Dylann Roof was recently convicted on all 33 federal charges (including hate crime) after murdering nine people by shooting 70 bullets at a bible study at a church at Charleston, South Carolina. He now risks the death penalty and sentencing is scheduled to start in January. His words and actions (which likely qualifies as domestic terrorism) have been covered by tens of thousands of news outlets, in-depth articles and social media reactions. They have all made important contributions to the discussion, but it might also be useful to approach his manifesto from the perspective of scientific skepticism.
This involves refuting his pseudoscientific claims about genetics and biology generally, highlighting his ignorance about search engines and exposing his logical fallacies and cognitive biases.
It is important to keep in mind that this is a manifesto written by a white supremacist in the context of providing an explanation to his violent actions. It also discusses the events of his own ideology transformation that started several years prior. Roof mentions the shooting of Trayvon Marin which took place in late February of 2012 whereas the Charleston church mass murder happened in mid-June of 2015. Thus, we should not expect this to be a completely disinterested and objective description of events. In fact, the manifesto contains several discernible attempts to steer the reader into considering certain conclusions about his history and motivations. We do not know to which degree these are true. As always, reader beware.
This post takes a closer look at the pseudoscientific fabrications and cognitive distortions of convicted mass murderer Dylann Roof. His manifesto is no longer available at his website because this has been taken down, but it can be found using various Internet caching services. A recent CNN article about the case can be found here.
A neutralization technique is a cognitive defense mechanism used by criminals to quell their inner cognitive dissonance. Typically, these are based on refusing to take responsibility for the crime, claiming that the crime did not cause any real harm, that the victims deserved it and so on. Perhaps surprising to some, many criminals have doubts about their actions, understand the benefits with rule of law and even admire good people. There are also mechanisms that prevent people from committing crime. Many criminal uses neutralization techniques to suppress and overcome these factors.
In his manifesto, Roof used neutralization techniques several times. For instance, he labeled African-American as “the real racists” (denying the victim) and claims to have had “no choice” in his actions (denying responsibility).
Black-and-white thinking occurs when someone have difficulty of thinking about nuanced and complex topics where there are a lot of factors and issues to consider. The simple way out is to accept one of the two extreme positions rather than taking the time to carefully evaluate all the evidence and all the arguments and come to a well-supported conclusion that looks very different.
Roof singled out the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in early 2012 as his major ideological stressor. We do not know to what degree this is true or if it is a retroactive explanation that Roof has created for himself to make sense of an otherwise gradual transition into his new ideological residence. We do not know when exactly he read the Wikipedia article on the event. We do not know what it contained or how well-referenced it was at the time. Thus, we do not know how much information he based his conclusion about the events on.
If we go by his manifesto, Roof seemed shocked and disappointed at how the media allegedly promoted what we today might label a social justice perspective that he clearly rejected. Instead of appreciating nuance and the fact that there might be something to the media portrayal even if he did not accept all of it, Roof took a black-and-white approach and concluded that the exact opposite position (i.e. that of white supremacists) must be the legitimate position just because of perceived flaws with a particular media narrative.
The “not as bad as” fallacy
One prominent way that Roof reacted to the media portrayal, according to his manifesto, involves the “not as bad” fallacy. It is sometimes called “fallacy of relative privation” and is considered to be a relative of the fallacy of faulty moral equivalences. This occurs when someone wants to distract from issue A by pointing to a supposedly worse problem B and ask why people are so upset about A (or even going so far as to consider A a non-issue or even justified) when B is clearly worse. Issues that fall into the B category are often legitimate in their own right, but it is the dishonest attempt to distract from issue A that makes it fallacious. For Roof, issue B was murder cases where the victim was white and the perpetrator was black. This issue returns later when he downplays slavery and focuses on white kids being called “white boys” or being “forced” to going to diverse schools in the city.
Faulty belief in “Google university” and ignorance about search engine algorithms
Like many proponents of pseudoscientific bigotry (and pseudoscience more generally), Dylann Roof thought that a simple Google search without critical evaluation of sources would give him a scientifically substantive view of these issues. However, he did not seem to fully grasp that the Internet contains both facts and nonsense and that Google is merely a search engine that will deliver whatever content that you search for that matches your particular bias. After performing a biased Google search and reading faulty information from the website with the Orwellian name “Council of Conservative Citizens”, Roof writes how he continued to “researched deeper” and got into contact with material on immigration in Europe and Jews.
