Limits of Discourse: Is Sam Harris an Atheist Crusader?


In a bizarre email exchange with Noam Chomsky, Sam Harris avoided ethical questions about President Bill Clinton’s bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical building, which resulted in a massive death toll and refugee crisis, to frame the discourse in terms of President Clinton’s intentions for the bombings. While Chomsky was pointing out the facts of the case, such as the irrefutable fact that President Clinton never presented any factual or credible evidence of his claims about the company having terrorist ties after the bombing, Sam Harris continued to speak of President Clinton’s intentions and how we should evaluate those actions based on his intentions. Chomsky rightly pointed out that we couldn’t ever possibly know what President Clinton’s intentions were – moreover, it reduces human rights atrocities to the personal feelings and preferences of leaders. Under this bizarre moral framework, a leader in a predominately Muslim nation could bomb a Western nation and his predominately Muslim population could justify it as the leader having positive intentions while ignoring the death toll, massive injuries, damages for needing the buildings rebuilt, and the enmity created from such an attack.

I decided to research this because Harris’s viewpoint seemed vaguely familiar and I discovered the basis and history of his argument: the Papal arguments encouraging the Christian Wars in the Holy Land that later became part of the Christian Crusader rhetoric. Evidently, Harris’s moral paradigm for international relations is exactly Christian Crusader viewpoints but without the religious element:

Difference between Augustinian “just war” and “crusade”:

The standard for a Christian “just war” as developed by Augustine (c. A.D. 400) is: “rightful intention on the part of the participants, which should always be expressed through love of God and neighbour; a just cause; and legitimate proclamation by a qualified authority.” (Quoted from J. Riley-Smith, The Crusades, Yale University, 1987.)  The doctrine of holy war/crusade added two further assumptions: 1) Violence and its consequences–death and injury–are morally neutral rather than intrinsically evil, and whether violence is good or bad is a matter of intention. (The analogy is to a surgeon, who cuts into the body, thus injuring it, in order to make it better/healthier.)  2) Christ is concerned with the political order of man, and intends for his agents on earth, kings, popes, bishops, to establish on earth a Christian Republic that was a “single, universal, transcendental state’ ruled by Christ through the lay and clerical magistrates he endowed with authority.


33 thoughts on “Limits of Discourse: Is Sam Harris an Atheist Crusader?

  1. So is it your claim that intentions do not matter?

    Is death always a bad thing?

    For instance, if a rock falls on someone and kills them, and this rock was dislodged from a cliff due to a earthquake, then would we judge the rocks falling — or the earthquake — to be morally evil?

    Or do we call this death “morally neutral” — even while lamenting it — because the rock had no choice in the matter?

    It seems that choice is inherent to morals, which means that intentions must matter.

    Now, I am not saying that intentions are ALL that matter, simply that they must. Thus, it is worth considering intentions.

    It may be that one reaches the conclusion that (as in the case of clinton) the death toll was so high that no intentions will justify the action — but intentions must still come into play.

    To pretend otherwise, seems disingenuous.

    • Reverse that proposition: If a predominately Muslim country were to bomb a Western country, and their Islamic leader says their intentions were good – such as minimizing casualties or saying they were doing it for humanitarian reasons – and their public discourse only talked about their good intentions then how does that seem in the face of a massive death toll that was inflicted upon that Western nation-state? Under the moral landscape of this argument, they could be able to argue that terrorist attacks like 9/11 and Charlie Hebdo were made of good intentions and killed less people than Western bombings. Do their intentions matter, if they were to argue that about terrorist attacks? Would you even care to listen, should they make such arguments?

  2. You have multiple questions, but implicit and explicit within your reply. I will attempt to address them:

    First, I would care largely the same amount I do about Clinton’s intentions, which is not that much. As I already said in my first comment, some actions are morally bad, even with proper intentions. I believe that Clinton’s actions (and the actions of the Muslim country you hypothesized) are both morally bad. The results are so horrific, that pretty much no intentions can make them morally good.

    But this is largely the same as saying that all war is morally bad, no matter the intentions. Thus, while we might call some wars ‘just’ (many people on the Allies side consider WWII such a war), the war itself remains morally bad. The suffering is too great to be morally good.


    This does not negate a ‘moral landscape’ argument. Nor does it render intention meaningless.

    Since you are inspired by Sam Harris, I will address the moral landscape within his definition. Sam is a scientist, and the word “landscape” has a very particular meaning there. It means that there are both local and global minimums and maximums. Thus, ‘landscape’ means that there are gradients of morally good and morally bad.

    In a simplistic, but illustrative, example, consider someone murdering Bill Gates. This is a bad thing. For one, it is murder and for two, he is a very philanthropic individual, and so he is helping others through his actions.

    now, consider two cases:

    ONE: the person that murders him thought that Bill Gates was actually a child-rapist and a man who tortures women in his basement all day long. He was trying to rid the world of such a person.

    TWO: the person that murders him knew he was bill Gates.

    Most people would have no problem claiming that the act of murdering Bill Gates was morally wrong, no matter the intent. But at the same time, most people would also agree that the first case was somehow ‘less wrong’ than the second. That is, even though we would all agree that we shouldn’t murder Bill Gates, the person who did it with the delusion they were protecting others at least had nobel intentions.

