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People in Silicon Valley are losing their minds after a famous investor said its culture is bad for startups

Drew Angerer/GettySam Altman, the president of Y Combinator.
  • Sam Altman, one of the most powerful people in the startup world, says the debate about political correctness in San Francisco is bad for startups and smart people.
  • His blog post on the topic drew heated reactions both from people who agree with him and from those who say his ideas are dangerous.

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

In the post, published Thursday, he argued the climate of political correctness in San Francisco and Silicon Valley was “very bad for startups” and said it was easier to express controversial ideas in China than in California.

The essay, titled “E Pur Si Muove” – Italian for “And yet it moves” referencing a quip the heretic scientist Galileo Galilei said on his deathbed – drew swift and strong reactions from both supporters and detractors.

Here’s his 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 says ideas the San Francisco intellectual climate have rejected include “pharmaceuticals for intelligence augmentation, genetic engineering, and radical life extension.”

In Altman’s view, people who have criticised those ideas for businesses have cast the entrepreneurs behind them as “heretics,” like how the Catholic Church sentenced Galileo to house arrest for (correctly) saying 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 has increasingly expressed interest in political ideas.

One of his experiments – related to the concept of basic income, in which every resident regularly receives a sum of money with no conditions attached – is a program that gives 100 people in Oakland, California, $US1,000 to $US2,000 a month.

And he had to shoot down rumours last year that he would 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 in technology writers, activists, business professors, and even rank-and-file employees at big tech companies.

It got heated.

Altman’s defenders said they felt constrained to pursue or express controversial ideas, and they cited the backlash to the post as proof of Altman’s point.

On Hacker News, Y Combinator’s message board, the post has more than 690 comments, many of them supportive of Altman’s argument.

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