Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Is Sam Harris a close-minded fundamentalist?

In response to the many criticisms he received in response to his book The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris issues a challenge in the form of an essay competition. Entrants would write letters to Harris in an attempt to change his mind on the central thesis of the book. If an entrant was successful in changing his mind, they would win a prize of $10,000. If he remained unconvinced, the best essay would still be published on Harris’ website and the author would receive $1,000. Subsequently a reader offered to match the prize stakes. For convincing him, you would net $20,000 or the best entry would now receive a $2,000 prize. The closing date was February 9th so you are too late if you have a knock-down argument. In an effort to be honest, Harris has asked the philosopher Russel Blackford, who has been very critical of the Moral Landscape to judge the submissions. Blackford will also evaluate Harris’ response to the essay.

In response to this challenge Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership (dafuq?) at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has published an article claiming that any change of mind on Harris’ part is exceedingly unlikely. This is a fairly trivial claim. It is unlikely that a person who has authored a book on a topic, and feels the criticisms were bad enough that he offered 10k to try to illicit a good one, is lacking confidence in his position. Haidt has offered to pay the $10,000 (not sure if he upped his offer after the prize doubled) if Harris actually does change his mind. Such is his confidence that a change of mind will not happen.

None of that is particularly interesting. What is interesting is the means by which Haidt attempts to back up his conviction. Haidt make a case for our passions ruling our reasoning, seemly attempting to suggest that mind changing is all but impossible once a person has become emotionally invested in the argument. I’m sure Haidt is correct in a general sense, that our passions heavily influence our reasoning, but I don’t think he is correct in the degree he is suggesting. People can and do change their minds, even on issues central to their lives. It takes work to guard against bias and it is not likely to ever be fully effective but reason can prevail. He then goes on to criticise the language used by the likes of Harris and Dawkins for being too lawyerly and aimed at persuasion. He is surprised that champions of reason and science are not laying out arguments with all the reservation and caveat that a standard scientific publication would exhibit. Either Haidt is stunningly ignorant of both the point of a book aimed at the general public and the editorial process or he is being disingenuous here. He also felt that these atheist authors seemed “angry”. I know, I know, this again. Sigh.

It is at this point that Haidt runs completely off the rails. He performed a word analysis on the most popular books by several authors including Harris. He counted up all the certainty words and drew the breathtakingly unscientific conclusion that there was a direct correlation between the incidence of these words and the certainty of the author employing them. The words used in the search were:

absolute, absolutely, accura*, all, altogether, always, apparent, assur*, blatant*, certain*, clear, clearly, commit, commitment*, commits, committ*, complete, completed, completely, completes, confidence, confident, confidently, correct*, defined, definite, definitely, definitive*, directly, distinct*, entire*, essential, ever, every, everybod*, everything*, evident*, exact*, explicit*, extremely, fact, facts, factual*, forever, frankly, fundamental, fundamentalis*, fundamentally, fundamentals, guarant*, implicit*, indeed, inevitab*, infallib*, invariab*, irrefu*, must, mustnt, must’nt, mustn’t, mustve, must’ve, necessar*, never, obvious*, perfect*, positiv*, precis*, proof, prove*, pure*, sure*, total, totally, true, truest, truly, truth*, unambigu*, undeniab*, undoubt*, unquestion*, wholly

The Results:

Oh no! Harris is more certain than right-wing nuts like Beck, Hannity and Coulter. He must be a super-fundamentalist! An angry super-fundamentalist!
To illustrate just how ridiculous this approach is consider the following two paragraphs:

“I am certain that my knowledge on this subject is altogether insufficient to confidently express an opinion. While I may be wholly unqualified to make any definite claims on this subject, and I would never attempt to do so, my initial reaction is that this claim is true. However, I am never satisfied with initial reactions and I always try to learn enough to be able to at least evaluate the essential claims of all the major perspectives on the issue.”

“Jesus is lord. Jesus is my savior. I feel pity for those atheists who will roast in hell. If only they knew how stupid and rebellious they are being. They are 100% wrong. I am 100% right. I have no doubt about this. It is not possible for them to be any more wrong. God does not forgive them just because they don’t think they are doing anything wrong. They will roast regardless.“

According to the kind of analysis Haidt seemed to think was useful, the author of the first paragraph is far more certain than the author of the second, who presumably is not certain at all.

There is another rather obvious problem with certainty. Sometimes things are unambiguous. It is ok to be certain of established facts.
"I am absolutely positive that murdering people for fun is generally considered a bad thing."
Most people do not need to be shown studies or polls and will accept the claim above as uncontentious. It is not dogmatic or close-minded to be certain in this case. It is fair that many of the topics Harris speaks on are not so clear cut but this is clearly another flaw in Haidt's approach.
Yet another problem is that Haidt has not accounted for negations. E.g. "I am not certain" has the same certainty score as "I am certain" by Haidt's analysis.

All in all, Haidt's attempt to label people he doesn't like for ideological reasons as close-minded or fundamentalist is just plain embarrassing.There is also the wonderful irony that Haidt is $10,000 dollars certain that Harris won't change his mind.

Haidt's article:
Russell Blackford:
The Moral Landscape Challenge:
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