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What is a taboo question?

This is some mix of political science and sociology, I’m not quite sure which…

From Greg Mankiw I saw this newspaper article by Steven Pinker, “In defense of dangerous ideas: In every age, taboo questions raise our blood pressure and threaten moral panic. But we cannot be afraid to answer them”:

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?

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.

Think about it

By “dangerous ideas” I don’t have in mind harmful technologies, like those behind weapons of mass destruction, or evil ideologies, like those of racist, fascist or other fanatical cults. I have in mind statements of fact or policy that are defended with evidence and argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to challenge the collective decency of an age. The ideas listed above, and the moral panic that each one of them has incited during the past quarter century, are examples. Writers who have raised ideas like these have been vilified, censored, fired, threatened and in some cases physically assaulted.

. . .

Consider only ideas about the truth of empirical claims or the effectiveness of policies that, if they turned out to be true, would require a significant rethinking of our moral sensibilities. . . .

I’m a little confused here, and maybe the way to focus my thoughts is to think of how this could be studied as a problem in political science or sociology: what is a taboo question or a “dangerous idea”? Recognizing that Pinker has thought more about these issues than I have, let me try to focus the question a bit:

Mixin’ it up

Pinker seems to be mixing a bunch of different sorts of ideas above. This is ok–after all, it’s a newspaper column–but it may be helpful to separate the categories for further study. In particular, the list contains:

– Some statements that seem so obviously true as to not be “taboo” at all (for example, women having different aptitudes and emotions than men; or parents having “any effect” on the character or intelligence of their children)

– Some statements that are so ill-defined as to be unanswerable (for example, has the state of the environment “improved” (it’s certainly improved in some ways and declined in others); or the question about Native Americans (how do you define “despoil”); or the question about suicide bombers (I assume that some are well-educated and some are not, etc))

– Some statements that are value judgments (“would society be better off”, “would it be consistent with our moral principles”, “would unwanted children be better off”, “should people have the right…”)

– A question whose premise is, as far as I know, false (“Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because…” (I thought it was increasing–the Flynn effect–but I defer to Pinker’s expertise as a psychologist here))

– A couple of questions I just don’t understand (“Have religions killed…” (how do you count this sort of thing?); “Do men have an innate tendency to rape” (I just don’t know what is meant by “innate tendency”–maybe they’re talking about doing some sort of twin study, I dunno?–which men are they talking about here?)

– Several questions that seem scientifically legitimate but are phrased in one-sided ways (for example, maybe torture would increase damage from terrorism, maybe unwanted children would be worse off if there were a market in adoption, and so forth).

I’m also not clear why Pinker draws the line to exclude “harmful technologies . . . or evil ideologies, like those of racist, fascist or other fanatical cults.” For example, Pinker asks “Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?” This was certainly not a taboo idea in Argentina in the 1970s or many other places (list your own favorite example). There are are a lot of racist, fascist, etc. ideas that are far less lethal than torture: why are these off limits? For that matter, once we allow torture, why limit it to the police? Maybe the army should be allowed to do it too? Or private citizens, like in Pulp Fiction? (Just to be clear: I’m not trying to make a slippery-slope argument here, I’m just commenting that Pinker’s boundaries aren’t as sharply defines as he seems to be implying.)

What ticks you off?

I have no problem with people studying Pinker’s list of topics (although about half of them seem to me to be outside the scope of science, or even social science). What interests me is the choice of what to include on the list. It reminds me of the principle that people can be defined by what ticks them off. I knew an economist who was going on and on about how horrible rent control is. There’s almost no rent control in the U.S., but whatever remnant was there–well, that pissed him off. I get pissed off by tables–I want them all to be graphs. Most of my friends agree with me on the merits but are amused that it seems so important to me. I know someone who is so pissed off by religion that he’s always giving me arguments why God doesn’t exist. Other people get bugged by typos in the newspaper.

Pinker appears to be ticked off that not enough work is going into studying his list of questions (or that, when they are studied, the results are ignored). I’m a little ticked off by Pinker’s implicit assumption that these particular questions are so important. I mean, as an academic researcher I’m used to thinking that particular topics are under-researched. (Don’t get me started about predictive simulation. I’m still frustrated at how the Bayesians at the 1991 conference didn’t even want to think about the possibility of checking their model fit.)

