Liberalism, “Implicit Bias,” and Thoughtcrime: On the Subject of the I.A.T.
by Daniel A. Kaufman
One of the most fundamental values of a liberal society, beyond that of freedom of speech, is liberty of conscience. One’s thoughts are one’s own prerogative and are thus, rightfully kept private, if one wishes it. The intrusion upon that mental landscape is the ultimate wrong that the state can do to the individual, and to invade and attempt to control it are the defining characteristics of the totalitarian impulse. In a liberal society, the state’s – or any person’s – authority over others extends only as far as their behavior and only in those cases where that behavior causes tangible, quantifiable harm. The notion that there are “thoughtcrimes” must therefore be abhorrent to the liberal sensibility and the current effort by some progressives to redefine ‘harm’ to mean any thought or speech that a person dislikes or which cause his feelings to be hurt must be opposed at every turn, if liberal society is to survive.
These liberal values effectively constrain the ways in which we may permissibly try to change others’ minds. If one is convinced that another person believes or feels wrongly, one may try to persuade him by way of an appeal to his conscious rationality and emotions, but efforts that penetrate below the surface – which bypass his conscious rationality and feelings – must be forbidden in a liberal society, as must be overt exercises in coercion, where one tries to force someone to change how he thinks or feels, by violence or threat.
The reason for engaging in this little refresher in liberal civics is to provide a backdrop against which to discuss the unfolding situation involving Harvard University’s “Project Implicit” and “Implicit Association Test,” just reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The test purports to identify “implicit bias” in people against blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities, homosexuals, women, etc.; that is, bias which would not be revealed if one asked them directly. It claims to accomplish this by showing that people are slower to associate pictures of, say, black faces, with positive words than white ones or that they commit more mistakes in doing so. And it has been enormously influential, having been taken some staggering seventeen million times, and is being used across a wide swathe of American society, from university classrooms to police departments
One might object that the inference from reaction speed and accuracy to social bias seems an obvious non-sequitur and doubt whether any number of controls could possibly screen out all the potential variables that might come into play in affecting how quickly or accurately we respond to pairs of pictures and words, whatever they might be. The creators of the test are social scientists, not perceptual psychologists or people otherwise expert in the sciences of vision or motor movement, and it could very well be that the relevant reaction times have nothing to do with social conceptions, but with variables that operate at more basic levels of perceptual experience — that is, at lower, non-intentional levels of description — which would tell us nothing about something as steeped in intentionality and representation as social bias.
The more interesting question for me, however, is why anyone would want a test for implicit bias, in the first place.
One answer that immediately comes to mind is that if implicit bias causes or at least, reliably predicts discriminatory behavior, then it would be useful to know what implicit biases people have, and at first glance, this would appear to be the reasoning of the people behind the IAT. “It is well established that implicit preferences can affect behavior” one reads on the test’s website, which also cautions that “it important to know that…implicit biases can predict behavior. When we relax our efforts to be egalitarian, our implicit biases can lead to discriminatory behavior…”  And yet, when one presses on, one discovers that the creators of the IAT also categorically reject using the test in any sort of interdictory fashion. “People may use [the IAT] to make decisions about others (e.g. does this potential job candidate have racial bias?)” the site creators explain, “however, we assert that the IAT should not be used in any such ways…For example, using the IAT to choose jurors is not ethical…”
What should the test and the information it provides be used for then? The answer we get is little more than a vague appeal to “education.” We are told that while it would be “unethical” to use the test as part of the selection process for jurors, it would be appropriate to use it to “teach jurors about the possibility of unintended bias” and more generally that “at this stage in its development it is preferable to use the IAT as an educational tool, to develop awareness of implicit preferences and stereotypes.” But why develop an actual test designed to unmask the unconscious racism, sexism, homophobia of real people and market it to the public, if the aim is simply to teach us that generally speaking, such bias is “possible”?
Perhaps the idea is that knowing about implicit bias and seeing it in my own case, I can endeavor to work on myself; to make myself less racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. The trouble is that because the biases in question are unconscious, they are beyond the reach of conscious effort. The reason we need the test, remember, is not to identify the people who are overtly racist, homophobic, etc. – those dirty scoundrels are easy to find. It’s the rest of us, the people who are overtly nice and who make no claim to racist or homophobic ideas whom we need to wonder about. And the creators of the IAT admit that there is “not enough research to say for sure that implicit biases can be reduced, let alone eliminated.” So, the idea that the purpose of the test is to provide us with the information necessary to improve ourselves also turns out to be unsustainable.
Rather than try to improve ourselves, the test’s creators tell us, we should “focus instead on strategies that deny implicit biases the chance to operate,” by which they mean the introduction of administrative institutions and practices like the blind reviewing of applications and more generally, the employment of transparent, publicly verifiable criteria. But these sorts of practices are applied generally and across the board and certainly don’t depend on there being an actual implicit bias test that can identify unconscious racism, homophobia, and the like or on anyone taking such a test.
And this brings us back around to the recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Not only has a 2016 meta-analysis shown that the relationship between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior is minimal at best and that changes in implicit bias have little effect on behavior, it turns out that this is a critique that has been raised against the test for some ten years now, led by Dr. Hart Blanton, who did his own meta-analysis (reaching similar conclusions), back in 2013. As of now, at least, there is no scientific question then, of there being some behavioral utility in having this sort of information about peoples’ unconscious biases. As things currently stand, they appear to be largely unrelated to discriminatory behavior and regardless, changing them has little effect on such behavior. 
And yet, the test has not been removed from the internet. Indeed, not one word of any of this is to be found on the test’s website, which continues to state, unequivocally that “it is well established that implicit preferences can affect behavior” and “implicit bias can predict behavior” and all the rest that I’ve quoted to you. I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the sole point of the test is to encourage people to out themselves and others as subterranean racists, sexists, homophobes, etc. – in short, as guilty of thoughtcrime – with all the illiberal shaming, guilt-mongering, moral posturing, and social harassment that this makes possible, which is why current “Social Justice” types have embraced the test and deployed it with such enthusiasm and aplomb. I expect as much from them, as they have never evinced much if any respect for liberal values and especially not for the freedom of speech and of conscience, but it is very disappointing to see it in professional scientists, whose job is not advocacy or activism, but rather, the pursuit of the truth.
I hope I am wrong and perhaps, with this latest revelation, the creators of the IAT will remove the test from the internet and put out a statement unequivocally opposing its use, not only until these serious scientific challenges have been adequately addressed, but until they can articulate a sound purpose for public use of the test. As Jesse Singal wrote in a recent article on the subject:
[T]here’s a case to be made that Harvard shouldn’t be administering the test in its current form, in light of its shortcomings and its potential to mislead people about their own biases. There’s also a case to be made that the IAT went viral not for solid scientific reasons, but simply because it tells us such a simple, pat story about how racism works and can be fixed: that deep down, we’re all a little — or a lot — racist, and that if we measure and study this individual-level racism enough, progress toward equality will ensue. 
Alas, I must admit to not being hopeful on this front. It’s not just the treatment of Blanton, whom the creators of the test apparently tried to smear and discredit, in response to his original critique (a shameful episode recounted in the Chronicle piece), but the fact that in today’s academic climate the idea of ideologically compromised social science is all too believable.
- https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html (All quotes from the website are taken from the “Ethical Considerations” and “FAQ” tabs, under “Education”)