Sam Harris is NOT a neuroscientist…
Yep you read that right…Sam Harris is not a neuroscientist. It has always tickled me that Sam Harris describes himself as a neuroscientist. On his TV appearances and in his book flaps, he is typically introduced as a neuroscientist. Sure, Harris has a PhD in neuroscience, but that doesn’t make you a neuroscientist any more than a degree in psychology makes you a psychologist. See, actual neuroscientists do science. They write grants and research papers, they teach biology, and they mentor graduate students. Some of them work on drug development in pharma. Harris doesn’t do any of that stuff. He writes books about atheism and religion. His job description can more accurately be desribed as popular author and polemicist. Think of him like Ann Coulter. Perhaps most importantly, scientists are uniquely aware of the limitations and boundaries of their expertise, and are loathe to make definitive statements regarding domains in which they don’t claim expertise. On the other hand Harris has the uniquely dangerous smugness to assume he can expertly comment on history and religion in general and Islam and Islamic history in particular.
However, Harris isn’t stupid; he is purposely deceptive in his word-craft such that he can pass himself off as a serious commentator on Islam. For this reason, it’s quite amusing to note that the one thing that has seriously gotten under his skin in the past 5 years is the exchange he had with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s show. We know this, because he spares no opportunity to take cheap shots at Affleck to undermine his seriousness as a commentator, as he did on last night’s show disparagingly referred to him as “Batman”.
In reality, Affleck is at least equally qualified to express his opinion on the subject, and made three very cogent arguments that day on TV, completely spontaneously, that have still not been addressed by Harris and NEVER WILL.
AFFLECK: So hold on — are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam? You are the interpreter of that?
HARRIS: What — I’m…
HARRIS: I’m actually well educated on this topic.
“Yes, I promise I spent hours on the Wikipedia page about Islam and even more time searching for embarrassing Hadith content. Plus Majid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali told me everything I ever need to know to be an expert on this”. Duh…
BEN AFFLECK: How about more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, pray 5 times a day, and don’t do any of the things you’re saying of all Muslims. It’s stereotyping.
Harris has made it his trademark to routinely conflate all Muslims and Islam with the likes of ISIS, and then cleverly back pedal and deny that he is actually doing that. His “concentric circles” theory of which he is so proud can just as easily be played with demonstrably racist and violent whites, Hindus, Buddhists, Ugandan Christians etc etc at the center.
AFFLECK: What is your solution? To condemn Islam? To do what? We’ve killed more Muslims than they’ve killed us by an awful lot. We’ve invaded more —
MAHER: I’m not for more dead Muslims.
AFFLECK: And somehow we’re exempt from these things because they’re not really a reflection of what we believe in. We did it by accident, that’s why we invaded Iraq.
ie its not Islam, its politics stupid…Islam has been around for 1400 years, and Muslims have built peaceful and lawful societies that were havens for persecuted peoples.
To be clear, Affleck is a lot more nuanced and thoughtful than Harris and we are still waiting for Harris’ answer to any of the points made by Affleck. The fact that this exchange happened on TV with someone as recognizable as Affleck, who passionately reduced Harris’ central thesis to rubble and called him a racist, has clearly gotten to Harris.
As we liberals unite and resist the fascism of the global Right, we need to treat Sam Harris and Bill Maher with the utter contempt that they deserve. We need to dismiss them and their claims in much the same way we dismiss climate deniers, Rick Perry and the Taliban. They are purposely pushing a false narrative that intentionally “otherizes” Muslims.