Goal-based decision making

Another way to look at this–perhaps a more congenial approach to a cognitive psychologist such as Pinker–is in terms of Dave Krantz’s goal-based approach to decision making. Instead of thinking about research questions, think about goals. For example, if the goal is reducing damage from terrorism, consider various options. Where does legalizing torture fit in the portfolio of remedies? If the goal is increasing the supply of clean drinking water (for example), how helpful is it to ask a general question about “the state of the environment”? I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done, just that it might be sort of a silly question.

Or maybe it’s just something about the content that bothers me. For example, I was also irritated by my friend Seth calling Holocaust denial “the new heresy.” In this day and age, calling something a “heresy” is a compliment, I think–sort of like saying that something is “edgy” or “delightfully irrelevant”–and thus something of an endorsement.

Remaining confusion

I think there’s something here I’m missing. For example, I’m still confused about what’s dangerous about saying that “women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?” I’ve been to an NBA game and a WNBA game, and I can tell the difference (and, yes, I know that these are not averages, but still, …)

Final thought

I’m still not quite sure what ticks me off so much about Pinker’s article. I think it’s that it’s chock-full of big implicit assumptions (for example, that it’s taboo to say that women are different from men, or that torture would be expected to save lives)–I’m not offended by the idea of studying these things but I’m bothered by how the questions are framed. At the same time, I’m sure Pinker has thought a lot more than I have about these issues–I’m just offering my perspective (as a political scientist, I suppose).

In any case, I’d like to be productive by channeling my ticked-offed-ness into scholarship, and suggesting that there should be some way of classifying topics as taboo. Or perhaps Pinker has studied this from his perspective as a psychologist–that could be interesting.

Steven Pinker’s response

P.S. I sent my above comments to Pinker and he responded as follows:

I appreciate the careful analysis of the individual questions, but I think the posting missed the point of the article. The questions at the beginning of the piece were not offered as a set of research topics that should be high-priority areas of study for the social sciences. Nor were they a list of my pet peeves or private concerns (presumably no one has that many pet peeves!). They were just examples – as many examples as I could recall — of scholarly questions that have elicited intemperate, emotional, moralistic, or illiberal responses. The piece was an analysis of the free-speech and academic-freedom issues surrounding how the scholarly and journalistic communities should handle questions of that ilk, not a recommendation that that those issues are the ones most worthy of study, or even ones for which I particularly cared about the outcomes. Your noting that they were not all empirical issues in the social sciences is beside the point – universities also have departments of philosophy, government, law, bioethics, which evaluate moral and analytical questions as well as empirical ones. As for your rhetorical question, “I’m still confused about what’s dangerous about saying that `women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?’,” click here.

I agree with you, by the way, about the superiority of graphs over tables in conveying statistical information.

Hey, that’s cool–another ally in the war against tables!

25 Comments

  1. Seth Roberts says:

    I did not call holocaust denial "the new heresy" — I was quoting from a book.

    Why would I be favorable toward a book in which such a phrase appears? Because there is truth in it. A truth that one does not see written every day. Wanting to read a book that tells rare truths is quite different than looking favorably upon holocaust denial. Perhaps I am more tolerant of holocaust denial than you. I certainly don't favor it or think it is in any way attractive.

    There are many people who believe — not you Andrew — that the solution to intolerance is more intolerance. I don't believe that, but a lot of the people who attack holocaust deniers seem to. They are extreme in their attacks, just as religious heretics have been attacked in extreme ways. This is the truth behind the phrase.

  2. Andrew says:

    Seth,

    You wrote: "I don’t read many novels but I think I’m going to read this one, which says that Holocaust denial is “the new heresy.” Exactly." So I think you were agreeing with the description. But I agree that you were not denying the Holocaust. My impression was that you were saying that even an obviously wrong idea should not be treated as a "heresy"–it should simply be criticized as being wrong, without requiring any shunning. My criticism of your comment was that I felt that the term "heresy" has a positive association–even though, I agree, you were not implying it in that case.

