When Truth is a Trap

Consider the following statement: “The fraction of young Muslim males who are terrorists is higher than the fraction of old Swedish women who are terrorists.” The statement is undoubtedly true, and everyone knows it. And someone who is committed to overcoming bias would frown upon any attempt to deny that it’s true merely because it makes some people uncomfortable.

But there’s a problem. Different people have different opinions regarding what attitudes and policies towards young Muslim males are appropriate. And some of those people simply don’t like them, for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the fact that a higher (though still tiny) proportion of them are terrorists, and would like to generate a generally hostile and illiberal attitude towards them. A very effective way to do this is to highlight the above fact. And it is likely to be effective even though everyone already knows that the fact is true; general attitudes towards young Muslim males will be more negative the more often the fact is repeated. And anyone who opposes such an agenda is in a pickle: they can concede that the fact is true and help advance the agenda of their opponants, or they can deny that it is true and look like idiots. Furthermore, the fact may be relevant for some non-illiberal purposes (say deciding which countries should need visas to enter the U.S.), and it becomes very hard to use it forthrightly in making that decision without advancing a very different agenda that you didn’t mean to advance.

What is to be done?

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