From the Comments: Islam’s “Violent Penchant”; Shooting Rampages and Stonings

Dr. Delacroix takes me to task over my dismissal of Islam’s inherently violent penchant. I think violence on grand scales, including war and terrorism, are always and everywhere a product of politics and institutions. Dr. Delacroix argues that Islam itself provokes violence. He writes:

A French citizen with a Muslim name goes on vacation to the tribal areas of Pakistan and to Afghanistan. Latter on he goes on a shooting rampage. The probabilities are such that he has to have sought his victims. The first set of victims were Muslim soldiers in the French army. Of course, for a jihadist such soldiers are traitors. The second set of victims were Jewish children and an adult in a Jewish school. You have to look for a Jewish school in France. I wouldn’t know how to find one. It’s not as if the killer wanted to kill children and then he went to as school that happened to be Jewish.

None of this means anything according to Brandon. Of course, this anecdote is only one of of several I presented in support of the idea that Islam has a violent penchant. Brandon dismisses “anecdotes” as evidence. He seems to say that if I had presented a thousand anecdotes, I would have accomplished nothing. I imagine he believes it’s enough to say “not so” for his negative thesis (no violent penchant) to be considered true.

Strange mental world!

I did not say anything about what is responsible for terrorism in the Middle East. I only took exception to a small statement of faith of Brandon’s in a larger development.

Why was the French citizen in Afghanistan and Pakistan? I ask because both states are in the middle of an international conflict (along with France, I might add).

He also takes me to task for requesting some sort of evidence to suggest that Islam actively condones the stoning to death of adulterous women.

Stoning and The Confirmation Bias

Note: I wish this were a full essay rather than a comment but I don’t know how to make it happen, technically, I mean.

I am glad Brandon has drawn attention to the confirmation bias in Notes on Liberty. The words refer to the universal tendency of human beings to notice and to remember facts that support what they already believe to be true to the detriment of information favoring different and opposing views. Thus someone who believes that human activity has been causing global warming will collect and recall unusually hot days and he will tend to discount unusually cool days.

The confirmation bias is the bane of casual discussion such as are conducted in coffee shops, around the kitchen table and, in immense numbers now, on the web. Unfortunately the confirmation bias also frequently affects adversely empirical research designed to protect against biases in general. Scholarly submissions that present disconfirming evidence regularly have to jump higher hurdles than scholarly papers that extend orthodoxy. Yet, good methods afford partial protection in the social sciences and systematic critique also limits the damage to truth caused by the confirmation bias and by other biases.

But well designed and well conducted social science is expensive and time consuming. In the meantime, we have to live; we must make decisions, we cannot avoid choices. We are not able to wait for everything to become the object of a good study and for the study to be published in a respected journal to do what we have to do. Exaggerated deference to rigorous empirical studies is tantamount to delivering the floor to the most emotional, to the least rational to the blindest fanatics among us. Like it or not, we must rely on anecdotal evidence most of the time. Yet, anecdotal evidence must, in time, give way to good studies published in a respected scholarly journals.

So, what is to be done about the confirmation bias usually associated with the gathering of anecdotal evidence? First, obviously each commentator of any political fact or perception must exercise extreme self-discipline in this respect, knowing that confirmation bias is not an accident but a normal tendency of the human mind. It helps a great deal if the commentator knows he is addressing an audience, a public, that praises intellectual honesty.

Secondly and most importantly, arguments should be subjected to criticism. I may easily, and in all honesty, be blind to my own confirmation bias but disinterested observers, and especially, adversaries, will ferret it out in no time. It’s also important to have reasonably public venues where biases in general and the confirmation bias in particular can be called out. I believe that Notes on Liberty and my own personal blog, Factsmatter, are two such venues. They should not be taken for granted. They may be the few exceptions among hundreds or thousands of blogs.

The context that motivated Brandon, the founder and co-editor of Notes on Liberty, to denounce my alleged confirmation bias is a comment of mine on his essay: “Origins of Terrorism in the Middle East.” In my comment, I take exception to his dismissal of the idea of “Islam’s violent penchant.”

I believe that, in fact, Islam has inherently violent tendencies. (I recognize at the same time the overwhelming peacefulness of the overwhelming numbers of Muslims.) In support of an assertion to the effect that Islam has a violent penchant, I list a number of violent practices which I argue are especially associated with Islam. Incidentally, I always mean “Islam the culture.” I am not a theologian able to discuss what Islamic scriptures and Islamic doctrine “really mean.” I am only able to observe reality on the ground.

Since my observation is neither exhaustive nor randomly conducted, the risk of confirmation bias is quite real. There is danger that I assign unconsciously to practitioners of Islam objectionable practices that are just as common among followers of other religions. It would be like treating Christians, for example, as especially likely to abuse alcohol as compared to Muslims. (And how silly can one get!)

In the situation at hand, I made the claim, among many others, that the only people who condemn to death by stoning women they judge adulterous do it in the name of Islam, (in the name of Islamic law specifically), and that they have Muslim names. Incidentally, this is a god point to correct myself; I should have said, “ in the last one hundred years.” Going back to what I asserted above, the main corrective to selection bias is criticism. In this case, I expect Brandon – and anyone else who is so moved – to point out to me the group or groups unassociated with Islam in any way who affirm that public stoning to death is an appropriate way to deal with adulterous women.

I will be waiting.

It seems to me that there are three major vices that regularly interfere with intelligent people’s exercise of reason. One is political correctness. The second is the desire to simplify at all costs issues that are inherently complex. The other it a perverse wish to insist that things cannot be as simple as they seem on the surface, that observable reality only masks a deeper, more correct interpretation of real reality.

Can Dr. Delacroix (or anyone else) give me a case study to work with? I ask because I am thinking of a few recent cases that are situated in Saudi Arabia, which would make the stonings political rather than religious.

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