Objectivity and discrimination: a pernicious bias

[A gender neutral translation of the original post Men: we are not objective about sexism and know less about it than women. It also extends the argument to other forms of discrimination. Why? – see the backstory at the end of the post.]

As scientists and engineers, we all want to make decisions based on objective evidence. For many people, the need for objectivity might even take precedence over moral and political convictions. It seems that, for some scientists, peoples’s direct experiences of discrimination and the concerns they evoke can be discounted on the basis that they are subjectively involved in the issues. In particular, some people who haven’t directly experienced discrimination seem to feel, and many certainly act, as if they have a more objective view. This itself is a bias, because:

  • because it is systematically excludes highly relevant evidence from those most familiar with the phenomenon of interest
  • it implies (wrongly) that those who have do not experience discrimination are uninvolved whereas they frequently benefit from membership of privileged groups that helped define current cultural practices, and through their action or inaction are empowered to change or sustain them.

If you are truly committed to objectivity, and have not experienced discrimination yourself, you must be willing to think critically about our own objectivity and biases. Concluding after a few seconds of reflection that “I am right, it is the other’s who are wrong” doesn’t count. Has your lack of experience distorted your thinking on the topic? Do you need more evidence about the experience of others? Are you evaluating the evidence from those who have experienced discrimination inaccurately? Are you inclined to inaction which could serve to sustain a discriminatory culture or practice that benefits you?

Taken seriously, the process of examining and addressing our own biases will take a long time, but the quest for objectivity in all things should not prevent us from acting on the immediate testimony of people around us. If someone comes into the room shouting “fire!”, you don’t ask them whether the concentration of smoke particles is really significantly larger now than it was at the same time yesterday, you evacuate. It is not reasonable for people to be sceptical about the existence or extent of discrimination just because they have not experienced it themselves. This is especially true for people whose membership of privileged groups means that their experience and understanding of the negative effects of discrimination is systematically limited.

So how should people who truly believe in objectivity and equality begin to address these biases when their own lack of experience is likely to bias their thinking? The first step, in my view, is to get a clearer idea of the scope of the problem by seeking out and listening to those who are most affected, and taking their experiences seriously.

Backstory

I was quite pleased with the original post, but after I published it, I was somewhat taken to task on twitter by Rachael Jack, and later offline by my daughter Isobel. The wording, they felt, could be taken to imply that one person’s view is more valid than another’s simply by virtue of their gender. Clearly there would be many grave problems with that position (which was not what I meant) the most striking of which was that (as a man) I would be in no position to rebut their arguments!

The above post, just translates the original into the terms I would have used had I been more precise, and I think it’s logic is sound and clearer, although I think it will be less persuasive to my target audience – the people with least experience of discrimination who benefit most from the status quo. Sadly many of these people do not seem to have reflected very deeply on their own biases and are still prone to speak against change from a position of ignorance.

A nice byproduct of the translation is that it extends to other forms of discrimination.

A negative feature, which I found unavoidable was the use of the term ‘privilege’ to refer to groups who have been shielded from discrimination e.g., white, male, heterosexual people. In terms of my intended audience in the original post, this is likely to be seen as jargon describing a phenomenon that they have not yet fully acknowledged.

 

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Men: when to stand up, when to pipe down

Based on what I have learned so far by listening to women.

If you work in science or technology and spend any time listening to the honest views of women around you, you will find that many report experiences of sexism and an environment that is hostile to them. Listen to them.

Men sometimes undervalue women’s views, ideas and experiences, talk over them and shut them out of discussion, even in discussions about sex, gender and discrimination where they clearly have vital, distinct experiences and knowledge. Don’t drown out their voices. 

When you see that other men are not listening to women’s experiences, are drowning out their contributions, dismissing their concerns or derailing discussions they have initiated, what should you do? You will need tact and judgement to determine whether your support is truly helpful – for example, if you get drawn into a predominantly male argument it is surprisingly be easy to become part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Women’s ideas are sometimes dismissed, ignored or doubted until expressed by a man. If you want to amplify, echo or support a woman’s view, it can be helpful to make it explicit. “I would like to amplify what Dr X has said”, “I agree with Dr X”. This avoids any impression that you are taking credit for her idea, and it helps remind other men to listen to women.*

When you see overt sexism or misogyny, yes, you should speak up. Confront it.

This is going to take some judgement, sometimes we need to stand up, often we need to pipe down. In both cases it will feel uncomfortable, in my view, that male discomfort is the feeling you get when a sexist culture is changing for the better.

