Tables got turned recently on new atheist Sam Harris, who offered $10,000 to anyone who can disprove his arguments about morality.
Social science prof Jonathan Haidt explains why Harris is unlikely to change his mind (like he said he would), based on reason, for evolutionary reasons:
I’m not saying that we can’t reason quite well about many unemotional situations where we really want to know the right answer, such as whether it is better to drive or take the train to the airport, given current traffic conditions. But when we look at conscious verbal reasoning as an evolutionary adaptation, it begins to look more like a tool for helping people argue, persuade, and guard their reputations than a tool shaped by selection pressures for finding objective truth. …
Now here is where it gets amusing. It turns out new atheists score higher on certainty than conservative commentators:
To check my hunch, I took the full text of the three most important New Atheist books—Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and I ran the files through a widely used text analysis program that counts words that have been shown to indicate certainty, including “always,” “never,” “certainly,” “every,” and “undeniable.” To provide a close standard of comparison, I also analyzed three recent books by other scientists who write about religion but are not considered New Atheists: Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods, and my own book The Righteous Mind. (More details about the analysis can be found here.)
To provide an additional standard of comparison, I also analyzed books by three right wing radio and television stars whose reasoning style is not generally regarded as scientific. I analyzed Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us from Evil, and Anne Coulter’s Treason. (I chose the book for each author that had received the most comments on Amazon.) As you can see in the graph, the New Atheists win the “certainty” competition. Of the 75,000 words in The End of Faith, 2.24% of them connote or are associated with certainty. (I also analyzed The Moral Landscape—it came out at 2.34%.) More.
The certainty lineup from most to least was Harris (yup), Dennett, Dawkins, Beck, Hannity, Coulter, Bering, Norenzayan, Haidt (again, yup).
Whether or not you give much credit to yet another social science measure in a time of massive soc sci scandals, the reality is that the new atheists can always resort to the Darwinian adaptation of getting people fired—which they increasingly prefer to arguments anyway.
By the way, the three commentators in the middle could have been usefully compared with other commentators. One must sound somewhat certain in order to stay on the air. An interesting comparison would be between well-known conservative ones like the three above and well-known progressive commentators.
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose
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