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Debunking Implicit Bias

Updated: Dec 24, 2020

A system of devotion directed toward a particular object - cult or science? Developing complex solutions to problems that do not exist - cult or science? A principle laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true - dogma or science? These are questions you might be considering if you’ve conducted even cursory research on one of the political left’s most cherished oxymorons -- #implicitbias.

2011 IOS game, Critter Panic, similar to the Implicit Association Test or IAT.

Implicit bias rose to the cultural fore in 2013 upon the release of New York Times best selling “Blindspot: Biases of Good People” authored by social psychology professors, Tony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji. Greenwald and Banaji translated into prose research they conducted in 1998 used to develop the Implicit Association Test (“IAT”). The IAT was widely heralded as a scientific tool finally able to quantify the latent biases that lurk deep within the subconscious minds of humans. Of course, plumbing the depths of the human mind for implicit treasures has been a passionate human pursuit long before psychology would be grafted into the sciences.

German physician and mystic Franz Mesmer developed and popularized the practice of hypnosis, or “animal magnetism,” in the late 1700s that would be used by healers in the then-loosely organized healthcare community to theoretically uncover the secrets of the human subconscious for the next century. This practice would eventually wane after Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud rejected hypnotic techniques and codified the equally dubious and unreliable framework of psychoanalysis. Freud’s psychoanalytical methods almost carried the psych community to the 1990s but were abandoned in the 1980s as these methods repeatedly failed to hold up to empirical evidence and scrutiny in a modern era when pragmatism and pharmaceuticals would come to dominate the practice of diagnostic psychology and psychiatry. The late twentieth century was also a time when American racism was becoming a vestige and rapidly eroding as a commodity that could be weaponized by the political left. It was during this time that Ivy League academics Banaji and Greenwald developed a new “scientific” method that could tap human minds for that sweet political currency of racism. This new racism harvesting device was called the Implicit Association Test.

The "mesmerizing" Franz Mesmer

If you're familiar with the 2011 IOS game, Critter Panic, you are intimately familiar with the IAT. In Critter Panic, the player is tasked with sorting pixel art creatures lining the middle of the screen into two distinct groups pictured on the left and right side of the screen. The player is rewarded with points for doing this task as quickly as possible, and the game ends if the player does not sort all of the creatures within the allotted time. When starting the game, the player is assigned the simple task of sorting two distinct types of creatures, but as the game progresses, the player must sort as many as eight creatures into two distinct groups of four.

The idea is similar with the IAT. The test begins with the simple task of sorting gray images depicting various faces of black and white people by pressing the “E” or “I” keys on a keyboard. For example the test often starts by asking the user to enter “E” whenever a face depicting a white person appears or “I” whenever the face of a black person appears. The user is instructed to perform this sorting reflexively or as quickly as possible. Test takers are next instructed to sort “good” or “bad” words into distinct groups. For instance, if the “E” key is assigned to “good” words and the “I” key assigned to “bad” words, the user would enter “E” when a word such as “beauty” appears on the screen or “I” when a word such as “hatred” appears.

More complexity is introduced throughout seven rounds of the test so that the “E” and “I” keys are assigned multiple variables. Therefore, “E” might be assigned to any combination of a black person photo and "good" words while “I” might be assigned to any combination of a white person photo and "bad" words. Accordingly whenever a black person or "good" word appears on screen the user would enter “E” and vice versa. The time in milliseconds that it takes the user to accurately enter the keys corresponding to these variables is computed by the test. Accordingly, if the user is faster to enter the key corresponding to black faces and bad words than the key corresponding to white faces and bad words, this time data will be used to assign the test taker an “automatic preference” value. When the test ends, the user will be informed that he has “no” preference or a “slight,” “moderate,” or “strong” “automatic preference” for white people over black people or vice versa. Science! Implicit bias proven and quantified! Not so fast.

The IAT revealed this writer's "slight automatic preference for Black people over White people."

Before implicit bias was ushered into the mainstream lexicon in 2013 serious flaws were identified in the IAT during the intervening fifteen years following the test’s 1998 inception. Numerous critiques of Banaji’s and Greenwald’s work revealed that the IAT had a reliability coefficient score of 0.44, barely exceeding half of what is considered to be scientifically reliable. For a purported scientific test to be deemed reliable it must produce consistently repeatable results — results represented by a reliability coefficient score range of 0.7 to 0.8. While numerous studies and meta-analyses have examined the IAT’s reliability problems with much greater nuance and depth, some of these problems are obvious to anyone who has ever played Critter Panic, or any game like it.

