The Closed-Minded Sam Harris Preaches About Being Open-minded

Sam Harris decided to lecture everyone about intellectual honesty and the need to have a willingness to change your mind (HT: Dhay).  It never ceases to amaze me when such closed-minded people think they are in a position to preach about being open-minded.

Harris concludes his posturing as follows:

Consequently, few things are more important than a willingness to follow evidence and argument wherever they lead. The ability to change our minds, even on important points—especially  on important points—is the only basis for hope that the human causes of human misery can be finally overcome.

Sounds nice, eh?

But Harris does not practice what he preaches.  Let me provide just one example.

About seven and a half years ago, Harris led an effort to derail the nomination of Francis Collins to head the NIH.  He wrote an essay for the NYT and received support from the writings of fellow activists Jerry Coyne and Stephen Pinker.  Harris wrote:

I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind


Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?

After Collins was confirmed to head the NIH, Harris showed no further interest in this topic.  He continued to take swipes at Collins’ religious beliefs, but not once did he ever comment on how Collins was handling the job of heading the NIH.  Ponder that.  Harris used the pages of the NYT to tell us that, because of Collins’ religious beliefs, he would be bad for the NIH and neuroscience, yet never once did Harris show the slightest interest in testing his warnings/accusations during the seven and a half years that Collins’ has since run the NIH.

Why is that?  If Harris is so willing “to follow evidence and argument wherever they lead,” why is that he lost all interest in evidence and argument after Collins’ nomination was confirmed?  Why has that interest in evidence and argument been completely lacking for seven and a half years? I think two (related) explanations are in play.

  1. Harris was never truly interested in following the evidence and argument wherever they led. His attack on Collins was simply part of the anti-religious propaganda of the New Atheists. The essay was published and the job was done.  Time to move on.  That Harris is a lead activist among atheist activists would support this explanation as atheist activists are simply propagandists.  They care only about “evidence and argument” as long as it fits their propagandistic narrative.
  2. Harris was wrong. Since Collins’ performance as head of the NIH did not confirm Harris’ warnings and concerns, Harris was no longer interested. Put simply, he was wrong and had no desire to draw atention to this (being unable to change his mind).  Of course, if Collins had done something to confirm Harris’s warnings, you can bet he would have shouted it from the rooftops.  Y’see, while closed-minded activists cannot admit they are wrong, and try to quietly sweep those examples under the rug, they want everyone to know about the times they are right.

In the end, someone like Sam Harris is in no position to preach about intellectual honesty and a willingness to changes one’s mind.  We may as well start looking to Donald Trump for lessons on humility and Hillary Clinton for lessons on honesty.

One final word.  According to news reports, it looks like Collins may stay on to head the NIH under the Trump administration.  But that’s still up in the air.  Given the alternatives that Trump might nominate, I can easily envision Harris finally and suddenly admitting he was wrong about Collins (and using it as an example of him changing his own mind).  😉

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12 Responses to The Closed-Minded Sam Harris Preaches About Being Open-minded

  1. TFBW says:

    Sam Harris said:

    … few things are more important than a willingness to follow evidence and argument wherever they lead.

    That’s exactly what Antony Flew said he was doing, both when he embraced atheism, and when he finally rejected it. Glad to hear Sam respects that.

  2. Dhay says:

    Francis Collins (and accommodationism™ in general) demonstrates that it is possible to be a very successful scientist while being neither a hard determinist, as exampled by Jerry Coyne, nor a fully Darwinian evolutionist. Oh, and intellectually fulfilled to boot.

    The more I look back on that incident, where prominent New Atheists created maximum emotion and fuss about the outstanding candidate getting the NIH post, the more I see it as an SJW-type outburst — irrational, ‘shock-horror’ based and emotional.

  3. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris makes great show of his willingness to change his mind; here’s from 2013, from The Atlantic‘s article “The Atheist Who Strangled Me”:

    “I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I have to be”

    Which I see Harris has said in identical or very similar words quite a few times; it’s almost (or is) a catchphrase.

