La mancanza di fact checking in Sapiens di Yuval Noah Harari

Massimo L’Abbate, membro della community, sapendo che ho letto Sapiens dello storico Yuval Noah Harari, mi ha segnalato un articolo che lo critica aspramente.

Quando mi imbatto in articoli che criticano o attaccano un soggetto noto e popolare, come Harari, la prima impressione è che si possa trattare di un pezzo di character assassination, concetto che Wikipedia traduce in distruzione della reputazione. Attrarre l’attenzione gettando fango su un personaggio noto è uno sport molto praticato e che genera ottimi risultati in termini di click.

Nel caso specifico, letto l’articolo, non si tratta di niente di questo, anche se si può discutere sulla rilevanze delle singole obiezioni mosse alla poca scientificitĂ  o alle inesattezze presenti nel suo Sapiens, tradotto in italiano col titolo Da animali a dei. Ciò su cui non posso in alcun modo discutere è la tesi di fondo dell’articolo, ovvero 1) sul fatto che molti libri non fiction, incluso Sapiens, non siano vagliati in alcun modo da pratiche di fact checking, prima di essere pubblicati e 2) che la mancanza di basi scientifiche di alcune affermazioni chiave di Harari porti acqua al mulino di Big Tech e della Silicon Valley che, guarda caso, osanna Harari.

Interessante anche la chiave con cui Harari viene interpretato, ovvero quella del populismo scientifico. Il fatto che venga associato a Jordan Peterson, altro personaggio controverso a dir poco, con un seguito da guru, rende Harari piĂš sospetto ai miei occhi.

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Alcuni passaggi sottolineati nell’articolo:

  • Yuval Harari is what I call a “science populist.” 
  • Science populists are gifted storytellers who weave sensationalist yarns around scientific “facts” in simple, emotionally persuasive language. Their narratives are largely scrubbed clean of nuance or doubt, giving them a false air of authority—and making their message even more convincing. Like their political counterparts, science populists are sources of misinformation. They promote false crises, while presenting themselves as having the answers. They understand the seduction of a story well told—relentlessly seeking to expand their audience—never mind that the underlying science is warped in the pursuit of fame and influence.
  • It is time to subject our Populist Prophet, and others like him, to serious scrutiny.
  • his ex-pupil has essentially managed to dodge the fact-checking process
  • with his book Sapiens—“leapfrogged” expert critique “by saying, ‘Let’s ask questions so large that no one can say, We think this bit’s wrong and that bit’s wrong.’ … Nobody’s an expert on the meaning of everything, or the history of everybody, over a long period.”
  • Harari is often not just describing our past; he is prognosticating on the very future of humanity itself. Everyone is, of course, entitled to speculate on our future. But it is important to find out if these speculations hold water, especially if a person has the ear of our decision-making elites—as Harari does. False projections have real consequences.
  • Harari’s speculations are consistently based on a poor understanding of science. His predictions of our biological future, for instance, are based on a gene-centric view of evolution—a way of thinking that has (unfortunately) dominated public discourse due to public figures like him. Such reductionism advances a simplistic view of reality, and worse yet, veers dangerously into eugenics territory.
  • Our genes are not our puppet masters, pulling the right strings at the right time to control the events that create us. When Harari writes about altering our physiology, or “engineering” humans to be faithful or clever, he is skipping over the many non-genetic mechanisms that form us.
  • Nurture shapes nature, and nature shapes nurture. It is not a duality
  • Harari’s motives remain mysterious; but his descriptions of biology (and predictions about the future) are guided by an ideology prevalent among Silicon Valley technologists like Larry Page, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and others. They may have differing opinions on whether the algorithms will save or destroy us. But they believe, all the same, in the transcendent power of digital computation.
  • By echoing the narratives of Silicon Valley, science populist Harari is promoting—yet again—a false crisis. Worse, he is diverting our attention from the real harms of algorithms and the unchecked power of the tech industry.
  • Harari tells us of a new religion, “The Data Religion.” The practitioners of this religion—”Dataists,” he calls them—perceive the entire universe as flows of data. They see  all organisms as biochemical data processors, and believe that humanity’s “cosmic vocation” is to create an all-knowing, all-powerful data processor that will understand us better than we can understand ourselves. The logical conclusion to this saga, Harari predicts, is that the algorithms will assume authority over all facets of our lives—they will decide who we marry, what careers we pursue, and how we will be governed. (Silicon Valley, as you can guess, is a hub of The Data Religion.)
  • Living beings are not just absorbing and processing the data flows of our environment; we are continuously altering and creating our own—and each other’s—environments
  • Harari is careful to fashion himself as an objective scribe. He takes pains to tell us he is presenting the worldview of the Dataists, and not his own. But then he does something very sneaky. The Dataist view “may strike you as some eccentric fringe notion,” he says, “but in fact it has already conquered most of the scientific establishment.” In presenting the Dataist worldview as conclusive (having “conquered most of the scientific establishment”), he tells us that it is “objectively” true that humans are algorithms, and our march to obsolescence—as the passive recipients of decisions made by better algorithms—is unavoidable, because it is integrally tied to our humanity.
  • There is nothing predetermined about the fate of humanity. Our autonomy is eroding not because of cosmic karma, but because of a new economic model invented by Google and perfected by Facebook— a form of capitalism that has found a way to manipulate us for the purposes of making money.
  • Harari has seduced us with his storytelling, but a close look at his record shows that he sacrifices science to sensationalism, often makes grave factual errors, and portrays what should be speculative as certain. The basis on which he makes his statements is obscure, as he rarely provides adequate footnotes or references and is remarkably stingy with acknowledging thinkers “A casual reader who picks up Harari’s writing would think that all of the ideas have come from him alone, but Harari’s frameworks of thinking are often reminiscent of others who came before. […] And most dangerous of all, he reinforces the narratives of surveillance capitalists, giving them a free pass to manipulate our behaviors to suit their commercial interests. To save ourselves from this current crisis, and the ones ahead of us, we must forcefully reject the dangerous populist science of Yuval Noah Harari.

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