Intellectual Honesty and Sam Harris

Sam Harris recently spoke of intellectual honesty:

It’s a slightly misleading phrase because it’s not quite the same thing as honesty. It’s not to say that every instance of intellectual dishonesty is a case where somebody is lying. When you are saying that somebody is being intellectually dishonest, that’s not the same thing as calling them a liar. It’s often misinterpreted as that.

This is a good point, as the phrase is unfortunate.  When someone is being intellectually dishonest, it doesn’t mean they are being deceptive or sneaky.  It simply means they are not being truly intellectual. They are not adopting a truly intellectual approach.

Harris does a good job capturing a key element of intellectual honesty:

To be intellectually honest requires that you apply the same standards to your own thinking that you would apply to others’. You’re holding yourself to the same standards of reasoning and consistency and evidence-based thinking that you hold others to. You’re not pointing out fallacies in other people’s arguments that you don’t notice or are unwilling to see in your own. So it’s a consistency across the board in how you judge the merits of arguments. It’s the only way of thinking about the world that scales and becomes universalisable, and it’s the only way of thinking about the world that’s not dependent on you being you and me being me.

and

So it’s intellectually dishonest not to deal with the best version of your opponents’ arguments that they will sign off on. If you’re actually arguing against someone you have to be arguing against a version of their case that they agree with, and so often that test is not being met. You are arguing with a version of somebody’s world view that they don’t recognise and never endorsed themselves, and that’s not successful communication and it’s certainly not a way of winning a debate.

The problem for Harris is that he has never, as far as I can tell, taken an intellectually honest approach concerning the topic of the Christian religion.

When it comes to Christians and Christianity, he has consistently violated the very principles he outlined above. I have never seen him argue about Christianity while representing Christian belief as something I would sign off on.  To him, Christianity can be quickly and flippantly dismissed as an “iron age philosophy” dependent on a “magic book.”  And that’s precisely how he became popular as a New Atheist leader. It would be intellectually dishonest, in a most profound way, to argue that the New Atheist movement took an intellectually honest approach to the question of religion.

So why is someone with a history of intellectual dishonesty suddenly concerned about intellectual honesty?

It’s that you are attacking the person rather than the evidentiary or logical claims being made as though that were a surrogate for having a better argument against your opponent. Just calling someone a racist is not an argument, right? It’s not even proof that they’re a racist, and it’s certainly not an argument against whatever they’re claiming about the dangers of immigration or having an open borders policy, right, in Europe, say, or whatever the case may be.

So intellectual dishonesty is very often a case where pseudo-argument and just mere stigmatizing of certain views or smearing of certain people is standing in successfully for real arguments about facts.

I see.  Given the various times the Left has attacked Harris as a racist, he  raises the issue of intellectual honesty as some type of personal shield.  It’s okay to take an intellectually dishonest approach to religion.  After all, it’s just an “iron age philosophy.”  But once Harris himself is on the receiving end of the very approach he has long used, suddenly it is time to be concerned.

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8 Responses to Intellectual Honesty and Sam Harris

  1. Dhay says:

    First, a comment on the <Independent newspaper interview of Sam Harris, taken as a whole. It’s long, very long at 6930 words; this is not because the interviewer took much part (546 words, 7.8%) but because Harris effectively monopolised the, er, conversation (6384 words, 92.2%.)

    Harris makes his living by presenting himself as a ‘public intellectual’ and the ‘public intellectual discussion’ circuit is evidently taking off as a big money-spinner for Harris and the other participants. Like an author plugging his book, in this interview Harris is plugging that circuit from which he derives a chunk of his income. This one’s going to be especially lucrative:

    We sat down ahead of the biggest live event of his career – his upcoming show at the O2 Arena … to talk intellectual honesty, the crisis of meaning, and how public intellectualism became the new rock and roll.

    What a surprise that Harris — on his own volition or as arranged by the event’s publicity manager — should be plugging something so lucrative, something that’ll apparently make Harris a “rock star.”

