- When is it really ethnic profiling?
inimitable words of that great philosopher Forrest Gump, "Stupid
is as stupid does.”
An excellent example of this is found in the following
Between 1970 and 2005,
there were about 60…notable examples of terrorism perpetrated by
Middle Eastern male Islamists between the ages 17 and 40, but we
think you get the point. Singling out " Middle Eastern male
Islamists between the ages 17 and 40" is not ‘ethnic profiling,’
it's ‘terrorist profiling’ acting on prolific evidence.
[An internet search of this
statement will find it copied and pasted onto multiple web
sites. We first saw it on the web site for a radio show.]
Can you figure out what’s
wrong with it? We hope so.
But for those who may be a little hazy about the fallacy in the
above statement, here’s some help. The “profile” is far too limited by
being way too general and inclusive. And since two out of the
three criteria apply to an ethnic group, it does indeed turn out
to be ethnic
Ask yourself, how many people fit all three (age,
region of origin, and religious affiliation)? Lots. Probably
millions. So it’s useless. It functions merely as a stereotype
and an ethnic profile—it doesn’t profile a single terrorist.
Maybe a visual aid can help make this clear:
What can make a profile
Profiling, in and of
itself, is not the problem here. What's a problem is when people
use inappropriate criteria in a profile, in this case criteria that are way
too broad. Here's what's necessary for a valid and useful
For a terrorist profile (or
any profile) to be acceptable and beneficial, a
statistical link must be shown between the defined characteristic(s) and the risk of terrorism. The stronger the
statistical link, the more valid and discriminative the profile
The statistical link
a. There are more
characteristics. Three is far too few.
b. The characteristics are
narrower. The three used above are way too broad.
So, while there is evidence
that many acts of terrorism have been perpetrated by Middle
Eastern male Islamists between the ages of 17 and 40, these
individuals (the ones who were terrorists) represent such a
small portion of that very large population of similar
individuals that the statistical link for risk is nearly
nonexistent (as in, possibly less than one in 100 thousand).
To make a comparison, consider than 99% of rapes are made by
males, but it would be pointless (some might even say “stupid”)
to use gender alone as a “rapist” profile, since around half the
population consists of males, very few of whom
rape anyone. The statistical link between gender alone and risk of rape is
negligible. So, yes, gender may be ONE characteristic in a
rapist profile, but there are obviously several more that help
narrow the field and increase predictive validity.
The same must be done with trying to identify those who might be
terrorists. The three suggested above do not narrow the field
sufficiently to be of any use all by themselves, except as an
ethnic profile, which is why it is legitimate to question the
potential for racism to underlie their use (as in, “I just plain
don’t like, or trust any of those male Islamists between the
ages of 17 and 40 anyway, so singling all of them out for
scrutiny doesn’t bother me one one teeny, tiny bit”).
profiling can be a useful tool
People of good sense do not question whether it is appropriate
or valuable to arrive at some sort of picture of individuals who
might be in the process of preparing for and/or committing
terrorist acts (or any criminal activity, for that matter). But
they know better than to base it upon three such
Are the additional
characteristics already available. Sure. Do an
online search for "characteristics of terrorists," and you'll
find lots. The Los Angeles Police Department lists nine.
As noted above, the more characteristics that can be developed and statistically
linked to risk of terrorism, the more useful the profile
becomes—it achieves what statisticians call “discriminative
validity” (it can descriminate between those who might be
terrorists and those who might not) which increases the potential “predictive validity”
(being better able to predict who might commit a terrorist act).
For those who might be
interested In statistics, there are several tools that can be
used to put together a more valid profile. For example, the use of multiple variables to predict the
probability of a particular outcome is known as multiple
regression analysis, and the use of multiple variables to
classify (in this case into "probable terrorist" and "not
probable terrorist") is called discriminate function analysis.
The point being, profilers have some pretty sophisticated
statistical models for putting together a profile with multiple
While the general public is not familiar
with the more abstract aspects of stochastic (i.e.,
probabilistic) models of analysis and prediction, it does not
take excessive brain-power, or knowledge, to recognize that
using broad variables (such as the three suggested above) has
minimal discriminative, or predictive validity.
And that’s been the objection to such “profiling.” Anyone who is
serious about understanding what the issues are with “profiling”
will take a few minutes to inquire, instead of engaging in such
a ludicrous “straw man” argument (e.g., arguing against those
who oppose ethnic profiling as if they are opposed to any and
all attempts to identify those at risk to commit terrorist acts).
To read about the "Straw Man"
fallacy on our Logical Fallacies Page.
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