  3. p-ter says:

    I get the impression Pinker has very specific examples in mind for every question there. The "difference in aptitudes between men and women" is clearly a reference to the Larry Summers hoopla (see pinker's response to question 1 here:

    Before publishing The Blank Slate, I lost sleep that the chapter on Gender (though carefully stated and respectful of feminism) would make me persona non grata in intellectual life. Yet when the book came out in 2002 and 2003, there were hundreds of interviews and reviews and public appearances, and not a peep about the gender chapter (all the fuss was over Children and The Arts). Then Larry Summers made his famous speech and "credited" the book for the evidence behind his views, and it all hit the fan

    The effect of parents on their children is a reference to Judith Rich Harris and her book, The Nurture Assumption, which was a Big Deal in psychology (it argued parenting has nearly a negligible effect on outcomes).

    the question about rape is in reference to Thornhill and Palmer's A Natural History of Rape, which was attacked in some intellectual circles as sexist or an apologia for rape.

    the homosexuality/disease thing is a reference to Greg Cochran's hypothesis.

    Based on those immediate few that I recognized, I'm guessing he has a specific instance in mind for each question where the mere fact of asking it was considered beyond the pale.

  4. Roger says:

    You are wondering what is dangerous about saying that women have a different profile of aptitudes? The president of Harvard got fired for expressing some opinions about the matter.

  5. anon@hipmail.com says:

    The question is extremely important because not asking taboo questions distorts our perception of reality. One of the tragic examples is that of Harold Shipman – simply, he was a medic who murdered hundreds of people; he went undetected for longer than normal because nobody could bring themselves to ask the taboo question, "is the doctor murdering the patients?".

    Another example would be Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy (wikipedia links available). This was (is?) thought to be an extremely rare condition: is it really rare, or can we not bring ourselves to think about this taboo subject particularly when the person inflicting the harm is either a parent, a carer or both.

    Moving into the political realm, we avoid thinking about taboo subjects by denigrating them as conspiracy theories eg operation Gladio, Operation MK-ultra etc. Our dualism and / or denial is fascinating.

  6. Jon says:

    Some social historical context on Pinker may help to clarify the angle of the piece. To simplify the situation greatly (and thus to distort somewhat), with his popular science book How The Mind Works, Pinker espoused some views about how people think, act, and behave, and more contentiously about the importance of understanding evolutionary theory and the obduracy of human nature, which many groups of academics within the humanities and 'softer' of the social sciences disliked passionately. With his follow-up book, The Blank Slate, Pinker seemed to actively embrace this reaction and become a willing Agent Provocateur of what he might see as 'tenured radicals'. If one looks for reviews of this book, one can see the battle-lines drawn between disciplines and approaches (i.e. they tend to be either very positive or very negative). Even humanities professors like Louis Menand – who wrote The Metaphysical Club, which was an intelligent and nuanced work about the intellectual history of Pragmatism and the generally positive influence Darwinistic thinking had upon it – compares the mere idea that one should study 'human nature' as akin to advocating separate drinking fountains for 'Whites' and 'Coloureds' (http://www.hereinstead.com/sys-tmpl/bmenadonpinker/)

    More recently, Pinker seems to have been concentrating more on writing about linguistics; however it looks from the newspaper piece that he still enjoys controversy over more general and 'philosophical' issues…

  7. Bill says:

    Race and IQ?
    Questioning Global Warming is becoming "Denial"? (Are they like Population Bomb Denialists?)

  8. Andrew says:

    P-ter,

    Thanks for the details–that helps. It sounds like Pinker was simplifying the hypotheses to keep things brisk in the newspaper article. I read one of Harris's books, and I don't think she was saying that parents have no effect: a short version would be that parents can hurt but they can't help beyond some limited level.

    Roger,

    Setting aside the politics in Summers's case, I think his opponents agreed with him that women, on average, have different profiles of aptitudes and emotions than men. There may have been some disagreement about what these profiles were, though, and also disagreement about the potential to change these profiles.

    Jon,

    That's interesting–it relates to the idea that people can be defined by their opponents. (I think it was David Spanier who wrote something like, "Decide what your opponents' hole cards are before they decide it for you.") I'd be interested in seeing Menand's comments in more detail–I like his writing and also have a soft spot for him because I took a class from his dad (I think) in college.

