My objections to profiling weren’t actually addressed…but OK

The argument goes on. Sam Harris has reacted to my post on profiling.

One line in my article raised a tsunami of contempt for me in liberal and secular circles:

We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.

Once again, I included myself in this profile—but that did almost nothing to stem the accusations of racism.

He keeps saying that. I don’t know why. The objection isn’t that Sam Harris wants to discriminate against people who don’t look like him, it’s that Sam Harris wants to discriminate against people on the basis of their appearance. The fact that his search criteria are so broad that they include him isn’t a point in his favor, either — it means he favors criteria that produce many false positives.

I really don’t understand why he’s finding that so hard to grasp.

Then he offers an example of how his version of profiling would work. I’ve highlighted a few words that I think are important.

Imagine that you work for the TSA and are executing a hand search of a traveler’s bag. He is a young man in his twenties and seems nervous. You notice that he is carrying a hardcover copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. You pick up the book and ask him if he likes it. He now appears even more nervous than before. You notice something odd about the book—the dust jacket doesn’t seem to fit. Your remove it and find a different book underneath. How do you feel about this traveler’s demeanor, and the likelihood of his being a terrorist, if the book is:

A. The Qur’an (in Arabic)

B. The Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide

C. Overcoming Impotence: A Leading Urologist Tells You Everything You Need to Know

D. Dianetics

If you care more about A than B, C, or D, as I think you should, you are guilty of religious profiling (and calling it “behavioral profiling” doesn’t change this fact).

I have no problem at all with that kind of profiling. The matter that raises concerns isn’t that the young man looks Muslim: it’s that he looks nervous, and that he’s hiding something. TSA, please do notice when people’s behavior is peculiar!

But now I’m curious. Change the story a bit. What if the young man were confidently and openly carrying his Qur’an? Should we stop and search everyone with a Muslim holy book?

What if he were nervous, and it was a Christian bible hidden away? Should we then ignore his odd behavior and wave him on to the plane?

What if he were openly carrying that bible? Does proudly carrying a Bible give you a free pass through the screening? He could wear a cross and a flag pin on his lapel, and no longer Look Muslim, I guess.

Harris doesn’t seem to understand that his critics are not saying TSA should be blind and deaf to the people passing through security checkpoints…but that there should be some intelligence behind it, and that the criterion of “looking Muslim” is stupid and useless.

Then he raises a series of strawmen — that we think there is no link between Islam and suicidal terrorism, that we have some pious fantasy of Israeli egalitarianism in their security procedures, and implies that we have no problem with TSA searching toddlers. I said precisely the opposite about Islamic terror tactics; I have no sympathy for Israel’s convergence on fascism; I think most of what TSA does in those security lines is a waste of time and bad security policy.

My fundamental issue with his whole proposal is the shocking innumeracy of it all. Here’s the perfect example: he asks, what percentage of the people who would murder the children boarding a plane, and all who accompany them, are Muslim? And here’s his strange answer.

Some readers might think that this question would be difficult or impossible to answer. Let’s try another, then: What percentage of porn stars are also theoretical physicists? Is this a hard question for which to give a ballpark answer? No. In fact, I would be willing to bet my life that I could get within 10 percentage points of the exact figure without doing any research—and the same holds for the question about using children as bombs on airplanes in the year 2012.

Wow. He gives himself a very broad 10% window for his answer.

So the percentage of porn stars who are also theoretical physicists? I guess 0%. I’m sure I’m within 10% of the correct answer. I won’t go searching porn studios for answers to cosmology questions.

The likelihood of a toddler being used to smuggle a terrorist bomb on board a plane? 0%, again. I’m confident — we aren’t seeing 1 in 5 kids being plucked out of line so the dynamite in their diapers can be thrown away.

But then his peculiar question — what percentage of suicidal terrorists boarding a plane are Muslim — I’d answer with 100% (OK, 90%, so my guess covers a broader range), and I suspect he would, too. But it’s the wrong question. It’s a completely bizarre twisting of what the appropriate question should be. We aren’t screening the guys who look like terrorists at the airport to find out which are Muslim; he wants us to screen the people at the airport who look like Muslims to find the terrorists.

