Sam Harris Has a Problem
I would wager a lot of money that Sam Harris has never read Love’s Labour’s Lost or seen it performed. But if he had, he would recall Holofernes: the loquacious and self-important pseudo-intellectual who in Act IV, according to Harold Bloom, “touches an apotheosis in boasting of his own rhetorical talents.”
This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions: these are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing of occasion. But the gift is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am thankful for it.
Although Holofernes appears in only a handful of scenes, he is nevertheless essential to Shakespeare’s comedy, which is best read today as a trenchant satirization of the empty rhetorical flourishes of the over-learned. Bloom has observed that “the descendants of Holofernes, enduringly absurd, were once to be found profusely on academic faculties, and I have a certain nostalgia for them, as they did no harm.” He might also have recognized that these absurd descendants have escaped the ivory tower and now exist in full view of the literate public, where they have taken on a new capacity for harm. The “foolish extravagant spirit” that threatens modern discourse is not the jargon-infused pedant of the university; it is the public intellectual whose fundamental vapidness is masked not by Latin phrases and obscure literary references but by smooth, citation-free rhetoric and by celebrity.
Yet then and now, the danger is the same: the people we look to for understanding don’t actually know anything.
A recent episode of Sam Harris’ podcast Making Sense features Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and, most recently, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis. According to Harris’ website, he and Diamond discuss
the rise and fall of civilizations,…political polarization, disparities in civilizational progress, the prospect that there may be biological differences between populations, the precariousness of democracy in the U.S., the lack of a strong political center, immigration policy, and other topics.
Most of these categories have little to do with Diamond’s work. Rather, they concern Harris and his well-worn personal grievances with “The Left.” These grievances cover everything from “PC culture” and feminism to psychological research methods and immigration policy. What holds them all together is the following unifying idea: Progressive opinion-makers are dishonest hacks willing to destroy the livelihoods and reputations of those who deign to question the elite liberal consensus on hot-button issues concerning race, gender, culture, and politics, and their political correctness is destroying the country and rendering reasoned debate impossible.
Like most episodes of Making Sense, this one consists mostly of Harris rehashing the myriad ways he feels he has been mistreated or misunderstood by progressives. As any consistent Harris listener can attest, the man sustains an immense amount of self-righteous anger over this. The problem is the measure of anger outpaces his understanding of the topics he’s angry about.
Like his late friend Christopher Hitchens, Harris is a gifted rhetorician who possesses the preternatural ability to speak not only in complete sentences but complete paragraphs. This talent can be mesmerizing, but it masks something The Hitch never had to hide and of which the Diamond episode is a prime example: a general hollowness of mind reinforced by a stunning lack of intellectual rigor and curiosity.
Harris has been a celebrity of sorts for 15 years now, since 2004, when he published The End of Faith. His was the original New Atheist screed, soon followed by similar books of varying merit from Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the aforementioned Hitchens.
New Atheism itself was a rather slight intellectual movement and thus fizzled out quickly, but not before Harris had cemented himself as the arch critic of fundamentalist Islam—a figure willing to challenge the progressive shibboleths of tolerance and multiculturalism that are, as Harris has put it, getting us killed by the thousands. This contrarian stance has steadily intensified over the years (it went into overdrive in 2014 after Ben Affleck famously suggested that Harris is an Islamophobe on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher) and today encompasses much more than the simple critique of “Islamism” that made his name.
Harris’ association with the Intellectual Dark Web, his constant focus on “identity politics” and “liberal delusion,” and his obsession with his own “bad-faith” critics, just to name a few examples, have made him the bête noire of the left. And this open break with the liberal class of which he has been a member throughout his career has made him more popular than ever. Well over a million people follow Harris on Twitter and listen to each of his podcasts. But as his platform has grown, he has ventured into areas far outside his core competencies, which are limited to mindfulness/meditation and perhaps (though this is debatable) certain subdisciplines of neuroscience and philosophy of mind. As a result, Harris often finds himself in avoidable confrontations with experts on controversial topics about which he knows very little.