    So, back to your original question:

    Both the actions by Clinton and the actions by the Muslim country are morally bad. However, in both cases, I can appreciate the nobel intentions that they are CLAIMING (even if I cannot verify them).

    Certainly, a Muslim country saying they killed people to protect themselves is easier to swallow than them saying “naw, we just wanted to kill you fuckers.” Which is EXACTLY why this is the narrative that is crafted within the western world. It is easier to hate these people when we assume their intentions are not just. And so we are not generous to accept they might be.


    I still maintain that intentions matter. Two morally bad things can be inequivalently bad, and they can be so based off of intentions.

    • But most of those claims that intentions matter, and the example of a man murdering someone else under the belief they’re a child rapist, comes from the instinct of human self-preservation. People don’t condemn President Clinton as a war criminal because, on some level, they implicitly believe his real intentions was to somehow “defend” the American public. It wasn’t but I think it should be argued that people do harbor such false perceptions about the incident. In the example of murdering someone thought to be a child rapist, people “sympathize” with it more, because they believe the man was acting for the self-preservation of themselves and their children. Ergo, there is no moral landscape, it’s just attempting to throw the term “morality” on self-serving beliefs – even self-serving beliefs of a community implicitly thought to be the “in-group” against perceived “out-groups” who mean them harm. But the point is, it is only more “understandable” because of the instinct of self-preservation for themselves and their families – especially children.

  3. I have a very simple question I would like a yes/no answer to:

    Would you say that the killing of a proven child rapist/torturer/murderer is the moral equivalent of the murder of Bill Gates (substitute your ideal human being)?

    I just want insight into how much you really believe that a moral landscape does not exist. If you do not provide a yes/no answer to the above question, then I will not continue this discussion.

    • The problem wasn’t that; it was the argument of intentions that I contend against. To answer your question though: No, I don’t think that but it is – yet again – based upon self-preservation. The rapist/torturer/murderer is damaging to society’s self-preservation and general stability – i.e. peace. Bill Gates, the polar opposite, has been funding think tanks to improve the American education system and the Gates Foundation has projections of ending poverty by 2035. Bill Gates, who is one of my ideal human being in practice, is good for both the empowerment of society and the self-preservation needs of the third world. The “moral landscape” is just a distortion of animalistic self-preservation. The majority of humans have an intrinsic, biological need to help themselves and their “tribe” or in this case, their country. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s just tribal impulses and that’s exactly why Harris, the Right-wing of America, and Harris fans don’t care about the lives of non-Americans because they’re perceived as the “out-group” of society and Muslims are perceived as a “threat” to their self-preservation.

      Edit: I’d also like to clarify that I’m not arguing this because I like it; I’m making the case of this argument based upon my studies in political psychology and readings pertaining to social group dynamics of humanity. I’m not trying to put labels, I’m pointing out how we humans behave based upon rigorous psychological studies on this matter. I could recommend some books, if you like.

  4. OK. My first question was to see if you believed that morality was ‘flat.’ You do not, it seems, since you make a distinction between killing Bill Gates and killing the pedophile, etc.

    With that in hand, we can then engage.

    You seem to be maintaining that intentions do not matter, however, it seems clear that they must.

    Imagine, if you will, that there was a room, with a gun and Bill Gates. One person is presented with Bill Gates, who shoots and kills him. The second, is presented with Bill Gates, but with a holographic image that makes the person think that Bill Gates is actually a rapist. He shoots, with the INTENT to kill the rapist, but instead kills Bill Gates.

    Do we hold the first person as morally culpable as the second?

    Of course not. The first knowingly killed Bill Gates, the second was ‘tricked’ into it. he had no intention to kill him. Indeed, one might say that the real responsibility, in the second case, lay with the person that implemented the trickery.

    While this is a contrived senario (as are most thought experiments), it does clearly demonstrate that INTENT matters in morality.

    Thus, as long as you agree with the above reasoning, it seems you must admit that INTENT matters. The question is not about INTENT, but the EXTENT to which intent weighs in, for any given situation.

    IN the case of Clinton, it seems that he cannot claim that he intended NO incidental loss of life — surely he was not that naiive. Thus, his intent is only a small factor in the moral judgement against him. But, just because it is small, does not mean it doesn’t exist.

    Returning, briefly, to you proposed “muslim” attack. I would consider an attack against the US that was perpetrated in ‘defense’ to be morally more acceptable than one that one done in ‘hatred.’ Neither is good, but one is morally better than the other, since the intent of a good (defense) was at least present.

    Again, this does not make the deed ‘good’ — just morally ‘better’ (though this may be a vanishingly small increment of ‘better.’)

    • That’s a pretty flimsy moral system and one that Western laws themselves don’t protect. Both examples would be considered first degree murder and there are such actions as negligent homicide. Intentions, in the end, don’t matter because not only can people lie about them – which most, if not all, political leaders do – but it ignores both the facts and the practical applications of what was conducted. Intentions is just a self-serving, self-centered argument that ignores the feelings of the victims; just as Sam Harris utilized such an argument. If people are really defending him in the Chomsky debate based on his argument, then they clearly haven’t thought of the consequences nor do they take such arguments with any degree of seriousness from the looks of it.