The right question is what percentage of the people who “look Muslim” (whatever that means; Harris hasn’t yet defined it), his screening criterion, are terrorists? And again, the answer is 0%±10%, the same as the percentage of physicist porn stars, or bomb lobbing toddlers. I would agree that just screening Muslims would increase the likelihood of finding a terrorist by some small amount, but it has the problem that I still don’t know what a Muslim looks like, so that pre-selection is going to be awfully leaky, and you’re going to generate such a huge number of false positives that your more rigorous secondary screening is going to get swamped, and you’re going to open the door to even more false negatives as your real terrorists avoid “looking Muslim” in line.

So once again, we sacrifice civil liberties and real effective security for TSA showmanship, as people who “look Muslim” to uniformed low-wage security guards with a GED get thoroughly frisked. I don’t get it. Sam Harris is a scientist; how can he so blithely overlook type I and II errors in a statistical sampling protocol? How can he ignore the ambiguity of his sloppy definition of his primary measure, “looking Muslim”?

Good questions, ____________ answers

You fill in the blank. Greta Christina interviews Edwina Rogers.

Did you know 70% of Republicans are pro-choice? And that there is no Republican party position on abortion? It’s only a few elected officials who are anti-gay, not the majority. You shouldn’t stereotype Republicans! Republicans believe in the separation of church and state, too. But not a majority now (she’s backed down on this one). Republicans at the federal level have not been promoting creationism and intelligent design. It was OK that she donated money to Rick Perry because a) he used to be a Democrat, b) he was head of the Republican Governor’s Association, and c) she was interested in promoting health care. And we all know what a friend to health care Rick Perry has been. She joined the Republican party along with everyone else in the South because she like Ronald Reagan’s message, which was about working hard.

I learned many Surprising Facts™ about America in this interview. I haven’t been thrilled with the Democrats for some time, but apparently the Republicans have an agenda more in tune with my views (!), and I ought to have been voting for them.

We don’t exist?

This is a new argument to me. Representative Emanuel Cleaver (Democrat, Missouri) was discussing the possibility of atheists getting elected to office, and while saying he thinks we’d have a difficult time, he also says we don’t exist.

Actually, I don’t believe that there is such thing as an atheist because no respectable atheist would walk around with something in his pocket that said ‘In God We Trust.’

Oooh, ooh, I can do that, too!

I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a Christian, because no respectable follower of Jesus would have any money at all — he or she would have handed it all over to the poor.

Man, it’s going to be really hard to run for office in this country when we’re not allowed to have any money without being accused of hypocrisy. And couldn’t Rep. Cleaver’s argument be turned around to show that the inclusion of the religious motto is a clear violation of the separation of church and state? I presume he’s behind the campaign to have god references removed from our currency, then.

More discussion of profiling, pro and con

I have to return to Same Harris’ defense of profiling, because he’s added an addendum, and although it tells us more about why Harris is focused on this issue, it doesn’t actually address my objections, and thinking about it, it does expose some deep differences between me and Harris.

The problem is this assertion:

We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.

Let me change that around a bit, not just to make a point for me, but also to try and move the debate away from race.

We should profile Republicans, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Republican, and we should be honest about it.

If you step back and look at the world today, the major source of death and strife and terrorism isn’t Islam, it’s America — the country with hands down the largest arsenal and the will to use it. A few cunning Islamic terrorists did manage to murder several thousand Americans in a stunning attack, it is true; but in retaliation, we killed a hundred thousand or more Iraqis (a nation not involved in that attack!) and have wrecked two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, and threaten to wreak similar havoc on a third, Iran. We have drones flying over Afghanistan right now, ready to blow up any small group of people seen gathering in public. You cannot call those drones anything but state-sponsored terrorism.

Of all the people lined up behind the security barrier at the airport, it’s those American voters who are currently the most dangerous. The only reasonable objection to my claim that we should profile Republicans is that everyone who voted for the Democrat Obama is also culpable.

I will agree with Harris, though, that frisking little old Republican ladies at the checkpoint is ridiculous, because suicidal terrorism isn’t their game — that’s the desperate tactic of the otherwise powerless, and as he points out, it’s almost entirely perpetrated by Muslims.

