Sam Harris on Internet Trolls

We all handle Internet trolls differently.

I usually don’t engage with people trying to get a rise out of me — in the comments below, on Twitter, whatever — unless I think the topic needs addressing. I usually don’t post about them on this site because there are more pressing/interesting issues to write about when time permits… and, honestly, the trolls don’t really bother me. They don’t threaten me. They’re easily ignorable. No doubt, though, it’d be tougher to ignore in other situations (like if I were female).

Anyway, Sam Harris gets his share of Internet trolls — people who criticize him just to bait him, or who misrepresent his positions by taking a nuanced idea and boiling it down to a couple unflattering words.

It’s fascinating to read about the shit he has to put up with:

Another flurry of emails arrives alerting me to a very personal and misleading attack on me (along with a few friends and colleagues) now lighting up Alternet — a website that has distorted my views in the past. Many readers want to know when they can expect my response to “The 5 Most Awful Atheists.” I read this poisonous and inane concoction written by a deeply unserious person who has made no effort to understand my arguments, and I decide that the best thing to do is to forget all about it.

Predictably, this article refers to the fact that I have discussed the ethics of torture in the past — and it does so in order to brand me as a moral lunatic. From reading this piece, and hundreds like it, one would never imagine that my position on torture is more or less identical to the one prescribed in that handbook of evil, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Read the entry on torture there, especially the section entitled “The Beating,” and then tell me that being categorically “against torture” is a morally uncomplicated stance to adopt.)

However, I then hear that the article has been gleefully endorsed by that shepherd of Internet trolls PZ Myers, amplifying its effect. Soon thereafter it appears on Salon, under the slightly more restrained title “5 Atheists who ruin it for everyone else.” Will I now respond? The temptation is growing. But I have 5,991 unread emails in my inbox and a book to write.

Actually, PZ’s comments are a particular annoyance for Harris, who mention’s PZ’s full name on five separate occasions (calling him the “shepherd of Internet trolls,” “odious,” “unscrupulous,” and lacking “intellectual integrity”):

It is difficult to overlook the role that blog comments play in all this. Having a blog and building a large community of readers can destroy a person’s intellectual integrity — as appears to have happened in the case of PZ Myers. Many people who read his blog come away convinced that I am a racist who advocates the widespread use of torture and a nuclear first strike against the entire Muslim world. The most despicable claims about me appear in the comment thread, of course, but Myers is responsible for publishing them. And so I hold him responsible for circulating and amplifying some of the worst distortions of my views found on the Internet.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: I read all of Harris’ posts about profiling Muslims at the airport, and none of them came across as “racist” to me. Racism implies an undercurrent of intolerance, and I suspect Harris has no problem with Muslims peacefully practicing their faith (other than the fact that their beliefs are wrong) or people like me sitting next to him on a plane. So I can understand his frustration with people reducing his argument down to “racial profiling.” It’s far more complicated than that. (For what it’s worth, I also didn’t think his argument for religious profiling was very persuasive.)

But I don’t buy the idea that PZ is responsible for what his commenters say. He provides the platform and sets the tone — and I’ve criticized that myself — but there’s not enough time to moderate every comment, especially when you get that many. You can ban or mark as spam any number of comments, but what about the people who (politely, with good intentions) say untrue things or who criticize you without merit? You can’t respond to everybody; you can’t correct them all; so it’s usually easier to let the other commenters deal with them and let the chips fall as they may.

I think it’s safe to say my tone on this site is radically different than PZ’s, but there are plenty of asshole-ish comments that make their way here, too. What’s the alternative? Shutting down comments entirely? That wouldn’t be fun for me, even though some of the blogs I respect have done that. I don’t want this to be a one-way conduit of information. Neither does Harris, but you can imagine what would happen if he opened up comments on his site.

One thing Harris might want to consider: If that many people are accusing him of “racial profiling” (or some other false claim), yes, some of them may not have actually read the piece… but others may have read it and still misunderstand him. It’s the communicator’s job to set the record straight, even if that means restating something you thought you said before.

So if Harris were to ever write a longer book about how airports ought to handle terrorism, I think he owes it to readers to explain (in a longer, different, more clear manner than his blog posts did) why his suggestion should not be mistaken for racial profiling.

Sometimes — rarely — trolls can be helpful in pointing out where people misunderstand your position. You won’t be able to change their minds — that’s why they’re trolls — but you might be able to make your point more clear for everyone else.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Brian Westley

    Wow, how did Harris and PZ get along long enough to make “Beware the Believers”?

  • Sailorsguide

    I have read plenty of  evidence that torture does not work to elicit useful information. Therefore it seems rational and sensible to reject it on all grounds 

    • Blacksheep

      You cannot simply reject it “on all grounds.” If you were the parent in the linked story “The beating” and chose not to use torture to save your child you would be partly responsible for his death. Life is not as simple as you would like it to be. 

      • 3lemenope

        Well, no, you can simply reject it on all grounds, which doesn’t absolve one of considering problems like “The Beating” when forming one’s position, but does allow one to come to a different conclusion than the one your personal moral calculus has decided is the right one. 

        If you were the parent in that story, I don’t agree that the moral responsibility for your child’s death magically becomes partially transitive to you simply because you chose not to radically violate the personhood and dignity of another human being (or have someone else do it for you). There may be potent extra-ethical reasons to do it anyway; love can make it personally acceptable to do bad things even if it can’t and shouldn’t be viewed as acceptable from the point of view of a person who doesn’t share the love relationship with the beneficiary of your actions, but I think such reasons firmly fall outside the realm of formal ethical calculus. That is, they cannot bear on whether it is right or wrong to do the action.

        • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

          Yup yup. I am against torture on MOST (and by that I mean ‘the vast majority of’) grounds. If it’s a situation described in ‘The Beating’, I’m all for it, and I’ll accept whatever label that earns me.

          Hell, if it’s my own kid at risk of dying because Mr. Fuckhead Grand Theft Auto won’t fess up, hand me the tire iron and I’ll do the dirty work. It would be my responsibility, after all.

          • Blacksheep

            If my kids life is at stake, I’ll just have to hope there’s a Silo in the interrogation room getting info and not a 3lemonope trying to hug it out!

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            It’s a simple equation really.  Is withholding the information more important to the person than any pain you can inflict.

            Too get stupidly hypothetical, if someone wants to kill my kid, and I have the secret to his whereabouts, torture won’t work.  If someone wants my ATM PIN, then it probably wouldn’t take much.

          • Sailorsguide

             The problem with this is that it is a hypothetical situation. Let us put it this way – You know when the car was stolen, there is a limited number of places it could be, is it better to use the resources you have looking for the car or torturing the man? You may not find it, but he may not tell you the truth either. He is quite likely to give you a crap story to get you off his back by which time the baby is dead. The sensible thing in this case is point out to him that so far he is up for a relatively minor crime of car jacking, if anything happens to that kid it will be murder, so it is very much in his best interests to tell you where it is.

        • Blacksheep

          Maybe one can – but I don’t think you are. I actually think we agree, you are just being very careful about how you express it. I take the term, “On all grounds” literally – that one would never even resort to an extra-ethical response. My only point is that they may be occasions when an individual decides that it’s necessary (As i believe even you would if your child were slowly roasting in a sealed car and before you stood the man who knew where he was – a person who forfeited any human dignity by choosing to tortue an innocent child). You are simply using extra words to come to the same end conclusion.

          If I could save the life of your child by punching someone in the nose, then yes, I would be absolutely (Not magically) partly responsible for his death if I did not act. And it wouldn’t be wrong, it would be right! 

          • 3lemenope

            I’m coming to the conclusion that it would never properly be called right to do so, so no, I don’t think we agree. Of course, if it were my own child, I wouldn’t particularly care about how my actions would be judged; the only thing important to me would be to save my child by any means necessary, including brutality. I would also fully expect to be held responsible (both morally and legally) after the fact, and wouldn’t exactly be shocked or offended if people (esp. like cops who are officially charged with preventing just such behavior) attempted to interfere before the fact.

