Is Sam Harris a Legitimate Neuroscientist?

Continuing the discussion from Can Science Demonstrate Racism or Genocide is Morally Wrong?:

Kepler did not do his own “experiments” either. All he did was secondary data analysis. I’m not sure that is precisely the problem. Rather, it appears that he is puffing is credentials substantially. This work is more psychology than neuroscience. Moreover, there are several signs that it was obtained for polemic reasons. Most of my colleagues would grant that he has a PhD, but would not consider him a “scientist.” As you point out, his study is very dubious too. It appears to have a polemic goal, and to be poorly reasoned.

Setting aside his credentials, which are dubious, his argument is poor. This shouldn’t surprise us. Isn’t it well known he is a polemicist, not a scientist? Isn’t he one of the self-proclaimed “Four Horsemen” of the Apocalypse?

This is neither science, nor is a complete view of morality. Utilitarianism is not a coherent ethical principle, and has even justified great evil. For example, eugenics was justified with a flawless utilitarian argument.


I agree with most of the things you said in this post, however,

This is a false equivalence. Kepler was a theorist - he did not claim to produce new science through a new experiment. The crux of Harris’ PhD thesis was the experiment. His paper was in experimental neuroscience. The paper did claim that new science is produced through a novel experiment that they conducted.

Can you imagine an experimental biologist who graduate without doing their own experiments?

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That acknowledgement section is poorly worded.

Author Contributions
Conceived and designed the experiments: SH JTK MI MSC. Performed the experiments: JTK. Analyzed the data: SH JTK MI MSC. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: MI MSC. Wrote the paper: SH JTK. Performed all subject recruitment, telephone screenings, and psychometric assessments prior to scanning: AC. Supervised our psychological assessment procedures and consulted on subject exclusions: SB. Gave extensive notes on the manuscript: MSC MI.

This is what I observe:

  1. It appears he did analyze the data and designing the experiment.
  2. It appears he did not participate in collecting the data in any way.
  3. He is a co-first author, and not a sole-first author.
  4. He was not the sole contributor to any activity.

The only people who know his contributions to this paper, therefore, are the other authors. I’m sure JTK would now, and is probably the right person to ask. As written, however “experiments” are not the only scientific activity in this section.

This is not experimental neuroscience What make you say that? This is functional neuroimaging / experimental psychology. Of note, this specific subfield is plagued with problems in untangling correlation vs. causation.

Interesting, so he was not even the sole-first author for his PhD work…

Edit: oops, I did not see this comment of yours:

Perhaps it is different in other fields, in my field, the distinction between experimental and theoretical work is: take data = experiment; did not take data = theoretical.

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Seems like he was of this paper. Remember there were 3 papers:

So 1 sole-1st author paper out of 2 he did in graduate school (the third was published in 2011, and he received his doctorate in 2009). Is this considered good in neuroscience? This is an extremely bad record for physicists…

It is extremely bad in his field too. He would have had a very difficult time getting a post doc, let alone a faculty position. Though, it does not appear that doing science was ever his goal.

Honestly though, none of this is nearly as cringeworthy as Bill Nye on BlindSpot (Bill Nye is not a Scientist (Blindspot)).

Haha, I think it’s obvious from my posts in that thread what I thought of Bill Nye. While Bill Nye’s Blindspot shenanigan was cringeworthy, I still rate him higher in terms of usefulness to science than Sam Harris. At least Bill Nye is a popularizer of science who got many young people interested in science. On the other hand, it seems to me that science is just a tool for Sam Harris to popularize his views on atheism.


I think the credentialism is equally harmful for different reason.

Bill Nye is not a scientist, so he can’t actually engage legitimate questions with scientific rigor. Instead, he just parrots consensus. Science, however, is about engaging questions with rigor. Also, because he is perceived as a scientist, but is really a famous groupie, he says extremely disparaging and ignorant things about other fields. That damages the standing of scientists in society, even though he isn’t even a scientist.

The video, which made the entire US philosophy community collectively choke on its morning espresso, is hard to watch, because most of Nye’s statements are wrong. Not just kinda wrong, but deeply, ludicrously wrong. He merges together questions of consciousness and reality as though they’re one and the same topic, and completely misconstrues Descartes’ argument “I think, therefore I am”—to mention just two of many examples.

I agree, and the video you linked is really hard to watch.

That said:
I can’t believe I am defending Bill Nye, but I think it is difficult to deny that his work in the 90s contributed positively to increasing the interest for science. These days he is getting too cocky for his own good, but in the end it is difficult to evaluate whether the sum of his work is positive or negative for science.

On the other hand, Sam Harris never did anything positive for science.

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I’m not willing to grant this. If had been humble and highlighted actual scientists, and acknowledge that he himself was not a scientist, he would have done far better. It is a strange thing to watch an actor think he is the character he plays on television.

He has a very bad habit of pronouncing things with scientific authority. More than once, also, he has been very wrong (such as GMOs: What is so difficult about him is that he just gives people the conclusions of science, without a grasp of how these conclusions are worked out. This is a very deep misrepresentation of science, and does harm to public trust.

I agree with most of the things you said, but I think your unwillingness to grant him that his past TV work is beneficial to science is you showing your age :grin:. A lot of 90s kids grew up learning science from Bill Nye’s show, and back then he does not seem to possess (or at least my little kid brain cannot process) the cockiness that he displays now.

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I’m very aware of this. He taught a generation of students that they were all scientists, no PhD required.

Sam Harris published a 4th neuroscience paper in 2016.

I think Harris would agree, as would most of the members of his audience, that he’s not exactly a prolific research neuroscientist. He is obviously not a full-time research scientist and has only published a handful of papers, mostly years ago. I’ve never seen Harris try and use his title of “neuroscientist” to bludgeon his opponents or puff himself up, and I think most of his “fans” are perfectly aware of his status, not under illusions that he’s a distinguished professor of neuroscience, for example.

I think we’re wading into perilous waters if we start saying things like “he hasn’t published enough papers to call himself a neuroscientist” or imply “he doesn’t deserve his PhD since he didn’t do the experiments to get the results he analysed”.

How many papers does a person have to publish before they’re allowed to call themselves a “scientist”? How many years after doing research does it take before a person is forbidden to use the title of “scientist” any longer? These aren’t easy questions, but it seems like they’re being discounted as an excuse to bash Harris.

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In experimental particle physics, where the experiments are designed by thousands of people and run by only a few staff scientists and technicians, there are plenty of experimental high energy PhDs who spent most of their thesis finding new ways to analyze data or optimizing some aspect of the experiment without getting to actually run the whole thing. In fact I came across several physics PhD dissertations from CMS or ATLAS whose main task was optimizing the performance of their data acquisition and analysis cluster - more like high performance computing rather than physics.

Depends on which field of physics…:sweat_smile: In my field of precision measurement for fundamental physics, it is common for an experiment to publish a major paper only once every 5 years, or even longer, with only minor smaller ones in between. There have been grad students in our lab (some of whom went on to faculty or permanent research positions) who published only one major paper by the time they graduated…

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It is not up to me to question the legitimacy of Harris as a neuroscientist.

I will only say that, personally, I have never thought of him as a neuroscientist. From my perspective, Sam Harris is an outspoken atheist, of the kind that makes me want to avoid calling myself an atheist.


Declaration of Interest - I posted a musical item of my own plagiari… spawning in honour of our Sam and his chums a few years ago. Might as well air it before gnus finally go extinct.


Would it be bad if I liked this?

Oh, to hell with it.

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Genius. Pure genius. Who, if I may ask, is the singer?