  5. Nowhere in my argument did I suggest that we ignore the victims, or the result of the actions.

    In fact, I think I explicitly stated that they do matter.

    No one is claiming that consequences should be ignored, merely that the consequences are weighted by the intent. That is all.

    In cases of huge consequences, the weight of intent is little. For instance, in the example of bombings, the consequences clearly out weight the intent. We can call the action ‘evil’ no matter the intent. However, most people would consider ‘self defense’ LESS evil than outright malicious assault.

    In cases of small consequences, the weight of intent is great. For instance, if I caused you to spill your coffee, you would judge the event as morally ‘neutral’ or morally ‘bad’ depending if I accidentally ran into you, or if I reached out with purpose and swatted the coffee from your hands.

    Again, INTENT matters. To pretend otherwise would seem to be willfullly blind.

    But that doesn’t mean that it is ALL that matters. We can take into consideration consequences, circumstances, intent, etc. And then weigh them all accordingly — WITHOUT ignoring any.

    Regarding the ability of people to lie… there is a difference between what intentions are CLAIMED and those that are REAL. Uncovering the truth is, of course, fraught with difficulty. but that doesn’t mean that INTENTIONS do not exist, and that they do not inform morality. Consider again, the example of the coffee cup. Can you deny that you would make different judgement about the morality of that incident, based upon your perceptions of my INTENT?

    • Isn’t that similar to the Trolley dilemma? In the case of inconsequential matters like spilled coffee, I’d be willing to accept arguments of intent; however, in the context of human rights abuses and crimes, I am less forthcoming because we’re talking about incidents of mass homicide – i.e. genocide and negligent criminal activity that killed a massive amount of people. The recent explosion in China might be one such example, would any argument about intent by the people who didn’t put safety regulations on the factory matter? Furthermore, human behavior is such that we humans try to justify ourselves by substituting our beliefs or strongly emphasizing a belief in order to stay consistent with our prior biases – this has been shown through rigorous scientific testing, the most famous being the Millgram experiment. What use, therefore, is arguing intentions in terms of actions that cause deaths when we know we’ll make excuses to stay consistent with prior biases? It’s the same reason Reddit is such a garbage website; those people use social proof and consistency to celebrate themselves and denigrate all others.

  6. intent matter for the very same reason you are willing to accept intent in the example of the coffee.

    Surely you can see it is a matter of degrees?

    What if…

    The coffee was just some folgers you brewed at home?
    A large coffee from Starbucks?
    The last cup of coffee your dead mother prepared for you?

    As the stakes associated with the consequences increases, you will less and less inclined to consider the intent of the other, and judge them solely on consequences.

    However, the fact that you are willing to consider intent when the stakes are low, should be indication that intent matters when the stakes are high. Again, it may be that it matters VERY LITTLE, but it still matters.

    I am well aware of the studies that show problems with perception, bias, error analysis, and post-hoc reasoning. However, this is a two way street. Your analysis that intent should matter when stakes are low, and not when stakes are high is also informed by bias. Surely you came up with this from reading books, or taking classes — i.e. participation in a particular culture?

    Anyway, I think the thing to realize is that EVERYONE has biases, you and I included. Throwing away reddit as a ‘garbage’ website seems very shortsighted to me. EVERY culture is going to have biases. There are no exceptions. EVERY culture will have outsiders that are not welcome. There are no exceptions.

    The trick is to recognize the good, in spite of the bad. And to identify those communities in which you wish to participate. BUT you must realize that it is simply that — your wish to participate. Discarding an entire community as ‘garbage’ is a very ungenerous thing to do, and betrays a bias of your own. It is no different than dismissing all liberals as ‘bleeding hearts’ or all conservatives as ‘cold.’ It is an intellectually lazy way to deal with opinions that you do not agree with — and is precisely the thing that you are attempting to argue against (so it seems).

    That is just my opinion.

    • I admit, that is a fair point for nation-states but allowing certain biases to fester and judge them as somehow “less worse” could end-up justifying mass genocides as “less worse” as a consequence; President Clinton’s genocide of Iraq through unilateral sanctions is one such example of this; and of which nobody on Reddit believed even when I showed the evidence. Reddit, I have to disagree with your points there, it’s very structure is that of a hive-mind because of how it’s formed. In fact, I got so tired of the abusive language – of which there were numerous amounts – that I just deleted the topic and my account a short while ago. It wasn’t constructive, it wasn’t going anywhere nice, and these people were being totally hostile with rabid insults. To be frank, I no longer think freedom of speech is good; aside from rabid behavior, I’m utterly disgusted with reddit having a backlash to protect forums like r/deadchildren, r/redpill, or r/bluepill (literally for pedophiles) under the basis of “free speech” while giving these people platforms to network and increase violence against women, violence against children, and child rapes. And please don’t pretend that it doesn’t do that, because that would be a lie to suit our own convenience.

