Is Sam Harris Lying?

We have seen that two weeks after losing his email debate with Noam Chomsky, Sam Harris is still concerned about it, leading to him upload a podcast where he can have the last, last word (the first “last word” came in his postscript).

In the podcast, Harris essentially denies he lost the debate because, well, y’see, he wasn’t even having a debate. Harris tells us it was all part of experiment/project to see if people could have “conversations” with their ideological opponents.

Here are some key exceprts from Harris’s podcast:

1:27 – “I’ve been experimenting by reaching out to people to have difficult conversations.

At 2:11, he wants to “draw a distinction between conversation and a debate.”

At 2:27, he says a debate is “an incredibly counterproductive way to frame any inquiry into what is true.”

At 2:48, he says “my dialog with Maajid was not a debate, it was rather a conversation. And on the heels of that success, I decided to attempt a similar project with Noam Chomsky”

At 3:35, he complains many people misunderstood his intentions and mistakenly think the “conversation failed because [Harris ]arrogantly challenged Chomsky to a debate.”

At 4:35, Harris says, “Anyone who thinks I lost a debate doesn’t understand what I was trying to do…..I really was trying to have a productive conversation with Chomsky.”

Harris then begins to complain how mean Chomsky was and spends the rest of his time trying to win the debate after it has been over for two weeks.

Note that Harris never explicitly denies he was debating, but I think if you listen to the first 5 minutes of his podcast, and consider the above excerpts, it’s pretty clear that is indeed how he is trying to frame the incident.

One problem. Sam Harris uses Twitter. And on 4/23/15, he made it crystal clear he was out to debate Noam Chomsky (HT to Al):

“I am trying to arrange a debate with Noam Chomsky.”

Not only was he trying to arrange a debate, he wanted his followers to retweet his message, apparently to create a public demand for such a debate that he could eventually use to leverage a challenge to Chomsky.
That Tweet sure makes it look like all his talk about just wanting to have a conversation was/is deception and misdirection.

What’s more, check out his first email he posted on his blog, dated 4/26:

Noam —

I reached out to you indirectly through Lawrence Krauss and and was planning to leave it at that, but a reader has now sent me a copy of an email exchange in which you were quite dismissive of the prospect of having a “debate” with me. So I just wanted to clarify that, although I think we might disagree substantially about a few things, I am far more interested in exploring these disagreements, and clarifying any misunderstandings, than in having a conventional debate.

Consider just how dishonest this looks. Note how he places square quotes around the word debate, creating the impression that it was Chomsky’s idea they were to have a debate. Yet on 4/23, he encouraged his followers to help him “arrange a debate with Noam Chomsky.” Since he was the one trying to arrange a debate, why does he put scare quotes around the word debate in his email?

And contrast the ending with this tweet:

To his fans on 4/23: I’m trying to arrange a debate with Noam Chomsky ….Please RT if you want that to happen

To Chomsky on 4/26: I am far more interested in exploring these disagreements, and clarifying any misunderstandings, than in having a conventional debate.

Looks to me like he was lying to Chomsky.

Which is all the more interesting given that Harris sells a short book about lying:

HOBSON: Sam Harris’ new book is “Lying.” It argues that all lies, big or small, political or not, are bad. And Sam Harris, I want to ask you to remember a lie that you have told because we’ve all told some kind of lie.

HARRIS: When I took this course at 18, I was really transformed at the end of this, and so I – from then on I have consciously avoided lying. And I’ve done a pretty good job of it. I’m sure I’ve told lies, but they’ve been somewhat inadvertent, where I’ll just stumble upon saying something, which I then notice is not quite true, but it’s just too much of a hassle or too awkward to correct it in the flow of the conversation.

If you ask me, Harris “consciously avoiding lying” looks more like well discplined denial.

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13 Responses to Is Sam Harris Lying?

  1. Fake Herzog says:

    I don’t understand why everyone thinks Chomsky “won” the debate — Chomsky has always come across as a foolish blowhard who thinks the West can do no right and the poor, benighted third world people are pure of heart and can do no wrong. So for example, in that ‘debate’ Chomsky cites some study about the effects of the Oil for Food program on the Iraqi people which I don’t believe for a second given that (a) Saddam controlled all the information getting out of Iraq; (b) and even if it was 100% true, the moral blame for the Iraqi people’s suffering would still be Saddam for violating the terms of his surrender after the invasion of Kuwait.

    But for Chomsky, Saddam is some sort of hero for standing up to the West, or the West has no right to meddle in the affairs of other countries because we have blood on our hands, or something. He is just as morally bankrupt as any Gnu Atheist.

