Hypothesis, Philosophy, Politics, Top Stories

Racism and Underdetermination by Evidence

This week, Starbucks will be shutting down 8000 of its stores for one day. Employees at these locations will undergo anti-discrimination training, including arguably dubious efforts to combat implicit bias. And all of this is a response to the recent arrest of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson—both black men in their twenties—at a Philadelphia Starbucks, which triggered widespread condemnation and accusations that a culture of anti-black prejudice pervades the coffee chain.

Slightly different accounts of the incident have been given by different news outlets, but something like the following sequence of events seems to have taken place. Upon arriving at the Starbucks in Rittenhouse Square, Mr Nelson asked to use the restroom. Permission was refused by the manager, who told him that the facilities were for paying customers only. Mr Nelson and Mr Robinson then took a seat at a table. The manager asked them if she could bring them drinks or water, and they declined, saying they were waiting to meet someone. Mr Nelson and Mr Robinson were then asked to leave by the manager, on the grounds that they had not bought anything. They refused. The manager then phoned the police and reported that there were “two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave.” Police officers arrived soon afterwards and asked Mr Nelson and Mr Robinson to leave. Again, they refused. The police officers continued to speak to them while they waited for backup to arrive. During this time, Mr Nelson and Mr Robinson’s contact arrived and questioned the police, accusing them of discrimination. More police officers arrived, and Mr Nelson and Mr Robinson were arrested on suspicion of trespassing. Some of the incident was captured in a video, subsequently posted online. The unappetising image of two black men—who had remained civil and calm throughout the process—being led away in handcuffs for an apparent triviality, soon went viral.

At which point the Frappuccino hit the fan: a number of protests at Starbucks have been staged, with participants chanting slogans such as “Starbucks’ coffee is anti-black”; calls have been made to boycott the chain; the city of Philadelphia—in discussion with Mr Nelson and Mr Robinson—has agreed to provide a $200,000 grant to fund a programme supporting state high school students to become entrepreneurs; and the Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross apologised unreservedly (abrogating a previous defence of the police officers’ actions) and announced new guidelines for officers in similar situations. Within the organisation itself, Starbucks’s executive chairman and chief executive, Howard Schultz and Kevin Johnson, met with Mr Nelson and Mr Robinson to apologise personally. Starbucks is now discussing a number of changes to policy in response to the incident, and has reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the two men.

Despite the raft of measures taken in the wake of the incident, opinion is divided over whether this was really a case of racially motivated discrimination. For every person decrying the incident as evidence of systemic racism, both in Starbucks and society at large, there are others who are unable to find evidence of racial bias lying under the surface events. In the sprawling comment threads below myriad online articles about the incident, many have been quick to generalize from their own lives. Whites who have been asked to buy-or-leave sometimes appeal to their own experiences to dismiss any suggestion of impropriety. Conversely, the whites who have sat undisturbed in cafes without buying anything sometimes appeal to their experience to draw the opposite conclusion. Who is right? And, importantly, how can we tell?

In an interesting way, the Starbucks incident parallels one of the historical cruces of the scientific revolution. In 1613, when Galileo published his most important findings on planetary motion, they included a compelling piece of evidence for heliocentrism: the phases of Venus. The Galilean hypothesis that the Earth orbited the sun made it possible to explain and predict the different distributions of light observable on the planet at different times. But when Galileo presented these findings to the Catholic church (who, for various reasons, preferred the geocentric view) shortly after his publication, a number of astronomers pointed out that the phases of Venus observed by Galileo were consistent with an alternative geocentric view advanced by Tycho Brahe. Tycho believed, roughly, that all the planets orbited the sun but that the sun orbited the earth. Tycho’s astronomical view will sound strange to the modern ear, but it was a very popular theory of planetary motion in its time. This was, in part, because it made successful predictions regarding the movement of heavenly bodies—especially, for example, the seemingly backwards motion of planets.

What this example shows is that the same evidence used to support one theory can also be used to support a competing theory. Philosophers call this the problem of contrastive underdetermination. In other words, the theory is underdetermined in the sense that the evidence equally supports two competing hypotheses. In this case, the views of both Galileo and Tycho were supported empirically by the phases of Venus. Heliocentrism was, of course, eventually decisively vindicated, but not every hypothesis we might entertain is so unequivocal in this regard. Sometimes competing hypotheses will predict all the same observations or events, or, at least, all the observations and events we are in a position to make or witness. When this happens, it isn’t clear how, or if, the evidence could confirm one hypothesis over the other.

