Posted David A. Lehrer and Joe R. Hicks
Having been in the civil rights field for several decades, we have read and been offered numerous explanations for the inequality that exists in America. From it being the product of overt racist beliefs on the part of bigots, to socio-economic explanations to historic discussions of the remnants of slavery--some analyses last, others prove ephemeral and faddy.
In recent years, a novel theory has taken hold that suggests that people harbor biases and prejudices of which even they are unaware ("implicit bias") and that those biases manifest themselves in the real world as discrimination and inequality.
The rise in popularity and acceptance of the Implicit Association Test (“IAT”) has offered what seemed like “evidence” that despite protestations of innocence, most of us harbor bias and that, as one advocate (Eva Patterson of the Equal Justice Society) has written—it is “social science research” that needs to be used “to prove that discrimination exists even when it is not tied to an overt act.” Patterson argues that the IAT is proof positive of just how pervasive and dangerous bigotry is---it has a hold on us of which we are unaware and it pervades how we act in the world. Patterson, and others, urge that the realtively new "science" needs to be drummed into the heads of judges and legislators to help them understand the world.
The IAT has become an exceptionally useful arrow in the quiver of those who argue that not much in America has changed, that we are a racist and discriminatory society that simply has a veneer of acceptance and tolerance. There are too many “civil rights” organizations who are wedded to the notion that the apparent increasing tolerance in America is a charade and that the disparities among racial and ethnic groups in terms of unemployment, income, health outcomes, etc. remain because of racism, mostly of the covert, subliminal kind. It’s a theme that gets hammered away at within academia, at conferences and in articles galore. America remains profoundly racist, it just doesn’t know it; so the message goes.
We have long been uneasy about questioning the data that the IATs offer, we are neither academics nor statisticians, but something seemed amiss. Virtually every poll that has come out over the past decade dealing with attitudes on race (many from the highly respected Pew Center) have evidenced greater tolerance and acceptance of differences based on race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation among virtually all cohorts of Americans. The data isn’t even close. We have written often about these studies over the past decade.
Additionally, and not incidentally, Americans elected an African American president of the United States and did so in no uncertain terms. His being black was not an obstacle to a majority of Americans (not just a plurality in 2012) electing him our commander-in-chief.
And yet the IATs were this nagging data set that seemed to indicate that the optimism of all the polls and the other indicia of progress might be illusory—that we were unconsciously bigots and none of us really knew when or where or how that hate it will manifest itself in what we do.
Saturday’s Wall Street Journal had a fascinating article by Professor Daniel J. Levitin reviewing a book about IATs---Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. The article is worth a read.
What it elegantly does is point out the errant assumptions that underlie the notion that a test can reveal our subconscious and know how we think about others,
Ms. Banaji and Mr. Greenwald, like other IAT proponents, claim that the test detects biases better than simply asking people. The IAT has received a great deal of attention since it first came out 15 years ago. Here, it was said, was a test that relied not on subjective judgments but on objective measures, a simple test that could tell us once and for all who is racist or sexist or ageist, even when observable behavior revealed nothing of the sort. The IAT, the authors write, "enabled us to reveal to ourselves the contents of hidden-bias blindspots."
Levitin points out some of the IATs mistaken assumptions. The “test assumes that your attitude towards whites is complementary to your attitude towards blacks---in statistical terms, that they are negatively correlated. If you hold high opinions of whites, in other words, you cannot simultaneously hold high opinions of blacks….(in fact) the two attitudes are distinct and statistically separate.”
The test also assumes, as Levitin points out, that a test taker’s word associations are a window into to what he or she really thinks. Levitin clarifies why assuming that a word quickly associated with whites or blacks doesn’t mean much beyond that two words may go together in someone’s mind,
Another confounding factor is that the brain is designed to detect patterns of co-occurrence and responds to learned associations based on a lifetime of hearing word pairings. If I hear the word "bread," the first word that comes to mind might be "butter," even if I never eat butter, never buy it and for that matter don't even eat bread. But associations aren't the same as biases. My quickness in conjuring one word when hearing another says nothing about an "implicit bias." It says even less about how I would treat another individual. Common sense would tell you this.
As Levitin sets forth an even more profound concern, “its results don’t predict real world behavior very well.”
A reasonable criterion for the IAT would be the ways in which people act in real-world situations. As it turns out, a team of respected social scientists (including Hart Blanton, James Jaccard, Greg Mitchell and Phil Tetlock) have analyzed data on how individuals who had previously taken the IAT acted and reacted toward white and black people during a real conversation. Did they laugh? How much eye contact did they make? How much did they fidget? All told, a cluster of 16 behaviors were tracked. Those who received the highest scores for "anti-black bias" on the IAT showed no bias toward blacks at all. Other researchers have shown that high "anti-black" scores on the IAT actually predict that a person is more likely to respond compassionately toward blacks.
It appears, then, that the IAT is claiming to find racism, ageism, sexism and all sorts of interpersonal biases in people who probably don't possess them. When author Malcolm Gladwell took the IAT, it showed that he, the son of a black woman, is racist against blacks. Mr. Gladwell was suitably shocked and distressed. But if a test gives results that are so far-fetched, it's time to start questioning the validity of the test.
