Bruce Schneier explains security to a neurologist who believes in profiling Muslims at airports

Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, challenged Bruce Schneier to a debate on whether Muslims should be singled out for additional screening at airports. Schneier patiently, and repeatedly, explains why (apart from the unconstitutionality and moral repugnance of this), it would be bad security practice. Harris changes the subject. A lot. But Schneier presents a model of how to use dispassionate reason to demolish intellectual laziness and xenophobia dressed up as "common sense."

There are other security concerns when you look at the geopolitical context, though. Profiling Muslims fosters an “us vs. them” thinking that simply isn’t accurate when talking about terrorism. I have always thought that the “war on terror” metaphor was actively harmful to security because it raised the terrorists to the level of equal combatant. In a war, there are sides, and there is winning. I much prefer the crime metaphor. There are no opposing sides in crime; there are the few criminals and the rest of us. There criminals don’t “win.” Maybe they get away with it for a while, but eventually they’re caught.

“Us vs. them” thinking has two basic costs. One, it establishes that worldview in the minds of “us”: the non-profiled. We saw this after 9/11, in the assaults and discriminations against innocent Americans who happened to be Muslim. And two, it establishes the same worldview in the minds of “them”: Muslims. This increases anti-American sentiment among Muslims. This reduces our security, less because it creates terrorists—although I’m sure it is one of the things that pushes a marginal terrorist over the line—and more that a higher anti-American sentiment in the Muslim community is a more fertile ground for terrorist groups to recruit and operate. Making sure the vast majority of Muslims who are not terrorists are part of the “us” fighting terror, just as the vast majority of honest citizens work together in fighting crime, is a security benefit.

Like many of the other things we’ve discussed here, we can debate how big the costs and benefits I just described are, or we can simplify our system and stop worrying about it.

One final cost. Security isn’t the only thing we’re trying to optimize; there are other values at stake here. There’s a reason profiling is often against the law, and that’s because it is contrary to our country’s values. Sometimes we might have to set aside those values, but not for this.

To Profile or Not to Profile? (Thanks, Deborah!)


  1. A.) Harris initiated, and his blog hosts the debate…

    B.)  That hatchet-job of a headline is the biggest example of  ” intellectual laziness” in the entire article.

    1. Re: A) Very true and hopefully people that are interested in this topic will follow the link, read the intro, and see that Harris invited Schneier to the debate.
      Re: B) That seems like a perfectly valid headline. Schneier is by all accounts a security expert and Harris is (in this context) essentially a philosopher.

      1. Harris may have a BA in philosophy, but anyone who’s read his books knows he is no philosopher.

    2. A.) Yes, and to his credit did a stand up job of being bested in a gentlemanly manner by a gentleman. As for your “…” would you care to elaborate?

      B.) What JK said.

  2. Truax: Nah. Intellectual laziness is trashing an unexceptionable headline because you can’t think of anything else to say.

    1.  Oh… There’s much more to say. But honestly, how many are going to read past the the headline and blurb?

      While I appreciate and support Bruce Schneier’s position, Harris’ position of questioning the wisdom (not to mention the time and money spent) of needlessly hassling and pawing through the belongings of obvious non-threats is valid as well. More than a few examples of such are presented with scorn on this site (i.e. 94 year old wheelchair bound Grandma being put through the wringer, 5 year old children being patted down, etc…). 

      1. They’re both questioning it. The problem is that Harris’ solution is unworkable at worst, a poor solution at best, which he seems not able to comprehend in detail. Schneier is offering a critical beatdown to a brick wall, which we all witness through Harris’ continual evasions.

      2. All of the examples on BoingBoing appear to me to be illustrations of how the TSA is harmful in a direct measure available to the individual while being an ineffectual drain of resources that happens to violate our rights as a whole.

        It is a common and accepted method of demonstrating ones point anecdotally in order to cause an examination of the subject matter by the audience.

        Some call it sensationalism, but it is not sensationalism when it actually happens in the manner presented, which while it may not do that 100% of the time, succeeds often enough to be worthy reporting and not sensationalism.

      3. Or a lady I know who was born in Iran (nothing to do with 911).  Moved to Britain when she was a baby.  Then to the US to live with an Aunt when she was 15.   Has a green card.  Once on a visit to Britain, Homeland Security up and decided to block her from coming back.  She was stuck in Britain for six months.  She’s not Muslim she’s a hippie. I know another ‘Muslim’ he’s also more of a hippie than anything.

        And fundamentally our problem with Muslim terrorist has little to do with Muslims in general and everything to do with Wahhabism and the House of Saud in particular.  Problem isn’t going away until either we remove the house of Saud from power, or the oil runs out.  More important

      4. But honestly, how many are going to read past the the headline and blurb?

        I’m sorry.  Weren’t you just tossing around accusations of intellectual laziness?  Is this some kind of performance art?

        1. I think it’s fair and reasonable to expect a bit of intellectual laziness from the millionish people who are going to read the headline without going to the source article, and still demand high standards of veracity in the authoring of that headline so as to maximize the impact on those millionish readers.

