Monday, January 4, 2016

False Equivalence, Bad Math, Silly Conclusions: The Idiocy of Dean Obeidallah and Lawrence Krauss

On Twitter, it is often said that "retweets are not endorsements". But we can say that this next tweet is not a retweet, and is most likely an endorsement.

Lawrence Krauss, a rather popular academic, is sharing an apparently myth-busting article by Dean Obeidallah, a rather popular comedian.

Obeidallah's Odious Outlook

In Obeidallah's article, titled "Are All Terrorists Muslims? It’s Not Even Close", Obeidallah tries with all his might to show that muslims make up a minority of terrorist attacks.

Firstly, he tries to show that Europe's problems are primarily non-muslim:

However, and this will probably shock many, so you might want to take a breath: Overwhelmingly, those who have committed terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe aren’t Muslims. Let’s give that a moment to sink in.
Alright. Sinking.

So here are some statistics for those interested. Let’s start with Europe. Want to guess what percent of the terrorist attacks there were committed by Muslims over the past five years? Wrong. That is, unless you said less than 2 percent.
As Europol, the European Union’s law-enforcement agency, noted in its report released last year, the vast majority of terror attacks in Europe were perpetrated by separatist groups. For example, in 2013, there were 152 terror attacks in Europe. Only two of them were “religiously motivated,” while 84 were predicated upon ethno-nationalist or separatist beliefs.
We are talking about groups like France’s FLNC, which advocates an independent nation for the island of Corsica. In December 2013, FLNC terrorists carried out simultaneous rocket attacks against police stations in two French cities. And in Greece in late 2013, the left-wing Militant Popular Revolutionary Forces shot and killed two members of the right-wing political party Golden Dawn. While over in Italy, the anarchist group FAI engaged in numerous terror attacks including sending a bomb to a journalist. And the list goes on and on.

If we are to actually look at the report published in May 2014, there are many interesting facts contained within it.

Overall figures for 2013, in Europe:
  1. 7 people died as a result of terrorist attacks in the EU 
  2. 152 terrorist attacks carried out in EU Member States 
  3. 535 individuals arrested
Regarding the arrests:
Most of the arrests occurred in France (225), Spain (90) and the UK (77). A continuous increase in the number of arrests for religiously inspired terrorism has been observed since 2011, whereas arrests for separatist terrorism have significantly decreased.

Somehow,  Obeidallah left these details out.

Even more surprising, 143 of the 225 arrests in France were counted as religiously inspired. Luckily for Obeidallah, this is data that can simply be ignored.

For the comedians and ASU faculty reading this post, 143 out of 225 is over 60 percent.

Let's pretend that ignorance of arrests and convictions is somehow a legitimate brand of reasoning for a moment, and focus on what Obeidallah is claiming in relation to terrorist attacks. The EU saw, in all of 2013, 152 attacks that caused only 7 deaths. Seven people isn't even a football team.

To put things into perspective, the Charlie Hebdo attack killed 12 people. The November attacks in Paris killed 130 people. The 7/7 Bombings killed 52 people. The Madrid bombings in 2004 killed 191 people.

In total, we have just a handful of examples Islamist terrorism in Europe accounting for 385 murders, or put another way, fifty-five times more victims than every terrorist group combined managed to kill in 2013 in 152 "attacks".

The report contains more grisly truths that the comedian from New Jersey neglected to mention:
Al-Mulathamun, which also uses the name ‘those who sign in blood’, had previously claimed an attack and hostagetaking operation at the In Aménas gas facility in southern Algeria from 16 to 19 January 2013, which resulted in the death of 40 foreign hostages – including EU nationals. 
The report goes on to mention loads of deaths of EU nationals in 2013 - however they are not counted as deaths as they occurred in Somalia, Mali, Algeria, and other muslim countries. Families of these victims must be happy to hear Obeidallah's explanation that the true threat to their safety and security is some lunatic group in Corsica that gave up the fight over a year ago.

Circling back to Obeidallah's ridiculous "analysis", he moves on to claims about the United States:
Back in the United States, the percentage of terror attacks committed by Muslims is almost as miniscule as in Europe. An FBI study looking at terrorism committed on U.S. soil between 1980 and 2005 found that 94 percent of the terror attacks were committed by non-Muslims. In actuality, 42 percent of terror attacks were carried out by Latino-related groups, followed by 24 percent perpetrated by extreme left-wing actors.

