The internet is full of self-promoters. Either they are trying to make money or trying to jockey for a lead position in some movement (or both). Some of the self-promoters try to make themselves look like more of an expert or scholar than they are. I’ll call this scholariness. This is because they know that if others view them as a scholar or expert, they will be perceived as an authority. And such perception enhances their efforts at self-promotion, and/or the promotion of their social and/or political agenda.
For example, imagine there is some guy named George Hershey who has become obsessed with changing the country’s tax policies. Let’s say that George has a B.S. in Economics, works as a realtor, and has set up a web page to promote his political views and ideas about taxation. Problem is that George Hershey is just another guy with a college degree and an opinion about taxes. He needs something more. So George promotes himself as “Professor of Public Policy, The Institute of Eco-Analysis.” Yet it turns out that George created The Institute of Eco-Analysis and runs it from his basement computer and he is a professor in the sense that he sells tapes of himself lecturing about taxes and other things. This is scholariness.
Keep in mind that George may actually be quite knowledgeable about taxes, as it is something he likes to read up on. Nevertheless, what makes it scholariness is that he tries to create the perception that he is more of a scholar/expert than he is. He knows that when the average person reads or hears he is Professor of Public Policy, The Institute of Eco-Analysis, they will assume he is a professor at some university or some government institution. They will thus see him as an authority. And if his readers happen to agree with his position and arguments, they will want to see him as an authority. They will become followers and defenders.
What’s more, the internet is a big place, and some of George’s readers may themselves be self-promoters who advocate for the same thing. Next thing you know, they all begin to network and some join The Institute of Eco-Analysis. They might even set up some type of publication, “The Journal of Analytical Taxation,” where internet postings can now look like scholarly publications. Scholariness is now enhanced, as the average reader will get the impression that with all the collaboration and shared technical talk among the “experts,” the Institute and its publication must be a serious academic entity. Yet all you really have are a bunch of misfits who have found a way to make themselves appear more authoritative than they really are.
Since none of us want to be hoodwinked by people who are not quite what they say they are, here are some tips for detecting scholariness. Do not get distracted by the “scholars” or “scholarly groups” ability to mimic scholarship with technical jargon or fancy pants arguments. Look for the following:
- Is the “scholar” a professor at a mainstream university or college and is he/she talking about an issue that would fall under his area of expertise?
- Is the “scholar” heavily promoting himself ?
- Does the “scholar” have a political and/or social agenda?
If the answers are No, Yes, and Yes, then I would say there is a very strong chance you are dealing with scholariness.
Let me recount my first experience with scholariness among the Gnu atheists. It was back in 2007 and the “scholar” in question what none other than Sam Harris. I knew about him being a Gnu and had heard some of his arguments repeated on the web, but I did not know much about his background and experience. Back then, he described himself on his website as follows:
He is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and has studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions, along with a variety of contemplative disciplines, for twenty years. Mr. Harris is completing a doctorate in neuroscience.
This description was then copied and pasted on dozens of web pages at the time. While this is all technically true, the wording gave me the impression that Harris got a graduate degree from Stanford and then used this training to objectively study various religions. That is, he was a graduate of Stanford who has been studying religion for two decades ever since. With this carefully crafted wording, Harris made himself sound as if he was part of academia.
But this was a false impression. I then ran across the following article from the Washington Post that brought more clarity to Harris’ biography:
What he’ll say is this: At age 19, he and a college friend tried MDMA, better known as ecstasy, and the experience altered his view of the role that love could play in the world. (“I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively.”) He dropped out of Stanford, where he was an English major, in his sophomore year and started to study Buddhism and meditation. He flew around the country and around the world, to places such as India and Nepal, often for silent retreats that went on for months. One of his teachers was Sharon Salzberg, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. Harris stood out, she recalls, not just because of his relative youth — everyone else was a generation older — but because of his intensity.
“His passion was for deep philosophical questions, and he could talk for hours and hours,” Salzberg recalls. “Sometimes you’d want to say to him, ‘What about the Yankees?’ or ‘Look at the leaves, they’re changing color!’ ” At the time, he was supported financially by his mother, though he did work for one memorable three-week stint in the security detail assigned to the Dalai Lama.
“You walk into a room and everyone is beaming good vibes,” he recalls, “and I’m looking for dangerous lunatics. I wouldn’t recommend it.”
During his 11-year dropout phase, Harris read hundreds of books on religion, many of which are listed in the lengthy bibliography of “The End of Faith.” His interests eventually turned to philosophy of the mind, which led him to re-enroll at Stanford in 1997, this time to study philosophy. He wrote a lot before and after he got his diploma, but nothing was published.
