An engrossing conversation between Sam Harris and Nicholas Christakis

I’m a big fan of Sam Harris, despite the number of Regressive Leftists who demonize him, but I’ve had trouble following his podcasts, for they always last about two hours, and I can’t seem to find a chunk of time sufficiently long to listen (although I can always find longer slots than that for reading). I did, though, listen to the entirety of his new podcast, “Facing the crowd”—an interview with Yale professor Nicholas Christakis. This one’s only 1 hour and 40 minutes long.

As you may recall (see my post here as an entrée), both Nicholas and his wife Erika were co-heads of Silliman College, a resident house for Yale students, and both got into trouble in the fall of 2015 after Erika wrote an email to her students urging them to make up their own minds about the appropriateness of Halloween costumes. They were demonized, threatened, and Nicolas was publicly attacked by students in a particularly noxious way (see the video below for an example). Eventually, they both left their residential positions at Silliman, and Erika gave up her teaching position at Yale. That was terribly sad, for she was highly regarded as a teacher, and both were much loved as resident heads. But all of that was forgotten when the Halloween costume kerfuffle permanently got both of them labeled as racists, bigots, and so on. Such is Yale (and other colleges).

I listened to Sam and Christakis’s discussion in two bits, and was quite impressed. Sam asked good questions, and Christakis is a terribly eloquent and thoughtful man. You can go to the podcast by clicking on the screenshot below, and I really recommend making the time to listen. Christakis, in his patience, willingness to engage hostile students (see Christakis keep his cool big time in the video below), and history of progressive politics, reminds me of Bret Weinstein, who was similarly demonized at The Evergreen State College. You can see why Christakis was such a good resident head.

The talk is wide-ranging, starting with the Christakises contretemps at Yale, and covering free speech, deplatforming, the nature of modern college students, American politics, artificial intelligence, and so on.

Here’s Sam’s summary of Christakis’s bio:

Nicholas A. Christakis is a sociologist and physician who conducts research in the area of biosocial science, investigating the biological predicates and consequences of social phenomena. He directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, where he is appointed as the Sol Goldman Family Professor of Social and Natural Science, and he is the Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science. Dr. Christakis’ lab is focused on the relationship between social networks and well-being. Ongoing investigations in the lab explore the genetic bases for human social behaviors and the application of social network principles to change population-level behavior related to health, cooperation, and economic development. Along with long-time collaborator, James Fowler, Dr. Christakis has authored a general-audience book on social networks: Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

And watch, in this 24-minute video, how Christakis dealt calmly and rationally with a bunch of enraged students who circled him in the quad. Note that all of their rage is about an email his wife sent about Halloween costumes:


  1. Posted October 11, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Sam would do better to keep the podcasts to an hour, either by continually moving the conversation on or by editing afterwards.

    I, like PCC-E, end up listening to few of them owing to their length.

    • rasmo carenna
      Posted October 11, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      I, on the contrary, can never have enough.

    • Beth Purkhiser
      Posted October 11, 2017 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

      It would be a real shame if he cut things off at an hour. Sometimes I wish he’d go longer, depending on the guest. I realize time is hard to come by, but he always makes it worth it.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 12, 2017 at 1:48 am | Permalink

      I completely agree, Coel. Either that, or I wish he’d provide transcripts. Since he’s gone completely to podcasts, I almost never have time to hear what he has to say any more.

  2. mark
    Posted October 11, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    i can certainly understand the pov of people asking for shorter podcasts, and have often made the same case to shows like ‘skeptic’s guide to reality,’ but waking up is my exception. i think sam does a great job of letting conversations go off on (interesting) tangents then bringing them back to focus, and i have no problem with them being hours long.

  3. Rob
    Posted October 11, 2017 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I think long and hard before I download a lengthy Sam Harris podcast.

    Sam seems to have to offer lengthy qualifications on so many points that it makes the podcasts quite long.

    Also, he likes to go down lots of rabbit trails.

    I probably miss lots of interesting conversations just because my listening time is limited.