This means that much of the criticism of Harris currently out there is misplaced. In recent years he’s been repeatedly assailed as a bigot and racist. He is neither. The trouble with Harris is more prosaic: he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The Diamond episode is just one example of how Harris’ issues are mostly the result of his own ignorance. The problem isn’t that he’s not an expert at everything—obviously no one is. The problem is that Harris is deeply assertive, outlandishly so, in precisely the areas that are thorniest for non-experts to meaningfully wade into.
The episode begins with Harris asking Diamond about his career and a couple of his books, but within the first half hour the conversation turns abruptly to “race and IQ,” a perennial favorite. Harris asserts, as he has many times before, that it simply must be the case that there is significant genetic variation in intelligence across “populations” (by this he means “race,” crudely defined), and that to deny this is to ignore clear science in favor of one’s ideological precommitments.
Diamond’s response is typical of anyone who’s spent time studying the issue:
Theoretically that’s a possibility. The problem is that despite a lot of effort by a lot of people to establish differences in, say, cognitive skills, differences at a population level have not been established. Instead there is an obvious mass of cultural effects on cognitive skills.
Harris doesn’t argue for the opposite view so much as change the subject. He offers a half-baked defense of Charles Murray (who suffers from “publicity problems, really, in the end”); muses about how, if not for a certain kind of neurobiological luck, he might have been homeless; and laments that people like Murray who argue that blacks are dumber than whites are unfairly branded as white supremacists.
Harris is passionate when asserting that intelligence differs by race, even while arguing that he doesn’t care about the subject at all. As he explained in a now-infamous private email exchange with Ezra Klein, which he made the bizarre decision to publish, “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.” He went on to note “I’m mindful of the risk of conveying the wrong impression: that I have a special interest in the study of racial difference. As I hope I’ve made clear, I do not.”
But how can you perceive that a terrible injustice has been done to an honest scholar if you aren’t interested in the underlying scholarship? On what basis can you know whether the scholar is honest? How can you hope not to create the impression that you have a “special interest” in a subject that you spend dozens of hours debating before an audience of millions of people?
Harris would like to be lauded for focusing on the antagonism to science rather than the science itself—but this is epistemologically silly. How can you know the science has been antagonized if you don’t know the science itself? Harris can’t skip to the conclusion that Murray’s been mischaracterized if he’s unclear about what the correct scientific characterization of Murray’s work should be.
This isn’t the first time Harris has jumped headfirst into a debate he’s ill-prepared for. In another of Harris’ unfortunate email confrontations, this one in 2015, an exasperated Noam Chomsky wonders why Harris went looking for debate on the ethics of war and terrorism without familiarizing himself with Chomsky’s work: “If you had read further before launching your accusations, the usual procedure in work intended to be serious, you would have discovered that I also reviewed the substantial evidence.” (This is Chomsky responding to Harris’ claim that Chomsky ignored relevant evidence.) Chomsky went on to lament that there’s no point trying to have a productive dialogue with someone who hasn’t gone to the trouble of educating himself on the matter being discussed.
I agree with you completely that we cannot have a rational discussion of these matters, and that it is too tedious to pretend otherwise. And I agree that I am litigating all points (all real, as far as we have so far determined) in a “plodding and accusatory way.” That is, of course, a necessity in responding to your quite serious published accusations that are all demonstrably false, and as I have reviewed, false in a most interesting way: namely, you issue lectures condemning others for ignoring “basic questions” that they have discussed for years, in my case decades, whereas you have refused to address them and apparently do not even allow yourself to understand them. That’s impressive.
When he’s not challenging Chomsky on his life’s work or otherwise offering half-baked ethical defenses of neoconservatism or torture, Harris might be found defending ineffective airport security measures, “arguing that the TSA should stop doing secondary screenings of people who stand no reasonable chance of being Muslim jihadists.” Yet when he debated Bruce Schneier, a security expert who opposes profiling, it became immediately clear that Harris was out of his depth. In response to Harris’ usual lecture on the dangers of political correctness, Schneier said “Honestly, I don’t care about the political correctness of this. Profiling is bad security. I understand that it intuitively seems obvious to you, and that your gut tells you it’s better, but it’s not. And I am going to continue to explain why.” True to his word, Schneier went on to show that Harris did not understand the basic analytical framework of the debate he himself started.