Okay, so when Harris said he was a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and had studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions, along with a variety of contemplative disciplines, for twenty years, what this really meant was that Harris got high, dropped out of college, and got his mom to support him as he traveled the world to “study” religions (which included a stint as a body guard) for a decade. In fact, as part of his studies, Sharon Salzberg served as his teacher. After all this “study,” he then went back and got is degree (BA?) in philosophy.
This is scholariness. His “study” was not academic, but personal. His degree did not make him some expert on religion. His “research” had nothing to do with his being a “graduate” of Stanford. Yet his bio was worded in a way to make it appear otherwise. Why? Because it served the purpose of his self-promotion.
Of course, since then, Harris did get his PhD in 2009. Does this mean he is now a scholar and part of academia, or is it just another notch in his belt for his self-promotion and scholariness? Did he get his PhD in neuroscience because of his love for neuroscience or because he wanted the authority of being perceived as a neuroscientist?
Well, what has he done since getting his PhD five years ago? Most people who love the science would seek out a post-doc or teaching position, so they can remain immersed in the field. Now I suppose this could be true of Harris, but his web page does not mention any such thing. On his page, he lists all his writings, including his two science papers from doing his PhD, but there is no mention of any further research papers. I would think someone doing a post-doc would have published something else since 2009.
However, he has been busy with other things. He set up “Project Reason”, “a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.” Translation – he set up his own think tank! He even made himself “CEO” of his own private think tank. Imagine that. Sam Harris, PhD, CEO of Project Reason. It must make his rube fans tingle all over. And he has been a busy bee writing articles for web pages and newspapers advocating for his “secular values.” Apparently, spreading scientific knowledge includes such articles as “Honesty: The Muslim World’s Scarcest Resource?” and “A New Year’s Resolution for the Rich.” He even found time to write three more popular books, one which advanced the pseudoscientific notion that science can establish what is right and wrong, and his new one insists drug use gives us a better understanding of our reality.
I have to wonder. Even back before he got his PhD, Harris used to charge $25,000 for the privilege of hearing him speak:
Cut to today: A friend would love to have Sam Harris come speak on campus for his college atheist group. He contacted an agency representing Harris and inquired how much it would cost. The representative’s response:
Sam’s fee is $25,000 which includes airfare. We would ask the sponsor to provide transportation to and from the airport, onsite meals, and hotel (up to 2 nights).
So after they pull together the $25,000, they would still need to put up for lodging/food/cabfare. Not surprisingly, the group doesn’t have that type of money. So the friend kindly responded that this amount was “unrealistic” for his group to raise, but thanked the rep for her time.
Now that his scholariness can be propped up with a newly minted PhD, has his fee gone up? Who knows? But I did find this on a forum at Harris’s own web site:
Does anyone have any info on what steps should be taken to host Dr. Sam Harris as a guest speaker? Last month, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson came to Mississippi State University and gave a presentation highlighting the last ten years of advances in astrophysics, and it was a great success. My friend and I, also a Project Reason forum member, conjecture that if a scientist as renowned as Dr. Tyson was so well received, Dr. Harris would be as well. Any information or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
A “Mr V” replies:
Step 1. Cough up a $ 50,000 speaking fee.
[cough] $50,000!? I wonder if that is true?
Even more hilarious is the following thread for his site:
FIrst, I’m not asking this in doubt of Project Reason being active. It may be, and I just don’t see it.
That being said…well, I don’t see Project Reason being active in doing much of anything. The video contest garners a small amount of attention online, but otherwise, I don’t see much of a presence anywhere of Project Reason doing anything to reach its secular goals.
It seems to me that with the caliber of people on the advisory board, Project Reason could be a very visible force in the world (and media) helping promote secularism. I see people like Ricky Gervais, Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Steven Weinberg, and Salman Rushdie on the board, yet I don’t think I’ve EVER heard any of them even mention Project Reason.
Again, I could be wrong, but if I’m not, then isn’t it about time Project Reason became active in acheiving its goals?
I’m not referring to the forum (and it’s few active members). I mean Project Reason as an organization. Sam created it, but I don’t see it doing much.
A reply from a senior member of the group:
The simplest answer is that it doesn’t do much.
And then this reply:
There’s the Project Reason site which mostly consists of articles of interest, news updates, and projects, plus you can sign up for Sam’s Blog and get notified of special interest articles he’s written, interviews, book reviews, etc. All that is different from the discussion forum here in which we actively participate.
LOL! The rubes haven’t figured out that Project Reason is little more than a Sam Harris Fan Club.
Scholariness sells when there are enough suckers around.