When Even the Anecdotes Fail

We have seen that Sam Harris abandons scientific reasoning to closed-mindedly dismiss the possibility his mind is closed. When psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote, “But the benefits of disconfirmation depend on social relationships. We engage with friends and colleagues, but we reject any critique from our enemies,” Harris sought to refute this by raising two examples that were supposed to demonstrate the science of psychology does not apply to him. But let’s take a closer look at those two examples.

Harris writes:

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?

There are three relevant factors that would likely play a role in Harris’s response to Dennett’s criticism.

Friendship: Harris describes Dennett as a friend. But friends come in many varieties, ranging from Facebook “friends” to life-long companions with whom you can share your deepest secrets. So what type of friend is Dennett?

It’s difficult to say, but I would reasonably guess they are friends in the sense that that are allied culture warriors who probably converse on a private e-mail list along with other New Atheist leaders. But it doesn’t look like there is any great depth to their friendship. We can tell because of the way Sam Harris complained:

The truth is that you and I could have done a much better job—and produced something well worth reading—had we explored the topic of free will in a proper conversation. Whether we called it a “conversation” or a “debate” would have been immaterial. And, as you know, I urged you to engage me that way on multiple occasions and up to the eleventh hour. But you insisted upon writing your review. (emphasis added)

Apparently, behind the closed doors, Harris was pestering Dennett not to review his book and Dennett’s sense of friendship did not oblige him. And if Harris himself was under the impression that their friendship ran deeper than this, it’s safe to say he felt a sense of betrayal by Dennett’s review. For even Jerry Coyne noted, “It’s clear that Sam was both blindsided and hurt by Dan’s tone.”

Thus, we can see that Harris’s description of being unconvinced by a long and detailed criticism from “a friend” is overly simplistic. The dynamic likely entailed much more, such that Harris found himself unpersuaded by an ally who, at first ignored him, and then hurt and blindsided him. That is not a recipe for being receptive.

So let’s turn to the other example:

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.

Harris admits that Scahill has never attacked him and further admits he does not view him as any enemy. Yes, he has partnered with some people who have, in the past, criticized Harris. But why is that supposed to be so significant? There is no evidence that Harris considers Scahill as being part of some enemy tribe (in fact, I would bet they would be allied on many social and political causes). So let’s change it. What if the exact same documentary that changed Harris’s mind was produced by the Taliban? Would Harris have been as likely to change his mind? Make it worse – what if the same exact documentary was produced by Pat Robertson? Would Harris have been as likely to change his mind? Anyone want to make that case?

In summary, Harris’s counter-examples to Haidt’s point don’t really qualify as counter-examples. He is unpersuaded by a “friend” who turns out to be little more than an ally who blindsided and hurt him. And he was persuaded by someone who has never attacked him before and is not considered as an enemy.

2. Money: It is quite relevant to point out that Harris does not have a position within academia. Instead, his “job” is to run his think tank and his income is derived from selling his books, speaking about his books, and soliciting donations. As such, we should suspend our Iron Age notion of books as ideas and take a more scientific perspective which views his books as products. Just as Proctor&Gamble sells products, including Crest toothpaste, so too does Project Reason sell products, including The Moral Landscape. And as we all know, companies have a deeply invested interested in standing behind, and promoting, their products. This insight nicely explains the odd nature of Harris’s “Moral Landscape Challenge.” From a scholarly perspective, the challenge makes no sense. Scientists and philosophers don’t go around offering each other monetary rewards as a challenge to get them to change their minds. But from a business perspective, the Challenge makes a lot of sense – it’s an advertising scheme designed to get a particular product more exposure and publicity.

Along comes Dan Dennett. His review represents a threat to the product’s shelf-life. And if Harris was to be persuaded that Dennett’s review was on target, Harris, and his “company” Project Reason, would no longer be able to stand behind one of their products. This would not only cut off a stream of revenue, but it might cause collateral damage to some of Project Reason’s other products. So, of course, Sam Harris is not persuaded by Dennett. He stands behind his product! And he will defend it in such a way that would make any lawyer proud.

