Taboo & Combating False Beliefs

tl;dr – Should we discuss incorrect ideologies publicly?


In the little private utopia I have set up in my head (which is mostly modeled on Star Trek: The Next Generation), critical thinking & skepticism are universal values. While they don’t always lead to the same conclusions, they do tend to attenuate extremist attitudes – you can believe whatever you want to, but you bear in mind how far that idea is from what can be readily proven.

Ex: I believe that the US should be more socialist in how it taxes & reallocates funds, but I recognize that people who know way more about economics than I do are heavily divided on the issue, so I temper that belief. I couch my opinions in language that makes it clear that other positions are also valid & maybe I’m wrong.

In this utopia, everyone’s mental “immune system” is healthy & active, so we can really talk about *anything.* Even if some meme is particularly dangerous or insidious, a culture of doubt would tend to cripple dogma before it can get up to cruising speed, so you don’t get anyone who’s immune to a good argument.


1. People aren’t like that.

2. Culture isn’t like that.

Seductive ideologies (& ideas in general) are subject to greater reinforcement over time – a person who gets it into their heads that something is the case will see evidence for it everywhere & believe it harder over time. The perceived distance of such an idea from provability will lessen over time: “Of COURSE the US should be more socialist! Look at all this compelling (for me) evidence! I’m more certain every day that everyone who disagrees with me is an idiot!” 

This leads to a feedback loop of the people farthest from that ideal of dispassionate skepticism being the most outspoken. This goes double for cultural biases, where consensus (which is often used as a heuristic for truth) colors everyone’s evaluation of the evidence from the outset.

Also, there’s “the backfire effect,” whereby incorrect beliefs are sometimes *strengthened* by conflicting data: 

So there are practical issues with my utopian ideal. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the wrong approach, but that we can’t simply take it at face value as being superior – if brains suck more than the error allowed by the system, it would be a mistake to use it.


There are people who think we ought not discuss racist ideologies publicly because this normalizes them, that we should use shame & taboo to shape what sorts of discourse occur in public, to stigmatize racism & the “alt-right” white supremacy movement.

On the one hand, disallowing topics is antithetical to my ideal, & in my perfect world it’d be counterproductive – racism isn’t supported by the evidence, & arguing publicly why it’s both factually inaccurate & undesirable would result in more people being convinced of the correct conclusion. Result: less racism & a better cultural sensitivity to incorrect racist arguments. Even in our imperfect world, there are people who believe racist things who can be convinced of their incorrectness with evidence, & shushing all public discourse just means they won’t be granted that evidence.

On the other hand, brains suck, & there’s a demonstrable cultural bias regarding race. People are prone to believe wrong things about racism, & people don’t buy into racist ideologies because they’re totally unconvincing. Their flaws are subtle & often require a fair amount of numeric analysis to understand fully, which many people simply won’t do.

(Also, people suffer & die because of widespread incorrect ideologies, and that’s bad.)


There’s an (unproven!) sentiment that this is exactly what went wrong with climate change & vaccines  – by allowing crazy people to speak publicly about their incorrect (but convincing) memes, even in the service of disproving those memes, we caused them to spread.

There’s an (unproven!) sentiment that one reason Donald Trump was elected president was because he demolished the PC culture the DNC had used as a weapon (in precisely the manner described above), that there were a group of Americans who no longer felt included in the national dialogue because many of their beliefs had been disallowed from public speech.

The backfire effect ( is a proven thing.

It’s possible that memes of anti-science/anti-evidence/anti-critical thinking can spread this way.


I want to get to a point where my ideal of a critical-thinking society is realized; is rendering certain ideologies “off-limits” for public discourse better or worse for such? 

Corollary: What is an acceptable moral cost for getting to a point where racism isn’t a thing anymore?

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