  2. UpstateIslandersFan says:

    @ FakeHerzog…I’m not sure it can be said either side won the debate. If I remember correctly – Chomsky seemed to be arguing that the U.S. government was aware of the damaging impact on public health that would be caused by the airstrike on the Sudanese plant. He seemed to be arguing that the damage would be disproportionate for the achievement of its target – which was to destroy Al Qaeda operatives. Where I think Harris really went off the rails where he asked Chomsky to imagine a scenario of a benevolent Al Qaeda going after U.S. pharmaceutical plants because it believed there was some type of contamination that would harm Americans and that causing collateral damage. His analogy didn’t even seem close to the particular scenario at hand in intention and target. After all, the U.S. was trying to – for lack of better term – avenge the embassy attacks. I thought it was one obnoxious pseudo-intellectual blowhard (Harris) arguing with a boring – albeit more humane – blowhard (Chomsky).

  3. Michael says:

    I don’t understand why everyone thinks Chomsky “won” the debate — Chomsky has always come across as a foolish blowhard who thinks the West can do no right and the poor, benighted third world people are pure of heart and can do no wrong.

    Actually, I agree with you. Chomsky didn’t win the debate. Like PZ Myers described it, Harris just knocked himself out with his own punches.

  4. Dhay says:

    Here’s a snippet about psilocybin, from Sam Harris’ July 04, 2011 (Revised 2014) blog post entitled, “Drugs and the Meaning of Life”:

    Some drugs of extraordinary power and utility, such as psilocybin (the active compound in “magic mushrooms”) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), pose no apparent risk of addiction and are physically well-tolerated…

    Note how slippery Harris is, here — “physically well-tolerated”. That they are not mentally well-tolerated, as this report of a study into the effects of taking Psilocybin confirm:

    … this is a strictly do-not-try-this-at-home experiment, MacLean [the researcher] cautioned. The participants in the study were under close supervision during their session with the drug. Psychological support and preparation helped keep bad trips to a minimum, but many participants still reported fear, anxiety and distress after taking psilocybin.

    “I could see how in an unsupervised setting, if that sort of fear or anxiety set in, the classic bad trip, it could be pretty dangerous,” MacLean said, adding that the risk of unsupervised usage outweighs any potential reward.

    So what’s Harris doing recommending psilocybin and LSD, even to his own beloved daughters (so his readers these drugs must be safe to take, mustn’t they!)? Harris must know of the risks — he does know the risks, which is why he himself never takes them nowadays or for for the last couple of decades.

    (And he has never so much as tried DMT, despite claiming it is super-safe: one wonders why; perhaps he is afraid the wise aliens or elves he would expect to encounter will tell him meditation and Buddhist lack of self are bullshit.)

    I strongly suspect Harris is asking his readers to put themselves at risk because ingesting these two drugs increases openness to new experiences — such as the Buddhist meditation and Buddhist philosophy of no-self which Bodhisattva Sam Harris evangelises to his readers.

    When Harris claims that “psilocybin … and LSD … are physically well-tolerated”, is he using his always prominently mentioned neuroscience qualifications to make himself appear an authority to be trusted; is he deliberately pulling the wool over the eyes of his probably New Atheist and science-worshipping readers; is Harris, to put the matter bluntly, lying.

  5. Dhay says:

    > At 2:48, he says “my dialog with Maajid [Nawaz] was not a debate, it was rather a conversation. And on the heels of that success, I decided to attempt a similar project with Noam Chomsky”

    “Not a debate”; a “success”; “a similar project with Noam Chomsky”:

    Harris’ opinion that this was not a debate is not shared by those who provide the book’s pre-publication Editorial Reviews (ie the puffs or blurbs solicited from friendly reviewers or carefully snipped from less friendly independent reviews): “… the authors lay it all out and set the rest of us a great example: that an incisive debate on Islam between a believer and a non-believer is attainable.” — Ayaan Hirsi Ali; “I hope that this debate will be a fruitful endeavor, and illustrate …” — Sheikh Dr. Usama Hasan; “… perhaps now, as Maajid Nawaz locks horns with Sam Harris … enjoy a flavor of those great debates between rival scholars that were once staged for the entertainment of the Caliph in Baghdad.” — Tom Holland.

