Sam Harris Just Won’t Admit He is Closed-Minded

[Originally posted 2/14]

Sam Harris is a man who is obsessed with maintaining his public image. Thus, it is no surprise to see him lashing out (in his typical low key manner) at psychologist Jonathan Haidt for drawing attention to Harris’s closed-mind. Harris writes a blog entry entitled, “The Pleasure of Changing My Mind,” that is saturated with intellectual inconsistency (as I will show at the end of this blog entry).

But for now, consider how Harris begins:

I spend a lot of time trying to change people’s beliefs, but I’m also in the business of changing my own. And I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I have to be.

This looks like nothing more than posturing and preening. For if Harris is in the business of having others change his mind, and does not “want to be wrong for a moment longer” than he has to be, then why does he not allow any comments on his blog? A man who does not want dissenting viewpoints aired on his own blog is hardly someone interested in having his mind changed.

Harris continues:

In response to the Moral Landscape Challenge, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt issued a challenge of his own: He bet $10,000 that the winning essay will fail to persuade me. This wager seems in good fun, and I welcome it. But Haidt then justified his confidence by offering a pseudo-scientific appraisal of the limits of my intellectual honesty. He did this by conducting a keyword search of my books: The frequency of “certainty” terms, Haidt says, reveals that I (along with the other “New Atheists”) am even more blinkered by dogmatism and bias than Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Anne Coulter. This charge might have been insulting if it weren’t so silly. It is almost impossible to believe that Haidt expects his “research” on this topic to be taken seriously. But apparently he does.

Notice the closed-minded nature of Harris’s response. Harris reflexively rejects the notion that he is dogmatic and responds that such an observation is “insulting,” “silly,” and “impossible to believe.” Harris is so closed-minded about this that he cannot, for the briefest of moments, consider the possibility he is closed-minded. He is too invested (psychologically, emotionally, and financially) in his self-image so he must spin such a possibility as “insulting” and “silly.” Without even realizing it, Harris is making Haidt’s point by so closed-mindedly dismissing the possibility of closed-mindedness.

What’s more, why did Harris carefully omit something else Haidt wrote:

When I was doing the research for The Righteous Mind, I read the New Atheist books carefully, and I noticed that several of them sounded angry. I also noticed that they used rhetorical structures suggesting certainty far more often than I was used to in scientific writing – words such as “always” and “never,” as well as phrases such as “there is no doubt that…” and “clearly we must…”

Anyone who is familiar with both the scientific literature and the writings of the New Atheists will concur – the New Atheists clearly come to us with more anger and certainty than anything you will find in the scientific literature. It is, after all, the difference between apologetics and scholarship.

Harris then tries to deflect this criticism by searching for an example where he did change his mind. Put simply, Harris used to support President Obama’s methodology of turning the war on terror into a secretive, covert war until he saw a documentary. Now, he proudly tells us, “The details of how we have been waging our war on terror are appalling, and Scahill’s film paints a picture of callousness and ineptitude that shocked me. Having seen it, I am embarrassed to have been so trusting and complacent with respect to my government’s use of force.” Well, imagine that. Maybe Sam Harris will change his mind on another topic after he watches “Super Size Me.”

Harris is arguing against a straw man which would equate being closed-minded about the issues he finds vitally important with the inability to change his mind about anything. But that is not the point. Harris’s opinion on the correct tactics in the war on terror hardly amount to a significant component of the agenda and self-image he sells. No one is buying his books on free will or morality or religion because they share his views on the war on terror. There are very few people who seek out his views on the war on terror. The fact that he changed his mind on how to conduct the war on terror is not evidence that he would be willing to change his mind on the bigger, core metaphysical positions he has mapped out and have become a stream of revenue. He may as well have pointed out that he changed his mind about his favorite TV show.

