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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


The Dishonest Lure of Coupling Sam Harriswith Donald Trump in Order to Attract Attention

David Lane

What I find peculiar is that Torres is criticizing Sam Harris for being a public intellectual, willing to voice his ideas so that anyone can hear them.

My old friend, Peter McWilliams (1949-2000), who was a pioneer in advocating for the legalization of medical marijuana when he was dying from AIDS (it alleviated his nausea so he could digest his prescribed medicines), once wrote a book with a title that I think about often: You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought. Although at first glance it sounds like just another New Age platitude, on closer inspection it serves as a useful reminder that the most valuable commodities that we have as humans is our attention and our time. Both are too often in short supply.

Yet, as each of us are too readily aware, social media only survives when it can somehow kidnap our mind for a set duration. There are a variety of methods for achieving this, but one of the most pernicious hooks is what is colloquially termed “click bait.” Advertisers are especially good at trying to lure new customers to buy their product, often coupling what is on offer with a biological desire, such as the 1990s advertisements for Old Milwaukee Beer with the now infamous Swedish Bikini Team.

It is an old ploy, no doubt, but today with such a worldwide explosion of information available at any moment, the multifarious tactics that are employed have become increasingly deceptive. The reasons for this are obvious since we are now bombarded with a cornucopia of options anytime we log on to our computers or check our smart phones.

While we should expect such dishonesty in television advertisements, since it is the nature of the capitalistic game, it is disconcerting when it is used so blatantly and transparently in erstwhile intellectual opinion pieces.

I never would have imagined writing this article, except today I came upon a headline (via one my news feeds) with one very odd comparison: “Sam Harris and Donald Trump: They're completely different ... yet very much alike” published by Salon (August 16, 2020). Having been an avid reader and listener to Sam Harris for some sixteen years and knowing his oeuvre quite well, I was naturally intrigued to see how and in what ways he was Trump's quasi-doppelganger. Given that the essay was penned by Phil Torres, I was expecting a systematic and persuasive comparative analysis. I was wrong. Indeed, I was astonished at its utter vacuity and was somewhat startled that an article so lacking in precision and accountability would see the light of day on Salon. But, as Dorothy opined back in 1939, “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.”

In a world awash in fake news (or at least in claims of such), it is particularly disconcerting to witness an academic take-down that—and I will try to put this politely—lacks even a modicum of intellectual integrity.

So, let's start at the beginning. How are Sam Harris and Donald Trump alike?

Here is Torres' thesis in a nutshell with a slight paraphrase to include both personages: They “withdrew from expressing [their] opinions through platforms designed to ensure a minimum level of intellectual integrity.”

Torres takes Trump to task for the following: “For Trump, Twitter and his rallies are much preferred over media appearances, except with Fox News allies like Sean Hannity and the good people of 'Fox & Friends.' The reason is obvious: Trump wants to communicate directly with his target audience, without his message being altered, modified, filtered or fact-checked by the so-called mainstream media. This enables him to say whatever he wants with impunity. He can lie, mislead, opine, spread misinformation and propaganda all he wants without having to be held accountable, or at least not in a way that exposes him to the truth.”

As for Sam Harris, Torres seems deeply disturbed that Harris has opted to spend most of his time hosting a popular podcast where he interviews (and occasionally jostles, though Torres neglects to mention this) scientists, philosophers, ethicists, religionists, doctors, and other distinguished thinkers. Torres believes that Harris has nefarious reasons for focusing in this area since it has “enabled him to say whatever he wants, whether or not the message is misleading, the claims are factually erroneous, the reasoning is fallacious and so on. In other words, he figured out a way to bypass intellectual accountability—to opine as much as he wants about topics he doesn't understand without peer-review, editorial oversight or other quality-control measures.”

When I read Torres' screed I was bewildered. Are we talking about the same Sam Harris? The scholar who has engaged in lively debates and discussions with Ezra Klein, David Deutsch, Jordan Peterson, William Lane Craig, Noam Chomsky, and the list goes on (and, oops, of course Ben Affleck).

What I find peculiar is that Torres is criticizing Sam Harris for being a public intellectual, willing to voice his ideas so that anyone can hear them. His readers and listeners are also free, lest we forget, to disagree with him and are given a variety of options to do so in this Internet age. It is ironic that Harris is being criticized for not publishing enough in academic journals which are rarely read or seen by outsiders who either don't have subscriptions or cannot find the requisite access fee to read beyond the mere abstract.

Yet, in reading Torres' piece closely, I noticed that it is filled with a series of unnecessary ad hominem attacks and reductive summaries which give the reader a false picture of what Sam Harris has accomplished in his career.

For example, watch carefully Torres' writing in the following since it is packed full of mistaken conjectures: “Sam Harris began his career, metaphorically speaking, by winning the lottery: He wrote a mediocre diatribe against Islam (without expertise on either Islam or Islamic terrorism) that was published at exactly the right time.”

