Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 21st, 2018

The twilight of the skeptics

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A few years ago, I was working on an idea for a story—still unrealized—that required a sidelong look at the problem of free will. As part of my research, I picked up a copy of the slim book of the same name by the prominent skeptic Sam Harris. At the time, I don’t think I’d even heard of Harris, and I was expecting little more than a readable overview. What I remember about it the most, though, is how it began. After a short opening paragraph about the importance of his subject, Harris writes:

In the early morning of July 23, 2007, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, two career criminals, arrived at the home of Dr. William and Jennifer Petit in Cheshire, a quiet town in central Connecticut. They found Dr. Petit asleep on a sofa in the sunroom. According to his taped confession, Komisarjevsky stood over the sleeping man for some minutes, hesitating, before striking him in the head with a baseball bat. He claimed that his victim’s screams then triggered something within him, and he bludgeoned Petit with all his strength until he fell silent.

Harris goes on to provide a graphically detailed account, which I’m not going to retype here, of the sexual assault and murder of Petit’s wife and two daughters. Two full pages are devoted to it, in a book that is less than a hundred pages long, and only at the end does Harris come to the point: “As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: there is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or resist the impulse to victimize other people.”

I see what Harris is trying to say here, and I don’t think that he’s even wrong. Yet his choice of example—a horrifying crime that was less than five years old when he wrote Free Will, which the surviving victim, William Petit, might well have read—bothered me a lot. It struck me as a lapse of judgment, or at least of good taste, and it remains the one thing that I really remember about the book. And I’m reminded of it now only because of an excellent article in Wired, “Sam Harris and the Myth of Perfectly Rational Thought,” that neatly lays out many of my old misgivings. The author, Robert Wright, documents multiple examples of his subject falling short of his professed standards, but he focuses on an exchange with the journalist Ezra Klein, whom Harris accused of engaging in “a really indissoluble kind of tribalism, which I keep calling identity politics.” When Klein pointed out that this might be a form of tribal thinking in itself, Harris replied: “I know I’m not thinking tribally.” Wright continues:

Reflecting on his debate with Klein, Harris said that his own followers care “massively about following the logic of a conversation” and probe his arguments for signs of weakness, whereas Klein’s followers have more primitive concerns: “Are you making political points that are massaging the outraged parts of our brains? Do you have your hands on our amygdala and are you pushing the right buttons?”

Just a few years earlier, however, Harris didn’t have any qualms about pushing the reader’s buttons by devoting the first two pages of Free Will to an account of a recent, real-life home invasion that involved unspeakable acts of sexual violence against women—when literally any other example of human behavior, good or bad, would have served his purposes equally well.

Harris denies the existence of free will entirely, so perhaps he would argue that he didn’t have a choice when he wrote those words. More likely, he would say that the use of this particular example was entirely deliberate, because he was trying to make a point by citing most extreme case of deviant behavior that he could imagine. Yet it’s the placement, as much as the content, that gives me pause. Harris puts it right up front, at the place where most books try for a narrative or argumentative hook, which suggests two possible motivations. One is that he saw it as a great “grabber” opening, and he opportunistically used it for no other reason than to seize the reader’s attention, only to never mention it ever again. This would be bad enough, particularly for a man who claims to disdain anything so undignified as an appeal to the amygdala, and it strikes me as slightly unscrupulous, in that it literally indicates a lack of scruples. (I’ll have more to say about this word later.) Yet there’s an even more troubling possibility that didn’t occur to me at the time. Harris’s exploitation of these murders, and the unceremonious way in which he moves on, is a signal to the reader. This is the kind of book that you’re getting, it tells us, and if you can’t handle it, you should close it now and walk away. In itself, this amounts to false advertising—the rest of Free Will isn’t much like this at all, even if Harris is implicitly playing to the sort of person who hopes that it might be. More to the point, the callousness of the example probably repelled many readers who didn’t appreciate the rhetorical deployment, without warning, of a recent rape and multiple murder. I was one of them. But I also suspect that many women who picked up the book were just as repulsed. And Harris doesn’t seem to have been overly concerned about this possibility.

Yet maybe he should have been. Wright’s article in Wired includes a discussion of the allegations against the physicist and science writer Lawrence Krauss, who has exhibited a pattern of sexual misconduct convincingly documented by an article in Buzzfeed. Krauss is a prominent member of the skeptical community, as well as friendly toward Harris, who stated after the piece appeared: “Buzzfeed is on the continuum of journalistic integrity and unscrupulousness somewhere toward the unscrupulous side.” Whether or not the site is any less scrupulous than a writer who would use the sexual assault and murder of three women as the opening hook—and nothing else—in his little philosophy book is possibly beside the point. More relevant is the fact that, as Wright puts it, Harris’s characterization of the story’s source “isn’t true in any relevant sense.” Buzzfeed does real journalism, and the article about Krauss is as thoroughly reported and sourced as the most reputable investigations into any number of other public figures. With his blanket dismissal, Harris doesn’t sound much like a man who cares “massively” about logic or rationality. (Neither did Krauss, for that matter, when he said last year in the face of all evidence: “Science itself overcomes misogyny and prejudice and bias. It’s built in.”) But he has good reason to be uneasy. The article in Buzzfeed isn’t just about Krauss, but about the culture of behavior within the skeptical community itself:

What’s particularly infuriating, said Lydia Allan, the former cohost of the Dogma Debate podcast, is when male skeptics ask how they could draw more women into their circles. “I don’t know, maybe not put your hands all over us? That might work,” she said sarcastically. “How about you believe us when we tell you that shit happens to us?”

Having just read the first two pages of Free Will again, I can think of another way, too. But that’s probably just my amygdala talking.

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2018 at 9:38 am

Quote of the Day

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We have been impressed, and I must say I never stop being impressed, by the great sweep of general order in which particulars are recognized as united…One may say, I suppose, that science is a search for regularity and order in those domains of experience which have proven accessible to it.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Open Mind

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2018 at 7:30 am

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