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Self-Deception

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Daniel Levitin has a review in this weekend's WSJ of psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases Of Good People.  The book relies heavily on the very controversial Implicit Association Test.  The test purports to measure unconscious and inherent bias while subjects complete simple tasks.  It's claim to fame has been to show that most people are racist whether they realize it or not and make decisions based on those biases.  Levitin is skeptical:

So the authors appear disingenuous when they try to construct a case around such speech acts. They claim that we all lie when we endorse the truth of a statement such as "ducks lay eggs." Why is this a lie? Ms. Banaji and Mr. Greenwald say that the statement "is actually false for a substantial majority of the world's ducks. [B]ecause fewer female . . . ducklings survive the hatching process, more than half the world's ducks are non-egg-laying males. Second, among female ducks, many are too young to be egg layers. Without doubt, egg-laying ducks are a distinct minority."

Really? For their critique to be correct, you'd have to believe that the sentence "ducks lay eggs" is identical in meaning to the sentence "the majority of ducks on the planet, regardless of age or sex, are capable of laying eggs." Pragmatics again! What we really mean by a sentence such as "ducks lay eggs" is: "Ducks are an egg-laying species, as opposed to giving live birth."

And how good is the IAT test? 

There is far from a consensus about the IAT--a meta-analysis, you might say, is overdue. It turns out that the authors themselves published one in 2009, reviewing 184 independent samples and nearly 15,000 experimental subjects. The result: The IAT was very weakly correlated with other measures, failing to account for more than 93% of the data. Interestingly, Ms. Banaji and Mr. Greenwald don't report this in their book. Perhaps a blind spot?


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The claim that the statement "ducks lay eggs" is a "lie" is truly astonishing. This illustrates why the typical superficial news story about what "studies show" can so seriously mislead the public. The assumptions and limitations of studies, often buried deep inside in language lay people don't understand, often mean that the headline result is extremely doubtful.

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