Are some truths not worth knowing?

November 18, 2018 • 11:30 am

I was listening for the first time to the famous “Four Horseman” video discussion with Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, and noted that, near the end, they discuss the possibility that some scientific facts might not be worth knowing, or even be dangerous to know. (Dan mentions determinism, though he doesn’t think that it should be hidden from the public). Above that discussion hovers another question: would it ever be good to delude people about the truth (this is regularly suggested by religion-friendly atheists)? And there’s a third question: should we not pursue some lines of research because they might yield truths that would be harmful?

I’ve thought about this question a lot, and touch on it in Faith Versus Fact, but haven’t come up with any examples of truths that should be hidden, or research that shouldn’t be done—unless that research itself involves palpable harm, like the Tuskegee syphilis study. It seems to me always better to know the truth than not know the truth. I don’t like the fact that I’m going to die, for instance, and sometimes I wish I were a squirrel or a duck with no knowledge of my own mortality; but since we are rational beings, it’s better to know what’s going to happen to us. I don’t want someone to tell me I’m going to be immortal—even in the afterlife.

The only instance of a truth that, to me, even comes close to something that would harm society involves studies of genetic differences between groups. Do ethnic groups differ in IQ? Do men and women differ in innate interests and capacities? Such questions certainly could cause huge offense depending on what the results are, but only to the extent that the offended think that those facts will lead to bigotry, racism, and sexism.

They needn’t. As I’ve always said, the morality that we construct, while it should be informed by empirical fact, should not heavily depend on biology. Whether groups or individuals should be treated as equals in terms of opportunities, respect, and so on, should not depend on genetic differences in their behaviors or “talents”. And it is interesting, for example, to know if there are innate differences in preferences and behavior between men and women.

Some truths aren’t worth knowing, I suppose, because the results are boring and trivial. One example is knowing how many blades of grass are there on the University of Chicago quadrangle. I would say that answering that is a dumb and meaningless endeavor of no interest to anyone. But that’s not in the class of the “dangerous” studies I mention above.

I’m just throwing this question out to readers. Are there any scientific truths that, if we knew them, we should keep from people? Are there any questions that could be answered that we shouldn’t try to answer. I await a discussion.

152 thoughts on “Are some truths not worth knowing?

  1. And it is interesting, for example, to know if there are innate differences in preferences and behavior between men and women.

    I would submit that it is not only interesting to know these but that knowledge can help shape social policy in constructive ways and could help diffuse the social gender war we are engaged in. Of course this kind of search for truth could be used to further bigotry of various sorts, but that (to me) is no basis to preclude investigation. That possibility means only that we need to be open, transparent and thoughtful about how the work is done and what it means.

    I cannot think of any “truth” not worth knowing. But I’ll read what others say here….

    1. I personally think it’s clear there are innate differences in preferences, behaviour, and ability between men and women. However, those things apply to the groups as a whole, not individuals within those groups and therefore, in an enlightened society, should not result in sexism in either direction.

      You may or may not agree with me that, on average, men’s spatial abilities are better than those of women. However, that doesn’t mean that all men are better than all women. Some women, even though their spatial abilities aren’t that great are still better than some men a lot less intelligent than they are simply because of the intelligence factor.

      The same thing goes for women having better written communication/comprehension skills, and you could write the above paragraph swapping those skills for spatial abilities, and swapping “men” for “women”.

      Studies routinely show women are, on average, more rational than men. That doesn’t mean that’s always the case of course, and doesn’t explain how it is that there are more male atheists than female ones. (I think I have a possible answer to that, but I’ve already written too much inspired by mikeyc’s comment.)

        1. I’m trying to write a book that covers that among other things related to women atheists, so I’m not keen on expounding on my theories too much elsewhere at this stage. So far, I haven’t heard most of them anywhere else, which probably means 1. I haven’t read widely enough; 2. They’re a load of crap; 3. Most people aren’t interested enough to buy books on the topic. Mostly they relate to women’s traditionally different place in society to men.

    1. Scary to be sure, but as someone who uses CRISPR in my work, I see a flaw right here; “whereby anyone with simple means…”

      This is a tech that will never be “simple”. CRISPR is potentially powerful (in limited ways) but it’s still biology and simple it isn’t.

        1. There is a world of difference between using CRISPR in a middle school project and generating a new pathogen. I bet many middle schools have rocketry clubs too but few, if any, can get into space. It just isn’t that simple.

    2. Perhaps the question really has to do with “known to whom?”

      If I was engaged in a battle I would rather the enemy not know my location.

    3. I think the point is what if someone discovers a process much simpler than CRISPR, which would make producing deadly pathogens easy. It would seem that something like that should not be published.

  2. I’ll start by answering the question at the end of paragraph one with another question: Harmful to what? To one’s feelings? The old saying goes, “The truth shall make you free.” I can’t think of a truth that doesn’t make one free of the oppression and harm of false thought, so I’ll go with, “If the truth makes you free, then it’s all good.”

