Does stupidity make you racist?

If you read the other FTBlogs (and you should), you may have noticed discussion of a study about cognitive ability, conservative ideology and outgroup prejudice. JT talked about it, and so did Jason. Basically, to read the coverage of the study, a team of psychologists from Brock University in Ontario have demonstrated that a lower level of cognitive ability is predictive of negative attitudes toward other races and gay people, but that political conservatism plays a significant role in that pathway. In a nutshell: conservatives are a bunch of hateful dummies, and now we can prove it!

While I would certainly love for that to be the case, I have spent far too much time wading in the muck of junk science about racism to hop so readily on board. I can certainly confess to my own non-trivial amount of outgroup antipathy toward ideological conservatives. Knowing what I know about confirmation bias and the difficulties associated with measuring intelligence (and how those exact same problems have been used to justifiably discredit studies of scientific racism), I suppressed my “nanna nanna boo boo” instinct and actually took my skeptical scalpel to the paper.

A link to the article, which may be behind a paywall for some of you, is provided here. [Read more…]

Religious tolerance

We are led to believe that religion makes people better. That following the moral instructions laid out in this holy book or that one will provide us all with the information necessary to live decent, ethical lives. We are even told – most of the time through blind assertion – that the existence of any kind of human morality requires a deity. That without religious instruction, the world would quickly descend into amoral anarchy full of murder and sex acts so bizarre, Rick Santorum would need 5 or 6 additional surnames just to describe them all.

We also know that racism is fundamentally wrong. Prejudice based on something as arbitrary and biologically meaningless as socially-constructed ethnic groups is part of a dark chapter of the human experience that we are all working feverishly to finish and close forever.  Thanks to great strides we have made as a society, we can be confident that anyone can recognize the simple moral truth of the need to treat each other as equals, regardless of their heritage.

As a result, we might have a tough time explaining this: [Read more…]

‘Good enough’ ain’t good enough

I’ve gone through the reasons why, even though I am male, I still proudly call myself ‘feminist’. There is, to be sure, an additional motivation to push for equality that is rooted in guilt, but I find guilt to be a particularly poor reason to do anything. Be that as it may, it is still exceedingly tempting to simply move the goalposts and claim the win – to announce feminism as a job well done. After all, grading on a curve, Canada/USA is a pretty amazing place to be a woman. Women can hold high office, can drive in cars unescorted by male family members, can pursue higher education, can own property (rather than being property). When you think of the arc of history, or even just look around the world, there’s not a lot of better times/places to be female.

Of course, we don’t grade things like this on a curve, nor should we. The danger of evaluating ourselves based on things that are worse is that we begin to devalue the obstacles and problems still faced by women today. The fact that this is the best the human race has ever done for women, when considered in the context of the terrifying things women still experience here, should be a call to arms that work still must be done.

What we should be looking for, rather than simply arbitrarily announcing the mission accomplished, is a steady improvement towards equality on a variety of measures. Access to education, representation in political circles, and success in business: [Read more…]

“Colour blindness” is a disability

*I am being asked to check my ableist privilege in the comments because of my use of the term ‘disability’ in the title. While I disagree that my intended use of the term is ableist, I am also aware that intent is unimportant. The context in which I am attempting to use the word is to contrast it with the idea that colour blindness is better than colour awareness, and that adopting a posture of being less able to see it is negative because it robs one of the ability to see if when appropriate. My apologies if this use is pejorative. I will avoid using the term without context in the future.

I am reasonably fluent in English, which is lucky since it is the language of the internet. Sometimes, however, I wish I was more fluent in other languages as well. Not simply because I enjoy the phonics of exotic locales, although I definitely do. Not simply because there are some phrases (or bon mots, if you will) that can only be expressed in their native tongue, although that is certainly true. Not simply to appear more classy and well-traveled than I am, although that would be nice. No, the principal reason I wish I spoke more languages was so that I would have enough words to heap my contempt upon the idea of “colour blindness”.

