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Friday, October 05, 2007

Banned books Week -a dinosaur hall of the mind

Friends draw my attention to this Banned Books Week event at Baylor, and this hasty reassurance that we are NOT supposed to think that there is any clear comparison between the suppression of Bob Marks's evolutionary informatics lab and the banning of books. (Hat tip Anarchicharmony's William J. Murray.)

No, there isn't. At Banned Books Week, so far as I can tell from the advertising, you mostly snore through old chestnuts whose ideas have long been accepted or dismissed by most of society. You don't learn about dangerous ideas that genuinely threaten the CURRENT establishment. Oh, and you might hear calls for violent jihad, et cetera, that some have tried to ban.

The jihadis actually do pose a physical threat to subway, train, and airline passengers, as well as restaurant and supermarket patrons. But whether the best way to address the problem is by banning access to detailed information is a question of security strategy rather than ideas as such. I have yet to hear of anyone who wanted to be a jihadi's blast victim - but complained that the government was somehow interfering with that individual's personal liberty by preventing terror attacks ... (Oh, make my day ... surprise me. Tell me about such a case ... )

The best way to see what happens when someone genuinely threatens the current establishment's illusions is not to look at ID guys like Guillermo Gonzalez or non-Darwinists like Rick Sternberg - interesting as their cases are. I always say, look at Larry Summers, once Harvard prez, now Unperson. His crime? Only to say what every thinking person actually knows: That the preponderance of men in maths and hard sciences is most likely based in nature, not social prejudice.

It is instructive to note that the vast majority of the people who would nod approval at propositions as foolish as the Big Bazooms theory of human evolution probably purse their lips at Larry Summers, who has nothing on his side but the preponderance of the relevant evidence. However human evolution happened, it left more men than women with the types of aptitudes that are rewarded in math and hard sciences.

So the tendency for Banned Books Weeks to be, essentially, dinosaur halls of the mind, is part of a trend, actually. Go here, here, and here for recent examples of the pervasive and growing problem that genuinely challenging ideas are increasingly banned or shunned. And go here if you want to help do something about it.

How bad has it got? Pretty bad, actually.

In The Spiritual Brain, Mario Beauregard and I chuckled at the ideas that The Edge (Wedge the Edge! - d.) thought "dangerous" in 2006:
Reading them over, one is struck by how undangerous the ideas actually are. The faculty lounge will only yawn at the idea that “we are nothing but a pack of neurons” (Ramachandran, quoting Crick), or that “there are no souls” (Bloom, Horgan, Provine), or that there is no free will (Dawkins, Metzinger, Shirky), or that the self is a zombie (Clark). No one will perk up on hearing that “the natural world is all there is” (Smith), that God is probably a fairy tale (Weinberg), or that “everything is pointless” (Blackmore). Not only are these ideas not dangerous in contemporary academe, they’re not even surprising or interesting—or, at this point, particularly well supported.

[ ... ]

If you want to say something dangerous, you must create risk where you live. Materialists’ perception of their own ideas as “dangerous” in the contemporary climate is mere branding without substance. The real danger is that their ideas are slowly, systematically being disconfirmed. But that is not a danger they show the slightest sign of eagerness to address.

(pp. 178-79)

Far from it, they will probably do their best to ban serious discussion on any pretext whatever. And they have a very good reason for that.

Note: I am well aware of prejudice against women's achievements. There was a time, for example, when great women novelists wrote under a male pseudonym or the cryptic "by a Lady." But that is a problem light years removed from an inability to actually WRITE the novel! Once the novel became a socially important form of expression, prejudice did not prevent women from writing great novels, only from publishing under authentic female names (at first). I am told, in fact, that more women than men published novels during the nineteenth century. And what if more women than men had been writing theorems in math? Conducting experiments in physics? Designing bridges and steam engines?

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