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Semiformalishmaybe

Harris and Schneier on Racial Profiling in Airport Security

First, here's the text of the email debate. It's reasonably long. Thoughts:

On the authors:

  • Sam Harris did the terrible argument for objective morality based on science. That's shit philosophy, and I don't have any respect for him whatsoever. He's a charlatan and a laughingstock.
  • Bruce Schneier is a pretty respectable guy on the topic of security. On occasion I've thought he's a bit off on some points, but I feel nervous pressing them because he's a reasonably expert guy in his (not-very-formal) field. I don't give him the full deference that I would an academe in an established and respectable field, but I do give some.
The debate focuses on the part of the discussion that I normally punt on. I don't feel I know enough about airport security to have a very qualified opinion on what works best. Sam argues for a form of profiling where people who look muslim are given additional screening; others are given cursory screening. Mr Schneier argues that profiling is impossible and that giving shorter screening to the obviously-not-muslim creates an attack vector.

Sam didn't argue his point very well; he chose a particularly weak form of the profiling argument to make and kept trying to distract the discussion with emotional triggers. Mr Schneier didn't call him on the latter (pity, that) and was probably delighted by the former. If Sam had instead started with a position like "I believe the best screening procedure will include racial profiling", he would've had an easier time. Mr Schneier actually tossed him a definition for the position he should've been arguing all along near the end of the exchange.

Tonewise, Mr Schneier came off a bit snobbish; he is on his home turf (of a not-really-formal field), and initially walked all over Sam. Sam's behaviour was ok to Mr Schneier, but those emotional triggers were a downside; one shouldn't bring the topical habits of a moralist to a relatively technical question about security design.

One area where Sam probably holds up better than Mr Schneier is on the ability of screeners to read people; Mr Schneier seems to think of screeners as computer programs that need to follow a strict checklist. Sam unfortunately didn't defend his position here well enough and lost the ground his position should have merited him. Mr Schneier did make some good points about some terrorist groups trying to recruit people who didn't fit the mold, although it's worth noting that not all terrorist groups are equal in their ability to plan.

If I had to pick up where Sam left off, I'd probably press Mr Schneier on Israeli practices; as both parties acknowledged, they do a mix of behavioural and racial profiling, and Sam forgot(!) to press Mr Schneier on that. I'd also press for a profiling+random approach rather than either alone, and I'd also probably talk about trainability (and ditch the economics argument).

On me:For awhile, my position on the topic has been primarily based on acceptability of racial profiling, not its effectiveness. I see the primary issue there being a question of justice, equal protection, and vestedness; are there circumstances in institutions where we decide not to treat people equally because a higher percentage of them (even if only moderately higher) perform some criminal act? What are the costs to justice, equal protection, and vestedness of doing so, and can we stomach them? This is a difficult philosophy-meets-the-real-world question. There are times where I insist on principle over results (whether real or not); my stance against torture is absolute and doesn't depend on any facts as to whether torture can extract useful information or not (I deeply differ from Sam Harris on this, and I note with scorn that he's also a coward about expressing his own views on the topic ; to be PR-conscious in philosophy is utterly reprehensible; the purpose of philosophy is not to please the masses; anyone who admits such an aim is riding the clown-car to work). There are also times when I accept that my theory won't work (hence my very pragmatic approach to socialism and criticism of overly-dogmatic theoretical approaches). I recognise the harms caused by racial profiling, but with considerable unease I consider them as a whole to be less important than effectiveness in preventing crime; to that end, if racial (or any other) profiling is a positive component to an effective security regime, I would accept it.

Compromise is usually needed in application of philosophy. Just as in my support for affirmative action, I am compelled by the strength of one set of values to support something that does not sit at all well with other precious values. This doesn't mean I don't care for the values that lose; I recognise that there is a real, solid harm caused by both racial profiling and by affirmative action. If that harm were not intrinsic to serving other values I cared about, I would certainly take that harm away. Good philosophy comes from efforts to find the best stances among many strong commitments. Sometimes that means telling allies in a cause that we can't be with them on this issue, and that can be a really hard conversation (particularly if that cause has its own standards of discourse that are intolerant of less-than-full-support; many causes that really are worth fighting develop this failing). Sometimes we find ourselves with strange bedfellows and the people we'd generally like to associate with on the other side of a chasm. Still, that's part of trying to be fair and committed to many things. We're not in it for the PR, or the friends, or the joy of immersion in idealism. We're in it because we're trying to figure out what seems best for the world.

Comments

We're not in it for the PR, or the friends, or the joy of immersion in idealism. We're in it because we're trying to figure out what seems best for the world.

thank you for saying this!