Sunday, November 14, 2010

Types of evidence for the putative existence of harmless Muslims

The axiom that many (if not most?) Muslims are good decent people is, unfortunately, a currently dominant axiom. It is so dominant throughout the West, in fact, that it permeates even within the still inchoate anti-Islam movement (see, to pluck one example out of probably hundreds that could be adduced,
this essay by Spencer & Geller's new Iranian rep, Amil Imani, whom they tout as a solid reformer and ally in the cause).

This axiom, however, is not so much a fact as it is a hypothesis. What can be said to be a fact is that, ostensibly, many (if not most) Muslims seem to be good and decent -- or, more accurately, they seem to be harmless and reasonably okay human beings like anybody else, neither saints nor demons.

But we have no way of knowing if many (if not most) Muslims are really harmless (let alone really good and decent).

We may thus summarize the types of evidence we have on this matter:

1) anecdotal evidence -- from our own personal experience, which can also be amplified by the reports of the personal experience of other individuals

2) surveys and polls of Muslims

3) the negative evidence (i.e., evidence that does not posit anything but only indicates a position by the seeming absence of its opposite) of innumerable Muslims not doing anything bad.

To repeat, other than the above three types of evidence, there is no other type of evidence proving that many (if not most) Muslims are harmless (let alone good and decent).

The problems with the types of evidence we do have about this matter, as enumerated above, are the following:

1) anecdotal evidence: Obviously, this is substantially inadequate because it is incomplete. There is no way an individual could have personal experience with a sufficient number of Muslims to constitute proof. An individual would have to have personal experience with millions of Muslims -- and that personal experience, moreover, would have to be sufficiently and relevantly probative; clearly, this is impossible. Nor can we amass a sufficient number of personal experience reports from other individuals to constitute proof on this point. Let us say that one individual could reasonably have sufficient personal experience of 100 Muslims to constitute proof of their harmlessness (let alone goodness and decency). How many individuals can we find whose report of the harmlessness (let alone goodness and decency) of 100 Muslims would persuade us? Perhaps we could find the reports of a hundred such individuals -- that would equal 10,000 Muslims about whom we could be tentatively confident they are harmless. I.e., anecdotal evidence on this matter is inadequate -- and that inadequacy becomes more acute given the horrific dangers which are increasingly likely to jeopardize our societies when we mistakenly conclude that Muslims in general or vast swaths of them -- or any given Muslims who are not caught lighting a fuse or shooting a gun by sheer statistical probability -- are harmless.

2) The problem with polls and surveys is that they only present, at best, superficial evidence; and often even that superficial evidence may be misleading, depending on the questions. If there were the high potential for a terror bomb attack on an airport you were stuck in, would it make you feel any more reassured to know that, for example, 80% of the Muslims in that airport answered, in a survey, that they are "against terrorism"? Additionally, given the real and likely possibility of taqiyya among Muslims, polls and surveys cannot sufficiently substantiate the conclusion that many (if not most) Muslims are really harmless (let alone really good and decent). Perhaps such evidence could be persuasive if we had the luxury of being theoretical about this matter and musing about it from our armchair (as, for example, Prof. Kreeft seems to tend to do); but not when we are in the emergent situation of trying to protect our societies from mass-murderous fanatics whose numbers are pullulating out of a larger mass of Muslims and about whom we cannot distinguish them from their fellow Muslims sufficiently for the purposes of our safety.

3) The negative evidence of masses of Muslims not doing anything bad may, or may not indicate that they really are harmless. Unfortunately, from what we know about Muslims and Islam, this type of evidence is not good enough to establish sufficient certainty about Muslims with regard to the safety of our societies. It might be safe to say, theoretically, that X number of harmless (if not good and decent) Muslims exist -- but the issue is not that they exist, but where they exist: we have to be able to definitively pinpoint which Muslims are harmless, and which are dangerous. But we cannot do this with sufficient accuracy, so the theoretical existence (which may well be factual) of X number of harmless Muslims is of no pragmatic value to us, for the purposes of our safety. The only rational position to adopt, in the circumstance we are in, is that all Muslims are of equal danger to us.

Of course, we operate with similar relative ignorance in other areas: we know that a certain yet indeterminable number of planes crash, but we don't know which ones will crash, or when they will crash, before we board one. Does that prevent the reasonable person from flying on planes, even regularly (for example, Robert Spencer, who must fly on a plane at least once a month if not at least once a week)? No -- because the reasonable person knows that statistically, it is sufficiently unlikely for his plane to crash to warrant avoidance of flying. But not all matters about which we have relative ignorance are exactly the same. Many variables enter into the problem of the danger of terrorism to make it a different, if not unique, case in this regard.

Incidentally, the opposite axiom -- that many, if not most (or even all) Muslims are dangerous -- is dependent upon the same inadequate types of evidence. However, the quality and quantity of the third type enumerated above -- in terms of the opposite axiom, being the numbers of terror attacks and the numbers of a myriad other types of violent and intolerant pathology we can document among Muslims worldwide as well as their unique nature -- lead the rational mind to the hypothesis that many, if not most (or even all) Muslims are dangerous. And then, consequent upon that and factoring in the danger our societies are threatened with by Muslims, we move to the rational inference that all Muslims are equally dangerous. We cannot posit this as a simplex fact, but we can be persuaded it is a reasonable hypothesis -- which becomes acutely exigent to adopt, given the dangers which the Muslims who are dangerous pose.

For more analysis on this matter, see my essay The #1 problem: Statistics and Dot-connection.


ib said...

Just a couple of thoughts. If people are followers of a dangerous religion, one that advocates the death or subjugation of non-followers, then aren't all the followers potentially dangerous? And aren't all muslims seemingly nice & kind until they aren't, as in the case of recent home-grown terrorists?

Hesperado said...


Yes, that's another way to put it. I was in this essay tackling the problem where most members of this religion which is violent and expansionist on paper (i.e., in its founding texts and subsequent religious literature), nevertheless seem to be not doing anything dangerous. This is one thing the skeptics point to, as they try to move the issue to a problem of statistics.

On another level (and often incoherently mushed in with the above tactic), many of those skeptics try to wiggle out of the problem that Islam on paper is essentially violent and expansionist. So they will try to argue that, but then when pressed to a corner with the facts, they move on to the statistical problem, implying that most Muslims aren't really following those tenets anyway -- and here, I have noticed many people even otherwise anti-Islam make this hypothetical assumption.