In defense of extremism

That is my latest Bloomberg column, the argument is super-simple:

Calling something “extremist” is not an effective critique. It’s a sign that the speaker or writer either doesn’t want to take the trouble to make a real argument, or is hoping to win the debate through rhetoric or Twitter pressure rather than logic. It’s also a bad sign when critics stress how social media have fed and encouraged “extremism.”

I favor plenty of extremist ideas. For instance, I think that the world’s major cities should adopt congestion rush-hour pricing. (I know, it hardly sounds extreme, but I assure you that many drivers consider it extremely outrageous to have to pay to drive on roads that were free a few hours before.) London and Singapore have versions of congestion pricing, with some success, but given the public reaction and that most other major cities do not seem close to enactment, it has to count as a relatively extreme idea.

I also favor human challenge trials, arguably an even more extreme idea. In human challenge trials, rather than waiting for a virus to infect those vaccinated (randomly) with the placebo, scientists recruit volunteers and infect them deliberately and immediately. This accelerates the speed of a biomedical trial. To many people there is something repugnant about asking for volunteers and then deliberately doing them harm by injecting them with the virus.

Maybe human challenge trials aren’t a good idea. But calling them extreme or repugnant does not help explain why.

We then get into some more “extreme” ideas…

Someone complaining about “extremism” is a likely predictor of an epistemic vice.


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