How Our Profession Rewards Ignorance

What fills my mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more I reflect on it, is how the philosophy profession can continue to pretend that all is well with research on stereotype threat and implicit bias. The latest instance that caught my attention is Luc Bovens’s article on affirmative action, which was published recently in the top journal Mind. The article makes substantial empirical assumptions about the uncertainty afflicting the selection of job candidates, and both stereotype threat and implicit bias figure prominently among these assumptions, as the following excerpt shows:

c. Anxiety. … There is empirical evidence that if members of this [social] group are told that the test is a test which assesses precisely this skill then their average performance drops. Also, if members of this group are asked to reveal their group membership when taking a test for this skill then their average performance drops. This is called the ‘stereotype threat’—a kind of anxiety that is responsive to the social expectation that one will perform poorly. This anxiety is a distorting factor in testing which is more prevalent for UR [underrepresented]-candidates in general…

d. Implicit Bias. There is a large literature documenting that selectors will let themselves be influenced by implicit assumptions building on negative stereotypes when evaluating applications. UR-candidates are disadvantaged by such biases for many professional positions. When some selectors succumb to such biases, then this will result in greater uncertainty (pp. 425-426).

Bovens also writes that “we know that” stereotype threat and implicit bias are a distorting factor in the selection of job candidates (p. 427). In footnotes, Bovens refers to the usual suspects (Steele and Aronson 1995, Steinpreis et al. 1999, Goldin and Rouse 2000, and so on), but never to even just one of the many articles that have cast doubt on these studies. This is remarkable, since articles casting doubt on the reality and/or explanatory value of stereotype threat and implicit bias have appeared long before Bovens’s article was published (in 2016). Moreover, as reported previously (here and here), philosophers of various stripes and colors have been drawing attention to these skeptical articles for years. As a result, prominent feminist philosophers such as Sally Haslanger now seem to favor “structural explanations” of inequality over psychological explanations invoking stereotype threat and implicit bias.

Apparently, the news has not reached the London School of Economics or the office of Mind (including its referees) in time—if it ever did reach them. And why should it? After all, Bovens’s article was just selected by The Philosopher’s Annual as one of the best articles in philosophy to appear in 2016! One would have tought that a post-publication erratum had been more appropriate. In fact, at least one article has appeared that points out the empirical glitch (and other potential errors) in Bovens’s article. Predictably, it was not published in Mind, but in the much lower-ranked Philosophia. Not that we should attach much importance to these journal rankings, of course. After all, our appraisal of journals presumably is subject to the same uncertainty that afflicts our appraisal of job candidates.

Note: in fairness to Bovens (who has written much better articles such as this one), the main responsibility for the empirical glitch lies with the referees of Mind and the nominating editors for The Philosopher’s Annual, because they have had significantly more time to digest the contradictory evidence concerning stereotype threat and implicit bias.

Bob le flambeur

Bob le flambeur is a professional philosopher who enjoys the finer things in life, but who is afraid that his opinions about politically sensitive topics are becoming unaffordable. Hence, he has decided to go underground.

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