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"Faking Sense": The rise of Pseudo-Intellectualism in our society
Sam Harris, PhD, is host of the popular podcast "Making Sense". Is he making sense or faking it?
Sam Harris is an American philosopher, neuroscientist, author, and podcast host of “Making Sense”. He recently devoted an episode to RFK Jr. in order to reassure his large audience that it’s acceptable to deny this Presidential candidate a platform.
I was raised in a contemplative household. My father (still 90 years young and incredibly energetic) is a scholar of Advaita, the non-dual aspect of Vedantic philosophy. My parents would regularly host spiritual teachers and yoga practitioners in our home when I was growing up in upstate NY in the 70s and 80s.
Jehova’s Witnesses and Mormon proselytizers who knocked at our door were always welcomed as well. After serving them chai and spicy Indian snacks my father would offer them his full attention, always curious about different ways of “making sense” of the world.
Then the cross examination would begin.
“Why do you believe that?”
“Why should we?”
“Who are your teachers and on what grounds do you let them dictate how you think about your own experience?”
He would accept their gifts of The New World Translation of the Bible or The Book of Mormon and then ask, “Have you read the Bhagavad Gita? The Upanishads?”
Little did our visitors know they were participating in a book exchange when they entered the modest tract home that reeked of roasting cumin and fresh curry leaves.
Some of his attitude rubbed off on me. Or maybe the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. I’ve always been interested in cultivating a more intimate relationship with the present moment. But rather than diving into scripture for guidance, my intuition tells me that the best teacher is whatever is transpiring in my life right now. Why not pay attention to it before listening to what anyone else has to say about it?
It wasn’t very cool to talk about yoga or meditation in the seventies. At least not in junior high in the suburbs of Binghamton, NY. While my friends were at sports camps working on their baseball skills, I went off to a “Hindu Heritage Summer Camp” in Pennsylvania.
We did Hatha yoga in the morning, performed pooja (worship rituals) before breakfast, learned Sanskrit and spent an hour a day in meditation. We were also tasked to scrub floors and clean the latrines–-activities conveniently called “Karma Yoga” by the camp administrators who had more important things to attend to. All in all, my experience there was overwhelmingly positive.
The explosion of spiritual “retreats” over the last ten years or so is hard to miss. It’s now hip to travel to exotic locations to “practice” mindfulness techniques in between free yoga classes and visits to the juice bar. Retreat centers have popped up in all corners of the globe from Costa Rica to Bali.
I’ve stayed at some of these places and have thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Of course these mindfulness and “spiritual” movements have had their problems too. Claims of scandalous misconduct among leaders and influencers have not been uncommon. It may have always been this way. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of imperfect gurus who attain infallible status among their following.
This is why I firmly believe that we must be our own teachers, using our own experiences and our reactions to them to guide us.
Making Sense with Sam Harris, PhD
One such thought leader who appears to be aligned with my sentiment is Sam Harris, PhD.
Sam Harris is an American philosopher, neuroscientist, author, and podcast host of “Making Sense”, a popular and well produced podcast “designed for long-time fans, newcomers, haters, lovers, critics, and curious dabblers in the philosophy and works of Sam Harris. Each episode in the series is structured as a guided tour through one of Sam’s specific areas of interest: Artificial Intelligence, Consciousness, Violence, Belief, Free Will, Morality, Death, and more.”
“Harris came to prominence for his criticism of religion, and Islam in particular,and is known as one of the "Four Horsemen" of New Atheism, along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.”
I don’t pretend to know enough about Harris to summarize his life’s work. He has led an interesting life. Leaving Stanford as an undergraduate student after a brush with psychedelics, he went on an 11 year long odyssey to India and Nepal, studying with meditation teachers. He finished his degree in psychology at Stanford and eventually obtained a PhD in cognitive neuroscience in 2009 from UCLA.
As someone with letters after my name, I am more impressed with his years of self-study than his degrees. Teachers who impart from personal experience are usually more impactful than those who only repeat what they were taught.