Many readers found this blog post stunning for its lack of sensitivity. The article has been called “racist,” “dreadful,” “sickening,” “appalling,” “frighteningly ignorant,” etc. by (former) fans who profess to have loved everything I’ve written until this moment. I find this reaction difficult to understand. Of course, anyone who imagines that there is no link between Islam and suicidal terrorism might object to what I’ve written here, but I say far more offensive things about Islam in The End of Faith and in many of my essays and lectures.

In any case, it is simply a fact that, in the year 2012, suicidal terrorism is overwhelmingly a Muslim phenomenon. If you grant this, it follows that applying equal scrutiny to Mennonites would be a dangerous waste of time.

This is true. Republicans would never make the self-sacrifice of smuggling explosives on a plane to kill themselves and the other passengers — it’s not their thing. So if we’re focused on just stopping this one strategy of disrupting our economy and politics, I agree that after the fact we’re likely to discover that the perpetrator was a Muslim. It’s also true that some vocal Muslims are likely to express credible death threats against individuals — like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Salman Rushdie — using Islam as a justification, and those people certainly have good cause to fear Islam.

But that does not make “Muslim” a useful criterion for preventing terror attacks. The majority of Muslims are just as harmless as the elderly woman featured in Harris’ article (probably more harmless: they aren’t voting Republican). When you single out the 30 year old traveling Pakistani engineer with a family and a career for specially invasive inspection, you are committing just as much of an outrage as when you pull out the 70 year old white grandma.

When I speak of profiling “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim,” I am not narrowly focused on people with dark skin. In fact, I included myself in the description of the type of person I think should be profiled (twice). To say that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, traveling companions, behavior in the terminal, and other outward appearances offer no indication of a person’s beliefs or terrorist potential is either quite crazy or totally dishonest. It is the charm of political correctness that it blends these sins against reasonableness so seamlessly. We are paying a very high price for this obscurantism—and the price could grow much higher in an instant. We have limited resources, and every moment spent searching a woman like the one pictured above, or the children seen in the linked videos, is a moment in which someone or something else goes unobserved.

This logic simply doesn’t work. It’s not political correctness: it’s basic numeracy. Since terrorists are extremely rare in airports, you could also argue that the whole strategy of randomly frisking individuals is a waste of limited resources: since the probability of any of those people, either Muslim or non-Muslim, being a terrorist is so ridiculously low, each search is a waste of time that could allow the real problem people to go unobserved. The numbers just don’t work. I agree with Harris that special screening for white-haired old ladies is absurd, but it’s also absurd for brown-skinned young men with an accent.

Another reason it’s ridiculous: we keep fighting the last terrorist. They aren’t going to keep doing the same thing, over and over; 9/11 was a one-shot event, airlines have made other changes in their protocols that will prevent that. Yet TSA keeps following one step behind. Some guy smuggles explosives aboard in the soles of his shoes, so now we have to take off our shoes for inspection before boarding; it doesn’t matter that the shoe bomb didn’t work. I thoroughly sympathize with frustration at the mindless, pointless security theater we go through all the time. I don’t think it helps us at all, though, to turn it into an opportunity to selectively punish people who “look Muslim”. That’s theater that adds a fresh new layer of pointless othering and tribalism to the pointless pretense of security.

“Political correctness” is a phrase too often used to justify racism and oppression; you can’t just defuse criticisms of poor policies of discrimination by claiming political correctness. It’s really about recognizing the fact that religious affiliation is not a good indicator of a propensity for violence.

Step into any mosque, church, or synagogue, and what you’ll find is a congregation of people who are typically more concerned with getting along with their neighbors than in blowing stuff up. Sure, you’ll find a scattering of people who want do destroy Great Satan America, or shoot abortion doctors, or overthrow ZOG, but they’re a minority, and they also tend to segregate themselves off to more reactionary cells in more radical religious groups. I think it’s a huge mistake for atheists to repeat this claim that religion makes you fly planes into buildings; it’s simply not true, and the overwhelming majority of religious people who gather on holy days to pray are looking at us like we’re insane and deluded for suggesting it. That isn’t “political correctness”, that’s truth, and that’s what the people of reason should be focused on. Not damning the whole for the crimes of a few. Not equating Muslim with terrorist.