Colour blindness is an arch-liberal invention that seems to be largely built from ignorance and guilt. The supposed ideal behaviour is to behave as though you do not see racial differences between people, so that you will treat everyone equally regardless of their ethnicity. Sounds pretty harmless, right?  For those of you unfamiliar with my stance on this particular attitude, the reason colour blindness fails as a useful method of achieving racial harmony is that it tends to blind people (white people principally) to instances of both covert and overt racism. Race has a real impact, and failing to recognize the role it plays in our interactions only serves to mask it behind good intentions rather than exposing it to the scrutiny it requires.

As I discussed this morning, there are types of racism that cannot be solved by simply wishing them away or attributing them to malice from “racists”. Racism should not be treated as merely a personal character flaw of a handful of backward people, but as a topic of conversation for all people to engage in and explore. It’s already happening in some (perhaps) unlikely places: [Read more…]

Crommunist joins a cult (part II)

In which our hero continues his narration of attending a workshop for a self-help program. Read Part 1.

What if everything you ever wanted… came in a ROCKET CAN? Okay, so this presentation wasn’t quite as entertaining as Powerthirst, but it amused me for the span of an evening. When we left off, the audience had just broken off into smaller groups to chat with the coaches.

What would you give?

The group discussion came back to the same central question that Mr. Vicente had kept posing, broken down into three (extremely leading) subquestions: 1) what would you like to achieve, 2) what would that accomplish for you, and 3) how much would you give up to achieve it? I call these leading questions because they prime you to accept that there is something on offer than can accomplish the transition from 1 to 2, in exchange for 3. [Read more…]

Oh, and there’s also this

I’m so forgetful. Sometimes I get so enamored of my own writing that important things slip my mind. The pragmatic argument is not the only reason I’m a feminist. There’s also the empirical one:

The SAT I is designed solely to predict students’ first year college grades. Yet, despite the fact that females earn higher grades throughout both high school and college, they consistently receive lower scores on the exam than do their male counterparts. In 2001, females averaged 35 points lower than males on the Math section of the test, and 3 points lower on the Verbal section. A gender gap favoring males persists across all other demographic characteristics, including family income, parental education, grade point average, course work, rank in class, size of high school, size of city, etc.

There are a number of pieces of evidence that suggest a systemic bias against women. I am familiar with dissecting these biases because they show up in the same kinds of places we find biases against black people. The pernicious thing about these kinds of non-obvious forms of sexism is that they have immense staying power. As the test causes women to underachieve, it means that fewer women are accepted into elite mathematics programs, which means fewer elite-level female mathematicians are produced, which means that math remains a “man’s field” for the next generation of students.

But it doesn’t simply stop at the SAT: [Read more…]

Why are you hitting yourself? Part 8: extra credit questions

This is part 8 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 4. Read Part 5. Read Part 6. Read Part 7.

Having summed up my lengthy exploration of System Justification Theory, I teased you this morning with the question that you’ve likely been asking youself from the beginning: now that we know about system justification, what can we do to correct for it? Are we doomed to keep making the same mistakes, or can we overcome our terrible mammal brains and become better critical thinkers?

In order to answer this question, I must first re-iterate a point that I’ve been making for almost as long as this blog has been in existence: we can overcome cognitive biases by becoming more aware of them. Just like we, as skeptics, have learned to recognize faulty arguments like straw men and fallacies like appeal to authority, we can also learn to recognize when we (or others) base their arguments on streotypes instead of evidence. System justification lives on stereotype – confronting those will go a long way on its own to reduce the amount of system justifying we do.