What’s more, if you consider Sam Harris’s New Atheist fan base, it is safe to assume Harris has changed his mind from a less popular position to a more popular position. Which would mean that Harris has good reasons to change his mind about the war on terror: a) it’s a minor thing that can be made to look like a significant change in mind so Harris can sell himself as being will to change his mind; b) it will probably cut down on the number of web sites and magazines criticizing Sam Harris; and c) it will probably result in a modest uptick in the number of people willing to buy a Sam Harris book.

It gets worse for Harris when we consider the manner in which Harris completely ignores his metaphysical pontifications when responding to Haidt.

The first example of intellectual inconsistency comes from Harris’s attempt to posture as a proud free agent. His blog entry is entitled, “The Pleasure of Changing My Mind.” He writes, “I’m also in the business of changing my own. And I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I have to be.” He even ends his blog entry with the following: “So I remain committed to discovering my own biases. And whether they are blatant, or merely implicit, I will work extremely hard to correct them.”

The man who commits to discovering his own biases, the man who will work hard to find them, the man who doesn’t want to be wrong, and takes pleasure in changing his mind, is the same man, as Harris insists, who is merely a puppet. Whether or not Sam the Puppet changes his mind is simply a consequence of the puppet’s genes and environment. So I’m not sure why the puppet is supposed to get some credit for changing his mind. Whether or not he happens to change his mind all depends on whether or not a certain string gets pulled. In this case, Harris just happened to watch a documentary and just happened to trust it as truthful and objective. So something flipped a switch in his brain. Had he gone out for dinner and not watched the documentary, he would not have changed his mind. If we are to credit anything for changing Harris mind, we should credit his DVD player for working.

The second example of intellectual inconsistency occurs when Harris lashes out at Haidt. For not only does Harris abandon his views about free will, he also abandons his views about broadening the definition of science. Harris accuses Haidt of a pseudo-scientific appraisal and describes Haidt’s analysis as “research” (note the quote marks). Yet the same Sam Harris tells us we need to get rid of any narrow definition of science and embrace “claims about the world on the basis of evidence and logic” as science. Well, according to that dumbed-down definition, Haidt is indeed making a claim about the world (Harris is part of the world) that is based on evidence and logic. According to Harris’s earlier words, Haidt is doing science. Science therefore gives us evidence that Harris is dogmatic. How does Harris respond to science? He lashes out at science by denigrating it as pseudoscience. How ironic!

See how it works? When Harris wants us to accept his pop writings as science, he relies on a dumbed-down definition of science. But when that dumbed-down definition of science means that science has shown Sam Harris to be dogmatic, suddenly it becomes non-science; it becomes pseudoscience. Again and again, we get to see the New Atheist leaders dishonestly defining science to suit their agenda.

Summary: A trained psychologist thinks Sam Harris is dogmatic and Harris closed-mindedly dismisses this observation as “silly” and “insulting.” Harris then argues against a straw man position by searching for an example where he changes his mind about some issue that is trivial relative to the context of his overall posturing and message. To do this, he not only abandons his deterministic metaphysics to posture as a proud free agent, he also abandons his definition of science he laid out just a few weeks ago. Harris writes well, but his thinking is confused, arbitrary, and dogmatic.

This entry was posted in New Atheism, Sam Harris, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Sam Harris Just Won’t Admit He is Closed-Minded

  1. Regual Llegna says:

    I would treat Harris with his own ideas, as i do with anybody, if free will does not exist then Sam Harris opinons and ideas don’t come from him, don’t matter he is not a source for those knowledge.

    “If we are to credit anything for changing Harris mind, we should credit his DVD player for working.”

    Yes the documentary, Scahill have the credit for the knowledge, if Scahill has free will then he have the credit from the documentary.

    Harris fails because he is selectively relativist about some ideas and others not, he live in the “doubt”, not the skeptic type of doubt (this only exist if the person has some interest), but on a self-imposed “doubt” based on selective needs, so he thinks that he don’t need to claim that he have any objetive idea at all. Of course if he was completely objetive and had some conviction he will develop a problem-solutions, in what he thinks is the problem.

