Defending Science From Sam Harris’s Attacks

What do you do if you are an activist who does not do science, but want your activism to be perceived as science so you can exploit the cultural authority of science to carry out your activist agenda? Well, you do what activist Sam Harris does – you attack “the narrow definition of science” by dumbing down the definition of science so it becomes nothing more than “adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence.”

Let’s consider how Harris attacks science. He begins by offering up a valid definition for science:

When such claims and their methods of verification admit of experiment and/or mathematical description, we tend to say that our concerns are “scientific”

Actually, to be science, such claims and methods mandate an experimental and/or mathematical description.
Harris wants to change this definition:

the observation of which is the sine qua non of the scientific attitude—is between demanding good reasons for what one believes and being satisfied with bad ones.

This is an attack on science. How so? Pay attention to Harris’s sleight of hand.

Harris is trying to discretely strip away the objective essense of science. It is the experimental and/or mathematical descriptions that root science in objectivity. They root science in measurements. Yet Harris wants to replace these requirements with the squishy criterion of “demanding good reasons for what one believes.” But how do we objectively determine whether a reason is “good” or not? Almost everyone out there thinks they have “good reasons” for what they believe. This is because the subjective judgment call of the “goodness” of a reason depends on things like perception, one’s personal tolerance for ambiguity, one’s cultural conditioning, one’s priorities and values, one’s worldview, etc.

Those of us who value science have an intellectual obligation to oppose Harris’s attempt to misrepresent science as something that can dispense with experimental and/or mathematical descriptions as long as someone has “good reasons” to take their place.

After sneakily dumbing-down the defintion of science, Harris begins to apply it:

The scientific attitude can handle whatever happens to be the case.

False. Science can only handle cases that can be measured. Consider one, simple, mundane example – Richard Dawkins claims it is the case that he was sexually molested as a child. Can science handle this? Can it tell us whether or not this is the case? If you insist that it can, then do it. Use science to determine whether or not it is the case that Dawkins was molested. After all, “the scientific attitude can handle whatever happens to be the case.”

Harris then tries to apply one of his choke holds:

Indeed, if the evidence for the inerrancy of the Bible and the resurrection of Jesus Christ were good, one could embrace the doctrine of fundamentalist Christianity scientifically. The problem, of course, is that the evidence is either terrible or nonexistent—hence the partition we have erected (in practice, never in principle) between science and religion.

This is nonsense. To see this, simply ask Harris (or someone like him) the following question: Well then, what type of data would count as scientific evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ? If the problem is that the evidence is either terrible or nonexistent, Harris should be able to imagine the contrary – situations where the evidence was not terrible or nonexistent. As we know, Harris would struggle mightily with the question. If he used the intellectually honest definition of science – claims and their methods of verification that require experiment and/or mathematical description – Harris would be incapable of designing an experiment to determine if Jesus rose from the dead. Thus, he would have to retreat into his dumbed-down definition of science, insisting there “are no good reasons to believe Jesus rose from the dead.” But once he did that, it would become clear he was merely expressing his own personal opinion. Do we really want science to become the same as popular opinion?

Confusion on this point has spawned many strange ideas about the nature of human knowledge and the limits of “science.”

The only confusion that exists is the confusion of the man who abandoned science to head Project Reason and preach science is nothing more than coming up with “good reasons” for your beliefs.

Harris then ends with this attack on science:

The remedy for all this confusion is simple: We must abandon the idea that science is distinct from the rest of human rationality.

There is something distinct about science – it ties itself closely to experimental and mathematical demonstration. This is what makes it different and this is what has given science its track record of success. It is also the very thing that imposes limitations on science – claims that cannot be experimentally or mathematically probed are beyond the reach of science. Harris wants to strip away this limitation because he has a socio-political and metaphysical agenda. He desperately wants to frame his “good reasons” as science. But in stripping away the limitations of science, Harris strips away the very thing that has given science its power and thus constitutes an assault on science.

When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.