This problem is not merely academic. Nor is it restricted to issues in science. Underdetermination can get personal. Last year, one of the authors (Anthony) took a trip to Costco. He had to use the restroom and tried to enter via the exit (the bathrooms are located near the exit). As faithful Costco members know, for some locations, entering via the exit is a cardinal sin. He had just watched an older white man enter through the exit and thought he would try his luck. He was quickly stopped. Anthony is of Middle Eastern decent and had an unruly beard at the time, and he asked if he’d been stopped “because I’m not white?” The Costco employee did not take this well and some brief shouting took place. At the time, Anthony believed that the evidence supported the view that he had been stopped because he wasn’t white. After all, there is some evidence for this. A white man had entered through the exit and wasn’t stopped.

Faced with evidence like this, how can we go about weighing its strength? Though it wasn’t available in Galileo’s time, today there is a satisfyingly elegant mathematical theory of confirmation formulated by the eighteenth century mathematician and Presbyterian minister Thomas Bayes. It allows us to calculate the degree of support, or confirmation, a hypothesis has as a result of some evidence, and our overall knowledge. To do this, we need to know:

  1. To what extent a hypothesis predicts the evidence offered in its support.
  2. How likely the hypothesis was in the first place (i.e. prior to gaining this evidence).
  3. How likely the evidence was to turn up anyway (i.e. even if the hypothesis didn’t hold).

The more likely the hypothesis in the first place based on independent background knowledge, and the more it predicts the evidence, the more probable the hypothesis given the evidence. Conversely, if the evidence was likely to turn up irrespective of whether or not the hypothesis is correct, then its explanatory power diminishes. Here is how this plays out in the Costco incident:

  • Evidence1: A non-white male was prevented from entering through the exit at Costco.
  • Evidence2: A white male was not prevented from entering through the same exit moments before.
  • Hypothesis1: The Costco employee who stopped the non-white male is biased against non-whites.

Here hypothesis 1 predicts both of the pieces of evidence. As such, the evidence provides a degree of confirmation for the hypothesis. So far, so good. The problem, though, is that the hypothesis is underdetermined by the evidence. There are competing theories equally supported by the evidence, some of which seem just as likely in the first place as the initial conclusion. Here is an equally plausible hypothesis which could explain the evidence:

  • Evidence1: A non-white male was prevented from entering through the exit at Costco.
  • Evidence2: A white male was not prevented from entering through the same exit moments before.
  • Hypothesis2: The Costco employee aims to stop all customers from entering though the exit, but did not observe the white male.

Again, the hypothesis predicts both pieces of evidence, and so both pieces of evidence provide a degree of confirmation for the hypothesis. Here’s another:

  • Evidence1: A non-white male was prevented from entering through the exit at Costco.
  • Evidence2: A white male was not prevented from entering through the same exit moments before.
  • Hypothesis3: The Costco employee aims to stop all customers from entering though the exit, but the white male is an employee.

And so on. All three hypotheses equally predict and are equally supported by the available evidence. Nor does any one of these hypotheses seem obviously more likely in the first place than any other. A quick examination of the Starbucks incident reveals something similar: competing hypotheses are underdetermined by the available evidence.

  • Evidence1: The manager at Starbucks refused to give Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson the bathroom code.
  • Evidence2: The manager at Starbucks asked Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson to leave, and called the police when they did not.
  • Hypothesis1: The manager at Starbucks did these things because she was biased against non-whites.

Now, for many, arriving at this hypothesis seems like a perfectly good bit of reasoning. Moreover, it’s certainly possible that the conclusion is correct. But how probable is the conclusion and are there equally plausible alternatives that might be reasonably drawn given the available evidence? As it happens, the evidence in the Starbucks case seems to be equally well predicted by at least one alternative hypothesis (no doubt there are others). Consider, for example, that the Starbucks outlet at the centre of the dispute had staff guidelines stating that non-paying customers must be asked to leave, and that the police should be called if they refuse. This additional information lends support to a different hypothesis:

  • Evidence1: The manager at Starbucks refused to give Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson the bathroom code.
  • Evidence2: The manager at Starbucks asked Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson to leave.
  • Hypothesis2: The manager at Starbucks took these decisions because they are required by store policy and she enforces store policy regardless of race.