When playing a game or taking a test that scores based on the recorded time of increasingly complex and reflexive sorting tasks, the scores and outcomes can drastically change as the test taker fatigues. For instance, a user’s eye strain during a second or third round of test taking can drastically alter sorting time. Difficulty with hand or finger dexterity caused by carpal tunnel syndrome or rheumatoid arthritis can naturally slow one’s response time depending on whether the afflicted hand or finger is being used to enter keys. Recoding is another phenomenon that can drastically alter response times. For instance when “black” and “bad” are assigned to the same key, it can be easy for some users to extract the words’ shared letters of “b” and “a” to mentally shorten the multi-factorial consideration of “black” and “bad” to a single concept of “ba" or "blad." Accordingly, independent of alleged unconscious racial preferences, a test-taker may naturally sort a face or word associated with mental shortcut “ba” more quickly than a face or word that must be processed through two-concept filters such as “white” and “good” or “white” and “bad” or “black” and “good.”

Furthermore scientific tests must not only be reliable, they must also exhibit sufficient validity. Validity measures a test’s ability to predict future behavior of test subjects. The IAT fails on this front as well. Among test subjects with IAT scores deemed sufficiently reliable, Greenwald’s and Banaji’s own studies have shown that the scores do not accurately predict discriminatory behavior in test environments. In fact, in more recent iterations of their study, Greenwald and Banaji have used opposite behavior as evidence of validity. Therefore, in Greenwald’s and Banaji’s most recent work, the same validity score is assigned to both users who exhibits non-discriminatory behavior after achieving a “no preference” on the IAT and users who exhibits non-discriminatory behavior after achieving a “strong preference” score on the IAT. Implicit bias researchers assume that users exhibiting behavior opposite of that which their IAT predicts is evidence of the users' “overcompensating” for the biases revealed by the test. Obviously under this more recent fallacious construct, the test —although hardly reliable — would always be deemed valid.

One would surmise that -- with a political movement so devoted to “science” as the “progressive” left -- the crumbling foundation of Greenwald’s and Banaji’s work on implicit bias might invite at least some skepticism with regard to its continued promotion and celebration as a racism detection device in popular culture. Au contraire. Entire academic departments and curricula have sprouted around Greenwald’s and Banaji’s demonstrably unscientific work. The Ohio State University Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity periodically holds a “State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review” — note “Science” and “Implicit Bias” in the same title. In the several iterations of this review since 2013, students can brush up on the most recent multi-year studies conducted in education, science, and law enforcement purportedly demonstrating evidence of disparate outcomes among racialized groups and learn how the IAT can be used to “begin to understand” these phenomena. Reports on these studies are often broken up by quotes from scientists from other fields enthusiastically praising the discovery of implicit bias. In the 2014 rendition of the “State of Science: Implicit Bias Review” esteemed MIT molecular biologist, Dr. Nancy Hopkins was quoted from a commencement address to Boston University as stating:

“If you asked me to name the greatest discoveries in the past 50 years, alongside things like the Internet and the Higgs particle, I would include the discovery of unconscious biases and the extent to which stereotypes about gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and age deprive people of equal opportunity in the workplace and equal justice in society.”

I mean, if an Ivy League molecular biologist says implicit bias is real, then it’s gotsta be real, right?

Man using detection device to locate racism lurking beneath the sandy beach.

Astute readers likely recognize the obvious racket being perpetrated in the name of science. Employing a test like the IAT that demonstrably lacks reliability and validity to quantify and substantiate the existence of an alleged “unconscious” racism is little different than clutching one’s fist and claiming to have caught the wind. Such a futile exercise can be just as easily described as “the beginning of” or “making headway into” the understanding of implicit bias according to whatever arbitrary requirement a snake oil rep feels is needed to push his wares. Furthermore, unless one is, say, studying sleep walkers, the very concept and definition of "bias" foreclose the possibility that it would be manifested “subconsciously” or “unconsciously.” Discriminatory behavior reflecting a person’s biases, by definition, requires conscious action and choices. A person must be conscious in order to discriminate.

