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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  • Wider knowledge of certain truths may not favor your agenda. This may perhaps justify your not contributing effort to publicize such truths. But if you deny them to others you are lying, and if you deny them to yourself you also risk messing up your ability to think clearly about the subject.

  • What is to be done is to agree with the truth, while strongly cautioning against it being used to favor a general hostile attitude towards the group in question.

  • You need to highlight a fact which demonstrates the irrelevance of the first fact:

    * The fraction of males working in the White House who have shot their friends in the face is higher than the fraction of young Muslim males who are terrorists.

    * The fraction of males in the Boston diocese of the Catholic Church who have molested children is (?) higher than the fraction of young Muslim males who are terrorists.

    * The fraction of adult Southern Baptists who have been divorced is higher than the fraction of adult American atheists who have been divorced.


  • Paul Gowder

    Robin, I think David’s claim is different. He says that everyone already knows these truths, the problem is their repetition and excessive salience.

    In the face of this point, however, the idea of denying that it’s true would make no sense anyway. Even if the advocates of tolerance toward Muslims were so nastily utilitarian with the truth that they were willing to deny the facts about relative terrorist percentages, that denial would be totally ineffective. It would not only be ineffective against the belief in the proposition, it would be ineffective against its salience: it would still have been repeated no matter how often we deny it. In fact, that denial might make the fact more salient by creating a false “debate” on the issue and giving people who want to use it for illiberal purposes an excuse to repeat it still more.

    The only choice is to fight the bias, not to fight the fact.

  • M Lafferty

    I have a friend who is utterly convinced that Albanians are generally criminals. I am inclined to doubt the veracity of this assumption, but even if it were true, it would not prevent any individual Albanian from choosing to be honest, and it would be unjust to judge such an individual as criminal in the absence of any evidence supporting this view. To make assumptions about an individual based on a stereotype is wrong, even if the stereotypical view is broadly accurate. If this was the general understanding of the nature of bigotry then there would be no need to be concerned about making general observations of social, ethical or religious groups, because such observations, even if true, could not be used to justify bigotry directed at individuals.

    Of course, this is not the popular view, which seems to me astonishingly confused. The common understanding seems to be that it is wrong to make any negative general observation about a social, ethical or religious group that is deemed to be ‘disadvantaged’ in some way or the other. The truth or otherwise of the observation seems to be irrelevant, which I really don’t understand.

    For example, it is OK to say whatever you want about Americans but you have to be very careful about what you say about certain other ethnic or national groups.

    I am not sure whether Albanians fall into the ‘protected’ category, but if they do I think my friend better learn to keep his opinions to himself or he will be in big trouble.

  • M, it think it dishonest *not* to draw conclusions about people based on broadly accurate stereotypes. Of course those will typically be weak conclusions, relatively easy to overturn with more specific data on the person. Plausibly, the people who agree with you that such conclusions should not be drawn want to discourage the discussion of stereotypes in order to discourage people like me from drawing the sort of conclusions that I do.

  • Fact: I’ve never denied beating my wife. (I’ve never been married.)

    Fact: I did nothing to prevent the Jonestown massacre. (I wasn’t born at the time.)

    Fact: I’ve been known to celebrate on September 11th. (It happens to be my birthday.)

    People who lie with implications are dirty little scoundrels. We all know this. Is it even necessary to have a debate about it? What’s the question here – how most effectively to counter the lie?

  • Ryan

    Obviously the fact in the original post is not important, but what about the fraction of Muslim terrorists vs. that of other religions?

    Also, nobody has looked at the flip side of this. In my conversations I am constantly reminded that ‘not all Muslims are bad / terrorists’. Gee whiz, really? This is another obvious fact which is already known and accepted.

  • David J. Balan


    How best to counter this particular type of lie is exactly the question. I liked the suggestion by JewishAthiest about hitting your opponents with equally true but equally irrelevant facts that are uncomfortable to them. But it will only work if is not used just to score a point off the other side, but is followed up with something like: “OK, now can we leave aside true but irrelevant facts and talk about the actual issue?”

  • Compare the nation/society to the individual. The self-sacrificing do-gooder versus the charitable individual who has retained a healthy dose of self-interest.

    We say it is good that Mr. Smith gives X amount to charity, gives a respectable amount of time to community outreach of some kind, etc.

    We would also recognize as foolish the same behavior taken to another degree wherein Mr. Smith allowed his charitable activities to destroy his personal life, his family, his career, etc.

    Liberalism towards all of humanity, without the tempering of common sense and a healthy dose of self-interest is simply foolish.

    Not focusing on young Middle Eastern men in security processes is thus foolish.

    Interring Americans of Japanese descent across the board, is/was, equally foolish.

    Taking things out of balance in an exalted quest for ideological purity sounds noble, and I’m sure it makes one feel superior, but “fighting bias” while ignoring common sense always comes to negative results.

    The reason academics are so often ridiculed in the private sector, is precisely because the professor tells the CEO he needs to hire more people of a certain demographic, and that in the long run, the CEO can help bring that group of people out of their plight. Meanwhile, the professor – utilizing a healthy dose of self-interest – makes his own investments, hires everyone from landscapers to accountants, and so on, based on the competency of the company/individual/investment, etc.

    Think of Peter Singer and all of his pronouncements against the evils of a free society; that it’s murder for a person to keep more than $30K in annual pay, etc. But of course, he lives on much more than that, saying that he’ll live on less when we all lead the way.