  3. “One example is knowing how many blades of grass are there on the University of Chicago quadrangle. I would say that answering that is a dumb and meaningless endeavor of no interest to anyone. But that’s not in the class of the “dangerous” studies I mention above.”

    I can think of at least one instance where an idea like that was used to harmful ends. My second grade class in a Catholic school was told that “…God knows the exact number of hairs on each of your heads.” I was confused. What possible good would that knowledge have? I eventually realized that this was just another ploy to make us feel worthless and insignificant before the power of the church.

    1. How this was taught to me is the knowledge that g*d knew every strand of hair meant he knew and loved you more than anything possibly could. He loves you SO MUCH that he even knows how many hair strands you have. They didn’t know about cells back then, but the new version would have g*d knowing how many cells each person had as well. Now that’s caring!

      1. It wasn’t presented to us as caring; it was more like “He knows everything about you, so if you mess up, you’re going to hell.” It reminded me of

        “He knows when you are sleeping,
        He knows when you’re awake
        He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
        So be good for goodness’ sake”

        If I could have a do-over on that moment, I think I’d ask the nun if Santa Claus is god, ’cause they both are all-knowing and do a lot of the same things.

        1. My (mildly) religious mother is now in her 80s. As a child, she misheard the lyrics to a hymn, “Jesus Bids Us Shine”, and thought the words “well he sees and knows it if our light is dim” (i.e. have sinned) were “well, he sees a Nose-it…” and thought some sneaky and nosey creature, a “Nose-it”, was spying on her and reporting back to g*d. She found the concept really unfair and was rather paranoid until she found out her mistake. Personally, I don’t see how Judgment Day would be possible without a similar intrusive level of scrutiny, or why a “Nose-it” is less likely than creatures the bible does claim exist. Guess I’ll be seeing you all in the fiery furnace!

  4. “The only instance of a truth that, to me, even comes close to something that would harm society involves studies of genetic differences between groups.”

    We can also cause harm if the differences are real and we ignore them.

    1. I don’t think we would cause harm. Merit-based, race-blind admission to universities is good regardless of any inherent differences between groups. Education benefits all humans regardless of their individual or (hypothetical) group differences.

      1. Education benefits all humans, but it doesn’t benefit all humans equally. Education or knowledge will continue to increase the intelligence gap. The difference between the smartest hunter-gatherer 100,000 years ago and the stupidest one wasn’t as big as the the diff between the smartest living humans and the less intelligent ones.

        1. Perhaps that should be the difference between the better informed and the less informed. After all, it not education simply being informed?

        2. To me, the problem is not in the intelligence gap, but in the treatment of those flanking the lower edge of the gap. (Like income inequality: to me, the problem is not that income is very unequally distributed but that the poor are left to rot.)

  5. … would it ever be good to delude people about the truth

    My initial thought is “yes”, because people are “designed” to be deluded (e.g. the illusion of free will).

    Also, when Maggy the Frog told Cersei Lannister that her 3 children would die, it kind of ruined her life.

  6. It has often been noted that it would be bad for one to know the day of one’s death ahead of time. Of course, we are not likely to develop any technology that would give us this ability any time soon so it is a moot point.

    It might not be a good idea to know about one’s genetic predisposition to success in some field. Say we could assess a person’s musical potential from a genetic point of view. Knowing that could be good in that it might steer one into a different profession but it might also be bad as a genetic predisposition might be overbalanced by huge motivation.

    All in all, I suspect there are things in our genome that we might be better off not knowing but we aren’t quite at the point yet where we know what they might be.

  7. I would suggest that some truths that would lead to excessive psychological trauma might not be worth knowing. For instance, I don’t want to know the truth about how I (or my loved ones) am/are going to die, as that knowledge would probably traumatize me and ruin the years that I have left.

    1. Well, I don’t know, it might be a good thing to know, you could at least know when you should start being nicer to others so as to make them sorry to lose you! 🙂

    2. I suspect that the concern over “dangerous “ truths is at least partly fueled by what you talk about here — personal situations where we’d “rather not know” something which will traumatize us for no real purpose. That would include not just death dates, but scandals like your father not really being your biological father.
      A lot of people are eager to extrapolate this emotional discomfort to religion in particular.

      1. Yes, thanks for reminding us. I remember reading that some unexpectedly (to me anyway) large percentage of children don’t have the biological father they think they have. Something like 10%? Perhaps that’s too high.

      2. I have a relative who I’m suspecting might not have the father she thinks she has. I would never mention my suspicions, nor recommend DNA testing. She’s happy now and might not be if she found out something hidden.

  8. I think preference and talent should be studied and the studies made public. It would be much healthier to remove emotion from issues related to perceived income inequality, lack of representation in certain fields. Right now we’re using a sort of God of the Gaps argument–there is inequality, therefore misogyny, or racism. The truth is probably a lot more mundane and less inflammatory.

      1. It’s really not an argument, but an opinion in favor of scientific study. I think scientists can develop studies that could reveal the existence or absence of preference or talent statistically.