      Back to your point, while you’re correct about culture, it shouldn’t have to be that way and it can be dangerous enough that violence against a subset of a nation-state has very real consequences. I think my “community” broadly speaking, is the intellectual class that I’m accustomed too. So basically, anyone with a Bachelors degree or higher. I had divisive problems with the majority of my lower-income friends (barring three close friends who come from that socioeconomic situation), but I have to realize that they’re anecdotes. Also, across the board and looking at the statistics of lottery players, I’ve essentially discovered – and on an anecdotal level I’ve been told by people I befriended from such backgrounds – that the vast majority of lower income kids live in their terrible situations because their parents are genuinely stupid people. Although, many also think their parents suffer from mental trauma that their parents are too stubborn to seek help for. But, at the same time, their parents hold racist, homophobic viewpoints with fanciful notions about “luck” in their lives through pattern recognition biases. We pretend far too much that the majority of the lower-income people are “good people” and I want to point out: I only formed this opinion after taking summer jobs and meeting people within blue-collar environments but I also found the statistics to back me up on this matter too. The only legitimate argument liberals have been making regarding economic stratification has been the .001% of the one percent of corporations using off-shore accounts to avoid government taxes throughout the world.

  7. Well, regarding the idea of intentions mattering. The fact is: they do. Whether or not they can be used to justify genocides is another issue entirely. But the TRUTH is that they matter. Denying that truth is not useful, as it doesn’t allow us to address the issue you are concerned with, head-on. What we do with that truth is the important thing. But first we have to acknowledge it is real.

    Regarding reddit, I guess we will have to disagree. I have always found that people on reddit are receptive to different ideas — provided that they are presented in a respectful manner. When people react poorly is when I haven’t gone out of my way to be respectful of their opinions, you know? I mean, it is easy to go online, and the challenge someone’s beliefs, while assuming your OWN beliefs are valid. But this is a poor way to go about it. Far better is to go, and try to engage people. To ask WHY they belief what they do, and to actually try to understand them. I find that is much better received, and actually allows you a chance to change minds. But, when you go on the offensive, and don’t allow for the possibility that you are wrong… yeah, that is poorly received. But that is poorly received in life in general. I mean, there is a word for that kind of behavior: being an asshole.

    Regarding free speech. I think you are dead wrong. History has proven over and over again that free speech is the correct way to maintain a civil society. I can’t understand how someone could maintain otherwise. Since you seem very sensitive to crusades, think about the proscriptions that existed in the western world against the teaching of islam in public. Was it good that islam was not given the right of free speech? Really?

    Regarding your ‘community’. I am not sure that a bachelors degree really qualifies someone as ‘intellectual’, but I guess I get your meaning. I think the thing to be aware of is this: even the ‘intellectual class’ (as you style it) has it own set of implicit and explicit biases. You should try to become aware of those, before you go off and criticize other groups of people. This sort of self-awareness is useful everywhere, and is worth trying to do.

    Regarding the ‘poor.’ It is interesting that you are so convinced that different cultures hold different beliefs, but then cast aspersions on individuals for these beliefs. By this, I mean, you criticize the poor for holding a set of beliefs, but also seem to believe that cultures have their own rigid forms of beliefs. To what extent do we blame the culture, rather than the individual. That is, how much do we address the perceived ‘laziness’ of the individual, versus how much should we attempt to change the culture. There was an interesting podcast on THIS AMERICAN LIFE (or radiolab?) recently, about how integration of schools has been the only thing PROVEN to work in bringing the poor out of poverty. Which would suggest that most people are a product of their culture, and bringing them out of that culture (and into a different one) is what is most useful. The point here is that I find it troubling that you turn to the individual so readily, while not seeming to consider if the culture carries the majority of the blame.

    Again, all just my opinions.

    • You contradicted yourself there. You argued that you hold the “truth” but then make a point to argue that reddit allows diverse opinions – which it actually doesn’t at all and there are scientific studies that support this – is a contradiction; if you aren’t basing your positions on factual evidence then they’re not the truth about anything; they’re just your interpretation of the world.

      Reddit’s upvote and downvote system create a systemic form of extremism that doesn’t allow any so-called “wrong” opinions to breach a community – thereby fostering extremism and hatred of others. For example, people automatically assumed I was Muslim in the Sam Harris forum because I laid out facts about Operation Cyclone. They assumed I was a theist in the debate an Atheist forum because I asked what people would do should a religious extremist believe strongly in their faith due to losing a child.

      Culture is just one large social proof that slowly changes itself eventually. Human behavior seems to be fixed on psychological biases that most people never bother to learn about.

  8. All I can say is that you and I have had very different experiences on Reddit then. I am a staunch atheist, but have been well received on both atheist and theist forums. The fact of the matter is that one can strongly disagree with others, and still be welcomed.

    It is often not the message that people react against, but the manner in which is conveyed. And, yes, there are multiple scientific studies that demonstrate this as well.

    Again, we will have to disagree on this. I have found reddit to be a great source of diversity. I can only exist in one physical location. Without pages like reddit, I would be stuck with the viewpoint one gains at a university in the US, which is surprisingly narrow. With reddit, I can learn about the opinions held by people in europe, the middle east, asia, africa. And I can do that for people with and without education, people that are theists and not theists. It is actually quite wonderful. But, as in all things, interaction with people that do not share my views require a bit of decorum, taste, and respect on my part. I am the one entering THEIR culture. And, to the extent that I wish others to treat the university culture with respect, I should be willing to grant them respect as well.

