#3: Neuroscientist Sam Harris

Since the year is winding down, I think I will repost the top 5 most popular blog entries from 2015.  The third most popular one was entitled, “Neuroscientist Sam Harris” and was posted on January 7, 2015. I think this was an eye-opener for some, as Harris is constantly promoted as “a neuroscientist” in order to bash religion.    Yet it turns out Harris is a neuroscientist in the most minimal of ways.  Anyway, coming in at #3 – 

With Sam Harris consistently being promoted as “a neuroscientist,” and using this label to bash religion and other leading scientists, perhaps we should take a closer look at Sam Harris’s PhD work. After all, since Harris abandoned science after securing his PhD, it is the PhD work alone, all by itself, that Harris uses to self-label as “a neuroscientist.”

It’s not clear how long it took Harris to get his PhD. According to Wiki, he received his BA in Philosophy in 2000 and his PhD in Neuroscience in 2009. He, along with several others, published their work in PLoS ONE: The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief

Statistician William Briggs analyzed the contents of this paper in an in-depth, 7-part series that begins here.

I encourage you to read it all, as Briggs concludes:

During the course of my investigation of scientism and bad science, I have read a great many bad, poorly reasoned papers. This one might not be the worst, but it deserves a prize for mangling the largest number of things simultaneously. What is fascinating, and what I do not here explore, is why this paper was not only published but why it is believed by others. It is sure evidence, I think, that scientists are no different than anybody else in wanting their cherished beliefs upheld such that they are willing to grasp at any confirmatory evidence, no matter how slight, blemished, or suspect that evidence might be.

I do not claim, and I do not believe, that Harris and his team cheated, lied, or willfully misled. I have given sufficient argument to show the authors wore such opaque blinders that they could not see what they were doing and so choose to write down that which they imagined they saw, which was a preconceived, incoherent concoction about how “Christians” would differ from “rational” thinkers.

Ouch.

As for me, I’d like to take a look at some other features of the paper.

For example, commenter Dhay brought this very interesting tidbit to my attention. If you read the Funding section of the paper, you’ll find the following:

The project described was supported in part by Grant Numbers RR12169, RR13642 and RR00865 from the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and by a grant from The Reason Project; its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of NCR, NIH, or those of any other funding source. Sam Harris (joint first author) is the Co-founder and CEO of The Reason Project (www.reasonproject.org). The Reason Project is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit foundation whose mission includes conducting original scientific research related to human values, cognition, and reasoning. This affiliation does not alter the authors’ adherence to all PLoS ONE policies on the sharing of data for the purpose of academic, non-commercial research. For this study, The Reason Project provided partial funding for MRI scanner use, subject recruitment, and psychological testing. The other sources of funding had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Dhay noticed something:

… Project Reason had a role in funding MRI scanner use, subject recruitment, and psychological testing, and had the sole role in funding study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, and preparation of the manuscript.

Which I read as saying that without Project Reason funding, Harris’ wouldn’t have been able to acquire his neuroscience PhD. Looks like Project Reason was set up specifically to ensure Harris had funds to get his PhD, for that seems to be what Project Reason actually started out funding, and anything else seems to have come later.

What’s more, Project Reason was originally called “The Reason Project,” and you’ll notice that if you click on the link to http://www.reasonproject.org, it no longer exists. Instead, if you click on that link, it will take you to reason.com, a libertarian news site. We’re told that “The Reason Project is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit foundation whose mission includes conducting original scientific research related to human values, cognition, and reasoning.”

Yet according to Wiki, this is how Project Reason started (HT again to Dhay):

The project will draw on the talents of prominent and creative thinkers from a wide range of disciplines — science, law, literature, entertainment, information technology, etc. — to encourage critical thinking and wise public policy. It will convene conferences, produce films, sponsor scientific research and opinion polls, award grants to other non-profit organizations, and offer material support to religious dissidents and public intellectuals — with the purpose of eroding the influence of dogmatism, superstition and bigotry in the world.[4]
“One immediate need”, according to Sam Harris, “is to build an archive of the best secular resources on the Internet. Registered users can submit their favorite articles, videos, interviews, etc”. Users are also encouraged to make donations: “The leading religious organizations have operating budgets of over $100 million per year. There is no equivalent organization in the secular world. It may take a while, but you can help us build it!”

Project Reason today clearly has an anti-religious mission, as described on its own web page:

Project Reason is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. We seek to encourage critical thinking and wise public policy through a variety of interrelated projects. The foundation can convene conferences, produce films, sponsor scientific studies and opinion polls, hold contests, publish original research, award grants to other charitable organizations, and offer material support to religious dissidents and public intellectuals — all with the purpose of eroding the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.