          Not to defend him too vigorously or anything.  I actually disagree with his analysis and think the original headline and article are fine.  Sometimes you have to rub someone’s nose in their stated opinions. :)

  3. Cory’s discussion of the math of error rates and false-positives in Little Brother is a pretty convincing argument itself.

    I understand that it’s for the purpose of narrowing the question at issue, but isn’t it bizarre that we still think of airliners as still the most common battleground of terrorism? I’m far more concerned about sniper teams like that which terrorized D.C.

    Of course, drivers using smartphones are a risk so many orders of magnitude beyond terrorism that I’m more on the lookout for that hazard.

    1. So long as the current regime fails to end the war on terrorism there is no longer a need for the terrorists. 

      Why would they waste their resources?

    2.  Shortly after 9/11 there was a discussion on the radio about what to do to reduce the risks of terrorism.  One of the participants replied “Quit smoking and wear your seatbelt” – one and possibly both of those had already killed more Americans that month than the terrorist attack, and you were still more likely to get killed driving to the airport than on the flight.

      Of course, since the purpose of most of the US government’s “anti-terrorism” activities has been to increase police and military power rather than to reduce risk to the public, that’s not directly relevant.

  4. Two of the great oxymorons of all time are effective advertising and effective security. We spent big time on security at Los Alamos yet had 3 Soviet spies on the payroll. The safe in General Grove’s office had the factory default combination. More recently with all the patrols and fire power put to work on the Washington area beltway sniper in 2002, it was a citizen who spotted the suspect at a highway rest stop. The security fallacy is the few know where they are going to do what they are going to do and the many make a sweeping shotgun effort to try and stop them. Brains are required to play this game and the word “security” usually doesn’t conjure up brains to most of us. 

    1. I’ll go one better than that – for much of the Cold War, the eight-digit launch codes for US Minuteman missiles were set to: 00000000 .

      1. This was actually the result of different security analysis being made on two sides.

        On the one side were those worrying about nuclear missiles launched without proper authorization (the reason to require launch codes, aka PALs). For this reason, PALs were deployed first in Europe (probably over concerns of a Soviet surprise attack, though I don’t have any sources to that effect).

        On the other side was the US Strategic Air Command (SAC), which up to that point had the practical ability to launch nuclear strikes on their own. They were less worried about nuclear weapons getting into enemy hands (particularly so for the Minuteman force) and more concerned about not being able to launch missiles in an emergency because, for whatever reason, the launch codes weren’t available.

        Since SAC were the ones tasked with actually installing the PALs, they quietly decided to install them everywhere (which was the order they were given) but leave their launch codes set to all-0s and print them in the pre-launch check lists, making sure the missiles could be launched.

        In other words, this was not a security gaffe; it was a security decision made based on the SAC’s threat model (“launch might fail”) being different from the President’s threat model (“erroneous launch”).

  5. While I ultimately agree with Schneier, I think that Sam Harris’s point is reasonable. If you were on a plane would you be more nervous to learn that  50% of the passengers were muslim or octagenarian atheists?  If you don’t respond with the latter then you are lying or insane. Israelis use profiling (both ethnic and behavioral), with a fairly impressive track record given their situation.

      Ultimately Schneier’s points about (a) random systems being harder to “game” by terrorists and (b) profiling would add complexity and complex systems are more error-prone, win the argument.
        Also, it was nice to read a rational discussion on an emotionally-charged topic.Note: Neurologist(MD/DO) ≠ Neuroscientist (phd)

    1. Accepting Schneier’s points with regard to criminality vs terrorism can go a long, long way to alleviating that fear of common people that you are subject to.

      It works for me, and given their situation I don’t find the Israeli comparison apt or their track record something to necessarily accept as actual. Politics engender results that favour in situations like that.

    2. “If you were on a plane would you be more nervous to learn that  50% of the passengers were muslim or octagenarian atheists?”  

      Seriously???  Neither. How many planes have been taken down in the last 10 years by islamic terrorists? And how many non-islamic plane hijackers have there been in the last ten years?

      Terrorism is an anecdote. Think about the percentage of islamic terrorists in relation to the percentage of people of islamic faith in the world. Simply not enough to even register in my nervous-o-meter.

      And implying that anyone that does not feel the same way as you is either lying or insane is quite insulting, really.

      In Spain we’ve suffered enough terrorism from ETA. And yet I have lots of friends who are Basque. And we don’t paralize ourselves with fear and paranoia. Shit happens, but what are you gonna do – fear everyone and stay home?

      1. This is the significant point. The chances of being on a plane that is brought down by terrorists is significantly smaller than dying in a car accident or a lightning strike. Are we going to spend as much money as we do on security theater at the airport on road safety campaigns? Even asking a question about whether or not you’re more scared of a flight full of Muslims than some other random demographic implies that you should have reason to be scared. You shouldn’t. We’ve had more planes crash due to technical failures or pilot error than we have ever had due to terrorist attacks. 9/11 was a statistical fluke, not an example of what could happen to any flight.

        1. Yeah, the ONLY stat worth thinking about is what % of Muslims (or whatever population you want to look at) are terrorists, not how different demographics compare.  

