Academic freedom prevents us from getting trapped in circles of delusion | Steven Pinker

One reason why we need to keep channels of
expression open is that it’s possible for people to get trapped in a vicious circle
of delusion if they believe something that is not true and if people are punished for
pointing out that it’s not true. In fact, you could even have a circumstance which no
one actually believes something but no one is afraid to express the opposite of that
idea out of fear of being punished if they do. And you can – it’s sometimes called
pluralistic ignorance. It can lead to the madness of crowds where everyone is under
some collective delusion or at least expresses a collective of delusion because they don’t
want to be the first person to break the spiral of silence. They’re afraid of being the
little boy who says the emperor is naked and entire societies can be under a collective
delusion. The ability to express an idea can puncture a bubble of collective false knowledge
and is one of the reasons that we have to cherish that freedom. Lets say you wanted to make an argument against
free speech. If I said you can’t say that you would immediately say well, wait a sec.
I haven’t even made my argument yet. The very fact that you’re making an argument
for anything presupposes that you have the right to express an idea. It may be incorrect
but how will we know if it’s incorrect or not until it’s expressed and it can be evaluated.
Also, we know that people are not infallible. They are not omniscient. That throughout the
history of ideas there have been people who are absolutely certain that they are correct
and history has shown that they’ve been mistaken. So the fact that we as a species
can come up with good ideas, explanations of how the world works in science, ideas about
how best to organize our government in politics, ideas about what is morally defensible and
indefensible have all come about because people have expressed ideas, thrown them out there,
allowed them to be evaluated by others. The better ones win out but the only reason
they won out is that they were expressed in the first place. We just don’t know any
route to knowledge other than what Karl Popper called conjecture and refutation, throwing
an idea out there, seeing if it withstands attempts to falsify it. In universities above all free speech and
freedom of inquiry have to be encouraged because universities are given many perequisites by
society. Tax free status, sometimes direct government support, the institution of tenure,
the credentialing function that people often can’t get a job unless they have a piece
of paper from a university. So we invest a lot of trust and resources in a university
because they ought to be idea factories, places where ideas are broached, evaluated, tested.
If universities aren’t doing that then they really don’t deserve all the perquisites
that societies are giving them. And one of them has to be the airing of ideas that make
you uncomfortable. Simply because the fact that an idea makes you uncomfortable has nothing
to do with whether it’s a good idea or not. It is just a fact of human nature that it’s
pleasant and enjoyable and empowering to hear ideas that you agree with, that people in
your tribe endorse. It’s annoying and upsetting, sometimes hurtful
to hear ideas that you disagree with, that your tribe disagrees with. It might call into
question your own credibility, your own competence but it ought to be aired for all that because
if your feelings are hurt sometimes that’s just too bad. You might be wrong no matter
how painful it is for that fact to become known. And if you aren’t wrong, if you are
right how can you know it. How can anyone else know it unless the opposing idea is broached
and flaws with it are pointed out. So there’s a – our own feelings of discomfort can’t
be a guide as to which opinions ought to be expressed. And again we just know that no
one’s smart enough to think up all the good ideas on their own. Successful institutions,
successful societies are at intellectual crossroads where people and ideas can flow in and out,
the bad ones weeded out, the good ones accumulated. Any vibrant culture, any successful body of
knowledge is kind of a greatest hits collection. It’s an assembly of all of the ideas that
have at least for now stood the test of time. Now there are cases in which we already restrict
free speech in say extortion and bribery and libel, inducements to imminent violence. There
are lines that we can draw but they are circumscribed zones in which we say that we feel we have
the right to regulate speech. The default is ideas can be aired with a few carefully
justified exceptions.

49 thoughts on “Academic freedom prevents us from getting trapped in circles of delusion | Steven Pinker

  • Good point there Steven! I love how everything is laid down in detail. Big thanks to Big think for another awesome upload.

