What is a taboo question?

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."

I see two connections to "overcoming bias" here.  First, and most obviously, Pinker is suggesting that, by ignoring these "taboo questions," we as a society will suffer from the consequences of bias (not knowing whether certain policies will work well, etc.).  Below I claim the opposite, that Pinker’s very choice of topics to study is itself suffused with bias which he doesn’t seem to recognize.

The second connection is that I think that we, the "overcoming bias" crowd, tend to feel that many of our ideas are themselves taboo in some sense.  By pushing our own dangerous ideas, we may be more Pinker-like than we realize.

Here is (some of) Pinker’s article, followed by a pretty long point-by-point discussion of many of his examples, along with (what I see as) his implicit assumptions).  Pinker writes:

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.

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  • Lowrie Glasgow

    Ask Larry Summers about his taboo list.

  • I agree that we should be wary of people calling a topic “taboo” when what those topics really are is boring; the reason people don’t study your pet topic may be that they aren’t interested, and not that they are somehow to afraid to engage it. But if people spend a lot of time dealing with very closely related topics and then refuse to touch your topic, then you have a stronger case for your topic being taboo.

  • Keith Adams

    You and Pinker disagree about the “obvious answer” to whether parents have any impact on their children’s intellect and personality. Google “nurture assumption harris.” The balance of evidence suggests that, indeed, parenting style does not have any impact at all on children’s intelligence, welfare, personality, etc. For instance, adoptive siblings raised in the same household (with no genetic relationship, but the same parents) are no more similar than two random people.

  • Robin,

    That’s an interesting way to classify taboo, as a sort of arbitrary barrier. One challenge in studying this is that different topics are taboo to different people–for example, Pinker drew the line at “weapons of mass destruction” or “racist, fascist or other fanatical cults.” People on another part of the political grid might say it’s just fine to study weapons of mass destruction–even if we don’t, somebody else will–but oppose studying beneficial effects of homosexuality.

    This brings up another issue that I raised above, which is the one-sided direction of Pinker’s (and others’) taboo subjects. Once a topic is framed as “Would X be better?” (rather than “In what ways would X be better and in what way would X be worse?”), I see the potential for bias.


    I read one of Harris’s books and found much of it convincing. Also I recognize Pinker as somewhat of an authority in this area, so I am inclined to defer to his views here and believe that parents have much less impact than we might think. (As I believe Harris said in her book, playing with your kids and giving them a happier and more stimulating childhood is an end in itself; it doesn’t have to be motivated by the expectation of effects on their adult intelligence, personality, etc.)

    Anyway, I’m perfectly willing to believe that parental influence is much less than one might think. But I don’t think there’s any debate that parents have “any effect.” For one thing, some parents are truly abusive. Maybe the decision of whether to send the kids to day care has little effect, but that doesn’t mean you can lock the kids in the basement and expect nothing bad to happen.

  • Sceptic

    A very American sort of list. Here are some more taboo subjects:

    Should we legalize drugs, and if so, which?

    Are there too many people in prison, and how can we reduce their number?

    Why is mobbing increasing at many workplaces?

    Is capitalism really the best of all economic systems?

    Should we endorse an atheist candidate for president, just for the principle of the thing?

    How can we reduce military spending and regain control of the industrial/military complex?

    Can you be fat and still beautiful and desirable?

    Does the danger to the environment legitimize sabotage of polluters, if the law cannot deal with them?

    How does one traditionally deal with tyrants?

    Is the USA really the best country in the world, and if so, why exactly?

    Etc. etc.

  • LP

    If you go back and read the Pinker article, I don’t think he’s suggesting that these topics have been under-researched; I think he’s claiming that these topics have been researched, and the results ignored because they threaten certain commonly held opinions that are too touchy to discuss in public. For example, the first question — all neuroscientists know that women and men have different mental capabilities, think differently, and so on. But bring this up during a dinner party, and see what happens. Chances are, this is the result of the calcification of opinion that occurs in many people as they get older — Pinker writes, “In my experience, today’s students — black and white, male and female — are bewildered by the idea, common among their parents, that certain scientific opinions are immoral or certain questions too hot to handle.” But I bet that when these same students are middle-aged adults, alot of them will feel the same.

  • Douglas Knight

    Once a topic is framed as “Would X be better?”…I see the potential for bias.

    Surely Pinker is asserting that the taboo is one-sided, that only (the other) one-sided versions of the questions are currently acceptable.

  • TGGP

    The Flynn effect appears to have run its course.

    Why is mobbing increasing at many workplaces?
    I really don’t understand what you are talking about here.

  • michael vassar

    I think that the important thing with respect to many of Pinker’s questions is that they have great relevance to many other questions that are the subject of a great deal of attention and which cannot plausibly be answered usefully without reference to his questions.
    I often feel that way about a number of other questions.

  • Douglas Knight

    Taboo vs. Boring:
    What are examples of people calling taboo when it’s really that no one is interested? Pinker’s Biblical history and Native American examples may fall under this, or rather, self-selection may bias who is interested.

    I think there’s a third category of topics about which there’s a lot of policy debate, but no one actually wants to know relevant facts. It may be easy to mistake a bias against research in general with a taboo against your research, especially if you’re in the minority.

  • FYI, Pinker’s response (posted on Andrew’s other website), addresses many of these issues:

    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.

  • Michael M. Butler

    P-Ter: There’s a bit too much indirection re “Andrew’s other web site” for me to locate sources. I don’t have a URL for Andrew’s site, though I might be able to Google for it if I knew more about him. Would you (or Andrew!) be kind enough to provide the link implicit in the text you cut and pasted (the “click here”)? Thanks.

  • Michael M. Butler

    P-Ter: There’s a bit too much indirection re “Andrew’s other web site” for me to locate sources. I don’t have a URL for Andrew’s site, though I might be able to Google for it if I knew more about him. Would you (or Andrew!) be kind enough to provide the link implicit in the text you cut and pasted (the “click here”)? Thanks.

  • Michael M. Butler

    Sorry about the double post. It seems to be a consequence of my trying to use the “back” function in my browser and re-POSTing unintentionally.

  • Andrew, great post. I think what pissed you off most about Pinker’s list was the same thing that pissed me off: that it was poorly thought out, reasoned, and articulated. A great contrast to your published writings in this blog and on your own.

  • Sceptic, brilliant counter-response. Pinker’s claim that his list is randomly generated is laughable on its surface. It clearly itself reflects biases of a rather conventional, American sort. There’s also a working-the-refs (“It’s middle class white guys that are oppressed”) subtextual feel to the whole thing.

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  • Chris

    Not sure that Andrew actually read the article that Pinker wrote. Perhaps he just read it with too much cognitive bias as to what he wanted it to be about. BTW, the link to Pinker’s article no longer works, try here : http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/dangerous_ideas.pdf
    Pinker just had 4 points (1) some questions are considered to have too much emotional weight to be be asked in polite society (make your own list, he never claimed his was the most important or that it was exhaustive) (2) there is a case for saying they should be asked nevertheless (3) there is a case for saying they shouldn’t (4) don’t rely on academia to debate points 2 & 3.
    What’s so difficult about that ?

  • I believe pinker to be correct on this one. He is right on point. I disagree in some parts of your critic and I believe pinker address all these problems you pose in his full article, but I’l agree with the tables :). Check out my comments on this article on http://encefalus.com/philosophical/dangerous-ideas-informational-revolution-internet/