More subjective mush. Who gets to decide whether the “highest standards of logic and evidence” are in play? Clearly, whether or not those “highest standards” are being employed will be a matter of opinion. For example, would anyone really be surprised if Harris claimed a Richard Dawkins argument adhered to the “the highest standards of logic and evidence” while insisting that an Alvin Plantinga argument did not? We all know exactly how such “adherence” claims play out.

Harris, who spends most of his day practicing his martial arts, meditating, reading, and writing, wants all this to be perceived as science. That way, he can posture as a “scientist” when advocating for his activist agenda while cashing in on the atheist movement. Going into the lab, developing a testable hypothesis, doing the actual experiments, analyzing the data, well, that’s all superfluous fluff when compared to Sam sitting in his armchair using the “highest standards of logic and evidence” to pound out another chapter for one of his money-making books.

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8 Responses to Defending Science From Sam Harris’s Attacks

  1. Dhay says:

    The roofer in this story Sam Harris tells meets Harris’ standard for being a scientist — “he was thinking just like one.”

    You awaken to find water pouring through the ceiling of your bedroom. Imagining that you have a gaping hole in your roof, you immediately call the man who installed it. The roofer asks, “Is it raining where you live?” Good question. In fact, it hasn’t rained for months. Is this roofer a scientist? Not technically, but he was thinking just like one. Empiricism and logic reveal that your roof is not the problem.
    http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/clarifying-the-landscape

    Note, however that the “You” in this story doesn’t meet Harris’ standard for being a scientist, but fails to ask the blindingly obvious question of how it could possibly be rainwater coming through “your” roof when it is not raining, and in fact ” it hasn’t rained for months”: whoever “You” is,in this story, they are very far from using those “highest standards of logic and evidence” which Harris says characterise scientific thinking, and are evidently not far off moron level.

    The question is, who exactly is the “You” protagonist in this story? Is Harris here insulting his readers by suggesting they might demonstrate such poor “standards of logic and evidence” that they would fail to reason, when faced with water poring through a hypothetical ceiling, that the pouring water cannot possibly be rainwater if “it hasn’t rained for months”; or is he, as Chapter 1 of “Waking Up” indicates he might be, relating a story which actually happened to him, with the dimwit he pictures as incapable of the basic standards of logic and evidence which would, at a somewhat higher level, characterise scientific thinking, being in fact himself.

  2. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris > Indeed, if the evidence for the inerrancy of the Bible and the resurrection of Jesus Christ were good, one could embrace the doctrine of fundamentalist Christianity scientifically. The problem, of course, is that the evidence is either terrible or nonexistent—hence the partition we have erected (in practice, never in principle) between science and religion.

    Notice Harris moves from talking about Fundamentalist Christianity only, to an unsupported conclusion about religion — not just Christianity as a whole, but religion as a whole. (Which if you think about it, includes Harris’ Buddhism, hence no doubt the qualifier, “never in principle”.) Religion as a whole is written off as invalid because of a claim specific to Fundamentalists, and which works, insofar as it does work, against Fundamentalists alone.

    Harris does something similar in one of his lectures, one about fear of death: there’s the probably specious claim that Fundamentalists need Creationism because without literalism, the Resurrection might not be literal, and they might never see their loved ones again; so “fear of death” is the alleged primary motivation behind Christian Fundamentalism — which (watch the cups carefully) he slides into, really, all Christians are Christians only because if they didn’t ‘believe’ they wouldn’t cope with the death of little Johnny.

    Seems to me that Harris (also Coyne, etc) is delusional if he can come out with the idea that Christianity, let alone religion in general, can be dismissed with claims targeted at Fundamentalists. Perhaps Harris realises they are lies, but justifies them because he is, as he puts it, “using rather rhetorical language”, which presumably doesn’t count as lying for Harris.

    Real-life Christians are a much more difficult target to hit than Fundamentalists, so it’s no real surprise that New Atheists like Harris and Jerry Coyne detest non-Fundies — or as Coyne calls them, “”moderates””, “accommodationists” or “sophisticated(tm) theologians” — because Fundies are easy targets but the regular Christian responders here, for example, or non-New atheist Eric MacDonald, or “accommodatheists” like Elliott Sober are not easy targets.

