Humans have a cognitive tendency to lump people in outgroups together as collectives, but have great appreciation for individualism for people in the ingroup. This is know as outgroup homogeneity bias and the reason why some people think all blonde women or Asians look the same, or why some people are more likely believe in stereotypes of African-Americans or Muslims, but would never lump white feminists with Donald Trump.
Most reasonable people understand that stereotypes exists and that they do not provide the most accurate information about individuals and can certainly misled people into errors. As a result, a lot of people try their best to judge others by their own merits and faults. However, there are some that prefers to stay in the cognitively simplistic world of stereotypes and they typically appeal to pseudoscience, emotional arguments and rhetorical techniques to back this up. One such technique involves superficially acknowledging that no all members of a group conform to the stereotype, but then appeal to fear and uncertainty to prop up the original stereotype.
This has become enshrined in the poisonous M&M trope, whereby people of a certain group is compared to a bowl of M&Ms where a few of them are poisonous. The meme asks the viewers to go ahead and eat a handful of them, since they are not all poisonous. The unstated conclusion is that you should never eat M&Ms because some of them are poisonous. It is just not worth the risk. If this sounds like an intuition pump based on flawed logic and irrational risk analysis, it is because this is precisely what the analogy is. The analogy has been exposed previously on Debunking Denialism. Recent developments have pushed this analogy to the forefront of U. S. politics and social media.
Recent developments for the poisonous M&Ms analogy
On September 19, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out a slightly different version of this meme on his Twitter account, complaining about the “politically correct agenda that doesn’t put America first”. Instead of M&Ms, the meme now uses the competitor brand Skittles (presumably a reference to the Trayvon Martin shooting that became a core event for the recent rise of white surpremacism in the United States), but the general message stayed the same: Syrian refugees are like a bowl of Skittles and the terrorists are a few poisonous pieces, and therefore, it is supposedly better to just not take any Skittles. As we saw above, this claim is a flawed intuition pump. The tweet was wildly discussed by both international news networks and various social media outlets.
Since 2014, the analogy had been used by many anti-immigration activists and Donald Trump Jr. probably picked this up from that ideological environment. Had he merely performed a Google search to see if there were any scientific or statistical problems with that analogy, he might have saved himself the embarrassment. After all, it had been debunked on this website over two years earlier. In other words, a substantial failure of fact-checking.
Where does the poisonous M&Ms analogy come from?
It is of course always hard to find who or what groups were the first ones to use a particular argument, claim, analogy or meme. This is because of a lot of political and ideological movements continually reinvent themselves by changing the superficial appearance, but keeping the core ideology. The specific imagery that used M&Ms arose within the radical feminist fringe in response to the #NotAllMen social media campaign, but the general fallacy behind this analogy appeared earlier both among the radical feminist fringe (Schrödinger’s Rapist analogy by Phaedra Starling from 2009) and among white supremacists (some examples are provided in the original refutation of this analogy). However, the analogy has an even more disturbing past.
It turns out that comparing unwanted groups to poisonous food items has a deep history among white supremacists. In particular, in the Nazi propaganda book Der Giftpilz (“the poisonous mushroom”) from 1938 and written by Julius Streicher (a member of the Nazi party who was tried and executed for war crimes after the war), Jews are falsely compared with poisonous mushrooms in much the same way that Syrian refugees or men are compared with poisonous skittles or M&Ms.
Which outlets highlighted the refutation provided by Debunking Denialism?
Although saddened by the fact that the prediction came true, writing the debunking piece back in 2014 provided skeptics with a two-year head start. During these two years the poisonous M&Ms analogy was sporadically used by people on various forums, in the comment sections of websites and in social media. However, my refutation was also linked in response to many of these instances. Hopefully, the article had managed to immunize many people against this nonsense in the intervening months and provided a hard-hitting refutation for those who wondered if there was any intellectual merit in this analogy and searched for a critical response on the Internet. This resonated very well with the primarily goal of Debunking Denialism, which was to work as a repository of critical information against pseudoscientific claims on the Internet that people could find when they came across something that seemed too questionable to be true.
Many outlets linked to either the original refutation of the poisonous M&Ms analogy or the follow-up article about how it had metastasized to the Syrian refugee crisis. This included Buzzfeed, Business Insider Australia, Dailykos, Rawstory, Salon and even had a short mention on Snopes before they updated the piece with more information.
At the time of this writing, these two articles have received more than 40k views in total during the past two days. This does not mean that 40k people found the articles, read through them in detailed and were persuaded by them, but a lot of people probably were. Furthermore, it increased the presence of this refutation on the Internet, which further serves to make this information more accessible to those who might need it. This is one of those times that balance out all of the frustration and irritation associated with skeptical blogging.
Where to go from here?
How come an analogy that originated in Nazi propaganda got picked up by both the radical feminist fringe and white supremacists, despite the fact that these groups disagree on almost all political policy and ideological issues?
One of the reasons might be the overarching culture of anti-intellectualism, whereby disinterested and reasoned arguments based on facts and statistics do not matter as much as emotional appeals based on pseudoscience, social media shaming, fearmongering and vacuous rhetorical techniques. This has gone so far that some commentators even suggested that we live in a “post-fact world”, a reality which is enormously damaging and a cause for serious concern.
It is time for more and more people to oppose pseudoscientific nonsense in politics. Not just among their political or ideological opponents, but within their own camps as well. Only then can we truly start to overcome this ideological bullshit.