Just after last week's attacks in Paris, I entered into a chance conversation with an educated and otherwise fairly aware person who should have known better. He described a feeling of fear toward a certain group of people about whom he knew nothing more than that they are known to pray five times a day.
This is not the first time any of us has been faced with this error in logic. One method of reasoning is when we take a small set of examples and draw general conclusions about all members of the set. This is called inductive reasoning, and in some situations is a valid way to develop information. However, inductive reasoning requires caution on our part as it can easily lead to faulty conclusions: John and Jimmy both have brown hair. John and Jimmy are boys. Conclusion: All boys have brown hair. This is called a hasty or faulty or illicit generalization, an inductive fallacy.
This faulty reasoning was in high gear after the events of September 11, 2001. Suddenly people were afraid of all Muslims, tried to blame Muslims in general for the actions of a very small minority. While this was, to some degree, an understandable reaction to a relatively new and formerly unsuspected category of threat, many years have passed since 2001. By now terrorists have wrought havoc in other places. Non-Muslims have engaged in rampant killing sprees in our colleges, elementary schools and movie theaters. News of long-hidden instances of sex abuse on the part of a small minority of Catholic priests has broken wide open.
Do we now fear all Catholic priests because a few have been known to abuse children sexually? Do we suspect all college students because one crazy one opened fire on at Virginia Tech in 2007? Do we fear all Germans because Hitler was a German citizen? Certainly not!
Returning to the the majority of Muslims, versus the minority of Muslim terrorists, we non-Muslims have had a lot of time for critical reflection since September 11, 2001. While reverberations from that day will always abide in the hearts of many, by now the skilled and effective reasoners among us will want to resist falling prey to the inductive fallacy that began on that day. Those of us who are reasonable and aware will resist efforts by some in our society to fan the fires of fear from more recent tragedies. We will recognize how such fear mongers commit deliberate logical fallacies for the sake of promoting their own political ends. Conscientious Americans will not tolerate having our reality misrepresented to us.
The threat posed by Muslim terrorists is both dire and real. The risks posed by the majority of Muslims who have found their way onto our shores are imaginary. Thoughtful Americans will want to recognize the difference.