Monday, 17 August 2009

The Strange “Quote Mining” Case of Andrew Brown.

Andrew Brown, a free lance journalist who regularly writes for the Guardian, under his “Free To Believe” blog, has perpetrated the finest (or worst) offence of quote mining I have ever seen. Quote mining: the process where you selectively quote an author or speaker for the intention of drawing a fallacious, spurious and highly tendentious conclusion. Brown has been guilty before of failing to meet basic standards of intellectual integrity and journalistic standards. He has, in particular, a real hatred for the new atheists, indeed he “despises” Sam Harris; - an example of his “writing” was when he attacked the “New Atheists” as shallow and intellectually feeble - for not containing a philosopher.

This, is extraordinarily misinformed - or an attempt at wilful obfuscation. Even a general reader, who is relatively aware of the “New Atheists”, would know that Daniel C Dennett - one of the four horsemen, is a trained philosopher, likewise Sam Harris, although prior to completing a PhD in Neuroscience, gained a masters from Stanford in philosophy no less, who studied under Richard Rorty no less. Just to kick a few more stilts from under Brown’s, now preciously perched argument - AC Grayling, another prominent critic of religion, is also a trained philosopher, who writes in the same paper as Brown, he must also have forgot, or neglected to mention Michel Onfray, the French philosopher, who, a number of years ago published, An Atheist Manifesto: the Case against Christianity Islam and Judaism.

I now turn to my reason for writing - Mr Brown has been up to no good again: accusing Sam Harris of “unambiguously” advocating torture. His blog is stunning for how clearly it argues (yet completely missing the point) that Harris is nothing more, than a fully signed up supporter of Dick Cheney and the War on Terror. I decided to respond; underneath I provide the comments that I posted. Judging by the amount of criticism Brown received and the amount of recommendations that my post and others like it garnered, it would seem that the majority of readers are aware of his shenanigans. It does, however, make you wonder: why do the Guardian let this kind of thing go on?

Firstly: let me quote what Mr Brown had to say; you can read his full post here -

The By-line reads

Sam Harris, in his book the End of Faith, argues unambiguously for the use of torture. Why pretend otherwise?”

Now from the body of the piece -

“But Sam Harris is not a writer as gifted as Richard Dawkins. He has no talent for thought-provoking ambiguity. When I accuse him of advocating torture, I meant this as the literal interpretation of his actual words. Here are the relevant passages, from The End of Faith, with page numbers drawn from the British paperback.”


“So Harris believes that there are scientific ("neurological") grounds for supposing that his moral reasoning is correct and that we ought to be torturing people.”


“So, yes. I do rather think that Sam Harris can reasonably be described as a defender and advocate of torture as an instrument of policy.”

To which I responded with - (note I have requited Brown, along with a few other incriminating passages.)

To Mr Brown and to the editors of CIF (I subsequently complained to the editors of the paper)

“I Believe, indeed, I will prove, that MR Brown is engaging in intellectual dishonesty, and, perhaps, libellous activity by accusing Sam Harris of being a straightforward and “literal” advocate of torture.

He asserts that Sam Harris can reasonably be construed is a defender of Torture and an advocate of it.

So, yes. I do rather think that Sam Harris can reasonably be described as a defender and advocate of torture as an instrument of policy.

- From Mr Brown.

But Sam Harris is not a writer as gifted as Richard Dawkins. He has no talent for thought-provoking ambiguity. TheEnd of Faith , with page numbers drawn from the British paperback.

( again this would seem to imply that Sam Harris is unambiguously arguing for Torture)

So Harris believes that there are scientific ("neurological") grounds for supposing that his moral reasoning is correct and that we ought to be torturing people.

Now anyone reading this post, will, conclude that Sam Harris is calling for torture -


Mr Brown has neglected to quote some key conclusions that Sam Harris makes in regard torture.

….we can take refuge in the fact the paradigmatic case will almost never arise. From this perspective, adorning the machinery of our justice system with a torture provision seems both unnecessary and dangerous, as the law of unintended consequences may one day find it throwing the whole works into disarray. Because I believe the account offered above is basically sound, I believe that I have successfully argued for the use of torture in any circumstance in which we would be willing to cause collateral damage. Paradoxically, this equivalence has not made the practice of torture seem any more acceptable to me; nor has it, I trust for most readers.

Page 198 - End of Faith.

Finally on page 199 Harris has this to say.

Still, it does not seem any more acceptable (torture) in ethical terms than it did before

What are we to make of this? Mr Brown has quoted Harris at length, yet he has clearly left out the key passages and conclusions where, despite a long philosophical argument - Harris comes out against torture.

I, can only conclude that MR Brown is guilty of a very grave offence against journalistic standards and intellectual integrity. I hope to see an apology and a statement repudiating the misinformation that has be peddled here.

To finally put this to bed here is a long quote from Sam Harris himself, taken from his website - a response to controversy.

While I think that torture should remain illegal, it is not clear that having a torture provision in our laws would create as slippery a slope as many people imagine. We have a capital punishment provision, for instance, but this has not led to our killing prisoners at random because we cant control ourselves. While I am strongly opposed to capital punishment, I can readily admit that we are not suffering a total moral chaos in our society because we execute about five people every month. It is not immediately obvious that a rule about torture could not be applied with equal restraint.
It seems probable, however, that any legal use of torture would have unacceptable consequences.
In light of this concern, the best strategy I have heard comes from Mark Bowden in his Atlantic Monthly article, The Dark Art of Interrogation. Bowden recommends that we keep torture illegal, and maintain a policy of not torturing anybody for any reason. But our interrogators should know that there are certain circumstances in which it will be ethical to break the law. Indeed, there are circumstances in which you would have to be a monster not to break the law. If an interrogator finds himself in such a circumstance, and he breaks the law, there will not be much of a will to prosecute him (and interrogators will know this). If he breaks the law Abu Ghraib-style, he will go to jail for a very long time (and interrogators will know this too). At the moment, this seems like the most reasonable policy to me, given the realities of our world."


Michael Faulkner.
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What is curious, perhaps to avoid libel, Andrew Brown trotted this, though, somewhat ambiguous, statement out later in a post

“In the totally trivial sense that he thinks we ought to do it. Apart from that, no, he's not argung for it at all.”

Posted at 8th of August 4.57 PM by Andrew Brown.

He would appear to be disowning his previous statement, where he argues that Harris unambiguously argues for torture; so i guess we can add inconsistency into the sorry mix.

I am not going to speculate on Brown’s motives, he has already stated that he loathes the “New Atheists” and “despises” Sam Harris in particular; he has, also, been a recipient of the Templeton prize - a rather notorious institution that “attempts” to reconcile religion and Science. In any case, I shall not be considering anything that Mr Brown has to say in the future, given his dishonesty or intellectual incompetence - take you pick: its either/or - or both.



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