Does Sam Harris Know How to Think Like a Scientist?

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.

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7 Responses to Does Sam Harris Know How to Think Like a Scientist?

  1. Bilbo says:

    Learning that Sam Harris considers Glenn Greenwald to be an enemy has me very curious. Greenwald is the journalist to whom Edward Snowden leaked all the NSA documents.

  2. richardjwalker@hotmail.co.uk says:

    Seems the author of this piece is vetting replies as all of the ones from earlier today have vanished…

  3. Michael says:

    Not true. The only reply to this piece has been from Bilbo. I’ll be charitable and assume you were just mistaken – you probably confused this thread with the previous thread where you posted a snide comment.

  4. This does not make any sense or im not smart enough to understand. How does the above lead to the particular kind of reasoning fault whatever it is that you say it does? You are using a straw man to make a straw man with no man in the middle to make any sense of it.

    Try this argument it may work better. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, till he writes something I dont like then he is wrong.

  5. Sam Harris’s decision to dissect a given topic or premise in a somewhat nonscientific method isn’t an indication of an inability to do so… What he does is simply explain a predisposition. If the context is religious for example, it would be way off trying to fend it off using scientific methods. It would be more effective using logic instead and I mean logic in an academic sence. The idea that everything non-scientific can somehow metamorphous into a method of scientific inquiry is very impractical. The best you can do which he does well is employ the use of logic.

  6. Dhay says:

    > Next, we’ll take a deeper look at Sam Harris’s counter-examples.

    For those (choiceandtruth?) who cannot find Michael’s “Next” continuation post, it’s linked by the first link of the three Related post links, found just past the end of the OP; I’ll reproduce the link here:

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/when-even-the-anecdotes-fail/

    Hopefully that deeper look will clarify what Michael is saying above, and why.

    *
    choiceandtruth > It would be more effective using logic instead and I mean logic in an academic sense.

    Sam Harris’ dissections of topics may impress you, but generally come across as a Gish Gallop, as a flurry of assertions; when he does try logic he looks rather illogical:

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2016/01/06/harris-vs-myers/#comment-11342

  7. Dhay says:

    Existential Comics, conceived and drawn by someone with an evident thorough knowledge of philosophers and their philosophies, agrees with this last; see the “Sam Harris: Powerful Philosopher” series:

    http://existentialcomics.com/unofficialComics

    Does Sam Harris know how to think like a philosopher.

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