NAACP goes Big Brother: What we need is mandatory implicit bias testing

NAACP President Derrick Johnson wrote a piece for USAToday yesterday announcing that his organization was calling for mandatory implicit bias testing for all public officials. Implicit bias testing is a method which claims to be able to detect subconscious bias within individuals’ thought processes (more on that in a moment). While Johnson didn’t call for mandatory testing of everyone, he thinks testing everyone is a good idea.

Everyone should get tested for implicit bias, and if you’re a public official or receiving public dollars — it should be mandatory. It’s just a matter of time before another black person is abused, arrested, or shot dead for flying, golfing, driving, walking or drinking coffee “while black.”…

While the United States has a very long history with explicit bias and state-sponsored racism, we are only partially committed to believing the extent to which our internal biases impacts us subconsciously. We are unable to grasp that implicit bias functions like a powdered drug stirred into our societal drink and continuously seeping out our societal pores, ranging from law enforcement to education to religion, entertainment and media. It’s like our shadow and travels with all of us everywhere we go, regardless of our self-proclaimed objectivity or colorblindness…

The NAACP is calling for an expansion of the movement to demand mandatory testing for implicit bias, particularly for officials paid with public dollars. For major corporations, implicit bias training must become a part of corporate responsibility rather than always as a response to video-taped intolerance.

This is the beginning of a movement designed to awaken the soul of our nation in ways that not only make us better people, but also a society where we are both accountable for what we know as well as what we are unaware of.

Specifically, Johnson recommends people take (and be forced to take) the Harvard implicit association test (IAT) which is available online. There is a myriad of problems with this suggestion but let’s start with the most obvious one: The implicit association test is not good science. I wrote about this last year. Author Heather Mac Donald, relying partly on a lengthy piece by Jesse Singal, points out the IAT doesn’t produce a repeatable result:

Any social-psychological instrument must pass two tests to be considered accurate: reliability and validity. A psychological instrument is reliable if the same test subject, taking the test at different times, achieves roughly the same score each time. But IAT bias scores have a lower rate of consistency than is deemed acceptable for use in the real world—a subject could be rated with a high degree of implicit bias on one taking of the IAT and a low or moderate degree the next time around. A recent estimate puts the reliability of the race IAT at half of what is considered usable. No evidence exists, in other words, that the IAT reliably measures anything stable in the test-taker.

So imagine forcing people to take a test which gives different results every time it’s taken. What is the utility of that exactly? But there’s an even bigger problem. The IAT doesn’t correlate with any discriminatory behavior:

A psychological instrument is deemed “valid” if it actually measures what it claims to be measuring—in this case, implicit bias and, by extension, discriminatory behavior. If the IAT were valid, a high implicit-bias score would predict discriminatory behavior, as Greenwald and Banaji asserted from the start. It turns out, however, that IAT scores have almost no connection to what ludicrously counts as “discriminatory behavior” in IAT research—trivial nuances of body language during a mock interview in a college psychology laboratory, say, or a hypothetical choice to donate to children in Colombian, rather than South African, slums…

A 2009 meta-analysis of 122 IAT studies by Greenwald, Banaji, and two management professors found that IAT scores accounted for only 5.5 percent of the variation in laboratory-induced “discrimination.” Even that low score was arrived at by questionable methods, as Jesse Singal discussed in a masterful review of the IAT literature in New York…If test subjects scored high on implicit bias via the IAT but demonstrated better behavior toward out-group members (such as blacks) than toward in-group members, that was a validation of the IAT on the theory that the subjects were overcompensating for their implicit bias. But studies that found a correlation between a high implicit-bias score and discriminatory behavior toward out-group members also validated the IAT. In other words: heads, I win; tails, I win.

So the evidence that this test measures anything at all is lacking. In fact, as Jesse Singal pointed out for New York magazine, the proponents of the test have admitted as much:

Both critics and proponents of the IAT now agree that the statistical evidence is simply too lacking for the test to be used to predict individual behavior. That’s not to say the two teams don’t still disagree on many issues — they do, and as we’ll see there’s some genuine bad blood — but on this point, the architects have effectively conceded. They did so in 2015: The psychometric issues with race and ethnicity IATs, Greenwald, Banaji, and Nosek wrote in one of their responses to the Oswald team’s work, “render them problematic to use to classify persons as likely to engage in discrimination.” In that same paper, they noted that “attempts to diagnostically use such measures for individuals risk undesirably high rates of erroneous classifications.” In other words: You can’t use the IAT to tell individuals how likely they are to commit acts of implicit bias.

Even if you put aside the fact that the IAT doesn’t produce repeatable results which correlate with discrimination, what action are employers supposed to take to remediate implicitly biased individuals? The NAACP doesn’t say what is to be done with those who fail the test. Do they get fired? Transferred somewhere else? Are they put into some kind of anti-bias training? The NY Times reported in June 2016 that while some police forces were giving their officers training based on the IAT, there have been no studies showing whether any of the training worked. So even if the IAT could detect bias reliably there’s no cure for the problem it claims to detect. What does the NAACP propose we do about that?

Finally, there’s the whole creeping fascism of this suggestion. What the NAACP is promoting here is testing everyone for having bad unconscious thoughts and then retraining their brains in some yet-to-be-determined manner. Do we really want the unconscious mind to become a subject of mandatory public policy? That’s a road we don’t want to go down as a society. Ed wrote a post last month about China’s plan to give all 1.4 billion Chinese citizens a “social credit score.” The goal, as described by CBS News, was to purify the country:

The government says it is trying to “purify” society by rewarding people who are trustworthy and punishing those who are not, reports CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy. So like the credit scores most Americans have based on how they handle their finances, Chinese citizens are getting a social credit score based on everything from whether they pay their taxes on time to how they cross the street to what they post online.

Say what you want about the Chinese Communists but at least they seem to be limiting their autocracy to what people put out in public. What the NAACP is calling for is far more intrusive. It’s not just what you say online it’s what your unconscious is doing that the government (and industry) needs to confront. George Orwell must be rolling in his grave.

Jazz Shaw Jul 06, 2022 9:01 AM ET