    Bill,

    I agree that some topics are "taboo" in some circles, but I'm not sure about all your examples. I doubt that demography journals inhibit "population bomb denialists," and I've seen discussion in the popular press about problems of declining population. But, yeah, you probably won't see a discussion of evolution in an evangelical church magazine, you're not going to see creationism discussed in a scientific journal, etc. I think that race and IQ does get discussed in some psychology journals but maybe there are some subtleties that don't get aired.

    In any case, I agree with Pinker's point that avoiding discussion and dissent can be bad, I just have some problems with many (most?) of his examples and his categorizations. (For example, Pinker might count the race and IQ topic that you mention as "racist" and thus not worthy of discussion.) Much of it is a matter of priorities.

  9. p-ter says:

    I don't think she was saying that parents have no effect: a short version would be that parents can hurt but they can't help beyond some limited level.

    the impression I got from both her books is that parentings within some normal range (including "bad" parenting that stops short of abuse) has little effect on how children end up. From an interview with her:

    6) Has behavior genetics declared the death of shared environment prematurely without considering levels of "shared environment" that occur above family – neigborhood, city, state, country, etc? Also if these things matter (which seems indisputable) and are mediated by shared family (which seems indisputable), again are the correlations hiding important details of parental influence?

    You ask if correlations might be "hiding important details of parental influence." Perhaps what you're getting at here is the notion that parents might influence one of their children one way and another child in a different way. For example, the parents' child-rearing style might cause one sibling to become more outgoing and bold, the other to become more timid. If the direction of the effect depends on the preexisting (genetic) characteristics of the child, then what you've got is a gene-environment interaction. There's a whole chapter (Chapter 3)in No Two Alike devoted to gene-environment interactions. I show why they can't account for twin and sibling differences in personality.

    But perhaps when you ask whether correlations might be "hiding important details of parental influence," you are talking about sheer unpredictability: the notion that parents do have an effect, but there's no way to predict in advance what the direction of the effect will be. Developmental psychologist Ellen Winner used this notion to explain away the behavioral geneticists' findings, in her response to the 2005 Edge question. "To demonstrate parents' effects on their children," Winner said, "we will need to recognize that parents may influence their children to become like them or to become unlike them." Winner suggested that researchers should study adult adoptees "and look at the extent to which these children either share their adoptive parents' values or have reacted against those values. Either way (sharing or reacting against), there is a powerful parental influence."

    It's a heroic attempt to preserve the faith in parental influence, but a futile one. What does it mean to say that parents do have a powerful influence but that the direction of the influence is unpredictable? Is there any way to prove or disprove that statement? Does it have any scientific value? For that matter, does it have any practical value? Would parents be satisfied to be told, "Yes, your parenting will have an effect on your children, but we can't tell you what that effect will be"? It would mean that books of child-rearing advice would have to begin with a disclaimer: "If you follow this advice, your children might turn into happy, successful people; on the other hand, they are just as likely to turn into miserable failures.

    For example, Pinker might count the race and IQ topic that you mention as "racist" and thus not worthy of discussion.

    he wouldn't. it's mentioned in the blank slate (and obliquely in the interview linked above).

  10. Bill says:

    Andrew,
    I was referring to the period following Erhlich's (1968?) Population Bomb (and the Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth") when criticizing the received wisdom of those books was greeted with the same furor as now given to persons who don't agree with "Global Warming". The Population Bomb was about overpopulation and the imminent crash of society.

  11. Greg says:

    I think that P-ter is right about Pinker having specific ideas in mind, for example the abortion thing is a reference to some work that was popularized in Freakonomics. Larry Summers also advocated having Africa take on pollution from America and Europe.

    The problem with many of these theories — and especially the Larry Summers theories — is that they're advocated in a particularly bone-headed way. That doesn't make them taboo questions, it just means that if you're going to advocate something that might have shock value, you need to back up your claims in a serious manner.

    It's part of a sizeable problem I see in psychology to focus more on marketing than on substance.