          It’s truly bizarre how the “change of risk” stat is so popular in casual discourse.  Headline trumpets that “Study shows this thing increases your risk of disease by 50%!” but it turns out it goes from 2% to 3%.

          Of course this meme is popular with bigots.  See also “black men   commit more crimes, so its rational to discriminate against all of them.”

    3. So, if I don’t respond with the same piss-my-pants knee-jerk reaction as you would regarding flying with Muslims, I’m lying or insane? Hell, I’ve been on flights where 95% of the people around me were Muslim, and I didn’t feel less safe.

      Let me guess: a bomb will explode in one hour, and if I don’t torture this muslim-y Muslim I have in front of me, AMERICANS WILL DIE!!

      1. I feel safer surrounded by Muslims. Are Muslim terrorists going to blow up a bunch of Muslims? I think not!

        1. Sunni or Shia?

          I agree with you… just could resist the point that the internal conflicts are sometimes greater than the external ones. But they have no monopoly on intrasectarian grudge matches.

        2. Are you joking? Do you read the news? 50+ Muslim children were shot by other Muslims yesterday in Syria. Bombs explode throughout the Middle East weekly- Sunni vs. Shia.

    4. I would be more nervous if half the passengers on the plane were members of the American Family Association than if they were Muslim.

      Everyone has their boogeyman, but that doesn’t mean we should be profiling based on the thing we’re more scared of.

      1.  If half the passengers on the plane were members of the American Family Association you might consider being the one with the bomb. 

        (I kidd)

    5. If you were on a plane would you be more nervous to learn that 50% of the passengers were muslim or octagenarian atheists?  If you don’t respond with the latter then you are lying or insane.

      Please don’t project your tiny-brained bullshit onto everyone else.  I’ve been on planes that were 50% Muslim and frankly the only thing that I noticed was that they seem to like children more than Americans do.

      1. The only thing that I noticed was that they seem to like children more than Americans do.

        Having done more hospital visits over the past decade and a half that I’d care to recall (all in the San Diego area), I found it impossible to dismiss that elder Hispanic, Asian and Muslim patients have a lot of children and grandchildren visiting, cousins and brothers and the like also, while a passing glance at other rooms showed elder WASPs alone, with only the breathing apparatus and beeping vital signs monitor to break the silence.

        Family-oriented culture is the norm around the world, not the exception.  White USA seems to be that exception.  Of course there are exceptions to the exception.  Anyway, I wasn’t looking for a pattern and it disturbed me when I noticed it.

      2. Didn’t you just rather spoil your point with a sweeping generalisation against Americans?

      3.  Last time I was on a plane where the passengers were presumably predominantly Muslim, it was in North Africa back when you could still smoke on planes, and they smoked Turkish-style tobacco, not that wimpy American stuff.  They’d adopted that American-inspired custom of having non-smoking sections, so it was “smoking on the left, non-smoking on the right”, and you *really* wanted to be on the non-smoking side.  It smelled less acrid than Marlboros or Galoises, but was a lot thicker.

        But other than that, a majority of octogenarians on a plane would be unusual, though I probably wouldn’t notice if they were atheists just because they were actively Not Praying before takeoff.  A majority of people dressed like some predominantly Muslim ethnic group would usually just tell me I was somewhere other then Kansas (like maybe Detroit – there was some air terrorism scare a few years ago where a gringo who was flying there freaked out when he saw that there were lots of Arabs on the plane.)

    6. “If you were on a plane would you be more nervous to learn that  50% of the passengers were muslim or octagenarian atheists?”  
      The latter? Yeah, old people freak me the hell out, but I don’t usually think they’ll bomb the plane.

    7. Most people’s fears are the product of their unique experiences… if you find yourself fearing something you’ve never experienced, you should probably worry about that fact more than you do about the object of your fears.

  6. I waded through that discussion, and it seems like just another muddle.  They both eventually admit that the cost-benefit arguments come down to fine-tuning the probabilities and the cost of obtaining information.

  7. There have been white terrorists and Christian terrorists.  The obvious non-threats haven’t been non-Muslims, but the elderly, disabled and children.
    Some Americans, for example, would also like to be protected from people who bomb abortion clinics, gay clubs, and MLK Day parades. I don’t see how profiling Muslims does anything to address those acts of terrorism.

    Security in America seems to be about protecting straight white Christians without bothering straight white Christians. And it can never be realized considering how often terrorists are straight white Christians and the targets are not.No one has committed more acts of terrorism on American soil than American white supremacists, but I don’t see anyone suggesting we start profiling everyone who looks like a white supremacist.

    1. The exchange addresses this point over and over. The discussion only really addresses what to do about suicide bombers on airplanes. Harris is right to point out that it is Muslims and their recruits who do this sort of thing far more often than any other profile-able group. Shneier doesn’t deny this, he is only suggesting (and proving quite effectively) that not profiling this group yields the best results.