            Honestly the more interesting ethical question for me is if I were a bystander to the situation; someone whose kid is missing is contemplating torturing a person they know has the location in order to get answers and save the kid. While I may sympathize and empathize with their situation, is it ethically right for me to not interfere if I have the capacity to do so even though I adjudge the actual act to be (hideously, terribly) wrong simply because sentiment tells me I might act the same if positions were reversed?

            • Blacksheep

              You need to man up, brother. It is absolutely not “Hideously, terribly” wrong to force information out of someone if it will save the life of your child if you know with 100% certainty that they have the info. The person being questioned can give the info and save the child and avoid any pain, but chooses not to. 

              • Blacksheep

                …I might add that the kidnapper will heal, while your child would be dead forever.

                • Pendragon

                  All these posts seem to imply that the person doing the torture has foresight.

                  How would one know that torture would provide the answer one was looking for?

                  It’s just as likely the car jacker told the cops the wrong location because he wanted the kid to die. Then you have a dead kid and cops who tortured a prisoner. 

                  It’s all well and good discussing this with the knowledge of how it turned out but this isn’t a luxury we are afforded in reality.

              • amycas

                Ugh “man up” is such a terrible phrase…

                • Blacksheep

                  I actually agree – but the situation so warranted it!

              • 3lemenope

                I hesitate to say this, but did you actually read what I wrote? When you say something like “I have to man up” after I already said if I were in the position of the parent I would in fact torture someone despite knowing it was wrong, I have to wonder.

                …I might add that the kidnapper will heal, while your child would be dead forever.

                The clarity of the thought problem guarantees that second part, in real life there is no such guarantee (as a person might happen upon the car and see the baby and call it in and/or extricate the baby from it), and I think you are utterly wrong about the first part. One of the terrible things about torture is that its wounds not only can have lasting, permanent physical effect, but the psychological wounds are also generally permanent and no less significant.

            • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

              “I’m coming to the conclusion ”

              It is sadly all too common that people jump to conclusions.

              • 3lemenope

                Coming to a conclusion is not the same as jumping to one. In this case, my choice of words was an intentional rhetorical chiasm  of Blacksheep’s “I actually think we agree” with his/her “You are simply using extra words to come to the same end conclusion” in order to be clear that I did not, in fact, agree, and that our conclusions differ on more than rhetorical aesthetic (i.e. I wasn’t simply saying the same thing but more carefully/timidly).

                • Blacksheep

                  “…if it were my own child, I wouldn’t particularly care about how my actions would be judged; the only thing important to me would be to save my child by any means necessary, including brutality.”
                  In real life, we agree. Trust me. The original question was simply, “Would you reject it – on ALL grounds.” 

                • 3lemenope

                  No, sorry, we don’t. You want to take the extra step that I do not in saying that the circumstances (and the expected outcome) alleviate the moral responsibility for intentionally torturing another human being.

                  I don’t know how I can be clearer about my position:

                  1. Torture is wrong

                  2. Torture is always wrong

                  3. Sometimes, people are convinced by their circumstances to do something wrong

                  4. Their personal determination doesn’t make what they did not wrong

                  5. If I were a person in this circumstance, I’d probably do it

                  6. If I were a person in this circumstance, I’d still know what I did was wrong and would expect to be held responsible and/or punished for it

                  I recognize no grounds for seeing the issue of the morality of torture otherwise. If what I said about extra-ethical action somehow led you to believe that I thought such considerations lead to ethical excuse, let me be crystal clear. I. Do. Not.

                • thebigJ_A

                  So, you like tots agree with him, then?
                  ;)

                • 3lemenope

                  LOL.

                • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

                  I was simply saying that it’s rare for people to be in the act of reaching a conclusion as opposed to having concluded.  In some cases changing one’s mind, or not being certain, is seen as weakness.  I personally think discovering we are wrong is one of the most important things we can do.  Easier said than done.

                  I wasn’t saying anything about the moral acceptability of torture.  I think there are (my child involved) cases in which I would torture and be damned with right or wrong.  Even if it didn’t work, it would probably make me feel better at the time.  That’s probably a flaw in my moral character.  May Jesus forgive me.

                • 3lemenope

                  Ah, I see. Yeah, I agree that some people think that the mere act of changing one’s mind or seriously contemplating other points of view is a sign of weakness and failure to be sufficiently decisive, or whatever, and I certainly don’t hold to that!

                  It turns out in this particular case I’ve thought about the ethical complexion of torture at length, both formally in my studies, and elsewhere. And I was from those experiences intimately familiar with the Beating and Ticking-Time Bomb hypos. After a certain amount of exposure to the contours of a particular issue, it becomes justifiable to feel fairly sure that your belief is solid, so long as you don’t foreclose the possibility of a new or unforeseen argument.

                  So far in this thread there haven’t been any surprising or new arguments re: torture, at least none new to me.

              • Blacksheep

                The “Jump to Conclusions Mat” from office space:

                http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRxqY4wuTHw

          • alconnolly

             I think your position would be similar to mine, which is that even if there could be some hypothetical conceivable situation where it might be ethical to torture, it should not be codified into law. If I knew for an absolute fact that I had in my custody someone who knew how to diffuse a ticking nuclear weapon, and knew torture would get the truth out of him. I would do so whether or not the law said I would have to spend the rest of my life in jail. The reality is that I almost certainly would not be prosecuted under such black and white circumstances, however even if I were, I would say saving all those lives was worth me spending the rest of my life in jail. That’s why torture should always as a matter of law be illegal, even if there is some extreme hypothetical that can be created that would justify it. We don’t say stealing and killing are legal, but the law will account for extreme circumstances when dealing with those charges.

      • Patterrssonn

        The trouble with “the beating” is how much of the account can be trusted? How do we know that the beating of suspects isn’t normal activity for those cops in order to get a quick confession or an easy alternatives to other interrogation techniques? Also it’s not far fetched to imagine that these cops arent strangers to violent intimidation of suspects, in which case the reticence of the suspect to trust, or make a deal with the cops might just be normal behaviour.

        The trouble with making allowances for torture in extreme situations is that any situation can be rationalized as extreme and you end up with situations like Iraq or Afghanistan where people get tortured for essentially being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

        • Blacksheep

          None of what you wrote explains why the kidnapper would refuse to let a mother save her dying child in a hot car, and how purely evil that is.

          • Patterrssonn

            That’s because nothing I wrote attempts to explain that. I was simply questioning the validity of the example as a case of morally acceptable torture simply because, unless there’s a recording of the event, we don’t know how much of the story is true.

            If someone came up with a situation where good could come of a terrorist act what would that mean? Would that mean the end of  blanket condemnation of terrorism?

            • http://twitter.com/KevinSagui Kevin Sagui

              We engaged in plenty of terrorism during the American War of Independence.  Of course, then it was “freedom fighting,” but perspective doesn’t change the nature of the act.

            • The Captain

              “If someone came up with a situation where good could come of a terrorist act what would that mean? Would that mean the end of  blanket condemnation of terrorism?”
              Sadly yes, just as an example the Syrian opposition forces have attacked several TV station, recently killing 7 civilians in one attack. That act not only fits the definition of terrorism, but in most other situations would be reported as such. Yet in the western press it was just reported as “an attack” and no condemnations occurred, since we are kinda on their side in the conflict.

              • MV

                I’m not sure that I would consider people running a State TV station to be civilians in the middle of a civil war.  These are the types of targets that would receive rather large bombs if we were on the attacking side.

