Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Forbidden Fruit

In light of recent events and our seemingly renewed interest in the ethnicity and culture of (some) perpetrators of violence, it seems fitting to write a small post on why I don't feel that all the hand-wringing from civil-rights defenders is just politically correct nonsense. This type of thing, of course, sits on a spectrum. So how this applies depends on the person making the argument. The people I want to address are those who offer solutions or explanations that hinge on culture or religion, subsequently disparaging wide swaths of innocent people; ostensibly in the name of security. I believe that the following analogy, while not perfect, explains pretty succinctly what I believe the problem is:

Suppose you and I jointly own a fruit stand. We only sell two types of fruits - apples and oranges. The demand for each seems to be roughly about the same. There's plenty of business for both. We notice that, in each shipment, there is a small percentage of fruit that is spoiled before it ever gets to us. We take it upon ourselves to start keeping track of the numbers.

After a couple of years, we get down to a pretty reliable projection. We receive roughly 1,000 apples and 1,000 oranges every week. On average, one of those apples is spoiled, and five of the oranges are spoiled.

Before long, I start to complain to you about the orange shipments. Spoiled fruit is lost business. We have to just drop selling oranges altogether. You retort that it is unfortunate that we have spoiled fruit. But you don't understand why we'd stop selling oranges. After all, it's a very small portion of the oranges that are bad.

I start to become frustrated with you. "Come on, man! If we come across a spoiled fruit, you can bet it's going to be an orange. There are five times as many spoiled oranges as apples!". You ask me why that has anything to do with your objection at all. I start to think that you've lost it and have somehow become an apologist for the orange-producers.

Where did we go wrong?

Well, I think we're both right in terms of the evidence we bring. But I think, in this scenario, I'm letting the pattern-detecting part of my wetware lead me to a conclusion that doesn't seem particularly rational if we follow it through. So at what point have I de-railed my own argument?

It's certainly true, in this particular example, that spoiled oranges seem to heavily outweigh spoiled apples. If someone tells me they found a spoiled fruit, I can almost reliably bet it's an orange. So it's easy to see how the oranges might more easily invoke my ire. But does that give us good reason to start chucking the oranges altogether?

No, I don't believe it's a sufficient reason to chuck the oranges. The argument for doing that merely discerns a relationship in the portions of spoilage between the two fruits. It tells us nothing about the quantity attached to the spoilage - which would be the relevant factor for that kind of argument. Yes, about 83% of the spoiled fruit is orange. But the relationship between spoiled and spoiled belies the reality of the relationship between non-spoiled and spoiled:

Unspoiled Apples - 99.9%
Unspoiled Oranges - 99.5%

A relative disparity in spoilage, sure. A relative disparity in the number of fruits that aren't spoiled, not as much so. And I think this illuminates at least some of the misunderstanding between the "politically correct" apologists and their detractors. Whether the division lines are being set up by nation, creed, or culture, it's really important to remember this distinction. We're pattern-seekers by nature. It's our biological heritage. It's our most fundamental tool. And we're good enough in our utilization of such to see that there is a very human pattern of seeing patterns that aren't sufficiently explanatory.

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