Evidenceand Evidencealso support Hypothesis2. Given the available evidence, both theories are underdetermined. So what of parts two and three of Bayes’s theorem? How likely was the racism hypothesis prior to gaining the evidence, and how likely was the evidence to turn up even if the racism hypothesis doesn’t hold? If you take it for granted that racism is both widespread and of the sort that leads to discrimination in action, then, given those background beliefs, the likelihood that the incident was a product of racism will be quite high. If, on the other hand, you think that the sort of racism that results in active discrimination is not widespread, or if you think it likely that Starbucks managers generally and consistently enforce store policy towards non-paying customers, then, given those background beliefs, the likelihood that the incident was a product of racism will be low. The most obvious next step is to gather more evidence, as Galileo and other heliocentric advocates had to do. An obvious place to start is to investigate whether or not the manager inflexibly enforces store policy regardless of race. This could break the predictive symmetry and support one hypothesis over the other.

However, it is more likely that no-one will bother with this kind of humdrum investigative work, and the case will remain underdetermined. What then? We want to encourage two things: epistemic humility and epistemic grace.

Epistemic humility involves resisting the temptation to draw a conclusion when that conclusion is underdetermined by the evidence. That can be hard. There is discomfort in admitting that you don’t know. But doing so is a necessary first step in honest inquiry and authentic attempts to seek truths. We need to be cognisant of the background beliefs on which our judgements depend, and honest about when those background beliefs aren’t justified. Too often, pundits and news outlets are happy to proffer confident takes on events without doing anything like the groundwork needed to support their conclusions. While it’s unlikely that the chattering classes will cultivate epistemic humility any time soon, as consumers of information we can guard against inheriting unjustified beliefs from them by being conscious of when the claims are underdetermined by the available evidence.

Epistemic humility leads to epistemic grace. We should not be irrationally uncharitable. In the absence of evidence, we need to resist the temptation to interpret every negative interaction between a white person and non-white person as a case of racism. This unfortunate assumption is one that is all too common today; it breeds paranoia and further alienates an already divided culture. It’s also reinforced by the notion that taking racism seriously requires us to interpret events as racist whenever possible, even when the evidence doesn’t support that conclusion above others. Racist discrimination is real, and there are plenty of cases where the evidence points unambiguously to this. But when it’s genuinely underdetermined (or, worse, when the evidence points the other way) chalking someone’s behavior up to racism isn’t a mark of moral purity, it is just a failure to investigate the facts. Carefully seeking the truth and fighting racism aren’t at odds with one another. This should be a platitude. Unfortunately, in 2018 it is not. Similarly, when our beliefs are underdetermined, we, as a society and as individuals, should grant those with whom we have a disagreement a reasonable amount of grace. For one thing, both those who see racism in the Starbucks incident, and those who do not, can be at least conditionally rational. The depth, breadth and character of racism in American society is a hotly debated topic. Your interlocutor may be unduly hasty, or just plain wrong, but it would be rash to simply assume stupidity or disingenuousness on the part of those who read the situation differently.

The antidote to polarisation and mutual incomprehension is epistemic humility, epistemic grace, and open discussion. By employing these tools, we can dig down and uncover the presuppositions that drive others’ thinking, and our own. It’s only when these presuppositions are excavated that we have a chance of meaningful dialogue: the kind of meaningful dialogue that can actually get people to change their minds in light of evidence, work their way towards the truth, but accept when the facts lie out of reach. Maybe one day enough pieces of the puzzle will be in place for us to make a credible guess at the motivations of the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks manager. Until then, we should be prepared to be charitable in our judgements of others and find a way to live with the remaining uncertainty.


James Collin, Ph.D. lives in Edinburgh, UK and teaches philosophy, science, and religion at The University of Edinburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @jamiecollin

Anthony Bolos, Ph.D., lives in Richmond, VA and teaches philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University.



  1. codadmin says

    Anti-whites racists are conspiracy theorists. Evidence is racist as is context.

    • Gregg G. Brown says

      Huh? I think you’ll have to provide some convincing context and evidence for your brah Aaron to be convincing….

      • Gregg G. Brown says

        brah Aaron = brash argument
        Darn autocorrect! Still not used to this new gestural keypad!