    “The Atheist Who Strangled Me” is essentially a continuation of the previous month’s article on Harris and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (etc), “What Martial Arts Have to Do With Atheism”. In it, there’s a video of “Yanagi Ryuken, an aikido practitioner in Japan”, who effortless throws his students without even touching them, getting defeated in one punch in a real tournament. So many of Harris’ debate opponents are like that, self-deluded about their abilities, he implies:

    Q: Your career as one of the New Atheists has involved getting in what most would describe as unwinnable fights, arguing with opponents who will simply never agree with you. …

    A: It’s easy to misunderstand the situation – intellectually, ethically, and psychologically – from the outside. These fights are actually not unwinnable. I constantly discover what it looks like to win. It’s just rarely visible to those who are watching the fight. For instance, if I do a public debate with a rabbi or a pastor or some other representative of Iron Age philosophy, I know he isn’t going to change his mind while talking to me in front of a thousand people. But then I hear from those who watch these debates and have their views change completely.

    Harris claims he “constantly discover[s] what it looks like to win” — constantly, no less. He “hear[s] from those who watch these debates and have their views change completely.” Wow, sounds impressive — until you look back at that “rarely visible to those who are watching”: by Harris’ own admission, this “rarely” happens to those watching his debates; the normality is otherwise; the overwhelming majority (the remainder after subtracting “rarely”) of debate watchers do not judge that Harris has won his debates.

    Harris doesn’t like to lie outright — but see his recent research paper, which has lying built-in — or doesn’t like to be seen to lie, but he certainly spins — like a top — he certainly sets out to seriously mislead and deceive.

    Note that Harris views debates in martial arts bouts terms; he loves Jiu-Jitsu because there isn’t the slightest possibility, when you know you are moments from strangulation and death, that you can deceive yourself about whether you have won or lost. Debates sadly aren’t like that, he says, his debate opponents don’t “tap out”, don’t admit defeat, don’t acknowledge Harris as the debate winner he claims to be:

    “The sort of satisfaction one hopes to achieve in intellectual debate is always elusive,” said Harris, referring to his public disputations with various professional Christian apologists. “I’ve had debates where it’s absolutely clear to me that my opponent has to tap out,” he told me. “They are wrong—just as demonstrably as you’re wrong when you’re being choked to death in a triangle choke.” … “It’s like they’ve turned into a zombie,” he continued. “You rarely get the satisfaction in intellectual life where the person who is wrong has to acknowledge and grow from the experience of having been self-deceived for so long.”

    Very elusive, judging by Harris’ complaints over the years.

    Now, bearing in mind that Harris has employed the Aikido master’s brief and bloodied fight as a parallel for a debater constantly deceiving himself about his abilities but unable to actually win a debate …

    Bearing in mind Harris’ utter drubbing by Noam Chomsky …

    And bearing in mind that Harris has said in Rawstory‘s “Sam Harris: ‘Morally confused’ liberals thought I lost debate with Noam Chomsky — but they don’t get it’” that it wasn’t a debate, he was just gathering information on what Chomsky thinks and trying to persuade Chomsky’s (mentally ill?) supporters to stop self-harming; but it looks very like a debate to me:

    “Anyone who thinks I lost a debate here just doesn’t understand what I was trying to do,” he said.

    Harris said he had hoped to learn what Chomsky actually believes about the ethics of intent, and he hoped his own arguments would steer leftists away from their “masochistic” tendencies.

    Bearing this in mind … perhaps it’s time for Harris to do what he claims his opponents should do, and “acknowledge and grow from the experience of having been self-deceived for so long.”

  4. unclesporkums says:

    In other words, he can’t admit he’s ever wrong. That’s just sad.

  5. Dhay says:

    > Anyone who thinks I lost a debate here just doesn’t understand what I was trying to do

    I’m right, you’re wrong, here’s why: in what way is that not a debate.


    unclesporkums > In other words, he can’t admit he’s ever wrong. That’s just sad.

    What I particularly dislike about Sam Harris is that he thinks in black-and-white terms of right and wrong, winning debates and defeat in debates, instead of recognising that pretty much any issue has at least two sides, many shades of grey, many dimensions, probably a rainbow of colour. As the Tao Te Ching says, the six colours make a man blind; to which I would add the observation that binary black-and-white makes a man a stupid bigot.

    I wouldn’t ask him to admit he’s wrong, he’s got definite views, and the world is richer for diversity of views, especially when those views are expressed strongly and clearly; I ask him to admit there might be other valid viewpoints than his own, or some validity in viewpoints other than his own. He gives no sign of this. That’s just sad.

  6. TFBW says:

    I’d consider it progress if Sam would just recognise the symmetry of the situation: all those “zombie” debate opponents who seem so certain that they’re winning, vs his own certainty that he wins all his debates. I don’t know whether to think of this blind spot of his as a deliberate lie of omission, or a genuine case of obliviousness. I suppose the latter is the charitable assumption, but image management is a lot of what he does, so it’s hard to call.

