Have you ever attended a concert of earsplitting, atonal, avant-garde music, strolled into a museum gallery filled with deeply disturbing surreal paintings or inadvertently stumbled across a gruesome surgical operation while surfing cable channels?
You might have been genuinely shocked by the subject matter, but at the same time strongly attracted to it.
That was what I felt as I wended my way through “What is Your Dangerous Idea? Today’s Leading Thinkers on the UNTHINKABLE.”
Richard Dawkins (a world-class biologist at Cambridge University and famously unrepentant and public atheist) and Steven Pinker (MIT/Harvard psychology professor and academic provocateur) asked more than 100 of the most distinguished English-speaking scientists (and a few other intellectual heavy hitters) to briefly describe their most dangerous ideas.
Please keep in mind that a “dangerous idea” need not be absolutely true or conventionally moral. It must simply make things go topsy-turvy. It both disrupts the status quo and spurs major innovations.
Dawkins says, “Dangerous ideas are what has driven humanity onward, usually to the consternation of the majority of any particular age who thrive on familiarity and fear change. Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”
Dangerous ideas from the past include evolution, labor unions and child labor laws, the right to vote, the automobile, the telephone, the Human Genome Project and e-mail.
Most of the responses in the book span one to two pages. They were written in a dry, cold, perfunctory style without being overblown or patronizing to laypeople.
One of the more plausible propositions was written by Dr. Simon Baron Cohen, a distinguished Cambridge University professor of developmental psychopathology. He is the real-life uncle of Sacha Baron Cohen (aka “Borat”).
In a nutshell, the elder Baron Cohen’s dangerous idea is that masculine leadership styles lack human empathy and lead to organizational disconnect and dysfunction. Conversely, a leader with a feminine mindset can really “feel your pain” and is often willing to do something about it. An obvious implication of this dangerous idea is that planet Earth might be better off if Dr. Debbie were running things instead of GI Joe.
In the name of political correctness and all-around mental health, I will not rehash some of more challenging utterances from this provocative anthology. For the intellectually intrepid, see pages 1, 13, 27, 50, 65 and the last paragraph on page 300.
It has been said that we all live in a world where everything is possible and nothing is certain. It behooves members of the creative class with the stomach for unsettling and unpalatable thoughts to try to put the unthinkable into a human context.
We must help to distinguish the innovative and life-affirming ideas from the merely dangerous ones that just flatter the egos of a few geniuses and diminish the many.
Trying to ethically evaluate the march of scientific and technological progress is a dangerous idea in itself. But it beats denial, unproductive worrying or the hypnotic effect of “reality TV.”