        1. I think such studies have been developed, in some form or another. ‘Aptitude tests’ for prospective employment candidates. I don’t know how well they ever work.

          But it would be fascinating to know why, for example, there is such a dearth of women in most fields of motorsport. (I mention that because, unlike most sports, physical strength is not a major factor, so one could assume that women should be equally good at it).

          My personal guess is that preference plays a large part (talent maybe less so), but I’d love to know if there’s any data on it.

          cr

          1. infinite:

            …dearth of women in most fields of motorsport. (I mention that because, unlike most sports, physical strength is not a major factor, so one could assume that women should be equally good at it).

            I can’t speak for four wheels, but some powered two wheeled racing depends heavily on the rider having a high strength to weight ratio ~ MotoGP for example is exhausting physically. SOURCE: Cal Crutchlow describes physical demands

            1. I was thinking of four wheels, admittedly, such as rallying or Formula 1. Many champion rally drivers in past years have been in their thirties and forties and not exactly fitness fanatics. Stamina and endurance has always been more important than physical strength, though the prime factor is concentration and knowing what the car is going to do before it does it.

              cr

  9. IF it could be proved that our universe [& thus us] is a simulation that might put the cat among the pigeons. It wouldn’t bother me – I would want to know if it’s possible to know anything about the simulator[s].

    1. As several SF writers have pointed out, everyone knowing we were a simulation might frustrate the purpose of the simulation and lead to the plug being pulled.

  10. Concerning racial differences in various outcomes, the main options for explanations are genetic differences, cultural differences, and discrimination/oppression. If things were, in large part, genetic (or cultural), then it would be a big blow to all of the people with diversity/inclusion jobs. By forbidding consideration of genetic or cultural causes, they not only a priori exclude both nature and nurture, but all differences must be caused by things that they’ve got (totally ineffective, but expensive) methods for addressing.

  11. I agree that no truth can be inherently damaging. Let’s take the example of innate differences between men and women, which leads to making different choices in life, career, etc. We can only craft policy that’s truly beneficial to all people and to society if we base policy on the truth of the situation.

    This would also apply to research that found IQ differences between ethnic groups, and this is an example in which we can demonstrate to an even greater degree how important it is to know the truth in order to craft beneficial policy (assuming, for the sake of this hypothetical, that there are IQ differences). If we know that certain ethnic groups have lower average IQs, we can craft policies to offer greater economic support and benefits to these groups, different kinds of educational opportunities to get the average person from such groups into jobs that both pay well and are suited to capabilities, and create other policies to help lift them out of poverty and improve their communities and quality of life. This is just scratching the surface.

    The only problems with truth is (1) when it is used to justify bad policy and/or treatment, and (2) when it becomes politicized in general. These problems shouldn’t keep us from pursuing the truth. If we don’t allow certain potential truths to be pursued, we’ll only succeed in creating incentives for promulgating falsehoods and creating policies that are bad for all people, their government, and their society. What if it turns out to be a mistake to have the current attempt at an embargo on researching whether it’s better to treat gender dysphoria by trying to eliminate it through therapy and medication? What if that leads to people transitioning, often at very young ages, and then deeply regretting it, when they could have been treated without hormones with terrible side effects (often leading to sterilization) and extremely invasive and irreversible surgeries? Well, then that embargo will have resulted in a lot of pain and suffering for a great many people (even suicide), suffering that could have been avoided if we pursued all avenues of research and solutions.

    None of this necessarily means that we need to make these truths a part of wider public conversation (again, assuming they exist — though we know the sex differences do). If we find there are different average IQs among ethnic groups, this doesn’t need to be discussed with the wider public on a regular basis, as it can be used to oppress lower-IQ groups. We do this all the time with, for example, economics, where we don’t attempt to explain the specifics of economics, but rather talk about it in very broad strokes. Instead, we can pursue the truth through scientific inquiry (most people don’t read boring studies from scientists and researchers) and then craft better policy around them. We can’t hide the truth, and some of it will trickle down to the public, but we can try to minimize the danger of these truths by discussing them with the wider public in a manner better suited to creating benefits from them.

    1. In reading some of the previous comments, I hope it’s clear I’m talking about wider truths about people, society, etc. here, and not, say, how to make pipe bombs.

            1. There’s only so many times one can do that before they win in court, but lose in the sphere of public opinion. I already used it in the case where I stupidly substituted the word “explosion” for “orgasm,” and the one involving Sonic the Hedgehog.

              Seriously though, look up “Sonic the Hedgehog Rule 34.” You’ll be shocked, dismayed, and doubled over with laughter all at once.

    2. “None of this necessarily means that we need to make these truths a part of wider public conversation (again, assuming they exist — though we know the sex differences do). If we find there are different average IQs among ethnic groups, this doesn’t need to be discussed with the wider public on a regular basis, as it can be used to oppress lower-IQ groups.”