  2. Ilíon says:

    This is a good point, as the phrase is unfortunate. When someone is being intellectually dishonest, it doesn’t mean they are being deceptive or sneaky. It simply means they are not being truly intellectual. They are not adopting a truly intellectual approach.

    The phrase is not unfortunate at all. And, pace Harris, to claim that someone is being intellectually dishonest is, indeed, to claim that they are lying. But, intellectual dishonesty is a special kind of lying — plain old mere lying is episodic, whereas intellectual dishonesty is systemic. Put another way, the mere liar is lying about some fact or other, but an intellectually dishonest is lying about the very nature of truth and of reason.

    Intellectual dishonesty is far worse than mere lying.

  3. TFBW says:

    There’s intellectual dishonesty, and there’s sophistry.

  4. Dhay says:

    From Sam Harris’ interview/’come see my event’ plug:

    I blame the left in large measure for the ascendance of the right wherever it’s ascendant, and I think Trump’s presidency would be unthinkable without the left and its failures.

    Ah yes, and why’s that?

    Just on a single point the left’s failure to honestly talk about Islamism and jihadism and what Barrack Obama and Hilary Clinton didn’t say in a reasonable vein about jihadism, that alone determined Trump’s presidency.

    Gosh, that alone determined Donald Trump’s presidency (and conversely Hillary Clinton’s non-presidency.) I note that a lifelong Democrat, Jerry Coyne, repeatedly stated his reluctance to vote for Hillary Clinton (though he reluctantly did vote for her); funny how her public stance on jihadism never seems to have featured in Coyne’s multi-pronged objections to Clinton — just enter “Hillary” in Coyne’s blog’s Search box, then view his posts from the pre-election period. I’d guess that Coyne disagrees with Harris’ claim that Clinton’s public stance or silence on jihadism was at all important, certainly it was not important enough for Coyne to mention.

    “… that alone …” says Harris. Yet in the next sentence and breath we discover “Quantum Harris” in action again, that “that alone determined” in one breath is followed by “overdetermined, impressively overdetermined” in the next:

    Trump’s victory in the election was overdetermined, impressively overdetermined. It was a narrow victory, but there 4 or 5 things that won him the crucial extra 70,000 votes that got him into the white house, and one of those things certainly was that Clinton seemed unable to utter a single honest sentence about Islam.

    ‘Overdetermined’ is not a word I have used myself, ever, but I find it means there were multiple causes:

    Overdetermination occurs when a single-observed effect is determined by multiple causes, any one of which alone would be sufficient to account for (“determine”) the effect.
    [Wikipedia]

    It’s both “that alone determined” and “4 or 5 things” determined that Trump got into the White House. Is it intellectually honest to flip between claiming one and only one cause and claiming several.

    *

    Harris is the guy who wrote an 18 August 2016 blog post entitled What Hillary Clinton Should Say about Islam and the “War on Terror”, where he kindly helps (or patronises) Hillary Clinton by writing for her “part of a speech that I think Hillary Clinton should deliver between now and November”. I’d say it has the hallmarks of him intending it to be a media article, the media wouldn’t touch it, he was forced to self-publish it on his blog.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2016/08/05/new-atheisms-obituary/#comment-14254

    It is not clear to me what message the right-wing and notoriously Islamophobic Harris was trying to give his fans — whether to vote for Clinton, vote for Trump, or to vote for Clinton only if she took Harris’, er, advice that she should become a mouthpiece for Harris’ views. The message Harris gave me was that Harris is arrogant, patronising and Islamophobic.

  5. Dhay says:

    Harris considers himself to be unfairly attacked; and often, indeed “fairly uniquely” often; with an “extreme degree” of unfairness:

    One constant has been that I, to a degree that seems fairly unique, manage to encounter opponents for whom it’s a major part of their strategy to misrepresent my actual views. … it seems to me that this happens to me to an extreme degree.

