Sam Harris won’t care

Recently, Harris was skewered in Salon, as he’s been skewered everywhere else — his Ezra Klein interview made his inadequacy obvious, and that weird exchange with Bruce Schneier in which he just waved away the words of an internationally known security expert so he could continue to support racial profiling exposed his racism. This story just sums up everything we already knew.

But over time, Harris withdrew from expressing his opinions through platforms designed to ensure a minimum level of intellectual integrity. He began blogging and then started an enormously popular podcast, his principal medium for the past seven years. He stopped publishing peer-reviewed research papers. He opted not to submit articles to media outlets that imposed some editorial control over what they publish. Instead, he created a small media empire that enabled him to say whatever he wants, whether or not the message is misleading, the claims are factually erroneous, the reasoning is fallacious and so on. In other words, he figured out a way to bypass intellectual accountability — to opine as much as he wants about topics he doesn’t understand without peer-review, editorial oversight or other quality-control measures.

Like Trump, Harris seems wholly uninterested in getting things right. He claims to care about intellectual honesty and good scholarship, yet he consistently spouts misinformation on his podcast that could easily be corrected if only he were to engage — sincerely, and in good faith — those who disagree with him (very often actual experts on the topics of racism, feminism, social justice and so on). Indeed, so far as I can tell, Harris has become one of the greatest sources of misinformation on social justice issues in the United States today. His contribution to scientific racism — his boosting the visibility of claims like Black people are almost certainly dumber than white people for genetic reasons — will no doubt be one of his greatest, and darkest, legacies.

There’s good news and bad news here, though. The bad news is that yes, he’s a terrible, shallow person with a large audience — he’s sharing a niche with Joe Rogan — who promotes bad information. The good news is that over the years he has retreated into his own personal safe space, a hug box for racists.

Years ago when we were both on the atheist conference circuit (on different tiers, he was the high-priced speaker who demanded a security detail, I was the guy who was happy to be there and didn’t charge a fee), he was annoyingly ubiquitous. You couldn’t escape him. He was at every con, he was in every atheist magazine, I’d turn around and there he’d be with a big guy in a dark suit and sunglasses, glowering.

But now he’s got his podcast and a dedicated fan base, and I haven’t seen him or read anything by him in ages. You have to make an effort to find him and listen to his words, and I don’t, so that’s nice. I picture him as an unpleasant cyst that has become encapsulated in fibrous connective tissue, still there and it still hurts when you poke at it, but at least it’s not oozing pus all over everything else anymore. We should probably get it removed surgically some day.

Oh, jeez, remember when every time you pointed out some racist, stupid thing Harris said, there’d be some slimy fan boy showing up in the comments to complain that you’d taken him out of context? Let’s hope those days are over.


  1. says

    It used to be fun watching him debate someone like Deepak Chopra…but now it’s sadly obvious that Chopra was about his limit. He became such an embarrassment.

  2. raven says

    Sam Harris who?

    He has also been outflanked on both the hate and gibberish axises by Jordan Peterson.
    Jordan Peterson hates more groups of people and a lot louder than Harris.
    Jordan Peterson also makes more nonsensical statements that are fun to quote.

    Ironically one of Peterson’s hates are atheists.
    He would love Harris’s racism and hate his atheism.

  3. hemidactylus says

    I had recently done some housecleaning on my podcast list and took a look at Harris’s “Making Sense”. Seems he’s got a subscription scheme to get full content, which I wasn’t listening to anymore for free. Probably delete him soon. Just did.

    Now new atheism has lost enthusiasm for fighting religion they are combining with weird people to fight a different sort of culture war.

  4. bcwebb says

    @Raven – a Peterson-Harris Religion debate! The Red Lobsters versus the Black is Baddies.
    No, in reality, they’d immediately wander into their joint hatreds and it’d turn into a love fest. I just liked the tag line.
    OK, hold the debate in a sealed room. A really sealed room.

  5. garnetstar says

    Yet Harris has been whining (the IDW, you know) that he can’t get a well-paid job at a prestigious mainstream media outlet to spout his so important, dangerous, but “honest” and always-right notions. I’m sure it’s never occured to him that that may be because he’s boring. His ideas aren’t original and throught-provoking, they are centuries-old bigotry. And, he won’t come right out and say “I’m a conservative”, so he can’t be hired by places like the NYT to provide “alternate viewpoints”, like Ross Douhat.

