Sam Harris talks with Cenk Uygur

October 26, 2014 • 7:13 am

Due to lack of time, I’ve seen only the first two hours of this three-hour (!) video of Sam Harris talking to Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks show, but it was pretty absorbing. Give it a try and see if you can last the whole three hours.

Cenk, who previously had both Reza Aslan and C. J. Werleman on the show, and was apparently sympathetic to them, gives Sam a remarkably hard time about his views, particularly (in the first hour) about the idea the Islam is inherently worse than other faiths. But Harris gives as good as he gets ,and the often rapid back-and-forth is instructive.  If you have the time to watch it all, do report on the last hour in the comments.

Here you go: three hours of semi-antagonistic palaver:

Sam gives his take on the debate on his website:

I recently sat down with Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks to discuss my most controversial views about Islam, the war on terror, and related topics. It was, of necessity, a defensive performance on my part—more like a deposition than an ordinary conversation. Although it was a friendly exchange, there were times when Cenk appeared to be trying very hard to miss my point. Rather than rebut my actual views (or accept them), he often focused on how a misunderstanding of what I was saying could lead to bad outcomes—as though this were an argument against my views themselves. However, he did provide a forum in which we could have an unusually full discussion about difficult issues. I hope viewers find it useful.

Having now watched the full exchange, I feel the need to expand on a couple of points. . .

Sam then goes into the recent decline of journalistic ethics, as judged by deliberate misreprentation of Harris’s views, but, at the end, extends a note of charity by apologizing for misrepresenting Glenn Greenwald’s views on “collateral damage.” I’ve love to see Reza Aslan or C. J. Werleman tender such an apology.

The problem I have with Uygur in this piece (besides his constant interruption of Harris) is threefold. First, he seems bound to defend Islam as being no worse than any other religion (this may come from his familial roots in Islam, though he’s an atheist).

Second, Ugyar just won’t accept that religion itself can be the main reason for malevolent acts. Though he admits that religion can play a role in acts like suicide bombing, he just can’t bring himself to admit that it could be a major role. In the case of things like the death penalty for apostasy or the acts of ISIS, you’d have to be pretty Robert Pape-ish to deny religion as the overarching cause. After all, the death penalty for apostasy is in the Qur’an, and how can you even have a death penalty for apostasy without a religious dictate?

Finally, as Sam notes above, Uygur seems to hold Harris himself responsible for misrepresentation of his views, as if somehow Harris could predict how his words would be truncated or twisted in the service of Islamophilia or simple Harris-hatred.  That’s just not fair.


Beyond belief: The Werleman mess is worse than you can imagine

October 23, 2014 • 6:53 am

The Werleman Mess, involving an atheist journalist’s repeated plagiarism in pieces in both Salon and Alternet, seems to have reached its conclusion. I’ll  briefly give the upshot, as I’m soon off to walk around Plovdiv.

The Werleman story is not pretty. I think the following is an accurate summary; if there are errors or corrections, please put them in the comments and I’ll deal with them later.

1. On the website Godless Spellchecker, its author detailed about half a dozen instances in which Werleman copied phrases directly from other sources without attribution. This is plagiarism, pure and simple. Many people seem to have thought that plagiarism involves the theft of ideas, not words. It can be both. Facts and ideas, if not your own (or in common currency) should always be referenced. But you don’t need to reference a widely known fact like “Paris is the capital of France.” When you use someone’s words without attribution, however, it is always plagiarism.

2. The number of instances of Werleman’s plagiarism expanded when Michael Luciano, at the Daily Banter, listed fourteen cases in total. These are not merely coincidental usages of words, but must reflect deliberate copying.

3. Werleman first tried to minimize the theft, imputing it to failures in putting quotation marks around one quote and to a few editing mistakes, but the magnitude of the theft belied that. I predicted that eventually Werleman would have to apologize, and eventually he did, on his Facebook page.

4. Werleman’s apology was here, but seems to have mysteriously disappeared overnight, and I can’t find it anywhere. You can find a summary of it, however, in another post by Godless Spellchecker called “C. J. Werleman releases plagiarism nonpology.” It is a “nonpology” in the sense that while Werleman admits that he did commit plagiarism, he minimizes its importance by showing how many pieces he published, which, he thinks, dwarfs the fourteen known instances of plagiarism. That is a ridiculous defense, I think, for even a couple of instances of word theft are serious, impugning a journalist’s ethics. Certainly the evidence to date would have resulted in a journalist at a reputable venue, like the New York Times, being fired.

