August 11, 2023 - 1:15pm

In a recent appearance on the podcast Impact Theory, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris presented a provocative — some  might say risible — hypothetical about Covid-19 vaccines.“Dial up the deadliness of the pathogen, like airborne ebola with a 75% fatality rate,” he said, “and no one gets to make that choice anymore.” More, “turn up the deadliness of the pathogen, turn up the effectiveness of the vaccine, and then you’ve got Robert F. Kennedy Jr. saying on [Joe] Rogan’s podcast not to get the jab — that’s the world I’ve been worried about since Covid.”

The remarks prompted a wave of criticism on X (the site formerly known Twitter), with users claiming that Harris was “completely missing the point and labelling him “so smart he’s stupid”. The satirical Right-wing publication the Babylon Bee devoted a mocking post to his appearance. 

This latest controversy encapsulates Harris’s complex and evolving relationship with the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), a loose-knit group of commentators ranging from Jordan Peterson to Ben Shapiro to Eric Weinstein that coalesced in the 2010s through shared opposition to identity politics, political correctness, “cancel culture” and public discourse as a whole. Harris has long been known for his rejection of fundamentalism and religious thinking, building an early career as a staunch liberal atheist, and his connection to the IDW further expanded his already large platform. 

Well before his recent remarks on Impact Theory, Harris began distancing himself from the group in late 2020, a move that would lead to a self-imposed exile in which he now frequently seizes upon public appearances to criticise his erstwhile colleagues.

The new atheist’s vocal criticism of what he sees as a shift within the group towards conspiracy thinking and contrarianism reveals the growing rift between him and some of his fellow IDW members. The first sign of this divergence came when he publicly rejected what he perceived as false claims by some regarding Donald Trump’s allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 US presidential election. His denouncement extended to critiques of certain IDW figures — though without naming them specifically — who were focusing on Covid-19 vaccines in ways he deemed “completely crazy.

Harris’s disagreements with the IDW deepened as he began to perceive a “new religion of contrarianism and conspiracy thinking” emerging within the group. Appearing on podcasts to chastise portions of the IDW membership for their theories on subjects like “the terrors of mRNA vaccines”, he expressed frustration with those who once served as intellectual allies.

During one episode of podcast Uncomfortable Conversations, Harris refers to the IDW as “erstwhile smart people” who have been led astray by sinister influences or misguided incentives, and lamented their turn towards positions he found indefensible. Harris even referred to some of his former colleagues’ behaviour as a reason why they were “denied a Nobel Prize”, showcasing the severity of the ideological divide (and possibly a certain level of delusion).

The dissonance between Harris’s views and those of some IDW members has only increased. Even X mogul Elon Musk, at best adjacent to the IDW, has publicly chided Harris over issues such as Government censorship of free speech — he thought it was “weird” that the writer left Twitter after he bought it — and more recently tweeted that Harris was “flat out insane”.

In the end, Harris’s journey from IDW ally to outspoken critic underscores the complexity of intellectual identity and the malleable nature of public opinion. Whether driven by genuine belief, concern for personal branding, or a combination of the two, his deliberate distancing from the IDW serves as a reflection of the nuanced and often turbulent landscape of contemporary intellectual engagement. 

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work