When Scientific Inquiry And Social Taboos Collide

September 2007

Steven Pinker is a gutsy fellow. The Montreal-born psychologist and author was one of the first important intellectuals to defend Harvard University president Lawrence Summers for suggesting differences in innate aptitude might explain why few women are top scientists and mathematicians.

It's true that few women attain levels of extreme achievement in math and physics -- "extreme achievement" being the sort of thing that earns international prizes -- and Mr. Summers was merely speculating whether social conditioning alone explains the phenomenon.

Or so it seemed. In fact, he was challenging the sacred liberal principle of a shared humanity, the belief we are all equal, and for that he was forced to step down as Harvard president. Liberalism is the official religion in elite universities, and fellow academics denounced Mr. Summers thereby demonstrating their own allegiance to that religion. But not Steven Pinker, himself a Harvard professor. Based on his work as an experimental psychologist, he had suspicions about innate differences in male and female cognition. The more fundamental point was that scientists have the right to ask the question. As he put it, the degree to which sex differences in mathematical ability "originate in biology must be determined by research, not fatwa."

Mr. Pinker had long been identified as a left-leaning intellectual -- he was for years a colleague of Noam Chomsky -- but suddenly there was fear that, as they used to say in the Politburo, he might no longer be reliable.

Indeed. "Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white men?" This attention-grabbing question is one of a handful with which Mr. Pinker begins a recently published essay titled, In defense of dangerous ideas.

Other "dangerous" questions Mr. Pinker raises include: Is the average intelligence of western countries declining because low I.Q. people have more children than high I.Q. people? Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage? Does abortion lower crime rates because it reduces the number of children born into poor environments, where they would grow up to become criminals?

Mr. Pinker doesn't offer answers. He's defending the right to ask. More, he's arguing that it is important to ask. His essay is a compelling argument for the lifting of taboos. Now taboos serve an important function. You don't hit your parents or burn the flag, because doing so would weaken the family and state, and if those collapse than so does society.

Mr. Pinker knows this, which is why he distinguishes between the role of taboos in personal and public life. He concedes that in our personal lives it makes sense to avoid questioning certain underlying principles. We love our children and parents, and are loyal to our communities, because -- well, just because.

But on matters of public inquiry and public policy, he argues, there ought to be few untouchable subjects. I.Q. differences among racial groups is one topic around which respectable scientists have circled cautiously, darting in for a look before pulling back. The biological root of homosexuality is another. An increasing number of scientists believe the squeamishness of non-scientists is insufficient reason to prohibit research into these areas.

Mr. Pinker's defence of dangerous ideas is mostly persuasive, but there remains the issue of how one defines an idea. Does advocating genocide constitute an "idea"? Mr. Pinker tries to protect himself by excluding from his category of dangerous ideas "outright lies," "deceptive propaganda," and "theories from malevolent crackpots." Yet one can imagine arguments for the extermination of certain groups -- the disabled and the infirm, say -- that are based neither on lies nor propaganda. And the people making such arguments need not harbour malevolence.

In primitive societies, taboos often had the effect of retarding progress. We see this still today. Cultures where it is taboo for women to be seen in public suffer economically and in other ways, because the talents of half the population go untapped.

But have modern societies evolved to the point where there is little need for shared taboos, the kind that inhibit public discussion of the pros and cons of say, exterminating the mentally disabled? Mr. Pinker suggests we can handle just about any idea without damaging the moral order, but let's be careful not to overestimate just how civilized we are.