After reviewing some of the scientific literature about reasoning, psychologist Jonathan Haidt summarizes it by noting:
But the benefits of disconfirmation depend on social relationships. We engage with friends and colleagues, but we reject any critique from our enemies.
Harris, who promotes himself as a scientist, replies:
Well, then I must be a very hard case. I received a long and detailed criticism of my work from a friend, Dan Dennett, and found it totally unpersuasive. How closed must I be to the views of my enemies?
Enter Jeremy Scahill: I’ve never met Scahill, and I’m not aware of his having attacked me in print, so it might seem a little paranoid to categorize him as an “enemy.” But he recently partnered with Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain to launch The Intercept, a new website dedicated to “fearless, adversarial journalism.” Greenwald has worked very hard to make himself my enemy, and Hussain has worked harder still. Both men have shown themselves to be unprofessional and unscrupulous whenever their misrepresentations of my views have been pointed out. This is just to say that, while I don’t usually think of myself as having enemies, if I were going to pick someone to prove me wrong on an important topic, it probably wouldn’t be Jeremy Scahill. I am, in Haidt’s terms, highly motivated to reason in a “lawyerly” way so as not to give him the pleasure of changing my mind. But change it he has.
Can you see how this type of response demonstrates Harris’s inability to think like a scientist? I’ll demonstrate below the fold.
Imagine if a medical researcher said, “Cigarette smoking causes cancer.” Now imagine Harris responding as follows: “Really? I had a friend who smoked his entire life, and you know what? He never developed lung cancer. What’s more, I once had another friend and colleague who died of lung cancer. The man never smoked a cigarette in his entire life.”
This is precisely the type of “reasoning” Harris is using in reply to Haidt, yet this is not the type of reasoning scientists use. When Haidt notes that “We engage with friends and colleagues, but we reject any critique from our enemies,” he is noting a statistical truth. In other words, we are far more likely to be receptive of criticism when the critique comes from friends and not enemies. That there are exceptions to this statistical truth is meaningless from a scientific perspective. Yet Harris apparently thinks his counter-examples are exceptionally meaningful.
Next, we’ll take a deeper look at Sam Harris’s counter-examples.