Syrian Refugees and a Bowl of Skittles


1474331972-syrian-refugee.jpg“If I had a bowl of Skittles, and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”

So runs the graphic posted by Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump on Twitter.

There are various ways to criticize the argument it expresses, or implies. We can criticize it as an argument originating in National Socialist literature. We can criticize its eccentric use of a full stop in the middle of an interrogative second conditional. Or we can mock Donald Trump Junior for making 1980s Wall Street traders look like avuncular 1930s shopkeeps. All three criticisms attack the argument’s implied author’s intelligence or credibility.

But suppose we looked at the argument itself, rather than its origins or how it was formulated. After all, even Hitler had some true beliefs—that snow is white, say—and an argument is no less true for being ungrammatical, or even for being pitched by soulless corporate Brylcreem devotees (within reason, obviously).

“That’s our [the US’s] Syrian refugee problem”. Is it? The argument is an argument by analogy: no sane person would take a handful from a bowl of Skittles if they reliably believed that three of the Skittles were lethal, it says, so no sane person would (and by implication should) accept Syrian refugees among whom are those bent on violence once they arrive.

A good place to start when thinking critically about arguments by analogy is how close the analogy is: how similar in relevant respects are the two things being compared? The answer in this case is: not very. Let’s list three relevant dissimilarities.

  • A bowl of Skittles contains a relatively low number of Skittles. Unless we’re talking novelty bowls, we’re probably looking at around 100 or less. If three of these are fatal, then even taking one Skittle gives a relatively high probability of dying: 3% or more. Taking a handful, which might be anywhere between 5 and 20 Skittles, makes this probability higher still. Syrian refugees, however, number in the millions. There are some 4.2 million Syrian refugees and another 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians.[1] In order to achieve a similar probability of harm to the Skittles, it would have to be the case that at least 126,000 to 321,000 of the displaced Syrians (depending on how we count them) would guarantee certain harm. Such a number of harmful agents among the Syrian refugee population is not merely doubtful, but literally incredible. So the Skittle bowl would have to be extremely large to make the comparison relevantly similar. At this point the risk of eating a lethal Skittle by eating a handful from the enormous bowl will begin to approach the probability of eating one by eating several random packs of Skittles bought from regular shops. Sane people do this all the time.
  • There is only one agent whose life is threatened by the Skittles. When we turn to thinking how this is supposed to compare to the case of permitting refugees to enter the US, however, things get murky. Is one bad agent among the refugees supposed to guarantee the destruction of the entire US, as one bad Skittle destroys the entire person? More plausibly, even a superlatively evil refugee, (granting, controversially, that there even is one among the millions and, furthermore, that she is guaranteed to succeed), would kill at most several hundred Americans. Given the over 300 million Americans there are, this would be more akin to having three “death lottery” Skittles in the bowl which each give the consumer a one in a million chance of dying (multiplied by the low probability of getting one of the death lottery Skittles in the first place). Again, we’re looking at probabilities of death (one’s own at least) every sane person accepts willingly every day.
  • Skittles are inanimate food items without needs. Refugees are human beings who not only have needs, but profound needs; they are suffering in one the direst kinds of situation known to anyone. I am not obligated to a Skittle to eat it, whether it might harm me or not. Nation states, or their inhabitants, are so obligated to refugees—not merely legally because of treaties, but morally. Part of why the Skittles bowl analogy seems to work but in fact doesn’t is that not taking any Skittles carries no cost; at least, it carries very little cost, I suppose one is missing out on the enjoyment afforded by non-lethal Skittles. Refusing to help refugees, however, carries considerable cost. Many sane people would eat a handful of Skittles from a bowl in which three were poisoned if this meant saving or vastly improving thousands of lives—or even one life. This goes all the more for our enormous bowl with death lottery Skittles.

There are other criticisms here, too. There is the risk such cavalier propagandizing poses to stoking undue anti-immigrant sentiment or even violence, for instance.

There is also the often unquestioned assumption that among the Syrian refugee population there are inevitably bad actors. Perhaps that’s right (though perhaps it’s wrong). The relevant question as concerns assessing the various relevant probabilities, however, is whether there are proportionately more bad actors than in the pre-refugee US population, or whether the bad actors are sufficiently worse than their US counterparts. Perhaps there are and they are (though, again, perhaps not). Even so, within any reasonable parameters, the risk of harm from allowing Syrian refugees into the US will fall wildly short of that presented by the poisoned Skittle bowl. Indeed, it may, for all we know, be lower than if they are denied entry.

Since the Skittle bowl case is sufficiently unlike the case of the Syrian refugees in relevant respects, the argument by analogy fails.

[1] UNHCR, Protecting and Supporting the Displaced in Syria: UNHCR Syria End of Year Report 2015, p.9 – available here.


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