  7. Sam Harris is a classic example of a fundamentalist. New Atheism is not areligious, it’s a form of scientism and Harris is one of it’s most vocal Imams. He’s not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination. One of his friends is a scientist, Richard Dawkins, but even Dawkins is driven entirely by his emotions when it comes to religion. These guys think they are purely rational using only logic and reason to navigate their way through the world but what they are doing is in fact falling prey to Descarte’s Error. They are frauds and their masks are slipping more and more. People are wising up to the Trustafarian Harris and the Upper Class Twit Dawkins.

    Aristotle said: The mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain a thought without accepting it.
    Sam Harris clearly demonstrated in his most recent episode of his Podcast that he is incapable or at best unwilling to do that. In his “conversation” with Jordan Peterson he spent two hours arguing over the definition of one word. This is atomism in action. Harris could have allowed his guest to continue to explain his ideas without accepting his broader definition of what is essentially “higher” or “religious truth” but he can’t do that. Harris knew where the conversation was going and that it would seriously challenge if not outright demolish his world view and his fixation on one word was simply a diversionary tactic so he can blame his guest and label him as incoherent and irrational.

    The fact is, Sam Harris has reasoned himself into and illogical and irrational corner and he’s stuck there. He’s not a philosopher, he’s not a scientist, he’s not a brilliant mind. He is a charlatan, a somewhat articulate and at times eloquent huckster. He’s a 21st century L. Ron Hubbard or Joseph Smith (sorry Mormons).

    Nice blog by the way!

  8. Pingback: New Atheist Fundamentalism | 1984

  9. Dhay says:

    The Edge Question 2017 was, “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”; as a native speaker of English, I read that as “What scientific term or [scientific] concept ought to be more widely known?”, and reckon it takes wilful misunderstanding to read it any other way.

    Sam Harris’ answer? “Intellectual honesty”.

    Last I knew, ‘intellectual honesty’ was certainly not a scientific term or concept. But that’s the headline. And in confirmation that intellectual honesty is not a scientific term or concept, Harris starts off the fuller text of his answer with not science but debates, debate opponents and audiences as his principal focus.

    Harris does mention science — once, in passing:

    Our scientific, cultural, and moral progress is almost entirely the product of successful acts of persuasion. Therefore, an inability (or refusal) to reason honestly is a social problem.

    Let’s look at the ‘science’ aspect of this claim. It seems to me simply weird to claim that “Our scientific progress is almost entirely the product of successful acts of persuasion” (my emphases): there was me thinking that hypothesis formation, experimental design, the experiments themselves, the results, the analysis of the results, the interpretation, the write-up, the conclusions, the peer review and publication, the (hopefully, ideally) re-testing by other researchers; where in that do “successful acts of persuasion” have any significant role; a well-conducted bit of research has no need for the researchers to use persuasion, it speaks for itself; does Harris think we abandoned phlogiston because the opponents used more persuasive rhetoric?

    But it’s clear from this quote from Harris’ Edge Answer, that rather than seeing intellectual honesty as a problem in science, intellectual honesty, or its lack, is for him a social problem.

    So what’s happened here? Harris had an article he was dying to get out there, but nobody in the usual media wanted it. So stuff a square peg in a round hole, simply because that hole’s available.

    If you want to pass an exam, you answer the question.

    Let me paraphrase:
    EQ. “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”
    SH. “Intellectual honesty is a social problem.”


  10. Dhay says:

    Looks like Jordan Peterson walks the talk by being actively open and welcoming to new ideas, including seeking them out …

    “What is your friend: the things you know, or the things you don’t know. First of all, there’s a lot more things you don’t know. And second, the things you don’t know is the birthplace of all your new knowledge! So if you make the things you don’t know your friend, rather than the things you know, well then you’re always on a quest in a sense. You’re always looking for new information in the off chance that somebody who doesn’t agree with you will tell you something you couldn’t have figured out on your own! It’s a completely different way of looking at the world. It’s the antithesis of opinionated.”

    … whereas the strongly opinionated Sam Harris talks the walk.

