The trouble with Harris is more prosaic

Jonathan Rash points out that Sam Harris doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does.

A recent episode of Sam Harris’ podcast Making Sense features Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and, most recently, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis. According to Harris’ website, he and Diamond discuss

the rise and fall of civilizations,…political polarization, disparities in civilizational progress, the prospect that there may be biological differences between populations, the precariousness of democracy in the U.S., the lack of a strong political center, immigration policy, and other topics.

Most of these categories have little to do with Diamond’s work. Rather, they concern Harris and his well-worn personal grievances with “The Left.” These grievances cover everything from “PC culture” and feminism to psychological research methods and immigration policy. What holds them all together is the following unifying idea: Progressive opinion-makers are dishonest hacks willing to destroy the livelihoods and reputations of those who deign to question the elite liberal consensus on hot-button issues concerning race, gender, culture, and politics, and their political correctness is destroying the country and rendering reasoned debate impossible.

Like most episodes of Making Sense, this one consists mostly of Harris rehashing the myriad ways he feels he has been mistreated or misunderstood by progressives. As any consistent Harris listener can attest, the man sustains an immense amount of self-righteous anger over this. The problem is the measure of anger outpaces his understanding of the topics he’s angry about.

The problem is also the vanity and egotism. I find Harris unreadable (and god knows unlistenable and unwatchable) because of it.

Like his late friend Christopher Hitchens, Harris is a gifted rhetorician who possesses the preternatural ability to speak not only in complete sentences but complete paragraphs. This talent can be mesmerizing, but it masks something The Hitch never had to hide and of which the Diamond episode is a prime example: a general hollowness of mind reinforced by a stunning lack of intellectual rigor and curiosity.

See that’s why I don’t find the talent mesmerizing, and never have. He may be good at talking in complete paragraphs but the paragraphs are not interesting, and neither is he. Hitchens was interesting in himself and he said interesting things in his paragraphs. Harris just drones.

Harris’ association with the Intellectual Dark Web, his constant focus on “identity politics” and “liberal delusion,” and his obsession with his own “bad-faith” critics, just to name a few examples, have made him the bête noire of the left.

Along with his smug sexism, his contempt for almost everyone else, his lack of affect, his unearned air of superiority.

Well over a million people follow Harris on Twitter and listen to each of his podcasts. But as his platform has grown, he has ventured into areas far outside his core competencies, which are limited to mindfulness/meditation and perhaps (though this is debatable) certain subdisciplines of neuroscience and philosophy of mind. As a result, Harris often finds himself in avoidable confrontations with experts on controversial topics about which he knows very little.

This means that much of the criticism of Harris currently out there is misplaced. In recent years he’s been repeatedly assailed as a bigot and racist. He is neither. The trouble with Harris is more prosaic: he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The Diamond episode is just one example of how Harris’ issues are mostly the result of his own ignorance. The problem isn’t that he’s not an expert at everything—obviously no one is. The problem is that Harris is deeply assertive, outlandishly so, in precisely the areas that are thorniest for non-experts to meaningfully wade into.

The episode begins with Harris asking Diamond about his career and a couple of his books, but within the first half hour the conversation turns abruptly to “race and IQ,” a perennial favorite. Harris asserts, as he has many times before, that it simply must be the case that there is significant genetic variation in intelligence across “populations” (by this he means “race,” crudely defined), and that to deny this is to ignore clear science in favor of one’s ideological precommitments.

Diamond’s response is typical of anyone who’s spent time studying the issue:

Theoretically that’s a possibility. The problem is that despite a lot of effort by a lot of people to establish differences in, say, cognitive skills, differences at a population level have not been established. Instead there is an obvious mass of cultural effects on cognitive skills.

So Harris changes the subject.

Rash covers his embarrassing dispute with Chomsky, and one where he tried to set a security expert straight via his personal intuitions, which went as well as you’d expect. Then there are his reading habits…

When asked in an earlier AMA what kind of “art, music, and fiction” he likes, Harris all but acknowledges that he’s not really into all that. “I love music but I almost never listen to it.” He has no time, you see. “I’m afraid fiction falls by the way for the same reason.” But don’t worry, he used to read. “Fiction is really my roots,” he claims. “Back in the day, I was very into Kafka and Nabokov and Joseph Conrad. … Back in the day, I was a big fan of The Lord of the Rings, and I also watch things in that genre. I watch Game of Thrones. … I’ve also read a few plays recently.”

Thud. Of course he was; of course he does.

Harris is a specialist, and like all other specialists he knows a great deal about one or two things and essentially nothing about anything else. This is not per se objectionable; there is nothing wrong with narrow expertise. One objects only when the specialist pretends to a more eclectic intellectualism than he has done the hard work to develop, when he demands a degree of deference and respect wholly incommensurate with his level of learning. It’s exactly this type of hubris that causes Harris to believe that he invalidated David Hume’s foundational is/ought distinction by simply observing that we can’t act on our values without knowing the facts.

Exactly. I despise The Moral Landscape and that sums up why.

Harris hides a vast ignorance with a vast vocabulary and silky turns of phrase. He is dangerous because millions of us listen to him, even when there’s no reason to. Acknowledging this fact is the first step toward achieving the productive “experiments in conversation” that Harris champions but rarely delivers.

Which is to say, pay no attention to Sam Harris, he is of no interest.

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