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the skeptical profile

Via the Skeptically Speaking interview with Bruce Schneier, i’ve learned of the hubbub over Sam Harris‘s latest flirt with leftist disavowal, on the topic of ethnic profiling at airport security. The short, short version goes like this: Harris said “If it works, do it.”, Schneier replied “Here’s why it doesn’t work.”, and Harris shrugged. Harris and Schneier summarize the exchange with admirable concision in the intro and outro to their email debate. (If you haven’t yet, read it; it’s better than this.)

This was one fascinating hubbub. And it touches upon a few nagging issues i’ve had with the discourse i’ve been spectating. First, the reaction.

Upon stating his original position, Harris’s reputation among freethinkers began its new life as a piñata, with a bludgeon engraved “Schneier” in high demand. Notably, while Harris made much of foreswearing political correctness, his detractors, though motivated by objections ranging from islamophobia to the base rate fallacy, consistently arrived at politically correct conclusions. Harris invited a (serendipitously forthcoming) reply from Schneier, which served as Schneier’s opening statement to the debate.

Schneier begins his response by conceding — rather, asserting, unprompted — a point contrary to the principles underlying much of the liberal outrage at Harris: “If adding profiling to airport checkpoints allowed us to detect more threats at a lower cost, then we should implement it.” This comment wipes away the relevance of political correctness, and as their exchange progresses they set aside the probabilistic gymnastics as well.

That means that the exchange does not, in the end, appeal to liberal values. This is interesting precisely because so much of the backlash against Harris’s original essay is value-ridden or dodgy, with excerpts from Schneier essentially serving as insulation. There is plenty of room for venting over someone else’s wasted breath, but the public face of the backlash would do with some veracity.

Now. I am thoroughly impressed with the subtleties addressed in the exchange, which leave very little room for someone predisposed to favor ethnic profiling to squirm. Harris’s own recurring objection (of underestimating the perceptive abilities of security personnel) is quite pithily stoppered in Schneier’s final reply. Both parties were clear and the conclusion inescapable.

In contrast, i’ve been nonplussed by the “secular liberal” reaction, as Harris calls it. Greg Laden offers some instructive considerations, though anecdotal and not all out of synch with Harris’s thesis. Meanwhile, Kazim (like Schneier, briefly) gets caught up in the “base rate” red herring, and PZ Myers strawmans Harris’s position as a call to exempt white men from scrutiny (after quoting a passage in which Harris preemptively denies this). A browse through the comments section of any of these provides links to far less illuminating reactions still.

Incidentally, this illustrates to me how valuable a resource “101” pages have become. They allow people with weak argumentative style or substance (like myself), or having limited time or spoons, to relay the procession of newbies waving long-repudiated arguments toward a compact source that will address them and bring them up to speed. The Harris–Schneier debate provides something like this for the topic of ethnic profiling, and is far better suited to this purpose even than Schneier’s online polemics.

It is also worth noticing that Harris’s argument was poor because his facts were lacking, whereas the loudest of his detractors exhibited a range of informal logical fallacies. Had the facts backed him up, and ethnic profiling proven effective and efficient, who among the detractors would have agreed, or even conceded the point? Contrast this to the expertly-tailored (hence highly educational) criticisms that Richard Dawkins received for his smug diversionary tactic.

This frames the hubbub as a lesson in anti-oppression activism, at least from a perspective impaired by privilege, and especially as it applies within the skeptical community: The facts must be forthcoming. Suppose, for totally random example, evidence of consistent, quantifiable economic costs arising out of an excessively skewed opportunity gap. Whereas denial and special pleading would be options for an ideological objectivist, a libertarian skeptic will be forced by their own peers to take the evidence seriously. Of course it’s not a simple dichotomy; but high-profile skeptics are primed, in a way uncommon to movement leaders, to receive an argument by virtue of its factual basis. Even if predisposed to doubt it, they are obliged to consider it.

When they do not — then they are out of the skeptics’ club.

An orthogonal part of the problem might be that Harris is unduly situated at the head of the atheist movement. His writing is clear, his reasoning careful, and his resilience impressive; but he almost thematically places undue emphasis on logic relative to lived experience, and on lived experience relative to scientific evidence. Moreover, his contributions to freethought (appear to me to) have been to popularize it, rather than to refine it. Juxtapose his themes of science-based values and free will, for instance, with the interplay between irreligion and sexuality, or the postmodern contribution to skepticism.

Still, complaining that Harris is not the kind of person to figurehead the movement may be beside the point, or at least is not the only point. It’s not Harris’s fault that he’s acquired the resources to exert an estimable impact on popular culture — as i see it, that is the expected outcome of a cultural filtering process that disproportionately values looks, charm, pith, belligerence, and the usual suite of privileged qualities — not to mention pop topics — to the forfeiture of novelty, intersectionality, and reports from the trenches.

What strategies, then, check this? I subscribe to overcompensated alternatives. Instead of stalking the bestsellers lists for books about atheism and skepticism, Google less-celebrated companion demographics like “black skeptics” or “transgender atheists” or “(ex-)muslim humanists”. Forego the celebrities, scout out critics and contrarians. This renders inevitable a wealth of new perspectives and evidence that’s otherwise only too easy to remain happily oblivious to.* From there, dig down, rather than out. If it’s getting hard to breathe then something’s going right.

And that’s just me, and just a start. I’m still learning, and i probably couldn’t hold my own yet. (Correct me.) In the meantime, here’s the kind of meme i’d like to see much, much more of:

Image by BDEngler at Wikimedia Commons

* I might call it “hipster atheism” if it didn’t add insult to perjury.

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