    I bet that then he will end doing a Vladimir Lenin:”The goal of socialism is communism”, because the only type of society that a atheist idea develop was the communist model, which was not even original because is based in the “imperfections” of the manarchy in contrast with the olygarchy and see the his own people as resourses more than any other model of goverment.

    He seems to have some personal need:
    He, and all the others gnu atheist, objetively does not want to end the religious belief “problem” because this will end their PROFIT and CELEBRITY/IDOL status out of anti-theists and others antireligious people.

    With gnus:
    “Long term solutions for their problems are hopeless and baseless, and short term solutions don’t even exist or are stupid/death.”

  2. itsonlyphotos says:

    I still don’t understand materialists who prosteletize materialism but think they can get away with using language that implies purpose. These people exempt themselves from the very thing they put on others, which is determinism. At least the eliminativists try to avoid talking in such ways.

  3. Dhay says:

    > In response to the Moral Landscape Challenge, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt issued a challenge of his own: He bet $10,000 that the winning essay will fail to persuade me. This wager seems in good fun, and I welcome it.

    Here’s Sam Harris’ first self-deception: everyone else surely recognises that Haidt’s challenge was not in good fun, it was a cynical piss-take, an exercise in ridiculing a pretentious prat. The amount tells us Haidt thought it a certain bet, that Harris certainly wouldn’t change his mind. Haidt was right, as he knew he would be.

    > But Haidt then justified his confidence by offering a pseudo-scientific appraisal of the limits of my intellectual honesty. He did this by conducting a keyword search of my books: The frequency of “certainty” terms, Haidt says, reveals that I (along with the other “New Atheists”) am even more blinkered by dogmatism and bias than Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Anne Coulter.

    Content Analysis has been around a very long time: as I first came across it, it was a venerable and respected technique for analysing newspaper content — you can count up how many articles there are on any given topic in a period, weight them by size, weight and font of headline, number of column-inches following, whether pictures accompany, and where placed within the paper to build up a numerical score which can be compared with the scores for other topics in the same newspaper or the same topic in another paper — giving a comparison of how different newspapers treat the same and different topics.

    Variations on the theme use word-search counts to determine that Genesis had multiple authors, and what each wrote; that Isaiah had multiple authors; that Shakespeare’s plays were or were not written partly or wholly by someone else.

    > This charge might have been insulting if it weren’t so silly. It is almost impossible to believe that Haidt expects his “research” on this topic to be taken seriously. But apparently he does.

    Surely nobody, least of all Haidt, expected the word-search to be taken as serious research: it’s a Content Analysis lite technique to get a back-of-envelope quick result to serve as an illustration to others, and a quick empirical numerical check for Haidt — really, it just confirmed expert intuition born of years of experience as a psychologist — of Harris’ books’ certainty level.

    Haidt’s results were in the form of a comparison: as Harris puts it, “even more blinkered by dogmatism and bias than Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Anne Coulter.”

    For myself, I wrote off the ‘Moral Landscape Challenge’ as a marketing and publicity stunt, timed perfectly for the launch of the following book; it gave it maximum publicity and, er, demonstrated Harris’, er, effortless intellectual superiority over all-comers when Harris claimed to have defeated the opponent adjudicated as the best. That opponent denied defeat, and was — under protest — denied proper debate of the issues.

    Well, what would one expect: I know what Haidt and I expected.

  4. Maria Sederholm says:

    Thank you!
    How very liberating that other people see through Harris. The recent “Waking Up” podcast – with Professor Jordan B. Peterson, made the “neuroscientist’s” personality abundantly clear. Harris turned what was supposed to be a conversation into a cross examination and a sermon. I, and many others, have commented extensively on Harris’s way of conducting the “conversation” as well as his arguments and reasoning.

    Short version of podcast, i. e. my personal extraction of it:
    Jordan Peterson: I don’t know if I’m right but I believe …
    Sam Harris: You shall have no other gods before Me

    I know for a fact that Harris doesn’t want to have a conversation with journalist Vikram K. Chatterjee, or anyone else who’s is eager to change his mind on Maajid Nawaz. But of course, when the collaboration with Nawaz no longer serves his own personal interests, he can once again say: “I am embarrassed to have been so trusting and complacent”.

