Recently, John Tierney who writes a Science column in the New York Times has shown great skepticism about the concept of implicit bias, how it might be measured (through the Implicit Association Test), and whether it predicts real-world behavior. See, e.g., Findings column (Nov. 17, 2008). I write to make provide praise, critique, and cultural commentary.
First, praise. I praise Tierney’s skepticism, which is fundamental to critical inquiry generally and good science especially. Serious, critical inquiry is why most of us got into academics, and it’s why you the reader are reading this blog.
Second, critique. But skepticism should not be one-sided. Tierney’s columns suggest that one side is just asking for good, skeptical science, whereas the other side is pushing along a politically correct agenda recklessly. That is hardly fair and balanced. To take one example, Tierney gives prominent weight to Prof. Phil Tetlocks’ criticisms of the implicit bias research. But let’s probe further. In an article by Tetlock and Prof. Gregory Mitchell (UVA Law) attacking the science, the authors suggest that one of the reasons that Whites may perform worse on the Black-White IAT is because of a phenomenon called “stereotype threat”. They write that Whites “react to the identity threat posed by the IAT by choking under stress–and performing even worse on the IAT, thus confirming the researchers’ original stereotype of them.” 67 Ohio St. L.J. 1023, 1079 (2006).
For this “choke under threat” explanation, Tetlock and Mitchell cite a single study. Moreover, they do not turn their powerful skepticism against this body of work, launched by Prof. Claude Steele at Stanford, which explains why negative stereotypes can depress test performance. This body of work, if taken as seriously as Tetlock and Mitchell do in a throw-away line, challenges the use of standardized examinations in university admissions. But I doubt that that’s what Tetlock and Mitchell would call for, as a matter of policy. So why not be methodologically pure and go after the stereotype threat work with equal vigor and skepticism? Instead, they deploy “stereotype threat” science without raising an eyebrow, since it fits their arsenal of critique of the “implicit bias” science.
The general point is that it’s facile to think that one side has the scientific purists — just seeking good data and good science, and the other side has the political hacks. And self-serving reasoning no doubt infects us all, on both sides. This is why we should trust long-run scientific equilibrium and be skeptical of both aggressive claims and their backlashes.
Third, cultural commentary. The readers’ comments to the Tierney articles are fascinating because they largely give no deference to scientific expertise. From the large N of 1, those who have taken the IAT conclude that the test must be nonsense and raise myriad confounds (without bothering to read the FAQs that explain how stimuli are randomized, etc.) If geneticists were debating the meaning of some expressed sequence tags or if astrophysicists were debating new evidence of dark matter, I wonder if readers would bother to chime in aggressively with their views. “I have plenty of genes, and that view about inheritability is nonsense!” “I’ve seen stars, and if I can’t see ‘em they must not exist!”
I suggest that we feel so personally connected to race and to gender (most of the comments focus on race) and are so personally invested in not being biased that we feel compelled toward such participation. Again, if some “coffee increases likelihood of ulcers” study came out, would people write in: “I drink coffee, and I don’t have an ulcer!!!” I don’t think so. What does that say about our current cultural moment? Perhaps it reveals a sort of intellectual prejudice-a proclivity not to take race research seriously, as nothing more than personal opinion, regardless of the scientific and statistical bona fides.
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Look, science always involves conflict. And in the long run, there’s no reason to think that this controversy won’t be resolved through the traditional scientific method and reach a long-run equilibrium consensus. But getting there has already been rocky and will continue to be. Maybe the implicit bias work, which is far more extensive than just the implicit association test (IAT), will turn out to be nothing more than “intelligent design”–just ideology (in that case religious) wrapped up in pseudo-science. Or, and I think this is far more likely, it will be another inconvenient truth that is established, as global warming ultimately was: We are not as colorblind as we hope to be, and on the margins, implicit associations in our brain alter our behavior in ways that we would rather they not. Certainly the balance of peer-reviewed studies in number and quality point in that direction.
In the end, time truly will tell. The real question is which side will maintain its scientific integrity when the results come in.
Full disclosure: I’m a co-author of Mahzarin Banaji, whose work is discussed in Tierney’s pieces. You can read my implicit bias work at: