, with babies going to the highest bidder?

Would lives be saved if we instituted a free market in organs for transplantation?

Should people have the right to clone themselves, or enhance the genetic traits of their children?

After this list of questions, he goes on to write:

Perhaps you can feel your blood pressure rise as you read these questions. Perhaps you are appalled that people can so much as think such things. Perhaps you think less of me for bringing them up. These are dangerous ideas — ideas that 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.

I must confess that my blood pressure did not rise as I read this list. In fact, I felt kind of bad that my blood didn’t boil. So I went and read them again, hoping I could find one that really set me off. My second pass also left me feeling quite calm. True, I don’t agree with some of the conjectures — but they are not things that I get emotional about. I know this would be the reaction of most economists (and, I suspect, of scientists and engineers as well, although I know fewer of them). I’m not sure, however, that this is always a good thing; while economists and scientists tend to pride themselves on their objective analysis, emotion and morality also play an important role.

What did strike me about the list of questions was how many are linked in some way to economists. Larry Summers comes to mind on gender differences and shipping pollution to Africa, Alan Krueger on the education of terrorists, Milton Friedman on the legalization of drugs, Richard Posner on a market for babies, Gary Becker on a market for organs, and even John Donohue and me on legalized abortion and crime. I’m not saying these ideas necessarily originated with economists, but that, at a minimum, economists often find themselves on the “wrong” side of dangerous ideas.

I would love to see what would happen if economists got the chance to run the world. My guess is it would be fun for a while, but the ending wouldn’t be happy.


BTW, I looked up the answers on Wikipedia and in Freakonomics. Here they are,

Some places
Depends on degree
Sure, but what's your real point?
Just cure diabetes
Yes, it would be really funny


I'm an Engineer with a Grad Dip in Economics. Good to see I'm not the only one thinking these questions - great to see I have a few new ones to add to the dinner party conversation list.


I also found it hard to get upset about the questions, and I'm not an economist. I wonder who his target audience might be.

I'll admit that I was mildly annoyed by the fact that some of them are heavily loaded, along the lines of the old Greek question "when did you stop beating your father?" For example, I'd want to discuss the premise that the average intelligence of Western nations is falling before I'd debate possible causes.


Some of the listed ideas are infact VERY dangerous! Right now I'm looking for the most stupid idea in the universe at my site http://www.themoststupidhomepageintheuniverse.com - which idea would that be in your opinion?


Yes, I got a little po'd at them simply because a lot of them are assuming things as true that I don't think are. A lot of words are used in ways that really have no meaning. Many of the other questions I believe just have negative answers many of which are already known. For example:

Testosterone levels in "African American men". How do you qualify for that? It is the old racial inclusion myth - you become black if you have any black blood? Looking at testosterone levels in a population I think has already been done, but I don't think they really signify anything. They are not a marker for violence as far as anybody has tested, news media to the contrary, as far as I know. That would be a more important question to answer.

What does inherent reality mean and why wouldn't morality as a product of our brains have it?

Innate tendency to rape? Of course - I don't think anyone is forcing rapists so it must be "innate". To the extent men have the same mental structures it must be innate. Of course women may also have those exact same structures and thus also have an innate tendency to rape. They just don't have the same physiological opportunities... the problem here is what the word innate means.

torturing suspects. Since that is done now the question could easily be put as "Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police and others were NEVER allowed to torture suspects in any circumstances?" That would be the policy altering dangerous question I think.

I could go on. I guess what bugged me anfter looking at what I wrote is that a lot of these "dangerous" questions are badly posed, so that the answer wouldn't really correspong to reality either way.



I'm an engineer and I agree, none of these got even a remote rise out of me. In fact, I think I've heard them all before either in face to face or internet message board discourse.


The only one I find offensive is suggesting that homosexuality is a symptom of an "infectious disease". That question bleeds of ignorance and a backwards creationist point of view.


Don't click on the 'personality quiz' link



my systolic spiked when I read the Native American one- even though I like the summation "montezuma was going to have Cortes for lunch, but Cortes had Montezuma for breakfast" rings true, I find it abhorrent to equate the conquistador's ethical standing to the Mayan/Inca/Aztec/Cherokee/ ad nauseum's (sans Seminole!)


These questions are loaded for sure, and even though I don't get worked up about them (and I'm a non-practicing economist), they were designed to work the emotions. That's why sometimes just asking the questions of life can create bias in the analysis. The asking of a question often puts pressure on the analyst to provide some sort of desired answer. As much as I can in my work, I try not to ask any questions and just step back and let the data talk to me. I can't fully eliminate my own biases, as much as I try, but I wouldn't want to add extra bias by trying to answer a question, especially a loaded one or one where there is an expected/desired outcome. Does that make sense?


I'm not sure Pinker's assessment of the prevailing moral order is accurate, if he thinks that these questions are so shocking.

Maybe the questions shock his academic department. That is more believable.

I am sympathetic to his effort, so here's a suggestion.

It's all about timing.

Pinker should sit on this for awhile and release it right after a famous person has said something actually shocking that's in all the newspapers for a week.


"just asking the questions of life can create bias in the analysis"

Existing creates bias. Asking questions just shows what your bias is.

The scientific method _starts_ with a question.


Schools are not failing America, parents are.

Hey, this is fun!


"I would love to see what would happen if economists got the chance to run the world."

I believe what you are describing is A Brave New World. :)


I find the very notion that an idea could be "dangerous" an anathema to an ostensibly free society the protects freedom of speech.

An idea has never hurt anyone and simply cannot hurt anyone. People acting on bad ideas hurt others. And the only way to stop that is with open, free, and vigorous debate about those ideas. A society in which people are too afraid to ask the questions above is not a society in which I'd wish to live.


"Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism?"

Certainly. Nazism only happened in one place for a short time. Religious people, vaguely defined, could describe nearly everyone throughout history.


Whether you find the questions outrageous or not depends on whose ox is being gored. I don't know whether these are hypotheses to be tested or not. If they are, test them. So much that is science these days is just an opinion wrapped in authority.


Here are my questions: Would the methodologies of what we call "science" be different today had they been designed and carried out primarily by women instead of men? Is the modern scientific method truly objective, or is it a product of the thought processes of European men, especially in terms of how data is obtained and organized?


anothersteve says: 'The only one I find offensive is suggesting that homosexuality is a symptom of an “infectious disease”. That question bleeds of ignorance and a backwards creationist point of view.'.

Actually, it's rather the opposite. The only people I've heard advance the theory are evolutionary biologists: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pathogenic_theory_of_homosexuality

Eli Cash

Why exactly are emotion and morality (aside from, say, a Dr. Mengele) important elements of scientific inquiry or analysis? That struck me as an odd comment.