Sam Harris is unscientific

Since my last post a few weeks ago, the blogosphere erupted with reactions to this Sam Harris TED talk (video below).   Harris strangely believes science can be used to resolve moral problems.  Now Harris is wrong of course, and the most trenchant critiques were offered by Sean Carrol (see here, with follow-up here and here) and Massimo Pigliucci.  Also check out this and this, and follow the endless links therein.

Taken together all of this does a pretty good job showing that Sam Harris is, well, just plain wrong.  He gets his moral philosophy wrong, plays fast and loose with his facts, and makes some very sloppy arguments.  The very premise of his talk–that morality is concerned with human happiness–can be refuted in any freshman philosophy class.  If you don’t want to go through that, you can take a few days to read a simple introduction.*  Some conceptions of morality prioritize happiness, some don’t, and there’s no real objective way to tell the difference.  This is really very basic stuff.  Harris is entitled to believe that happiness is the ultimate goal, but it’s hardly an objective claim amenable to scientific investigation.  Believing otherwise, as commenter Fion eloquently put it, is “thunderously stupid.”

The common theme in all these critiques is how much Harris is empirically wrong.  For all his bluster about the importance of science, Harris clearly can’t be bothered to follow scientific protocols and verify his claims.  Rather than rehash what everyone has said about the TED talk (the above links do a fine job skewering him), let’s go back to a Times op-ed Harris wrote last July.  Then as now, Harris’s argument is thunderously stupid.  Consider this nonsense: “But few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.”

As one of the responders put it, good thing no one told Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Maxwell, Dobzhansky, etc. that their faith would impede their science.  Alhazen, the great Arab scientist, invented the scientific method because of his religion.  The overwhelming data indicate that religion does not make science difficult, and believing otherwise is itself unscientific.  Later on in the piece, Harris goes on to hope that Francis Collins’ beliefs “will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health.”  Well, there’s no reason to hope or worry.   We already have much evidence that Collins’ religiosity doesn’t affect his scientific judgment, and no evidence to think it will do so in the future.  You don’t get to lead the Human Genome Project by being a scientific slouch.

I’ll make two observations, one general and another specifically about Harris.  First, there’s something about these discussions that makes us want to have grand philosophical arguments instead of just looking at the evidence.  I’ll have to expand more in a future post, but I find Harris’s entire line of argument quite strange.  We don’t need to theorize on some alleged incompatibility between science and faith.   We don’t need to pontificate on the nature of scientific reasoning and religious belief.  We can just look at the damned evidence.  If we do so, we’ll find hundreds of millions of data points all over the world who prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that religious and scientific thinking don’t necessarily conflict.  Harris conveniently ignores this data to make some tedious claim on “faith as [it] relates to scientific inquiry.”

Now the 3 people who read this blog know I am nothing if not a fan of philosophy.  But as useful as it is, there are times when we must avoid it.  There are times when data alone suffices.

The second, and final, thing I’ll say about Harris is: who the hell does he think he is?  Yeah, Harris wrote a couple books that got some attention.  But as far as science is concerned, Harris is a third rate no-name hack who has accomplished absolutely nothing.  And he has the gall to talk smack to the former director of the Human Genome Project! Are you kidding me?  In the off chance Harris ever accomplishes anything of note, then maybe he can step on the same field as Collins.  But until then, Harris lecturing Collins about scientific thinking is like me teaching Peyton Manning how to throw a football.  In both cases we’re way out of our league and should really just shut the fuck up.

*Rox and Geremy deserve special thanks for getting me that book as a birthday gift.  I am certain they will not read this post.

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  1. I agree that Science and Religion don’t necessarily conflict.

    It is when religion is used in science or visa versa that we run into problems.

    How many angels can dance on the head of a pin type questions is an example of trying to apply science to religion, and it doesn’t work because you cannot conduct an experiment or collect data.

    Trying to prove that the world is only 5000 years old is an example of trying to apply religion to science, and equally fails. The answer is always something like the creator created the world 5000 years ago to look like it was 4.5 billion years old, or something like that.

    But there is certainly no reason that people of faith cannot correctly apply the scientific method and do good science.

    Scientists can also certainly be people of faith.

    In fact, on certain scientific questions, all scientists rely on faith.

    For example, what is the origin of the universe?

    All religions have an answer to this question – but science doesn’t really have an answer yet, other than to backtrack to potential multiple universes, which really just begs the question, what is the origin of the multi-verse?

    Some questions, both science and religion have answers to. For example, when does a fetus become human. My religion holds that a fetus is human at conception, while science currently holds that it begins becomes human at a later date (brain waves forming or viability of fetus, I think). This is an area where science and religion can come into conflict – especially with regard to the views of scientists and religious people on what the law should be.

    Anyway – interesting topic.

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