      If (a big IF) it were scientifically determined that there are different average IQs among ethnic groups, there is NO way that such a finding would not become well known to the general public and widely discussed since racists would beat the drum on this issue incessantly. There is also NO way that public policies could be crafted around this situation without the reason for doing so being discussed widely in the media. The revelation of this “fact” would create social turmoil, probably wide scale violence, and the disintegration of society. It is easy to make generalizations about the desirability of the truth coming out in almost all circumstances, but when the consequences of such a revelation could be dire, such a generalization, as all generalizations, needs to take into consideration the exceptions.

      1. Social turmoil? You realize that there are already many studies about this, right? The only question is whether or not it’s definitively mostly genetic. This knowledge is already out there and, so far, we don’t have social turmoil. Most people don’t care
        Only fringe political groups and people who have an intellectual curiosity even read or think about these issues. The vast majority of people in any society just want to get on with their days, feel safe, and be financially secure. They don’t really give a shit about any of this. So we, can either continue to do the research — which is being and has been done quite a bit on this issue, without social turmoil — to get at truths to help craft policy, society, and people who need the most help, and “risk” the results of that research getting out, or we can abandon research like this and continue creating poor policy or even none at all. But vague notions of sudden social turmoil or widespread knowledge leading to bad outcomes hasn’t really happened yet, and it is, in fact, just vague generalizations and threats on your part.

        With regard to crafting policy: we craft policies all the time for reasons which are then presented to the public with prevarications or, often, no explanations at all. Say we wanted to implement UBI for the reasons we5re discussing. Would we really need to list what we’re talking about as one of the reasons? Of course not.

        If there are, say, ethnic groups that are genetically disadvantaged, that does not in any way mean you have to craft policy specifically around ethnicity. Policy can be crafted– it very often is crafted– to help certain groups without being explicit in doing so, and without those reasons being explicit either.

        1. You are very naïve if you think prevarication is the way to taking care of low IQ ethnic groups should that ever be scientifically proven. It is very strange that you believe in getting to the “truth,” but yet want to keep it hushed up as much as possible. In today’s world that is impossible. Also, a low IQ ethnic group would resent any other ethnic group paternalistically proposing measures to help them. Here I am thinking not of the group you may think I am thinking about. No, I am talking about certain white ethnic groups who are suddenly told they are intellectually inferior to Asians, which could be the outcome of research in this area.

          Your proposals reflect a lack of historical understanding. Ethnic conflict goes back thousands of years. Now, to tell one ethnic group that on average that they are stupider to others will light a fire that will be not extinguished until society is in ruins. Before long you would see some people saying that slavery wasn’t so bad and, at the very least, we should go back to segregation. Certainly, those “people” shouldn’t be allowed to vote. You have no idea what a Pandora’s Box of trouble you would be opening.

          So, yes, most people would indeed give a shit about this. Whether any ethnic group is inherently intellectually inferior to another, I don’t know and don’t want to know. Sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. Your ivory tower purism is quite dangerous. In the 19th century certain pro-slavery scientists argued that African-Americans were inferior to whites. The slave owners loved that. Hitler argued that the Jews were inferior. I will resist such racialist thinking today, which is growing in strength in the far right.

          1. I feel like you didn’t really internalize anything I said. A ton of this research is already out there and nobody cares but fringe political elements and intellectuals. You again talked about crafting policies based on ethnicity, when I specifically said that policies wouldn’t need to be crafted like that in any way. And nobody needs to tell anyone about the IQ of any group. If we talk about UBI or creating more opportunities for trade schools or other policies that would help disadvantaged groups, there is zero reason to tailor them to or talk about ethnicity.

            If your ideas based on historical racism and ethnic infighting are correct, why have your predictions not already come true? This subject has been researched for decades. Its results have existed on the internet for decades. People like Charles Murray have spoke openly about it for decades. Yet none of what you’ve said has happened.

            I never suggested lying to the public, but only not discussing that this would be one of many reasons behind the idea for, say, a UBI. Just like the Fed doesn’t discuss the small details of why it’s instituting an interest hike.

            Also, the fact that you think I’m talking about a specific group (I assume you mean black) says a lot about your assumptions regarding what I think and why I think it. I was considering many different groups, including much of the white population. Subsets of white, black, hispanic, etc. groups have very high average IQs, and other subsets have lower averages. You thought I was talking about one broad racial group (and, if I was, that would lump me in with racists who usually talk about only this group). You were wrong and I certainly don’t appreciate the implication.

            1. It is interesting that you think Charles Murray’s views on race and intelligence are something that is universally accepted. He “proved” nothing. It doesn’t matter how much he talks about it.

              You stated that policies are often presented to the public with prevarications. You seem to have no trouble with that.

              I have no reason to believe that you are a racist. I’m saying that research on race and intelligence, where in the real world its findings will never be universally accepted (as our host as pointed out all hypotheses are tentative), is fraught with danger and threatens social stability and the racial progress made over the last 50 years.