Now, when we turn to Scahill, none of these dynamics apply. Harris’s opinions about tactics in the war on terror are simply not one of the products that he sells. By changing his mind about this particular topic, no revenue stream is threatened. On the contrary, it makes good business sense to change his mind about something and tactics in the war on terror seem to be a nice candidate. As I explained before:

What’s more, if you consider Sam Harris’s New Atheist fan base, it is safe to assume Harris has changed his mind from a less popular position to a more popular position. Which would mean that Harris has good reasons to change his mind about the war on terror: a) it’s a minor thing that can be made to look like a significant change in mind so Harris can sell himself as being will to change his mind; b) it will probably cut down on the number of web sites and magazines criticizing Sam Harris; and c) it will probably result in a modest uptick in the number of people willing to buy a Sam Harris book.

3. Worldview. Harris is not only selling products, but he is selling a package deal. So here we need to resurrect our Iron Age notions to appreciate that Harris is selling a worldview that is the heart of his culture warring. How do I know? Speaking as an advocate, and not a scholar, he spelled it out back in 2006:

To win this war of ideas, scientists and other rational people will need to find new ways of talking about ethics and spiritual experience. The distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and non-ordinary states of consciousness from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being rigorous about what is reasonable to conclude on their basis. We must find ways of meeting our emotional needs that do not require the abject embrace of the preposterous. We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity — birth, marriage, death, etc. — without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality. (emphasis added)

So what happened since Harris laid out this vision? In 2007, he set up his think tank and in 2009, he received his PhD in Neuroscience. This would purchase authority and credibility for him when he set out to sell this “new way.” So he quickly turned down a career as a working neuroscientist, left academia, and began his quest. In 2011, he published his book, arguing that science can tell us what is right and wrong. In 2012, he published his book arguing there is no free will. And currently, he is working on a book about atheist spirituality – “ways of meeting our emotional needs that do not require the abject embrace of the preposterous.” Harris is not writing books about topics of curiosity. He is trying to craft a entire package, piece by piece, entitled, The Substitute For Religion (known to some of us observers as the Religion of Gnu).

So as you can see, Harris has been working on selling this ambitious, worldview package at least since 2006. It has always been intended as a replacement for religion. So along comes Dan Dennett. For Harris to be persuaded by Dennett, he would not only have to abandon a core plank in his worldview, but it would set back years of hard work and planning. His vision, his mission in life, is tied up in being right. It is no surprise he is so resistant to Dennett’s criticisms. On the other hand, Harris’s tactical opinions about the war on terror are not a core feature of his world view. A change of mind on that topic has no effect on Harris’s worldview package and does not in any way disrupt all his hard work and planning. From the perspective of his life’s mission, his opinion about the war on terror never mattered.

Summary: Harris proposes two counter-examples to Haidt’s observations about people changing their minds. The counter-examples fail as counter-examples. When you consider the factors of friendship, finances, and worldview, it becomes obvious why Harris would approach Dennett’s criticism as a hyped-up lawyer, while with Scahill, there was clearly less motivation to approach that particular topic in such fashion.

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2 Responses to When Even the Anecdotes Fail

  1. stcordova says:

    Thanks for this carefully researched article.

  2. Dhay says:

    I can give an example of Sam Harris changing his mind. In his 2009 PhD paper, an Ethical category statement that – reported by Shermer in “The Believing Brain” – he expected should elicit, not a ‘True’ or ‘False’, but an ‘it’s Uncertain’ response was “It is better to lie to a child than to an adult”.

    If you look at Harris’ recent “The High Cost of Tiny Lies” blog article, which emphasises that one should not lie to a child, you will find that (with the usual exceptional circumstances qualification, which would apply as well to an adult) he would nowadays judge that statement certainly ‘False’. So he has changed his mind between 2009 and November 2013.

    I’ll copy Michael in noting that Harris’ change of mind here is not major, just happens to be one which will improve his public image, and is one which gives him the opportunity to plug one of his books – see the book cover of his “Lying”, at the blog end.

    I note also that ‘not lying to children’, and Harris’ more general ‘not lying to anyone’ are human moral values, which his “Moral Landscape” claims science can determine; but there’s nothing in his blog to indicate that he has adopted these values based on anything scientific; so is he practicing what he preaches (or is he perhaps deceiving us)?

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