Next time someone cites the Implicit Association Test to you as evidence of how truly “racist” America is, send him the link to the Levitin article and common sense might win out.
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February 13, 2013 | 2:43 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
It isn’t often that within days of each other two news stories on disparate topics---drones and guns-- both highlight a method of analysis on different sides of the political spectrum that fosters poor public policy choices and conclusions.
Recently, news stories have abounded regarding the US Justice Department’s (“DOJ”) memo laying out the legal and practical arguments behind its drone strike policies that allow for the targeting of an American citizen abroad.
The ground rules that the Obama Administration operated under have been laid out in some detail in the documents that are now public.
It is probably safe to assume that for most Americans the rationale offered by the DOJ memo works. A person (a foreigner or the bearer of an American passport) who is committed to terror against the United States, who can’t be easily apprehended and is a combatant in the on-going war of terror, can be killed if he poses an imminent threat to our country. Numerous pundits have opined on the subject in recent weeks, many urging greater scrutiny by a judge, or some other quasi-judicial body, to vet the Americans on the list of possible targets. A compromise seems in the works.
But, the seeming rationality of the DOJ’s arguments and the widely discussed potential safeguards don’t seem to satisfy those who proffer a “slippery slope” method of argumentation. That is, “if we allow this activity…it is a slippery slope to losing liberty itself.”
The ACLU lost no time in attacking the memo upon its release as “profoundly disturbing.” The director of its National Security Project opined, “It’s hard to believe that it was produced in a democracy built on a system of checks and balances.” She questioned “whether the limits the executive purports to impose on its killing authority are as loosely defined as in this summary, because if they are, they ultimately mean little.” The implication being that there will be broad overreach by government officials out to kill innocents---despite the fact that but three Americans affiliated with terror organizations have been killed over the past decade by virtue of drone strikes.
Nevertheless, despite the obvious restraint and concern evidenced by the Obama Administration (and its predecessor) the dangers of the slippery slope are invoked to negate what has clearly been an effective and restrained method of defending America.
The slippery slope logic to negate reasonable and moderate measures of change is evident as well in the months since Sandy Hook. The slippery slope arguments of the National Rifle Association strain logic.
Virtually no gun control legislation can be passed, the NRA argues, because it will, almost inevitably, lead to abrogation of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms.
For example, the NRA asserts that the mere act of compiling a list of gun owners can only be for two reasons “to tax them or to take them.” No middle ground or rational purpose is conceivable---the slippery slope leads, inevitably, to the most extreme, dire results. A majority of Americans believes that laws covering the sale of firearms (including compiling lists of who buys what) should be stricter.
The reality that there are nasty folks in the world who our military needs to strike before they strike us (Americans or not) and under the conditions and criteria outlined in the DOJ memo or that there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to arm themselves and that monitoring gun purchases is among the most logical routes to that end seem evident but the position of the slippery slope advocates obscures the common sense view.
It is always possible that there will be over-reach, that the wrong person might be targeted by a drone strike or that over-zealous bureaucrats will try and regulate hunting guns and the like and that government will take well intentioned efforts too far---but that over-reach is not inevitable.
The fact that bad things might happen does not negate the argument that some reasonable good things should happen. The worst case scenario shouldn’t prevent acting reasonably and in a measured way.
The illogic of the slippery slope method of policy making was cogently answered by the famous dictum of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes when faced with the question of how he could allow the federal government to be taxed by a state for the feds’ activities within the state. Precedent suggested that tolerating that power could lead to the states ultimately destroying the federal government by taxing it inappropriately:
Most of the distinctions of the law are distinctions of degree. If the States had any power it was assumed that they had all power, and that the necessary alternative was to deny it altogether. But this Court which so often has defeated the attempt to tax in certain ways can defeat an attempt to discriminate or otherwise go too far without wholly abolishing the power to tax. The power to tax is not the power to destroy while this Court sits.
Holmes wisely measured the degrees of an activity and knew that the courts and their limiting powers were a last recourse---not the first. The slippery slope and where things might end up don’t convincingly argue against logic and rational behavior that comports with the world around us---the ACLU and the NRA notwithstanding.
February 4, 2013 | 3:23 pm
Posted by David A. Lehrer
Last week Community Advocates, in partnership with NPR station KPCC and its Airtalk broadcast, hosted a higher education “summit” with the three leaders of public higher education in California.
At the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, the panel included Marc Yudof, the president of the University of California system, Timothy White, chancellor of the California State Colleges and Universities and Brice Harris, chancellor of the California Community Colleges with Larry Mantle (Airtalk’s host) moderating.
The hour long discussion touched upon compensation of administrators, reduced state funding for higher ed and the state's budget woes, distanced learning, the increasing costs of tuition, programs for veterans, and more.
It was a frank and informative colloquy on significant issues that entertained and enlightened the 150 people in attendance and the thousands more who listened in on the radio broadcast. The website of KPCC hosted a lengthy exchange among listeners to the broadcast in real time and on-line. The entire discussion can be accessed by clicking here.