  2. Nick says

    i agree with the article for the most part but I would add one troubling assertion. It is rare that white people run into situations where people of color are allowed access and they are the “unlucky ones” who are caught. There is, undoubtably, an implicit bias at work in all of us. We do tend to trust people who look like us and spot out strange behaviors of people who don’t. We should not rush to judgement over people motives, but it’s hard to be a thinking person and deny that skin color association does play a part in people’s decisions, accidental or not. As an aside,I don’t believe the IB tests prove anything. I passed mine twice with flying colors and I’m sure I have plenty of IB. The test is just a hand I coordination game.

    • There’s no evidence, despite much seeking, that implicit bias has an actual effect on any of our behavior — implicit bias is a ghost hunt to begin with, since apparently, you don’t even know you’re having the thoughts.

      So, it’s clear that there’s no evidence that Starbucks acted in a racist way. How do you know that there haven’t been cases where a white guy was the ‘unlucky’ one by pure chance? When there’s no evidence of racism, we can’t conclude “It must be racism!” This reaction by Starbucks was unfortunate and could have been used to support rationality against the mob, always a winning strategy.

      • Bill says

        We’re asked to take on faith that the case of the white guy being the “unlucky” one as rare while discarding the possibility it is just under-reported [by the media]. Numerous studies address the ability of media coverage density swaying belief.

          • Bill says

            Google scholar, framing theory and persuasion are keywords to start from. Lots of discussion and study on use of media and framing coupled with persuasion for political campaigns in peer journals focused on journalism and poli-sci.

      • Nick says

        I agree that racism likely didn’t play a part in the Starbucks case. The Costco case may be a different story. I don’t think that the person who stopped the person of color was racist, but that they may have noticed the behavior because they were drawn to the attention of a person who didn’t look like them self’s. This is where IB is likely to show up. There is and should be no legal recourse in these situations because you can’t prove a negative and shouldn’t have to prove that your not a racist, but I do believe that the problem does exist.

        • Curle says

          Which brings us to the question is it really possible to socially moderate in populations of differing size, customs and abilities in a way that will successfully eliminate tribal paranoia? What if accepting and implementing notions like epistemic humility and grace are easier in high IQ majority populations and less likely in lower average IQ minority populations? What then?

          If you are both a minority suffering from whatever vissitudes even mild tribalism sends your way and your group is less capable by non-tribal factors to adapt, where does that leave the society? In a continuous media promoted Cold War?

        • Bill says

          Ok, so your position is the Costco case is racist because they noticed something different. I was in a Kroger (regional grocery) and had a customer come up and ask me a question. Was it because of my skin color? Or because I was wearing clothes similar to color/style worn by the employees there (blue)? You’ve discarded that possibility in the Costco case and gone straight to the slanderous racism extreme. I don’t know, was the first case the old white guy wearing long pants and a polo shirt where the black man was wearing shorts and a basketball tank? In the former case, the white guy was dressed like a Costco worker and the black guy clearly wasn’t — nothing to do with skin pigmentation.

          • Nick says

            I think the word racism is to strong to apply here. A racist believes that people derserve different treatment based on race. In the Costco situation we are saying that it is possible for a person to make judgements based on different looking people seeming more suspicious uncouncously. Maybe it was the clothing or maybe it was skin color, both have happened by accident before all of us have done it. The problem is that you can change your clothes, not your skin. This is why the “black community” hates Rachel Dolezal. It seems unfair for her to claim that she is black when she can unclaimed it with a quick change of hair and clothes if need be.

    • ga gamba says

      It is rare that white people run into situations where people of color are allowed access and they are the “unlucky ones” who are caught.

      Prove it.

      Or it could be most people, when caught, don’t throw a conniption and draw attention to themselves that they tried to get away with something. However, some other people have learnt that hollering “racism” pays off. The gambit is less likely to pay off for whites.

      Have you even been a passenger in a car pulled over over by police and the driver whinges, “What about everyone else?” I had that tactic knocked out my head by my parents by the time I was 8. Here’s a secret to life: Don’t give people grief. Every time I’ve been pulled over by police I’ve been exceedingly polite, don’t argue, don’t feign ignorance, and admit my faults. “What made you drive through the red light?” “Stupidity.” Astounded cop: “I like someone who admits their mistake. Here’s your licence. Drive more carefully.”