I really think the atheist movement ought to be focusing instead on one general truth: almost all of the people in that mosque, church, or synagogue believe in stupid ideas. They aren’t evil, they’re wrong, and their credulous beliefs make them more gullible and susceptible to exploitation. I’m not in the least bit interested in punishing the religious for their beliefs in any way; they’re victims of bad tradition and poor education, and if you want to end religious terrorism the best strategy isn’t to make bodies bounce in the rubble or isolate and suppress, but to educate, educate, educate. Open up economic opportunities, increase the security of people’s lives (not just privileged wealthy white people’s lives, but everyone’s), and teach people how to think and learn.

At the end of his addendum, Harris offers to open up his blog to an expert on airline security to discuss the topic. The good news is that he’s willing to learn: he’s now promising to publish something from Bruce Schneier, which I find very encouraging.

Who is going to be our spokesperson on Capitol Hill?

The Secular Coalition for America, a lobbying group for secular causes that I generally support, has appointed a new Executive Director: Edwina Rogers, a Republican strategist and lobbyist.

Let that sink in for a moment.

I reeled a bit when I heard that, but you know, I mostly trust those people at the SCA, and I thought, well, maybe it’s a smart move…to appoint someone who could actually get a toe in the door of the offices of our most intransigent foes. Maybe it’s a good idea to bring in someone from the other side who’d be willing to work with us on advancing the cause in a government dominated by conservatism. I also thought that I should treat this as a practical, political decision, one that I find intellectually uncomfortable, but would get results going in the right direction.

And I talked on the phone with someone at the SCA who sorta gently nudged me in the direction of giving Rogers a chance. I was drifting on currents that felt obliging if I would just go along.

And then I read Hemant Mehta’s interview with Edwina Rogers, and rebellion suddenly seemed a heck of a lot more attractive.

I’m sorry, Hemant, you’re a good guy, but apparently you’re taking interviewing lessons from the Jon Stewart School of Broadcasting. Right from the first answer, I wanted to scream, “STOP RIGHT THERE! That is not an acceptable or even believable response!” He asked why we should trust someone who’s been working for the party opposed to secularism (a good question), and here’s the answer that set off great clanging alarm bells.

I think it’s a misconception that the majority of Republicans are lined up against the secular movement. As someone who has been an insider within the Republican Party, I’m certain it’s not the consensus of the majority of Republicans to have an [overt] influence of religion on our laws. Having said that, no one agrees with everyone they work with on every single issue. In these roles I never worked on anything having to do with issues of religion — I worked primarily on economic issues.

Wait, wait, wait. I think the number one value for atheists is truth and honesty — are we seriously supposed to believe that answer? Are we supposed to trust the competence of someone so deluded they can say with a straight face that a majority of Republicans want religion out of government?

She’s also said something similar to the right-wing press:

“The majority of Republicans just haven’t thought about” secularism, said Rogers. “They were probably a little like me, a little laissez-faire, that they didn’t see it as a problem because the country is pretty secular.… There are still areas that need improvement, of course.”

Holy shit…we now have a lobbyist for secularism who thinks the country is already pretty secular, and just has a few areas that need improvement. Does she think this job is some kind of sinecure? She hasn’t thought much about it, and she thinks all her Republican buddies are similarly casual about religion?

This is where I’m really getting worried. She doesn’t see a problem.

She worked in the god-soaked Bush administration, for a president who thought his office was a divine gift.

I feel like God wants me to run for President. I can’t explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen… I know it won’t be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.

She worked for Trent Lott, the racist opponent of gay marriage.

I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.

gay liberation “makes a mockery of other legitimate civil rights that people have worked at for years.”

Lott was also an opponent of secularism.

I have consistently advocated strong legislative action in support of the rights of students who wish to participate in voluntary prayer in their schools.

That sounds mild…except that there has never been any effort to squelch the right of students to voluntarily pray on their own.

She made political contributions to Rick Perry… you know, the presidential candidate wanna-be who launched his campaign with a prayer meeting.