    Of course, that is NOT the same thing as thinking they are correct. I can still challenge their viewpoints, but the key thing in a civil society is to do so in a respectful (even if forceful) manner.

    If you were so poorly received, is there a CHANCE that you did not present yourself in such a manner. That is, are you willing at accept ANY of the blame for your self-admittedly poor interactions? NOTE: I am not casting aspersions on if you were right or wrong — merely the manner in which you choose to interact with those out side YOUR OWN culture.

    Just my opinions.

  9. How do you define ‘diversity?’

    I see very little on my college campus that has things like ‘the red pill’ or ‘dead children.’ In addition, my university campus has no active igo club, or a snooker club, or a club devoted exclusively to defunt religions. My campus has no club devoted to world building, or memes. Our debate club has 100 members — not 4,500.

    To argue that reddit is less diverse than a US college campus is silly, and (at best) seems to be mathematically tenuous.

    For instance, the largest US campus has about 80,000 students. The active population on reddit far outstrips this by almost three orders of magnitude! To the extent that individual people are not clones of each other, they by definition will have differing opinions. Thus, it is more diverse.

    I cannot fathom how you could argue different.

    Also, I am going to request that you cease in your misrepresentation of facts, if you wish to continue this discussion — especially ones that you yourself link to.

    You claim that reddit is almost “exclusively male.” Yet the site that you link to shows that it is roughly 65% male — hardly what any rational person would conclude as ‘exclusively’ male. Making such gross overstatements of the data really doesn’t help to further our discourse.

    At any rate, I think that only the most misguided person would conclude that a site with tens of millions of users spread around the world is less diverse than a university of 80,000 students all in the same city. So, I am going to assume that what you are ACTUALLY arguing is that not all the diversity is good. That is a totally different point, and seems to be one that is related to the idea of free speech.

    Or do you REALLY think that reddit possess LESS diversity than a university campus. REALLY??


    • For the most part, yes. Simply because it offers a lower IQ in terms of actual substance in arguments. The entire format of reddit creates conditions of conformity through the upvote and downvote system – which has been scientifically established. Also, you need to recheck your facts:

      Depending on the subform, Reddit is exclusively male or female. That isn’t “diversity” by any means.

      84% of Reddit members on most Reddit subforums are exclusively male.

      They only represent the mostly lower-income 7% of the American populous. That isn’t “diversity and it’s laughable to call it such.

      Colleges may have a lower sample size on average, but they have far more diversity thanks to international students, studies on actual issues regarding racial or gender inequalities that actually have facts behind them instead of opinions, and colleges aren’t known for Ku Klux Klan forums, forums for child rapists, or misogynists who regularly post and celebrate videos of women being beaten and raped.

      Don’t pretend that reddit doesn’t have those kinds of forums or that they don’t have consequences on innocent people. Doing so reveals your own apathy for the victims of human rights crimes and shows just how shallow your own morality and so-called “intentions” are. Reddit has real world consequences when they have such disgusting forums that celebrate even bodies of dead children.

      If you’re really going to argue that such a forum provides better diversity and intellectual arguments then you better have the statistical figures to back up such a dubious claim. As it stands, I’m having trouble taking such an argument at face value because you clearly haven’t done your research or provided any facts regarding your arguments. Your opinion is moot, if you don’t bring any factual basis for any of your claims then don’t bother wasting time for either of us.

    • You posted a tangent that boiled down to taking the word “diversity” out of context and ignoring the actual argument I made to create a caricature that would have devolved into squabbling over the definition of the word “diversity” as the basis for discussion. Either come-up with a cogent response to my contentions or don’t bother. I will not be responding to walls of text that try to argue a point by redefining a word and taking statements out of context. Your prior arguments were intelligent and fair, but that last post was just a ridiculous rant with no substance. I will not have such discourse on my blog and I know full well that you’re capable of a more intelligent rebuttal than that.

  10. I am glad that you agree that the topic of discussion is on ‘diversity’ — and we have not yet begun to address whether or not this is a good thing. I would appreciate you staying on that topic.

    Here is a Pew Research Survey:

    The results of that survey seem to be at odds with your claim that reddit “only represent the mostly lower-income 7% of the American populous.”

    The link that you provide does not support this and the Pew Research Survey shows that the majority of redditors are above the bottom income bracket.

    I would appreciate a comment from you about whether you still contend that reddit “only represent the mostly lower-income 7% of the American populous.” Do you still believe this?

    Furthermore, you claim that: “84% of Reddit members on most Reddit subforums are exclusively male.”

    But the graphic that you yourself supply does not support this. In fact, none of the subreddits are ‘exclusively’ male.

    To the extent that you mean ‘almost, exclusively’, I can’t see how that is supported by the graphic either.

    Can you supply what percentage of male would qualify as “almost exclusive?”

    In short, I do not believe that the links or image you supplied substantiate your quantitative claims.

    Please respond to these points.