UPDATE: Werleman has written a newer apology that, as a reader notes below, is here. I won’t comment on the latest version; you can make of it what you will

5. Werleman also blamed his being hounded for plagiarism on Sam Harris and his followers, who dislike Werleman because he’s repeatedly gone after Harris. Harris, though, had nothing to do with Werleman being “outed.”

6. Bizarrely, Werleman then accused Harris of having also engaged in plagiarism.  As Harris explained in a post, that accusation was untrue: the “words” Harris lifted from somebody else had actually been written by Harris himself in a piece that appeared two years before the piece from which he supposedly plagiarized.

7. In what is surely the weirdest part of this incident, it appears that Werleman engaged in three instances of sockpuppeting to support himself, using a Twi**er handle “@Women4Atheism,” a later version of an earlier feed called “@ShitMyJesusSays”. Neither of these had anything to do with woman and atheism. Further, Werleman appears to be the creator of a website called “Critical Cranson” (subtitled “One New York girl’s musings”), which was where he/she/it accused Harris of plagiarism. “Critical Cranson” was created on October 20, and has only one post: the incorrect accusation that Sam Harris was guilty of plagiarism. There have been no posts since.

All of this sockpuppeting is described and supported with evidence by a site called “SomewhatMoreCriticalCranson.” It’s fascinating to see the evidence of sockpuppeting accumulating, and the website’s author appears to have done a fair amount of research. It’s the visible record of Werleman’s unravelling.

8. Werleman begins melting down on Twi**er.  My theory is that, caught dead to rights, he simply can’t accept his public humiliation, and so lashes out at others in a vain attempt to exculpate himself. Here’s one example:


“Hyper anti-theistic”? Werleman is an atheist, too, and has published stuff that would be seen as “strident” atheism. And what “death cult” is he talking about? If there’s any death cult, it’s jihadist Islam, not Sam Harris’s ideas.

9. But the most important issue is how Werleman’s two venues, Alternet and Salon, handled his plagiarism. Alternet did the right thing and simply removed all of Werleman’s pieces with an explanation:

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 9.26.45 AM

Salon, however, was completely lame, and simply said this:

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 9.28.57 AM

I find this absoutely unbelievable. First, what Werleman did (by his own admission!) was plagiarism, not “improper sourcing.” Second, Salon did not remove the plagiarized articles but simply added hyperlinks to the sources of the plagiarized material. They apparently don’t even indicate on the four stories that parts of them were plagiarized. Finally, besides leaving the stories in, they leave all of Werleman’s stories in. In other words, he receives no sanction, and Salon buries the fact that it published plagiarized material—possibly because they don’t want to look bad for having done that.

Salon’s behavior is execrable, but that’s to be expected from an online source that has gone increasingly downhill to the point where it’s basically click-bait: an online tabloid. They clearly adhere to no journalistic standards, and have no sense of propriety.

As for Werleman, it’s sad that somebody with promise could stoop so low, and even sadder that he doesn’t seem to realize the gravity of what he’s done, which is to discredit himself as a journalist. Although he issued an apology, which to me is unconvincing, he continues to rage on Twi**er.  And, except for the possible Alternet ban, his career at Salon (if you call that a career) appears set to continue.

Finally, Sam Harris said on his terse post about the issue (“Just the facts: A response to a charge of plagiarism“), “This will be the last thing I ever write about C.J. Werleman.”

That goes for me, too.


Sam Harris responds to the Islam fracas

October 10, 2014 • 11:19 am

Here’s a clip with Sam Harris on yesterday’s “The Last Word,” Lawrence O’Donnell show on MSNBC. As usual, Sam is calm and eloquent, but makes his point forcefully, asking for Muslims as a whole to create a “groundswell” repudiating the kind of behavior evinced not only by ISIS, but the less extremist but still tribalistic and barbaric forms of sharia law in many Muslim countries.

As I said, I think that fight on Maher’s show was a watershed moment for American liberalism, forcing it to examine what “liberalism” really means in the face of Islamic extremism.  Evidence for that is the many discussions in the media that that exchange inspired. I haven’t seen Nicholas Kristof’s column yet, but according to O’Donnell on this clip he agrees with Sam on many points.

At 10:40 Harris and O’Donnell discusses Reza Aslan’s new op-ed in the New York Times,Bill Maher isn’t the only one who misunderstands religion”, an article that is is curiously ambiguous: it decries Islamic extremism, which surpised me, but then takes it back, implying that no religion is inherently violent and that religion is not so much a matter of belief as of culture, implying that Islamic violence does not come from Islam.