It[America]’s in jeopardy because of taxes; it’s in jeopardy because of regulation; it’s in jeopardy because of a legal system that’s run amok. And I think it’s time for us to just hand it over to God and say, “God, You’re going to have to fix this.”

I think it’s time for us to use our wisdom and our influence and really put it in God’s hands. That’s what I’m going to do, and I hope you’ll join me.

Why would someone who claims to be a “strong secularist and a firm believer in the separation of religion and government” give one penny to that clown? You’d think that if she were sincere in that long term interest, she would have been working to promote the more moderate conservatives…but no, she’s standing right there with the worst of the Rethuglicans.

That’s a lot to answer for. How do you throw a thousand dollars at the guy who makes this video:

…and then tell us you believe that most Republicans are secularists at heart who don’t even think much about religion?

Also, it doesn’t salvage her reputation to announce that she didn’t work on religious issues under Bush — just economics and health issues. Economics. And health. Under George W. Bush. Yeah, that fills me with confidence.

SCA, your executive director has a serious credibility problem. If she can’t even be forthright and honest in a friendly interview with a sympathetic interviewer, what is she going to do in the shark tank of the atheist movement?

See also Daniel and Stephanie and Greg and Jen. No one is enthusiastic. Everyone is wary. The only thing keeping us from blowing up and flinging fireballs right now is that we like and respect the SCA. Do they realize that their reputation is on the line, and is the only thing keeping us from angry rebellion? They better not blow this.

Celebrate the National Day of Reason with resistance and rebellion

Obama is getting everything wrong lately. First he declares 1 May to be Loyalty Day, in which we are to pledge allegiance to the flag; what a horror. To me, May Day will always be International Workers’ Day. It is not a day to pledge blind obedience to authority, but the exact opposite. But of course, Barack Obama, corporate tool, would want to subvert that.

And he also wants us to kowtow to nonexistent deities today, by going along with this horrible right-wing notion of a national Day of Prayer. Fuck that noise. Today is the National Day of Reason, and I will bend no knee to ghostly vapors, nor will I beg any gods for favors, ever.

No Gods, No Masters!

That should be the theme for this time of year, our Atheist Spring. It’s also fitting that that slogan was the product of the International Workers of the World, and was adopted by early feminists.

If we do not strike the fetters off ourselves we shall be knocked about until we forget the fetters. To our society apologists, and to their plausible excuses for modern impression, the only adequate answer is — we have done with your civilization and your gods. We will organize society in such a way as to make it certain for all to live in comfort and leisure without bartering their affections or their convictions. Let us turn a deaf ear to the trumpet-tongued liars clamoring for Protection, Patriotism, Prisons, Police, Workhouses, and Large Families. Leave them to vomit their own filth and let us take the good things mother earth daily offers unheeded, to us her children.

Things haven’t changed much since Sanger wrote that in 1914.

Thomas Jefferson was not an atheist. Neither is Jon Stewart.

And it makes him weak.

He recently interviewed David Barton, the professional liar and quote fabricator, and he was more interested in distancing himself from those fanatical atheists than he was in addressing the bullshit Barton was spreading. Barton claimed that there was some atheist group on the west coast that put up a billboard claiming Jefferson was an atheist; Stewart let it slide by. Actually, there was an erroneous billboard put up by Backyard Skeptics which used a false quote by Jefferson — “I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology” — and it was atheists who went out of their way to point out the error, and the group apologized. Barton is notorious for making up quotes about the American founding fathers. Now he’s making up quotes about atheists.

I’m sure you can find a few fringe atheists who claim Jefferson is an atheist, but anyone who knows the slightest bit of American history knows he was a deist who rejected the supernatural elements of Christianity, but still held personal reverence for the philosopher Jesus. He was the kind of guy fundamentalist frauds like Barton would call not a true Christian, except when it serves their purposes to pretend we were founded as a Christian nation.

Barton also made up this anecdote I hear all the time about a public school teacher throttling a student who said a personal prayer at lunch. That is not illegal. Any teacher who did such a thing is exceeding their brief. Atheists oppose teacher-led prayer — authorities in a public, secular institution cannot use their influence to impose sectarian religion on their charges.

