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.
- 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.
- 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). 😉