Is Sam Harris Guilty of Plagiarizing Too?

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Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of both gentlemen. Sam Harris is one of the greatest thinkers and academics of our time, and CJ Werleman has a gift for explaining complex geo-politics in simple to understand terms. Not only was I mad when I learned Werleman had indulged in several incidences of careless plagiarism, which he has admitted to, but I’m equally mad to see such school yard division in the atheist community.

This morning I woke to read Werleman’s full frontal apology to his fans. You can read it here.

In a world filled with political consultants who train their clients to spin out of controversy with focused tested word spin I found Werleman’s apology remarkably refreshing and straight out ballsy. The post of this particular person summed up the feeling of even Werleman’s most vocal opponents: “I tend to disagree with your perspective re: Islam and how it is used as a rationale for violence and oppression, but that was a remarkable display of integrity worthy of the upmost respect. *tips hat*”

In Werleman’s apology he cited that the vetting of 55 Alternet/Salon articles had produced a half-dozen or so incidences of “sloppiness and laziness,” and in no uncertain terms Werleman fell on his sword. “By every definition of plagiarism, these instances meet that definition.”

That should’ve been the end of the matter. He screwed up in much the same way CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, New York Times Chris Hedges, and many other journalists have in the pursuit of pumping out pieces under pressure of deadlines etc. But what disturbs me now is how polarized this issue has become between the Harris camps and the Werleman camps. For those in the Harris camp Werleman’s apology is a non-apology. If you read Werleman’s @replies on twitter you’ll see many cases where Harris camp  have refused, even in vulgar terms, to accept his forthright and sincere apology. What I found even more disgusting is that several unpublished authors that Werleman hooked up publishing contracts for saw an opportunity to bring some awareness to themselves by kicking Werleman when he was down.

As an exercise I read all of Werleman’s 55 Alternet/Salon articles. His 55 articles contain a total of 350 direct quotes, and references to more than 60 studies and polls. So on this basis it is difficult to see how Werleman isn’t being honest when he puts those half-dozen instances down to “sloppiness and laziness.” Especially when just about all of his articles are filled with dozens of direct quotes, references, and hyperlinks.

Werleman doesn’t need me to defend him. But I am so angry for what I see as a lack of human decency and empathy, especially by many high profile atheists who have  joined the “let’s pile on Werleman” bonanza. Everyone from Richard Dawkins to Peter Boghossian to Hemant Metha is jumping on the bash Werleman bandwagon, and I can only conclude it’s because the new atheist movement is indeed afraid of Werleman. Admittedly that last statement is not my original thought.  On Friday, a high-profile atheist author who wishes to maintain his anonymity for now said to me, “Harris is afraid of Werleman because if atheists start accepting his argument then what’s the point of buying Harris’ books? If evil is rooted in socio-economic factors and not religion Harris loses his soapbox.”

I haven’t stopped thinking about the above comment for the past 48 hours. What came to mind immediately was that Werleman is hurting his own anti-religious book sales by pushing the socio-economic agenda instead of the anti-religion agenda. I’m only guessing but to me that says a lot about his motives being pure.

Then I started thinking about purity. The question in my mind became – so is Harris without sin?

On October 18 Werleman tweeted: “See my apology. Rather than tweet, which will do no one no justice, I’ll post column of what is likely @SamHarrisOrg lifting Steyn’s work.” I then read tweet where Harris accused Werleman of using the following passage from Letters to a Christian Nation:

“The fighting that has plagued Palestine (Jews vs. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians vs. Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians vs. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants vs. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims vs. Hindus), Sudan (Muslims vs. Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims vs. Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea, (Muslims vs. Christians), Ivory Coast (Muslims vs. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists vs. Tamil Hindus), Philippines (Muslims vs. Christians), Iran and Iraq (Shiite vs. Sunni Muslims), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Rus­sians vs. Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis vs. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few, recent cases in point”

In the article Harris accused Werleman of plagiarizing him, Werleman actually directly quoted Harris earlier in the article. But Harris was rightfully concerned with what Werleman wrote here: “Wherever you look in the world, there continues to be religious motivated violence. From the fighting that has plagued Palestine for the past six decades (Jews vs. Muslims), to the dispute over Kashmir (Muslims vs. Hindus). Also, there’s Nigeria (Muslims vs. Christians), Philippines (Muslims vs. Christians), Iraq (Sunni Muslims vs. Shiite), Sudan (Muslims vs. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists vs. Tamil Hindus), and the Caucasus region (Orthodox Russians vs. Chechen Muslims).”