Note: I have focused on women and sexism, but if you look around you will find other groups are under-represented and marginalized in your workplace. Try the same techniques: listen to the people affected, then try to advocate for change that will improve matters.

*In this spirit I should acknowledge the people whose ideas I have incorporated in the above advice who most recently and directly include @zerdeve (especially this thread), @o_guest (twitter) and @noodlemaz (blog and twitter) although many others have expressed similar views. Misunderstandings or mistakes are my own. The tip about explicitly acknowledging women whose views you agree with and want to amplify was arrived at by trial and (especially) error – one error pointed out gracefully (but forcefully) by Prof Ursula Martin was helpful. Of course, I like other-well intentioned men, will make mistakes in the way we respond to women’s concerns about sexism.

Men: we are not objective about sexism and know less about it than women

As scientists and engineers, we all want to make decisions based on objective evidence. But objectivity is hard to achieve when non-experts consider deficiencies in our own practices and culture. Some seem to feel that women’s experiences and concerns about the extent of sexism in science can be discounted on the basis that they are subjectively involved in the issues. In particular, some men seem to feel, and many certainly act, as if they have a more objective and better informed view. This itself is a bias, because:

  • it implies (wrongly) that men are uninvolved, whereas men’s preferences are clearly highly relevant to the cultures and practices they have established and sustain
  • because it is systematically excludes highly relevant evidence from those most familiar with the phenomenon of interest

If we are truly committed to objectivity we must be willing to think critically about our own objectivity and biases with regard to sexism. Concluding after a few seconds of reflection that “I am right, it is the women who are wrong” doesn’t count.

Taken seriously, the process of examining and addressing our own biases will take a long time, but the quest for objectivity in all things should not prevent us from acting on the immediate testimony of people around us. If someone comes into the room shouting “Fire!”, you don’t ask them whether the concentration of smoke particles is really significantly larger now than it was at the same time yesterday, you evacuate.

It is not reasonable or objective for men to be sceptical about the existence or extent of sexism just because they don’t experience it: our experience is necessarily biased. Unjustified doubts about sexism delay remedial action and can be part of the problem. If you have any doubts then the first step, in my view, is to get a clearer idea of the scope of the problem by listening to women.

[If you disagree with this post, you might prefer the gender-neutral translation (which also extends to other forms of discrimination).

You may also be interested on my post: “Men: when to stand up, and when to pipe down“.]

Dear Students

Dear students*,

Today is polling day in the UK general election, it also coincides with the day that our final year students are leaving, and that got me thinking.

vote

I didn’t have to pay a penny in tuition fees to get my degree, and I got a grant meaning that I didn’t need paid work and could focus on my studies. When my wife and I had kids, we were able to buy a family-sized flat in London even when, at times, only one of us was working and we had hardly any savings.

Most of you will leave university having clocked up £27000 in loans and supported yourselves by paid work throughout your degree. Judging by the experience of my 20- and 30-something nieces and nephews, and their friends – and to put it very mildly –  few of you will be able to buy a property in the town where you work; many will have to pay very high rents and/or travel costs to get to work. Your conditions in the workplace will be less secure – we now have the “gig economy” where young people in particular are expected to volunteer and work zero-hour contracts on demand.

The opportunities of young people have clearly deteriorated over the last decades. In my opinion one reason for this is that, over most of my lifetime, politicians have been less concerned with what happens to young people than with the older people who vote in much larger numbers (78% of over 65s voted in the last election compared with 43% of 18-24 year olds). I saw lots of over 65s leaving the polling station when I voted this morning – no one younger than me.

The country is now politically split on generational lines. This was demonstrated very clearly in the Brexit referendum, but it is also true in the general election. Please take a look at these polling figures in the Economist and take the time to click on the buttons to see how starkly the voting intentions of younger and older people differ.

This is one of the most important elections in our lifetimes. The Brexit result will completely change our lives regardless of who wins, but for once we are not being asked to choose between slightly different “brands”, coke v pepsi, but between strikingly different political philosophies. Every vote counts because even if the party you vote for doesn’t win, it will send politicians a very clear message that young people’s views can’t safely be ignored. You almost certainly won’t get another chance to vote for 5 years – think where you’ll be then.

This year I’ll be 50. I’ve been lucky and benefited hugely from the support of the NHS and welfare state that my grandparents generation helped set up after World War II. They put everything on the line to defend our right to vote. I remember them and I will never betray their sacrifices by not using that right. But I won’t use it to feather my own nest at the expense of the next generation. I don’t want a world setup neatly for my retirement if it comes at the cost of my children and grandchildren’s futures. I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t post this in time to persuade a few more young people to vote today. The polls don’t close until 10pm.