Stewart allowed Barton to control the whole interview; he made a few feeble thrusts, at which time Barton would immediately say “I agree!”, and then Stewart would fall over flabbily and not carry the argument home. He didn’t address anything in the book Barton was flogging at all; has he no researchers who could find specific claims made in the book, that Stewart could use to pin Barton down? Why was he allowing Barton to just dribble out random anecdotes?

It was a terrible interview, insipid and pandering, in which Stewart accepted everything Barton said as reasonable and factual, and didn’t do anything but give Barton a platform to lie. Barton is a professional revisionist, a charlatan who pretends to be a historian. Stewart was a marshmallow.

You can watch the whole disgraceful thing, if you really want to. I was disappointed and unimpressed. Stewart is an incredibly uneven interviewer; sometimes he can be sharp, but other times, I feel like his dedication to not pissing off the slack and careless American middle (by, for instance, defending anything an atheist says) makes him a pushover for the slick fundamentalist propagandists.

There are also parts 2 and 3 of the interview, which were not broadcast. Stewart gets a little better in them, but not much…and definitely not enough to salvage his reputation as a pushover interviewer. He can get scathing with people in the media who poison his profession, such as Rupert Murdoch or Tucker Carlson, but put some dishonest slug who’s poisoning the whole culture, and he rolls over and shows his belly to be tickled.


One of the stories Barton likes to trundle out is the tale of the St Louis schoolboy who was harshly punished for saying a prayer at lunch. It’s been tracked down and documented. IT’S A BIG FAT OL’ LIE.

Why, yes, we do have douchecanoes in Minnesota

It’s not just Michele Bachmann! We have a whole fleet of Rethuglican douchecanoes paddling away in our state legislature. Allow me to introduce you to Senator Paul Gazelka, who introduced a bill that would require a doctor to hover over women who use RU-486 (this bill, another example of Republican meddling in women’s lives, was fortunately vetoed by our Democratic Governor Mark Dayton). Gazelka was asked whether he also favored similar intrusions into men’s sexual lives, for instance in requiring that Viagra only be administered under a doctor’s supervision. Ho ho, you say, you already know how quickly he’ll back away from that one.

comparing Viagra to RU-486 was comparing apples and oranges or more like comparing life and death. Viagra is a wonderful medical advancement in that can help couples with sexual disfunction issues…it can even help in producing life. RU486 always destroys life by taking the life of the unborn child.

So that’s why Republicans like drugs that combat erectile dysfunction — it’s so they can create life. How sweet…so they never use the combination of Viagra + contraception, I presume?

Robin Marty asked a somewhat different question.

I also asked Sen. Gazelka if, in light of its "wonderful" qualities, he himself used the medication, or would consider sponsoring legislation that would create a database of information such as name, address, medical history, familial history, phone number, age and sexual history for those who are prescribed Viagra, to be handed over to the state department of health, such as databases created in various other states to gather information on women who obtain abortions.

He told me no comment to both questions.

But I think that’s perfectly fair! I say, let them have full access to Viagra, but as long as we’re snooping on women’s sexual histories, it’s entirely reasonable to apply the rules equally and have comparable databases of men’s sexual purchases.

They have nothing to be ashamed of. I’m sure they’re only purchasing Viagra in association with conjugal and procreative relations, and they’ll be ably to proudly point to each and every child that they spawn with every bottle of Viagra. They could even make the receipt or prescription for their erectile aids the first entry in the kid’s baby book.

Egypt shows respect for the dead

The Islamist-dominated Egyptian parliament is considering a law that allows a husband to have sex with his dead wife within the six hours following her death. Why? I don’t know. I guess if you think women are pieces of meat then it doesn’t much matter if they’re responsive or not. Although I think six hours is overly generous: rigor mortis is going to set in after 3 or 4 hours, maybe sooner in a warm climate. Maybe they should modify the law so you’re allowed to have sex with her corpse for three hours, and then you’re allowed to use her body as a surfboard for another twelve hours after that?

Oh, and they’re also considering legalizing marriage to 14-year-old girls and stripping divorce rights from women. The way they’re jumping up and down on women, I’m beginning to think they have delusions that they’re American Republicans.

(via B&W)