    • That pew research page supports my argument. The Less Than High School section has a 9. Meaning a disproportionate amount of the sample size use reddit and infers that they’re the largest population of users. If anything, the 2.5 percent margin of error and low numbers for the less than high school section likely means that they’re higher than the others and that the other groups are actually lower in their full number. Since only 99 people of that bracket answered the survey compared to 400, 500, and 700 of the others, it’s more likely that people without high school diplomas make a disproportionate amount of reddit. So I admit, I was wrong and you proved it. I thought it was mostly high school users using reddit, but apparently it’s mostly 18-25 year olds who failed to finish high school.

  11. I don’t mean to be offensive (I really don’t), but the response you gave clearly demonstrates that you have a poor grasp of statistics.

    I also want to remind you that you admitted your prior post was wrong, and so please bring that same level of humility to this one. For what it is worth, I am paid to do statistics — and paid quite well. This is, quite literally, my job.

    There are two areas in which you are wrong (or at least make poor assumptions).

    FIRST, you cannot infer that the largest population of users come from the ‘Less than High School.’ The low numbers of internet users with ‘less than high school’ does not mean that there are a large ‘hidden’ section out there. It means that the minority of adult internet users are ‘less than high school’ education. In other words, the MAJORITY of adult internet users have high school education, or greater. IN fact, given the numbers, we can see that 94% of internet users have greater than high school education.

    While it is true that the ‘less than high school’ educated ARE disproportionally represented on reddit, they still, by no means, account for the majority of reddit users. Indeed, it is quite simple to crunch the numbers and to show that the percentage of reddit users that have less that a high school education is: about 8%. Meaning that 92% of reddit has greater than a high school education. Again, we see that the VAST majority of the reddit user base has a greater than high school education.

    SECOND: your assumption is that the people without high school education (which only account for 8% of the adult user base) must have failed high school, is incorrect. In the united states, a 16 year old person can withdrawl from high school, without finishing OR failing. I, myself, have two friends who opted for this. One is a auto mechanic, who immediately took a job earning $60,000 /year, and now makes about $80,000 /year. The second was a computer programmer who dropped out, to take a job earning $90,000 /year.

    So, the assumption that ‘less than high school’ education means that they failed is not very generous. While it is clear that many of them probably did, the simple fact is that you cannot know what percentage failed and what percentage dropped out to take high paying jobs in the technology sector — since that is also a demographic over-represented on reddit.

    Anyway, the point of this post is that your analysis of the statistics is factually incorrect. The VAST majority of adult reddit users have a greater than high school education. That is a numerical fact. ANd the assumption that all of those that do not have high school education failed high school seems tenuous as best.

    • You’re obviously reading the data wrong. The sample size is 6% out of the 2000+ people who were contacted and the data set represents that 6%. Within that scope, the less than high school dataset is a higher percentage and thus higher than the others. Also, your point about the previous topic makes your claim dubious. I had to correct your math on several occasions during that discussion. Your hostility towards me is noted.

  12. You are correct, this is the 6% of the 2000+.

    However, the percentages listed are the percentages of the numbers listed to the left. That is, of the 99 people without high school education, 9% are reddit users.

    This means that 9 of the 99 (without high school education) are reddit users. i.e., 9/99 = 9%

    Following similar reasoning means that (of the 2000+ surveyed) 18 users of reddit have high school education, 31 have some college, and 55 have college (or better education).

    This gives a total number of users of reddit (from the survey) of: 9+18+31+55 = 113

    This also means that the percentage of reddit’s user base that has less than a high school education is 9/113 = 8%. Or 92% have greater than a high school education.

    Interestingly, if we consider JUST the college (or greater numbers) this is 55/113 = 48% — or almost half of the adult reddit user base has college or better education.

    Finally, I don’t understand your attack on me. First, I don’t know what math of mind you corrected earlier and, second, the math is laid about above for you to check. If you cannot follow it, I suggest you find someone more math savvy than yourself (this is not an insult — we all have varying abilities in math), because the above approach to analysis is correct and CLEARLY demonstrates that your original claim about the ‘less than high school’ education was incorrect. .

    Finally, finally, I have no hostility towards you at all. I merely think you are wrong, and am striving to demonstrate this. If trying to correct someone else’s errors is ‘hostility,’ then there is no hope for a civil society.

    • Wait, where did you get 113 from? That isn’t listed on the percentages or the amount of people surveyed in each of the brackets. If anything, my argument is vindicated because a lower percentage of people from the other brackets use reddit. The other people surveyed via educational bracket are 473, 517, and 790 respectively. So yes, it indicates that a higher percentage of people below a high school degree use reddit than people with college education. If you’re adding those numbers against one specific bracket then you do have a valid point but I specified that my in-group are the educated members of society. Meaning people above high school level. Now, you could make the argument that it’s 50/50 but the low sample size from those without high school diplomas leads me to believe that it’s actually higher for them because their sample size was significantly lower than the others and they still managed to have the highest percentage compared to each bracket respectively.

      As for hostility, you claimed you “didn’t mean to be offensive” typically, people who say that mean to insult others without trying to feel bad about having done so.