  • I don't believe a lot of things, most of which is coming out of the mainstream media, and I don't believe these things because I keep digging for the Truth, and finding it, and it is not what I am being told is the Truth. I'm the founder of, a site I started in direct response to YouTube censorship. There is a reason all those people are laughing at Uncensored, and it isn't because anybody got hurt. Yet I have found a distinct societal unwillingness to do any intellectual work of their own- they are happy to be told what to think, and angrily defend this.

  • Oh my god this is so ignorant. Universities are sooooooooooooooooooooooo ducking aware of diversity of opinions. My gawd can we dispense with this nonsense? Dissent is constant in most societies. There is no fucking absolute certainty. Fuck This I’m tired of this channel giving credence to contrarians that pretend that academia is fucking antithetical to free speech.

  • I love the big think.

    Cognitive Dissonance at its finest. This is where empathy comes in. We must work to understand where these delusions stem from. With so many varying perspectives, I think we’re all delusional to an extent. We’re ALL on the spectrum! Check out the page for more.
    Follow for the follow back!!!

  • Pinker has lost all of my respect. This is straight gaslighting. Universities explore opposing ideas ALL THE FUCKING TIME. The only way you’d think this is factual is if you hadn’t gone to school since the 80s

  • Unfortunately, as someone in the academic community, I have seen firsthand that expressing certain views gives you a 'reputation'.

  • This is horseshit, your channel is pretending like Pinker’s point is actually representative of the real world

  • You have to present controversial ideas responsibly and getting advocates for dangerous ideologies to evangelize in schools only hurts the learning environment not help it. Plus many of the "liberals" attending a college or university are already aware of these ideas and have already come to a conclusion on the subject and don't need outside speakers to try and change their minds

  • Dude I’ve watched this channel for years and never before have I seen such blatant nonsense. I know who this guy is and he’s acting like there is some suppression of free speech on college campuses. There is not widespread evidence of such a thing across the US. This is straight up dishonest and your channel looks weak af now that you’re entertaining alt right ideologies

  • if everyone was a rocket scientist who woulld clean our streets? or all the other shit jobs. Giving people aspirations that go unfullfilled is worse than not giving them aspirations in the first place.

  • And if you think we have Academic freedom today, just try to get a study on the actual incidence of homosexuality approved; or to get a study that debunks the anthropogenic climate change myth published.

  • This gentleman reminds me of late R. Hauer.
    Academia tells what to you think, not cultivates thinking within you.

  • Religious/metaphysical ideas come to mind. Ie. a belief in god/angels/soul/salvation/truth/heaven/eternal life vs. acknowledgement of a meaningless, purposeless universe with a brief and suffering human existence

  • I have been through this before: I express my opions about the evils of this world, well, there must be something wrong with me. They attack the person, not my points. They do not present intelligent arguments to debate my points but attack my person. If I criticize the government, I'm a communist, if Blacks, I'm a racist, If Homosexuals, I'm in the closet, if immigrants, I'm xenophobic. In short, do NOT say anything you believe to be right just go with the herd. Funny, the Bible says , 'Woe to those who call Evil 'Good' and Good 'evil' '

  • Maybe there has to be an objective, neutral, outsider third party, a bridge, that illuminates the synthesis solution that combines and resolves the strengths and conflicts between the thesis and antithesis.🍻

  • You mean like that country in the middle east we can't criticize ( In academia or NOT ) !! 🙂
    But when the coin is flipped everyone must listen !!
    Or what about climate denial !! 🙂
    You know that decided .. science !!
    Sometimes I think it's mainstream academia that's coherted to amplify the PC think !!

  • "Academic freedom" is not an excuse to teach scientific faulshoods in science classes. If someone disagrees with the current prevailing theroy they are more than welcome to submit their findings for peer review like any other scientist.

  • If you haven’t read this man’s books, buy them today. Enlightenment Now is just brilliant. Steven Pinker is truly an incredible thinker

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