              1. I never said Charles Murray’s views are universally accepted or that he proved anything. I said he’s been talking about this subject for a long time.

              2. I suspect that you attribute some intent to Murray that may not emerge from his work, including proof of something that you may want to define or cite.

                Which views on intelligence and race are you referring to? Are the ones included in his work or the ones filtered by Ezra Klein?

              3. Sorry, David, were you asking me or Historian? It gets so confusing once the threads stop nesting. I assume you were asking Historian, what with you allusion to “attribut[ing] some intent.”

        2. I think there’s a difference between the current situation, where there’s still enough doubt (at least among the general public) for people to believe whatever they want to believe, and a hypothetical future where differences between the sexes or races were widely known to have been proved undeniably. Despite the available evidence I think most people remain ignorant, sometimes deliberately so. (As you said, most people just want to live their lives.) But if the issue and the proof were thrust into the limelight, I think it’s hard to predict how society would react. It could be bad. I’m not sure there’d be widespread violence, but a lot of our sacred cows seem to feed on a belief in the blank slate…

      1. I’m not talking about individuals. If you have a significant subgroups of your population that suffer from higher levels of poverty, lack of education, and many other negative outcomes associated with lower IQ, that’s neither good for those groups nor society as a whole.

  12. I don’t think any knowledge is harmful to know.

    I am less talented/gifted in X than other people. Does it harm me to know that? No.

    Do you tell a young child that he/she is going to die soon from a disease? I don’t think so, but that is more a matter of immaturity than harmful knowledge.

    Many things in life are uncomfortable to find out but that is just part of life.

  13. “Are there any scientific truths that, if we knew them, we should keep from people?”

    Some conspiracy theories say the truth of extraterrestrial intelligence is being kept from us now. I personally want to know but the consequences of this fact could presumably be crazy good or crazy bad.

  14. There are many things I’d personally prefer not to know about, so I will focus only on hypothetical scientific knowledge. It would perhaps be best if we did not learn scientific truths that would make it easier to cause mass destruction. Suppose it were possible for any individual to construct a weapon that could kill millions. Would we want to discover that knowledge?

  15. Are some truths not worth knowing? That is a good question, and one that is difficult for me to answer; my first reaction is truth should always be transparent.

    At the same time, I do know there are people who came to regret their inventions (I guess this can be construed as a truth that came to light.) Oppenheimer/Einstein and the atomic bomb, and Kalashnikov’s AK-47 come to mind. I’ve also read the person who invented the K-cup regretted it for the waste, and the person who invented pepper spray regretted it after it was used by the police against non-violent protesters at U of C Berkeley (iirc). I’m sure there are more examples, but these might not be exactly the same thing as “truths no worth knowing”.

          1. No, we can’t. But can you point to any knowledge that can’t be used to cause harm? I don’t think the guys banging the rocks together and marvelling at sparks could foresee the atom bomb. The inventor of the wheel didn’t picture tanks rolling into villages.

        1. Technology and knowledge aren’t the same, exactly, but they are inextricably bound in a self-reinforcing cycle where one leads to the other. Like a yin-yang twirly-thing.

        2. We may have been better off without the internet at all. It has not only allowed the increasing segmentation of society and bad information to spread, but for the rise of corporate control and monopolization.

              1. Say what? How can the Internet have “led to the rise of corporate control and monopolization” without the two items mentioned having previously not been significant? “Led to the rise” implies coming up from little or nothing.

              2. OK, change “the” to “a” in that sentence. That makes it completely closed to your interpretation. I can see why you interpreted it that way.

          1. @BJ We mostly have the internet we deserve & unfortunately internet social media has gone quickly from the optimistic & now dead “Friends Reunited” of 2000 to politically weaponised swamps such as the sphincters of the internet 4chan, 9GAG, some subreddits etc

            However most of the internet is not for the use of people at all & we’d be seriously disadvantaged if it had never existed. An example is JIT manufacturing, warehousing & supply. We would lose the enormous efficiencies gained via systems [such as JIT, but there’s many others] with an internet backbone. Our utilities would not function nearly as well although it has the flipside of increased vulnerabilities due to lazy design.

            There are some very good things about the internet: It has allowed a substantial number of people to set up business in environments with no physical bank branches or formal credit systems – eg M-Pesa mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and micro-financing service, launched in 2007 by Vodafone.

            The small part of the free internet visible to people is being controlled in parts of the world where repressive regimes exist & it’s our job in the west to stifle that & stifle it inside our own walls too. We can see our largest internet corporations remodelling their offerings to penetrate China & Russia – pandering to these authoritarian regimes. Gotta stop.

            1. There definitely are many great things about the internet, some of which you’ve noted. I still think they’re outweighed by the negative outcomes, only some of which I listed.

          2. Say what you will about the internet, it sure comes in handy when I’m racking my brain for the name of the actor who was in the movie that costarred the guy who was in the other thing.

            I can remember the pre-internet days when that kinda thing could drive one nuts.

