Thought Experiments require some Thought

I was reading yesterday’s letters to the editor and one of them really caught my attention. It’s the letter titled Profiling on this page. In it the letter writer poses his thought experiment about an armed robber with witnesses and video tape identifying him as a white male in his 20s driving a silver sedan. The question posed is whether the policeman on the beat should stop silver sedans randomly or target those driven by white males.

I don’t know, but I suspect the letter writer would say that if he were a white male 20-year-old in such a scenario, he would accept being stopped by a policeman and I have no reason to think he’s actually wrong about that. I doubt any of us would be happy at being stopped on suspicion of a crime we didn’t commit, but I would agree with the letter writer that targetting white males makes more sense than randomly stopping silver sedans.

Then comes the remarkable part. After claiming that the TSA’s “approach is to either stop silver sedans randomly so as not to discriminate based on gender or skin color, or to stop every silver sedan, regardless of who is occupying the vehicle” he makes the unwarranted jump to “Our intelligence agencies are quite capable of identifying the characteristics of potential terrorists.” The reason why this is remarkable? There is a huge difference between an identified perpetrator and a potential perpetrator.

To demonstrate this difference, let me propose my own extension of the thought experiment. Imagine now that there are a string of, let’s say 20, armed robberies in which each perpetrator was a youngish white male. The police ought to be quite capable of identifying the characteristics of armed robbers. So rather than just wait for each new robbery to happen, wouldn’t it make lots of sense to start stopping white males to prevent the crime in the first place? And would the letter writer be so willing to accept his fate as a white male so quietly?

I suspect not. The letter writer has drawn a faulty analogy, comparing two situations that are not very alike at all in support of his thesis in favor of racial profiling.


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