Pit Bulls and Profiling

Malcolm Gladwell· (probably best known as the pop-sociologist author of The Tipping Point·) has an excellent piece in this week’s New Yorker· on what pit bulls can teach us about profiling·. The argument boils down to one about common tendencies in misinterpreting data and drawing the wrong (or “unstable”) generalizations from apparently recurrent phenomena.

Everyone’s favorite security guru Bruce Schneier· has made similar arguments in the past·, but Gladwell’s style in this case is more compelling. I particularly liked this passage about The Godfather:

In July of last year, following the transit bombings in London, the New York City Police Department announced that it would send officers into the subways to conduct random searches of passengers’ bags. On the face of it, doing random searches in the hunt for terrorists — as opposed to being guided by generalizations — seems like a silly idea. As a columnist in New York wrote at the time, “Not just ‘most’ but nearly every jihadi who has attacked a Western European or American target is a young Arab or Pakistani man. In other words, you can predict with a fair degree of certainty what an Al Qaeda terrorist looks like. Just as we have always known what Mafiosi look like — even as we understand that only an infinitesimal fraction of Italian-Americans are members of the mob.”

But wait: do we really know what mafiosi look like? In “The Godfather,” where most of us get our knowledge of the Mafia, the male members of the Corleone family were played by Marlon Brando, who was of Irish and French ancestry, James Caan, who is Jewish, and two Italian-Americans, Al Pacino and John Cazale. To go by “The Godfather,” mafiosi look like white men of European descent, which, as generalizations go, isn’t terribly helpful. Figuring out what an Islamic terrorist looks like isn’t any easier. Muslims are not like the Amish: they don’t come dressed in identifiable costumes. And they don’t look like basketball players; they don’t come in predictable shapes and sizes. Islam is a religion that spans the globe.