First, having read Sam Harris book, The End of Faith, when it first came out in 2004 it is not exclusively about Islam at all, but rather as the subtitle rightly suggests, Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Though born Jewish, Harris is harshest on his own religion's notion of god, as when he writes, “A close study of our holy books reveals that the God of Abraham is a ridiculous fellow—capricious, petulant, and cruel—and one with whom a covenant is little guarantee of health or happiness. If these are the characteristics of God, then the worst among us have been created far more in his image than we ever could have hoped.”

Torres' reductive summary not only gives the wrong-headed impression about Harris' first book, but overlooks the key chapters on the general nature of religious belief, the horrors done in the name of Jesus, the collusion of the Christian right in American politics, the degradation of women's rights, etc. Why are these pertinent sections not mentioned?

I was raised in a Roman Catholic household, received communion and confirmation, attended Catholic schools and even taught in their high schools, and while Harris is clearly critical of fundamentalist beliefs in Islam he doesn't flinch when it came to Catholicism or Judaism or any other ism (like totalitarianism) which disallows rationality and critical thinking.

I suspect the real reason Harris' book “won the lottery” is because it tackled head-on the mass acceptance of religious dogmas without truly thinking about what they portend and what they do to human liberties. No, Torres is wrong. The End of Faith is not solely a diatribe against Islam, but rather a wake-up call to look at any and all religious claims with a skeptical eye. It is for that reason the book has become (and still is) so popular. Does Torres admit this? No, because he is more interested in creating a thumbnail caricature of his own making about Sam Harris instead of truly thinking through the many ideas that Harris has brought forth.

Torres lashes out widely about how Harris is misinformed and that he only wishes to preach to the choir his own views, forgetting in the process that in his numerous podcasts a number of his guests have criticized him on air and without being edited out. Even the distinguished British physicist, David Deutsch, took Sam Harris to task over his Ph.D. thesis later book, The Moral Landscape, where he disagreed with him on why humans are moral and the very reasons he was motivated to write the book in the first place. How did Harris respond to this? Did he shut him down? To the contrary, he saw points of agreement in what Deutsch was pointing out and even included the interview in his latest book, Making Sense.

But reading over Torres' tirade, it becomes apparent that what upsets him the most about Sam Harris is his views on I.Q. testing and its implications, particularly since he had given a platform to Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Torres is particularly incensed that Harris could agree with some of the book's findings since it showed ethnic and racial differences in I.Q. scores. Torres then provides an incendiary quote directly from Sam Harris that he culled from Josh Zepps' interview of him:

“And as bad luck would have it, but as you absolutely predict on the basis of just sheer biology, different populations of people, different racial groups, different ethnicities, different groups of people who have been historically isolated from one another geographically, test differently in terms of their average on this measure of cognitive function. So if you're gonna give the Japanese and the Ashkenazi Jews and African Americans and Hawaiians … you're gonna take populations who differ genetically—and we know they differ genetically, that's not debatable—and you give them IQ tests, it would be a miracle if every single population had the exact same mean IQ. And African Americans come out about a standard deviation lower than white Americans. A standard deviation for IQ is about 15 points. So, if it's normed to the general population, predominantly white population for an average of 100, the average in the African American community has been around 85.”

But even here Torres' displays his own disingenuousness by claiming that he quoted Harris in full, when in point of fact, Harris goes on to say the following as a necessary caveat and clarification,

“. . . But in any case this is an annoying finding. Now I happen to think there's no reason to seek data like this. There is nothing good to do with this data. There's some obviously wrong conclusions that people want to make on this, on the basis of this data.”

And then to top this off, Harris goes so far as to say that

“For instance, it is in fact true there's so much more variation within any population on everything but but [sic] in particular for intelligence than there is between populations. . . You actually know nothing about a person's intelligence by being told the color of his skin.”

Does Torres then include Harris' clear and translucent conclusion? No. Instead he comes up with his own defamatory conjecture and puts it in the mouthpiece of Harris by saying (without proper attribution since he made it up himself), “There is simply no other interpretation of this than 'Black people are genetically dumber.' What's worse is that Harris presents this as if it's the unavoidable, obviously true inference from the indisputable facts.”

But Sam Harris said nothing of the kind, yet Torres is creating a strawman fiction of his own making to underline his wobbly thesis that Harris is “Trumpian” in his strategy of avoiding peer reviewed criticisms. The deep irony here is that because Sam Harris provides his opinions for free and allows them be circulated anywhere, anytime, and any place he is much more open to peer criticism than just having two or three academicians provide their analysis. In other words, Sam Harris is doing an intellectual trapeze act without a net and doing so for a huge audience to see where it works and when it doesn't.

Sadly, though, Torres isn't an honest interlocutor since he cherry picks what he believes backs up his claims, providing the reader with a completely wrong impression of Harris' intellectual acumen—the very thing he lambasts Harris for doing.

Even Andrew Sullivan, the noted British-American author and essayist, saw how Harris was being misrepresented on his discussions with Murray and I.Q. scores. Comments Sullivan writing for New York Magazine,

“Where I do draw the line is the attempt to smear legitimate conservative ideas and serious scientific arguments as the equivalent of peddling white supremacy and bigotry. And Klein actively contributes to that stigmatization and demonization. He calls the science of this 'race science' as if it were some kind of illicit and illegitimate activity, rather than simply “science.” When he ran an article slamming Charles Murray and Sam Harris for having a completely reasonable podcast conversation about this, the piece didn't just try to counter their arguments, it claimed that Murray and Harris were peddling in 'pseudoscientific racialist speculation.' Klein still misrepresents his opponents, by insisting that Murray and Reich and Harris are arguing in favor of 'the idea that America's racial inequalities are driven by genetic differences between the races and not by anything we did, or have to undo.' This is demonstrably untrue. Each of them fully accepts that environment has a role to play. He goes on to equate the work of these scientists with the “most ancient justification for bigotry and racial inequality.' He even uses racism to dismiss Murray and Harris: they are, after all, 'two white men.'”

Sullivan concludes,

“That liberalism is integral to our future as a free society—and it should not falsely be made contingent on something that can be empirically disproven. It must allow for the truth of genetics to be embraced, while drawing the firmest of lines against any moral or political abuse of it. When that classical liberalism is tarred as inherently racist because it cannot guarantee equality of outcomes, and when scientific research is under attack for revealing the fuller truth about our world, we are in deep trouble. Because we are robbing liberalism of the knowledge and the moderation it will soon desperately need to defend itself.”

Torres repeatedly claims that Harris is out of his depth on a host of issues and knows nothing about even some of the subjects he has been trained in. Alleges Torres,

“This is nothing short of blatant anti-intellectualism. Even with respect to topics that Harris supposedly knows about, such as terrorism, philosophy and neuroscience, his ideas have been almost entirely rejected by academics. His understanding of the root causes of Islamic terrorism clashes violently with the best scholarship on the topic, his book on the 'moral landscape' led Patricia Churchland (one of the more notable contemporary philosophers) to say 'I think Sam is just a child when it comes addressing morality,' and his understanding of history—both in the U.S. and the Middle East—is deeply impoverished.”

But when one goes to see Churchland's quote in context from Julian Baggini interview of her, the reader will become dismayed since instead of providing an informed critique of The Moral Landscape, the famed neurophilosopher instead indulges in a projective psychological analysis that provides nothing of substance when she suggests,

“I think Sam is just a child when it comes addressing morality. I think he hasn't got a clue. And I think part of the reason that he kind of ran amuck on all this is that, as you and I well know, trashing religion is like shooting fish in a barrel. If Chris Hitchens can just sort of slap it off in an afternoon then any moderately sensible person can do the same. He wrote that book in a very clear way although there were lots of very disturbing things in it. I think he thought that, heck, it's not that hard to figure these things out. Morality: how hard can that be? Religion was dead easy. And it's just many orders of magnitude more difficult.”

Having read everything Patricia and Paul Churchland have published (I was teaching at Warren College and securing my Ph.D. at UCSD when the famous, married philosophers first arrived in 1984), particularly her later books on morality, I find it disconcerting that Torres believes an offhand one liner somehow puts Harris in his place. To the contrary, it doesn't reflect well on Churchland who herself has been at the biting end of one-off statements, such as when Noam Chomsky lambasted her philosophical views as useless in a few off the cuff remarks. Of course, it is intellectually lazy to play this sort of tag you are it kind of name calling game, since the Net is filled with comments such as the one Jimbo provides in assailing Churchland,

“From the tenor of this ad hominem, err-critique of Harris and his book The Moral Landscape, it sounds like he struck a nerve of Patti Churchland. Or a synapse between the two. Or perhaps Harris's pedantic treatment of morality tasted a tad too saccharine to Patsy back at the Academy. After all, morality is really hard. But so is neuroscience and Patty forgets that Harris published on this too--the paper on belief using fMRI in a scientific journal, the one where he didn't use shooting-fish-in-a-barrel arguments like in The End of Faith, the one that excited Oliver Sacks (that hack). Surely the Churchlady read that one.”

Torres is doing himself no favors by shortchanging Harris' views simply to champion a thesis (Trump and Harris are kindred spirits) that has more holes in than a yard of Swiss cheese. Yes, we should debate and criticize those we disagree with. But let's be fair, reasonable, and honest in our appraisements. Sad that in our current cancel culture, we don't take a larger perspective and integrate the totality of one's work instead of slipping down to one-line appraisements and out of context quotes to get more readers to our questionable critiques. If we are going to click-bait each other, perhaps it would be best to place something on the hook that is worthy of chewing and swallowing, especially since time and attention are valuable properties that we shouldn't waste. To be sure, Donald Trump and Sam Harris are both human beings, but intellectually and morally they are poles apart.

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