Another US mass shooting has occurred, this time targeting worshippers in a synagogue in the sleepy Jewish suburb of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. And within hours, the recriminations begin as pundits on all sides of the political spectrum and all sides of the globe rush to assign blame. As we will see, the different root causes are lining up at a blinding pace. Are they plucking sources of blame out of the air? Sometimes it seems that way. May I suggest a very simple methodology is actually at play here, as described by the following flow chart:
Without the mathematical symbols, it works like this:
1. Adverse event happens
2. People start searching for whom to blame
3. If the root cause matches their personal beliefs, then they stop searching
4. Otherwise, they return to step 2 and keep searching …
The motive of the killer, as indicated by what he called out in the synagogue (“All Jews must die”), and what he posted online appears to be either (a) anti-semitism, (b) anti-immigration, or (c) both. That gives us starting points that can lead in any number of directions:
- Killer is an anti-semite -> Trump “dog-whistles” to far-right groups who are anti-semites thus “emboldening” them to act violently -> Blame Trump
- Killer is anti-immigration -> Last Shabbat was a “refugee Shabbat” celebrated by 300 synagogues in 23 states -> Trump is anti-immigration -> Blame Trump
- Killer is an anti-semite -> Killer had a reason to hate Jews -> Netanyahu government policies regarding the Palestinians give people reason to hate Jews -> Blame Netanyahu
- Killer collected and used semi-automatic weapons -> Trump is in bed with the NRA -> Blame gun laws and/or Trump
- Trump states that if the synagogue had armed guards, things would have turned out differently -> Trump is a “victim blamer” -> Blame Trump
Opinions like these have spread like wildfire in the wake of the attack, but it’s important to note that they are often reflective of the political bias of the respective commentators more than any genuine analytical process.
Occam’s Razor is a problem solving principle that states the simplest solution tends to be the correct one. The sad thing is that for many people (myself included), there is a far simpler solution to determine the root cause in this situation: killer is an anti-semite -> blame the killer. Instead of twisting ourselves into knots hunting for root causes that validate our political biases, stick to the pattern has been going on for thousands of years.