    Interesting to note is that Sam Harris’s fellow “horseman” – professor Daniel Dennett, has views on religion that differ a great deal from Harris’s, something which becomes apparent in these two enlightening interviews.

  5. Dhay says:

    > Sam Harris is a man who is obsessed with maintaining his public image. …

    Which might be why Sam Harris has recently taken to blog-posting picture-memes, six so far; each a cartoon (that’s not a criticism) picture illustrating a quote ascribed by the cartoonist to Harris; the cartoonist is good, and the quotes are mostly either familiar or both plausible and buried more deeply than I care to suffer listening out for within a podcast; yet the first looked both nigglingly familiar and nigglingly unfamiliar, so eventually I checked it out; here’s the text of Meme #1:

    We must continually remind ourselves that there is a difference between what is natural and what is good. Nothing is more “natural” than being mauled and eaten by a bear. — Sam Harris

    The obvious question is, where’s it from, and what’s the context, how does this make sense; the scant accompanying text just identifies the artist and the artist’s website, so I googled the quote: there’s no match at all for the exact quote, or even the exact first sentence; it’s nothing that Harris has written.

    There’s always the possibility that this is a memorable quote from some lecture or podcast of Harris’, but if so, it’s not a memorable enough quote that any fan has jotted down the words and put them online anywhere.

    There is something similar in Chapter 2 (“Good and Evil”) of his The Moral Landscape, the fourth paragraph in the section headed “Evil”:

    We must continually remind ourselves that there is a difference between what is natural and what is actually good for us. Cancer is perfectly natural, and yet its eradication is a primary goal of modern medicine. Evolution may have selected for territorial violence, rape, and other patently unethical behaviors as strategies to propagate one’s genes—but our collective well-being clearly depends on our opposing such natural tendencies.

    Note the difference; and no, this “cancer” original version doesn’t recur or precur in a Meme #1 “bear” version.

    Are there any bears around? Yes, actually, in the first paragraph of the same section:

    When confronted with psychopathy at its most extreme, it is very difficult not to think in terms of good and evil. But what if we adopt a more naturalistic view? Consider the prospect of being locked in a cage with a wild grizzly: why would this be a problem? Well, clearly, wild grizzlies suffer some rather glaring cognitive and emotional deficits. Your new roommate will not be easy to reason with or placate; he is unlikely to recognize that you have interests analogous to his own, or that the two of you might have shared interests; and if he could understand such things, he would probably lack the emotional resources to care. From his point of view, you will be a distraction at best, a cowering annoyance, and something tender to probe with his teeth. We might say that a wild bear is, like a psychopath, morally insane. However, we are very unlikely to refer to his condition as a form of “evil.”

    No part of Meme #1’s “Nothing is more “natural” than being mauled and eaten by a bear” is to be found in that paragraph except “is”, “and” and “bear”; no mauling, no eating; there’s a lot of artistic licence and textual mangling being used by the cartoonist.

    For the cartoonist to put out this distorted quote as “Harris said” is artistic licence; for a fan to post it on as “Harris said” is ignorance; for Harris to blog it as “Harris said” is misleading – presumably knowingly misleading – and rather careless with the truth.

    Harris tells us in his book, Lying, that “To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.” I wouldn’t normally bother to nit-pick something as trivial as this meme and the blog post in which Harris “owns” the quote. But Harris tells us he never lies, it’s against his deeply held philosophical principles.

    No doubt the blog post will be amended to include a correction or clarification.

    Nice cartoons.

  6. Dhay says:

    > Sam Harris is a man who is obsessed with maintaining his public image. Thus, it is no surprise to see him lashing out …

    Harris is lashing out again, this time against Ezra Klein, the Editor in Chief of Vox, over an article very critical of the Harris/Charles Murray podcast.