But Harris was able to attain considerable recognition prior to receiving his doctorate. Once again, according to Wikipedia:
“In September 2006 Harris debated Robert Wright on the rationality of religious belief. In 2007, he engaged in a lengthy debate with conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan on the Internet forum Beliefnet. In April 2007, Harris debated with evangelical pastor Rick Warren for Newsweek magazine. Harris debated with Rabbi David Wolpe in 2007.”
And then later:
“In 2010, Harris joined Michael Shermer to debate with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston on the future of God in a debate hosted by ABC News Nightline. Harris debated with Christian philosopher William Lane Craig in April 2011 on whether there can be an objective morality without God. In June and July 2018, he met with Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson for a series of debates on religion, particularly the relationship between religious values and scientific fact in defining truth. Harris has debated with the scholar Reza Aslan”
In an essay penned in 2007 “God’s Dupes” Harris writes (emphasis mine):
“Every one of the world’s “great” religions utterly trivializes the immensity and beauty of the cosmos. Books like the Bible and the Koran get almost every significant fact about us and our world wrong. Every scientific domain — from cosmology to psychology to economics — has superseded and surpassed the wisdom of Scripture.”
“Everything of value that people get from religion can be had more honestly, without presuming anything on insufficient evidence. The rest is self-deception, set to music.”
I appreciate what Harris is saying here, especially given the context of his life story. It would seem that he experienced something transformative as a young student, realized the importance of the experience and sought to investigate its nature and origin outside the Western paradigm.
It is admirable that he returned to finish what he started. I can understand why many listen to what he has to say. Harris clearly resonates with the portion of our intellect that can see through religious dogma, recognize the importance of rigorous scientific pursuits while not dismissing the ineffable.
Having never explored his extensive writings (Harris is the author of several New York Times best-sellers) I could be led to believe that he and I are kindred spirits. We’re both 56 years old. We both have formal training in science. We both have some inkling into the multidimensionality of reality that can emerge chemically or through certain practices. I once wrote a book (though not a NY Times best-seller), so technically I am an author too.
Then I listened to this podcast that dropped last week, “A Few thoughts on RFK Jr.”:
He appeals to his extensive audience (over a half million subscribers) to reject the idea that this man, arguably the most effective environmental lawyer on the planet, who also happens to be running for President of the United States, should ever be allowed a platform to ask questions or have open conversations with experts who disagree with him.
Sam Harris believes that Kennedy isn’t just asking questions, he’s raising suspicion around trusted institutions. But isn’t that what happens when important questions remain unanswered?
More importantly, some of Harris’ notoriety has come about through his participation in public debates with other thought leaders. We should expect that Harris must have some pretty powerful arguments why Kennedy should be denied the very same opportunities that he was offered in his own rise to popularity.
After twenty minutes of exposing Kennedy’s “lies” Harris concludes:
“Concern about platforming people is, in my view, still totally valid, and there are certain people that one shouldn't talk to unless one is going to do the work to fully calibrate one's Bullshit detector in advance and expose the pattern of sloppiness with the facts—and even outright lying—that has preceded that interview.
And if you're not going to do that work, you are being irresponsible. You're not just exposing the reasons why many in your audience distrust science and the scientific establishment and public health organizations, you've become part of the reasons why they distrust these sources of information and that is moving all of us in the wrong direction.”
Harris reveals a lot in his summary. It’s clear that he believes the scientific establishment should be trusted and any opinion to the contrary will move us in the wrong direction. That’s not an uncommon stance. But is he dismissing Kennedy as a crank based on his actual arguments or solely because he disagrees with the scientific establishment on certain issues?
This is a crucial difference. It’s the difference between critical versus dogmatic thinking. This is what I will explore in the rest of this essay.
But first, what is this bullshit detector you have, Sam, and more importantly, how do you calibrate yours?
I have a pretty good bullshit detector myself, and it wouldn’t stop going off throughout your podcast.
