Saturday, April 22, 2017

Maybe We're Not All Racists After All

It was probably 2 years ago now that I was supposed to attend 3 3-hr professional development presentations on "unconscious bias".  Presented by one of the most biased people I've ever encountered--one of the first things she said was that people opposed President Obama's policies because of his skin color--this CTA employee (are you surprised?) used this "Harvard University" tool to show that we're all racists.  I bailed on the remaining two sessions on the training, opting instead to review statistics with several of my math department colleagues who also chose not to attend and thought their time could be better spent reviewing material they'd soon be teaching under the Common Core standards that our district and state adopted.  It's not like my colleagues couldn't teach basic "normal curve" material, but since I teach statistics, we all thought it would be nice to "go deeper" so that they'd understand more than what they needed to teach.  We all agreed that our time was better spent.

So anyway, Ms. CTA enjoyed convincing everyone else that they're all racists.  Maybe the tool she loved so much isn't all it's cracked up to be, and maybe it found what it did because its creators wanted it to:
Since the IAT (implicit association test) was first introduced almost 20 years ago, its architects, as well as the countless researchers and commentators who have enthusiastically embraced it, have offered it as a way to reveal to test-takers what amounts to a deep, dark secret about who they are: They may not feel racist, but in fact, the test shows that in a variety of intergroup settings, they will act racist. This notion, and the data surrounding it, have fed into a very neat narrative explaining bias and racial justice in modern America. Sure, explicit measures of racism have been in decline for a while in the United States. It’s less socially acceptable than ever to say that black people and white people shouldn’t get married, or that black people are less intelligent than white people (though, to be sure, a solid minority of Americans still endorses such views). And yet, more than a half-century after the end of Jim Crow, all sorts of racial discrepancies persist: On average, darker-skinned people have less access to solid education, housing, and health care than lighter-skinned ones, and face various other forms of discrimination. The IAT suggests that, having addressed many of the most outrageous and explicit forms of public discrimination, our progress toward genuine racial equality may be continually stalled or undone by implicit bias.

That is, many IAT proponents argue that if people who don’t feel like they discriminate do, in fact, discriminate, that could explain those disparate outcomes. Maybe some white cops who claim racial empathy are still, deep down, more likely to pull the trigger in an ambiguous situation involving a black suspect than a white one. Maybe white real-estate agents who are proud Obama voters conjure up thin excuses — excuses that feel legitimate to them — to avoid renting nice units to black families. And the data produced by the IAT suggests that a solid majority of Americans hold implicit biases against marginalized groups — which means they are likely to commit acts of implicit bias against these groups...

Those co-creators are Mahzarin Banaji, currently the chair of Harvard University’s psychology department, and Anthony Greenwald, a highly regarded social psychology researcher at the University of Washington. The duo introduced the test to the world at a 1998 press conference in Seattle — the accompanying press release noted that they had collected data suggesting that 90–95 percent of Americans harbored the “roots of unconscious prejudice.” The public immediately took notice: Since then, the IAT has been mostly treated as a revolutionary, revelatory piece of technology, garnering overwhelmingly positive media coverage...

Given all this excitement, it might feel safe to assume that the IAT really does measure people’s propensity to commit real-world acts of implicit bias against marginalized groups, and that it does so in a dependable, clearly understood way. After all, the test is hosted by Harvard, endorsed and frequently written about by some of the top social psychologists and science journalists in the country, and is currently seen by many as the most sophisticated way to talk about the complicated, fraught subject of race in America.

Unfortunately, none of that is true. A pile of scholarly work, some of it published in top psychology journals and most of it ignored by the media, suggests that the IAT falls far short of the quality-control standards normally expected of psychological instruments. The IAT, this research suggests, is a noisy, unreliable measure that correlates far too weakly with any real-world outcomes to be used to predict individuals’ behavior — even the test’s creators have now admitted as such. The history of the test suggests it was released to the public and excitedly publicized long before it had been fully validated in the rigorous, careful way normally demanded by the field of psychology. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Harvard shouldn’t be administering the test in its current form, in light of its shortcomings and its potential to mislead people about their own biases. There’s also a case to be made that the IAT went viral not for solid scientific reasons, but simply because it tells us such a simple, pat story about how racism works and can be fixed: that deep down, we’re all a little — or a lot — racist, and that if we measure and study this individual-level racism enough, progress toward equality will ensue...

The IAT, it turns out, has serious issues on both the reliability and validity fronts, which is surprising given its popularity and the very exciting claims that have been made about its potential to address racism. That’s what the research says, at least, and it raises serious questions about how the IAT became such a social-science darling in the first place.
I've already identified why it became the darling--because it told leftists exactly what they wanted to hear.

Anyway, I really liked the closing paragraph:
Unless and until new research is published that can effectively address the countless issues with the implicit association test, it might be time for social psychologists interested in redressing racial inequality to reexamine their decision to devote so much time and energy to this one instrument. In the meantime, the field will continue to be hampered in its ability to provide meaningful answers to basic questions about how implicit bias impacts society, because answering those questions requires accurate tools. So, contra Banaji, scrutinizing the IAT and holding it to the same standards as any other psychological instrument isn’t a sign that someone doesn’t take racism seriously: It’s exactly the opposite.

1 comment:

Ellen K said...

Unfortunately, like any lie, people are more willing to believe what they want to believe over truth. So while the evidence is in on climate change, fracking, prejudice and more, people will believe what they want to believe based on how it enforces their views.