There is also something important to be learned from Part 6, which is that system justification is directly connected to the level of inequality present in a society. As we reduce gaps between groups – be they through legislative policies like pay equity or through changing the social stigma associated with being in the minority – we reduce our tendency to ‘explain away’ disparities as being part of the natural order of things. By engineering societies that are more fundamentally equal, we simultaneously rob fuel from the system justifying machine.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially (or just my preferred method), we can reduce system justification by talking about it. The more people are aware that they have a tendency to do this kind of backfilling, the more likely they are to notice themselves doing it in the future. Successes in my own ongoing struggle to become less misogynistic suggests to me that awareness (and acceptance) of the fact that we all have cognitive demons operating below the level of conscious awareness will help us police our own attitudes better. We may never become perfect at it, but we can certainly become better.

Now, I would be a really crummy scientist if I didn’t use this opportunity to raise some research questions of my own that this paper did not address. [Read more…]

Why are you hitting yourself? Part 7: Summary

This is part 7 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 4. Read Part 5. Read Part 6.

So on Thursday I finished up with the last sections of the paper, but I didn’t get to do the wrap-up post that I wanted to (time crunch – abstract submission deadline followed by dinner immediately after work, with friend who then asked for a full explanation of the entire OWS movement… it was a long day for my brain). So I’m going to take this opportunity to bring this series to a conclusion.

Why System Justification Theory?

Older psychological models to explain human behaviour focussed on the relationship between individual ego motivation, and group allegiance. The central understanding was that people would tend to demonstrate in-group favouritism and out-group hostility. In the same way we tend not to see ourselves as bad people but vilify the actions of others, we would do the same for groups with whom we did and did not feel allegiance.

The problem with this theory is that it fails to explain a common and seemingly-inexplicable finding: that people often tend to demonstrate an asymmetric bias toward people in high-status groups, even to the point of abhorring their own group. If it was a rare occurrence, we could just chalk it up to “well some folks is crazy”, but when it’s consistently observed in many different populations under experimental conditions, it becomes something that needs looking at. [Read more…]

Why are you hitting yourself? Part 6: SJT writ large

This is part 5 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 4. Read Part 5.

We left off exploring the consequences of conflicts between how we see ourselves in context of a group, and of how we see the society we live in. There is, the authors suggest (and demonstrate as described in the previous 5 installments of this series), a strong drive within us to reconcile our self of self-worth, in-group approval, and societal outlook. It has the somewhat idiosyncratic effect of causing us to harbour ideas that may work directly to our detriment, but allow us to align these three desires (through the use of stereotyped thinking). Aside from resulting in the advantaged staying at the top, it also leaves those at the bottom with increased psychological issues.

Up until now, our exploration of the specific hypotheses stemming from System Justification Theory has been focussed on individual-level attitudes and effects. In the final section of the paper, the authors explore some of the larger themes that are explained, at least in part, by the desire to approve of the status quo. Most skeptics will be familiar with the concept of cognitive dissonance – it refers generally to a brain state in which we are trying to reconcile two contradictory beliefs. Believers in a deity have pioneered a wide variety of methods to resolve cognitive dissonance – the most popular is the notion of “faith”: recognizing that something is logically impossible but believing it anyway. Throughout this whole discussion, but particularly in the previous installment, we see cognitive dissonance being a key component of the wacky outcomes of SJT. [Read more…]

Why are you hitting yourself? Part 5: this post is entitled

This is part 5 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 4.

We left off last week discussing the relationship between where one stands in the power dynamic, and how we see those at the top. If we are part of the high-status group, we have an implicit bias toward ourselves, where as those in the low-status group have an out-group – which also favours those at the top. When pressure is high to justify the status quo, we reach for stereotypes and facile explanations to rationalize why things are the way they are. Interestingly, insofar as this effect (called system justification) is identical to political conservativism, we see these biases exacerbated in people who confess to being conservative.

One of the advantages of having the kind of education I did (broad-based – a hard science candy shell with a delicious nougaty humanities core) is that I can draw on a variety of analogies when trying to impart unfamiliar concepts. Most of you have taken at least some science courses, so you will perhaps be familiar with Boyle’s Law which states, among other things, that gas will expand to fill its container. It’s that concept I want percolating in the back of your mind as we charge forward through our exploration of System Justification Theory. [Read more…]