      People may be biased against you. Or maybe you’re behaving like an arse.

      • Nick says

        I have a unique perspective or this. I am a straight, white sis gender(lol) male. When I was a teenager I was into punk music so I dressed accordingly, yellow plaid pants, big Mohawk etc. on multiple occasions I was asked to open my bag or empty my pockets by store clerks, I had bus drivers not let me on, I was pulled over multiple times by police where they would search us find some contraband on someone (lucky, never me) and let everyone else go. It was stop and frisk before it was cool. Once I started dressing normally all attention went away and I was treated completely differently. This was obviously biased based on my appearance. I had the benefit of being able to slap on slacks and a button up and look like everyone else if need be. This is an antidote but the evidence for me was overwhelming.

    • graham says

      Diversity initiatives which are now widespread in institutions and corporations in USA and other western countries make white people “unlucky ones” by the thousands.

      • Nick says

        That is a great example of explicit bias which I think is a different topic all together. However I agree that these practices have come with large inter and intra personal challenges for the students who receive them. There is a great case to be made for removing them entirely or, at least, go with an NFL coaching style of equity enhancement (hope that term isn’t to triggering).

    • OtherWay says

      This statement contradicts established law.
      “It is rare that white people run into situations where people of color are allowed access and they are the “unlucky ones” who are caught.”
      And is therefore willfully ignorant.

      Affirmative Action (law) guarantees that there are many situations where people of color are allowed access and white people are the “unlucky ones”. Measured at Universities, this preference for people of color is equivalent to 200 SAT points (a massive difference – just for a tan).

      We all know Malia Obama goes where she pleases and does what she likes.
      Why she should get massive perks in your bizarre world of “group oppression matters more than the individual” is beyond my comprehension.

      • Nick says

        Does the presidents daughter really represent the experience that the average person of color faces. Isn’t this a red harring? I think the secret service and endless bank account has something to do with her getting whatever she pleases.

      • Contra the “cops are always shooting innocent black people” idea, Dr. Lois James, research assistant professor at Washington State University-Spokane’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, headed a study on racial bias in police shootings and says that his “research found that participants displayed significant bias favoring Black suspects” in their shooting decisions. He found that:

        • Officers were less likely to erroneously shoot unarmed black suspects than they were unarmed whites — 25 times less likely, in fact

        • And officers hesitated significantly longer before shooting armed suspects who were black, compared to armed subjects who were white or Hispanic

        Source: https://www.policeone.com/use-of-force/articles/7653755-Cops-hesitate-more-err-less-when-shooting-black-suspects-study-finds/

        Fear of being accused of racism gives blacks a lot of leeway it many things in the U.S. — from police shootings to college admissions, with everyday encounters in between.

    • John McCormick says

      What is sure is that the news media in the US (at least) is more likely to report the incidents you claim are prevalent. We know this because we can compare national US media reports of police violence against minorities with the results of a Google Alert for “police violence” which show that local and regional news reports carry many stories of unarmed “white” victims of police violence that are never picked up by national media such as the New York Times, CNN, NPR etc. Please see “Journalism Should Own Its Liberalism: And then manage it, challenge it, and account for it” by Thomas B. Edsall in the Columbia Journalism Review (October 8, 2009). Note that Edsall’s reputation is that of a progressivist/liberal (US connotation) commentator. Also see Pew Research Center (a progressivist think tank) evaluations of media bias.

      I agree that we all have biases. This is a fact of our species’ evolution. Rationalism-based education is really the only antidote. Little of what the political left offers is anything other than a shaming campaign. Cheers.

    • dirk says

      It’s not always like that Nick, sometimes you trust people with another skin colour more than those with your own. I once in Kenya said to a bar-owner where I was a regular guest, after carrying away a crate of beer to take home in my car, sorry, not enough cash, can I pay tomorrow? He nodded, and immediately somebody else thought to try the same, telling to pay next day for his debts of the day, but the bar owner refused at once. “But that’s racism” the man shouted, and I started to feel embarassed/uncomfortable for being (positively)discrimated, but all the other clients laughed at him, and I could go with my crate. Implicit or explicit bias or discrimination? No, of course, simple risk calculation/common sense of the barowner, the chance that I, white expatriate customer, wouldn’t pay my debt was about 100x smaller than that he wouldn’t (because, risks are never 0% or 100%). One risk he was prepared to take, the other not. That’s business. I told this anecdote before, so it is in the repeat.

