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sam altmanY Combinator president Sam Altman. Drew Angerer/Getty

  • Sam Altman, one of the most powerful people in the startup world, says that the debate around political correctness in San Francisco is bad for startups and smart people.
  • His blog post on the topic drew heated reactions from people who agreed with him as well as people who believe his ideas are dangerous. 

If Y Combinator president Sam Altman wanted to start a furious debate with his latest blog post, he certainly succeeded. 

In a post on his blog, he argued that the climate of political correctness in San Francisco and Silicon Valley is “very bad for startups,” and that it was easier to express controversial ideas in China than it is in California.

The essay, named “E Pur Si Muove” after a quip heretic scientist Galileo Galilei said on his deathbed, drew swift and strong reactions from both supporters and detractors. 

Here’s his basic point: 

“Restricting speech leads to restricting ideas and therefore restricted innovation—the most successful societies have generally been the most open ones. Usually mainstream ideas are right and heterodox ideas are wrong, but the true and unpopular ideas are what drive the world forward. Also, smart people tend to have an allergic reaction to the restriction of ideas, and I’m now seeing many of the smartest people I know move elsewhere.”

He cites specific ideas that the San Francisco intellectual climate have ejected, including “ideas like pharmaceuticals for intelligence augmentation, genetic engineering, and radical life extension.”

In Altman’s view, people who have criticized those ideas for businesses have essentially cast the entrepreneurs behind them as “heretics,” the same way the Catholic Church sentenced Galileo to house arrest for correctly claiming that the earth revolves around the sun. 

“This is uncomfortable, but it’s possible we have to allow people to say disparaging things about gay people if we want them to be able to say novel things about physics,” Altman wrote. “Of course we can and should say that ideas are mistaken, but we can’t just call the person a heretic.”

Altman runs the most prestigious tech startup accelerator in Silicon Valley, Y Combinator, but in recent years he has expressed increased interest in political ideas. One of his experiments is related to the aspiration to give every single person a free basic income. Altman is currently running a program that gives 100 people in Oakland, California between $1,000 and $2,000 per month, and last year, he had to shoot down rumors that he was going to run for governor of California.

The reaction 

Users can’t post comments on Altman’s blog, but many people who read his thoughts on political correctness were eager to respond.

Altman had defenders from the venture capital and entrepreneurship worlds, but he also drew scores of critics from technology writers, activists, business school professors, and even rank-and-file employees at big tech companies. 

It got heated.  

Altman did have defenders, who said that they felt constrained to pursue or express controversial ideas, and cited the backlash to Altman’s post as proof of his point. On Hacker News, Y Combinator’s message board, the post drew 690 comments, many of them supportive of his argument. 

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