    Friendly reviewer Steven Pinker refers to the “not a debate, it was rather a conversation” as a dialogue; the Kirkus Reviews says it was written as a “”dialogue” rather than a debate” — the quotation marks lead me to suspect that the reviewer is just quoting Harris here, but the reviewer then says “The exchange is civil and marked by mutual respect, more informative (particularly from the latter [ie Nawaz]) than argumentative”. So it ends up that three reviewers are clear it was a debate, compared with two that it was a conversation or civil exchange. The second independent review, from Ray Olsen Booklist, is a mere three-word snipped fragment telling us nothing.

    The reason it was a “success” for Sam Harris is that Harris is a journalist and author by profession (not the neuroscientist he professes to be), and based on this debate or conversation Harris has co-authored with Nawaz a book soon to be published, called Islam and the Future of Tolerance; that is, it looks like it might well be a commercial success for Harris.

    It was also a “success” for Harris because, on this occasion, Harris managed not to pull his usual trick of deliberate provocation, followed by acrimonious complaints that it’s the provoked person who is out of order when they respond to the provocation. Actually, it looks like Harris did pull the, er, “surprising” deliberate baiting provocation part, for <Kirkus tells us “Even when Harris offers a surprising semidefense of the Crusades, Nawaz refuses to take the bait, seeming more concerned with promoting understanding than winning points”; so Harris did have one of his usual funny moments, and it was Nawaz who succeeded in avoiding the looming Harris debate train wreck.

    (I suspect that Harris baits when he is losing an argument, when he wants out of it; the rest is bluster and distraction.)

    The idea that Harris and Nawaz were or are ideological opponents is perhaps exaggerated: “The two agree on far more than they don’t, seeing pluralism and secularism as the paths to tolerance and condemning “liberal apologists [who equate] any criticism of Islamic doctrines with bigotry, ‘Islamophobia’ or even ‘racism.’ ” Those are the words of Harris, frequently tagged as such for his criticisms of Islamic violence. Nawaz calls such apologists “regressive leftists” and “reverse racists.””; there’s plainly a lot of overlap of their views including a common perceived enemy, a common wish to get their views publicised, and a common wish to get published.

    The “similar project” that Harris wanted to attempt with Chomsky would have been an even greater success, of course; assuming Harris had, implausibly, been able to carry it off, it would have been a similar commercial success, another book sales opportunity, one with the Big Man’s name on the relative unknown’s book.

  6. Dhay says:

    > At 2:48, he says “my dialog with Maajid [Nawaz] was not a debate, it was rather a conversation.

    Yeah, yeah; in Sam Harris’ 17 February 2015 blog post entitled “The Chapel Hill Murders and ‘Militant’ Atheism” he said (in his podcast and its transcript) that much of it has the character of a debate:

    I’m writing this book with Maajid Nawaz—no doubt many of you are familiar with who he is. He’s a former Islamist and now a Muslim-reformer—brilliant, interesting, indispensable—who I now consider to be a friend. He wasn’t a friend before this collaboration because we didn’t know each other, but now I consider him a friend, and actually a personal hero. He is just an immensely courageous man. So he and I are collaborating on this book, the title of which is Islam and the Future of Tolerance. And, as you’ll see, much of it has the character of a debate, where I push somewhat hard on specific ideas within Islam, and he tells me how these ideas are susceptible to more benign interpretations so as to move Islam forward into the 21st century.

    I don’t know whether Harris would consider he has told an untruth in either of these quotes, but I note that for him the truth has changed somewhat in the interval.


    Why have I linked via the WayBack Machine’s internet archive? It’s because on 13 October 2015 Harris’ blog was temporarily inaccessible for administrative purposes, and it has now reappeared with an updated design, and with some of the original blog posts absent — this is one of them; it will be interesting to see whether the absences are but a website designer’s oversight — repeated copy/paste must be tedious and error-prone — and an oversight soon to be corrected, or whether this and other absent blog posts will continue removed.

  7. Dhay says:

    Update on my postscript: looks like no blog posts have been removed, just moved; the ‘missing’ blog posts are those that were podcasts, or which included podcasts alongside the text and are now classified as podcasts; you will find them under the ‘Podcast’ tag, though to see earlier podcasts such as the 2011 “Drugs and the Meaning of Life” you will need to then click on ‘All Posts’.

    A good website design, I think, once that initial unfamiliarity has been overcome.

  8. Dhay says:

    I note that the New York Times‘s Irshad Manji has written a Sunday Book Review of two books: Islam and the Future of Tolerance; a Dialogue by Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris, and Not in God’s Name; Confronting Religious Violence by Jonathan Sacks.