      • Nick says

        Our experiences shape the way we see the world. Brother Ali is white, but he likely is biased in favor of black people because of his experiences. Most of us are more comfortable with people of our race and culture because that’s who we have been surrounded by our whole lives. This is why multiculturalism and all other forms of segrigation are so dangerous. Exposure is the only way to create racial harmony.

  3. Analyst says

    Great article! Racism should generally be proved by a pattern of behavior, and not one incident. One bone to pick though;
    I believe I read that white patrons in that Starbucks at the time of the incident said that they were sitting without making a purchase and were not bothered by the manager. If this is true it is a key piece of evidence omitted in the article.

    • ga gamba says

      I believe I read that white patrons in that Starbucks at the time of the incident said that they were sitting without making a purchase and were not bothered by the manager.

      Did these non-paying customers draw attention to themselves by going to the counter, asking for a key to the lavatory, and refusing to buy something too?

      If you want to remain off the radar, don’t announce “I’m here. Notice me.”

      In conclusion, I despise non-paying seat occupying moochers. Moochers are the worst.

  4. They remained calm while ignoring direct orders from the police to leave who were only doing there jobs. Look we can argue whether the Starbucks manager went too far too fast but there is zero evidence of racism here. Any time we get to the mind reading phase with something as serious as calling someone a racist I just tune out. To me its totally rational to ask someone to buy something or leave a place of business. It seems like to the younger generation the idea of loitering in a private place of buisness is totally unknown. Starbucks is now reaping what they sowed and the homeless and crazy are now hanging around your local Starbucks. In the last couple of weeks multiple dead people have been found in various Starbucks bathrooms. In a rational world those black men would have left Starbucks when asked and told family and friends not to support Starbucks. Maybe had a blog post about it. In the crazy world we live in they are heroes that are probably getting thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars for refusing to leave a place of business when asked because they weren’t purchasing anything.

    • ga gamba says

      They remained calm while ignoring direct orders from the police to leave who were only doing there jobs.

      So much for The Talk™ they purportedly get from their parents. In one ear and out the other.

    • In my imagination, the two “played” the manager and the police, and they made a big-time score. Not bad for a few hours of work.

  5. Aaron says

    Basically all this means is that you are not permitted to enforce store policies if the violator is black or you as the enforcer are white. Ironically, the true consequence of events like this is that I as a white person must reduce all interactions with black people because I run a 100% risk of being called a racist if they happen to be offended. It’s sad because I didn’t have to think this way until quite recently.

    • dtlajim says

      I can certainly understand your dispiriting conclusion. As a black person, I see this as a very sad state of affairs.

    • Well, it’s a loss for everybody to be honest. You see the flip side of this from a black person perspective is that they see all these stories of white people being racist for no reason (some true, some false). Hence, they too come to a certain conclusion. They believe that they should reduce all interaction with white people because they run the risk of having the police called on them or suffer a racist encounter.

  6. If you’re not a customer in a coffee shop, refuse to buy anything when asked and refuse to leave when asked by the staff and still refuse when the police are called, you are an entitled, poorly raised piece of shit and deserve whatever is coming to you.

  7. Jack B. Nimble says

    ‘…………….The more likely the hypothesis in the first place based on independent background knowledge, and the more it predicts the evidence, the more probable the hypothesis given the evidence. Conversely, if the evidence was likely to turn up irrespective of whether or not the hypothesis is correct, then its explanatory power diminishes…..’

    Ahhhh….. the simplicity and intuitive nature of Bayes’ theorem should not be allowed to obscure its weaknesses. ‘Background knowledge’ is usually called a prior, and a true Bayesian acknowledges that priors are subjective and can vary from individual to individual. If the amount of new data is large, the evidence will overwhelm the prior–so posterior probabilities should converge to the same conclusion, regardless of the individual doing the calculation.

    Unfortunately, that’s not the case here, since there is effectively one data point–one customer[s]/manager interaction.

    In brief, one would have to collect data over a long period of time and maybe from several different Starbucks outlets [using in-store surveillance camera footage??] to be able to overcome the effect of the prior probability.