            1. Yes, it’s often a joke with my parents and others when we say, “who was that guy who…” and someone shouts, “I’ll look it up!”

              Also, porn. The internet’s been great for porn. But hey, I got by just fine with only Playboy in my younger days

              1. My career as a master of trivial bullshit was completely destroyed when it became possible for everybody else at the table to immediately look up any fact known to mankind.

            2. Way better with the internet! Even Twitter is a good thing. I love that important or famous people can communicate with us little folk directly. It is not Twitter’s fault that all aren’t nice people. The bias against the internet or social media is that people seem only to pay attention to the bad things and ignore or assume the good things.

              1. I think the far stronger parasocial relationships that have resulted from this are actually pretty destructive for so many reasons that I don’t feel like listing them 🙁

          3. In some ways, we are better off having the internet in that it makes “real” information and knowledge available to millions of people who had no access to it before. We get plenty of misinformation dumped on us without the source being the internet. Via: family, neighbors, books, radio, TV, politicians, religious folk, etc. It’s up to us to become more proficient at detecting when we’re being treated as mushrooms that are being fed manure.

  16. I think if people are being sacked for suggesting that statistical differences in preferences make different sexes gravitate to different careers then at the very least an employment tribunal should know whether the sacking was justified.

    You know what shouldn’t be researched? Bullshit. Research grants shouldn’t be pissed away on ‘researching’ whether glaciers are angry or if carbon fibre is misogynistic. Justify your grant or pay it back.

  17. The chemist Thomas Midgely probably caused more havoc with his discoveries of preventing engine knocking by putting lead in petrol and then, fresh from that triumph, using CFCs in colling systems than any other well-meaning individual. Working anything out with a consequentialist calculus has always seemed pretty fruitless to me, though.

    1. There is a chapter in a book called Natures Clocks called “getting the lead out” that is all about the history of that problem. It was a real exercise in scientific detective work. It started at University of Chicago when they had a lot of equipment left over from nuclear research and wanted something to use it on. The fundamental problem is we have incomplete knowledge and cannot always predict outcomes, and performing experiments can take to long for our pressing needs to make a living. There is a book by Andy Dyer called Chasing the Red Queen about the race between crop pests and their evolving resistance to pesticides.

  18. Opposition to reasearching IQ differences seems to rest on fears that they exist, so we are in the position where it is apparently less racist (or less sexist) to oppose such research based on a gut feeling than to put that feeling to the test.

  19. I’d love to know the day I will die. Just don’t tell the insurance companies please 😉

    But seriously. When people die slowly enough so that loved ones get some advance warning, they get to say goodbye. That’s pretty damn important.

    And that illustrates the general point – when people have knowledge, they can do the things they need to do. Even if it hurts. It’s only going to hurt worse without the knowledge – in most cases. I guess if there’s nothing anyone can do – both about the main problem (loved one dying) and secondary issues (saying goodbye) – then knowledge could be a pure burden.

  20. Maybe sworn testimonies should be:

    I solemnly affirm that the evidence to be given by me shall be true, consists of the part of the truth worth knowing, and nothing but the truth worth knowing.

  21. Race and IQ is the typical example. There is a video of Pinker where he says the bad might outweight the good in researching that so it should probably be deprioritized.

    1. On this, and on the issue of possibly discovering gender differences when it comes to work talent: Even if these were the case, I think it rather evident that there is a great deal of overlap between groups because of innate differences and influences from the environment. So the solution should be (as it is now) that we give career opportunities based on merits, plus a policy to be an equal opportunity employer.

  22. The truth will out.

    Trying to keep it under wraps because it’s dangerous or inconvenient will make it only more so when it inevitably does.

  23. If astronomers discovered a large black hole moving toward the earth at nearly the speed of light, should they tell everyone and induce worldwide panic? It might be better to remain silent and accept annihilation in the depths of ignorance.

    1. The said black hole would be more dangerous if it was travelling slowly. A fast black hole might ‘merely’ disrupt the orbital elements of the solar system as it sped through it , but a slow moving black hole would spend more time in the vicinity, and ultimately invite us in for afternoon tea – an offer we couldn’t refuse.

      1. “an offer we couldn’t refuse”

        We now have our clue for the Jeopardy answer “what do black holes and Vito Corleone have in common?”

        I’ll stay with “cosmological movie lines” for two-hundred, Alex. 🙂

    2. Or confirming that we’re living in a false vacuum and there’s a vacuum collapse front on the way (though such a front cannot be directly observed since it would be moving at the speed of light). It’s the ultimate end-of-the-world scenario; matter as we know it, planets and all, would be gone in a flash.

  24. If I discovered an easier way to enrich uranium, I would keep it to myself. Similarly, a way to easily synthesise smallpox.

  25. Some quick thoughts:

    – It is likely impossible to judge what ideas and results should be “hidden” and why.

    – It is likely impossible to “hide” ideas and results; the open publishing/source idea is both practically and morally contrary to it.

    – Given that scientists are an elite, it is immoral that it hides ideas from the rest.