Sam begins by listing the prominent podcast and show hosts who have made the effort to see what Kennedy has to say. People like Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, Bill Maher and Tucker Carlson (a person Harris feels can never be trusted). Except for Carlson, Harris doesn’t accuse any of these people of willfully spreading lies. The problem is, he says:
“The truth is, even if you do your homework, you can't know in real time—you certainly can't establish in real time— that someone is lying.”
Harris is correct, you cannot establish in real time that someone is lying. Does he realize that he set a trap for himself? Why then would he expect us to believe what HE is saying? Is he expecting us to take it on faith that he is the exception to his own rule? On what grounds are we then to “establish in real time” that you aren’t lying too, Sam?
In fairness, unlike someone who hosts a guest like Kennedy, we don’t actually have to come to conclusions as Harris speaks. We always have the opportunity to cross-check what a podcaster is saying at our own leisure. But in this podcast Harris offers little more than isolated statements of an establishment expert, Dr. Paul Offit, whom he paraphrases. Harris is asking us to believe Offit because he does.
On the other hand, why would a podcaster host an interview with a guest with the sole intention to discredit them in real-time? Isn’t the point to explore the guest’s point of view with thoughtful questions so that the audience can learn something?
“ … there's no good reason to talk to RFK about vaccines and vaccine safety and vaccine science because he's not a scientist and he's not a doctor. He's a lawyer and an activist. And as a lawyer and an activist he has, for the last 20 years, worked rather hard to create a mood of suspicion with respect to the scientific establishment. Although ironically he's also an environmental activist and as Michael Shermer has pointed out, he sings an entirely different tune with respect to established science on the topic of climate change”
DING! DING! DING!
That’s the sound of my bullshit detector going off.
There’s no good reason to talk to a lawyer about vaccine safety because he isn’t a doctor or scientist? Seriously? Who wins cases in medical malpractice suits? Who defends doctors in frivolous cases? These are situations where expert witnesses disagree. Surely the attorneys involved understand a good deal of the science. They are the ones who cross examine the experts to reveal the deficiencies in their opinions.
Extrapolating this sentiment will lead to the idea that only experts are to be trusted. Okay, but WHICH experts exactly?
Harris is invoking a double standard. We shouldn’t trust Kennedy on vaccine science, but it is perfectly fine to trust Harris, a cognitive neuroscientist, on which vaccine expert to trust. Apparently establishing legitimacy must be done scrupulously of all sources, except for him. That’s bullshit.
It’s also possible that Harris is unaware that there are many experts who disagree with the establishment position and support Kennedy’s. Is he aware of Dr. Paul Marik? Dr. Pierre Kory? Dr. Meryl Nass? Dr. Peter McCullough? Dr. Robert Malone? Dr. Tess Lawrie? These are doctors and scientists who have hundreds of peer reviewed publications under their names. Some are considered experts in their field. Some have given Congressional testimony as expert witnesses. They support Kennedy’s endeavor to expose the corruption in the scientific establishment. Are they all wrong too?
How does someone like Sam Harris know who is right, Paul Offit or Paul Marik? Both are giants in their field, vaccinology and critical care medicine respectively. Offit plays a large role in the regulatory process of biological products like vaccines. Marik spearheaded the use of off-label medications to treat Covid-19 successfully prior to the authorization of the mRNA products. Offit oft gets quoted as the expert on legacy media. These same sources paint Marik as a rogue doctor who uses “unapproved” drugs during a pandemic. Harris isn’t doing his own homework. He’s copying off of Sanjay Gupta.
Furthermore he is saying that Kennedy is being hypocritical because he trusts consensus science on climate but not on vaccines. In his casual dismissal of Kennedy’s position on these grounds Harris is letting us know how he thinks about complex scientific topics: trust the experts on everything or be a pariah who rejects consensus opinions for no rational reason.
According to Harris, the idea that somebody could agree with consensus on one topic but disagree on another is somehow “ironic”. Ironic? Only if you are stuck in dogma.
Obviously science and scientific consensus evolves because of dissenting opinion, some of which eventually gets accepted. How can a person with a doctorate in neurocognitive science not know this?