                • The Captain

                  Are they military? No. These are regular people who work in an industry that the government happens to control. So I guess then if you declared a “war” on someone then state employed teachers are targets too. How about doctors at state run medical centers, fine to blow up a hospital then? That’s somehow not “terrorism” if the enemy signs their paycheck? By that rational the Moscow theater attack was not “terrorism” since most of them worked for a state at war with Chechnya.

    • vexorian

       Or maybe it really is that simple. Sailorsguide is that torture has not been found to really save children.

      I think it is up to those of us who can be objective about it to prevent the people who are emotionally immersed in the trouble from doing stuff that is not only wrong (yes, torture is wrong) but might actually make the investigation harder (as it has been found, torture *works* in effect that it forces the torture victim to confess and give details, even when the victim did not really make those crimes or the details are fake.)

  • 3lemenope

    Sam Harris may not think of his position as prejudiced, but when his position boils down to preferentially inconveniencing people who happen to not look like Sam Harris, it becomes rather harder to be charitable about the character of his point. It is, if anything actually legitimately called racist, racism as privilege rather than racism as animus; they’re not the same thing, but at the bottom they end up producing fairly ugly results.

    And he’s pissed away the rest of his “I’m not a bigot” cred with me with his intemperate position and comments regarding the Park51 Islamic Center in Manhattan.

    • http://thefloatinglantern.wordpress.com/ Tim Martin

      You’re an idiot. Harris wrote twice in his post on profiling that white men such as himself fit the profile of a possible terrorist, and he mentioned it again in his latest blog entry. And yet you “boil down” his position to precisely the opposite of that.

      Way to go. People like you are part of the problem.

      • 3lemenope

        Then he didn’t restate and further explain his position so much as he changed it and hoped people wouldn’t notice. He has, in my personal opinion, a bad habit of doing that: backtracking away from clear but problematic statements towards more moderate sounding language after being called out on it and then criticizing his opponents for failing to understand that’s what he meant all along.

        • SpiritualRationalist

          “Then he didn’t restate and further explain his position so much as he changed it and hoped people wouldn’t notice. He has, in my personal opinion, a bad habit of doing that” – Wait, didn’t *you* just do that?

          • 3lemenope

            No.

        • http://thefloatinglantern.wordpress.com/ Tim Martin

          3lemenope: “[Sam Harris'] position boils down to preferentially inconveniencing people who happen to not look like Sam Harris…”
          Sam Harris (in his original blog entry on profiling): “…I do not mean to suggest that a person like me should be exempt from scrutiny.”Also, “…I wouldn’t put someone who looks like me entirely outside the bull’s-eye …”Sam Harris (in his latest blog entry): “…white men like myself also fit the profile of a possible terrorist.”

          3lemenope: “[Sam Harris] changed [his position] and hoped people wouldn’t notice.”

          Still no.

          I agree with some of your criticisms of Harris, but you have not represented his position well at all, and neither has he changed it (in this case). And considering he *just wrote* a blog post about dealing with this type of bullshit, one would think you’d be a little more careful.

          • 3lemenope

            Yeah, except those arguments from Harris are almost transparently handwaving, as they miss the actual thrust of the criticism. You can’t tell by looking at someone what their religion is, and so you are forced either to require people to declare their religion (not a good plan, and stupid besides because they can just lie if they want) or use the baser categories that are correlated with religion (race, national origin), which is functionally indistinguishable from racial profiling to do what he originally suggested. And he’s smart enough to know that.

            So, he is smart enough to know that those counterarguments are ridiculously weak. So yeah, I read his but-I’m-not-a-bigot-because-I-could-be-a-Muslim-even-though-I-look-like-a-honky-and-so-its-not-racist-to-profile-Muslims answer and found it to be nearly comical in its lack of ability to address the charge laid before him, and thus insufficient to deflect the charge that his proposal boils down to racial profiling of the “inconveniencing people not looking like Sam Harris” variety.

            It’s not that I’m not careful. It’s that I don’t buy his clarification as a legitimate response to the original criticism. Therefore, I stand by the original criticism, and am neither “an idiot” nor “part of the problem” to do so.

            • http://thefloatinglantern.wordpress.com/ Tim Martin

              I see what you’re saying. I don’t necessarily agree that this boils down to inconveniencing people who don’t look like Sam Harris – for example, I think Harris would be okay with performing secondary screenings on healthy white males such as himself, while not doing such screenings on 80-year-old American veterans in wheelchairs. Furthermore, I don’t care if a security plan inconveniences only some people if that plan works better than any other.

              But you seem to disagree, and your position is, as you say, a result of being careful, not of being ignorant. I’m sorry I jumped to conclusions and called you an idiot. I’ll try to do better next time.

              • 3lemenope

                Fair enough. Polite disagreement is the spice of life. :)

      • Patterrssonn

        I love how you start you’re argument with “You’re an idiot”. It just makes you’re position seem so much more valid.

        • 3lemenope

          Hey, man.  People like me are part of the problem. :)

          • Patterrssonn

            I don’t even know what the problem is. If you ever meet a person like yourself do me a favour and ask them for me.

      • Coyotenose

         And police stopping both white people and black people for driving in a white neighborhood means exactly the same thing and has the same personal and social consequences.

  • Nathan Daniels

    “It’s the communicator’s job to set the record straight . . . ”

    Did you read Harris’s whole post? He specifically says he wonders if it’s his own fault for not communicating better. Here it is: “I can’t shake the feeling that if I just wrote or spoke more clearly, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.”

    • 3lemenope

      Just because he recognizes that perhaps he has a weakness in that area, it does not absolve him of the need to actually do better. It’s good that he recognizes that he might not be good at communicating all the nuances of his positions, but it’s bad that he doesn’t seem to be getting any better at it.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Anyway, Sam Harris gets his share of Internet trolls —
    people who … misrepresent his
    positions by taking a nuanced idea and boiling it down to a couple
    unflattering words.

    Say what? My chief criticism of Harris is that he has a tendency towards oversimplification, for black-and-white thinking, for with-us-or-against-us binarization.

    • http://twitter.com/gingerjet gingerjet

      I have the same criticism.  But its even more true with PZ.

    • 3lemenope

      I think, to his credit, he adds some nuance when he responds to his critics. To his discredit (as I noted above) he tends to be a bit worse about acknowledging the legitimacy of the critiques that lead to his nuanced updates, claiming instead that opponents misunderstood him from the beginning. 

  • Scantilycladoranges

    I worry that more and more people, such as Harris and other internet users, use the word troll to attempt to dismiss criticism. In my heyday I was quite the troll I guess, but more and more I see it used anytime someone argues a point with someone else. I suspect some people, perhaps unintentionally, have started using this word to dismiss others arguments without addressing the points raised, which may in fact be valid. I’m not singling out Harris here, I think people without experience of “trolling” tend to not realise that when someone sends you a nasty email/tweet, they may not be trolling, but genuinely expressing a point or feeling they have about your work, no matter how poorly worded it is. To label this as “trolling” just negates any discussion and neither side can learn from it. Maybe it’s just me but I feel Harris is a bit too willing to label posts as “trolls”.

    • Blacksheep

      I agree with your take. But it’s not just Harris who labels people as trolls – from my experience on this site, simply disagreeing with atheists gets you labeled as a troll. I honestly had the impression for a long time that what posters here really wanted was a place to exclusively hang out with other atheists. 

      I have since learned that some people here enjoy dialogue, but the majority seem to be atheists who need a place to ether vent their frustrations with organized religion (I can’t blame them half the time) or celebrate legal decisions against public displays of faith. Disagree, and you will be labeled a troll more often than on any other discussion forum.

      • Scantilycladoranges

        I said I don’t think this is confined to Harris alone, but I don’t think it is confined to atheists either. I see it plenty with religious people also. I suppose my view is different from many since I have been on the giving end of some pretty intelligent and co-ordinated “trolling”, and rarely on the receiving end. I imagine it is easy to cry troll when people are disagreeing with you, especially when you don’t quite grasp the difference between trolling and the normal sense of privilege owning a computer with an internet connection often empowers people with.