    It’s a big world out there, even in academic circles and the overlapping non-academic “public intellectual” circles; pundits abound and Harris is one of many such; were misrepresenting their opponents’ actual views a standard strategy of pundit-opponents to pundits, Harris would be encountering the strategy in something like the usual frequency and to the usual degree; oh, and many other pundits would have similar complaints to Harris, both regarding frequency and severity of misrepresentation.

    Strangely, Harris tells us he encounters opponents for whom it’s a major part of their strategy to misrepresent his actual views, encounters them fairly uniquely often, and he’s misrepresented to an extreme degree. If the frequency of attacks on a pundit by misrepresentation fall on a bell curve (as one would expect), Harris is telling us he’s a far outlier; and if the severity of attacks on a pundit by misrepresentation fall on a bell curve (as one would expect), Harris is telling us he’s a far outlier: which seems statistically highly unlikely if Harris is just another ordinary pundit guy.

    Just why would someone misrepresent another’s views? Sheer malice is one option, accidental misunderstanding is another; there’s probably more, but I’ll look at these two and wonder why ever should Harris, fairly uniquely often and to an extreme degree, attract malice? Or why should Harris, fairly uniquely often and to an extreme degree, be misunderstood? (Likewise whatever other options you conceived probable or possible.) If it’s happening to Harris fairly uniquely often and to an extreme degree, it’s on Harris’ own admission not happening much to his peers. Why, fairly uniquely and to an extreme degree, why just Harris?

    I reckon Harris has to be fairly uniquely and to an extreme degree responsible for how he is treated. Harris’ ‘poor little me, innocent and misunderstood’ looks rather implausible.

  6. Dhay says:

    Another ‘poor little me, innocent and misunderstood’ is Richard Carrier. In that Vox interview Sam Harris complains:

    One constant has been that I, to a degree that seems fairly unique, manage to encounter opponents for whom it’s a major part of their strategy to misrepresent my actual views. … it seems to me that this happens to me to an extreme degree.

    Carrier also describes his many opponents as misrepresenting his actual views, indeed he likes to give the impression that if only his critics would read and properly understand what he’s already written, they couldn’t possibly have a single criticism or point of disagreement. But Carrier has to deal with a stream of many “cranks”; or here, in “More Asscrankery from Tim O’Neill” this particular critic is an “asscrank”:

    How he responded to being caught lying and screwing up basic facts of history illustrates why he is an asscrank, a total tinfoil hatter, filled with slanderous rage and void of any competence and honesty …

    Phew, in the Introductory paragraph Carrier’s instantly feet-first into raging vitriol.

    In the following paragraph Carrier arguably describes himself as a “crank”:

    How to Detect a Crank

    Cranks tend to be obsessively wordy whiners who obsess over insults and personal honor, and thus respond to being challenged with elaborate slanders. When you catch them lying and screwing up, they build massive word walls devoid of relevance expressing only rage and anger and ad hominem speculation and excuses, consisting only of libelous insults, before or even in lieu of addressing any substantive facts of the matter. Which exactly describes his response article: O’Neill opens it with over 2000 words of childish whining and slander. Nothing substantively relevant, all ad hominem, hardly anything accurate or even true. He rage blogs, rather than reasons or attends to evidence or truth.

    https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/14324

    Carrier is not at all self-aware; if you can be bothered to read his massive word wall — his nearly 4000 words of childish whining and slander in his ad hominem rage blog response article — you will probably judge that Carrier’s method for identifying “cranks” identifies Carrier.

    *

    By Harris’ standard:

    To be intellectually honest requires that you apply the same standards to your own thinking that you would apply to others’. You’re holding yourself to the same standards of reasoning and consistency and evidence-based thinking that you hold others to. You’re not pointing out fallacies in other people’s arguments that you don’t notice or are unwilling to see in your own. So it’s a consistency across the board in how you judge the merits of arguments.