    And, I could add lots of qualifiers to all the things I said above, but it would double the length of this post.


  4. Cate Plys
    Posted October 11, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Agreed the Sam Harris podcast with Nicholas Christakis is well worth listening to the whole thing–and the Sam Harris podcast is reliably incredibly interesting. Sam harris interviews an astonishing array of people who are all terrific, but more importantly, he’s someone who can talk to them all intelligently and get them to bring arcane subjects down to my level.

    With all due respect, I think PCCE and Cole, you’re looking at the lengths of the podcasts the wrong way. I listen to the podcasts when I have time–driving somewhere, doing some physical labor that doesn’t require much thought, etc–and I don’t worry about whether I have time for the whole thing. Sometimes I only get to hear some of a podcast, because by the time I can listen again, there’s a new podcast I want to hear more. But that’s fine.

  5. nicky
    Posted October 11, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I think Christakis was way too nice. Safe spaces? The world is not a safe space once you leave from under your mother’s wing. Apologise for ‘hurting your feelings’? Grow a skin! Do you realise that with that attitude you will be completely unemployable in the real world? etc.
    But then, I think he was much better than I could ever be handling these snowflakes. Kudos to him and his patience.

    • Paul
      Posted October 11, 2017 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

      I completely agree. He should not have allowed himself to be surrounded be a mob. That last woman just insulted him and demanded he keep silent and take it. This sort of video makes me concerned about college students, and it makes me worried racism is getting worse. Instead of trying to see that they’re all very similar (at Yale, same age), these young people demand he abjectly apologize. Those kids are wrong, and grown ups just see a lot of whining.

  6. Randy schenck
    Posted October 11, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I do like Sam Harris but just do not have the time for all of it. Sometimes it is a matter of the guest as well. Some are just really interesting and others not so much.

  7. Liz
    Posted October 11, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I found out who Sam Harris was about a year ago when I googled Dan Dennett. He’s a neuroscientist and we have the same birthday from what I had recalled. I just looked again and he wrote “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion” which I find incredibly interesting. I wonder in what context he uses the word spirituality.

    I very much admire and respect these professors having to address students like in this video. Didn’t see the link to the email here but looked it up. It looked like the students were not interested in engaging in a discussion about it especially at 10:42 and 17:15.

  8. Rick
    Posted October 11, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Still listening but want to comment that Sam and Nicholas could stand to learn more about the history of the US Communist Party, and why, while it was wrong to blacklist Hollywood Communists, it would have been ill-advised to employ Communist Party members in the US State Department during the Cold War. Joe McCarthy was a demagogue like Trump who poisoned legitimate positions, like the fact that the Soviets did infiltrate the US government to our detriment. The NSA’s declassified VENONA documents are the most reliable information on this espionage

    • Randy schenck
      Posted October 11, 2017 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      On a more modern note, same subject, we are just now starting to see some of the work Russia did with Face Book more than a year ago to push their candidate Trump. Something that face book denied for a long time. Same for Tweeter and Google. These companies are so concerned with competitors discovering their methods they don’t even care who they do business with. Russia will continue to do the same stuff on these platforms for the next election and into the future.

      It is really kind of funny that most folks at this site have been reviewing how Trump won when it is very likely the campaign was determined on line.

  9. Posted October 11, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Students earnest, sincere, and out of touch with reality.

    This attitude has been building for some time now- has anyone done a study to see where they’re living three tears after graduation?

    • Craw
      Posted October 11, 2017 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      Yes to all that but also deeply unthinking, smug, passive aggressive. What irks me most watching that, and I watched it all, is the finger clicking. It’s the sure sign that group think is ascendant .

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted October 13, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      “Three Tears After Graduation” was the sequel to “The Breakfast Club”, right?

  10. Christopher Bonds
    Posted October 11, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Haven’t yet listened to this, but will comment on “students behaving badly”. To me it shows the failure to teach fair-minded critical thinking in high school and college. In fact, the teaching can (and probably should) begin in Kindergarten, the approach adjusted for age, of course.