        As an example, it would be a clever and subtle troll if in your comment you singled out atheists in order to provoke a reaction from me or others. If you genuinely believe that then it is not a troll, you are stating an opinion, no matter how wrong it is. That isn’t trolling. This is a distinction that I find is lost on people now, with people calling troll on both sides, when both sides are being serious. I suppose the point boils down to if both sides believe in what they are saying then neither is trolling, no matter how mean spirited they are, and both sides have an opportunity to learn (though often only one side needs to learn, given there are a lot of idiots out there). Trolls do not have a vested interest in what you have to say, they just want your reaction. And it can be so sweet to get it.

      • Neil

        There is some truth to what you say, I’ve seen plenty of it…but you’re not taking into account one big factor.  Most atheist sites are pretty good about allowing opposing viewpoints to be heard and are fairly good ground for open discussion of just about anything.  On the other hand, many, if not most politically-charged sites and blogs run by religious folks, political conservatives (and some far-left social justice activists as well) will often simply delete comments and ban people for disagreeing or honestly debating, never really even taking the chance to debate the points or decide whether or not a person is genuine, or a troll.  In my experience, most athiest sites/blogs are more open to debate,  allowing a wider spread of views and thus both more trolls and more chances to be mistaken for a troll.  

        I’m not saying that atheist commenters are necessarily more open-minded at all, just that the forums tend to be a little more free and open, which can lead to all kinds of good and not-so-good interactions between commenters.     

      • Coyotenose

         Atheist sites get trolled more than most.  This is because those with opposing viewpoints want to vent, but lack any cohesive arguments. They get tired of being countered over and over, and resort to trolling to soothe their egos. I’ve seen theists 20-30 years older than me with five times the education make sock puppet accounts and start trolling after they tried to inflict their beliefs on me and got rebuffed. They’re so angry and bad at it that they can’t even disguise their writing style. They complain, not about the debate itself, but because they got called out for dishonesty, or had logical fallacies pointed out, or had the links that they thought were impressive dissected for their inanity.

        Given how much of that we’ve seen -and if you only look at today’s Friendly Atheist comment threads, you’ll see some of it- you can understand why trolls get called trolls early. We’re familiar with the patterns of behavior, and can often seen where someone is going from a mile away.

        Also, keep in mind that many of the people you see getting chewed on here have already established a pattern of dishonest behavior over months. I and others have seen them pull their shtick many times, and no longer give them the benefit of the doubt in any given comment. Responses to them are in the context of all the chances that they’ve already squandered. They’re being treated exactly as they demand to be treated.

    • HughInAz

      Meanwhile Myers dismisses any disagreement with his Holy Writ, on any topic, as “rabid misogyny”.

  • Matt notmylastname

    I’m going to nit-pick on one thing. You say that, “racism implies an undercurrent of intolerance” which is not true. The arguments against Harris’ position (or, the good ones, anyways) were pointing out that he supports institutional racism which already exists against muslims (as well as just about every other minority).  Institutional racism is when the structure and actions of institutions (governmental, judicial, etc) are set-up in such a way as to unfairly or unequally affect one racial group. It’s not overt, it’s not an individual, and it’s not intolerance, but it is racism. 

    My understanding was that the deeper philosophical question they were arguing was whether or not institutional racism was acceptable, and why. It’s a very utilitarian position. Utilitarian ethics are … at best, manipulative, and not valued very highly by most modern thinkers.

    That’s it. The rest of your article was awesome. And I don’t envy the misrepresentation and attack of Sam Harris.

    • Darric

      Sorry but when have Muslims been a racial group?

      I thought being a Muslim was based on adherence to the Islamic Abrahamic religion?

      • http://twitter.com/SallyStrange Sally Strange

        Uh huh… except that profiling Muslims necessarily involves making note of skin color, clothing, and other ethnic/racial markers. Harris advocates profiling people who “look Muslim.” He never satisfactorily explained (to me, of course) how one is supposed to identify Muslims at a glance without taking racial markers into account. 

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I found his hand waving about how he thought that the rule should also apply to himself as disingenuous.  I didn’t think racism was behind his thesis, but being black, or having gay friends, doesn’t mean one cannot be a bigot.

    Something I’ve taken away from a lot of what has happened in the greater ‘skeptical’ community is that hero worship is antithetical to skeptical/free thought.  There are very few ‘famous’ atheists who have not said something that I have strongly disagreed with.

    If I feel hurt because someone I don’t really know says something I disagree with, then probably I have too much invested in my non-relationship with that person.

    • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

      Disingenuous? You thought that while Harris said he wouldn’t mind being searched more frequently, he said so disingenuously? How did you sniff that out?

      As an aside, I agree with your comments about hero worship, and I also disagree with Harris’ profiling ideas.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        You’re right, ‘disingenuous’ is the wrong word.  I don’t doubt he was honest.  I just thought that aspect was a particularly poor argument.

  • grim jr

    God damn I wish PZ would shutup. The man is doing more damage to the secular movement than any religious person. Him and his holy army of do gooders shouting down anyone who disagrees slightly with their assumed moral superiority. Not talking elevatorgate or the tfoot debacle(another person who should have stuck to science), PZ has ceased to be of use to the secular community, the man is far too self important. Yes, I disagree with Harrs also.

    • 3lemenope


       The man is doing more damage to the secular movement than any religious person. 

      I don’t think any of these modern figures are in any sense a danger to the secular movement. They aren’t perfect exponents of secular humanism, and they all believe slightly different things (and so of course disagree), and they aren’t perfect communicators since nobody is. But they use and have used their talents to communicate about the things they care about, and their reaching out has done tremendous good for the overall visibility and popularity of secular points of view.

      • grim jr

        I say he is because of how decisive the man has become. I feel that he is drawing lines in the sand and people are agreeing with him.

        • grim jr

          Devisive* I mean.

          • 3lemenope

            All figures that take strong positions are divisive in some way. The question becomes whether their divisiveness overwhelms their positive contribution to the whole. Certainly people can disagree about that, but I tend to think personally that in this case both Myers and Harris contribute far more light than heat to the overall discourse; and I say this even after launching in this thread a rather trenchant critique of one of them. I’d also say that when it comes to divisiveness, neither can hold a candle to Hitchens, and I’d say with him it’s still clear he added far more than he took away.

            • grim jr

              That is a stance I can totally understand and respect. I think I may just have a poor/low regard for the positive impact he has. I am not saying he doesn’t have any positive impact, I’m thinking his positive benefit is outweighed by the negative. But, that being said its not like I have taken polls and such on this. I just want him to go away for ahwile, instead of what seems like his attempts at setting himself up as a leader amongst secularists.

    • vexorian

      ^  MRA alert.

      • grim jr

        ^Douchebag alert.

        Seriously, toadies like you are part of the problem. I am a feminist and I also happen to agree with PZ’s stances on feminism and the treatment of women in modern society. The fact that I can’t even criticize PZ’s actions(his actions, not his beliefs) without being called a chauvinist is laughable and a perfect example of the polarization he causes.

        • vexorian

          Yes,  of course you are a feminist. Everyone is lately.

          I gotta love the hypocrisy in this criticism thread. People blame the commenters at pharyngula of being “self congratulatory”. The whole thread of discussion you started is as self-congratulary as heck.

          Oh no, how negative pharyngulites are. Cause this thread is so positive and open it seems. You get annoyed by my quick reaction calling you a MRA yet have no problem calling me a douchebag. Coyotenose up there also rushes to conclusions so fast.  How welcoming of dissent.