    Harris is interesting to me only in that I think that he’s the closest thing to a pure solipsist that I’ve ever encountered. He truly believes that whatever is in his head is reality, and that no external reality exists. So he can absolutely deny empirical data, such as that provided by Bruce Schneier.

    The lengths that he can take this solipsism to are pretty amazing to me, because as a scientist I’ve always had to abide by the rule that empirical data always takes precedence over any theory that you’ve come up with, no matter how pleasing to yourself and your confirmation bias that theory may be.

  6. says

    “Harris is interesting to me only in that I think that he’s the closest thing to a pure solipsist that I’ve ever encountered. He truly believes that whatever is in his head is reality, and that no external reality exists.”
    Evidently you have never heard of Donald J. Trump.

  7. says

    I never even started listening to his podcast because I’d heard enough of him at conferences to know that he was a really, really, really boring speaker.

  8. says

    @#6, cervantes

    “Harris is interesting to me only in that I think that he’s the closest thing to a pure solipsist that I’ve ever encountered. He truly believes that whatever is in his head is reality, and that no external reality exists.”
    Evidently you have never heard of Donald J. Trump.

    Nah, Trump knows external reality exists. That’s why he’s always so angry and is constantly struggling to “beat” people at things and put of a façade of “excellence”. You can see it in the different approaches: Harris just totally ignores what other people says because in his own mind he’s the greatest expert ever, and he’s really confident in that, but any time anybody challenges Trump publicly he is compelled to first claim he’s better at whatever-it-is than they are and then he does the exact opposite of what they advise out of spite. (And when doing the opposite of experienced experts doesn’t work — as it almost never does — he refuses to revisit the whole thing.) Deep down, Trump knows he’s terrible; all the proclamations are projection. Harris doesn’t even admit there’s anybody else who really disagrees with him.

  9. unclefrogy says

    they are both at odds with reality and are trapped by their beliefs and their desires.
    I thought reason and it’s extension science was all about some way to address some kind of objective reality that matched what we observed.. To question what we observe and verify it with some repeatable measurement and observation.
    those things that do not conform with real verified observation should not be relied on as having validity but are only good for entertainment purposes only.

  10. nomdeplume says

    @5 I forget the exact quote – something about how wonderful a theory was until it came up against the cold hard reality of data? anyone remember?

  11. jenorafeuer says

    The great tragedy of science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

    — Thomas Huxley

  12. hemidactylus says

    I’m finding online variations of Thomas Huxley saying that Herbert Spencer’s idea of tragedy is deduction (or theory or hypothesis) killed by a fact.

    In his Autobiography Spencer says of Huxley: “He was one of a circle in which tragedy was the topic, when my name came up in connexion with some opinion or other; whereupon he remarked—“Oh! you know, Spencer’s idea of a tragedy is a deduction killed by a fact.”

    So perhaps not apocryphal.

  13. chrislawson says

    Yet again, PZ, you take him out of context. Harris is only a racist ass in the context of his published words and the available scientific evidence.

  14. ORigel says

    I regret ever liking Sam Harris. I once thought all the criticisms of Harris were either by people jealous of his popularity or by people who hated DA TROOF.

    The Ezra Klein debacle made me see the light about him.

  15. says

    I’m pretty sure Harris disagrees with experts on racism, feminism and social justice precisely because they are experts on those things. There is a weirdly backwards strain of thought out there which says that the more you know about any topic in the ‘soft’ sciences, the less your opinion can be trusted on it. Presumably because you have been brainwashed by all the education you’ve received.

    I think it’s the same thing that makes right wing voters in the US distrust higher education. It teaches their kids things they are strongly invested in nobody believing.

  16. lotharloo says

    In the introduction of his book Moral landscape or whatever, he basically wrote that reading the previous work on the subject was too boring. Yes, he actually believes that he can figure out a subject after thinking be about it for an afternoon more than thousands of experts over hundreds of years. The guy is colossal ass with an ego the size of Jupiter.

    The last podcast I tried to listen was him with Maryam Namazie and it was all him whining how Namazie calling out his racism was mean and she should apologize or something.

  17. says

    @#19, lotharloo:

    I doubt actual Sharia Law (or, you know, the Catholic equivalent), but Biden spent decades trying to outlaw abortion, and he did say, while addressing Congress on the subject, in these words, that it was appalling that a woman could have sole control over her own body. (There’s video.) And, of course, we have Clarence Thomas thanks to Biden, apparently because he wanted another anti-abortion judge on the Supreme Court. And he’s demonstrably handsy, and has plausibly been accused of rape.