Harris is letting us know that he hasn’t actually done even a modicum of research into either topic or into Kennedy’s actual position on climate science, which is nuanced. This is probably why he needed a third person, professional skeptic Michael Shermer, to point this out. Once again he is caught in the use of a double standard: he’s made it clear that one has to be prepared before showcasing someone like Kennedy on their platform, yet he believes that it is perfectly acceptable for him to use his platform to attack Kennedy without doing any legwork himself.
Harris goes on (still only a few minutes into the podcast):
“There's such a pattern of misrepresentation with respect to facts that you just have to decide in advance that a person can't be trusted to speak honestly about important topics..”
DING! DING! DING!
You have to decide in advance that a person can’t be trusted to speak honestly about important topics? Harris walked into another landmine here. First, making any assumption prior to hearing anyone out is the definition of prejudice.
That’s bias. This is how we are to “Make Sense”? What Harris is suggesting is completely antithetical to getting to the bottom of things.
He rationalizes prejudging Kennedy because of his “pattern of misrepresentation with respect to facts”. It’s a nice way to say that Kennedy is a liar. A bold accusation that Harris believes he can prove. Yet, every single example he cites of Kennedy’s “misrepresentation” is a controversial subject that has expert opinion on both sides of it, if Harris bothered to look.
Second, Harris is showing us his foundational blindspot. We are talking about science. How does he navigate complicated topics like vaccinology, immune responses, regulatory oversight, data and the bias in published studies? He thinks it begins with trust.
You don’t actually need to do any investigating if you have someone who can be trusted to do the legwork for you. That’s flat out lazy. If it’s okay for Sam Harris to let someone else do the work, it’s okay for you too. It’s quite amazing actually given the fact that Harris admonished other platform hosts as irresponsible unless they do the required work before stepping in front of their microphones.
Then he explains how he has concluded that Kennedy shouldn’t be trusted. The evidence are the things he has claimed in other interviews:
“On each of these podcasts he has spread a host of wacky ideas, some of which may in the fullness of time turn out to be true but most of which certainly won't be right.
DING! DING! DING!
I would pay to hear Sam explain what he means by that. Again:
“[Kennedy] has spread a host of wacky ideas, some of which may in the fullness of time turn out to be true but most certainly won’t be right.”
Kennedy may be proven right about some things. Kennedy is also certainly wrong about others.
Why would anyone take Sam Harris seriously after such an utterance? What are you asking your audience to do here, Sam? Which of the wacky ideas may turn out to be true? Which are certainly wrong? How are you teaching us to differentiate the two? It sounds like you are hedging your bets. If Kennedy turns out to be right about something, Harris will be proven right too. If Kennedy is proven wrong about anything, Harris will be proven right again. Harris will have been right all along without telling us anything. That’s some serious bullshitting.
Then Harris lists some of Kennedy’s crazy notions, the evidence of his pattern of misrepresenting “the facts”:
“[Kennedy] blames SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) for mass shootings. He thinks that cell phones cause brain cancer. I think he has also said that Wi-Fi causes brain cancer, but it seems like he's most concerned about cell phones. He thinks they damage the blood-brain barrier and damage mitochondria, and he also claims to be sitting on groundbreaking evidence for all this.”
Harris assumes Kennedy is wrong because it “sounds wacky” to him. I call bullshit.
SSRIs might be the causative element in many of the mass shootings. That’s nuts, but only if you decide to ignore the warnings on the package insert of those drugs.
Cell phones cause brain cancer. Crazy, but only if you ignore the rodent studies from the National Toxicology Program that the FDA cites as part of the evidence that they consider.
WiFi radiation damages the blood-brain barrier. Wacky! But only if you ignore scientific papers that go back over four decades that demonstrate that this can happen. Harris goes on:
“Incidentally he is absolutely sure that the CIA killed his uncle, JFK and he's pretty sure the CIA killed his father RFK.”
DING! DING! DING!