          So, what I learn here is. You are not against “self-congratulatory group think” when the group think agrees with you. You are not against rage and negativity when you are the one strongly disagreeing with the person you are replying. You are not over name-calling either. All of that is perfectly fine by me. It just tickles me that you would pretend to be otherwise, you dislike pharyngula not because of the things you mentioned (cause you endorse those behaviours as your actions speak for them) but because you disagree with pharyngula more often than not. And that’s fine. But then it would be great, good and golden that you would specify your disagreements instead of focusing in form. Now that we have established that your criticisms of form were invalid given that you share the same form as pharyngula.

      • Coyotenose

         ^ Illiterate reactionary alert.

    • Phrosty12

      A few months ago, I unsubscribed Pharyngula from my RSS feed after years of readership. It’s nice to have all of that bullshit negativity and highschool-grade drama out of my life. It’s a shame, because I really enjoyed his posts devoted solely to biology.

      • Andrew B.

        I think he still posts solely biology stuff on his science blogs page.

        And I get what you say about the endless negativity.  It really just wears me out.

        • Andrewwoodr

          I totally agree with you guys. I used to read his site all the time. Now I can’t stand to go there. His negativity and argumentative attitude is a huge turn off.

      • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

        Same here.

      • Pascale Laviolette

        Glad other people are feeling this!

        • Lauryn

          I really agree and like Pascale I’m happy other people felt this way. I read PZ all the time when I was in college but I stopped ages ago and only read him now for work.

      • William Chain

        Same here too. All that negativity made PZ lose me as a fan.

    • LesterBallard

      I’m a major league asshole, but when I read the comments at Pharyngula, I think, is that me? Do I sound like that?

      • http://www.SketchSepahi.com/ SketchSepahi

        Ever since I had a wake-up call on just how horrible PZ and his personality cult are I’ve become considerably more measured out of fear of becoming like them.

      • The Captain

        He he, yea, I have a major in assholeness and a minor in trolling and I can’t even stand the Pharyngula comments.

    • Coyotenose

       I only occasionally see a problem with PZM’s posts, but most of the high comment-volume regulars are incestuous and self-congratulatory, and complete hypocrites. They rant and scream about the mildest behaviors from newbies or strangers that they never criticize when displayed by one of their own (or by PZ, so they’re cowards as well.)

      I find PZ’s sin to be that he tolerates the nastier behavior from the regulars on the grounds that the comment sections are supposed to be largely self-moderating, but all that really means is that they form cliques and bully the out-group. He seems to be oblivious to that.

      • http://twitter.com/WCLPeter Rob U

        but all that really means is that they form cliques and bully the out-group. He seems to be oblivious to that.

        I don’t think so. Sometimes the biggest bully is the one hiding in plain sight.

        Reading “The New Rules” gives me the impression PZ is unable of handling any criticism of any kind. He seems to take any and all kinds of criticism as a personal attack – that’s what he’s labelling Sam Harris’s criticism of him as – and talks at length about how we have no right to directly criticize him or his very public behaviour and, if we have the temerity to do so, he will have no qualms throwing comments, commenters, or even entire threads, down the memory hole and gleefully pretending they don’t exist.

        PZ also proclaims his adherence to the principles of revisionist history, which is shocking considering he’s a scientist – you’d think he’d want to preserve all history and knowledge, even that with which he doesn’t agree – with his post entitled “The Airing of Grievances”. You won’t actually find it on his site, he already incinerated it. Luckily Google makes an effort to save history, you can still grab it on Google Cache. Just in case its down (emphasis mine):

        In my post about the New Rules, I openly declared myself the naked total despot of Pharyngula, and told you all that you don’t get to argue with me. I’m going to make one exception: I’ll occasionally open a Grievances thread, the purpose of which is for you to scream at me and tell me what I’ve done wrong. Just get it off your chest and holler.

        One special thing about this thread, though: it’s temporary. I’m going to delete it and all of its comments in 24 hours. Why? Because I don’t want you to get into drawn out arguments with me, or worst of all, each other, and I don’t want to leave nasty criticisms that I’m encouraging to linger. So state your piece, briefly — there’s no point to long harangues, since they’ll vanish tomorrow — and I’ll read them, and maybe I’ll do something about them, and maybe I’ll ignore them.

        This is your chance. It may not come around again for a while.

        Conceited much? The man has basically said he’s above reproach, that he should never be criticized – for any reason – and that he has no qualms about engaging in revisionist history by making you and your comments disappear.

        But he’s willing to be oh so magnanimous in that every once in a long, very long, while he’ll open up a grievances thread (two minutes hate), promise to read them but will probably not take them to heart, and then throw the whole thing down the memory hole and pretend it didn’t happen; he just can’t handle the criticism.

        Or is he. The thread is gone – it’s down the memory hole, lost to history – it, in effect, doesn’t exist. He doesn’t EVER have to bring it back – there is no reality check on him ever doing so, because the record of him stating he would do such a thing does not exist; there is no way to make him accountable to his word, particularly since, in his own words, “you don’t get to argue with me.”

        Sometimes the biggest bully is the one hiding in plain sight.

        Sorry, I’m almost done – I’d post this on PZ’s blog but I refuse to get a Log-In ID over at Freethought Blogs. I’m not going to give PZ the satisfaction of disappearing me for having the temerity of directly “arguing”, or asking him to “justify” his actions, by pointing out his hypocrisy.

        PZ made this comment – see the link above – “I have just been attacked by Sam Harris. How does that make me the bully?”.

        Your a bully PZ, hiding in plain sight, because while you didn’t actually say the words you did point to an article that basically said:

        * His fame is both wholly undeserved and utterly embarrassing.
        * Implied, if not right out stated, that he is a racist.
        * Stated that Harris routinely fails to demonstrate the faintest capacity to reason – essentially calling him stupid.
        * Stated that Harris is basically a low-rent Hitchens, sans wit or the wisdom to water-board himself.
        * Implied that Harris is basically the crap of the atheist world rising to the top.

        And of that article, which levied what amounts to a personal attack on Sam Harris, did you condemn it? Did you break out your righteous anger against the article writer for resorting to personal attacks, rather than attacking a person’s ideas? Nope, this is what you said PZ:

        “I think the criticisms offered in the article are all on target, but I refuse to believe that any of them are irredeemable…”

        Yeah, you technically didn’t actually bully Sam Harris. Instead you let Ian Murphy do the bullying, tacitly approved of it and then basically threw out the insulting – “I refuse to believe that any of them are irredeemable…”.

        What, they’re not doing atheism right if they’re not doing in the PZ Meyers approved way? How conceited are you? You can’t even take a direct criticism on your own blog without resorting to infantile threats, yet you claim some kind of moral authority over others and feel qualified to dictate who can and cannot be redeemed?

        So Yeah PZ, you keep telling yourself you’re being attacked. That you’re not the bully. That you’re not the least bit hypocritical for complaining your being bullied when people have the audacity for calling out your own silent bullying.

        • Ski

          Wow!  Great recap and I agree completely.  I’ve also made the mistake of posting at PZ’s blog and regretted it each time.  It’s never fun to be cussed out by trolls for taking an intellectual position.  I used to like PZ’s ornary take on religion (e.g. driving a nail through a “cracker”), but the sheer dickishness (is that a word?) over there has chased me as well.

        • vexorian

          I happen to vaguely remember Harris saying something like “that shepherd of Internet trolls PZ Myers,” or something about PZ having lost his “intellectual integrity”.  They sound like attacks to me (deserved or right or not is your opinion, but they seem to be personal attacks).

          I did not think PZ had ties with Ian Murphy, I think the whole thing about PZ letting Ian Murphy do the bullying for him are quite imaginative theories.

          “Conceited much? The man has basically said he’s above reproach, that he should ”

          It is his comment section. We can still argue with him anywhere else. Like you are doing right now. Is this really much worse than Sam Harris who does not even allow comments in his posts?

          “I’d post this on PZ’s blog but I refuse to get a Log-In ID over at Freethought Blogs.”

          You can log in using google, facebook or wordpress.


