Sunday, October 07, 2018

The fundamental stupidity of Sam Harris

I was reviewing this exchange between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein recently.

 I have long had a very low opinion of Sam Harris's intelligence and so I shouldn't have been, but I really was amazed at how sharply and clearly Sam Harris's stupidity jumped right off the page (highlighted.)

How is it possible that when Ezra Klein makes a very succinct and clear argument for why Jefferson's generalization of the innate intellectual abilities of blacks as a group was obviously disproved by individuals like James Baldwin and so using the "Jeffersonian politics of difference" that Charles Murray promotes is absurd, Harris completely misses the point and instead leaps to "do you doubt people are different"?

Because Sam Harris is not very bright.

Sam Harris is the recipient of wealth and connections that has allowed him to get to the point where he can play a smart person to gullible groups of young white men. Harris rode to fame on the anti-Islamic bigotry caused by the 9-11 attacks

But when people who actually know what the hell they are talking about talk to Harris, Harris comes out looking like an especially arrogant poster boy for the Dunning-Kruger effect as when an actual security expert, Bruce Schneier, ripped Harris's idiotic ethnic-profiling scheme apart.

And so since Harris isn't actually very bright, he's going to generally come out the worst for it whenever he gets out of the safe spaces of Quillette and "Intellectual Dark Web" echo chambers. And so in order to maintain his own belief in his superior intellect he will have to keep going back to people who believe he's really smart, the people who made him in the first place - the pants-pissing bigots.

And I think that's why he has such a whiny demeanor when communicating with people like Ezra Klein - I think Harris perceives he is being bested, but doesn't want to - or is so blinkered he can't believe it's due to his intellectual failings and so Harris suspects that there's unfair machinations being used against him.

Another thing that really struck me in the Harris-Klein exchange is that Harris, just like the Steven Pinker-promoted duo of alt-right racist Steve Sailer and right-wing operative and too-racist-for-the-NYTimes Razib Khan, wants to discard what we know about the African American experience in the US when discussing blackness and race and nature v nurture. As Khan said:
So I have to take issue when The New York Times posts articles with headlines such as White? Black? A Murky Distinction Grows Still Murkier. What genetics is showing is that in fact white Americans are shockingly European to an incredibly high degree for a population with roots on this continent for 400 years. If we removed all the history that we take for granted we’d be amazed that the indigenous peoples had so little demographic impact, and, that the larger numbers of people of partial African ancestry did not move into the general “white” population. 
The statement is so absurd it took me a while to realize that in this passage Khan means we should disregard history because then we will better understand the purity of the genetic information. It's such a bizarre way to understand humans - unless of course you've already completely bought into the assumption that nature is everything and nurture is nothing.

And Harris is in agreement with this. I suspect the hereditarians think this way in part because history isn't science but genetics is. Here's Harris in the discussion with Klein:
     Ezra Klein 
I doubt that we have, given the experiment we have run in this country, given the centuries of slavery and segregation and oppression, given locking people out of jobs, out of good schools, out of building wealth, out of going into top professions, out of being part of the social networks that help you advance; the amount of violence and terror and trauma that we have inflicted on African Americans in this country, I absolutely doubt — I truly, to the core of my being, doubt — that we are at a place where any of us should have confidence saying that the differences we see in individuals now reflect intrinsic group capacity. I think that at every other point in America history where we have said that — 
     Sam Harris 
But even Murray wouldn’t say that. 
     Ezra Klein 
That is exactly what Murray says. That at every other point in American history. 
     Sam Harris 
Again, there is confusion creeping in here. 
     Ezra Klein 
There is not confusion. 
Sam Harris 
Okay, I’ll try to sort it out in my next volley. 
     Ezra Klein 
You’ll sort it out. Of course. At every point in American history where we have made that argument, we now look back — and, I mean, this is not going way back. Segregation, my mom was alive in segregation. Charles Murray was alive during segregation. We’re talking, I think, it’s within the week of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. This is not ancient history, it is recent history. 
I think we look back and say, “Man, they really had it wrong.” You quoted back at me something that I think either I say it, or the Vox authors say it, now I don’t remember, but that, yeah, if you’re having a version of this conversation again, then it is incumbent on you to say why you’re so sure it will be different this time. 
Murray does say he thinks that some combination of genetic and basically immutably environmental characteristics make it so we can’t do much about this and there just are big differences between the groups, and it’s just going to remain that way, and American politics need to rearrange itself around that reality. 
Yeah, I strongly disagree, and I disagree because of American history. That is why my fundamental criticism of that conversation was that you needed to deal more with the history of this conversation and the history of this country. 
     Sam Harris 
Okay, but even in this conversation you are unwilling to differentiate scientific fact and scientific data and reasonable extrapolations based on data, from past injustices in American history, these are totally separate things — 
     Ezra Klein
No, we disagree on what a reasonable extrapolation from the data is.
Harris then goes onto whine about how the Southern Poverty Law Center was a big meanie to him - they were not.

Towards the end the exchange demonstrates Harris's Dunning-Kruger blind spot:
    Sam Harris 
I get that, but not in precisely the ways you think you do. I’m in the, once again, having the bewildering experience of agreeing with virtually everything you said there, and yet it has basically no relevance to what I view as our underlying disagreement. 
    Ezra Klein 
You have that bewildering experience because you don’t realize when you keep saying that everybody else is thinking tribally, but you’re not, that that is our disagreement.
Harris is bewildered because he can't keep up with the intellectual complexity that Klein has been throwing at him, but can't admit - can't understand - that the problem is his own deficiency and so he has a suspicion that something tricksy is going on.

But Harris will continue to be successful because he's telling all those white supremacists and misogynists what they want to hear and telling them that they are the true smart ones, the pure intellects, unlike those identity politics people.

And of course there's always the wingnut welfare from the Kochs or other right-wingers, glad to prop up mediocrities who say what they want them to say.