Tom

*this message is a very personal one, but I am glad to say it is the official position of my employers to encourage students to vote. Quite right, too.

 

 

Can I Just Say…?

This week psychologists, neuroscientists and statisticians have been again prompted to reassess our methods by a widely-circulated preprint (pdf) accusing some in the field of acting like “methodological terrorists”. Thankfully, the initial urge to identify with one or other “side” (and to hit back at “opponents”) has largely given way to more thoughtful, nuanced and long overdue discussions about how research should be conducted. I am not arguing for or against one of the “sides” in this debate, but I am just sharing my perspective.

Scientists have learned that we need to continually question our beliefs about the natural world, and test them against the evidence. As Feynman put it: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” We have to question our beliefs. This applies to our beliefs about the scientific method as well as to our beliefs about the natural world. It applies to ourselves as well as the other people who we think are wrong.

Continue reading “Can I Just Say…?”

The Sorting Ceremony

Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, Not Slytherin, not Slytherin. “Not Slytherin, eh?” said the small voice. “Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that — no?”

Tomorrow the UK votes on a referendum: do we remain part of the EU or do we leave? Every vote counts equally, and the outcome is very finely-balanced, so every vote is important. I’ve been on a bit of a journey with this issue. At first, although I could see many clear-cut benefits of membership, reservations about the EU’s arcane structure weighed very heavily with me. Later, although the facts and my understanding of them hadn’t changed, I began to feel uncomfortable with the idea of leaving; the risks of leaving seemed much clearer and more immediate than the risks of staying, and I decided I had to vote to remain. However, I was still ambivalent.

IN

Now all ambivalence has gone. I know why I felt so uncomfortable about the idea of voting to leave. The referendum campaigns have been divisive, and while both campaigns have been negative, the Leave campaign has focused on the issue of immigration. I think immigration (whether from the EU or beyond) benefits the UK, and I think that blaming immigrants for our problems is the opposite of what Britain stands for, or should stand for.

In troubled times such as the recession we’re currently experiencing, it’s easy to prey on people’s fears, to cast outsiders and foreigners as scapegoats and have them take the blame for problems caused by bankers and politicians. We’re very lucky in Britain that our grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t fall for this crap in the 1930s, and we shouldn’t be falling for it now.

When Jo Cox MP was murdered, we got a glimpse of where this rhetoric leads, where it can still lead in the 21st Century and in Britain, and for me, that was the moment when the last trace of ambivalence evaporated. My reservations about the voting mechanisms seemed very small and a very, very long way away.

It’s natural that people in every nation are proud of their culture, and perhaps overlook their own shortcomings. I think that generation had reason to be proud, and I grew up with a (perhaps rose-tinted) idea that Britain had done some good in the world. Although that feeling gradually faded, I still felt proud to be British. In 2012 when London hosted the Olympics, I thought the opening ceremony distilled the essence of what we still had: at our best we’re industrious, creative, funny, irreverent, welcoming to newcomers, proud of our diversity and self-confident. If we lose those things, we won’t have much left. It will be a very hollow kind of “independence” if it means closing the borders and polishing our memories of empire.

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Maybe this is where I was so wrong at the beginning of the process. I had thought that we could at least contemplate leaving the EU while still being the welcoming, diverse and self-confident country that made me proud. The Leave campaign has convinced me that’s not the possible. Talking to friends from continental Europe I realise that the EU now plays a big part in my rosy image of a outgoing, self-confident country. Although I work with people from all around the world, colleagues from continental Europe, especially, value the ability to live and work in Britain, and they feel hurt Britain might reject them, as they see it. I was taking these friends for granted, and I am sorry.

Tomorrow will be like a grim Sorting Ceremony in Harry Potter, and I am still desperately hoping we will find ourselves in Gryffindor, like the generations before us. The other possibilities are now all too clear.

Slytherin-house

Decided

A few days ago I wrote a post about the EU referendum. At that time I was undecided now I’ve made up my mind, so I thought I should update the blog.

Given my uncertainty, I can’t tell anyone else how to vote and can only talk about the issues as I see them. One of my frustrations is that people on both sides of the debate argue that the decision is straightforward, and I don’t think it is. However, I am going to vote to Remain. The process of coming to the decision has been disturbing. I’ve written previously about the role of the unconscious in decision making, and I am not sure my own decision is entirely rational, as I explain below. Unusually, I went through the process of carefully thinking through and articulating my main concerns in the previous post, and it’s been uncomfortable to feel my position gradually “shifting beneath me”.

Continue reading “Decided”