    1. I should probably add that delaying – I think it is impossible to do anything else – science and technology is likely harmful. Both in the narrow sense – for the area’s own development – and in the broad sense – of society’s development.

  26. An actual truth of how the world works (evolution say) is a non discriminatory truth and is for everyone. The contribution of a photon to life on this planet would be another example.
    Einstein’s theory of relativity guides a cruise missile to land at your feet.
    That’s the trouble with truths… humans use them or conversely, ignore it, this is the rub.
    There are human truths and hard fact human truths, like humans need a heart or show some heart… one is always true the other appealing occasionally to some moral or sentimental fleeting truth.
    As been shown (Pinker) truths about ourselves and the nuts and bolts of life/universe are holding in a steady direction. So in the long view truths are laying waste to lies and self deception and it is steadily being built upon. Long live the truth! i will find it personally satisfying at departure to know the truth of what it is i have just been through and where, than screeds of human concocted garbage.
    Would i tell you the truth that the world was about to end next week if you were prone to criminal behaviour, probably not.

  27. One science truth that might be good to hide are placebos. Their effectiveness may diminish if the person knew it was a placebo.

    1. The truth regarding the placebo effect has been in the public domain for quite some time. As long as there are double-blind studies, I think we’ll survive that disclosure.

  28. Imagine a not-too-distant future, where we have personal “big data” about everything, from your average blood pressure at 5:23am to how many coffee you drink a day, to your genetics and occupation. We will have models that tell you with high level of confidence when you are most likely to die, getting more accurate as you go closer to the cliff.

    How about face recognition, speech analysis and other such biometrics measure out each individual: how trustworthy is a person? Are they more positive or negative? What’s their net worth? Productivity? Does your partner love you, and how much, in comparison? How’s your “social score” by measuring frequency and quality of social interactions?

  29. I think H.L. Mencken spoke what ought to be the final word on this question: ““I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind — that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.

    I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.

    I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.

    I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech — alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in organized society.

    I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.

    I believe in the reality of progress.

    I —But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.” (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/986078-i-believe-that-religion-generally-speaking-has-been-a-curse

    1. Well said. I only worry there could be situations that could make the pure truth problematic. A subtly obscure situation that’s hard to imagine but which might come up in the course of human events.

  30. Okay, examples – suppose one found that chickens lay more eggs if kept in tiny cages. Oh, I think that one’s been done. 🙁

    Okay, suppose one found suggestions that chicken meat is tastier and contains more beneficial (to us) compounds if they are scared sh*tless before being killed slowly and painfully? Should that research be done or, if done, publicised? I think not.

    cr

    1. We can always hypothesize some counterfactual situations in which some discovery would be devastatingly detrimental to mankind — that’s the realm of speculative (or what used to be called “science”) fiction. What if a mad scientist discovered a way to make enough antimatter to destroy the universe, or (to cop of lick from Mr. Vonnegut) discovered how to make ice-nine?

      But let’s take your example regarding tasty chicken meat — how would you propose to suppress the truth on that? By prohibiting such experiments from being conducted? By prohibiting the results from being published?

      Wouldn’t we be better off acknowledging the existence of the data and trying to convince our fellow man to follow the more humane path?

      1. I would suggest that some of those experiments would be illegal anyway under animal-welfare laws.

        But – supposing I was in possession of that piece of information, and knowing full well that if it was publicised, no matter how one tried to appeal to the better nature of chicken farmers, millions of birds would ‘slip through the gap’ and suffer as a result – then yes I would bury it. (And note that I’m not a vegetarian or a PETA fanatic).

        On a similar tack I seem to recall reading that the Nazis carried out some experiments on prisoners that were pretty nasty. Come to that, so reputedly did the CIA. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_MKUltra
        I think that would pretty well qualify as ‘research that shouldn’t be done’ to use PCC’s phrase.

        cr

  31. There may be specific truths about specific people or specific situations the public is better off now knowing (hypothetically, the content of some of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails), but that is different from a general truth about the world at large.

  32. There seem above to be beliefs in a couple of falsehoods (NOT truths, to be blunt) with respect to intelligence and the existing popular notion of so-called ‘race’. It seems better to answer them in general, not to answer any specific poster.

    The less important point is a naive identification of intelligence with IQ. That’s seriously wrong IMO, but let’s get on to the more important point.

    The word “race” has now become very clearly utterly useless, indeed meaningless, scientifically—I at least think, assuming that the scientific claims below, which seem to me from very solid sources, remain essentially valid. I’m referring to studies of the human genome and in particular so-called ancient genomes. I’ve before referred to this recent book by David Reich at Harvard, entitled “Who We Are and How We Got Here”. He spends much time explaining how this study has revealed far more sexual inter-mixture of human populations than had been expected earlier. And in the later part of the book, two points are brought out very clearly:
    1/ as above, the utter non-existence of any scientific meaning to the word “race”;
    2/ the ultimate harm caused by suppression of actual scientific truths in this direction.

