The Dangerous Populist Science of Yuval Noah Harari

The best-selling author is a gifted storyteller and popular speaker. But he sacrifices science for sensationalism, and his work is riddled with errors

Darshana Narayanan

Watch videos of Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the wildly successful book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and you will hear him being asked the most astonishing questions.

  • “A hundred years from now, do you think we will still care about being happy?” – Canadian journalist Steve Paikin, on the “The Agenda with Steve Paikin
  • “What I do, is it still relevant, and how do I prepare for my future?”- a student studying languages at the University of Antwerp
  • “At the end of Sapiens, you said we should be asking the question, ‘What do we want to want?’ Well, what do you think we should want to want?” – an audience member at TED Dialogues, Nationalism vs. Globalism: The New Political Divide
  • “You are somebody who practices Vipassana. Does that help you get closer to the force? Is that where you get closer to the force?” – the moderator at the 2018 India Today Conclave

Harari’s manner is soft spoken, even shy, in these encounters. On occasion, he good-naturedly says that he doesn’t possess the powers of divination, then briskly moves on to answer the question with an authority that makes you wonder if indeed he does. A hundred years from now it is quite likely that humans will disappear, and the earth will be populated by very different beings like cyborgs and A.I., Harari said to Paikin, asserting that it is difficult to predict “what kind of emotional or mental life such entities will have.” Diversify, he advised the university student, because the job market of 2040 will be very volatile. We should “want to want to know the truth,” he announced at the TED Conference. “I practice Vipassana meditation to see reality more clearly,” Harari said to the India Today Conclave, without so much as cracking a smile at the absurdity of the question. Moments later, he elaborated: “If I can’t observe the reality of my own breath for 10 seconds, how can I hope to observe the reality of the geopolitical system?”

If you are not yet disquieted, consider: among Harari’s flock are some of the most powerful people in the world, and they come to him much like the ancient kings to their oracles. Mark Zuckerberg asked Harari if humanity is becoming more unified or fragmented by technology. The Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund asked him if doctors will depend on Universal Basic Income in the future. The CEO of Axel Springer, one of the largest publishing houses in Europe, asked Harari what publishers should do to succeed in the digital world. An interviewer with The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) asked him what effect COVID would have on international scientific cooperation. In favor of Harari’s half-formed edicts, each subverted their own authority. And they did it not for an expert in any one of their fields, but for a historian who, in many ways, is a fraud—most of all, about science….

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