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.