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.
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