Harris apparently still believes that the idea that the CIA killed Jack Kennedy is crazy. When the Warren Commission published their findings two years before Sam was born many Americans didn’t buy it. Even more don’t buy it now. The last I checked you would be in the minority if you believe the CIA wasn’t involved. Although the majority of previously classified documents have been released, a number still remain hidden after six decades.
Not the slightest bit of suspicion rises in the minds of expert sense-makers like Harris. There must be a good reason why these documents remain outside of public purview, right Sam?
What would be the reason for the repeated postponement of full disclosure of whatever information still exists? Whoever was involved in the murder of a sitting president are probably dead by now. The only reason our government would continue to stonewall is that we must be dealing with systemic corruption, you know, like the kind of thing Kennedy is suggesting.
Sam, are you aware that Sirhan Sirhan was in front of RFK when the bullet that killed him entered from the rear?
It’s almost like Harris is trying to stamp out rampant psychosis around him without ever realizing that he has been institutionalized because of his own delusions of being a psychiatrist.
Finally he gets to his biggest issue with Kennedy:
“But above all he thinks that childhood vaccines, in particular the MMR vaccine, causes autism.”
Here Harris is misdirecting his audience. Kennedy isn’t saying that all childhood vaccines cause autism. He believes that some childhood vaccines may be the cause of autism in some cases. There’s a big difference between the two statements.
Harris is using a mischaracterization of Kennedy’s position to discredit him. It’s a common tactic of bullshitters and propagandists.
I will spare you the alarm fatigue from more line-by-line critique of the entire podcast. But don’t think that Harris only relies on his super sensitive bullshit detector and unerring ability to sense wackiness to guide us highly impressionable types to clarity. He attempts to use logic to attack Kennedy’s demand that vaccines should undergo the same level of safety testing that medications do. In a rational world that would be completely illogical. Why would anyone not demand the highest level of safety of products that we inject into our children?
In fact, nearly all the vaccines on the CDC’s childhood immunization schedule were never tested against a true, saline placebo. Without such comparisons we cannot know if these products are doing more harm than good. This is an inescapable fact.
Harris counters this, citing vaccine adverse reporting systems like Vaccine Safety Datalink which keep the public safe from dangerous vaccines. Harris doesn’t realize that these systems were put into place as a concession to the public when, in 1986, vaccine manufacturers obtained immunity from any liability from damage their products may cause.
The utter failure of these systems have been on full display these last three years. Millions of adverse events were reported to systems like V-Safe and VAERS yet they remain unacknowledged by the CDC. What’s the point of these systems if the CDC ignores them?
The absence of placebo controls in most vaccine safety testing is not a “conspiracy theory” or a “misrepresentation of facts”. Kennedy, attorney Aaron Siri and Del Bigtree sued the HHS, demanding that they produce a single citation of such a study. More than a year later they received a response.
Not a single study citation was given but Melinda Wharton, MD, MPH, the acting director of the National Vaccine Program Office instead stunningly posits:
“Inert placebo controls are not required to understand the safety profile of a new vaccine, and are thus not required.”
What on earth is she talking about? If I were to guess how Sam Harris would respond to such nonsense I think he would say that Dr. Wharton is an expert and not an environmental lawyer. She knows best. Move along…
The reason why this is important is that even though Dr. Paul Offit (the expert who Harris later cites as his proof that Kennedy is wrong about everything vaccine related), can claim that his Rotateq vaccine prevents hundreds of deaths from gastroenteritis due to rotavirus every day, he cannot prove that it is not causing more harm from side-effects and adverse events if it was never tested against a true placebo. It’s just not possible.
Kennedy claims that Offit made 186 million dollars from his vaccine. Offit says that Kennedy is lying. Harris knows that Kennedy is lying because Paul Offit says so.
Harris then devotes five minutes to recount what really happened between then ABC journalist Jake Tapper and Kennedy in 2005, after Kennedy published in Rolling Stone magazine a transcript of the proceedings of a clandestine meeting of vaccine manufacturers, high level officials from the CDC, FDA and W.H.O. who met to decide how to hide data that implicated vaccines containing thimerosal, a mercury compound, as a possible cause of childhood neurological disorders. This is the Simpsonwood Meeting that Kennedy claims took place in 2000.
