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Are there certain topics that must be avoided in science, sociology, psychology or philosophy?

Will talking about taboo subjects alleviate fear or perpetuate undesirable interest?

Is there any famous philosophical argument for/against talking about taboo subjects?

Please don't go into detail. Just give me a vague idea so that I can do my own research. This is for an essay and I just can't seem to find any "philosophical" content on this question.

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    At least in philosophy, I would say NO (in principle). Philosophy is asking questions about "fundamental" issues": if some topic T is "taboo", at least the following question is legitimate: "why is T a taboo?" Commented Jun 8, 2021 at 13:06
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    Relevent: 'Is it ethical to research potentially harmful topics?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/68331/…
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 8, 2021 at 13:46
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    I wanted to suggest some distinctions to bear in mind when parsing the answers here: (1) Taboo question vs. taboo topic vs. taboo position on a topic; (2) taboo position vs. discredited position (e.g. It's not taboo to argue that the Earth is flat; it's just widely recognized as false and thus generally not considered a position worth engaging with); (3) taboo vs. taboo to talk about. Foucault argued that sex in the Victorian era was taboo but theorists of that era wrote endlessly about it (on Foucault's view, theorists fetishize the taboo, so taboo topics become overtheorized).
    – Dayv87
    Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 21:46

9 Answers 9

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What is taboo often depends on context and there is some disagreement about what deserves the label, but it’s well-defined enough for an answer.

Please don't go into detail. Just give me a vague idea so that I can do my own research.

I will keep this in mind.

Plato’s Republic contains a famous philosophical discussion in favor of some censorship. Ironically, Socrates, who Plato deeply admired, was put on trial and executed for corrupting the minds of Athenian youth and defying the state in attempting to censor his philosophical teachings. The Greek playwright Euripides famously argued against censorship in antiquity. John Stuart Mill is famous for arguing against censorship. Many of his arguments can be found in his On Liberty. He has a famous quote on this:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

As for some taboo subjects…

Professional scientists fearing advocating for the lab leak theory of COVID-19’s origins, which now has credibility, is a good example. (source 1, source 2)The language in The Lancet statement is chilling and an example of the politicization and moralization of science by scientists.

On February 19, 2020, The Lancet, among the most respected and influential medical journals in the world, published a statement that roundly rejected the lab-leak hypothesis, effectively casting it as a xenophobic cousin to climate change denialism and anti-vaxxism. Signed by 27 scientists, the statement expressed “solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China” and asserted: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”

Doctors and well-respected scientists who questioned the efficacy of lockdowns and wearing masks were canceled and banned from various social media. (source 3, source 4) There’s a general sense among conservatives and libertarians dissent on lockdowns and mask requirements is taboo.

Charles Murray’s research in general and the correlations between race and IQ in particular are very taboo. The book The Bell Curve authored by him and Richard Herrnstein is infamous as it is rigorous in defending a taboo point of view. (source 5, source 6)

The book A People That Shall Dwell Alone is taboo, though was well-received by many scientists. Kevin Macdonald, a professor of evolutionary psychology (now retired), has been heavily vilified for his work, even after distancing himself from misuse of his work.

Much of what Jordan Peterson says is considered taboo. In particular, the treatment of him as well as his ideas solidified the idea that dissent from feminism (mostly third-wave) is taboo in modern Western education systems, though much of feminism is an interpretation, so dissent really can’t be proven incorrect. Antifeminist thought is essentially nonexistent in academia and modern philosophy.

Similarly, many consider disagreement with transgender ideology taboo.

To further address your specification of sociology and psychology, a lot of the politicization of science comes from the heavy ideological bias in social studies, humanities, and academia in general. (source 7, source 8, source 9, source 10, source 11, source 12, source 13, source 14) This is a general source of what is considered taboo in many fields. As detailed in the sources, many libertarian, conservative, and right-wing beliefs are dead on arrival in these fields, and it’s getting worse over time. Jonathan Haidt writes at length about this. The lack of dissent, unprecedented presence of hegemony, and absence of checks on other researchers’ works and biases has been a source of The Replication Crisis. Some of the previous sources cover philosophy, but it is also dealt with specifically in the following (source 17, source 18, source 19, source 20).

Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose in general talk about this issue, often mentioning philosophy. I’d look them up. Peter Boghossian was a professor of philosophy at Portland State University until he resigned due to harassment he received.

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No. At least for science, there are no taboo subjects.

Some specific methods of research should not be used (or even suggested), but topics themselves have no such limitation.

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  • Results from the research of Dr Mengele?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 8, 2021 at 13:47
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    Charles Murray is a scientist whose work is taboo. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Murray_(political_scientist)
    – user4894
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 20:05
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    @D.Halsey If you're not aware of the taboo nature of his work I suggest that you look it up. Please don't play the naive innocent. It doesn't suit you.
    – user4894
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 20:25
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    Also in science there are questions considered taboo. Questioning things that fall outside the standard view are consideŕed pseudo scientific. You can ask them of course but it wont do you good in the scientific community. Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 20:35
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    @D.Halsey So when you say there are no taboo subjects, you mean that by definition if we've heard of them, they can't be taboo. Therefore the only taboo subjects are ones we've never heard of; therefore, there are no taboo subjects. Is that the line of argument you're going with?
    – user4894
    Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 0:03
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Death is a taboo, however only in western culture. Eastern traditions and philosophies often address death. Bringing up death in western society is often a no-go or a huge conversation smasher.

