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The Ground Zero mosque and cognitive biases

Among the many other things involved in this controversy, stereotypes of Muslims are not exactly helping.

As this blog is (excessively)  fond of arguing, ethnic stereotypes are partly fueled by an obscure cognitive bias known as Reversing Conditional Probabilities. As a long ago Aid Watch post argued (sorry for indulging in self-quotation, but hey it’s August, time for reruns):

{People perceive} from media coverage that the probability that IF you are a terrorist, THEN you are a Muslim is high. Unfortunately…{we are confusing} this with the relevant probability, which is the chance that IF you are a Muslim, THEN you are a terrorist (which is extremely low even if the first probability really is high, because terrorists are very rare).

This blog is so obsessed with Reversing Conditional Probabilities (RCP) that we have also linked it to exaggerating the effect of Affirmative Action on women’s careers and why Dani Rodrik likes industrial policy.

Of course, there could be the same cognitive bias about Christians from the Muslim side (which will no doubt be exacerbated by the Ground Zero mosque controversy). The probability that IF you are an anti-Muslim bigot, THEN you are Christian could be reasonably high. But since explicit bigotry is still pretty rare, the correct probability – IF Christian, THEN anti-Muslim bigot – is far lower.

Most of our readers don’t seem to share our enthusiasm for RCP, the most boring, wonkiest topic of all time. But the obstinate educator never gives up hope that teaching probability theory could promote world peace.

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13 Comments

  1. Andy wrote:

    Count me among the RCP enthusiasts!

    Posted August 22, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  2. Let me see if I understand Reversing Conditional Probabilities (RCP). “IF I understand, THEN I must be intelligent” is much different than “IF I am intelligent, THEN I understand”. What is my grade Professor Easterly?

    Posted August 22, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Benjamin Geer wrote:

    Actually, the validity of the statement “the probability that IF you are a terrorist, THEN you are a Muslim is high” is doubtful. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a secular, Marxist-Leninist organization, were responsible for more suicide terrorist attacks than any other group in history. See Robert Pape’s book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.

    Posted August 22, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  4. Ted wrote:

    I’m not sure this bias you describe, which is actually pretty common in a lot of contexts, necessarily applies here. It may, but I’m not sure. For example, those protesters may believe that the probability an individual Muslim is a terrorists is small. But I think a lot of those opposed to this construction really do believe that if you are Muslim, then you sympathize with terrorists. You may not be a terrorist yourself, but you support what they do.

    Now, I think that’s an outrageous, ignorant, and hateful belief that really is harmful to society – but I think a lot of people belief that. Your mention of this bias seems more relevant in the case of things like racial (or really ethnic and religious) profiling of Muslims.

    Posted August 22, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  5. sam wrote:

    oh! let me try…

    The probability that IF you are an anti-Muslim bigot, THEN you oppose the ground zero mosque is be reasonably high (quite obviously).

    Conversely, the probability that IF you oppose the ground zero mosque, THEN you are an anti-Muslim bigot is far lower (since many may just consider it about as helpful as a shrine for Albert Einstein – whom you have no beef with – in Hiroshima).

    Posted August 22, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Permalink
  6. Manuel wrote:

    Sorry, sam, the right analogy would be with a synagogue in Hiroshima, not an Einstein shrine. Try another one.

    Posted August 22, 2010 at 6:13 pm | Permalink
  7. Cornelius Christian wrote:

    We could, alternatively, build a Jewish community center in Hebron and call it “The Golda Meir Center for Understanding”. I actually think that’s a good idea.

    Posted August 22, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
  8. sam wrote:

    Manuel – I don’t know, did the members of Enola Gay yell out “Yahweh be praised!” as they dropped the bomb?

    Representative of Islam as a whole or not, the unfortunate reality is that Islam was a primary motive in the 9/11 attacks, however twisted their concept of the religion was. My only point is that finding the so-called ground zero mosque to be distasteful or undesirable makes you no more anti-muslim or anti-religious-freedom than does protesting a new Walmart make you an anti-capitalist. (although, to use RCP, it is much more probable that IF you are anti-capitalist THEN you are anti-Walmart).

    Of course from a public policy standpoint the Islamic center has every right to be there. But only the firmest commitment to PCism would render us unable to understand the sensitive feelings in relation to it, and it is already obvious that the notion that this undertaking would bring about true “healing” or “interfaith dialogue” was misguided from the start.

    Looks like we’re venturing into politics of a sort, and away from cognitive biases. I suppose that’s not unexpected with such a contentious issue, but I do apologize for taking this a bit off course.

    Posted August 22, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  9. Trencherbone wrote:

    ‘Religious’ tolerance?

    The privileges of being classed as religion should be withdrawn from Islam.

    If Hitler had claimed that ‘Mein Kampf’ was dictated by God, would we be forced to tolerate the Nazi Party as a religion? Islam is first and foremost a mind-destroying, totalitarian political ideology that spreads through the Body Politic like a virus.

    Winston Churchill gave the correct diagnosis over a century ago, when he compared Islam to a contagious virus or meme – ‘as dangerous in a man as rabies in a dog’ http://crombouke.blogspot.com/2010/01/islam-murder-meme-and-rabies-of.html

    Consequently, Islam should be reclassified from ‘RELIGION’ to ‘PUBLIC MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEM’ – a virulent contagious mental illness. It could then be contained by the methods used to prevent the spread of typhoid and other lethal epidemics: enforced exclusion and quarantine of carriers, eradication of foci of infection, immunization of the susceptible population etc.

    Posted August 23, 2010 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  10. Roy wrote:

    So going from what you’re saying…

    IF you are an RCP enthusiast THEN you could promote world peace

    Posted August 23, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  11. Tyler Johnson wrote:

    RCP is quite interesting. Obviously it is a mistake to assume that IF you are a terrorist THEN you are a Muslim but logically, the correct reversal of that relationship would be IF you are not a Muslim THEN you are not a terrorist. It is a common logical error that I’m sure we all make from time to time but the implications of making it in this particularly sensitive situation are very great, and it is being fueled by the media.

    I’m sure it has been talked about on this blog before, but another example I can think of with the media fueling similar irrationality would be with black people being gangsters. The media, including news, music, and movies, tends to portray black people as gangsters so people assume that IF you are a gangster THEN you are black. More importantly, confusing this with the relevant probability, some people believe that IF you are black THEN you are a gangster. I’m sure we can think of countless situations where the media jump starts this line of thinking and as I said before it is very sensitive and too important to be influencing this flaw in thinking. What we need is a more intelligent mainstream news media that takes these things into account and thinks before it reports!

    Posted August 23, 2010 at 10:01 pm | Permalink
  12. Jim wrote:

    there is a universal funeral home in my town. they just push the button for the music that fits the need of the dearly departed. How about a multi-colored universal building..everyone bang their own drum.

    Posted August 25, 2010 at 12:57 am | Permalink
  13. Arthur White wrote:

    Same principle explains why most autobiographies by successful entrepreneurs and sportsmen don’t generally provide useful advice. Advice typically runs along the lines of “work hard and believe in yourself”. While it may be true that a large proportion of people who succeeded did in fact do these things… this is not the same as saying that if you do in fact “work hard and believe in yourself” then you will succeed in life…

    Posted August 25, 2010 at 7:16 am | Permalink

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