The story never ran on ABC. It was killed the day prior to its release. Tapper and Kennedy give different versions of what happened. Kennedy was allowed to tell his side of the story on a recent podcast with Jordan Peterson (an interview that was later scrubbed by YouTube for violation of its community standards).
Here’s Harris’s line of attack on Kennedy’s credibility:
“I’ll just read what Tapper wrote here because only Tapper was in a position to know that what Kennedy was telling Peterson on that podcast was a lie…”
So Kennedy is lying because Jake Tapper says so? I thought only vaccine inventors like Paul Offit were incapable of prevaricating, now journalists too? Of course Jake Tapper has no conflict of interest except that he works for CNN, a media company that pays his salary and also happens to accept a few dollars here and there from big Pharma to run their ads.
Harris, in his shining brilliance sharpened by years of meditation and honed through debate with thought-leaders has finally found a way to resolve the age-old problem of a “he said, she said” situation: just believe the person who is not RFK Jr. It’s quite simple really.
The real issue here is that Harris completely ignores what the whole story was about in the first place. Could there have been such a meeting? Could there be any truth to Kennedy’s claims? What if Kennedy is right?
Did you read the proceedings from the alleged meeting, Sam? Obviously it’s a fabrication, right? In any case, thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines over two decades ago, so what’s the big deal? Oh yeah, for some reason this happened a few months after the Simpsonwood meeting.
It must be a coincidence. Nothing to see here…move along.
But why would the FDA remove thimerosal from childhood vaccines if it was perfectly safe to begin with?
This is the problem with giving someone like Kennedy a platform. His questions lead to other questions. Suspicion arises. Answers will be demanded. Then what?
Truth be told, I have had to rein in a lot of emotion while writing this essay. I don’t like being angry. I become less effective in my own sense-making. I relish the opportunity to dismantle a flawed argument. I don’t like it when I end up attacking a person’s character.
I have tried to depersonalize the issue. I am not attacking Sam Harris the human being; I am attacking the way he “makes sense”. He isn’t making any sense. He’s faking it.
I also find it useful to see that the confusion that Harris is spreading is not entirely absent of value. These kinds of demonstrations will undoubtedly set off bullshit detectors in the minds of his followers. Harris’s non-sensical arguments do more to expose the pseudo-intellectualism in our collective than they do to hide it.
How did he end up coming to his conclusions about this? I believe there are only three possibilities:
Sam is either not aware of all of the research, published data and experts who support Kennedy’s position or he is incapable of “making sense” of it.
Sam is being paid to spew this kind of nonsense.
Sam realizes that if he says anything that supports RFK Jr. he will get panned by his loyal followers.
I think #1 is unlikely. Sam is not a doctor but he holds a doctorate in a scientific field. He should know that before coming to any conclusion it would be necessary to look at all the evidence. Moreover one doesn’t have to be an expert to come to a general understanding of what the “science” really says on vaccine safety.
It is possible that he looked into it and came up with different conclusions. But if he did do that, he would have mentioned what he found. He didn’t make any mention of any expert that supported Kennedy’s position on vaccine safety.
I also think #2 is unlikely. I don’t think a person who has made his career on being a critical thinker would throw it all away for money. He’s not an investment banker. He works with a different currency: credibility. A conflict of interest would bankrupt him.
That leaves #3. Though also unlikely, it seems to be the most likely of the three. If true, it hints at how insidious our willingness to rationalize the use of poor logic can be, especially when we do it to obtain an outcome we don’t want to admit is important to us. If it can happen to Sam Harris, PhD, it could happen to anyone.
What are your thoughts? (Please leave your comments)
Update to the original article:
Joe is a heart-centered individual who, in my four years of experience creating content with him, as repeatedly proven that he possesses a keen ability to sense-make.
Please consider subscribing to his channels on YouTube and his substack. Here’s the conversation: