The Quote Mining of Sam Harris

If you have ever debated a Creationist then the concept of Quote Mining will be familiar. This is where a specific quote is lifted out of its original context and then presented in isolation in order to verify the quote miner’s view. For example, Darwin wrote the following in the Origin of the species …

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree – Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

That is an exact quote, but the actual context has a been obliterated, and so it would appear to be Darwin himself is openly declaring the the very idea of natural selection is absurd, hence it is rather popular with many Creationists and is a well-known example of their gross dishonesty.

It comes from a chapter where Darwin is laying out the various possible objections and then proceeds to carry on and dismantle them. For example, the words he writes after the above place it all back in context as follows …

… seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection …

In other words, context really does matter.

Quote Mining is a tactic that is starting to become increasingly common on Social Media where you are presented with a quote from somebody that is a gross distortion of their actual position, so you truly do need to be wary of such isolated snippets of “truth”.

Sam Harris

The following popped up in my feed last night … and the chap who posted it understandably added the following comment, “First Sam Harris quote that i’ve ever disagreed with.“.


So is this what he actually wrote?

Yes he did indeed write those words, but they have been quote mined out of context, and when presented like this they completely distort what he actually wrote. The larger context of the passage is a philosophical and psychological analysis of belief as an engine of behaviour, so when you put it back into context you quickly discover that he is not actually suggesting that people should be killed for simply holding a belief you do not agree with.

If you are familiar with the writings of Sam Harris, then you will also know that he has never advocated such a gross breach of basic human rights – and yet many are not familiar with his writings, and so these distortions, or to be more accurate, deliberately fraudulent claims, are believed, and so he gets deceitfully attacked on social media like this …


So have Raza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald simply made an honest mistake here, and when they saw a quote like that out of context, simply misunderstood?

I do understand how others not familiar with his writings might indeed be fooled, but as explained by Sam Harris himself, in their case this is deliberate fraud …

That took less than two seconds of their time, and the message was sent to millions of people. I know one thing to a moral certainty, however: Both Greenwald and Aslan know that those words do not mean what they appear to mean. Given the amount of correspondence we’ve had on these topics, and given that I have repeatedly bored audiences by clarifying that statement (in response to this kind of treatment), the chance that either writer thinks he is exposing the truth about my views—or that I’m really a “genocidal fascist maniac”—is zero. Aslan and Greenwald—a famous “scholar” and a famous “journalist”—are engaged in a campaign of pure defamation. They are consciously misleading their readers and increasing my security concerns in the process.

While you might or might not agree with anything or everything Sam Harris says, the one thing you can never ever accuse him of is distorting the views of those he engages with. As he himself has observed, “the crucial boundary between hard-hitting criticism and defamation is knowing that you are misrepresenting your target.“, and so given this deliberate distortion of his position by both Aslan and also Greenwald, their attempt to cast judgement upon Mr Harris has now become a judgement upon themselves as unreliable, unethical, and lacking any credibility at all.

Mr Harris sums it up nicely like this …

“Aslan and Greenwald know that nowhere in my work do I suggest that we kill harmless people for thought crimes. And yet they (along with several of their colleagues) are doing their best to spread this lie about me. Nearly every other comment they’ve made about my work is similarly misleading.

Both Aslan and Greenwald are debasing our public discourse and making honest discussion of important ideas increasingly unpleasant—even personally dangerous. Why are they doing this? Please ask them and those who publish them.”

– Sam Harris

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