Roof did not quite seem to realize that search engines tailor your search results over time to fit you based on previous searches and clicks. That means that if you often search for materials from white supremacist sources or performed biased searches looking for material that confirms your belief, Google will reinforce this over time. Even if you search for single words like “Muslim” or “immigration” or “leftist”, Google will show you material with the bias it knows you have after it has had time to adopt to your search habits. It is like a built-in form of confirmation bias that is hidden to most users. There is also no clear evidence that Roof attempted to find information that went against his beliefs. Thus, this completed his ideological transition into white supremacy and becoming what he labels “racially aware”.
All of this plays into the larger narrative that Roof wants to construct, namely that he was not some “redneck racist” who was brought up in a racist household, but came to his conclusions through “intellectual effort” and “research”. In reality, of course, even his narrative betrays a lack of critical thinking and lack of knowledge on how search engines work.
Out-group homogeneity bias
A common bias in social psychology occurs when a member of a group view in-group members as highly diverse individuals, while viewing people in the out-group as much more similar to each other. If you hear someone talking about how “all Asians” or “all blonde girls” look the same, that is out-group homogeneity bias.
Dylann Roof completely succumbed to this bias. The vast majority of his manifesto consists of making unfounded generalizations about entire groups of people, such as African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Jews or people from east Asia. Most of his focus is on African-Americans. He decided to not join the hate against white women who have non-white partners, suggesting that these women could be “saved”. He even went so far as to trash other white supremacist ideas such as “Northwest Front”. This might seem like a strange thing to bring up, but it demonstrates that it is possible for people to be self-radicalized on the Internet and commit atrocious hate crimes without fitting the narrow stereotype of a “raving psychotic”. People who subscribe to irrational bigotry and might become violent criminals in the future unless their nonsense is diffused might be more common than we realize at first.
Besides his search engine habits, it is also clear that he was plagued by confirmation bias in many of his other beliefs. For instance, he spends some time talking about how he has supposedly read “hundreds of slave narratives” and that “almost all of them were positive”. This latter quote is probably a result of confirmation bias where Roof remembered the slave narratives that supported his position, and forgot those that did not. Also, it must be considered that written slave narratives might not be representative of all slave experiences, because it is likely to be mostly from slaves that could read and write. It is not at all inconceivable that experiences of slaves that did not have these skills differed systematically from those that had them.
Throughout the manifesto, Roof mentions believing in several conspiracy theories about blacks, Jews, the U. S. school system, immigration in Europe and the media. There is no evidence that he critically approached any of these conspiracy theories, looked for disconfirming evidence or even debated it with someone who disagreed with him. That highlights the isolating nature of conspiracy theories. Every road out of it is blocked off by the conspiracy theories themselves. Any disconfirming statistics is “the official story” and all counterarguments are made by “shills” or “politically correct race traitors” or some such nonsense.
Roof deploys some of the classic white supremacist tropes and misunderstandings about genetics, IQ and testosterone that has been refuted many times before here on Debunking Denialism. No serious scientist is claiming that continental groups are identical. Rather, mainstream science states that the difference between continental groups is very small compared with the within-group differences and that differences between groups can only explain a small part of the total variation in most traits. This is a conclusion that is based on modern, high-throughput genomics that take into account over half a million genetic markers.
Roof also misunderstands basic high school biology by comparing whites and African-Americans to horses and donkeys. He states that the two latter can breed together, but that does not make them the same animal. This is a clear misunderstanding of the biological species concept which states that the offspring must typically be fertile (mules are not) and also a confusion between species and continental group. Roof also thinks highly of east Asian groups, which is a common tactic among white supremacist to hide the fact that they think whites are superior to everyone else. This tactic is discussed in more detail in the links above.
Community reinforcement and dying for your beliefs
At the end of his manifesto, Roof talks about how he must be the one to take the fight “to the real world” and explain why he picked Charleston. He seems to be short on time and says that some of his best ideas have been left out and “lost forever”, but he thinks that there are some many other “great White minds” out there, so it is not of much consequence. Here we can make at least two crucial observations.
The first is that he was (and likely still is) steeped in white supremacy ideology and probably felt a huge community reinforcement of his beliefs. Although he does give off some of the “strange loner” vibe, he is also part of a growing and mutually reinforcing community online of what he considers to be “great thinkers”.
The second observation that he was probably prepared to die because he uses the term “lost forever” to describe the ideas he did not have time to write down. It is problematic to die for your beliefs about facts when you are the aggressor and take other people with you. This is because you might be wrong about the facts and thus have sacrificed your life (and others) for absolutely nothing. If we know anything about the human condition, it is that we have a non-negligible risk of being wrong about the world. Wonder if Roof ever considered the possibility that he might be mistaken and if not, wonder if anything had gone differently if he had considered it?
I do not think there is any quick fix to the problem of self-radicalization. However, there is ongoing research on radicalization and much more attention and resources should be devoted to this problem.