It's obvious that Obeidallah and Krauss never bothered to look at this data, as it proves to be an immediately offensive joke based on semantics.

Look at categories of crime. There are many bombings, as one would expect - however there are many more examples of "attacks" that decidely lower ranked in the terror department.

The problems with this list that Obeidallah uses to generate the "94% non-muslim" figure:
  1. Each "incident" is equal
  2. Incident types include: Arson, Assault, Robbery, "Smoke Bombing", "Tear Gas Bombing", Sabotage, "Malicious Destruction of Property", "Arson Fire at Ski Resort", "Tree Spiking"
  3. Groups include: Evan Mecham Eco-Terrorist International Conspiracy, Earth Liberation Front, Animal Liberation Front 
Without any exaggeration - Obeidallah is comparing a bunch of goons breaking a ski lift to September 11. Each, after all, is one "incident" in the FBI database.

How's that for reading data?

Krauss' Kooky Kerfuffle

Aligned with his general mode of thinking about modern times, Lawrence Krauss published his own thinkpiece about Islamist terrorism:

[Correction: Due to confusion related the subject matter, the previous sentence gives the impression that Lawrence Krauss wrote "Better Angels". In fact Steven Pinker wrote "Better Angels". Apologies to both men, as it is appalling and offensive to conflate things such as two male Jewish atheist academics.]

Apparently all the concern about terrorism is a "delusion" that is distracting us from the "real issues". And apparently the "real issue" is something to do with roads:

Exactly how much more dangerous has terrorism made our lives? To answer this question, it helps to run the numbers. There are about two and a quarter million people in Paris. This means that, if you were living in Paris on the day of the recent attacks, there was roughly a one-in-twenty-thousand chance of being a victim. While that may seem high, the annual likelihood of getting killed by a car in France is almost exactly the same. (Last year, there were three thousand two hundred and fifty traffic fatalities in a population of sixty-four million.)
There are differences, of course, between death by terrorism and death by other causes. Driving a car carries with it a set of inevitable risks. Going to a concert or eating at a restaurant should not. Still, the risks of falling prey to terrorism are nevertheless very small for most Americans. Terrorists have forced us to accept that any activity associated with living in a free society now carries with it a finite, and microscopically small, chance of tragic horror. Still, it’s up to us to choose how to react to this minuscule possibility.
By contrast, responding in a way that is commensurate with the actual threat—recognizing that the average person living in France, for example, is living with a threat of murder of less than one in ten thousand, a threat equivalent to living in New York City—is more appropriate and healthy. We can be more vigilant without becoming irrational. 
Terrorism is designed to distract us and muddy our thinking. To fight it, we need to keep it in perspective.

The comparison to automobiles is very apt, as possibly the only thing that we truly understand about the Bonny & Clyde San Bernardino killings is the rented SUV that Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook were driving.

The automobile has seen a very interesting development. In the very early days, it was an extremely dangerous device even at unimpressive speeds. With enough focus, attention and vigilance, the safety of the automobile has improved significantly. Yet some may say things have gone too far - the superstructure of government and corporations looking at every detail is an expensive bureaucracy that is needlessly interfering with our lives. Some may say that regulation has given way to an obsessive irrationality that creates concern when there need not be. Maybe there's a debate to be had.

As Tashfeek Malik and her husband pulled into the parking lot of the Inland Regional Center, there were a lot of things to consider. Were the vehicle's emissions causing glaciers to recede? Would they be safer if they had commuted to work? What is the relationship between miles traveled and respiratory infections? Is their airbag manufacturer currently under recall?

One thing we can dismiss immediately is the idea that Tashfeen Malik and her husband harboured a vile form of a mind infection, an ebola of the soul that is spreading quickly through their religious community. It's not something to worry about, as the data shows that this actually never happens -- as long as we ignore enough of the measures. Instead of nuclear disarmament (many Excel sheets say warheads rarely accidentally explode) and containing Islamism, America should address the true threats by spending its political capital on doubling down in the fight against slippery bathtubs and mishandled ingredients at Chipotle.

But for all the graphs, figures, and safety statistics in the world, we know wise brave men like Lawrence Krauss will not be found in the lounge at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.

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