Here’s a sampling:
Schneier: It turns out designing good security systems is as complicated as I make it out to be. … In your response…you make a big deal about two points that are unimportant. One, it doesn’t matter that the correlation between Muslim and terrorist is a causal relationship. We’re talking about a detection system. You’re proposing that we can detect attribute A (terrorist) by using attribute B (Muslim). That’s what matters, not whether or not there’s a causal arrow or which direction it points. In using the word “correlation” I was giving you the benefit of the doubt; it’s a lower bar. And two, “the probability that the next terrorist will be a Muslim” doesn’t matter either. … You’re proposing an airport passenger screening system with two tiers of security. Everyone gets subjected to the lower tier, but only people who meet your profile, “Muslims, or anyone who could conceivably be Muslim,” would be subjected to the higher tier.
Harris: Yes, and anyone else whose bag or behavior seems to merit follow up (e.g., the Hindawi affair).
Schneier: That’s behavioral profiling, completely different from what we’re discussing here. I want to stick with your ethnic profiling system.
Harris: Well, I disagree. And the Israelis, who are generally credited with being the masters of behavioral profiling, appear to disagree as well. A person’s behavior can only be interpreted in context. … The distinction between behavioral profiling and everything else that can be noticed about a person is a myth. However, we can table this issue for the time being.
Schneier: You can disagree, but I assure you that the Israelis understand the difference between ethnic profiling and behavioral profiling. Yes, they do both together, but that doesn’t mean you can confuse them. But let’s stick to topic: ethnic profiling.
The entire conversation is worth reading as a prime example of the bullheaded power of intuition in the face of countervailing evidence. In the end, as Schneier put it, the “only argument” Harris made for his profiling system was that “it’s common sense.” Yet, as Schneier warns:
This stuff is hard, and security — especially complex technological security — is often unclear. One of the principles I most hoped to explain in this dialogue is that intuition and common sense are poor guides to security trade-offs. What might seem to be a good idea often is not, and what seems to be a bad idea sometimes is. Beware of security by intuition and of security by emotion. Beware of generalizations. Beware of seemingly unrelated complexity.
An over-reliance on intuition has become a sort of calling card for Harris. In the Diamond podcast, Harris responds to a point about global geopolitical instability, the subject of Diamond’s new book, by invoking the apparent danger of pouring milkshakes on the occasional semi-famous asshole. The implication is that the second thing is as portentous as the first.
Diamond: Brexit threatens big problems in Britain, before what’s happening in the U.S. will cause big problems. … Brexit risks the falling apart of the UK, secession of Scotland and even secession of Northern Ireland.
Harris: There’s also such a breakdown of civility that is shocking to me and it’s so cavalier. … There’s been this seeming epidemic of people throwing milkshakes at politicians they don’t like, in the UK especially. … What that is, actually, whether the perpetrators know it or not, is a mock assassination. … But more important than that, it’s a breakdown of civility such that there are very few stops past a milkshake between where we are now and actual political violence.
No well-adjusted individual would sanction the use of milkshakes this way, but it’s absurd to suggest “there are very few stops” between such a thing and homicide. Because Harris can’t talk intelligently about the actual political violence that would arise were Scottish or Irish nationalists to attempt seriously to challenge Her Majesty’s Government after Brexit, he reverts to a trusty non-sequitur: the critique of “liberal intolerance” he has made a thousand times before and that anyone could make while sleeping.