    Klein is actually a fan of Harris’ who regularly listens to Harris’ podcasts, and he tried hard to be friendly, reasonable and accommodating, he corrected a factual error as soon as it was pointed out, and he consistently read everything through “a few” times to avoid misinterpreting Harris.

    But no chance: Harris is right, right, right; he’s not going to change his mind; he insists on a head-to-head (which Klein accepts, though not on the technical subject of IQ which one of the critical experts quoted in the article is far better qualified to discuss on podcast with Harris, Harris repeatedly declines to discuss with the expert); he insists Klein publish Harris’ pet supporting expert in a rebuttal article on Vox, though inexplicably Harris has not taken the opportunity to publish the same rebuttal on his own blog; he won’t have the podcast dual-recorded to be on both peoples’ platforms, then complains Klein insists it should be on Klein’s, which will attract Harris’ fans to Klein’s platform – work that out if you can!

    And when Harris wants to back out, it’s the familiar story that his fans might become bored.

    Then there’s Harris quoting the Vox article: “Murray and Harris pepper their remarks with anodyne commitments to treating people as individuals …”. To me and my dictionary, “anodyne” means uncontentious; but Harris insists that “The word “anodyne” makes sense only if you assume that our commitment to political equality is insincere and that we are, in fact, advancing a program of racial discrimination. …” Though it’s a small detail in a long exchange of e-mails, it nicely illustrates Harris’ pettiness and willingness to be affronted.

    Harris ends up quite aggressive, telling Klein he will publish the e-mail exchange – why Harris thinks the exchange puts Klein, not himself, in a bad light escapes me – if Klein publishes anything else that Harris considers critical (“libelous”) of himself.

    But it was Harris who couldn’t resist the pot-shot, Klein followed up with another critique of Harris and Murray, and Harris published the e-mails on his blog.

    I was going to write a long response about the details, but it’s too long and I see PZ Myers has already done quite a reasonable job of it in his post, “For someone who doesn’t like to be called a racist, Sam Harris sure writes a lot of racist stuff”:

    There’s links there to both Harris’ post and Klein’s article.

    Form your own opinion, I know mine.

  7. Dhay says:

    You just knew, didn’t you, that Sam Harris was going to insist on the last word: he’s added an afterword or “NOTE (3/28/18)”

    Judging from the response to this post on social media, my decision to publish these emails appears to have backfired. I was relying on readers to follow the plot and notice Ezra’s evasiveness and gaslighting (e.g. his denial of misrepresentations and slurs that are in the very article he published). Many people seem to have judged from his politeness that Ezra was the one behaving honestly and ethically. This is frustrating, to say the least.

    I’m not at all surprised Harris’ decision to publish the emails to have backfired. Evidently readers did follow the plot, and noticed as I did that Harris evidently thinks that “anodyne” — see the previous response for a part-quote, or Harris’ e-mails at “Consider this passage: …” for the full quote of that offending passage — is a misrepresentation and slur meaning (paraphrasing) “lying racist”.

    I did not have Charles Murray on my podcast because I was interested in intelligence differences across races. I had him on in an attempt to correct what I perceived to be a terrible injustice done to an honest scholar.

    Call me a cynic, but I see Charles Murray works for, and has delivered an annual lecture for, the American Enterprise Institute, which is a neoconservative think tank — the most prominent and influential neoconservative think tank: “AEI is the most prominent think tank associated with American neoconservatism, in both the domestic and international policy arenas. … AEI has hosted since 1989 the Bradley Lecture Series, “which aims to enrich debate in the Washington policy community through exploration of the philosophical and historical underpinnings of current controversies.” Notable speakers in the series have included … Charles Murray, Steven Pinker, …” [Wiki.]

    That is, Murray might well be an honest scholar; and he is also an ideologically driven NeoCon scholar, holding and promoting NeoCon values.

