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Sam Harris Responds

Probably you find yourself as am I, baffled by the recent spat of Twitter hate emanating from NNT towards @SamHarris, @sapinker and many others. The Steven Pinker spat goes back to a 2009 NYT book review by Pinker of Malcolm Gladwell’s “What the Dog Saw”, where Pinker beats up on Gladwell (see also). Taleb, featured in the book, by then a friend of Gladwell, comes to the rescue. Pinker is surprised, Taleb doubles down. From Maclean’s 12/10/2012:

So, when the renowned Canadian-born Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker penned a critical review in The New York Times of fellow Canadian Malcolm Gladwell’s novel, What the Dog Saw, Taleb rushed to Gladwell’s defense. “I got furious. I feel loyalty for someone who does something nice for you, when you are nobody.” Taleb wrote a scathing critique of Pinker’s research in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. In his critique, titled “The Pinker problem,” Taleb claims Pinker’s book is riddled with errors in sampling and doesn’t “recognize the difference between rigorous empiricism and anecdotal statements.” Pinker responded with his own paper in which he writes, “Taleb shows no signs of having read Better Angels.”

NNT’s beef with Sam Harris is a little harder to track.


The debate Harris talks about, which seems to be the nexus of NNT’s beef with him, happened in 2009.
In a recent podcast, Sam Harris responded to NNT’s Tweets and shared some context.
Listen to the relevant section of the podcast

The entire debate, from La Ciudad de las Ideas 2009, full and unedited, can be found here. What follows are relevant clips from NNT and then Sam Harris.

The neuroscience papers Sam Harris refers to are:
Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief
Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief, and Uncertainty (pdf)


  1. Terenig Topjian wrote:

    So sad to see Nassim Taleb and Sam Harris squabble like this! I’m huge fans of both (although I’ve had to study Taleb’s work much more thoroughly to begin wrapping my mind around his wisdom).

    I think the most important ideas of both are not incompatible, but short debates and twitter quarrels cannot resolve these seemingly contradictory ideas.

    If they were both childhood friends with years of dinner table debates under their belts, they would actually end up agreeing with each other.

    Friday, March 11, 2016 at 11:06 am | Permalink
  2. John wrote:

    Completely agree. I think it’s gone way too far to imagine any kind of reconciliation. What’s especially frustrating for me is knowing how much common ground they share around Saudi Arabia. I wish at least they were working together on that ‘front’.

    Friday, March 11, 2016 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  3. Vangel Vesovski wrote:

    It is ironic that Harris accuses Taleb of being arrogant because he is guilty of the same thing. Harris believes in empiricism as being able to tell some public intellectuals what is best for men and what kind of society we should have. Taleb, who will not deny that he is arrogant, has a much more modest Hayekian view that crushes Haris’ arguments.

    Wednesday, November 1, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  4. Dian Atamyanov wrote:

    So, Sam Harris is “arrogant”, because you don’t find empiricism appealing? You’re projecting so hard, you can do PowerPoint presentations on the Moon.

    Monday, February 26, 2018 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  5. Stef wrote:

    I remember an exercise a Buddhist monk once suggested: write down the greatest defects of someone (say X) you find most irritable, in the form of then proposition: X is so and so; then replace X by your own name. You’ll realise that what you hate in others are really your own defilements. This is so true of Harris – the descriptions he gives of Taleb’s arrogance, for example in the Podcast, actually fit Harris perfectly. There is an interesting video by Ajahn Brahm arguing how Harris’ interest in meditation is just a form of spiritual and intellectual materialism.

    Sunday, April 8, 2018 at 3:34 am | Permalink

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