The Rise of Podcast Pundits

Last year, I wrote an article bout how Sam Harris is a lot like Donald Trump — specifically, in the way that each has managed to bypass quality-control checkpoints in communicating with their (overlapping) audiences. Trump uses Twitter, and Harris uses his podcast.

This resulted in a fair amount of impossibly confused online debate, much of which was misdirected at a quote I included as an example of Harris’s tendency toward misinformation and (what we can call) selective anti-intellectualism. Harris fans just hate it when people quote his own words; there is a massive victimhood culture of relentless grievances about him being “misquoted.” (How? Well, by quoting him!) According to Harris — incidentally, on a different podcast hosted by Josh Zepps — Black people are significantly less intelligent, as measured by IQ, than white people because of genetic evolution.

But this is not only a scientifically uninformed claim, it’s a morally irresponsible one, too.

Very briefly: first, IQ is a highly problematic measure of intelligence — contra Harris’s confident proclamations. Second, what exactly does “Black” refer to? Race is not a natural kind that exists in the mind-independent world, something objective like quarks and leptons; it is a social construct, as anyone who knows a bit about the history of race will attest. Third, there is zero evidence whatsoever for Harris’s absurd claim that the evolution of isolated populations is responsible for “intellectual differences” (see above) between groups. Intelligence is a highly complex property of cognitive systems that is hugely influenced by environmental, developmental, and so on, factors. In other words, intelligence is not like skin color or height, which do differ among groups. Contra Harris, we simply dont know enough about the issue to make any confident claims about the connection between genetic evolution and average intellectual capacities among entire populations.

Such irresponsibility from Harris is unsurprising to those who’ve followed him over the years. But this gets to the real point of my original article: Harris talks about a wide range of topics, often with great confidence, about which he knows little. Social justice issues come to mind immediately: anyone who has taken the time to learn about, for example, the history of racism in the United States will recognize Harris’s claims above as profoundly, outrageously inappropriate — and dangerous. Harris, though, feels entitled to catapult those ideas into the world with reckless abandon.

And no one is able to stop him.

Why? Because he has created a small media empire in which his overconfident, sometimes objectively wrong assertions, speculations, conjectures, and conclusions are directly communicated to his large audience. There is no peer-review. There is no editorial oversight. There is no quality control. There are no genuine experts to correct errors propagated from his microphone into the brains of listeners who are none-the-wiser. There is no realtime commentary to say, “Well, actually, no — that’s not accurate. What Harris should have said or is warranted in saying is …” There is mechanism to ensure that mistakes, from the silly to the serious, are avoided. It’s just Harris, his private library of opinions, and the adoring fans who don’t (or are unable to) recognize just how misinformed Harris is about so much of what he talks about.

To be sure, the problems mentioned above are part of a broader shift in our society toward a new kind of podcast journalism / punditry. Anyone can start a podcast about any topic, gain a sizable following, and spread misinformation with impunity. Obviously, there are plenty of intellectually responsible podcasters who do make a point of getting things right before promulgating this and that to those tuning in.

But that’s not Harris. He regularly makes claims — especially about social justice issues — that give those of us who have actually done our homework an aneurism. What’s even worse is that he encourages the pernicious epistemic tendency of incuriosity. Why should someone go read a book about critical race theory, for example, when they’ve already got the scoop from Harris? Why consult actual experts on race, IQ, and racism when Harris reports — with his charismatically calm, rational voice — that, well, of course genetic evolution is responsible for race-IQ differences, and of course such differences exist? Entire issues are dismissed out of hand, often with a term of abuse like “This is what the regressive left thinks,” or “That person is a psychopath.” (He used the latter term to refer to me — why? Because I helped Buzzfeed out Lawrence Krauss as a serial sexual harasser. Seriously. Talk about incivility!)

So far as I can tell, Harris has hardly published any peer-reviewed articles in his career so far, and certainly none about many of the topics about which he opines. He is a pundit, not a scholar. Indeed, his take on the root causes of Islamic terrorism is very much at odds with accepted ideas in the scholarly literature. His book The Moral Landscape led the famous philosopher Patricia Churchill to describe him as a “child.” (No serious thinker believes that Harris’s morality book is anything more than a long undergraduate term paper.) If he can’t get things right with respect to these issues, then why think he’s getting them right when it comes to race, IQ, racism, etc.?

And so on.

But who cares? What people like Harris want, so far as I can tell, is influence. And influence does not require one to get things right — to the contrary, the “shit rises to the top,” as the scatological saying goes. That’s an unfortunate fact about the world, but a fact it is nonetheless.

There are, of course, many productive ways to rectify this predicament. People have been begging Harris to have Ta-Nehisi Coates on to talk about race, for example. It was nice, I guess, that Harris invited Ezra Klein on to discuss Harris’s weirdly fierce defence of the racist scientist Charles Murray. But this only reinforces my thesis above: within the closed ecosystem that Harris has created with his podcast, the only criticisms he’s ever exposed to are those he approves of in advance.

We live in the Information Age, when anyone anywhere can exchange ideas with each other. In the past, information had gatekeepers. In authoritarian states, the result was propaganda designed to perpetuate existing power structures — to promote the cults of personality surrounding Stalin, Hitler, and the others. In more “open” societies, information has to pass through a filter — editors, peers, etc. — to ensure that it was knowledge. Today, people like Harris — and Trump — can communicate directly with their fans without any such annoying filters. Two peas in a pod, with overlapping audiences, influencing public opinion. This is an incredibly worrisome situation.

Author and scholar of existential threats to humanity and civilization. @xriskology

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