While Project Reason is devoted to fostering critical thinking generally, we believe that religious ideas require a special focus. Both science and the arts are built upon cultures of vigorous self-criticism; religious discourse is not. As a result, religious dogmatism still reigns unchallenged in almost every society on earth—dividing humanity from itself, inflaming conflict, preventing wise public policy, and diverting scarce resources. One of the primary goals of Project Reason is to change this increasingly unhealthy status quo.

So let’s get this straight. Sam Harris was and continues to be an atheist activist and one of the leaders in the New Atheist Movement. His PhD was partly funded by donations to “The Reason Project” and it is safe to assume most of those donations came from members of the New Atheist Movement. And the findings of this research? A region of the brain involved in emotional judgment is behind religious reasoning. Hmmm. Then, after receiving his PhD, it looks like “The Reason Project” was changed into “Project Reason,” an atheist organization with an anti-religious agenda and Harris abandoned academia to devote all his efforts to this agenda.

Now, with all this in mind, does the following part of the paper make much sense to you?

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

It would seem to me that an atheist activist, being funded by the atheist’s own atheist organization that currently thinks religion deserves “special focus” when it comes to criticism, had a conflict of interest to declare.

And then there is the best part of the article:

Author Contributions
Conceived and designed the experiments: SH JTK MI MSC. Performed the experiments: JTK. Analyzed the data: SH JTK MI MSC. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: MI MSC. Wrote the paper: SH JTK. Performed all subject recruitment, telephone screenings, and psychometric assessments prior to scanning: AC. Supervised our psychological assessment procedures and consulted on subject exclusions: SB. Gave extensive notes on the manuscript: MSC MI.

It’s bad enough that Harris is only “joint first author” on a paper publishing his thesis research and one of four people involved in conceiving and designing the experiment, but what’s this?

Performed the experiments: JTK.

It would appear that Sam Harris never did any of the experiments for his own PhD thesis!* How many science PhD students are out there working on their own PhDs without doing a single experiment? Show of hands? I would guess that is a very tiny population.

Now, when you consider that Harris as a BA in Philosophy and did not do any of the experiments for this research, it makes you wonder if Sam Harris, the man who promotes himself as “a neuroscientist,” has ever performed a single experiment in his life. Suddenly, it makes sense why Harris, The Neuroscientist, would write the following:

What constitutes evidence that there is a path to wisdom at all? From the outside, it’s very difficult to judge—because there are charismatic charlatans who are probably lying about everything, and there are seemingly ordinary people who have had quite profound experiences. From the inside, however, the evidence is clear; so each person has to run the experiment in the laboratory of his own mind to know that there’s anything to this.

It sure looks like the only experiments ever performed by Harris have been “in the laboratory of his own mind.”

And finally, there is his PhD thesis itself. Does anyone know the title of his thesis? If not, see if this sounds familiar – The moral landscape How science could determine human values.

So after getting his PhD, one year later his Project Reason took his PhD thesis and sold it as book. So if you want to get a feel for the depth of science behind Harris’s neuroscience degree, just go to the library and check out The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. What made Harris “a neuroscientist” is the attempt to argue that science can determine what is right and wrong. That sounds more like philosophy than science to me. Of course, since publishing his thesis, then his book, Sam Harris has never once actually used science to resolve a moral dispute.

So the next time you see Sam Harris being promoted as “a neuroscientist” so he can bash another scientist who is religious, remember Harris’s status as “a neuroscientist.”

1. Since getting his PhD, he has conducted no scientific research.
2. Since getting his PhD, he has taught no university/college courses in neuroscience.
3. Since getting his PhD, he has devoted his efforts to his anti-religious think tank and publishing books, such as the one on using drugs and meditation to discover truths about our reality.
4. He received his PhD through partial funding from his own atheist organization.
5. He didn’t do any of the experiments for his own thesis work.*
6. His PhD thesis was about how science can determine what is right and wrong and he turned it into a book for sale.
7. Since publishing his thesis/book, Harris has yet to use science to resolve a single moral dispute.

This is the guy who postures as an Ambassador of Science when using his media connections to publicly mock other scientists who are religious.

*ETA: Harris was co-author one other previous paper that seems tied to this thesis, so it is possible he did some of the experiments on that one.

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One Response to #3: Neuroscientist Sam Harris

  1. John says:

    It should be noted that Coyne attacks PLoS ONE:

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2014/11/08/new-atheist-leader-tries-to-defend-the-raelians-take-2/

    Yet Sam Harris,a fellow New Atheist,published his Ph.D. work in PLoS ONE.

    I guess even by Coyne’s own standard we can question Sam Harris’ aclaimed fame.

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