O’Donnell is a good interviewer, actually allowing his subjects to speak without interruption (he jokes at the start about others who don’t do that, and we can imagine who he has in mind).



h/t: Michael ~

Sam Harris: the strange case of Francis Collins

August 5, 2009 • 4:22 pm

Over at The Reason Project, Sam Harris has continued his engagement with the Francis Collins NIH appointment by producing a sizeable critique of Collins’s views and an explanation of why some of us are worried about them.

NOTE:  There was some problem with the article’s website, but it appears to be fixed.

Steven Pinker on Francis Collins

July 11, 2009 • 6:50 am

Some newspapers and science journals have called atheist-scientists this week, asking for opinions on Francis Collins’s appointment as head of the National Institutes of Health.  In lieu of a phone interview,  Steve Pinker wrote the following to a reporter from one such journal  (copy slightly edited for web publication).  Thanks to Steve for permission to post.

I have serious misgivings about Francis Collins being appointed director of NIH. It’s not that I think that there should be a religious litmus test for public science administrators, or that being a devout Christian is a disqualification. But in Collins’s case, it is not a matter of private belief, but public advocacy. The director of NIH is not just a bureaucrat who tends the money pipleline between the treasury and molecular biologists (which is how many scientists see the position). He or she is also a public face of science, someone who commands one of the major bully pulpits for science in the country. The director testifies before Congress, sets priorities, selects speakers and panelists, and is in many regards a symbol for biomedical research in the US and the world. In that regard, many of Collins’s advocacy statements are deeply disturbing.

For example, I see science as not just cures for diseases and better gadgets but an ideal for how to think about the most important issues facing us as humans– in particular, the ideal that we should seek truth through reason and evidence and not through superstition, dogma, and personal revelation. Collins has said that he came to accept the Trinity, and the truth that Jesus is the son of God, when he was hiking and came upon a beautiful triple waterfall. Now, the idea that nature contains private coded messages from a supernatural being to an individual person is the antithesis of the scientific (indeed, rational) mindset. It is primitive, shamanistic, superstitious. The point of the scientific revolution was to do away with such animistic thinking.

This is not just autobiographical. Collins, in his book, eggs on fellow evangelical Christians in their anti-scientific beliefs. He tells them that they are “right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible” and to “the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.” Granted, he is not a young-earth or intelligent-design creationist. But he has stated that God interacts with creation, in particular, that he designed the evolutionary process to ensure that human intelligence, morality, and Judaeo-Christian religious belief would evolve.

That is far more than just expressing an opinion. That is advocacy, which gives incalculable encouragement the forces that have been hostile to science for the past eight years. And this is not just a theoretical fear: a number of right-wing, religious apologists (e.g., Dennis Praeger, in his debate with Sam Harris) used Collins as a stick to beat secularists:  “Here is a famous scientist who takes an interventionist God and the Bible seriously; who are you to contradict him?” This is going to be multiplied if Collins becomes an even more prominent face of science.

Also, the human mind and brain constitute one of the frontiers of biomedical science. Cutting-edge research treats intelligence, morality, and religious belief as products of evolution and neuroscience. The idea that there is divine design and teleology behind these functions, on the basis of Iron Age and medieval dogma, is antithetical to this vibrant research area. How will Collins preside over the allocation of research priorities if he believes in ““the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted”?

Again, it’s important that there not be an atheist-litmus-test for science administrators. A person’s private beliefs should not keep him from a public position. But Collins is an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs, and it is reasonable for the scientific community to ask him how these beliefs will affect his administration of the Institute and his efforts on the behalf of the scientific enterprise in Congress and in public.  At the very least, he should distance himself from the BioLogos Foundation and any other advocacy group.

For more on Collins, see the conversation between him and Richard Dawkins that ran three years ago in Time magazine; it has been reposted on the Dawkins website.  Slate just published a discussion of Collins’s appointment called “Jesus Goes to Bethesda.” I weighed in yesterday.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum: Atheists turn Americans from science, strangle puppies

July 1, 2009 • 2:05 pm

Over at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson has begun reading and posting on Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s new book, Unscientific America, an analysis of why the American public is so scientifically illiterate (I’m going by the blurbs; I haven’t read it yet). According to Mooney and Kirshenbaum, one of the main reasons for this illiteracy is — can you guess? — the ATHEISTS. Yes folks, our stridency and militancy have alienated flocks of Americans, turning them away from science. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens all get their licks, with special opprobrium reserved for P. Z. Myers. See link above for Ophelia’s first take, and the second is here.

I will reserve making my own comments until I read the book.

One other note: three liberal English theologians, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, have joined forces to prevent British citizens suffering from terminal illnesses to seek euthanasia in countries like Switzerland. Liberal religion harmless? Not in this case. See the link for Anthony Grayling’s take and the original news item.