    But don’t worry, I’m sure that after he has been put into a position where the voters no longer have any say whatsoever about his long-term prospects, he won’t turn around and admit that his disavowal of his lifelong goals, motivated by his religious beliefs, were just a trick to fool gullible primary voters and then nominate a series of right-wing judges to the Supreme Court and work with Republicans to outlaw abortion as would be entirely consistent with his entirely congressional career. Becoming President elevates people to a higher ethical standard — that’s why Bill Clinton stopped philandering after getting the nomination, after all. We can totally trust the guy who spent most of his career as basically the furthest-right Democrat. He won’t betray us again on every single issue that he spend decades betraying us without the slightest hesitation or qualm.

  18. dstatton says

    I once saw an amusing series of emails between Harris and Noam Chomsky. Harris kept pleading to have a serious debate, while Chomsky kept saying that he had no desire to waste his time engaging him. Speaking of scientific racism, Harris hosted Charles Murray on his podcast. That was my first inkling that Harris was a schmuck.

  19. harryblack says

    It always seemed to me that he was so used to people fawning over his every thought and word that when he started on the islamaphobic shite and people told him to hold his horses, he couldnt process it and the indignant outrage became like a popcorn kernal stuck in the teeth of his brain.
    Suddenly getting people to admit they were wrong about islam was more and more important and the farther he reached the more he was rightly criticised. So then the criticism became a problem in itself and suddenly everyone was an irrational sjw that didnt want to hear truth.
    A particularly noxious individual recently shared Harris’ thoughts on defund the police. It was a winding, self satisfied collection of unfounded biases in the worlds most annoying voice.
    This person not only thought it made a good point but thought that everyone discussing defund the police should change their minds in the face of it!
    But I wonder how many non racist young people even know who he is and I get a glimmer of hope.
    Also the Chomsky piece was INCREDIBLE!! The fact that he thought he came off well enough to share it speaks volumes.

  20. lotharloo says

    @The Vicar:
    I’m actually fine with you not voting for Biden. People oversell how bad Trump is and how good Biden is. I had a moment of epiphany that Bush was a much worse president than Trump. The moment came after Bolton’s book. After Iran shot down the US drone, the response that was sold to Trump was an airstrike and it seems it is actually true that he called off the attack because he thought there would a disproportionate death toll on the Iranian side. Bolton gave 0 fucks about those deaths and he thought Trump not killing 100+ Iranian to avenge an unmanned drone was a mistake. Bolton did not last in Trump administration but he served loyally and comfortably in Bush’s administration with all the other war hawks. Bush sold two unnecessary wars to the American public. The Iraq war was obviously illegal but even the war in Afghanistan was unnecessary. Taliban did not attack US. There was no need to launch a full scale war on Afghanistan. But the war hawks were so successful in selling that war that not even Democrats question it.

  21. says

    …it seems it is actually true that he called off the attack because he thought there would a disproportionate death toll on the Iranian side.

    You think Trump gives a shit about killing some Iranians? This is the same guy who deliberately sabotaged the corona response, because he thought blue state deaths would help his election chances.

  22. lotharloo says

    Intent isn’t magic works both ways. It doesn’t matter what Trump intended to do, what matters is that he didn’t let his administration run by war hawks and he has not started any new wars. That alone is sufficient to make his administration much better than G. W. Bush. Now, it is true that he is corroding the democratic institutions of US but that’s just damage to US; when you consider the damage to the world, Trump is much better than G. W. Bush. This is what I mean when I say people over-estimate how bad Trump is in terms of policy.

  23. rrutis1 says

    I’d like to thank everyone here for helping filter out morons and racists like Harris for me and probably others like me. I wish I had the time (and energy) to read and listen to every article and podcast to form a reasoned opinion but holy shit, there are just so many of these asses it seems impossible to keep up!

  24. says

    Late reply, but I came across it, so here it is:

    Intent isn’t magic works both ways. It doesn’t matter what Trump intended to do…

    Yes it does. You specifically argued that his behavior was due to an intent:

    …because he thought there would a disproportionate death toll on the Iranian side.

    Your reply means that you disavow that, which undermines your previous argument: That Trump can be trusted not to engage in such wars.
    As such, all you’re saying is that Trump didn’t attack Iran… for some reason. That says nothing about future behavior.