    Back in 2005, in his blog entry entitled, “Selling out Science”, Harris wrote:

    If Jesus ever returns to earth trailing clouds of glory, Christianity will stand revealed as a science, and every scientist in his right mind will bow down before the savior of the world in awe.

    http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/selling-out-science

    (This has similarities to Raphael Lataster’s recent idiosyncratic redefinition of religion, which entails: “While a little more advantageous, my definition is still not without its problems. It still entails that, if scientifically proven to be veridical, a religion is no longer a religion.”)

    I think Harris (and Jerry Coyne, with his 900′ Jesus) would probably be right about the awe. But no, Christianity would not then stand revealed as a science; as Michael points out, there’s a lot, lot more to science than a one-off startling event.

    Even than a predicted one-off startling event.

  3. Kevin says:

    Sam Harris says Christianity will stand revealed as a science. That says everything you need to know about Sam Harris being mired in scientism. Christianity would not be revealed as science, it would be revealed as TRUTH. Harris can’t tell the difference.

  4. Dhay says:

    > What do you do if you are an activist who does not do science, but want your activism to be perceived as science so you can exploit the cultural authority of science to carry out your activist agenda?

    A recent paper entitled, “Explaining the alluring influence of neuroscience information on scientific reasoning”, has looked at the effect on readers of including mentions of neuroscience. The abstract (summary) says:

    Previous studies have investigated the influence of neuroscience information or images on ratings of scientific evidence quality but have yielded mixed results. We examined the influence of neuroscience information on evaluations of flawed scientific studies after taking into account individual differences in scientific reasoning skills, thinking dispositions, and prior beliefs about a claim. We found that neuroscience information, even though irrelevant, made people believe they had a better understanding of the mechanism underlying a behavioral phenomenon. Neuroscience information had a smaller effect on ratings of article quality and scientist quality. Our study suggests that neuroscience information may provide an illusion of explanatory depth.
    [My emphases.]

    http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/a0036844

    It’s behind a paywall, but fortunately the New Scientist dated 16 May 2015 briefly comments on the paper in its drily witty ‘Feedback’ page. The researchers presented volunteers, 54% of whom claimed to have taken a university statistics course, with a fake and deliberately flawed study into whether listening to music while studying was beneficial for learning — the flaw was the faked experimental subjects were in self-selected groups, so that those who liked listening to music while studying could select themselves to be in the ‘listening while studying’ group, and vice versa.

    (‘Feedback’ had fun with the fact that 34% of these volunteers, 54% of whom claimed to have taken a university statistics course, didn’t spot the faked study’s fatal flaw; ‘Feedback’ wondered what the overlap had been between university-level statistics training and actual statistics incompetence.)

    The researchers introduced the faked and flawed study to two groups of volunteers, with an irrelevant mere mention of neuroscience — no neuroscience whatsoever was involved in the faked study — to one group, and a (slightly less irrelevant?) mere mention that people like to listen to music while reading to the other group, the control.

    What they found was that of the two groups, both examining the same faked study, those who had encountered that initial mention of neuroscience rated the faked study’s faked researcher slightly higher than those in the control group did. The previous similar studies of the persuasiveness (and false persuasiveness — “seductive detail” and “illusion of explanatory depth”) of mentioning neuroscience irrelevantly had given mixed results, said the paper’s authors, and I suppose this rightly counts as just yet another of the mixed results, therefore interesting but not conclusive regarding just whether mentioning (even irrelevant) neuroscience improves the perceived quality of the researcher, or by much.

    But this paper was different from the others. It looked not only — as just mentioned — at whether or not a mere mention of the word, “neuroscience”, boosted the mentioner in the eyes of the reader, it also looked at whether a mere mention of the word, “neuroscience”, affected the readers’ ability to detect flaws in the scientific evidence presented to them. And here there was a major effect: those who had read a mere mention of the word, “neuroscience”, were “2.3 times more likely to claim to understand the mechanism behind the claim about music and learning” than those who hadn’t seen the word, “neuroscience” in the introduction.