          That whole profiling stuff. I don’t really think it can amount to doing atheism right. It is at the very least not very rational. After Bruce Schneier tacitly reminds you that it is not even effective at catching terrorists and is just security theater. I know Harris is intelligent and has written good books. Just read one the other day. (BTW, you gotta read PZ myers’ post about how Harris released his book for free. If PZ Myers has a personal vendetta and final objective of bullying Harris, he is very good at hiding it.), I think it is fair someone would lose points in “See? I am rational” scale for that.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

    Many people who read [Pharyngula] come away convinced that I am a racist who
    advocates the widespread use of torture and a nuclear first strike
    against the entire Muslim world.

    I’d like to see a citation for this.  Harris is complaining about misrepresentation… How does he think misrepresentation occurs in the first place?  It starts with a broad accusation full of weasel words, and without citations.

    • vexorian

       More about misrepresentation: Harris claims PZ “gleefully endorsed” the 5 most awful atheists article. But this is the actual blog post PZ wrote about it: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/08/03/and-the-hatchet-strikes/ . To me at least, it seems that PZ just agrees with the criticisms, which is not a surprise, but then PZ offers a challenge to the author and also says that none of the issues mentioned are really a big deal except for one of them (not Harris). It seems a very neutral post. Which is amazing, since it is  PZ we are talking about…

      • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

         To be fair, Harris did cite that post.  Citing it did not prevent him from misrepresenting it.

        I also found one comment calling Harris a racist who advocates a nuclear first strike.  One comment, which Harris translated to “many people”.

        • thebigJ_A

          One comment on that thread, a thread not solely about Harris or his ideas. There have been other threads specifically on Harris in the past, and that’s where a lot of those claims appeared. 

  • vexorian

     I don’t remember PZ saying that it was racist. I do remember PZ saying that profiling itself (relgious or racist) is stupid. And I think that from a security perspective , it really is.

  • anon101

    The comment section of pharyngula is a biotope for truly obnoxious
    people. I was not surprised at the hate that erupted when PZ
    introduced a new topic to his blog. You have to remember it’s the
    same people that two years ago applauded every word that PZ said that
    are now writing hate mail to female bloggers.

    The thing is that he
    sets the tone and the result is an anything goes mentality among the
    commenters and I think he is partly responsible for that. Though I
    agree that it is difficult to manage that many comments one could
    speculate that he deliberately breed an army of minions to use.

    • amycas

       He has set up new rules recently (as in a few days ago). I regularly read his blog and most of the comments. I usually enjoy it, but some days the negativity (as mentioned in an earlier post on this thread) gets to be too much some days. I’m glass he’s instituting new rules on being “charitable” during debates and he’s created the “Thurderdome” where the any amount of vitriol is allowed for the sole purpose of keeping it out of the regular threads.

    • thebigJ_A

      “You have to remember it’s the
      same people that two years ago applauded every word that PZ said that
      are now writing hate mail to female bloggers.”

      Citation *seriously* effing needed.

  • Barry Meehan

    Harris’ position seems closer to age profiling than race profiling. I don’t think it would be very effective though.

  • rg57

    I agree about the comments.  I don’t think PZ or you are a publisher of comments, nor is it at first glance reasonable to hold either of you responsible for them.  However, PZ does more than just state his opinion on his blog.  He does grow an army of readers he can call upon to (for example) “Pharyngulate” things like online polls.  This is likely to result in a habit where PZ criticizes something (such as fellow bloggers), and the readers dutifully respond in whatever ways are available to them.

    • MichaelD


      However, PZ does more than just state his opinion on his blog.  He does grow an army of readers he can call upon to (for example) “Pharyngulate” things like online polls.” 

      I suppose I have a hard time seeing what’s wrong with this. Is this significantly different from say Hemet organizing his readers to give money to cancer research or the SSA (something PZ also does)? An online poll takes 30seconds to vote in and has no affect on anything terribly relevant aside from the people who read it. Organizing people in activism and acts of charity has the potential for far more global in pacts (the American cancer society incident). So to reiterate what is wrong with sending people to vote in an online poll versus say giving to a charity or other activist task?

      • amycas

         It’s my understanding that “Pharyngulating” a poll was merely an exercise in showing why online polls are useless.

        • Kodie

          It’s also a demonstration of how well his readers follow direction, since it reminds me of the same kind of response of Christians eating at Chick-fil-A a week ago.

          • MichaelD

            So how is grassroots activism bad? You have a platform and people agree with you on a number of things so they pay attention and you put out a call that you think people should do X. Because you have a self selecting bias of people who think like you a large number of them agree that what you are proposing makes sense and follow suit. How is this bad? Just because bigots do this doesn’t mean its a bad thing.

            If a evangelical christian blog was collecting money to help fund a vacation bible camp for young kids does this make Hemant wrong for raising money for Camp Quest? Or people on this blog for donating to camp quest because they were made aware of it from reading about it here? 

            The just of these arguments seems to be an arguement against popularity. Some blog is popular and people agree with it so this is bad. This seems to rely on an uncharitable view that the people reading the blog have given up thinking for them selves. Where as this can just as easily be explained again by a self selecting bias among the people who read it.

            • Kodie

              Grassroots activism can be good. Manipulating and motivating a crowd to do whatever you want because you know they will is something else. It’s not just PZ, and I don’t know that he doesn’t just roll with his fandom. I’ve seen it everywhere I’ve ever situated myself on the internet and probably not escaped participating myself in the fever.  I don’t look at his blog very often and I only posted once or twice (2 years ago-ish?), but I like to see what he’s got going on sometimes and not just center myself on what 2 atheist blogs (where I’m active) are posting. So it is a little much that I know I don’t want to get into it, but just about anywhere there are “regs,” not just on atheist blogs, there is in and out group thinking and movements of behavior when behavior is called for. I don’t think it’s right not to think, and I don’t think it’s right to take advantage of it.

              PZ raises donations and Hemant raises donations. I don’t think there’s anything wrong about that or at least the way Hemant goes about it, I don’t feel pressured or shook. He wants to let us know where he’s lecturing, that’s cool. I cannot compare to PZ because I really don’t read his blog enough or have an idea how that goes over. But the Pharyngulating – is it strictly necessary? Since it proves nothing, why do it? Sometimes I feel like acting like that might be fun if that’s your idea of fun, but similar to posting on a celebrity’s facebook wall. Your favorite singer asks what your plans this weekend are, and you post on their wall amid thousands of other responses. Take a reality check, that’s my answer to that. People’s identities too tied in with their favorite blogger, yes, groupies? That happens everywhere. I still can’t say that’s PZ’s fault, everyone says he sets the tone, he acknowledges it, but is that his fault and does he take too much advantage of it or is he careful how much power he has over some of his readers?

              • MichaelD

                I’m not convinced he has any power over his readers ( beyond being able to ban them from his blog or trying ton convince them through words). 

                I’m also not sure that pharyngulating an online poll serves no purpose. Although the method is crude it does raise the question of what is really the point of an online poll? How much does it actually tell you and how relevant is that information? Assuming no one on any side was gaming the poll ( bit of a stretch) what is the problem with people reading a poll and giving an opinion wasn’t that the purpose of the poll to begin with? So why do people get upset if the poll ends up in an unexpected state? Why was it posted if the answer was already known?

                While it does little for atheism itself it does raise a number of critical thinking questions around the unscientific polling in general. 

  • The Captain

    Lots to think about in this piece. 

    I think one of the problems here in regards to Harris’s crying over the “racist” accusation is that there really isn’t a word (that I know of) in english that accurately describes what his position is  and for many people “racist” is the closest thing.  As you say Hemant he probably has no problem with people like you sitting next to him on a plane. Th problem for many is he wants people like you to go through more hurdles, more hassle ect. to get on that plane in the first place. As it’s been repeatedly pointed out, unless we all wear tags stating our religion, the only way TSA (or any security) is going to make a decision on your religion is by your race. So where he may not be saying that muslims and brown people have to sit on the back of the bus, he is saying that they should be treated differently getting on the bus in the first place. That’s not full blown racism, but it’s also not equality either. What the word to describe that? Whats’ the word for the position that everyone should have the same rights, but some people should have to go through more hurdles to practice them then others because of their race? Like I said, for many “racist” is the closets thing. 