      1.  Here’s the problem: It has been Muslims who _have_ done these things. Once. There is no way to prove that the next time a group of Muslim terrorists will try to hijack another plane. The 9/11 hijackers ended up killing 3,000 people. It isn’t as if there aren’t lots of other places someone could blow up with at least 3000 people.  Secondly, the next time a terrorist does hijack a plane there is no reason why it couldn’t be anyone of any other religion. And there’s no reason it would have to be the hugely elaborate system with tons of support that Harris posits. The 9/11 terrorists used box cutters. There’s no reason why some “lone wolf” terrorist couldn’t do the same.

    2. Yup. And I think the *real* point of Harris’s argument is summed up this way by his own words: “I spoke of ‘anti-profiling,’ by which I meant not flagrantly wasting everyone’s time in a politically correct show of fairness.”
      What he’s saying is “I’m not a terrorist, and you can tell that’s so because I’m a white, middle to upper class, American male. Please let’s have the TSA stop hassling people who look like me.”
      Schneier quite nicely ignores all this, and essentially says: fine, let’s assume that’s true, does that make you safer? ( No. ) 

    3.  Traditional terrorism in the US was done by white people who called themselves Christian.   These days they mostly get the disdain and ridicule they deserve, but it really wasn’t that many years ago that black people had to worry about gangs of terrorists on a daily basis – it wasn’t just occasional lone wackos.

  8. I like most of Cory’s posts, but I think this one is pretty flabby and misleading. Schneier wins on points not because he takes down a bigot or a xenophobe or does a better job of explaining the limits of “common sense”, but simply because he most effectively lays out a more convincing cost/benefit analysis. Harris even gets Schneier to admit that the best system combines both profiling AND random sampling but that reason we don’t implement that type of system is that it would be too expensive. That’s it. In the real world, we have limited resources and must be careful how we allocate them. Simple, stable, random systems are less complicated and easier and cheaper to implement and staff. We all profile all the time outside of this one very specific context (screening for airline travel), so there are not really any politically correct puritans anywhere to be patted on the back in this particular argument. You can get all this by reading the whole (13,000 word) exchange. You won’t get it from Cory’s description. And Harris cedes the floor at the end, effectively tipping his cap. I thought they were both quite reasonable and convincing in their own way.

    1. Actually, Schneier says “In the profiling case, the mathematically optimal strategy is a combination of profiling and random sampling.  But, really, this is simply too complicated to implement in any practical way at a security checkpoint.”

  9. While Harris is incorrect, it’s lazy and disingenuous to raise the suspicion that Harris’ viewpoint could only be held by someone who was xenophobic.

    Come on, Cory, you’re better than that.

    1. While Harris is incorrect, it’s lazy and disingenuous to raise the suspicion that Harris’ viewpoint could only be held by someone who was xenophobic.

      Did you have an argument to back that up or are you just lazy and disingenuous?

      1. Are you claiming that the only possible reason for Harris’ position is that he’s xenophobic? 

        Generally speaking, in civilized conversation and debate, a person doesn’t have to make an argument for basic postulates for which the reasoning can be inferred by the reasonable reader.

        It’s certainly possible that Harris is a xenophobe.  But on the face of the evidence presented there’s no reason to jump to that conclusion. 
        In fact, it leads to less constructive debate when you prefer the pejorative explanation for a held position.

        Not only does the perceived attack lead to tribal allegiances in many (“Hell yeah, get that guy!”) but it also leads to questioning the motives of the one raising the pejorative (“What axe does Cory have to grind with this guy?”)

        So now you have the argument.  I’m not quite sure why I had to voice it for you, though.

        1. Generally speaking, in civilized conversation and debate, a person doesn’t have to make an argument for basic postulates for which the reasoning can be inferred by the reasonable reader.

          Most people are xenophobic and xenophobia drives US policy.  So, what you just said, only aimed back at you. And generally, in civilized conversation, one doesn’t insult one’s host without at least explaining one’s rudeness.

    2. Harris’ entire argument is based off of the idea that “those People” are so fundamentally different from us in every conceivable way that we would easily be able to pick them out in a crowd. In addition, they are so very different that it would be nigh impossible for them to recruit anyone resembling “us”, which he repeats despite Schneider giving many, many examples of just that happening. I’m not sure how you define xenophobic, but that seems pretty textbook to me

      1. And what benefit is gained from claiming xenophobia, here?

        I’m not claiming that xenophobia is or isn’t an accurate description.  I’m arguing that the pejorative use of of the word xenophobia does nothing for the debate.

        1.  Mike just argued that this usage isn’t pejorative.  To establish that the usage is indeed pejorative you have to actually offer a rebuttal to Mike’s argument. 

  10. Thanks for picking up this story Cory.  I quite enjoy reading Sam Harris’ blog and his books.  But in this particular case I have to side with Bruce Scheier.  He really does make a heck of a lot of sense.  Good read, however.  Not a stupid title.  Just, an interesting one.  Harris is coming at this from an atheist standpoint where he’s seeing that religion, especially Muslim religion is very dangerous.  But this approach of his is in the wrong.  We can’t tell all Muslims by their skin colour.  So, we have to do the weeding out of the terrorists by Bruce’s way.  Yes, tiresome when you see the 85 year women being strip searched.  But, they have to do it.  That is the job title.  Sad but true, they have to search everyone.

    1. But Shneier is not really saying this.
      Here is a quote directly from Schneier:
      “In the profiling case, the mathematically optimal strategy is a combination of profiling and random sampling.  But, really, this is simply too complicated to implement in any practical way at a security checkpoint.  Given the choice between profiling and random sampling, random wins.”
      Harris is only wrong here in that he is making a philosophical argument and ignoring the costs. What Schneier is admitting here is that we are actually going to shelve the optimal solution because it is cheaper to rely on user-friendly procedures that can be clearly laid out in a training manual. This is why I think Cory’s moralizing in the post doesn’t shed much light here.

      1. What Schneier is admitting here is that we are actually going to shelve the optimal solution because it is cheaper to rely on user-friendly procedures that can be clearly laid out in a training manual.

        People should note, too, that “cheaper” in this context isn’t just about money, it’s a placeholder for everything on the cost side of Schneier’s cost/benefit analysis.

        pocoTOTO, please note that I’m not saying that you meant Schneier was just talking about money, I just want to try to help make sure your very excellent comment is clear to people who haven’t read the whole dialog between Harris and Schneier.

        Also, I appreciate Deb Johnson’s original comment in this thread as it sums up my feeling pretty well, excepting the fact that Schneier also argues that we don’t need to strip-search 85 year-old women — not because they couldn’t possibly be terrorists, but because it’s not part of an effective security strategy.

  11. I don’t know what Harris actually believes about Muslims in his heart of hearts, but I do know that he:

    1) Starts out with a totally made up story about a Muslim man using his daughter as a human bomb, which seems to be specifically designed to stir up anti-Muslim emotions without reference to facts.

    2) Continues to claim, despite evidence to the contrary, that there is some certain “look” that all (or almost all) Muslims share, making it easy for your average TSA screener to distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims.

    3) Dismisses examples of non-Muslim terrorists as irrelevant.

    All of these sound like the sort of arguments that I would expect from someone who has a serious problems with Muslims and is unwilling to question his own assumptions about that religious group. I can’t judge whether Harris is, personally, a bigot, but he certainly sounds bigoted in this particular piece.

    edit: this was posted in reply to Dustin Wyatt’s comment above.

    1. 1) I agree that this isn’t the best argument for his position, but I didn’t read it as an attempt to stir up anti-Muslim emotions.  I’m willing to admit that my view of the intentions behind the story are colored by the fact that I have a certain amount of familiarity with some of Harris’ other writings.

      2) I don’t think he’s making this claim.  In his model, all, or almost all, isn’t required.  Additionally, evidence to the contrary of some held belief doesn’t mean one should immediately change said belief.  There’s evidence to the contrary for all held beliefs.  You should only change your beliefs based on the weight of the evidence.3) I don’t think he’s dismissing them as irrelevant so much as anecdotal evidence that isn’t strong enough to counter his (wrong) thoughts that, on the whole, Harris is a prolific and smart author with tons of content on the web.My claims are:1.  Claiming xenophobia of those engaged in intelligent debate you disagree with isn’t a strong method to convince them or others that they are wrong.

      2.  Harris appears to be engaged in intelligent debate.  If he’s xenophobic, he’s not blatantly so in this debate.  He may be misinformed and he’s certainly not an expert, but he’s not obviously maliciously perpetrating falsehoods.  Heck, BS himself, states that this stuff is hard for non-experts to grasp.  Just because Harris didn’t grasp it doesn’t mean the responsible thing to do is to jump to “Yep, he’s a xenophobe.”

      In conclusion, I can’t see any benefit to claiming xenophobia in Harris other than “Rah, Rah, Our Side Is Right.  The Other Side is Morally Inferior”

      1. Harris’ position is xenophobic in nature.  His position is to single out a specific race as a potential threat.  There is no cleaner definition of xenophobia than that.  If this is a position Harris in fact holds, he is ipso facto xenophobic.  Whether Harris thinks he is xenophobic or not is completely beside the point.  Whether he has reasons beyond senseless hysteria to be xenophobic is also beside the point.  Xenophobia can have reasons behind it, usually reasons that are not as strong as the xenophobe believes them to be (their phobia tends to blow it out of proportion).  But it is still xenophobia, unquestionably.

    2. I can’t judge whether Harris is, personally, a bigot, but he certainly sounds bigoted in this particular piece.

      Substitute “religion” for “race” in the above video.

    1. New law: any mention of the Dunning-Kruger effect should be presumed to be unintentionally ironic and self-referential. (Um, except this one, probably.)

  12. For anyone interested in reading more about the math of profiling, this came out a couple years ago: 

    “Math Backs Limited Profiling in Airport Screening”
    SANDRA BLAKESLEE, February 2, 2009

    “Too great a dependence on profiling passengers by ethnicity or nationality is an ineffective way to conduct airport screening to catch terrorists, according to a statistical model for examining rare events.

    In fact, the model predicts that limited profiling would be more efficient, according to an article published online this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    The model is not widely known, said William H. Press, a computational biologist and computer scientist at the University of Texas, Austin, who is the author of the report.”