    So that aspect of an answer to Jerry’s much more general question is simply a non-starter in my less-then-humble opinion.

  33. There seem above to be beliefs in a couple of falsehoods (NOT truths, to be blunt) with respect to intelligence and the existing popular notion of so-called ‘race’. It seems better to answer them in general, not to answer any specific poster.

    The less important point is a naive identification of intelligence with IQ. That’s seriously wrong IMO, but let’s get on to the more important point.

    The word “race” has now become very clearly utterly useless, indeed meaningless, scientifically—I at least think, assuming that the scientific claims below, which seem to me from very solid sources, remain essentially valid. I’m referring to studies of the human genome and in particular so-called ancient genomes. I’ve before referred to this recent book by David Reich at Harvard, entitled “Who We Are and How We Got Here”. He spends much time explaining how this study has revealed far more sexual inter-mixture of human populations than had been expected earlier. And in the later part of the book, two points are brought out very clearly:
    1/ as above, the utter non-existence of any scientific meaning to the word “race”;
    2/ the ultimate harm caused by suppression of actual scientific truths in this direction.

    So that aspect of an answer to Jerry’s much more general question is simply a non-starter in my less-then-humble opinion.

    1. Sorry this went twice. The internet in the Napoli/Pompeii/Sorrento area seems about 15 years out of date, at least in some highly rated booking.com sites!

    2. Sorry this went twice. The internet in the Napoli/Pompeii/Sorrento area seems about 15 years out of date, at least in some highly rated booking.com sites!

    3. I don’t know if any of this was inspired by my posts, but I agree with nearly everything you said here. I never use the word “race” in these discussions because it has become, as you have said, a meaningless descriptor — especially when it comes to scientific questions. We can divide into much smaller subgroups, but race, as we understand it, is useless.

      I also never use the word “intelligence” when talking about IQ; however, IQ is, currently, the best predictor of success for which we can currently test, and thus it is good to know about so we can craft policies to better help people.

      I did find it interesting that people responding to me actually did use the words “race” and “intelligence” instead of the proper words. I think it demonstrates a lack of understanding when it comes to the actual studies that have been done on the subject, and instead reflects only a knowledge of the popular ideas of it. On both sides of the debate, most people debating only know the pop-psych/science version of things, which is a problem all its own.

      1. As you know, there a number of different kinds of IQ tests that test for different kinds of intelligence. The results of any
        one or more IQ tests may not capture the full picture of what any individual may be capable of based on so-called intelligence.

        After WWII, there was a tendency to give IQ tests to all school children at different times throughout their schooling. I wish we knew how all those children made out in life as a result of tests that mostly tested for academic skills, and how society did or did not benefit.

        1. Likely needs no reply as follows:

          But note that Rowena’s reply makes clear just how puny really is the actual scientifically established truths about the relationship between IQ tests and a very slippery concept we call “intelligence”.

          In particular the latter’s relationship with various humans’ genomes is so far nearly non-existent compared to e.g. height, eye colour, earwax type, etc.
          But studying these things carefully, and publicizing solid scientific results (again carefully), must not be suppressed.

  34. “…unless that research itself involves palpable harm, like the Tuskegee syphilis study”.

    But the problem with the Tuskegee Syphilis study was not with the questions it was seeking to answer regarding the natural history of the syphilis virus, but with the methodology it used which was highly unethical. The ethics of the methods used to research a particular question is a separate question from whether or not the question itself should be answered.

    There are plenty of examples of research that has been carried out in the past using methods ranging from the outright evil (e.g. Nazi experimentation on concentration camp victims) to the ethically dubious (e.g. some psychology experiments involving manipulation of people into performing ‘evil’ acts). We rightly have ethics committees nowadays to ensure that,no matter how interesting the question that is being researched, experiments are not permitted that would cause undue harm or pain to research subjects, are not based on appropriately informed consent and so on. Provided ethical study methods can be assured, however, it should not be the business of these committees to rule any particular area of investigation as out of bounds.

    1. This is a vital distinction.

      For example, some people who have asked me Jerry’s question before have said “what about the Nazi experiments on human cold sensitivity”. And I say, “What was *done* was reprehensible and likely pseudoscientific. It does not follow from things that knowing (e.g) at what temperature human skin freezes is a bad thing.” That said, if one cannot find an ethical means, *until new notice* do not investigate. But that’s in a way similar to “we can’t do this because we have no money”.

  35. I suspect a lot of the debate is fuelled by the vague definitions used. ‘The Truth’, ‘truth’, ‘fact’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ overlap somewhat in peoples’ minds. Plus there is (as the comments above have shown} quite a difference between what might affect you personally and what might be the statistical outcome of dispassionate inquiry.

  36. Imagine a health screening that could tell you the day you were going to die with 80-90% certainty. Would you have the screening? Would you want to know how long you had left?

    I would not.

  37. Yes, I would suggest that some truths that would lead to excessive psychological trauma might not be worth knowing. Thanks for posting

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