Quote of the day

June 11, 2009 • 8:02 am

“Many well-educated, secular people have learned to fear the suffering of their less educated, less socially advantaged neighbors. It seems to me that such fear is often confused with compassion. The conviction that there are no easy remedies for social inequality has led many of us to conclude that it may be best for the great masses of humanity to be kept sequestered in a blissful, sanctum sanctorum of wishful thinking. Many atheist scientists believe that, while they can get along just fine without an imaginary friend, most human beings will always need to delude themselves about God. Inevitably, people holding this opinion fail to notice how condescending, unimaginative, and pessimistic a view this is of the rest of humanity — and of generations to come.”

–Sam Harris

Collins may be NIH director

May 27, 2009 • 6:07 am

Well, we thought we’d seen the last of the theocracy of George W. Bush, but it apparently ain’t so.  The Scientist reports (and this has been the buzz for weeks), that born-again Christian and BioLogos Foundation director Francis Collins is likely to be named as head of the National Institutes of Health:

Francis Collins, the geneticist who led the Human Genome Project, is close to taking over the top spot at the National Institutes of Health, according to areport by Bloomberg News.

Collins, who was the director of the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute from 1993 to 2008, is in the final stages of being screened by the administration of US President Barack Obama, an unnamed source toldBloomberg.

Elias Zerhouni, Collins’ would-be predecessor, voiced his approval for the pick, telling Bloomberg that Collins has “done things many scientists wish they could do once in their lifetime, and he’s done it repeatedly.”

Collins recently unveiled a new foundation, BioLogos, that promotes “the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms, and seeks to harmonize these different perspectives,” according to the organization’s Web site. Collins, who is an evangelical Christian, has said that his new foundation is an attempt to resolve Christian faith with scientific evidence, especially with regard to evolution. In 2006 he published a bestselling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, that stirred some controversy in the scientific community.

I am funded by the NIH, and I’m worried.  Not about my own funding (although I’m a heathen cultural Jew), but about how this will affect things like stem-cell research and its funding.  If appointed, Collins will have wide latitude in how to disperse the  $30 billion annual budget, and can steer it towards or away from various projects.  I’d  be much more comfortable with someone whose only agenda was science, and did not feel compelled to set up a highly-publicized website demonstrating how he reconciles his science with Jesus.  (Truthdig has published Sam Harris’s evisceration of Collins’s wacko book.)

We are just recovering from the theocracy of G. W. Bush, and I was happy that federally-funded stem-cell research was allowed to go ahead.  Now what will happen?  This is NOT a presidential appointment designed to smooth the waters roiled by our previous administration.

Collins may indeed be a good administrator, but this appointment is a mistake.  At the very least, Collins must remove himself as director of the BioLogos foundation, as holding both posts would represent an unwanted incursion of religion into the public sphere.  I call for him to resign from BioLogos if he’s appointed as head of the NIH. (That, of course, has the attendant benefit of putting the ever-amusing Karl Giberson in charge of BioLogos!)

Join the Reason Project

May 21, 2009 • 7:11 am

Under the inspiration of Sam Harris, a nonprofit organization called The Reason Project has been formed under the trusteeship of Sam, his wife Annaka, and Jai Lakshman.  The website can be accessed here, and the aims are these:

The Reason Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. Drawing on the talents of the most prominent and creative thinkers across a wide range of disciplines, The Reason Project seeks to encourage critical thinking and wise public policy through a variety of interrelated projects. The foundation will convene conferences, produce films, sponsor scientific studies and opinion polls, publish original research, award grants to other charitable organizations, and offer material support to religious dissidents and public intellectuals — all with the purpose of eroding the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.

While the foundation is devoted to fostering critical thinking generally, we believe that religious ideas require a special focus. Both science and the arts are built upon cultures of vigorous self-criticism; religious discourse is not. As a result, unwarranted religious beliefs still reign unchallenged in almost every society on earth—dividing humanity from itself, inflaming conflict, preventing wise public policy, and diverting scarce resources. One of the primary goals of The Reason Project is to change this increasingly unhealthy status quo.

We are always looking for creative ways to involve the community in our efforts. If you would like to contribute to the work of The Reason Project, please fill out a volunteer application. We encourage you to consider the work of The Reason Project your own.

There is a nice advisory board, including luminaries like Sam, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Steve Pinker, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and one non-luminary, moi.   Our goal is not to constanty attack or wipe out religion, but to spread rationality (granted, the spread of one is inimical to the existence of the other).  But have a look at the website and do volunteer or join up if you’re interested.  There are some cool projects listed, and more in the offing.