You may have heard of Kareem Carr. A Ph.D. student in data science at Harvard, he became a social-media darling of the postmodern Left (and a symbol of academic decline to others) in 2020 when he took on the Orwellian task of showing that two plus two sometimes equals five. His point: numbers are abstractions that represent real things in the world. Ergo, if you declare that the abstractions stand for different things, you can make any mathematical equation compute. One plus one can equal one, for instance, if one stands for both a wolf and sheep, and you add them together in the sense of leaving them alone for one to devour the other. A “flexible relationship” exists “between our mathematical systems, our perceptions of the world, and the symbolic manipulations we use to reason about reality,” Carr explained.
It’s easy to identify the mix of sophistry and absurdity in the context of arithmetical constructions. What about the same kind of casuistic analysis applied to hot-button issues like race and crime? That’s just what Carr has brought to the table in the debate surrounding Jordan Neely’s death in a New York City subway car last month and the prevalence of interracial crime.
In May, Elon Musk shared a meme showing a TV camera, standing in for mainstream media, featuring a bar graph of the approximately 60,000 incidents of white-on-black violent-crime incidents in 2018. In the background, we see the larger context: the graph shows data points on interracial violent crime, including the roughly 550,000 black-on-white incidents over the same period. “Odd,” tweeted Musk, who owns Twitter, “why would the media misrepresent the real situation to such an extreme degree?”
The point of the meme was that white-on-black crimes (and thankfully rare tragedies like Neely’s death) receive disproportionate public attention, leading Americans to conclude that an epidemic of anti-black violence exists that deserves a transformative, even revolutionary, response. Americans, especially progressives, tend to overestimate vastly the frequency of police killings of unarmed black Americans, and media coverage likely has something to do with that. These perceptions fuel massive social movements like Black Lives Matter and turn the systemic racism thesis into unquestioned orthodoxy.
Carr deployed data science in an attempt to salvage the systemic-racism thesis from Musk’s broadside. He used his same old trick from the arithmetic wars: 2 + 2 = 5, if you rig the game. And there is a white supremacist war on black Americans, if you just assume this conclusion.
Carr’s response to Musk brimmed with obfuscation. “As a statistician, I want these numbers to help me understand why things are happening and what I can do about it,” he tweeted, because that is how to reveal “the biases in how people present data.” He had already jumped ahead into a positive-theoretical question (“why are things this way?”) before first trying to answer the descriptive question (“what way are things?”). But we need numbers that represent real-world events, if we want to begin a policy discussion from at least some shared ground. It seems relevant to a discussion about disproportionate media attention fueling social trends that one form of interracial violent crime happens more than its converse.
Carr leaves little doubt why he wants to scramble the regular order of analysis: “We want to learn about causation not just correlation,” he continued. “For this reason, how we frame the data is extremely important.” In other words, Carr wants us to think about what causal mechanisms might be of interest before we even choose which data are worth gathering. That is worthwhile if you have a hypothesis and want to test it. What bothers Carr is that Musk and fellow media critics have chosen the wrong hypothesis.
“I would suspect if the media did disproportionally [sic] focus on white-on-black crime, it would be because they have a good faith belief that the causal element in those particular incidents is anti-black racism,” Carr hypothesizes on their behalf. “Since they are interested in highlighting that particular cause of crime, it would be reasonable to focus on that data.” This is question-begging. One of the biggest social movements in our country is based on the idea that racist anti-black violence is omnipresent. Media coverage is calculated to bolster that perception. And if you try to question that key part of the movement with a statistic that seems to indicate that it is misleading, Carr tells you that you are wrong and the media is actually being honest, because racist anti-black violence is omnipresent. A masterclass in circular logic.
Not content with logical fallacies, Carr writes that “to understand if their lack of focus on black-on-white crime is unreasonable, we would need to ask ourselves the following question: Do we think that the primary cause of black-on-white crime in America is anti-white racism or is it vastly more likely that it’s because Black Americans are disproportionately poor and White Americans are disproportionately rich?” A lot goes unsaid here, aside from the Marxist excuse for class-based violence: a moment’s reflection reveals that this is a morally and theoretically atrocious hypothesis. Why do many poor groups not turn to crime? Why, on this theory, are most crimes committed intra-racially? How can we disentangle anti-white racism from class-based hatred tied up in racial categories? And why should we agree with Carr’s intuitions about criminal motives, and what makes one motivation more worthy of media attention than another?
Carr thus writes off from the outset the hypothesis that racial animus works both ways, while simultaneously giving a lightly varnished theory of racial animus. And he provides a disturbing glimpse of the heart of the “racial justice” movement: one kind of violence must be due to an unacceptable motivation, while another must be more benign. Unfalsifiable, circular, replete with double standards and incomplete explanations—is this really the best the social justice Left has to offer?
It’s worth touching on a few more segments that sum up Carr’s manufactured outcomes. One regards bringing ideological priors to bear on empirical facts: “If we do think the causation is different then it makes sense that the media’s focus differs as well,” Carr argues. “This is why prior knowledge and expertise are so important in statistics. The naive number cruncher treats everything the same and fumbles the data analysis as a result.” His use of “prior knowledge” and “expertise” are giveaways; Carr does not mean that some analytical algorithm gives professionals special insight here. There are, however, preconceived notions about how the world works and ought to work that give analysts permission to reject inconvenient facts.
What expertise does Carr consider germane? Race paranoia. By leaving off intraracial crime rates, “The bar chart implicitly asks ‘which races merely through their existence are the biggest problem for other races?’ It is a racially loaded question that leads us to a racially biased answer. It’s a doorway to genocidal thinking.” The chart does no such thing. It puts in context an already-percolating question: What is the state of interracial violent crime in America? If anyone is responsible for framing violence primarily as a function of race, it is BLM, intellectuals advancing a race-centric narrative of American history, and media that fan the flames of race war by distorting Americans’ perceptions. If Carr is so concerned with stifling “racially loaded questions that lead to racially biased answers,” he should turn his attention to those who push race to the forefront of American life, despite all the evidence that this thesis is inaccurate, socially corrosive, and useless when it comes to improving the lives of minorities.
But the true believer’s first allegiance is to the narrative, even when it cannot withstand scrutiny. Yet if the “expert” response to a single graphic showing a single inconvenient statistic is to launch into a series of escalating fallacies based on offensive preconceptions, concluding with warnings of imminent genocide, it’s probably because there is no firmer ground on which the movement can stand.
There is no race-obsessed “expert” theory that explains how our nation operates on a day-to-day basis better than common sense. BLM and Carr are wrong: we have no epidemic of interracial violence, period. There are only conspiracy theories manipulating language, complexity, and Americans’ good intentions to convince people that we remain a racist country. But those theories are as true as “two plus two equals five.”