The Most Dangerous Idea

Edge.org has another year of responses from top scientists, this year's question - "What is your dangerous idea." Most of the responses are interesting, some are downright intriguing, a few are rather stupid, and several are ideas that are now centuries old. The best is also unoriginal, by Daniel Gilbert:

The idea that ideas can be dangerous

Dangerous does not mean exciting or bold. It means likely to cause great harm. The most dangerous idea is the only dangerous idea: The idea that ideas can be dangerous.

We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough shit. That's the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we're in one. When all the words in our public conversation are fair, good, and true, it's time to make a run for the fence.

via slashdot

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I like Leo Chalupa's idea of

I like Leo Chalupa's idea of 24 hours of solitude. Not dangerous by any means, at least if you're an introvert, but a good idea.

Sorry but Gilbert is just

Sorry but Gilbert is just plain wrong. This is a classic "bold assertion". Ideas can be extremely dangerous. For example: Socialism, in its National and International forms and various offshoots from same including the Cultural Revolutions of Mao and his little Mini-Mao, Pol Pot. The bones of German Jews, Ukrainian peasants, Chinese peasants and Chinese and Cambodian bourgeoisie can attest to how dangerous those particular ideas were. Indeed the very example to which he refers - violent repression of speech - is itself a "dangerous idea"!

No, the argument for freedom of speech/expression does not, cannot, rely on the plainly false notion that ideas cannot be dangerous. Rather it is that just as a free market is superior to restrictions on trade from the point of view of individual freedom and overall utility so is a free market in ideas superior to a "restricted market". Dangerous ideas tend to thrive rather than wither under repression.

Ideas can be extremely

Ideas can be extremely dangerous.

I find ideas to be neutral. Men acting on ideas can be dangerous. There is a fine difference, and I believe an important one.

I think I see where you're

I think I see where you're coming from. Ideas can be "good" or "bad". They certainly can by "right" (as in correspond to reality for example) or "wrong". My distinction is that I don't think "dangerous" can be used properly as an adjective to idea. An idea cannot perform actions or apply a force to a person, "dangerous" implies an ability to directly cause harm. Marx's ideas did not kill people, Lenin's actions did.

David, this distinction you

David, this distinction you are attempting to carve between "neutral" ideas and "non-neutral" actions flies in the face of ordinary language use. We frequently talk about "good" ideas and "bad" ideas, we routinely assign qualities to ideas. If we are to adopt your amended definition, we ought to reserve such adjectives for the actions such ideas inspire. Thus we would have to say, for example, that free trade is a neutral idea in theory but good in practice. This is hardly an improvement on the conventional usage.

My distinction is that I

My distinction is that I don’t think “dangerous” can be used properly as an adjective to idea

My contention is that this doesn't bear close scrutiny. There are plenty of ideas that have perilous consequences or are liable to cause harm. Another example, the idea of having frequent unprotected receptive anal sex with hiv positive individuals. The likely consequences for a proponent of such an idea is indeed "harm". It seems to me rather pedantic to belabour the point that "dangerous" isn't the correct adjective. Perhaps we can use a different adjective (even though "dangerous" is the precise adjective Gilbert used to describe repression of speech) but we should still be able to differentiate between ideas which are likely to lead to harmful consequences and ideas which are not and blandly labelling all ideas as "neutral" and implicitly harmless erases this distinction.

The way I like to put it

The way I like to put it is:

Some statements are both true and dangerous. This is one of them.

Yet other ideas are

Yet other ideas are supposedly Brite.