  12. Ohboy says:

    Andrew, if you don't think some of those issues are taboo (at least among a fairly large chunk of Poli Sci), I'd venture to say that your slice of Poli Sci is a rather peculiar (and unusually open-minded) sample of the discipline. I surely wish my slice of Poli Sci looked like yours.

  13. Andrew says:

    Ohboy,

    I'm sure my slice of political science is unusual. In any case, I think that different ideas are taboo in different places–what is taboo in the Harvard Psychology Department is different from what is taboo in our political science department here, or in a religious organization, or in the military, or in a large business, or etc etc etc.

    Also see Steven Pinker's responses to my comments (added to the original blog entry).

  14. Lisa says:

    His article strikes a chord with me, and in a way you seem to be missing: that in politics and public media, people assume their favorite answers to these questions, and never bother (or dare) to articulate them as questions. Academia's role (or non-role) in bringing them into discussion registers as just a side note. The point is that these are not questions one can innocently pose in, say, a newspaper, without getting attacked. They have policy implications, society isn't in agreement as to their answers, and yet we ("we" being public figures) aren't even able to touch them or allow that they might be open questions.

    They are not framed as good research questions, as you point out, but rather I think, the way they come up in public discourse.

  15. Phil says:

    Boy, I think this is the most commented entry ever on this blog, and it has almost nothing to do with statistics.

    I guess I'll be the one to take the courageous stand against free speech, since everybody else who is commenting seems to be bending over backwards to say that we should never reject any question out of hand.

    "Did the Holocaust really happen," "Did humans evolve from ape-like ancestors," "Are human activities changing the climate," and "Was Saddam Hussein cooperating with Al Qaeda to attack the United States" aren't taboo questions because of some outrageous left-wing political correctness, they're taboo because the only people asking them are dissemblers who want to raise doubt where there is none. (The answers are yes, yes, yes, and no). If an informed person asks one of these questions, then you know he has a nefarious agenda (inasmuch as it is based on creating false doubt) and you have a right to be irritated or angry. I do not share Seth's tolerance of holocaust deniers, and I see nothing laudable about such tolerance.

    But — and this is an important point — most of the questions Pinker mentions as "taboo" are nothing of the kind. Some of them, and only some of them, have generated some kind of outcry or outrage, but that is often not because of the question per se but rather the obvious agenda of the person asking it. As Pinker noted, one of his extremely popular books generated no heat in spite of discussing a _supposedly_ taboo issue…until that prime jackass Lawrence Summers cited Pinker's book in support of his jackassitude. As a subject of academic discourse, questions about relative performance of the sexes were perfectly acceptable; as a way to sidle into the airing of Summers' offensive views, they weren't. Many of Pinker's supposedly taboo questions are the subjects of active research and/or public discussion, they are not taboo. But yeah, if some politician or radio personality asks one, and implicitly answers it, in a provocative tone as a first step towards promoting some controversial policy, it's going to generate outrage.

  16. p-ter says:

    I've always been amazed by how people responded to Summers' remarks. His speech is online:
    http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nb

    and I honestly don't see any "jackassitude". here's his thesis:>blockquote>There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the-I'll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

    read the speech. it's academic, and somewhat provocative given the venue (at a psychology meeting, it might have been run-of-the-mill), but if it generated so much heat for "jackassery" and not for touching on a taboo subject, people have an odd idea of what constitutes a "jackass".

  17. Phil says:

    P-ter,

    Summers is a wealthy, powerful, white male, the son of two economics professors who himself went on to high achievement in economics, and he goes to a conference about diversity and suggests that (1) maybe only men are cut out for high achievement, and (2) discrimination probably isn't the reason most high-achieving people are white males.

    Going to a conference about diversifying the workplace, and giving a speech saying that some groups of people just can't cut it, is obviously deliberate provocation. It is hardly shocking that people were indeed provoked.

    Even so, he might not have had such problems if not for the fact that he has a long history of being arrogant and offensive to people he disagrees with. He apparently always had testy relations with much of Harvard's faculty, and other people (Wikipedia has a brief description of some of the controversies).

    In short, he's not a jackass _because_ of the content his speech, but he gave a speech that was aligned with the prior conception that he thinks that white males are superior to everyone else. And he did it at a diversity conference.