Obviously Werleman made a number of changes to the text, and bearing in mind he still went to the length of citing Harris in the article itself.

But remembering Werleman’s tweet about Steyn I remembered that I had a book called America Alone written by hard right wing writer Mark Steyn on my bookshelf, which was published 6 months before Harris’ book. Here’s an eerily similar passage from Steyn:

“There are many trouble spots around the world, but as a general rule, it’s easy to make an educated guess at one of the participants:Muslims vs. Jews in “Palestine,” Muslims vs. Hindus in Kashmir, Muslims vs. Christians in Africa, Muslims vs. Buddhists in Thailand, Muslims vs. Russians in the Caucasus, Muslims vs. backpacking tourists in Bali.”

It’s clear Harris copied from Steyn, made minor adjustments, and Werleman copied from Harris, making minor adjustments. Suddenly Harris’ purity looks a little greyer. Harris adds more conflicts than Steyn, but the format is similar. Also note the first example they both use is Palestine.

A major point of concern is how both Harris and Steyn coincidentally get the issue of Bosnian honor killing completely wrong in their respective books. Both blame Bosnian Muslims for the persecution they suffered at the hands of Serbs in the 1990s. Harris says in The End of Faith that the mass rape of Bosnian Muslim women by Serbs was due to their men’s obsession with female chastity. In fact he links this obsession to honor killing even though Bosnians have no culture of honor killing. And
Steyn says that Serbs committed genocide against Bosnian Muslims because they were threatened by Islam, which is odd because Bosnians are secular Muslims.

Columnist Andrew Sullivan jumped on Steyn for his blatant error, but nobody’s jumped on Harris. It’s clear from these two instance that Harris was “influenced” by Steyn’s writings, even when Steyn was factually wrong which suggests Harris based his”research” on one error filled book – Steyns. The coincidence of a duplicated error when both books cover the same material does not pass the smell test. This is a clear case of unoriginal work by Harris.

On page 16 of America Alone, Steyn says “More books are translated into Spanish in a single year than have been translated into Arabic in the last thousand.”

Sam Harris writes on his blog: “More books are translated into Spanish each year than the entire Arab world has translated into Arabic since the ninth century.”

Harris can’t pretend he’s never heard of Steyn because he mentions him in his blog here.

In a blog Harris says: “Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birthrates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow.” Harris doesn’t give a source for that study but it’s almost word for word to what Steyn writes in his book under the chapter Population Bomb. More damning is that Steyn too doesn’t give a source for that quote which further suggests Harris has copied much of his Islam material from Steyn.

The author of a book titled The Village Atheist has long argued Harris has made a living out of making slight adjustments to Bertrand Russell’s writings. In a blog found here, the Village Atheist says “Here I just intend to show how Harris can’t even make up his own lies….Today’s generation of atheists even plagiarize each other. Harris seems to do so to Dawkins without citing him. In one place, Dawkins tries to argue that morality improves in history regardless of input from Christianity. Harris picks up his language without reference. Compare the two side-by-side:

Dawkins: “Although martin Luther King was a Christian, he derived his philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience directly from Gandhi, who was not.”

Harris: “While King undoubtedly considered himself a devout Christian, he acquired his commitment to non-violence primarily from the writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi.”

What makes Harris plagiarism even more damning is these thoughts are almost uniquely held by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens alone as they use this argument to diminish MLK’s Christianity, even though MLK clearly stated he was motivated by his Christian faith.

As a liberal I am also troubled that Harris constantly quotes military war hawks Alan Dershowiz and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria – and ironically both men have been caught out too for plagiariasm. It’s seem somewhat double standard that Harris calls out others for plagiarizing while doing it himself and appealing to the authority of other plagiarists.

There is more to write and I don’t mean to diminish Harris’ work. But as a compassionate atheist and fan of both atheist writers I feel Werleman has been unfairly beaten on due to the sheer size of Harris’ supporters. Werleman said himself that he made himself “fair game” but he has apologized. I feel in all fairness Harris’ fans should demand an apology from Harris too for the above examples of blatant plagiarism.

I hope we atheists can all move on and continue to give much deserved respect to both writers.

Please email me at stepcranson@mail.com for inquiries.

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