Another taboo is sex and race. I don't think I need to clarify why. Mental health is also a taboo, which I don't think we talk enough about. People expressing their feelings is often seen as weakness.

Will talking about taboo subjects alleviate fear or perpetuate undesirable interest? Absolutely!

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  • There are thousands of popular songs, movies, and TV shows about death, sex, race, mental health, or expressing your feelings. Comedians make jokes about all of them. People talk about all those things all the time. It's hard to see any justification for saying that any of those topic are taboo or even frowned on. Commented Jun 9, 2021 at 22:42
  • Yeah, Billie Eilish singing about suicide. Cannot take it seriously.
    – Fredrich
    Commented Jun 10, 2021 at 11:27
  • you didn't say "serious"; you said "taboo". A taboo topic is one that is considered inappropriate to discuss. None of those topics you mentioned are taboo in western culture. Please either justify your claims or remove this answer. Commented Jun 10, 2021 at 22:32
  • Dude, you are really just mining for the leftover breadcrumbs if you know what I mean.
    – Fredrich
    Commented Jun 11, 2021 at 6:11
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    No, I don't know what you mean, but I know how philosophy works and how research works in general, and it doesn't work by just making stuff up. You have to have evidence. You have to have a rational argument. You kids these days have been betrayed by crummy teachers who haven't taught you how to think for yourself. They just teach you how to regurgitate whatever irrational nonsense they spoon feed to you. Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 9:43
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Questions about the validity of science and questioning if humankind and the world they live in would have been in a less deplorable state meet a high resistence. It is assumed a priori that science is the best way. That shouldn't be questioned. Try asking the question yourself and look at the reaction. Of course you can ask. Which question can't be asked is still the question. If you have found it you are already asking it.

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Kant's essay "What is Enlightenment?" is a landmark philosophical reference on this question. And you might find better resources searching for philosophical discussions of "freedom of inquiry"/"free inquiry" than of "taboo." Two important distinctions: (1) Theorists asking a question vs. public consumption of their research; (2) posing a question vs. prioritizing a question. On (1), someone above mentioned the famous discussion in Plato's Republic where he justifies censorship in his ideal society, but the censorship is intended for the public, not for the philosopher-kings. It's a bit of an elitist view, but it comes up over and over again throughout history ("We enlightened ones can think about these things, but the general public shouldn't think about these things."). On (2), research generally needs funding, and it's generally funded by interested parties (i.e. parties with political, economic, or sociocultural aims); so there generally is some sort of politics involved in the question of which questions get prioritized.

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  • Yeah important distinctions
    – Al Brown
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 0:55
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One of the best ways to approach this question is to ask:

"What might happen if we didn't engage with taboo questions?".

It was once taboo - and still is in some cultures - to question ethnic supremacy; to question the validity/authenticity of religious texts/monuments, to discuss gender roles and rights, LGBTQi rights, female circumcision, the rule and/or divine authority of particular dictators, to propose the separation of church and state, to conduct scientific investigation into the human body, to propose heliocentrism, evolution.

We must never assume that we have arrived at a complete or adequate understanding of anything, especially those areas of life in which a particular belief leads to the suffering of others. Questioning taboos will remain vital if we are to continue to progress towards a more egalitarian society.

This assumes egalitarianism as a state worth striving towards, but if you do not agree, your right to question this assumption should be supported.

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Questions are linguistic facts (which are finally metaphysical issues). Science does not define language, or metaphysical facts. In simple words, science does not tell you how to speak.

But there are disciplines which determine how to use language, and specifically, what questions can be made in some specific contexts. For example, morals, religion, ethics, politics. Google for political correctness, taboos, censorship, social maturity, etc., taking always into account that such matters are part of metaphysics, not science.

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One philosophical community put a ban on discussing Roko's Basilisk because just knowing about the possibilty of such a being was causing some people distress.

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What about denying the holocaust? In Germany you get prosecuted for holocaust denial. A 89 year old woman in Germany denied the holocaust took place and she got sentenced to 14 months in jail. She is said to be a neo-nazi and all that. So it could explain her reasons to her claims..

I do not agree with the idea that the holocaust did not take place. But should you be able to discuss this? I think people should be able to question this accepted fact freely. And it is up to others to question and reject her claims.

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  • You are mixing a political taboo with what the question is actually asking about. Even in Germany I would expect you to be able to work out an exemption if you had legitimate reasons to approach the question objectively e.g. as a psychological or philosophical research topic (but it's hard to imagine what the value of that would be, and how the same research topic could not be approached with less contentious taboo questions).
    – tripleee
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 11:55

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