Skepticism About Bias

Criticism of research on implicit bias has grown in recent years. Psychologists, philosophers, and journalists have raised a variety of concerns. These range from very technical critiques of the way that implicit bias is measured to foundational worries about the social sciences in general. Particularly in the popular press, some have drawn strong conclusions, for example, that research on implicit bias is a “false science” (e.g., Bartlett 2017; Mac Donald 2017c; Singal 2017).

In what follows, I distinguish six lines of critique and reply to each. Some are more widely held than others. For reasons of space, 1 home in on one or two representatives of each line of critique. A common thread is that there are many open questions and challenges facing research on implicit bias. However, it is a mistake to conclude from these open questions and challenges that the implicit bias research program ought to be abandoned. Instead, scholars ought to seek to improve our understanding of what implicit bias is, how it affects people’s lives, the ways in which it is measured, and the most effective strategies to combat it.

Inequalities Thought to Be Explained by Bias Don’t Exist or Aren’t Unjust

One way to criticize research on implicit bias is to claim that it is much ado about nothing. If the kinds of discrimination and inequalities with which social scientists are concerned—those stemming from people’s attitudes toward race, gender, age, sexual orientation, class, etc.—don’t really exist, then there is nothing important for implicit bias to explain. There are two related forms of this argument. One is to deny the existence of specific social disparities, for example, to deny that the police treat black people differently from white people. Another is to explain away disparities in ways that make them seem banal, or that exonerate members of dominant social groups, for example, to argue that police arrest black people more often because black people are more likely to commit crimes. To some extent, the difference between these marks the difference between inequalities and inequities. Inequalities are simply differences, which may or may not be just. Some people are taller than others, which is an inequality, but there is nothing morally worrying about this. Inequities are unjust differences. If a manager only hires tall people, and there is no justifying reason for this (e.g., a justifying reason might be that she is hiring basketball players), then she is contributing to inequity.

For an example of the first kind of critique—denying the existence of specific social disparities—recall that implicit bias is often invoked as helping to explain racial disparities in policing in the United States. Heather Mac Donald (2017a), however, author of The War on Cops, denies the existence of racial disparities in policing. She argues that “the police have much more to fear from black males than black males have to fear from the police” (2017a). Mac Donald blames the putatively false narrative about racial disparities in the criminal justice system on the mainstream media, President Obama, and Black Lives Matter protestors, whom she calls “savages” (2017b, 15). Similarly, Mac Donald claims that race-based affirmative action is rampant and that “the most influential sectors of the economy today employ preferences in favor of blacks” (2017c).

Elsewhere, as an example of the second line of critique, Mac Donald acknowledges the existence of racial disparities in the United States, but blames these inequalities on disenfranchised minorities themselves. This is to say that while she acknowledges the existence of certain racial inequalities, she denies that these inequalities are inequities (i.e., that they are unjust). In her article, “The False ‘Science’ of Implicit Bias” (2017c) she writes:

It is taboo to acknowledge that socioeconomic disparities might be caused by intergroup differences in cultural values, family structure, interests or abilities. The large racial gap in academic skills renders preposterous any expectation that, absent bias, blacks and whites would be proportionally represented in the workplace. And vast differences in criminal offending are sufficient to explain racial disparities in incarceration rates.


Leaving aside the ideological charge and apparent racial animus of Mac Donald’s views, her first set of claims about race and policing, which I take to be representative of the view that specific social inequalities don’t exist, are unconvincing. The evidence of racial disparities in health, wealth, policing, education, and virtually every measurable index of group wellbeing is overwhelming (respectively, see for example, Penner et al. 2013; Chetty et al. 2018; Pfaff 2017; Magnuson and Waldfogel 2008). When Mac Donald asserts that the police have more to fear from black men than the reverse, or that most sectors of the economy have preferences for black employees, she does so on an extremely narrow reading of the data. For example, to justify her claim about police officers’ fear of black men, she asserts that, in 2015, a police officer was 18.5 times more likely to be killed

Skepticism About Bias 59 by a black man than an unarmed black man was to be killed by a police officer. All of these deaths are terrible, and minimizing the dangers associated with being a police officer is hugely important, of course. But the statistic Mac Donald cites, assuming it is true, in no way justifies her assertion. Black Americans have countless reasons to fear the police that Mac Donald does not consider, from the role of police in supporting past racial injustices—slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow—to the kinds of daily harassment and abuse documented in the Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department by the U.S. Department of Justice (2015), to the mass incarceration of black men today in the United States, not to mention the state’s monopoly on legal violence and what that means for those who are treated unfairly by it (for review, see Alexander 2010). Police officers choose their job, moreover, consciously accepting that it entails certain risks. Black Americans do not choose to be targets of suspicion and fear.

Likewise unconvincing are Mac Donald’s explanations of racial disparities in terms that make them seem innocuous, inevitable, or the fault of the victims. The idea that socioeconomic disparities between black and white Americans is the result of “black culture,” for example, has been thoroughly debunked (e.g., see Chetty et al. 2018, discussed below). This is not to say, of course, that people’s individual choices don’t matter, nor that individuals have no responsibility for the course of their lives. Rich and extensive literatures explore the interplay of individual responsibility under conditions of inequality and inequity, an interplay that is relevant, of course, not only to race but also to gender, age, disability, and so on (see Dominguez, Chapter 8, “Moral Responsibility for Implicit Biases: Examining Our Options,” and McHugh and Davidson, Chapter 9, “Epistemic Responsibility and Implicit Bias”). One can also be critical of aspects of the cultures of those who have suffered inequities without thereby brushing aside the problem of those inequities (e.g., Coates 2015).

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