  18. p-ter says:

    [Summers] suggests that (1) maybe only men are cut out for high achievement

    that's simply not true. he suggests that deviation from a 50-50 ratio of men to women in the upper levels of academia could partially be due to biological difference between men and women.

    and (2) discrimination probably isn't the reason most high-achieving people are white males.

    it's not like he made that up out of whole cloth–he presents evidence as well. in the speech, he even offers ways to test the "discrimination hypothesis".

    he gave a speech that was aligned with the prior conception that he thinks that white males are superior to everyone else.

    now he's racist too? the fact that he was at a conference on diversity made his remarks provocative (as he notes in the speech, he was *asked* to be provocative), but from the point of view of an academic, he gave a contrarian view of a problem, offered substantial evidence for his position, and suggested potential experiments to test it. and for that, he's a sexist (and now racist as well). sounds like he asked what his crowd considered a taboo question.

  19. Phil says:

    P-ter,

    Summers' prior behavior had led some people (not me) to believe that he's a racist, yes. And a sexist. Whether he is or not, I don't know. I'm not an expert on the man, I only know what I've seen in the papers, and I knew nothing whatsoever about him until the controversy erupted.

    He gave a speech that played into those prior perceptions. He did indeed suggest in his speech that "perhaps", with very rare exceptions, only males are cut out for very high achievement. He also suggested that he doesn't think that discrimination is an explanation for why some groups are scarcely represented among high achievers; in his speech he did not explicitly say he's talking about racial groups, but he can hardly be unaware that almost all high-achievers in academia are white.

    There are researchers who study topics like achievement differences between sexes and races, and try to understand why they occur; these are not actually "taboo" questions. But Summers isn't one of them. Coming from someone who had studied the issues he's talking about in a serious way, these might have been acceptable "questions", at least if they were posed as genuine questions. (I put questions in quotes because, although carefully phrased as provocative questions, I was left with little doubt as to what Summers thinks the answers are). But coming from a rich, powerful white guy who famously denigrated Harvard's most famous black professor, many people found them offensive. This could not possibly have surprised Summers.

  20. p-ter says:

    He did indeed suggest in his speech that "perhaps", with very rare exceptions, only males are cut out for very high achievement.

    no, he did not suggest that. the many women achieving highly in science currently would not be "rare exceptions" in his view (except in the trivial sense that high achievement by any individual is a rare exception); he suggested that the fact that the numbers of highly achieving individuals is skewed towards men is not a result of discrimination.

    There are researchers who study topics like achievement differences between sexes and races, and try to understand why they occur; these are not actually "taboo" questions.

    Summers, Pinker and another researcher named Peter Lawrence were all featured (ie. their faces were published in what can only be described as a "lineup") in essentially an attack ad published in Nature about gender and intelligence. people do not want to hear about the research they're describing.
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v442/n7099/s

  21. Phil says:

    This is my last comment on this subject, so P-ter (or whoever else), you can have the last word.

    Summers really did say that he thinks that the vast majority of highest-performing people are destined to be men. For example, from his speech:

    So my sense is that the unfortunate truth-I would far prefer to believe something else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true-is that the combination of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances probably explains a fair amount of this problem.

    P-ter, you seem to be saying that he didn't really say anything that people would find offensive…so what do you think this whole thing is about? It's one thing to argue that people _shouldn't_ find this suggestion offensive, but to argue that he didn't make it in the first place is just not true.

    As for the photo you mention, the link that you gave gives me a "page not found" error. But I did manage to find an interesting Commentary that features what might be the same photo: Does gender matter, by Ben Barres, Nature 442, 133-136 (13 July 2006). I recommend reading the article and _then_ going back and clicking on the "Personal Experience" link in the "In denial" section.

    But to get allll the way back to my main points of view: (1) many of the supposedly taboo questions are subjects of active research; they may be taboo in political discourse, but they are (properly) accepted as legitimate areas of study, and (2) some supposedly taboo subjects really are taboo, AND SHOULD BE. Nobody should be getting money, or respect, or journal space, to ask questions like "Did the Holocaust really occur?"

