Let’s say you have a friend. A smart friend who knows about a lot of things. He has good suggestions for getting little kids to eat politely in public, he’s able to get your car running well enough that you can drive it to the shop, and he knows why the supermarket shelves still have gaps. But your friend has some crazy ideas, like saying that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote or that race is more than a social construct or that the borders should be closed to immigration for a generation.
The question is, should you listen to him on these things? On the one hand, he’s smart and he keeps his eyes open and he thinks a lot. On the other hand, nobody really believes that stuff, do they? And anyway, he’s just a guy. It’s not like he’s famous or won a Nobel Prize, right?
OK, let’s say there’s a Nobel Prize winner who is also a war hero, a progressive reformer of corrupt bureaucracies, and a respected historian. A man whose many inspirational sayings are still being quoted approvingly more than a century later. A man who firmly believed in American exceptionalism and that it was driven by the superiority of White Americans of northern and western European descent. A man, Theodore Roosevelt, who said “The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average [American] Indian.”
Or take another Nobel Prize winner, in the hard sciences this time, who helped to discover or measure aspects of the universe that were essential to developing our current understanding, helped to develop anti-submarine technology during WWI, and led the way in transforming Caltech into one of the leading research institutions in the world. Robert Millikan believed that Nordic civilization was the best in the world and was a founder of a eugenic society which encouraged the less capable not to have children.
Or take any number of other geniuses in the scientific or artistic realms, or visionary businessmen, or philanthropists, or founders of now-widely-approved social movements, people whose vision, brainpower, and achievements are viewed as something special, something that puts them above the norm. People who also held views that aren’t mentioned in polite company these days. William Shockley, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Margaret Sanger, and Cecil Rhodes each changed the world. Each was recognized during their lifetime. And each held views on race or religion or eugenics which are not allowed today.
Riddle me this: If a man is widely regarded as a genius, extremely intelligent and knowledgeable and capable of great feats of logic or intuition, why do you reject his opinion when you don’t like it or, worse, when you think your neighbor won’t like it?
You might counter that a man can be a genius in one field but just as much of an idiot as anyone else outside of his specialty. That’s fair; there are certainly a lot of people fitting that bill. However, Millikan and Roosevelt and Albert Schweitzer were hardly one-trick ponies. Each was accomplished in many and diverse fields, each of them well versed in meeting with people and evaluating them and gaining their support. Roosevelt and Schweitzer in particular probably met more people in more walks of life than anyone today who is judging them.
Why, then, would you dismiss them without a thought if they say that, based on their observations, blacks are generally less intelligent than whites, or that women in general will get less done in the workplace than men, or that Jews in general will look out for the interests of other Jews rather than the interest of the society they live in? Isn’t it possible that these geniuses are more observant than you or more able to find patterns in what they observe?
The geniuses are not always correct. They are a product of their times and the people they observe. They can be wrong. The question is why their ideas are not given even a cursory study. Is it because they go against what you’ve known your whole life? Because they raise questions about your own goodness or value as a person? Because they give you an ick feeling?
If those questions aren’t challenging enough, consider this: Times change. Mores change. The unspeakable idea of today could have been the common wisdom of yesterday or vice versa.
Alan Turing was as great a genius as has ever lived. He was also a homosexual. This was not acceptable in mid-twentieth-century England and he was charged, convicted, and chemically castrated for it, which led to his suicide. Today, of course, his homosexuality not only would not be a crime or a bar to professional advancement, it would actually be a leg up for professional advancement in any university in England or the United States. True, these days homosexuality is mostly viewed as “born that way”, but seventy years ago it was viewed as a choice and Turing’s “choice” tainted all of his work in the eyes of the contemporary leaders and populace.
Bottom line, if a very intelligent and capable person has an opinion that goes against what you believe, at least consider the possibility that you are wrong. And, whatever you do, don’t “cancel” him because he didn’t mouth today’s shibboleths.
Afterward: This doesn’t fit the flow of the main essay, so I’m sticking it down here.
You’ll note that the derided ideas mentioned above tend to cluster around a few areas, basically coming down to one group being better than another or else wanting to improve the species. That’s an artifact mainly of other people getting upset over such ideas. It may also be a product of manipulation of search engine results. There are plenty of other unpopular ideas espoused by intelligent, accomplished people: Computing pioneer Richard Stallman was cancelled because he found it ridiculous that sex with a willing 17-year-old female “child” was called rape because the age of consent in the Virgin Islands is 18.
I started thinking about the topic of unacceptable ideas from otherwise lauded figures because of a rapid series of unfavorable mentions in podcasts and articles: Dr James Watson, despite his genius and his foundational accomplishments, “had to be” cancelled because of his views on female scientists. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony, lauded by some for their efforts in getting women the right to vote (and criticized by some for the same reason), have been derided by others for decades because they prioritized female suffrage over black suffrage. (On the flip side, Frederick Douglass was criticized by some at the time because he prioritized black suffrage over female suffrage.) Albert Schweitzer, despite (or because of) spending most of his life helping blacks in Africa, viewed blacks as less intelligent and capable than whites, which has led to him being posthumously cancelled on several college campuses, and a disavowal of his racism apparently is obligatory whenever his name is mentioned in a BBC science podcast.
Once the subject caught my attention, I was inspired to search for inventors, scientists, originators of social changes, and broadly-defined geniuses who had “mostly good ideas but…” Search engines gave me little but complaints about anti-semitism, racism, sexism, and eugenic beliefs. I found a few unacceptable ideas in other categories but that was more a matter of stumbling across them than of being directed to them.