    As far as PZ, your right, he’s not responsible for the individual comments but he sets the tone. And that tone is one of a vile cult of personality. It’s a tone that encourages the figurative destruction of your opponent as obnoxiously as possible, and anyone who disagrees with PZ is an opponent. It’s a tone that is cliquey and petty.  It’s really as if individual thought outside of what PZ says is almost a “blasphemy” so no opinions that conflicts with his are really  respected by the hoard. Sounds familiar no? But PZ’s not a cult figure, no he never tells them that, but he doesn’t really discourage it though and acts all coy when called out about it. If you know that hundreds of people are going to harass someone on the internet when you make them a target don’t you have some responsibility to maybe set a tone that that is wrong? 

    All in all though as two of my least favorite atheist I have to admit it’s fun to see them fight. 

    • Jason Goertzen

      I don’t think you have read Harris very carefully on the subject of profiling.  In effect he is arguing that there are some people that are clearly, CLEARLY not terrorists, and that there’s no reason they should be searched just because “Random is fair.” 

      • The Captain

        I have read it, and its “clearly, CLEARLY” the white people who should not be searched. 

  • Don Burnette

    Full disclosure: I haven’t read all of the comments on this post, so this may have already been pointed out.

    Sorry Hemant, but your defense of PZ and his lack of responsibility for his comments is a bit off base. Have you read those comments? It’s filled with fallacious none sense, directly from his own mouth, like:
    “What exactly did you disagree with in the article? That Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been coopted by a neocon think tank? That Sam Harris sometimes advocates horrible things for Muslims? That Bill Maher is an asshole?
    Or do you not disagree with those assessments, but they simply aren’t awful? Clarity! Please!”

    He’s gone off the deep end. Like other’s here, I followed him for years, but have unsubscribed. I pretty much have put him in the ‘loon’ section, now.
    BTW, rich text in a comment section is just ridiculous. Ugh.

    • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

      Sure PZ can be off-base, but what’s wrong with the particular example you quoted?  It’s just asking people who disagree with him to clarify their position.  Better that then jumping on someone before you know what their position even is.

      I subscribe and unsubscribe to blogs all the time.  I unsubscribed to Skepchick years ago because I didn’t care for the large volume of quickies.  I don’t expect people at Skepchick to care.

  • Don Burnette

    The formatting went away, that’s at least a relief. I signed in with my Google account, so I’m not sure why the name section was left blank.

  • dangeroustalk

    While part of it may be a communication error, a large part of is is people who just want to find fault even where none exists. I ran into this problem earlier this year when similar style accusations were made toward me. I do think a blogger has a responsibility to set the tone on their blog and to discourage certain types of behavior. I find the tone on some blog networks to be the opposite and to encourage rash judgements without any kind of nuance. We are supposed to be the community of reason, but lately I have been getting disheartened. PS if you disagree with me on even the smallest detail of this comment, I will ban you, block you, unfriend you, and throw you in my dungeon. ;-) 

  • Denis Robert

    Hemant, you have to stop blindly defending Harris just because he’s a member of your team. It’s unseemly. Harris is a deeply flawed person, and a deeply flawed thinker who consistently lets his personal biases cloud his judgement. His views on Islam are, in fact, racist; his opinions on profiling do not refer to religion, but to appearance, skin colour, language and name, the very definition of “race”.  His is not a reasoned critique of an ideology he dispproves of; his is a deep seated hatred of “the other”. It’s a pattern I’ve seen too often, and it’s instantly recognizable; the fact that he glibly dismisses the expert opinion of someone with far, far greater real-life experience in the subject he injected himself into is a clear sign of the unreasonable nature of his polemic.

    Fundamentalist Islam is problematic. But so is fundamentalist Christianity, and Christians, especially in the U.S., have access to WMD. Tunnel-vision about the supposed greater evil of Islam will lead one to ignore the closer, and greater threat. Harris is driven by hatred and anger, not by reason, and that will end up discrediting him. PZ has nothing to do with it.

    • baronvoncarson

      I don’t see Harris as one full of hate. If anything, PZ seems to be full of more hate than Harris.

      Harris is simply criticising another religion. It just happens to be Islam. Ayaan Hirsi-Ali is also critical of Islam. I am very openly critical of Islam too (I am from Australia). It seems like it’s a taboo in western culture post 9/11 to be too critical of Islam lest be labelled a bigot.

      In none of my readings with Harris, nor when I met him at GAC2012, have I got the sense he is full of hatred toward Islam. Sure he has said some controversal things that we don’t agree with such as profiling or about torture, (both of which I don’t agree with) but he has also done some amazing work and always brings a clear head to the anti-theist discourse.

      • Coyotenose

         Criticizing a particular religion is not in any way the same thing as suggesting that members of a particular religion or race be treated differently by the U.S. government. Harris does BOTH. No one here, or on Pharyngula, is after Harris for the former. You should know that.

      • Denis Robert

         His advocacy of racial profiling on “muslim seeming” people is enough to classify him as a bigot and a racist. The very fact that he could believe that someone could be “muslim seeming” is enough, in fact. Harris seems muslims as fundamentally “other”, “foreign”, “sinister”. Not Islam. Muslims, as a group and as a people. He’s made that clear in “The End of Faith”, and he’s doubled and trebled down since then. There is a seething undercurrent of hatred for muslims in his writing that you would have to be willfully blind to avoid seeing.

        I have no problem with critiquing a religion. Being critical of Islam need not be bigoted. But Harris *is* bigoted, by mistaking criticism of an idea and an ideology with advocating institutional discrimination of a group of people. The fact that he even could envisage a time at which the “West” (what West?) would “have to” nuke the entire muslim world, pre-emptively, HOWEVER QUALIFIED, means that he has gone over the deep end. There is no justification for genocide; a half-Jewish man like Harris should understand this.

  • Andrew Brake

    “One thing Harris might want to consider: If that many people are
    accusing him of “racial profiling” (or some other false claim), yes,
    some of them may not have actually read the piece… but others may have
    read it and still misunderstand him.”

    “It is not enough for moderate Muslims to say “not in our name.” They
    must now police their own communities. They must offer unreserved
    assistance to western governments in locating the extremists in their
    midst. They must tolerate, advocate, and even practice ethnic
    profiling.” (Sam Harris, Bombing our Illusions, 2005)

    • Denis Robert

       I have read his piece, and I can assure you I misunderstood nothing. He’s like the racist who claims not to be so because he has a black friend. He advocates “ethnic” profiling of muslims, something that anyone who knows anything would realize is simply impossible: there is no “muslim” ethnicity. There are arabs, there are persians, there are turks, there are indians, there are indonesians who are muslims. There is no muslim ethnicity. The idea that one could “ethnically profile” muslims itself marks its bearer as racist, by definition.

      • Andrew Brake

        I agree.  I also find it funny when he cries about “people like PZ Myers continue to malign me as an advocate of “racial profiling”. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/AE6HMGKDQTFE3K4HLV5EJXOGOU Brennen

    Yeah, it would help if he defines what racial profiling is for him and then try to make a distinction with regard to his position.

    I’ve read his posts about profiling, he also had a post from an expert against profiling, and I think he’s a proponent of racial profiling.

    I’m not sure I get the nuance on why his position is different than plain old racial / religious / cultural profiling.

  • http://twitter.com/tauriqmoosa Tauriq Moosa

    Great post. I’ve recently turned off comments on my blog, too. I like your final point about recognising one’s own communication faux pas.

