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Making Sense with Sam Harris #207 – Can We Pull Back From The Brink? (June 12, 2020)

In this episode of the podcast, Sam Harris speaks about the recent social protests and civil unrest, in light of what we know about racism and police violence in America.

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Written by Sam Harris

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  1. I tend to like Sam Harris' perspective, and definitely appreciate the majority of the way he approaches topics (heavily fact based). There was so much that he said here that I agree with. Please let me know where I may have strayed, but I take issue with just a few of the claims made, and have a problem with the overall tone here.

    First, the overall tone suggests that the facts are in: there is no more room to debate the facts. However, the facts aren't in. I would expect more hedging, but Sam seems to have much more certainty about the role (or lack thereof) of race in these issues than the facts warrant. The data that is used to compose one of the study he cites are incomplete (no reliable database) and unreliable (many possibly important factors involved are not recorded). Furthermore, the author retracted the paper for the specific stated purpose that people have inappropriately been citing their work to suggest, as Sam Harris is seeming to claim, that there is no racial bias in fatal shootings. Read that last line again and check the source. (https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/116/32/15877.full.pdf)

    There also seems to be some ignored work that directly questions the findings of the work that seems to confirm Sam's point of view, (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/08/study-claims-white-police-no-more-likely-shoot-minorities-draws-fire). Another analysis of the original author's work, broken down into a specific demographic found the opposite result. (https://www.pnas.org/content/117/3/1263?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=Proc_Natl_Acad_Sci_U_S_A_TrendMD_0)

    I find issue in Sam's framing of the specific finding that Black and Hispanic police officers have a higher rate of fatally shooting Black civilians. My issue is that this finding is corrected within Sam's citation and found (mostly) not to be significant. It is explained by the overlap in county demographics (more Black/Hispanic civilians=more Black/Hispanic police) which seems inadequate to assess racial disparities or racial bias. A Nature review also shows a very good figure that counters this claim, as well as the overall claim of no racial disparity (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01846-z).

    Lastly, the data from the pnas source, again are not full. It is just fatal shootings, not all fatalities. It also does not account for non-lethal shootings. This is pointed out by Scientific American, which also counters the second source Sam uses in which there is a claim that Blacks are 25% less likely to be shot than Whites. The article states Blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be shot than Whites. Perhaps these claims are not about the same situations, but the 2.5 times more likely statistic is relevant (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-the-data-say-about-police-shootings/).

    Again, I think Sam is getting ahead of himself in stating in no uncertain terms that race is not a relevant factor. Most scientific literature I've read ends with the call for more study to be certain about claims of truth and facts, such as the sources above.

  2. Speaking as a foreigner (I'm from Northern England) Sam Harris is one of the few public commentators in America who can accurately exercise the power of reason through debate and dialogue in the current toxic atmosphere of human culture. Just do everyone a favour and run for office!

  3. Asking a Black person who grew up in America, not to believe every encounter with authority isn't racist is just ludicrous. On what other basis could they draw on for this type of experience?

  4. If America outgrows its obsession with race and look around they will see how bad they are. Racial inequality and unrest are very much a project of the american status quo as the unending wars in the middle east.

  5. To me, this issue is simple. There are abuses of power by the State against its own citizens, whom they are sworn protect. When those abuses of power consistently go unchecked and no one punished, year over year, decade over decade, you inevitably get this powder keg that blows society up. If police departments did their part in holding their own to account, then this would be a non-issue. The fact that seemingly very few cops ever get punished for their abuses of power is what got us to this point.

  6. Listened to bits and pieces. Did he even mention capitalism? We know the root causes of civil unrest. Systemic racism, classism, poverty, corporatocracy that runs oil, drugs, government and the media. You do understand that you've been fed propaganda your whole life? We're all confused for a reason. Don't fall for anticommunist and antimarxist propaganda. There is a reason they don't/do teach you certain things in school. It's about upholding the status quo, specifically for the ruling class. Capitalism will be the fall of mankind. They will do what is necessary to keep us divided. Don't fall for fascist ideals. Riots and protests are happening because no one is willing to listen to the people, and voting for dictators (put in place for us) is not working. Rich leaders only care about their own needs, not ours. And before you chime in about Obama or liberal garbage…stfu. He let the bombs drop as well. War criminals. Most are. Time to change the system.

  7. What's remarkable here is how carefully and thoroughly Sam prepares the listener of this podcast – with his preamble bordering on apology for what he's about to say – before enumerating opinions that are merely common sense and reason-based.

  8. There was an episode of the original Star Trek series where a society consisted of two groups of people – one that was black on the left side and white on the right and the opposite for the other group. Yes, there were "racial" issues about which group was "better" or "preferred". We need to see each other differently – As INDIVIDUALS first and as a member of a "racial group" of no importance. Race is/was/will be a social construct. It will require a social adjustment of how we view each other as, again, INDIVIDUALS.

  9. Anyone who ever saw the seminal Spike Lee movie "Do the right thing" back in 1989 and painfully recognized themselves in it are seeing it unfolding on the streets now for real…thirty years on! People should follow the advice of the Samuel L. Jackson character and chill the f@@@ out! Unfortunately, the public is so polarized that even moderates have taken sides. Unfortunately Sam, despite what you say, you brought partisan politics into this and firmly put yourself on the "Left" rather than being a voice of reason in the middle as an honest, impartial broker as you could have been. By attempting to assassinate the character of the President of the United States you lost a potential half of your would be audience and now will find yourself preaching only to the converted rather than converting the people you need to reach by strength of reason.

  10. Kinda disappointed by the lack of links in the description. No citation of any kind really. After watching a dumb debunking video of Sam's points, I did some googling of my own, and here's what I found:

    1) Cops appear to traffic-stop black people more often than whites. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-0858-1 Except when its dark outside. To me, that's a fairly strong indication of some kind of racial bias.

    2) The data for death by cop is terrible. Even using the SAME data set, depending how you interpret it, you could say there is a heavy bias in the killing of blacks, and you could say there is no bias at all.
    Cops not racist when using force: https://www.pnas.org/content/116/32/15877
    Cops are racist when using force: https://www.pnas.org/content/116/34/16793

    3) From what I can see, the problem with the data in #2 above, is that its compiled from non-official sources. ie, either from the Post/Guardian data set. Or from the mix of sources at Fatal Encounters. https://fatalencounters.org/ Do I need to tell you what a bad idea it would be to use click-bait ad-driven news stories as a source for un-biased police shooting data? Or social media posts (ie, twitter) as a neutral source of shooting data? Yeah. That's a bad idea. Sadly… its better than what the government was providing… see next point.

    4) Up until the last year or so, there were no good central repositories for police shooting data. Some data existed, but was massively undereported by up to 50% (when compared to the #2 data set above). So James Comey at the FBI said "oops", and so they started putting together a way to track that data. Tracking finally started in January of 2019. https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/ucr/use-of-force Unfortunately, the reporting is voluntary, as the FBI has no way to force state agencies to report. But I guess they are trying to spread the word and gain compliance.

    Anyone reading this, I encourage you to do your own research and don't believe everything you hear… either from Sam, or from silly millennials who are trying to "debunk" Sam.

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