In an [article in the Chicago Sun-Times], Steven Pinker brings up some ideas that are often met with knee-jerk reactions. (The terms “sexist,” “racist,” and “fascist” seem to pop up in the brain for some reason.)
But, in reality, the questions seem to be more of a political litmus test.
This is the stuff that we should be asking our presidential candidates, frankly.
Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?
As a man, it is tempting to say “yes.” But I’m wary of ascribing a difference to gender, when the variation between individuals irrespective to gender are probably just as variable. I don’t have any data, unfortunately.
Were the events in the Bible fictitious—not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?
Having been born and raised Catholic, I was inculcated with the idea that the Scriptures are ideally to be figuratively interpreted and are not the literal truth. So this one is easy for me. There are certain events that have been corroborated by independent pieces of archaelogical evidence. Others could certainly be fictitious.
Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage?
I suppose it all depends on your definition of abuse, and your definition of damage. It’s been pretty well demonstrated that extreme events (for example, being raped at knifepoint or gunpoint) will cause neuropsychiatric changes that are completely equivalent to that suffered by soldiers who have experienced extremely traumatic events in the heat of battle. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a well described medical condition that we treat to the tune of several billion dollars a year. Not that that’s evidence that it’s real, but the molecular physiologic mechanisms described seem pretty consistent with what we know of neuroscience.
Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape?
Probably. Even modern-day Mayans will postulate the idea that the probable reason for the abandonment of their great cities some millenia ago was probably the result of an environmental catastrophe.
Do men have an innate tendency to rape?
Probably. Rape is rampant in the animal kingdom, and humans are simply animals with the ability to self-reflect. Still, we also have the innate tendency to kill people we don’t like. In other words, it looks like civilization is at least partly based on abandoning instinctual drives.
Did the crime rate go down in the 1990s because two decades earlier poor women aborted children who would have been prone to violence?
This one seems pretty simple, too. The crime rate went down because thanks to Bill Clinton, the nation underwent the largest economic expansion in all of American History. You could probably get stock indices and crime rates to correlate pretty well.
A more radical interpretation could be: the high availability of psychotropic illicit substances 20 years ago may have affected the brains of the resultant children such that their drive to violence was suppressed. How about that one?
Are suicide terrorists well-educated, mentally healthy and morally driven?
Uh. No. Granted, my opinion is pretty tainted. The standard of care in medicine is to assume suicidal ideation is a sign of mental illness. All the cases of suicidal ideation I’ve seen seem to comport with this, although I recognize that anecdotes are not rigorous case studies.
Would the incidence of rape go down if prostitution were legalized?
Doubtful. It’s not like convicted rapists never go see prostitutes.
Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white men?
This would actually be pretty easy to do a study on. My bets are on the likely conclusion that, much like the conclusions from the studies of DNA similarity, there will be more variation between individuals in their respective cohorts than there will be a statistically significant average difference between cohorts. Anyone want to fund this study? I’ll start enrolling subjects as soon as you send a check.
Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?
I have no doubt that morality is a construct in our brains that gives us a reproductive advantage with regards to playing game theory. Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene makes a good case that altruism maximizes our chances in passing on our genetic material. Hence, morality. As to inherent reality, what is real? I think that morality is no more and no less real than the record of photons that hit your retina which get interpreted by your visual cortex into a coherent model of your surroundings.
Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized?
Yes. Think of all the taxable commerce! I bet you our tax burdens could be significantly reduced. Think of all the crime that could be obviated because people would no longer have to steal, since the price of these drugs could be driven down to the point where cough medicine would cost more. Think how we could completely ruin drug cartels and terrorist groups by out-competing their production capacities. Think of all the health care dollars we could save by providing drug users with safe, standardized product, not to mention the decrease in disease transmission by allowing them to get their needles.
Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease?
I think that homosexuality has an evolutionary basis, as some kind of trait that allows the maximal transmission of certain genetic material. I think that when we go to the level of molecular genetics, it gets hard to separate what is disease and what is normal genetic transmission. Viruses and bacteria all have pieces of DNA just like the nuclei in our cells, and we are starting to discover that particular traits are actually modified and transmitted by things like transposons, which hitchhike in viral and bacterial DNA.
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?
I’ll let you on a little secret. We do this already. We just don’t call it euthanasia. There is, after all, a difference between actively ending someone’s life, and simply withdrawing care and letting nature take its course, and for the most part, nature is not merciful.
Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children?
Yes. This is simple information theory applied to neuroscience. You are what your brain senses. Without stimuli, neurons die. Use it or lose it. How do most children get their stimuli? The people around them. Who is usually around them?
Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism?
Yes. All I have to do is quote Arnaud-Amaury: Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius, which can be paraphrased as “Kill them all and let God sort it out.”
Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?
If we have no qualms about torturing suspects (and if Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay is any guide, we clearly do not), we could easily do a randomized controlled trial and see which group stops real terrorist plots: the experimental torture group, or the control lawful interrogation group. I’m talking about real terrorist plots, not the bullshit stuff that the FBI and the CIA make up to keep us scared. I bet $50 that you wouldn’t find a statistically significant difference.
Would Africa have a better chance of rising out of poverty if it hosted more polluting industries or accepted Europe’s nuclear waste?
No, because the poverty is really caused by economic inequality and not just lack of resources. All this would do is funnel even more money to the economic elites in existence. Since Reagan and W have well proven that trickle-down economics doesn’t do shit, particularly when you compare it to the results of FDR’s Keynesian experiment of the New Deal (and the increased federal spending due to World War II), I think it’s a good prediction that poor people will nonetheless remain poor people.
Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people?
I would argue that this has been happening since sexual reproduction started. We know that increasing intelligence correlates with decreasing sexual activity, throughout all sexually reproducing organisms. It’s that, sometimes, you need to be smart to survive. So there will always be a range where you are too dumb to reproduce, and where you are too smart to reproduce. The range of success is probably pretty broad, though. I’m not convinced that we are generating stupider people, anyway. I just think that our intelligence is not being utilized efficiently.
Would unwanted children be better off if there were a market in adoption rights, with babies going to the highest bidder?
Doubtful. We do this already to a degree. Think of all those Chinese babies that the celebrities adopt. This could also be studied with a randomized controlled trial. I’ll be awaiting your check in the mail.
Would lives be saved if we instituted a free market in organs for transplantation?
No. It’s tough enough to procure organs as it is. Adding a free market component to it would just add another layer of complexity to the process. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if there were multiple organ donation services instead of a centralized system like UNOS. Imagine the geometric increase of the number of phone calls you’d have to make to procure an organ. Imagine how many more people a transplant center would have to hire to make the phone calls. Imagine the delays because of awaiting wire transfers, and making sure the parties involved got their money before starting the harvesting procedure. Think about all the health care dollars being pissed away as you keep a brain-dead person on life support while awaiting the completion of these transactions. Never mind the fact that even on life support, you still only have a limited window of time while the organs are viable.
Should people have the right to clone themselves, or enhance the genetic traits of their children?
Why would you clone? For backup organs? That would be pretty atrocious. Otherwise, big deal. Genetic copies of you with shortened life spans. Yay. I’ve always wanted a twin. As if twins weren’t individuals with human rights. As for genetic enhancement? It’s already happening. It’s going to continue to get more sophisticated whether we like it or not. Still, there is no on-and-off switch for super strength, or the ability to hit home runs, or run four minute miles. So go ahead and let your kids be guinea pigs. I’m sure they’ll really appreciate it.
In an open society, we should be allowed to voice our opinions. But it’s a quid-pro-quo. Your bullshit is no more important than mine, really. It seems like all ATM advocates think that they have some special right to inflict their brand of madness on as many people as possible. Fuck that. There are already well established modes of transmission and propagation for these ideas: politics, the scientific process, the free market. Why should we privilege your crackpot theory by allowing you to bypass these mechanisms that have served humanity pretty well for a few millenia?
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: http://web.archive.org/web/20080509160458/http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/dangerous_ideas.pdf “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. • 2007 Jul 15 • Steven Pinker • archived 2008 May 9 • Wayback Machine • link revised 2015 Nov 17” : http://www.technorati.com/tag/atm “atm • Technorati • link dead • last checked 2016 Feb 23” : http://www.technorati.com/tag/medicine “medicine • Technorati • link dead • last checked 2016 Feb 23” : http://www.technorati.com/tag/neuroscience “neuroscience • Technorati • link dead • last checked 2016 Feb 23” : http://www.technorati.com/tag/statistics-and-lies “statistics and lies • Technorati • link dead • last checked 2016 Feb 23”