    There’s also this quote …

    “Rejection of the unknown is tantamount to “identification with the devil,” the mythological counterpart and eternal adversary of the world-creating exploratory hero. Such rejection and identification is a consequence of Luciferian pride, which states: all that I know is all that is necessary to know. This pride is totalitarian assumption of omniscience – is adoption of “God’s place” by “reason” – is something that inevitably generates a state of personal and social being indistinguishable from hell. This hell develops because creative exploration – impossible, without (humble) acknowledgment of the unknown – constitutes the process that constructs and maintains the protective adaptive structure that gives life much of its acceptable meaning”
    ― Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief

    … which tells me why Harris was so keen to keep Peterson on a very tight leash.

  11. Dhay says:

    > Sam Harris decided to lecture everyone [via his short Edge Question 2017 contribution] about intellectual honesty and the need to have a willingness to change your mind. It never ceases to amaze me when such closed-minded people think they are in a position to preach about being open-minded.

    That lecture/contribution implicitly referenced Harris’ Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence which claimed to investigate why people wouldn’t change their minds, but actually investigated why they won’t change their minds when presented with alternative facts, with distortions, with lies; it only referenced implicitly, mind — I guess that if I had planned and executed and drawn conclusions from that obviously worthless research, I wouldn’t want to explicitly reference hence draw the attention of fellow Edge contributors to it.

    That research was originally announced on the Project Reason website; from June 2011 until May 2013 the Project Reason’s The Biology of Belief page declared:

    UPDATE (June 15, 2011): Project Reason is currently preparing to run another neuroimaging study on belief. Our goal will be to discover which regions of the brain allow people to change their beliefs, or prevent them from doing so, in response to new evidence. If you would like to support this work, donations of any size are greatly appreciated.

    We will announce our results once they have been published in a scientific journal.
    –Sam Harris

    The cynic in me says his intention then would have been to design the experiment such as to ‘expose’ Christians as dogmatists who are resistant to changing their minds when confronted with persuasive evidence, but in practice this got changed to ‘expose’ the alleged dogmatism of people on the Regressive Left.

    I can see why that should have been necessary: people on the far (‘Regressive’, as Harris terms them) Left have usually repeated heard the various arguments against their positions (or are ill-informed dimmocks); having not already been impressed by those arguments, they are not going to be impressed by hearing them presented yet again; so for a proper test of willingness to change one’s mind when presented with new counter-evidence it’s necessary either to discover or invent novel strong arguments — unlikely — or to resort to what Harris and Kaplan actually did, namely distort and exaggerate the facts into alleged facts — making them ‘alternative facts’ — to become super-persuasive lies.

    You might (or might not) get away with claiming that the number of Russian missiles is roughly twice their actual number, but I find myself really straining to imagine what religion-related alternative facts (new or counter-evidence) would work (including not being detected as exaggerations, distortions and lies) with committed Christians. I am not surprised Harris bottled out to target the Left instead; and instead of smearing Christians implicitly as unreasonably unwilling to change their minds, to smear his hated Regressive Left.


    > According to news reports, it looks like [Francis] Collins may stay on to head the NIH under the [Donald] Trump administration.

    Which he has. Appointers often seek new blood and new ideas when someone has headed a senior post so long; clearly Collins is reckoned outstanding.

    I await the announcement that Harris has changed his mind. As Harris says, “Tenaciously clinging to your beliefs past the point where their falsity has been clearly demonstrated does not make you look good.”


    Regarding the closed-mindedness or otherwise of atheists in general, those in Europe at any rate, a recent PsyPost article entitled “Study finds the nonreligious can be more close-minded than the religious” announces research which finds that of three measures of closed-mindedness, on one measure the religious are more closed-minded than atheists; but on the two other measures it’s atheists who are the more closed-minded.

    It relates to Harris’ paper in an interesting way:

    … when it came to subtly measured inclination to integrate views that were diverging and contrary to one’s own perspectives, it was the religious who showed more openness.

    Sounds like religious people are more open to new evidence and to properly considering counter-evidence than atheists are.

  12. Dhay says:

    In his 08 July 2017 blog post entitled “A great Radiolab show: Robert Sapolsky on why we don’t have free will”, Jerry Coyne inadvertently evidences that last “Sounds like religious people are more open to new evidence and to properly considering counter-evidence than atheists are.” Coyne tells us:

    As I always say, it’s easier to convince a diehard creationist of the truth of evolution than to convince a diehard atheist of the fact that our behaviors are determined, and that we can’t make alternative choices at a given moment.

    Michael has fun analysing that blog post.

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