    Link to article:
    “Strong profiling is not mathematically optimal for discovering rare malfeasors”

      1. Yes, the author says as much at the end of the NY Times article:


        If the profile suggests certain people are 10 times more likely than average to be terrorists, they would be screened only three times, or the square root of 10, more than average.At that level, Dr. Press said, it is fair to ask if you should be profiling at all.“We have been told that strong profiling will somehow find and siphon off the worst offenders and we’ll be safe,” Dr. Press said. “It’s not true. The math does not support that.”

    1. Thank you for demonstrating that every age group has its dim members. I don’t know how many old ladies you’re acquainted with, but I’ll assume that if you aren’t simply going on stereotypes, your remarks are based on your immediate ancestors.

      Just so you know, assistive devices get inspected just like any other gear people bring on board. Motorized chairs are folded up and their batteries are removed. If their owners can’t walk, they get to their seats via a boarding chair.

      I do agree with your underlying point: exempting any category of passengers from standard security checks is an error. I couldn’t believe how long it took to kill the proposal to establish a class of passengers whose security was cleared in advance, thus enabling them to skip all those tedious inspection lines at airports.

      I don’t know how good Sam Harris is at being a neurologist, but when it comes to security he’s an amateur. I just wish he stood out more clearly from all the other amateurs who want to play with security. It’s like the old Usenet line about people reinventing the wheel: it’s not that they’re doing it that’s so distressing; it’s that they’re arguing over whether it should have three corners or four.

      1. Actually, Harris recognizes security is about understanding people & especially understanding the bad guys. Its the security tech guys like Bruce who keep missing this fact.

        1. Harris recognizes security is about understanding people

          Then why doesn’t he understand that our policies have consistently increased hostility to the US and greatly increased the threat of attack from people who are infuriated at being treated like criminals? He understands nothing about people if he doesn’t understand that systematically terrorizing one group through security theater is a recruiting tactic for potential terrorists.

  13. Step 1: Islamic terrorism is targeting the US.
    Step 2: Why is Islamic terrorism targeting US?
    Step 3: They hate our foreign policies.
    Step 4: Well, do we really need those foreign policies?
    Step 5: No, they mostly serve to prop up corrupt oil dictatorships and to protect the apartheid state of Israel from any repercussions from its racist policies.
    Step 6: End those foreign policies.
    Step 7: No more Islamic terrorism targeting the US.

    You’re welcome. Now we can end the security theater.

    1. I’m as big a fan of American foreign policy as anyone who lives outside the U.S., but if the message of your logic is that you can use the threat of terrorism to get American politicians to change that policy, I think the security situation would only get worse, n’est-ce pas?

      1. I’m arguing that the policies in question are bad in and of themselves. So we should get rid of them. Bonus effect: no (or at least greatly reduced) Islamic terrorism directed at us. 

        When Britain finally changed its policies towards Northern Ireland and at least partially addressed the grievances of the Irish Catholics, it didn’t worsen the security situation, it politically isolated the few groups that were left that wanted to continue terrorist tactics and led to reduced terrorism. 

        One could cite numerous other examples. 

  14.  “Sometimes we might have to set aside those values, but not for this.”

    That is the worse statement ever. If you have a set of values you don’t ignore them when its convenient, that is why they are values in the first place.

  15. Harris changes the subject. A lot.

    That tends to be symptom of someone who wants to be “right” instead of finding the best possible solution to a problem.

    So frustrating.

  16. The only evidence I’ve seen of terrorist airport attire is from the 9/11 Dulles Airport security camera. All five terrorists were clean-shaven, dressed in slacks, with button-down shirts.

    Now, here’s Sam Harris (“In Defense of Profiling”):

    But there are people who do not stand a chance of being jihadists, and TSA screeners can know this at a glance.

    Needless to say, a devout Muslim should be free to show up at the airport dressed like Osama bin Laden, and his wives should be free to wear burqas. But if their goal is simply to travel safely and efficiently, wouldn’t they, too, want a system that notices people like themselves?

    For our safety, we must notice people who don’t dress like 9/11 hijackers.

    Just. Wow.

    1.  And this is the central conceit of the hardcore profiling supporters. They believe they’re so much smarter than those they’re profiling that the terrorists won’t notice what behaviors/style of dress/physical appearance/etc. are being singled out for greater inspection and shift tactics to get around it.

  17. Strangely enough, I can’t completely agree with Schneier in this case. 

    His points „terror is a crime, therefore a ,war on terror` doesn’t make sense“ and „there is no winning in crime“ are  wrong.

    *Organized  crime* wins, when it is so deeply entrenched in national politics and the economy that it is not only nearly impossible to get rid of if, but it dictates terms. A look over the southern border should show Mr. Schneier, that a country can indeed lose against crime. 

    Also, terrorist acts are often criminal in nature and can get fought by criminological means , but it differs greatly from normal crime by having a goal. The terrorist often doesn’t simply want to get way, many seem to be perfectly happen to die in the act. And if they – as persons or a group – do get away, they will not necessarily lie low (at least until their money runs out), but act again. Because – unlike the common criminal  – they are motivated beyond material gains and want to force changes in the their targets behavior. 

    And that’s a common tactic in wars, too.  Developed countries speak about trying to spare the civilians, but when push come to shove, they are perfectly happy   to accept “collateral damages” measured in the 10.000s or even openly admit that firebombing cities was deemed necessary to beak the enemy population’s will. 

  18. I get the feeling that Harris sees himself as an ignored ‘voice in the wilderness’.  One of his main points in “The End of Faith” is that beliefs matter.  If someone thinks that blowing up innocent people will lead to their eternal salvation, then we need to worry about that individual.  He or she is more likely to blow up a bus load of children than a person who does not believe in the afterlife.

    I have a hard time arguing with this position.  It’s almost an argument by definition.  My problem with Harris’ position is that  he takes this premise and marries it to the idea that all Muslims believe there are circumstances where the murder of innocents is morally preferable behavior.

    He also seems to believe that the TSA is some combination of necessary and effective.  If you believe these things to be true, you are more likely to support costly and irrational security schemes that make none of us safer and all of us less free.

    In my opinion, the threat revealed by the 9-11 hijackers ended when the passengers on flight 93 attacked their attackers.  No longer can a hijacker even think about taking over a plane without getting his ass kicked by the rest of the passengers.  Arguing about profiling passengers is, in my mind, a weird tangential argument.

    1. My problem with Harris’ position is that  he takes this premise and marries it to the idea that all Muslims believe there are circumstances where the murder of innocents is morally preferable behavior.

      I believe that of Americans. Their democratically elected government is using drones to kill people in far away places. People who have not been convicted of any crimes.

      1.  I wish I could like your comment twice.  I agree.  When I was born I lived in a country that had to at least convict me of a crime before executing me.  Now I live in a country where the leader can have me executed on a whim.  I didn’t move anywhere.  I still live in the US…

  19. I’m confused why Sam Harris is billed as a “neuroscientist” (and “neurologist”, btw, is just flat out completely wrong.  That’s what you call a particular kind of physician. It would be like me calling you a “librarian”, because, you know, both bloggers and librarians deal with words).

    Yes, Sam Harris got a Ph.D. in neuroscience once upon a time, but he is not actually a practicing neuroscientist, and he doesn’t even self identify that way on his blog.  

    You wouldn’t bill a journalist who got an M.A. or Ph.D. in medieval history or philosophy (before leaving those fields) as “medieval historians” or “philosophers”, particularly if the topic of what they were talking about didn’t have anything to do with that degree.  Doing so would be insulting to real historians and philosophers.  Why can’t we neuroscientists get that same courtesy?  Does saying he’s a “neuroscientist” somehow make the story more sensational?

    1. The real issue is whether a crypto analyst or a Neuroscience expert would have a better understanding of how people think.. Harris (correctly) views the issue as a people problem that must be addressed through people, training & processes.

      Schneier keeps viewing identifying terrorists as a technical problem and since their is no easy technical solution, their must be no solution. This is always the danger of letting the techies run security.   

      1. But he’s not really an expert on anything neuroscience-related.  Getting a Ph.D. in something is really the absolute bare minimum entry into a field, and if after you get your Ph.D., you proceed on to do something else — e.g. become a blogger — then you’re a blogger, not a neuroscientist.

        I don’t think that Sam Harris is claiming otherwise (at least, not based on his “about” page), but Cory seems to not even know/care/understand the difference between a neurologist and a neuroscientist (which is an absurdly large difference), so I wonder why he felt compelled to put it in there in the first place.  If Sam Harris once lived in Iowa, you wouldn’t call him an “Iowan” in the headline, because it would be silly.

        Just feels intellectually sloppy, like he’s trying draw science/neuroscience into this debate, whether or not that makes sense.

        (Personally, btw, I think Schneier totally pwns the other guy)

        1. Actually, profiling is about understanding people and how they think & respond to situations. You want somebody who can analyze peoples reactions & responses.

          Bruce is a cryptographer which is about the worst possible training you can have to understand the human factors in security. They tend to look at problems from a technical solution perspective rather then understnding how bad guys work.

          Basically Bruce is way out of league when he starts talking about terrorism.  

          1. Um… okay… but that response doesn’t really have anything to do with what I was saying.  

            Honestly, a central drive of my original comment is that BoingBoing is clumsily assigning “expertise” to the debate participants.  I would argue that it is peculiar to call Sam Harris a “neuroscientist”, and I gather you would prefer that Bruce Schneier were referred to as a “crypographer” (as opposed to “security expert”), which very well may be a fairer description.However, I think that the text of the debate is nice insofar as we do not have to rely on the supposed-expertise labels that BoingBoing ascribes to these two people.  Each participant lays out an argument, and there are many concrete pieces of evidence put forth.  Plenty of factual grist to make up your own mind without appealing to a ham-fisted battle of “credentials”.

            But seriously, BoingBoing needs to stop screwing up the neuroscientist/neurologist thing.  It just sounds ignorant.