  13. I will try to explain the math as best I can — but you really might wish to seek the help of a friend who is more math savvy than you. It is just easier to explain in person.

    Basically, here is the deal…

    STEP 1.

    We can start by figuring out how many reddit users fall into each of the education categories.

    LESS THAN HIGH SCHOOL has 99 people in the survey, and 9% of them are reddit users. 99*0.09 = 9. This means that of the people surveyed there were 9 reddit users that had less than a high school education.

    HIGH SCHOOL has 473 people in the survey, and 4% of them are reddit users. 473*0.04 = 18. This means that of the people surveyed there were 18 reddit users that had a high school education.

    SOME COLLEGE has 517 people in the survey, and 6% of them are reddit users. 517*0.06 = 31. This means that of the people surveyed, there were 31 reddit users that had SOME college education.

    COLLEGE+ has 790 people in the survey, and 7% of them are reddit users. 790*0.07 = 55. This means that of the people surveyed, there were 55 users that had COLLEGE or beyond education.

    We can agree on that, yes?

    STEP 2.

    Basically, we know where were all the reddit users stand, yes? I mean, ALL of the reddit users MUST fall into one of the four educational categories?

    What this means is that we can simply add up the numbers that come from these educational categories. That is 99 (no high school) + 18 (high school) + 31 (some college) + 55 (College+) = 113.

    Of the survey conducted, there were 113 reddit users that disclosed their educational status.

    Is this OK>

    STEP 3.

    Given the number of users in each category AND the total users, we can calculate the percentage.

    Thus, if we want to know the percentage of reddit users that have less than a college education, it is 9/113, OR 8%.

    If we want to know the percentage that have college or greater education, it is 55/113 OR 48%.

    Is this OK?

    Please let me know which of the above steps you do not understand, and that might help me address the problems you are having.


    The low sample size of the below high school students… it doesn’t mean even close to what you are trying to make it mean. It means simply that there are very few below high school educated people that are on reddit.

    In fact, the math clearly demonstrates that it is around 8% (see step 3 above). The margin of error given is 2.5%. This means that, within the margin of error, the highest percentage of users that are on reddit without high school education is 10.5% — not even close to a majority.

    By they by, you are correct in assuming that the low sample size leads to uncertainty — and that is almost certainly where the 2.5% margin of error comes from. Because the ‘below high school’ education group is small, it dominates the uncertainty in all of the study — and people often report the largest error as the uncertainty. Thus, you are ALREADY seeing the uncertainty.

    Finally, regarding hostility: I guess I cannot keep you from taking my words for the exact opposite of what I said. But the reason I said “I mean no offense” was because I knew the phrase I was using might sound offensive, and I wanted to try to make it clear that no offense was meant — that I was merely trying to speak plainly.

    • Well yes, but my point is the amount of Less than High school is too small to be sure of that; moreover, this ignores grade schoolers who go on reddit but obviously wouldn’t answer surveys. The amount and frequency of less than high schoolers should be higher. To have an accurate assessment, you would need to factor in and add the children who go on reddit while pretending to be older than they are. As such, it’s possible that the amount is higher than the supposed margin of error since the survey only factors people age 18 and upwards. Also, as far as interactions, how do you factor the amount of people who use reddit for news or pictures versus the active posters who take part in the community? There often is a significant difference. For example, Hank Green’s survey of 22,000 people for his vlogbrothers channel unintentionally revealed that over 60% of his fans don’t bother posting comments on his videos or other youtube videos. They consider it a cesspool. How can you know that the same doesn’t apply to reddit?

  14. Well, you and I can both speculate as much as we like about the imagined demographics of reddit. I am attempting to stick to the actual numerical data that we have.

    Regarding the ‘less than high school’ being “too small to be sure.” You are simply flat out wrong. Again, you are probably best talking to someone who is more math savvy, as I am going to be unable to explain this in any reasonable level of detail.

    But perhaps an analogy might work.

    Imagine that you conducted a survey of a million US citizens, asking how many people had won the lottery. If you found that only 9 people in that million had won the lottery, would the correct conclusion be that there must be some ‘shadow’ lottery winner’s group out there that wasn’t reached? Or would the conclusion be that the small number of lottery winners REFLECTS the fact that there are a small number of lottery winners in the population as a whole.

    Regarding the idea that they are missing people of age under 18 — that is certainly true, and is the first valid criticism that you have leveled at the survey under discussion.

    However, it seems that the results of other surveys do not substantiate this concern of yours — or the claim that the majority of reddit has less than high school educations.

    For instance, consider this site:

    This shows that only 7% of the user base is below the age of 18. Moreover (and in line with this) this median age is 35).

    Thus, it seems that, even if all of the users below 18 did not have a high school degree (not true), then a (admittedly rough) estimation is that the survey missed 8 reddit users under 18. This would (again, roughly) double the percentage of reddit users with LESS than high school educations to about 16%.

    Again, this is not even close to the majority that you originally claimed.

    By all of the surveys, the largest group (in terms of the percentage of reddit users) are ages 18-29, with college or better educations. I don’t think there is any hope escape from that conclusion — at least not given the hard facts that are available.