It is frustrating that Harris doesn’t detect how intellectually shallow this is. You don’t even need to be an expert to know that “actual political violence” doesn’t start with airborne dairy products. On the contrary, direct action and public protests have a long and storied history of keeping body counts low. (Someone more polished than Harris might recall Gandhi’s role in limiting violence during partition, or the 1960s campus “radicals” that helped to end the Vietnam War.) Milkshakes are not stepping stones to murder—no serious thinker would ever even hint at such a thing. Later in the podcast, Harris misses the mark again by offering an embarrassing analysis of Pinochet as Stalin, who he then analogizes, bizarrely, to modern American Democrats.
How do we explain this combination: Harris’ studied incapacity to meaningfully engage an expert in his or her areas of expertise, and the abject cluelessness of his analysis whenever he does?
It’s possible he doesn’t read. This is a serious charge, I know. But consider the evidence. In a recent AMA episode (#13), Harris responds to the question “What are your reading habits?” without naming a single book or even a genre, although he does assure us that “I read a lot” and that “I’m just constantly reading. … It’s just one of the main things I do.” He goes on to explain that much of this “reading” is actually “listening” (to audiobooks, which is not the same thing) and that he often gives up on a book right away if it’s not “satisfying,” which is what you do if you have a low tolerance for challenging subject matter.
When asked in an earlier AMA what kind of “art, music, and fiction” he likes, Harris all but acknowledges that he’s not really into all that. “I love music but I almost never listen to it.” He has no time, you see. “I’m afraid fiction falls by the way for the same reason.” But don’t worry, he used to read. “Fiction is really my roots,” he claims. “Back in the day, I was very into Kafka and Nabokov and Joseph Conrad. … Back in the day, I was a big fan of The Lord of the Rings, and I also watch things in that genre. I watch Game of Thrones. … I’ve also read a few plays recently.”
None of this is to say that Harris literally doesn’t read. I’m sure he reads (or at least listens to) things all the time. But take another look at the answers above and ask yourself whether these reading habits are the kind you’d expect of someone whose job it is to tell us what to think.
The authority of the public intellectual derives from our collective deference to uncommon erudition. From Edmund Wilson to Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag, we listen to them not because of some special expertise but because they’ve read and thought more widely than we have and can draw, at their best, from a vast reservoir of knowledge to make a case. Hitchens was Harris’ ideological twin in many ways and may well have followed him into the Intellectual Dark Web had he survived. He would have been right at home hurling invective at the American left, but he would have quoted Spinoza and Orwell and Philip Larkin while doing so.
Harris is a specialist, and like all other specialists he knows a great deal about one or two things and essentially nothing about anything else. This is not per se objectionable; there is nothing wrong with narrow expertise. One objects only when the specialist pretends to a more eclectic intellectualism than he has done the hard work to develop, when he demands a degree of deference and respect wholly incommensurate with his level of learning. It’s exactly this type of hubris that causes Harris to believe that he invalidated David Hume’s foundational is/ought distinction by simply observing that we can’t act on our values without knowing the facts. It’s what made him say aloud that there’s a 50/50 chance in the next decade of a “civil war” in France (between Muslims and everyone else) in which a million people (!) die. If these are not examples of a special sort of ignorance, what is?
Like Holofernes, Harris hides a vast ignorance with a vast vocabulary and silky turns of phrase. He is dangerous because millions of us listen to him, even when there’s no reason to. Acknowledging this fact is the first step toward achieving the productive “experiments in conversation” that Harris champions but rarely delivers.
The singular quotation of Shakespeare’s comedy, and one of the most dazzling linguistic achievements in the English Canon, appears in Act I of Love’s Labour’s Lost, where the word “light” is used in four distinct senses: “Light seeking light doth light of light beguile.” Or, as translated by the critic Harry Levin, “intellect, seeking wisdom, cheats eyesight out of daylight.”
The Holoferneses of the world have been plying their trade out in the open with great success for centuries. The tricks deployed by the talking heads seen on screens and heard through earphones in 2019 are, at bottom, the same ones used by the cloistered scholars of the late Middle Ages.
In all places and for all time, real knowledge has been hard to come by, and recognizing a Holofernes when you see one isn’t easy. It takes all the light you can get.
Jonathan Rash is an attorney in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @EthanAllenHaw.