Dangerous Science, Round I

May 3, 2010

As promised ("Science of Oppression I"), I’m going to point out some dangerous faulty science from a link I saw at Racialicious. I didn’t give you all a chance to respond as planned, but I just got "scooped" by Racialicious (mostly due to my own tip-off, so that’s a good thing) and I’m actually out tomorrow, so I wanted to make sure I got it in. Here we go:

Here’s the original, in the Daily Mail – horribly mis-stated and irresponsible reporting:

And here’s the actual paper, itself (thanks, Glotto):

Alright, alright.

The study:

The study examined if people mentally "empathize" with folks of different races they saw doing a simple action in a video (reaching for and drinking a glass of water). (*1) The researchers claimed that their findings suggest that people tend only to "empathize" with members of their own race. Statistical analysis was conducted, there was a control group, all that seems to check out . . . Seems reasonable enough on first perusal . . .

Except, well . . . we’re talking about race here. We’re talking about oppression. And who were the study participants? All white people. 30 white people, 13 of them female. (*2) But it continues. Where did these study participants come from? Well, they’re all university student volunteers. And why did they volunteer? Because they get course credit for it – because they’re all Psychology students. (*3)

Okay, okay – but it keeps going. Because the videos they watched? All men doing the actions. When half the participants (almost) were women. And the videos were three white men, one black, one "East-Asian," and one "South-Asian."

Oh, and before I forget – the "control" group was majority (25 out of 33) female.

The Daily Mail:

My major issue is with the Daily Mail, and their ridiculous, sensationalized, B.S. "reporting" of this study. First off, this is a grad student study with a ridiculously tiny group of participants, and yet the Daily Mail reported it like some huge, real-deal study that means something. The first line, "The roots of racial prejudice lie deep within the brain, research has suggested." Give me an f-ing BREAK.

At the end, they dropped this tidbit: "Dr Inzlicht said the research did not necessarily mean prejudice was innate, adding that discrimination about race, religion or hair colour was ‘probably learnt’", yet the title, the first sentence (probably the only part most people read) suggest the "deep roots within the brain" . . . ie. that it’s innate.

Not to mention that they just flat mis-stated: saying the study was of all men.

Did they even read the study? Probably not. Or certainly not all the way through. A brief skim. Maybe a look at a summary or abstract. And then the bold quotes and publishing as real news . . . I just vomited in my mouth.

Because this study proved nothing, said nothing about race (so far). So, at this ridiculously early stage, to publish anything about it for general readers is appalling. Not to mention that there are a few glaring warning-signs within the study itself asking for much more work before making any claims.

Variables, variables, variables:

Okay, we’re mostly going to view this from the lens of what we learned about variables in my last post, but I’ll hit it with a couple other shots just because it’s important to me that people don’t just accept irresponsible science like this (it’s more the reporting of it that bothers me, though) blindly.

Variables. Oh, the variables.

If we’re talking about race, what’s a really obvious variable? Oh, right – RACE. Yet this study only tested white subjects, but made bold claims about what that suggests for everybody. Even if everything else about this study was sound, that’s a ridiculous, irresponsible oversight on the part of the researchers. The whiteness of the participants was likely intentional – but then say that it shows that white people tend to do this thing, and that we – as of yet – know nothing about how other races respond.

What’s another pretty big-deal variable when we’re talking about oppression, in general? Right – gender. And yet, all of the videos were of men. When almost half of the first group and a majority of control group folks were women. In a study about identifying or "empathizing" with another human being, could that possibly play a role? Yeah, I’d think so. For example – what if all the people of color shown were women? Would the female participants have had a different response, based on that level of connection? Who knows – but it’s quite possible.

Okay. When a lot of people think of variables, they think Algebra. And numbers. Let me ask you something – is three the same as one? As in three videos of white guys and only one of each other race? If "selective attention" could play a large role in the results (as the researchers state in the Discussion section), isn’t it more likely that you might happen to pay more attention to the white people’s videos simply because there were three times as many chances to do so? We’ll touch on "priming" later, but let’s just say that (as folks with Psychology backgrounds – like the researchers – should be well aware) it’s very common for us to miss the first instance of something, while catching repetitions – so three white guys in a row should be more likely to catch our attention and/or "empathy" than one non-white guy, change to different race of non-white guy, change to different race of non-white guy. Why not three black guys in a row? Or three Asian? (*4)

Another key variable? Well, I don’t know – don’t people change just a little bit as they age? Maybe? So wouldn’t college kids not necessarily be the most representative of say . . . any other age-group whatsoever? Not to mention education and class. College kids being many many times more likely to be economically and socially privileged . . . again – representative? No. And I happen to have been one, too – so I know that university students are pretty damn self-absorbed, so watching videos and only actively "relating" to people most racially like them doesn’t necessarily mean a ton.