    Manji approves of the Nawaz-Harris “honest yet affectionate exchange” — exchange — though I also note that “Frankly, though, Harris seems distracted by another agenda. He is listening to reply rather than to understand …”, which accords with the impression I have had of Harris’ other exchanges and “exchanges”.

    Is it just my imagination, or does Manji conclude or imply that the winner of the Nawaz-Harris exchange was … was Jonathan Sacks.


    There’s a couple of interesting asides in the review, too: “In 2005, the prominent “new atheist” Richard Dawkins shouted his disapproval at me [Manji] — from the audience — during my TED talk at Oxford University.”; so Dawkins is not the mild, well-mannered gentleman of public perception, and hasn’t been since long before he learned to back-stab his own image on Twitter.

    And, “Even secularism’s better angels have trouble defeating the tribal mind-set. Last year, I attended a Sam Harris event where a crush of fans trailed him, mob-like, around the venue. Oy.”; so yes, more evidence of ‘Sam Harris, media personality’.

  9. Dhay says:

    In his November 11, 2015 blog post entitled “The New York Times reviews books by Rabbi Sacks and Sam Harris/Maajid Nawaz” Jerry Coyne reviews the above review — and of course takes exception to the section on (formerly Chief) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

    Coyne quotes reviewer Irshad Manji several times, including this interesting observation:

    Here’s just one more unthoughtful observation [from Manji]:

    Sacks concludes that decency toward the misfit, even to the infidel, takes precedence over loyalty to your own. This should hearten Sam Harris, who despises the tendency of Muslims (and others) to stick up for fellow believers, especially when they act like “psychopaths.” Still, I have to wonder if Harris and his disciples will put stock in any reinterpretation, no matter how learned. After all, Harris opines that to reform religion is to read scripture in “the most acrobatic” terms. Sacks turns the tables on such skepticism, observing that “fundamentalists and today’s atheists” both ignore “the single most important fact about a sacred text, namely that its meaning is not self-evident.”

    If I read this right, Manji accuses Harris of being as Biblical-literal as any Christian fundamentalist; we should really expect this, because Harris’ own The Neural Correlates … research, carried out on experimental subjects carefully selected via a determinedly applied two-stage process to be at either the Christian fundamentalist extreme of the religious/atheist divide or else at his own extreme, can readily be interpreted as showing primarily that the brains of Christian fundamentalists and the brains of Harris-type strong atheists (“fundie atheists”, as the common jibe goes) look alike. In layman’s language, Harris and Christian fundamentalists think alike.

    If I read Coyne right in the following, he disagrees with Harris that a Biblical-literal approach can be correct; for Coyne, sacred texts are either too malleably (“infinitely malleable”) interpretable to decide what they mean — indeed capable of being interpreted any way you like — or they are each “a work of fiction” to be dismissed out of hand without any effort to discern their meaning:

    No, the single most important fact about a sacred text is that we can’t decide what it means, and so it’s infinitely malleable to the uses of both liberals and fundamentalists. Or maybe the single most important fact about a sacred text is that is wasn’t written by or inspired by a deity, and therefore has no more value than any other work of fiction.

    Coyne concludes his section on Sacks with:

    And what gives him the power to decide what the real meaning of scripture is? Can he tell us what the story of Job is all about, or the tale of Jonah and the Giant Fish?

    Er, I don’t think Sacks claimed to have the power to decide what the real meaning of scripture is, and I’m not at all sure he would wish to be that authoritarian — quite the reverse.

    I can but guess what Sacks would say about the books of Job and Jonah, but to me Jonah is obviously a morality tale told as a grossly over-the-top hilariously humorous Ripping Yarn — looks like the famous Jewish sense of humour has been alive and well for millennia before the advent of TV sit-coms; Job is harder to get a handle on, but I quite like Steven Cook’s A Reading of Job as a Theatrical Work: Challenging a Retributive Deuteronomistic Theodicy, which proposes that Job is a satire challenging (in a very over-the-top way, like Jonah, but without such overt humour) the simplistic priestly propaganda that to the good, good things will happen, and vice versa.


    What Coyne and his commenters have added to my knowledge is that Irshad Manji is a woman, a lesbian, and a vigorous advocate of liberal reform within Islam. This is the woman — another ‘Dear Muslima’? — who Richard Dawkins shouted his disapproval at, from the audience, during her TED talk at Oxford University. If you shoot your friends, you are left with only enemies, foolish man.

  10. Larry Olson says:

    Well most of us can see that this shadow to light website is basically a smear campaign against 4 major people…. Sam Harris and a few others… but in the Bible God warned you about smearing others and singling out specific people…. who are you to judge Sam Harris, Sir.