    If those Yale students were critical thinkers instead of “regressive-left” indoctrinees, a reasoned discussion could have taken place, and everyone would have been better off.

  11. Craw
    Posted October 11, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    An article has been removed from an academic journal’s website due to “credible threats of violence” to the journal’s editor.

  12. alexandra Moffat
    Posted October 11, 2017 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    OH MY CEILING CAT – I gave up after the yelling of “DO you know who I am” over and over. Do any of these me me me me me people have any idea how lucky they are to have so much generous time from this gentle, compassionate man? Do they have any idea of how lucky they are to be getting an education in such comfort and allowance for disagreement? Their passion would be laudable but for its self-absorbed close to mob deafness and inability to allow for attempts to understand.

  13. Chris Swart
    Posted October 11, 2017 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    With the Yale film, I can only think, geez, I’m glad I don’t have to deal with shit like that.

  14. danstarfish
    Posted October 12, 2017 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    After hearing Christakis’ discussion with Sam Harris, it makes the happenings at Yale even more hard to fathom. You really could seriously criticize him for being too nice and too charitable. Of all people to be surrounded by an angry mob of indignant students, it is so hard to imagine how he was their target.

    I liked what he said about he believes in our common humanity. I am a humanist and that is really a core belief for me and the rejection of this by many regressive leftists is one of the big issues I have with them. Despite all our differences we are all still human and all have some things we share. Our commonalities and differences don’t always cleanly separate on race and gender lines. An introverted science fiction loving black person might find a strong commonality and kinship with an introverted science fiction loving white person that gets lost when human experience can only be bucketed together by race and gender. The idea that only people of the same race and gender are capable of any understanding of your experience seems overly reductive to me.

    The video was difficult too watch. It was surprising that despite the difficulties he tried so hard to connect with them and had a few very brief moments where he got through. But more often than not they were abusive and trying to dehumanize him. They were accusing him of not listening to them, but he really was listening to them more than most people are capable of. Listening was also a one-way street, they felt no obligation to listen to him. It seemed they they thought it was impossible for him to listen and still disagree with them.

    Some of the background he gave about his wife’s email was interesting. They had started intellectual discussions with emails on other topics before without incident. Also, that before his wife had written her fateful email, she had had discussions with students about the other email instructing them on Halloween costume choices and that most of them had felt like it infantilized them. She wasn’t just expressing her opinion, but also echoing the opinion of most of her students. One way of looking at it is encouraging. The vocal regressive left did not represent most of the students. The other way of looking at it is discouraging. This small group somehow manages to ruin so much for so many other people.

  15. Posted October 12, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you about podcasts and long videos, etc. You can’t skim them! The vast majority of my reading involves a lot of skim and skip. I bore in when something interesting or pertinent comes along. This is the way adults process information. making us listen to a podcast or watch a video to determine if it is worth the time is rude.

    I am a big fan of Dr. Harris, but if he doesn’t provide a transcript, I have better things to do.

  16. Tarek Chehab
    Posted October 13, 2017 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    You can listen to almost any podcast in 1.5 or 2x. Go for a walk, commute, bike. Won’t get boring or the podcast too long.

  17. Jake Sevins
    Posted October 13, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoy most of Sam’s podcasts, and I don’t at all mind the length because I’m “blessed” with a 30 min commute every day, so listening in the car is the perfect time and place.

  18. Chaswalder
    Posted October 14, 2017 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    I was struck by Christakis’s human warmth, patience, and understanding of the students in the mob. It’s not a coincidence that his work involves the study of human nature; examining how our minds actually work engenders patience and social wisdom.

    Steven Pinker is another genteel and admirable cognitive scientist whose views into social issues are incisive and nuanced. For anyone who wants to understand more about the Christakis events, I suggest Pinkers book, The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature. Although it was written in 2002, it is aging very well. It includes a section on academics who were pilloried for benign (and correct!) views that fell afoul of morally motivated mob thinking. I am currently rereading it, so if anyone wants a chapter citation or discussion, I’m happy to respond.

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