And I should say here that I know that using college volunteers is standard practice for early-level trial studies – it makes the most economical sense to try to test out a theory before a big run. That’s fine. Use the results to say that your study is worth following up on for a grant – sure – but to let it get public as real results? To not make a million disclaimers about the sample population? Aiyaaa.

I could keep going, but I’ll leave you all with one last variable to think about: where does a very large proportion of our "understanding" of race come from? The media. To be specific, largely video-based media (tv, film, YouTube clips, etc.). Right. So when you choose to do a racial "empathy" study, and you do video clips, you best think about that particular variable. Because, by and large, the vast majority of sympathetic characters in film and television are white. Because there’s more of them, in a flat number sense; as well as the fact that PoC are disproportionately cast as villains and/or 2d, token characters. So most of us have been trained for our entire lives to empathize with white people when we see them in videos . . . and it turns out these particular study participants empathized with white people on videos. So is it about identifying with a race, or just what we’re used to seeing? (*5)

Dropping the Ball

Now. Let’s just say here that I don’t believe – at all – that the researchers made these mistakes intentionally. I don’t think that they have anything but the best intentions. In fact, I wish more people were willing to do the kind of work they’re doing. (*6) But to allow these "results" to be reported in the media in the manner that they did? Disgusting. Irresponsible and dangerous. And to say that these "results" suggest anything at all about humanity, in general – without a million caveats about all the other possibilities and further studies to do? Again – irresponsible. Ignorant, even.

And that’s what it comes down to – I think these researchers mean well. I think they really believe that they discovered something important here – and, in the end, it may turn out exactly as they stated here. But they haven’t discovered anything yet. And they are completely ignoring so many other possible answers and variables that it really worries me. They’re doing exactly what I talked about in my last post – focusing on one single variable because that’s the one they’re into, without taking the time and putting in the work to think about all the deeper-level variables that may be coming into play here.

To be fair – I’m probably being overly harsh here. That Daily Mail article (and the resulting comments all buying their spin) triggered me, for sure. Perhaps the researchers took all these things into account and carefully removed them as possible answers. I do not know the whole story.

But I’m so used to science being mis-used as a tool to reinforce B.S. and the status quo. I hate that so much research – fascinating stuff, that I really enjoy – is turned around (incorrectly) to let the oppressive system continue, as it is. These authors are not trying to do that. In fact, they’re trying to fight against that. However, if you’re going to fight like this, you have to be held up to a whole new level of responsibility and accountability – because doing it wrong is so much worse than not doing it at all (I feel the same way about education and youth work).

So. To the researchers out there. To researchers Gutsell and Inzlicht, specifically – think through the variables. Really think them through. If you already did, then make that clear – don’t allow any misinterpretation to get spun onto your work, especially work so important (and dangerous) as that regarding forms of oppression. And don’t you ever – EVER – allow journalists to mis-state science so irresponsibly as the Daily Mail did.

The rest of you – now that we’ve gotten a lesson in variables, keep your eyes peeled. When you spot ugly, dangerous science (or articles mis-quoting science) like this, call them out. Challenge them. That’s how real answers are found (and mis-direction defused). Understand the tools of oppression, or else you’re never going to stand a chance.

(*1) It’s actually much more complicated than "empathy," of course, but that’s the closest explanation – that’s not the really bad science part, anyway. "Mirroring" is actually some really interesting stuff, and important, so I’m not going to rip them for trying to simplify it for a more general audience.

(*2) A low amount of participants to draw any large conclusions from, but that’s for another day. Besides, it’s a pilot study, they ran decent statistical tests on it, so it’s fine – you have to start somewhere.

(*3) Also very common practice, which I’ll cover later. Sure, again, you have to start with something, but to then report out to the general public that these findings mean anything at this stage? With this completely unrepresentative population? Totally irresponsible.

(*4) Trying not to take this as "non-white are all the same and interchangeable" because the researchers are very conscious that this is not the case, but . . . I don’t know. It feels like a strange choice to me (as an ex-Psychology researcher).

(*5) Maybe if they had tested non-white folks, we’d have a better answer.

(*6) I read an interview with Dr. Inzlicht here, and I have to say – I really empathized with him as he tried to diplomatically handle all these questions from people that – very clearly – have no understanding of race and/or white privilege.



  1. It is totally irresponsible. What were their backgrounds, their exposure to other races? Like you said, a world of variables. Who was the brainiac who thought this was worth publishing?

  2. yet the title, the first sentence (probably the only part most people read) suggest the “deep roots within the brain” . . . ie. that it’s innate.

    I agree that the Daily Mail article is very poorly written, but I think you are also misinterpreting what the study is about.

  3. I think he’s right, we do identify with the closest people to us:

    1) Family/Friends
    2) Same nationality/country
    3) Same race
    100) Other races

    Do you identify with Asians or with Whites more? Simple answer–yes or no.

    (reading your blog, it’s obvious you identify with Asians more)

  4. […] that we as consumers of information are able to read what is not there, as well as what is.  Choptensils puts this idea into practical use by dismantling a psychology research study reported on by the […]

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