Against Sam Harris's personal claim of attentional agencypost by mike_hawke · 2021-01-30T09:08:45.145Z · LW · GW · 4 comments
TL;DR: Sam Harris has an obviously terrible information diet, and it is correct to criticize him for this in the context of his meditation teachings. He should treat his engagement with news headlines and twitter as unfortunate addictions, not good intellectual citizenship.
Here is a recent podcast episode in which he fends off claims that his attentional priorities are incompatible with his meditation practice (starting at 13m55s). Nothing he says is quite wrong, but I couldn't help but feel like he was talking around something more important. It felt like a missed opportunity to loudly admit that he falls well short of a healthy mental lifestyle. Those claims by some listeners that he should not podcast about ongoing world events are obviously silly. But I think that they end up serving as a Weak Man argument that distracts from the related, non-silly criticisms. It concerns me that he rebuts those misplaced criticisms at length, but (as far as I know) has never spent a similar amount of time admitting his actual error and urging contemplative trainees to beware the same.
Harris has said that given his background (as someone with extensive training in both meditation and neuroscience, plus a large existing audience), he is uniquely positioned to produce such an app as Waking Up. He’s right. But at the same time, he has the significant drawback of setting a very bad example of how to use social media. It’s true that people who like his app can just ignore his podcast and social media activity. But that strikes me as a needlessly lossy compromise. If I had it my way, he would stop using twitter except under very controlled conditions, spend some of the freed attention on deliberate, high-quality information, and thereby increase the signal:noise ratio of his podcast. Maybe he would agree with me about this, but if so, it’s not very clear to me.
Perhaps the starkest aspect of all this is the way Harris related to Donald Trump's Twitter presence. So far as I can tell, it was in large part a concession to outrage addiction. I think that paying fine-grained attention to Donald Trump’s tweets was an important task that some small number of people were right to do. But it was absolutely counterproductive for huge chunks of the American public to do it, including Sam Harris. He could have easily said what he wanted to say about Donald Trump without constantly intaking all those triggering tweets.
In conclusion, Sam should record a whole podcast episode about this, and title it something like "My Psychotoxin Addiction".
(P.S. Sorry for the unkindly terse tone, I just wanted to finally submit this post instead of continuing to sit on it.)
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