Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Sprained ankle from a week ago Sunday turned out to not have been so bad. Just three days off and did a decent 6.4 on dreadmill, splits: 7:16, 6:59, 6:47, 6:40, 6:32, 6:34. Then 7.7 on Sunday around the lake, 7 @ 46:05 (6:35); splits: 6:17, 6:27, 6:24, 6:35, 6:44, 7:09 (hill), 6:28. And today, for some reason, a very tiring 5.2 on dread, splits: 7:05, 6:50, 6:48, 6:47, 6:32. I've a nasty little case of extensor tendonitis on my right foot, on the top, so lots of days off.

Carolyn Porco gave a very nice talk at Beyond Belief 2006 on If Not God, Then What, and presented some wonderful photos, like the one of Saturn, above. Ann Druyan, co-producer of Cosmos and wife of the late Carl Sagan, also gave a charming talk. Have a listen.

Also, Mahzarin Banaji, gave a really interesting presentation of the implicit bias of the human mind (session 7). Try taking a couple of these Implicit Association Tests. I of course, like most civilized/educated people abhor racism. My test results showed however that I have a pretty strong implicit unconscious bias toward light-skinned people over dark-skinned people, as well as a slight bias toward males over females in regard to career, and no bias at all for or against Jews. It's a strange sensation taking the time based tests — even though you know the point and methods of the test, and try to conciously overcome any possible bias, you can't. Give it a try, you might learn something about yourself.

I'm not too surprised about my implicit skin tone bias — I don't think I saw a non-white person in person until I was a teenager (I grew up in Hamilton, Massachusetts — a town which made the The Official Preppy Handbook as one of the preppiest towns in America). But what was really interesting was when Banaji pointed that blacks also have a bias against darker skin tones, though not in general as great as that of most whites.

The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom but to set some limit on infinite error.

  — Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo

Great doubt: great awakening.
Little doubt: little awakening.
No doubt: no awakening.

  — Zen Maxim


At 12:41 AM, Blogger Rachael said...

One question I keep tossing over the IATs; do individual results really indicate bias? I haven't been able to persuade myself that it isn't quite a jump to interpret these as deep rooted isms.

Individually, I'm not sure how they can show more than the obviousness of an association; it seems silly to assume that obviousness equates with preference. Maybe I'm missing something. :)

Thanks for your comment at my blog. Exams end tomorrow, maybe Saturday I can chill out and give Beyond Belief a listen.

At 2:41 PM, Blogger David said...

Right, I don't think it necessarily indicates a deep rooted ism, just an association. But I don't see a big difference between an implicit association and an unconscious bias, maybe just semantics. Bottom line for me is that the bias or implicit associations measured by these tests is not very conscious and is nothing to feel guitly about; it's probably just an artifact of one's background, environment, and upbringing. But a very interesting artifact indeed, and good to be aware of at the conscious level. Good luck on exams!

At 10:18 PM, Blogger Rachael said...

I understand what you're saying about semantics, but I think what we're looking at in these IATs is a bit more subtle, and more nuanced than that. I don't even think it's the same sort of item, test to test. So I'm a little anxious about the sort of assumptions the project relies on, and how this data is going to be used and interpreted.

I have no argument with the idea that lots of otherwise good people act in a biased way because of unconscious assumptions. I thought the tests mentioned by Elizabeth Spelke in her debate with Stephen Pinker cleanly demonstrated this, in relation to sexism.

And I'm not trying to get anyone off the hook, so to speak. I agree with you that it's probably not anything to be ashamed of.

I just don't think that's what these IATs are testing, or at best - consistently testing.

Could a strong association reflect some aspect of a person's education, in a way that does not correlate with bias - unconscious or not?
Could a strong association reflect cultural awareness, in a way that does not correlate with bias - unconscious or not?
Could an association have multiple correlates?

I'm not sure what evidence there is to assume an association is tantamount to biased behavior.

If we were testing assumptions on the other hand (as in Spelke's examples) ...

The exams went o-kay, thanks!

At 10:18 PM, Blogger Rachael said...

Gods, that got windy. Woops.


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