Ray Carter | April 15, 2021
OU training cites controversial ‘bias’ measurement
Mandatory diversity training at the University of Oklahoma includes material citing a controversial Implicit-Association Test (IAT) as authoritative evidence for the existence of “implicit bias.”
That test has long been criticized by academics and researchers for lacking scientific rigor. Critics note the IAT has declared up to three out of four Americans are “unconscious racists”—including racial minorities the test shows are biased against people like themselves.
One section of OU’s mandatory diversity-training modules, which are required for all students and staff, declares, “Implicit biases are biases that individuals aren’t aware of having. A person with implicit biases may answer truthfully that they do not hold biased beliefs, but their actions still produce biased results. For example, a manager who says they are ‘colorblind’ may nevertheless have a preference for hiring candidates of the same race or ethnicity.”
That section also states, “The Implicit-Association Test (IAT) measures the strength of automatic associations between concepts in a person’s mind. The IAT requires users to sort different words into two target categories as quickly as possible. The two categories are paired social constructions (such as male-female) and the sorted words stereotyped descriptors (such as ‘logical’). The more quickly a pair of words are sorted, the stronger the association is thought to be.”
The description of the IAT is included under a headline labeled, “Fact.”
The IAT cited has long been criticized by experts.
In 2017, a report by Althea Nagai, statistical consultant and research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Equal Opportunity, noted, “A growing body of research suggests that the test cannot predict real-world behavior.”
A 2013 meta-analysis by officials at Rice University, the University of Virginia, and Texas A&M University found that IATs were “poor predictors” of bias.
In 2017, Lawrence T. White, a professor of psychology at Beloit College in Wisconsin, noted that hundreds of studies on implicit bias, conducted over two decades, have generated some “surprising” findings “but not in the way you probably expect.” Those findings showed that not only did about two-thirds of whites show a strong or moderate bias for White=Good, but so did about half of black individuals who took the IAT. White also noted an “automatic Black=Weapons bias is strong among all groups tested” with African-Americans showing that bias “more often than not.”
A 2017 article in New York magazine by Jesse Singal similarly noted that after taking the IAT “people from minority backgrounds are shocked to learn they are biased against their own people, and naturally respond to this news with discomfort.”
Nagai wrote that, according to prominent supporters of the IAT, “75 percent of Americans who take the IAT are found to be unconscious racists,” yet Nagai noted other experts estimate that the IAT produces false positives (for racism) from 60 percent to 90 percent of the time.
“When individuals take the IAT more than once, there is a good chance that results from the first and second (and subsequent) times have very low correlations,” Nagai wrote. “Perhaps this is to be expected from a test measuring differences in milliseconds: One-tenth of a second can lead to highly charged accusations of racism.”
Singal also noted, “If you take the test today, and then take it again tomorrow—or even in just a few hours—there’s a solid chance you’ll get a very different result.”
Nagai said some critics’ research indicates the IAT’s results may have little or nothing to do with racial biases.
“Scientists who substituted familiar versus nonsense words in place of white versus black photos or names produced the same effect as the race IAT,” Nagai wrote.
In 2010, Gerald Guild, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, blogged about the IAT, writing, “I can’t be explicit enough—when one enters the realm of the implicit—one enters a realm of intangibles: and like it or not, until minds can be read explicitly, the implicit is essentially immeasurable with any degree of certainty. The IAT may indeed measure what it purports to measure, but the data on this is unconvincing. Substantial questions of reliability and validity persist. I would suggest that you do not take your IAT scores to heart.”
When he announced that diversity training would be mandatory for students and staff, OU President Joseph Harroz Jr. declared, “At OU, who we are and what we stand for matters.”
[For more stories about higher education in Oklahoma, visit AimHigherOK.com.]
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.