  • MegaZeusThor

    So Dawkins is friendly with both Sam Harris and PZ Myers. I guess he shouldn’t invite them both over for dinner at the same time.

    (I find both Harris and Myers to be persuasive at times, both occasionally frustrating at times. Shame they don’t get along better.)

    Good clip of Harris talking rationally: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wi2IC6e5DUY#t=8m30s 

  • http://twitter.com/SallyStrange Sally Strange

    I read Pharyngula often and comment frequently and usually enjoy it there. 

    BOO!

    Something must be horribly wrong with me. 

    • Coyotenose

       Nothing at all wrong. There’s blithely obnoxious, self-important, and cliquish behavior there, done for its own sake. There’s also a lot of good wit and humor.

      Overlooking the way some of them act enough to enjoy the good parts isn’t a sin, only participating in the same behavior or legitimizing it by never speaking up when they go after people without cause.

  • Korou

    I have to say this is all a bit of a shame. I read Pharyngula every day and very much enjoy it. I very rarely read the comments on any of the Pharyngula threads. I’ve read a lot of Sam Harris as well and think he’s a very great advantage to the atheist arguments.

    It hadn’t before occurred to me that there was a problem with PZ Myers. Now, having read some of the comments here, I can see that there are grievances, and I wish that he had supported Sam Harris, who I think definitely deserves it in this case. But thinking back on the things Myers has done and does – Planet of the Hats, his article on the City of God, his many takedowns on creationism, Crackergate, and his recent stance on feminism and respect, which I think is laudable – I have to say that I think PZ Myers and Sam Harris are both assets to the causes of science, reason and atheism.

  • David B.

    I think Harris overstates how much the Stanford Encyclopedia agrees with him. Although he uses the argument of action in extremis as justification, as in “The Beating”, he is thereafter arguing for institutional torture, for example a “torture pill” that can be given to captives to ensure there cooperation. The SEP rightly considers institutionalised torture a separate consideration, one which (under the example of “torture warrants”) it concludes is “highly undesirable, indeed a threat to liberal democratic institutions.”

    A baby in an abandoned car or a ticking bomb may or may not justify torture, but they certainly do not justify the legalisation nor routine application of such an instrument, as Harris is suggesting.

    Imagine a slightly different version of “The Beating”, where the police are brutalising a known car-thief because there’s a one-in-a-million chance that he might have abandoned a baby somewhere, or plan to, or know someone who has, even though no such report has been filed. Is it still justified, still reasonable, to beat the guy – criminal though he is – to a pulp? If not, then how is Harris’ comment “If there is even one chance in a million that he [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking.”

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    I’ve heard the MTV2 is about produce a show called Godless Beef — a series depicting the infighting amongst atheists.

  • http://twitter.com/moother moother

    PZ sets the tone and the tone determines the music. That makes him responsible for the music (or maybe it’s just noise) in the comments.

  • atheist_gumi

    When I was discovering atheist sites I, of course, came across Pharyngula and was soon turned off by its Jerry Springer-like threads and by PZ’s penchant for sanctimoniousness, stirring the pot, and casually dismissing serious people he disagreed with, like Harris, with the same lack of seriousness he reserved for creationist crackpots. However, what really soured me on PZ was his behavior regarding Richard Dawkins in the whole “elevatorgate” kerfuffle. Granted, Professor Dawkins probably should have stayed out of an ugly internet fight that was frankly beneath him, as became apparent when the affronted Watson and her (and PZ’s) sycophants turned on him with a vengeance. They used all sorts of foul language to attack Dawkins and smear his character in the ugliest way. Some people deserve better, and regadless of whether Dawkins was right or wrong, they had no right to talk to him that way. Given how Dawkins and PZ were friends, I thought PZ would step in and set things right. Instead, he gleefully egged Watson and their vicious sycophants on. In his mind, this was a war and nobody was gonna doubt his self-appointed label of “greatest male feminist ever”.

    As for Sam Harris, PZ has been taking swipes at him almost from the beginning, so much so that I assumed he was just jealous. Sometimes it was a casually dismissing remark, sometimes it was by showing mirth at someone else’s criticism of Harris, and almost always the most egregious and false accusations against Harris went unchallenged (even on the threads, Harris’s defenders, no matter how polite their dissent, were asked to put up or get lost). Everyone’s got buttons, and you can only push them for so long, and thus it’s only natural that Harris finally swatted back.

    • http://profiles.google.com/whoreslie joe smith

       Agreed. One of his anti-vaxxer rants (yes i think they are dopes, no I don’t think we will win them over by treating them like homophobes and racists)  was so pointless and over-the-top. The ridiculous harping on political ideas counter to his are just immature and boring now.

  • alconnolly

    Hemant, I respect you enormously, but to dismiss the racist article by Sam Harris, which promotes by definition racist behavior (making prejudgement on others based on their race, yes I know he says to profile those who “look Muslim” but how can that be done without reference to race?). Just because Sam doesn’t seem to begin with hatred in his heart, is to accept the same arguments for christian bigots regarding gays as long as they don’t have hatred or an “undercurrent of intolerance” whatever that means. I am sorry but as much as I respect many of Sam Harris positions, and have enjoyed his work. He has taken an approach that shows an unwillingness to broach criticism. He posts a provocative post regarding racial profiling and does not allow commenting. He dismisses the many legitimate criticisms with the same broad brush shallow miss caricaturisation that he has such a problem with from others.

  • John Lynch

    I confess to being a simple person. My question is why we make bloggers, excuse the expression, gods ? I am an older atheist so I guess my time has passed but I do not think putting folks on pedestals will advance the secular movement. It creates situations as this has become from my perspective. I went to the Atheist convention in Maryland and I thought some people were going to fall down and kiss PZ Myers’s feet. Hero worship is for high school girls in my humble opinion.

  • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B.

    I do read PZ’s blog but I long ago stopped reading the comments – pretty much on all of the blogs I read. I allow comments on my blog and only really respond if the comment is really off the rails – like they totally missed the point. I think it has to do with the old adage we had when I worked in fast food – the comment cards that are turned in more than likely will be negative – it is needed to see if you can do better but not enough to take any of it personally so you glance at it, find out if it is something important then if not pitch it. People who take the time to write will be the ones who complain.

  • alconnolly

    As far as old people acting as terrorist you mean like this guy? PS: Being a veteran increases the likelihood of trauma and does not reduce the risk of a terrorist action.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/10/holocaust-museum-shooting_n_213831.html

  • Efrique

    I suspect Harris has no problem with Muslims peacefully practicing their
    faith (other than the fact that their beliefs are wrong) or people like
    me sitting next to him on a plane.

    Indeed, Harris specifically includes himself as falling into a category of those he thinks should be profiled. While it’s clearly discrimination in at least  some sense (judging and acting on a probability of one characteristic based on another is in fact discriminatory, though not necessarily a highly pejorative), people tend to render in very simple terms (‘racism’) a relatively reasoned and nuanced argument. I don’t think I agree with his conclusions, but I do think Harris ought to be able to raise such touchy issues and we should be able to discuss their potential benefits and costs without him being labelled as some kind of kneejerk racist.

  • http://profiles.google.com/whoreslie joe smith

    Both Meyers and Laden have  really lost me over at Scienceblogs. Too many examples of them stooping to NO U name-calling or implying intolerance . I am starting to give up….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=592801059 Bastian Alexander Fromherz

    how does anybody do “religious” profiling? it’s either that you profile anybody with similar garb, which is almost as bad as racial profiling, or you do it based on their perceived/real ethnicity/race/skin color. muslims (the sooper scary religious people according to harris) aren’t as identifiable as some other religions based on garb, so the only option is by the way they look, and since muslims are from all over the world, the profiling targets brown-skinned people in general.
    some of the things harris talks about, like religious profiling, kinda sound good in theory, but don’t apply to the real world and specific cases.


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