    By Harris’ standard, Carrier is intellectually dishonest, an exemplar of double standards, someone who berates his critics for shoddy intellectual behaviours which he displays himself.

  7. Ilíon says:

    Sometimes, when people complain that their expressed views are being misrepresented, the complaint is accurate. Other times, the complaint is *really* that the alleged misrepresenters are representing the views all-too-well.

    Remember, “He who says ‘A’ must say ‘B’” — That is, if some proposition ‘B’ logically follows from some proposition ‘A’, then he who asserts ‘A’ has also and simultaneously asserted ‘B’.

    Sometimes, a complaint of being misrepresented is really a complaint against the public airing of a logical entailment of what one has said.

  8. Dhay says:

    Anyone noticed the change of tack? It used to be, “Sam Harris, neuroscientist”: now, you can take your pick of a couple of alternative self-designations, neither of which includes “neuroscientist”, which I assume has been quietly de-emphasised.

    H/T PZ Myers, we find that Sam Harris is on the Editorial Board of the Evolutionary Psychological Science journal, where he is designated — either self-designated or designated by some admin and he hasn’t considered it worthwhile to correct it — as “Sam Harris, Independent Scholar”.

    https://www.springer.com/psychology/personality+&+social+psychology/journal/40806?detailsPage=editorialBoard

    Quite apart from wondering what expertise in evolutionary psychology Harris has — none, so far as I can tell — I confess to being puzzled regarding what Harris might be or is independently studying — nothing, so far as I can tell.

    And “independent scholar” puts me in mind of this quote by Tim O’Neill about Richard Carrier:

    … For those who aren’t aware of him, Richard Carrier is a New Atheist blogger who has a post-graduate degree in history from Columbia and who, once upon a time, had a decent chance at an academic career. Unfortunately he blew it by wasting his time being a dilettante who self-published New Atheist anti-Christian polemic and dabbled in fields well outside his own; which meant he never built up the kind of publishing record essential for securing a recent doctorate graduate a university job. Now that even he recognises that his academic career crashed and burned before it got off the ground, he styles himself as an “independent scholar”, probably because that sounds a lot better than “perpetually unemployed blogger”. …

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2016/07/07/new-atheist-scholar-raked-over-the-coals/

    A lot of that surely applies to Harris. Though I suppose Harris might with good reason refer to himself as a “perpetually self-employed chat show host and participant”, which podcast route bloggers are increasingly turning to.

    But despite the claim on the EPS site that Harris is an “independent scholar” — an academic, in other words — in the interview linked in the OP Harris declines “academic” in favour of “public intellectual”:

    There is definitely a lionisation of the super well-known academics underway at the moment. Do you accept the term ‘academic’ to describe yourself?

    There’s an even more pretentious term to describe me, I guess, which is ‘public intellectual’. Which is at least more accurate in a sense that I’m not affiliated with a university, I’m not a professor. So I guess I’m not an academic. Even though much of my writing and speaking may sound pretty academic to people.

    While describing oneself as a public intellectual can sound kind of pretentious, I think this is a role that we recognise in society that we want to value and validate and it’s often filled by scientists who are trying to communicate science in as broad a possible way to the public. So having the mode of being educators, but it also puts them in the mode of debating public policy when relevant.

    Much of my work has been talking about the conflict between religion and science, and so the generic term ‘public intellectual’ is probably the best we’ve got.

    Harris says, “public intellectual” is an even more pretentious term to describe himself than “academic”; then says, “public intellectual” is just “kind of pretentious”; then he embraces the term, it is his self-designation.

    The less pretentious term is “intelligent layman”, but I suppose that lacks the PR cachet of “public intellectual”. And “chat show host and participant” fits nicely.

    *

    I am minded of the discussion of a radio chat show’s panelists some years back, in which each was named, together with what distinction fitted them for the role: Lionel Blair was acidly described as “famous for being famous”.

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