          2. Steph,

            You keep saying the same things over and over. And yet you never provide any kind of facts or citations to back up your assertions. Please stop.

  20. His statement from 2004 Washington Times article (google it) – “It is time we admitted that we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.”- leave no room for doubt about his narrow mindedness. When it comes to intellect and morality, there is no difference between Bin Laden and him.

  21. Not that I think that Schneier is actually in favour of the ridiculous approach of the TSA, but I do find it interesting that his explanation of how security works justifies the stuff that is regularly called out here as ridiculous.

    Screen a 7-year-old girl with severe disabilities?  Well the screening was random or uniform: having screeners use judgement is a weakness in the system.  Same for the baby, the four-year-old who hugged her grandmother, the elderly couple (although robbing them was obviously not strictly necessary).

    Of course the screening procedures they are using may be bad ones, but the point that Harris is trying to make – the one that Schneier ably defeats – is that security agents should use their judgement to ignore people who clearly aren’t threats.  If you agree with Schneier here then doesn’t it have to lessen your outrage about these seemingly silly TSA cases?  (They could show a lot more tact and compassion with children, but that is only half of the issue that has been raised)

    1. The last Schneier debate posted on BoingBoing was his debate with a former chief of DHS.  Schneier’s position was that airport screening should be rolled back to pre-9/11 levels.

      So no, I can agree with Schneier and still be outraged about the silly TSA cases.  In fact, that would put me in greater agreement with Schneier.

  22. It was surprising to me that so little was made of the concept that soon as there is a defined profile the terrorists have a simple way to reduce their security risk by simply disguising themselves to beat the profile. If there is no profile there is no way to beat it.

    1. The problem is that its difficult to recruit people who dont meet the profile. It requires the bad guys to expend significant resources to try to find people who dont follow the profile and are willing to kill themselves. Most Westerners dont have the same suicide mentality that Jihadists do.

      1. If you read the debate, you’ll find multiple references that refute this point.  The Hindawi incident (where a pregnant Irish woman was the unwitting carrier of a bomb) stands out prominently.  There’s also the fact that even if you believe that muslims are the only ones you want to look out for (which is dubious), Islam is popular in many parts of the world (e.g. Africa, Asia, etc.) so profiling with a Muslim == Arab mentality is not going to be a winner.

  23. I thought I liked Sam Harris, but everything about this from his starting position to how he avoided the other guys irrefutable points, just made me think he is a much weaker intellect than I gave him credit for.

    Also, he avoids the fact that white supremacists are now the largest terrorist threat facing the US & Europe. And that airport security is not just about stopping Islamic terrorists, but about stopping madmen of all stripes getting on board with weapons, plus the usual filtering out of drugs, endangered animals etc etc.

  24. The editors at boingboing mess this up over and over again.  Here are some rough definitions of these words so they don’t have to make these mistakes in the future.
    Neurologist: an MD who treats brain disorders generally manifesting in abnormal cognition, movement, or sensation
    Neuroscientist: a scientist who studies the brain
    Psychiatrist: an MD who treats brain disorders generally manifesting in behavioral or emotional disturbances
    Psychologist: either a scientist who studies psychology or a PhD clinican who generally performs psychotherapy and psychological testing

      1. Easy.  The neurosurgeon is the one who drives a Porsche.

        Seriously, though, maybe most of the readers don’t care, but is it old-fashioned to think that you shouldn’t use big, fancy words if you don’t know what they mean?

      2. I also left out physician vs. physicist because, like the term neurosurgeon, people seem to have that one figured out.  Psychiatrist vs. psychologist is the one people confuse the most, like last week when there was a boingboing post about psychiatry calling Robert Spitzer a psychologist.  To be fair, wikipedia makes the same error.  It’s pretty rare to see people confuse neurologist and neuroscientist, but I guess anything is possible.

  25. Schneier has excellent powers of reason and logic to be sure. The problem here is that he has zero facts to backup his claims.
    For example “Profiling Muslims fosters an “us vs. them” thinking…” – Sounds reasonable but this, like most of his argument, is an unprovable statement.
    He is also factually incorrect and posibly intentionally misleading when he says ” I have always thought that the “war on terror” metaphor was actively harmful to security because it raised the terrorists to the level of equal combatant. In a war, there are sides, and there is winning. ”
    There is an us v them and taking of ‘sides’ here and there are combatants on both sides. There will also be winners and losers. Hamas, Al Qaeda, Hezbolla etc. are politcal entities which operate under their own flags, have leaders, agenda’s etc. Pretending differently is un-informed and dangerous. Al-Shabaab has an army and are ready to fight and kill anyone who is not Muslim. The same is true of many of these ‘terrorist’ organizations.Do we need to profile muslims? No. We need to profile Arab and middle eastern men between the ages of 18 and 35. Not everyone, just the subset of the global population currently involved in terrorism. If this changes to 80 year old Peruvian women, then we start looking more closely at 80 year old Peruvian women.

    1. Schneier has excellent powers of reason and logic to be sure. The problem here is that he has zero facts to backup his claims.

      You and I read very different debates apparently.

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