    • Two problems: Some college could mean people who took college classes but then flunked out and it still doesn’t indicate that the college users are the ones commenting on reddit. You have yet to prove that and you’re the one arguing it’s a good community. So the burden of proof is on you.

  15. Regarding the first point, if you go back and read the most recent link I provided, you will find that the percentage of reddit users that identify their current occupation at ‘student’ is very close to the percentage that claim to have some college education. The logical (and mathematical) conclusion is obvious from this: the percentage of people that claim ‘some college’ are currently students.

    Regarding the second: You can choose to believe whatever you like. However, the facts are on my side. You are attempting to make the claim that people commenting on reddit are disproportionately from one of the demographic classes (the ‘less than high school’ section) — despite absolutely zero evidence that is the case on reddit.

    I will not descend to an argument over ‘burden of proof,’ because those almost always end in a shouting match over where the burden lies (even when both parties are making a claim, as we are know). However, I will note that I do not believe that it lies with me. I have NUMERICAL facts that support the idea that reddit is a well-rounded community with a large representation of education people. To believe otherwise, would be to contend that the majority of users (i.e., those with some college education or better) are wildly disproportionately silent.

    To put a finer point on it: for the ‘less than high school’ demographic to compose the majority of active commentors, then the BEST case that would support this position would be as follows: ALL of the ‘less than high school education’ would need to be comment, while 90% of the ‘some college or better’ contingent would need to be silent.

    That is, essentially, what you are claiming, from a numerical perspective.

    This seems to be quite a claim, and one that should naturally be rejected, if no evidence is supplied to support it.

    This would be like saying that 90% of Americans are secretly democrats, but 90% of them choose not to vote, while ALL of the republicans vote, which is why we have a republican congress. Such a suggestion would be dismissed out of hand, unless there was evidence given.

    That is why I think the burden of proof lies with you — because you are the one suggesting something that seem less reasonable, given the numerical data we have in front of us.

    But, I am only writing this to point out my reasoning. At the end of the day, you are free to believe what you want. If you really do think that the burden of proof lies with my hypothesis that people roughly comment at the same frequency, no matter their demographic class, then I suppose our discussion is at an end. Though I really do hope you consider seriously the fact that your viewpoint of reddit does not seem to have any numerical support. At least there is none that you have offered, which I have not been able to refute, using simple (and sound) mathematics.

    • Your entire basis for the argument is a sample size of 113. My basis was a survey I conducted not too long ago. I could show you the pictures but it seems clear that you just wanted to argue with me in order to find an argument that you were “correct” in to feel good about yourself. I am saying this because of the ridiculous level of arrogance that you’re now espousing on the basis of a small survey that has a minuscule sample size and that doesn’t actually support your argument. The survey that you linked only intended to show the amount of the US population that uses reddit compared to those who don’t. You then misapplied the statistics to argue that a sample size of 113 was an accurate number of how many reddit users are actually using reddit – which it isn’t – and you argued that the survey had a 95 percent confidence interval. It has a 95 confidence interval in showing the statistics for how many people use reddit compared to people who don’t use the website; it doesn’t clearly show the actual demographic of reddit users. You need a sample size closer to 21000000. You should know this already because of your so-called statistics background but the fact you’re trying to argue that I was wrong on the basis of a mere 113 shows that you were being dishonest with me from the start. Give me a sample size around 2000 and then I’ll concede. The burden of proof is on you because you have not shown me enough evidence – as you repeatedly claimed when you brought up the Pew survey – that college students are the most frequent users or even the most frequent commentators. So, give me a sample size around 2000 and I’ll concede to your point as that would be a more accurate representation that is less likely to deviate from the norm.

      Also, while Statistics aren’t my forte, I have studied it and I’m admittedly lazy with applying it because it’s not my primary subject matter. My main focus is politics.

  16. Dear Anonymous,

    I deleted your last post because it became clear to me that I could no longer regard further discourse with you as either constructive or helpful. Not only did you wholly ignore my points, but you began making ad hominem rants about my intelligence for the second time. I believe I’ve been patient enough with your attitude and I will no longer tolerate such insults. Moreover, you repeatedly ignore my actual arguments or try to take them out of context by redefining them. I understand that being a self-described elitist won’t make me popular but part of elitism is about being unwilling to deal with other people’s mockery under the basis that people are equal. They’re not; people don’t honestly believe that of themselves or their own societies. That being said, I obviously don’t believe in horrible things like slavery, forced labor, destroying people’s opportunities, or discrimination based on skin pigmentation, gender, nationality, or whatnot. Such people who believe that sort of bile are beneath me.

    I simply refuse to play pretend in acting like people in war-torn countries and third world conditions are somehow less important or less pressing than first world poverty. It’s literally comparing children begging for food in Somalia to some guy yelling at a cashier with death threats because he couldn’t get a pack of cigarettes in the US. I don’t find such reasoning tolerable or moral; we would be condemning real poor people in real poverty as afterthoughts while championing the poverty of people who made bad decisions in life and reap what they sow. The only exceptions are foreigners who come to the West seeking a better life, lower-income children who don’t have a choice about their situation or any racism they may face, or the mentally handicapped. The majority of people in poverty, however, don’t really have excuses.


Leave a Reply