    One assumes that those same people who thought they understood the mechanism were also the people who didn’t spot the fatal flaw which invalidated the whole faked study.

    What do we learn from this? That just mentioning “neuroscience” gives the reader false confidence that an argument is correct when it most certainly isn’t, and also pretty much destroys their ability to think rationally and critically.

    Presumably similar results would be found if “neuroscience” were mentioned before or during an argument about free will, or about the possibility of determining what is moral by scientific experiment, about whether meditation is good for you, or about whether you should risk your mental health by taking LSD as a “taster” for meditation.

    Presumably the same effects apply when opposing science to religion; perhaps a mere mention of “science” will be found to dull the reader’s ability to think rationally and critically; the celebrity New Atheists are mostly scientists, is that a coincidence — does, “Jerry Coyne, Evolutionary Biologist”, or Richard Dawkins…, or PZ Meyers…, or Victor Stenger… — does the word, “scientist” not just on their acolytes’ hostlity to Christianity and to religion in general, but also disable the acolytes’ critical faculties?

    Back to the begining: > What do you do if you are an activist who does not do science, but want your activism to be perceived as science so you can exploit the cultural authority of science to carry out your activist agenda?

    Use the well known “white lab coat” effect: introduce your article as by, “Sam Harris, Neuroscientist and…”, and immediately your readers become 2.3 times less able to spot the flaws in your argument.

  5. Clay says:

    Sam (Harris) would probably concur, however, with the salient points made by philosopher Kai Nielsen in his 1975 paper, “Metaphysics and Verificationism Revisited” (Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, 1975). This paper is a bit hard to obtain (at least w/o paying a bit through-the-nose (as we say) for it), but I have a pdf. of it. It’d behoove you to read it. (And if I may, I’m going to post this comment on one of your more recent blog-posts as well. Email me if you’d like the pdf of Nielsen’s paper. It behoove you to read other works of Nielsen as well.)

    Best wishes…Ciao

  6. Michael says:

    I was responding to what Harris actually wrote.

  7. Clay says:

    Yes, right, Michael, I understand & appreciate that. And that’s certainly a good thing to do: That is, critically analyzing what Harris (and/or Dawkins, or whomever…) actually _says_. I merely mention Nielsen’s (and also Elliott Sober’s) work to point out that there’re still salient (or cogent, or even sound, if you will) philosophical (metaphysical and/or epistemological/methodological) points that atheists make that it’d behoove you to eventually look-into and address in your blog.

    Keep on keepin’ on…Best wishes…

    Ciao…

  8. Dhay says:

    Clay > Sam (Harris) would probably concur, however, with the salient points made by philosopher Kai Nielsen in his 1975 paper, “Metaphysics and Verificationism Revisited” …

    “… probably concur …”? It’s hard to decide from the Harris books,blog posts, podcasts and videos what philosophical position Harris might or might not take on Verificationism.

    From his The Moral Landscape we can deduce Harris is a Pragmatist; and statements such as …

    Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.

    http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-mystery-of-consciousness

    … indicate a tendency towards Idealism — I suspect from his history it will be the Buddhist Yogacara version; Harris has written about both lying and why we and he shouldn’t, and on free will, but those writings are hardly likely to touch on Verificationism; and I rarely listen to his podcasts or videos, but I doubt he would care to bore his listeners with serious philosophy.

    So whatever gems of Harris’ philosophical wisdom indicate concurrence with Verificationism escape me thus far; and they are going to continue to escape me until and unless you provide the relevant Harris book names and page numbers, links to blog posts (provide a quote, please), or weblinks to podcasts or videos, complete with start and end times.

    It’s not completely cut and dried, of course, these things seldom are. Harris has argued that we can know for sure that we have neither self nor free will simply by looking — does that count as support by Harris for Verificationism? Would Kai Nielsen probably concur? Or Elliott Sober?

    If that does not count as support by Harris for Verificationism, what of Harris’ does? And if nothing, why that “probably”.

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