    What is YOUR prior probability for ‘Hypothesis1: The manager at Starbucks did these things because she was biased against non-whites.’

    Some Bayesians would argue for the use of a uniformly-distributed or non-informative prior, but what is the universe of possible hypotheses in this situation? At this point, the simplicity of Bayes’ Theorem collapses.

    I can’t specify a prior probability for Hypothesis #1 above, but then, I’m not a Bayesian. See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prior_probability

  8. mattw06992014 says

    The two guys at Starbucks were not kicked out/arrested because they were black. They were kicked out/arrested for being stupid. There’s a penalty for being stupid. They walk into a Starbucks and draw attention to themselves instead of sitting there quietly. Then they reacted exceptionally badly when discovered. Really these guys are just idiots and have no idea how to behave in public.

    Everybody, except apparently blacks, knows that if you don’t buy something at an establishment then be quiet, don’t draw attention to yourself. If you are ever discovered then just buy something. This has happened to me before, and I just bought something instead of making a scene. One time I didn’t want to buy something so I just left when told to do so. Simple.

    Why can whites get away with not buying anything? Because they’re not so stupid as to draw attention to themselves. If you have to go to the bathroom then that means you have to buy something. So buy something or hold it.

    • OtherWay says

      In a TV interview with them, the reporter asked them why they didn’t buy something or just leave. They were both honestly shocked and confused that this was an expectation.
      They have lived on the Democrat free-stuff plantation so long and so deeply – that they honestly don’t actually know how a regular business operates.

    • You make a big point there. Contrast, for ex., a white guy smoking a joint in his own home — being quiet and laid back, watching “2012” for the 13th time — with a black guy walking down the middle of the street, being loud and with a doob in his hand.

      Recall Ferguson, when, after strong-arming a store-owner (https://youtu.be/t_ErCzbXOxU), Michael Brown, instead of getting out of there and hiding, *walks down the middle of the street.* Cop sees him and remembers him — and THEN gets a call about the robbery, and gets a description of the suspect. Having seen the obvious walking down the middle of the street, he rolls back up on Brown. Brown then cussed the cop out and attacked him while the cop was sitting in his own car, and the rest is History. But the point is that if Brown had used the sidewalk and hadn’t been walking down the middle of the street, he might not have been found at all in the first place.

      Seems to me that a lot of the trouble some people get into stems from just not being “cool” — not being aware of how they’re coming off. Or not giving a damn about it.

  9. Peter Kriens says

    I understood this article’s subject to be ‘Epistemic humility’ and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it because I often find it hard to understand how flimsy the evidence is on which people judge. However, reading the comments it seems to be about racism? Did I miss something?

    • Jack B. Nimble says

      @Peter Kriens — Excellent point!

      Bayesian analysis does help us understand that STRONG priors [such as implicit bias] can overwhelm even large amounts of data. For example:

      ‘Hypothesis1: The manager at Starbucks did these things because she was biased against non-whites.’

      David Duke has a prior of ZERO because he believes that whites are always the victims of racism, never the instigators of racism.

      An anonymous BLM protestor has a prior of 100% because he believes that whites are always the instigators of racism, never the victims of racism.

      Duke’s posterior probability will remain at ZERO no matter how much data are collected, and similarly for the BLM protestor.

      I think that–with cases like the Starbucks incident, the Waffle House incidents, etc.–most people bring along pre-written internal scripts about ‘human nature’ and ‘common sense’, which they then use to ‘analyze’ the incidents. An example of this is ga gamba’s very revealing comment:

      ‘ I had that tactic knocked out my head by my parents by the time I was 8. Here’s a secret to life: Don’t give people grief….’

      • ga gamba says

        Indeed it does. Much of our lives is scripted in part. Why? Because we may learn from others’ experience to distinguish viable from nonviable, though there also exist benign conventions, which are scripts, such as saying “God bless you”, a scripted response, when a person sneezes. (To digress for a moment, everyone ought to check out I Turned My Coworker Into HR When She Gave Me A Christmas Card, And She Changed My Heart, a story about resenting a script and its outcome.) Just as we are beneficiaries of others long ago building bridges and constructing the power grid infrastructure, we also benefit from scripts, these social structures, written by others. Some may protest that these scripts are oppressive, and aspects can be, but because we don’t live in a totalitarian system we have a great deal of freedom to improvise.

        Now, why would my parents not only refuse to accept my protest “Everyone else does so!” but also increase my punishment when I uttered it? Were they cruel and capricious? No. The wanted me to own my behaviour and take responsibility. If one allows him/herself the latitude to rationalise errors and misbehaviour, and this is iterated again and again over time, what will be the outcome? Ever greater the number and magnitude of errors and misbehaviour. You’ll likely end up associating with people who think and do likewise, and others you can abuse, further increasing the likelihood of running afoul with someone who can’t be pushed around. It’s better to police yourself rather than have others do so. My parents wanted me to reject an unviable script for a viable one.

        • Bill says

          Aka…culture. Certain cultures teach their young that you don’t give others grief and you follow rules, that if you are somewhere and didn’t buy something and they say buy or leave that you respect those rules. Other cultures teach their young they are entitled to do whatever they want because of traits they were born with. ’tis ironic that the same people who are livid about a rich teen requesting leniency due to “affluenza” have an issue with a black person demanding leniency due to skin-pigment-fluenza.

          • When I read comments like that I wonder if the person has ever interacted with a black person.

          • Indie Wifey says

            for ava – different appearances (while totally wrong and bad ways to read anyone) create scenarios where one can be singled out, and it can happen anywhere with anyone. from retail establishments to airport security, even such as “fashion expression” can have concrete, negative effects – trust me. it’s all the judgy posturing in the midst of all this so-called inclusiveness that sets up scenarios for dangerous over interpretation – hence “bill’s” take. imo it’s the hypocrisy tied directly to skewed factuality + what gets singled out for advocacy, and the immediate defaulting to racist accusation that keeps us all so on fences – and on opposite sides of them

  10. Andrew says

    Just watch MSNBC. I think “racism” has become an industry. People look for it like i look for the latest Aaron Rodgers news. Except what Rodgers does is trivial and factual, while the racism media conglomerate is anything but and heresay.

  11. Ron W. says

    Starbucks is well known for letting people hang out for hours without buying much of anything, if anything. How many times would the good Reverend Bayes something like this have to happen to you or people of your color before you were justified in thinking you were being discriminated against?

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  13. This article leaves out important facts. Customers in the store at the time wondered by the black men were being singled out for something they did. It is customary at that locale for people to sit and wait for acquaintances to join them. Many regular customers of that Starbucks shop wondered the black men were being targeted when they knew perfectly well they routinely perform the same behaviors they did.

    This store fostered a culture where people felt at ease to come and go as they pleased. I suspect on the assumption this was good for business. Treating people of color differently when engaging in the same behavior as whites certainly seems to indicate some kind of implicit bias.

  14. Shenme Shihou says

    “Starbucks’ coffee is anti-black”

    Well, this is quite true. Good coffee should be consumed black. If your business model is to burn coffee beans to the point that they require enough added sugar (at an upcharge, mind you) to put you in a diabetic coma, then you are anti black.

    Likewise, if you feel your coffee needs an alchemy textbokks worth of ingredients to make it drinkable then you too are anti blakc. You should just save $5 an get some off brand energy shot.

    What Im saying is Starbucks has terrible coffee. Good article though.

    • Shenme Shihou says

      Yes, my hatred for Starbucks is the likely reason for those typos.

  15. Indie Wifey says

    1) it’s a place of business, it is not, for instance, a public library or a food court or a (u call the public forum)
    2) places of business require patrons in order to exist, so the expectation of purchase is reasonable, reasonably publically broadcast and practiced, from basic signage to the generally held awareness of how businesses function in a free market, especially at the retail level

    the “training” and new statutes put loiterers above paying patrons, given that table space and restroom access can be = or skewed in favor of the loiterers. this flies in the face of any premise where profit = existence

    all that said, it’ll be business as normal in many many places, as despite the divisive hoopla over – well – everything; such is reality, for better or worse, such is the great balancer that is organic change over time. the concern will be where locales are targeted as testing grounds, cell phone cameras (and that pervasive desire to be a part of something viral) on the ready

      • Indie Wifey says

        sure – unofficial concessions can def lead to appearances of policy, and different people aka customers and/or loiterers will have different comfort levels as to what they do/don’t do, in terms of occupying space etc. kind of a lose lose scenario, imo, if end game is to sell product in order to thrive as business

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