Friday, September 15, 2017

When Our Evidence Doesn't Hold Up


We are in a funny time in culture when we have all these social science studies that are being cherry picked and used for political purposes (most of which I agree with) and in the last year or so it's been discovered that there's a major replication crises with so many of those studies. So now, if you point out the problems with the studies you get labeled as a racist/sexist/etc.
When I first heard of The Implicit Bias Test I was skeptical. Not because I didn't think that we all have implicit biases we don't acknowledge or admit. But because the core assumptions seemed inadequate to me. The idea that minute time gaps in associating words and pictures could only be explained by latent racism/sexism/homophobia/etc. seems preposterous to me. My understanding of human psychology (as a layperson with no official education on the subject) is that all kinds of biases fall under a giant umbrella bias, which is simply this: We are more comfortable with what we are familiar with. That seems so... like... DUH! OF COURSE that is the case. But it is not an evaluation of an individual, nor does it offer prescriptive solutions to what is simply human nature. I think this is why white people hire people with white sounding names more than unfamiliar names. I'd bet my left pinky finger that people in India predominantly hire people with familiar Indian names. It's not because they harbor deep distrust of a specific race. It's because they are naturally drawn to what is familiar and repulsed by what is not.
To me, what makes one more or less racist is not what the 'system 1' gut reaction is to less familiar races. It's HOW OFTEN and HOW ENGAGED we are with turning on our 'system 2' reasoning skills in order to challenge those gut reactions. Are we content with our gut reactions? Do we rationalize them and reinforce them? That is the path to racism. Having 'Implicit Bias' is not equal to 'being racist' any more than not being able to pronounce a foreign word the first time you see it.
Another problem I've not heard brought up with the racism form of these tests is another super basic part of human psychology. We evolved to be afraid of the dark. Night time is the scary bad time of being eaten or robbed. Black is almost universally seen as negative in most cultures. (OF COURSE there are exceptions) The idea that flashing a negative-association word, then a picture of a dark skinned face, and assuming that the time difference to react is indicative of racism seems fundamentally flawed to me for that reason.
Anyway, here's a great podcast where two liberals talk about the problems with the Implicit Bias Tests, but more interesting to me, the How and Why of why it got so popular. (among certain demographics) Racism is OBVIOUSLY a huge problem for all societies and as humans, we owe it to future generations to work towards ways to end it both on the personal side, and systemically. But that fact should not bind us to poorly done science.

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