    Ezra Klein’s latest article finishes with “And Sam, I’m still up for that podcast.” In reply Harris finishes (for now? — he has a history of multiple last words) his NOTE with:

    Having attempted that, for better or worse, I will now move on to other topics.—SH


    Except he’s not moving on; on FaceBook Harris is currently asking his fans:

    Should Ezra Klein and I do a podcast together?
    This poll ends in 19 hours

    I think there will be difficulties put in the way, probably the existing disagreement over the topic; on precedent, if it does go ahead it will be four hours long (because Harris won’t move along if Klein (predictably) doesn’t obediently roll over) and will therefore be too long and too incredibly boring to release.


    Harris does have some motivation to do this podcast, apart from not wanting to lose face: on 16 July 2018 Harris will have one of those armchair discussions on stage in front of an audience, a discussion with Jordan Peterson and Charles Murray. A bad press for himself and Murray translates into reduced income.

    The topic, I note — this time there is one, whereas shortly before the recent Harris/Krauss/Dillahunty armchair discussion on stage in front of an audience the call went out for suggested topics to be discussed by them — the topic will be “The War of Ideas”.

    Call me a cynic, but it seems characteristic of Harris that he should consider discussion of ideas and debate to be a “war”, with its winner-takes-all connotations. You also see this whenever he introduces the subject of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and moans that his allegedly clear-cut victories over other debaters have not been recognised by the other debaters or the judging public. (As here, see quote at top.) In his e-mails and blog post Harris seems upset that Klein gives no ground; note that Harris also gives not an inch, concedes nothing, admits no merit in any of the Vox articles: he’s in combat mode and, contrary to his Edge Question 2017 contribution (about intellectual honesty and the need to have a willingness to change your mind), he’s definitely not in open minded discussion mode.


    Is it me, or is Pangburn Philosophy’s long series of armchair discussions on stage in front of an audience not a series of discussions between people who can and will disagree significantly with each other, imparting new ideas, but just the assembling of celebrities together on stage.

    I guess it’s like a rock concert: fervent atmosphere, same music you’ve heard over and over.

  8. Dhay says:

    H/t PZ Myers, I see a recent ‘Mike the Mad Biologist’ blog post taking the mickey out of Charles Murray’s ideas about IQ by taking them seriously: Mike’ observes that Massachusetts Whites have better IQ scores than Massachusetts Blacks, but also that Massachusetts Blacks have the same average IQ score as Mississippi Whites; he therefore concludes that if Massachusetts Whites are genetically superior to Massachusetts Blacks, Massachusetts Whites are on the very same logic genetically superior to Mississippi Whites.

    So is that last a QED or a reductio ad absurdum for Murray’s idea that Whites are genetically superior in IQ.

    I see that ‘Mike’ blogged about misleadingly presented data in Murray’s The Bell Curve back in 2007; best to read it yourself if you’re interested

  9. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris has now added a “NOTE #2 (3/30/18)”: his online poll voted 76% in favour of a Sam Harris / Ezra Klein podcast, so he’s planning to arrange one. Assuming it goes ahead it should be interesting; though if it doesn’t go as Harris would like (I win by a prolonged browbeating!) I predict it will be boring, Boring, BORING.

    Harris adds:

    In the meantime, Andrew Sullivan has written an eloquent, accurate, and (unfortunately, I must add) brave response to the controversy:

    For once, I can agree with Harris. It’s a useful third-party overview.

    Linked from there is the Richard Haier article which Harris wanted Vox to publish but Klein didn’t, Harris didn’t publish either, but Quillette did, under the title of “No Voice at VOX: Sense and Nonsense about Discussing IQ and Race”. It, too, is interesting:

  10. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris has now added a “NOTE #3 (4/10/18) to say the podcast with Ezra Klein has taken place.

    For those interested, but unwilling to listen for two hours or so, Klein’s transcript of it is on Vox at:

    Or there’s PZ Myers’ executive summary, “Two hours of Sam Harris whining”, at:

  11. unclesporkums says:

    PZ has a lot of room to talk, or ‘whine’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s