Unfortunately, facts, reality, logic, common sense, and yes, science, have never been a barrier to the progressive left when the political, corporate, institutional, and entertainment woke machines are willing to chant platitudes and throw endless piles of cash at movements and issues — like implicit bias — that are claimed to be advancing “social justice." Sadly, however, this misguided synergy more often functions to smother justice and propagate racism. Indeed, complex and expensive “debiasing” curricula and techniques have emerged during the short time following Greenwald’s and Banaji’s “monumental” and Internet-rivaling discovery of implicit bias detection techniques. The State of California Judicial Branch has published a “debiasing” curriculum promulgated by attorney William Kennedy -- a white man who founded the Kennedy Race Equity Project, and who has functioned as the managing attorney for Legal Services of Northern California for the past forty years.

The Kennedy Race Equity Project debiasing techniques propose a near constant stream of staff meetings where personnel engage in exercises identifying and discussing racial stereotypes so that said stereotypes may be, in turn, ritualistically denied. Citing to implicit bias research, Kennedy promotes holding sessions where -- when images of positive and negative racial stereotypes are depicted during a presentation -- classes are prompted to verbally chant “no!” in response to images depicting "negative" stereotypes and “yes!” in response to "positive" images of ethnic minorities. Staff are encouraged to actively seek out “diverse” individuals and solicit their personal perspectives on racial issues and return to staff meetings so that experiences with "diverse" individuals may be shared and discussed with co-employees. If staff are unable to foster friendships and relationships with “diverse” individuals, they are encouraged to seek out friendships and relationships with "in-group" individuals who, in turn, have “diverse” friends. If one cannot have their own “diverse” friends, being friends with those who do have “diverse” friends is said to “reduce racial anxiety.”

"Science" dictates practicing Buddhism prior to meeting with "Blacks" and "homeless people."

The racist condescension inherent in these "progressive" programs is truly staggering. During an era when unwitting aggressors can be guilty of committing a microassault, microinsult, or microinvalidation for asking a fellow human questions like “where are you from?” when purported victims do not share the questioner’s skin color, it is bizarre that presumably woke syllabi like the Kennedy Race Equity Project promote treating ethnically diverse people as guinea pig test subjects valuable only for their assumed “diverse” perspectives and as tools to be sought out when needing to reduce one’s own implicit bias or "racial anxiety." While always careful to condemn the evils of racial stereotypes, that these debiasing techniques require near constant individual and group engagement in identifying and labeling racial stereotypes seems counterproductive and patronizing. It's as if every day is Diversity Day at The Office in Scranton, PA.

Indeed, while condemning the racial stereotypes that “automatically” manifest through one’s presumed implicit bias, these programs will then cite studies encouraging staff members to engage in Bhuddist lovingkindness mindfulness rituals before meeting with potential clients who happen to be “black” or “homeless.” After all, studies show that Buddhist rituals reduce implicit bias towards "Blacks" and "homeless people." Rather than training staff to treat all people as individuals, stereotypes are reinforced upon trainees subjected to this nonsense when they are instructed to expect to spend more time on cases that have racial or ethnic components. Offices are encouraged to “reduce competition and fear” in working environments housing diverse staff so that group synergy may be promoted, presumably because studies show that ethnic minority employees perform better when they do not feel pressured. Peddling the racist trope that ethnic minorities are unable to be competitive in a professional environment seems like an obvious example of the kind of soft bigotry that these curricula should be designed to vanquish.

Alas, overt racism has been resurrected by these “progressive” regimes obsessed with identifying and promoting “subconscious” racially motivated behavior in order to allegedly combat bigotry. The wholesale acceptance of implicit bias as “science" -- despite the fact that methodologies designed to detect and measure implicit bias have been repeatedly undermined -- along with the debiasing industry that has exploded around this alleged science, has created a self-propagating racism machine. Even more, adherence to these terms and practices as authoritative truth has spawned a pagan religion akin to Scientism. Priestlike consultants are paid thousands of dollars per hour to administer powerpoint slides prompting organizations to chant slogans and verbal condemnation of racial stereotypes to achieve temporary salvation and cleansing of internalized implicit bias. Of course these religious techniques are marketed as “just the beginning” and “not enough” so that the grift of exorbitantly expensive confessionals necessary to ensure that employees and staff remain pure and sinless can be repeated ad infinitum. To be sure, the leftists who develop and promote these racialized religious practices and techniques know exactly what they are doing. They are intentionally resurrecting and nurturing the threat of bigotry in order to lure unsuspecting voters to champion ideologies that require a large, centralized government to enforce. And the zealots who fall for and practice this pagan religion are rubes to be sure - hardly different than the backwater Westboro Baptist fundamentalists whom left-wing zealots claim to despise.

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