Most people understand that unfair generalizations about e.g. ethnic and sexual minorities are unreasonable. Yet some people attempt to give their bigoted generalizations a thin veneer of supposed intellectual credibility in order to desperately cling to their flawed and simplistic worldview. One such attempt that exploded onto Internet forums and social media in the middle of 2014 is the so-called Poisonous M&Ms analogy.
Now, with the help of politicians, authors, bloggers and other commentators, this nonsense has metastasized to the Syrian refugee crisis. People who are fleeing for their lives from terror and dictatorship are being likened to potentially dangerous pieces of candy in order to make cheap rhetorical points. However, these points crumble at a slightest hint of critical analysis.
What is the “Poisonous M&Ms” analogy and why is it fatally flawed?
The basic “argument” goes something like this:
You say that I am overgeneralizing about [group X]?
Imagine a bowl of M&Ms. 10% of them are poisoned. Go ahead, eat a handful of them. After all, they are not all poisonous!
The idea expressed above is this: just as it makes sense to not want to eat M&Ms if some of them are poisoned, it is also allegedly reasonable to make sweeping generalizations about group X. In reality, of course, it is just a clever intuition pump crafted to deflect criticism of bullshit overgeneralizations that have little to no empirical merit.
It does not require a lot of thought to find major flaws in this analogy: it has no specificity and can be applied to any group (including the group making the generalizations to begin with), it uses non-empirical base rates, the correct base rates is never factored into the analysis, it uses an irrational risk analysis that assumes that zero risk is possible and has several other flaws that was discussed in the original post linked above (that also shows some examples of this analogy being applied to African-Americans by members of the white supremacist website Stormfront).
How the Poisonous M&Ms Analogy has Metastasized
During the past few weeks, this analogy has been picked up by well-known politicians, political commentators and others. Here are a few examples to show the broad influence it has gotten:
Mike Huckabee: On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” (Nov 17th), Huckabee compared Syrian refugees to peanuts: “If you bought a five-pound bag of peanuts and there were about ten peanuts that were deadly poisonous, would you feed them to your kids? The answer is no.”
Although not using specifically M&Ms, Huckabee deployed a version of this flawed analogy to Syrian refugees. As many have pointed out already, his base rate is way off target and both peanuts and guys named Mike have killed more people in the U.S. than refugees or Salafi jihadists have.
Sam Harris: In the episode On the Maintenance of Civilization of his podcast “Waking Up”, Harris stated that “if we know that some percentage of Muslims will be jihadist”, inevitably, we cannot be perfect in our filtering. If we know that a larger percentage will, if not be jihadist, will be committed to resisting assimilation into our society. Then to know that a given refugee, or a family of refugees is Christian is a wealth of information, and quite positive information in this context. So it is not mere bigotry, or mere xenophobia, to express that preference. I hope you understand that I express no sympathy at all with Ted Cruz’s politics or with Ted Cruz.
Like Huckabee, Harris baits with the “some percentage of Muslims will be jihadists” in order to prop up preferences and actions against a collective. Harris is right that the claim is not “mere bigotry”, it is also a flawed statistical argument.
Sheila Kugel: In the article Best arguments for and against taking in Syrian refugees, writer Kugel uses the analogy outright: “More refugees, more risk. Plain and simple. As said in one crude but poignant tweet, if I have a bowl of 10,000 M&Ms and tell you that 10 M&Ms are poisoned, would you like a handful?”.
The flawed analogy has also been spread by many websites, such as the financial blog network Zero Hedge, Young Conservatives, and many others. It is currently in process of being spread on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, with even a single tweet getting almost 1000 retweets.
Ignorance is dangerous, but so is the illusion of knowledge
Right-wing extremism use to be easy to identify. In the 80s and early 90s, the typical self-identified Nazis or Neo-Nazis paraded in uniform and blurted out “Sieg Heil”. Their “arguments” consisted mainly of regurgitated clichés that explicitly contained bigoted attacks against Jews, African-Americans and Muslims.
During the past 10-15 years, however, right-wing extremism has reinvented itself. Uniforms have replaced by cheap suits, shaved heads have been replaced by glossy and combed hair, “Sieg Heil” salutes have been replaced by empty political mottos and soundbites. More alarming, explicit bigotry has been supplemented by clever tricks, pseudoscientific debating strategies, exploitation of human fear as well as convincingly sounding (but ultimately flawed) appeals to statistics, research and government reports.
This is a recipe for disaster, particularly when paired with a population that has very little knowledge of or experience with critical evaluation of sources and claims as well as a substantial ignorance about history. Now, everyone do not have to be experts in scientific research and mathematical statistics, but can we learn at least something from past experience? The same bullshit claims about ethnic minorities and crime or IQ that is today deployed against immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East were raised, researched and refuted in the early 1990s for African-Americans. Like all pseudoscience, there is no intellectual progress and the same debunked nonsense just gets repeated over and over ad nauseam.
The difference is that today, a lot of people, who would never associate themselves with the right-wing extremism of times gone by, have become gullible vectors that spread anti-immigration pseudoscience thinly veiled in a protest against all things “politically correct”. The rise of alternative media, where people can become radicalized and completely ideologically isolated from any opposing information, has surely been a major contributor to this reality.
Skeptical activism and the skeptical evaluation of questionable claims is more important now than ever.