I’d like to complain about my research assistant. A research assistant is supposed to look into things I need to know about, so that I can write about them without having to just bullshit. Instead, she researches whatever she wants to know. Then she provokes me with what she’s learned. And then I have to write about things in which I took no interest whatsoever until she made me. Damn her!
Here’s today’s case in point.
I’ve already said everything that need be said about the EDI initiatives currently doing serious and irreparable damage, both to academic research and to the value of a post-secondary education. I’ve already pointed out that, handwaving to the contrary notwithstanding, cosmetic diversity stands in reverse correlation with research excellence. I’ve already listed the never-to-be-defined terms of woke Double-Speak. Diversity means orthodoxy. Decolonization means resenting but keeping everything brought by the colonizer. Non-falsifiability, e.g. self-invented Indigenous history, is now an ‘alternate way of knowing’. And so on.
But now, dammit, because of her having taken an interest in the subject, I have to blog about the myth of implicit bias testing. Why? Because notwithstanding the highly lucrative industry that’s grown up to service this myth, its practitioners haven’t the faintest idea what they mean by implicit, nor by bias, nor what these so-called tests are testing for. In fact the level of stupidity here is exceeded only by that Dean’s letter I blogged about.
I keep assuring my research assistant that stupidity will out itself. And she keeps pointing out that obviously it hasn’t, and so by induction it probably won’t. I then counter that if, as she claims, by trying to out these stupidities I’m merely casting pearls before swine, why should I bother? To which she reminds me that at the Pearly Gates St. Peter asks only one question: Did you give it your best try?
Well, okay then:
The core axiom of any cognizing organism is to treat like inputs alike. Of course no two inputs are alike in all respects. So we’re either pre-programmed, or else we learn from experience, to pick out those that have proven to be most relevant.
I play chess. I have never lost to an eight year old white kid. But I’ve never not been defeated by one of those damn arrogant snot-nosed little eight year old East Indian kids. And the worse part is they’re too young to have learned how to return a proper hand shake when I resign. In short, I hate them! Why? Because I’m capable of performing induction, for which another word is – wait for it! – stereotyping. For which yet another word is – wait for it! – bias.
Does that mean there couldn’t be an eight year old white kid who’s going to wipe the board with me? Or an eight year old East Indian kid who’s going to give me a proper hand shake after I checkmate him? Of course not. But if I’m thinking about whether I’ll have any prize money at the end of the tournament, a little stereotyping of my opponents wouldn’t go entirely amiss.
That eight year old white kid I’m treating with contempt is suffering no injustice. Neither is it an injustice that he’s not being allowed even to test for a driver’s licence, notwithstanding that he could, after all, pass with flying colours. So if I have two applicants to rent my apartment, and I have neither the time nor the resources to investigate them further than their skin colour, how exactly do I do the Indigenous man – or in America a Black man – an injustice by renting to the white man? Have I had experience with both Indigenous renters and white renters? I have not. But none of us could function without relying on the inductions, read stereotypes, read biases, of our fellows.
Are some inductions less reliable than others? Of course they are, hasty generalization being one of them. But good luck telling a white woman who’s been raped by a Black man that, pace David Hume, her fear of Black men is therefore irrational.
So, does she have a bias? Of course she does. Do I? Of course I do. Are our biases sometimes faulty? Of course they are. Are our biases sometimes unjustified? That’s a meaningless question. One might as meaningfully ask whether sneezing is sometimes unwarranted. Are other people often the victims of our faulty inductions? Of course they are, So to preclude such injustices, should we throw out the baby with the bathwater and refrain from performing any and all inductions on matters of social import? We should not.
If you have unconscious biases, your humility, if any, should be directed to your being unconscious of them. I pride myself in being fully aware of my bias – hell, it’s a full-blown murderous animus! – against eight year old East Indian chess players. But to be fair, I might be unaware of a bias I should have, and if so I should adopt that bias with all possible dispatch. So I have no objection to testing to make sure I do have the biases I should have.
Unfortunately, though, the famous Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) doesn’t do that. What it measures is our associations, and it’s then simply assumed that an association is a proper bias. For example, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to observe – certainly TV is replete with this – white cop/Black criminal, white cop/Black criminal, over and over again. So when I see Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck, what I’m ‘seeing’ is a white cop and a Black criminal.
But my mind doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t stop there because what I’m seeing on second glance is a white criminal and a Black victim. I’m seeing something unusual, something that doesn’t fit my normal association. And it’s that disconnect that then stands out in my mind.
The same thing happens when I’m watching the news on the BBC. I’m habituated to hearing Blacks speak with something approaching Ebonics, so that when I hear a Black man speaking with an Oxford accent, it jars. But it jars only because it flies in the face of the stereotype of Black speech in my head.
So what do we learn from taking the Harvard Implicit Association Test? A whole lot about our Humean associations, but little if anything about our biases, and nothing at all about which biases should be overcome and which cultivated with rigour.
It is for precisely this reason, i.e. that it does no work, that some jurisdictions – the British civil service, for example – has done away with implicit bias testing. North American institutions – governments, corporations, universities – continue to squander our resources on such snake oil hucksters. But then who am I to talk? I teach philosophy.