    “”James 4:11-12

    Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? ”

    This whole Shadow To Light website is basically a smear campaign against mostly Sam Harris. You guys are going straight to hell for speaking ill on other people, you do realize that? You might want to actually read a religious text before becoming religious… a lot of people that are religious do not read the bible, the quran. Good luck with your smear campaign, and good luck in hell when you get there. You violated rule number…. 13412 in the bible.

  11. Dhay says:

    I can be equally bloody-mindedly literal: the brothers are “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion”; do you not read context?

  12. Michael says:

    Well most of us can see that this shadow to light website is basically a smear campaign against 4 major people…. Sam Harris and a few others… but in the Bible God warned you about smearing others and singling out specific people…. who are you to judge Sam Harris, Sir.

    From the above blog entry:

    To his fans on 4/23: I’m trying to arrange a debate with Noam Chomsky ….Please RT if you want that to happen

    To Chomsky on 4/26: I am far more interested in exploring these disagreements, and clarifying any misunderstandings, than in having a conventional debate.

    Looks to me like he was lying to Chomsky.

    Being unable to dispute this, Larry tries to turn me into the topic.
    Larry, it’s not a smear campaign to note that Harris says one thing to his fans and another thing to Chomsky.

    As for the “4 people,” they just happen to be the leaders of the New Atheist movement. Yes, the blog does keep an eye on this modern day hate movement.

  13. Dhay says:

    Here’s another lie by Sam Harris, courtesy of Salon:
    (My emboldening.)

    Most striking in the approximately two-hour-long discussion [podcast] were comments Harris made about renowned left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky and far-right Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson.

    “Given a choice between Noam Chomsky and Ben Carson, in terms of the totality of their understanding of what’s happening now in the world, I’d vote for Ben Carson every time,” Harris said in the podcast, without hesitation.

    “Ben Carson is a dangerously deluded religious imbecile… The fact that he is a candidate for president is a scandal,” Harris continued. “But at the very least he can be counted on to sort of get this one right. He understands that jihadists are the enemy.”

    Salon reached out to Chomsky for a response to Harris’ comments. Chomsky didn’t want to discuss Harris in detail, whom he accused of spreading “ignorant lies.”

    In reply to Harris’ accusation that Chomsky would pursue a more perilous foreign policy than someone Harris readily admits “is a dangerously deluded religious imbecile” (and whose own advisers admit struggles with grasping basic facts surrounding international conflicts), Chomsky said, “A person who makes charges like that either provides evidence, or is telling us, loud and clear, that he merits only contempt. I presume that he provided no evidence.”

    “I have no interest in Harris’ performances, which is why I’ve never bothered to comment on them, except in response to queries,” Chomsky added. “It’s not my affair.”

    Chomsky is one of the most outspoken and principled voices on the American, or even global, left. He has always vigorously rejected dogma and steadfastly opposed violence and bigotry. It’s in fact his consistency, and his firm opposition to ideological conformity, that often gets him in trouble with not just conservatives and liberals, but even with fellow leftists.

    Yet Harris will have none of this. Why? Because Harris is himself a fanatic. And although he’s a fanatic of the anti-religious stripe, he and Carson can find common ground in their anti-Muslim fanaticism.

    Like fellow “New Atheists” Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, Harris is not so much a secularist as he is an anti-religious fundamentalist. The difference between the so-called New Atheists and the “Old Atheists,” if you will, is that the Old Atheists did not adopt a knee-jerk contrarian zealotry. Old Atheists were opposed to all forms of fundamentalism, including the anti-religious variety; the New Atheists embrace it.

    Chomsky, on the other hand, as a man of seemingly infinite reason and tact, doesn’t share the same scapegoated enemies as Harris and Carson. He sees beyond the charade both anti-religious fundamentalist liberals like Harris and religious fundamentalist conservatives like Carson gleefully promulgate.

    It is no shame to oppose and correct a closed-minded idealogue like Harris. And I note that having been bested by Chomsky, Harris has resorted to the contemptible practice of issuing snide insinuations and bad-mouthing Chomsky behind his back with what amounts to cat-calls and jeers.


    Michael, if you hadn’t noticed, Harris’ website and forum have for a number of hours been either completely down or playing up, with page unobtainable messages coming up all the time. Looks like the barely coherent troll Larry Olson is not here by reason not of interest but of boredom. I think of him as spray-painting graffiti, not as contributing meaningfully.

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