  22. p-ter says:

    that's exactly the article I was speaking of. When I get space in Nature to opine about a field of study I know nothing about, i'll know I've won the Nobel.

    we're talking past each other about summers. he did say that the distribution of high-achieving scientists is likely to be skewed towards males (though he didn't say "the vast majority" are going to be males while females are "rare exceptions"). And you're right that some people were offended by that hypothesis. That's probably a good definition of taboo.

  23. quidnunc says:

    most of those questions have been getting a lot of attention. it's natural to be worked up about change in beliefs in science and society whether right or wrong. it's part of the process. especially in philosophy where there is a lot of speculation from the science of the day. i include in this many third culture books that present different ways of seeing. you can trace change in positions from previous controversy.

    ideas don't stand alone and Pinker would know that from his long list of misconceptions about various ideas. he demonstrates in his own work that you can bridge the gap by addressing differences in understanding. "culture war" is apt because there is conflict, but that might be misleading because there is, inevitably positive change. good arguments are effective but there's a time lag. some things people are apt not to believe, they will find completely inoffensive as the evidence piles up or auxiliary beliefs change. in many cases interpretations are invalidated by the science but degree of belief and evidence are frequently out of sync. yes virtue in investigation and truth are paramount but many topics have a wider effect on society. science wants to be relevant and it's great for getting rid of a lot of the nonsense we like to believe but the data isn't always there yet to say something substantial

    many of the topics listed above are more provocative than they seem because popularizations lack context and clarity, sense of proportion is lost, there is a bias to extend findings that are only suggestive, etc. It is a concern that bias and resistance to ideas can and will lead to censorship but most of the above have received a lot of popular interest, so even if that's the case it's mixed and science moves forward anyway

    the one question I have done a lot of reading about "Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality"? it's framed in a leading way for an empirical philosophical question. morality is a product of evolution -> morality has no inherent reality. Richard Joyce has a position not unlike it in a recent book and one previous from 2001 but for the most part it's a restatement of an old position. The idea might be disconcerting, however there are alternatives in metaethics from the evidence and I don't think it would be unsettling to people if they were to get a little background in epistemology. my opinion is that the question appears more provocative than it is because it presupposes naive philosophy about the properties something would require to have authority or force, how to make sense of differences between and within populations, how intelligence and its bounded capacity figures in the judgements we make, the limited horizon of our interests, that values and interests often conflict but there are better or worse outcomes that we can partially order even as we simultaneously express skepticism about the origins of evolved sentiments they are grounded in, that an open question doesn't necessarily imply that everything is permitted. interesting questions are raised from scientific facts, for example about responsibility but there isn't enough clarity or distinctions drawn. there is tremendous interest in the topic and you can tell by all the pieces in nature, science, and the media in general but also a lot of muddle headed reasoning.

  24. Encefalus says:

    I'll agree with professor pinker on this one, even though your critic is quite good. If you want, check out my own thoughts concerning dangerous ideas at http://encefalus.com/philosophical/dangerous-idea

  25. tarjei says:

    Nicely put. Some people will, either callously or because they don´t know better, create doubt where there are none. We have to demask such people and not elevate their viewpoints to a level they don´t deserve. Case in point: A Norwegian professor of political science recently pulled out of a planned debate (concerning, of all things, the works of Bjørnson, a Norwegian writer), when he found out that one of the persons in the panel was an old marxist who still denied the existence of genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot. The professor wouldn´t even honor such a person with his presence, even if they were to discuss something completely unrelated. I understand him.

    On the other hand, in politics, in science (and this, of course, is Pinker´s point), often large segments of society want to act as if there exists no doubt even if there actually does, and in the process villifying those who pose the unpleasant questions. Asked in Europe, 1700: "Is our society corrupt since we don´t grant women full civil and legal rights?" – this question would have, if posed insistently by someone with academic or political prestige (that is, at that time, a man…), sent the poor guy out in the cold, no doubt, I fear.

    We have to separate questions of the former kind, from the latter, and respond in different ways. No small task. And Pinker´s examples are a mix of both I think, but then again, what do I know? ;) So here the challenge lie: How to recognize questions that we somehow "know" are resolved, but aren´t, and separate them from the "nefarious agenda"-questions. And, sensing an insurmountable dilemma at this point, I will end my post. :)