The problem is that the hype over IAT research, and the eagerness to apply the test to real-world problems, has so outpaced the evidence that it has launched a lot of studies built on underwhelming foundations. “Implicit bias research has been driven by both the desire to understand truths about the human mind and the desire to solve social problems,” said Forscher. “These goals have not always been in conflict. Unfortunately, one of the ways they have is that the desire to do something, anything, to solve problems related to race has led some people to jump to conclusions about the causal role of implicit bias that they might have been more cautious about had their only focus been on establishing truth.”
To Forscher, implicit bias’s role in propagating racial inequality should be given a “fair trial in the court of scientific evidence,” not simply assumed. But what’s going on now isn’t a fair trial; instead, the overhyping of IAT stacks the deck so much that sometimes it feels like implicit bias can explain everything. But plenty of researchers think that other factors play a bigger role in determining some of the most important societal outcomes. “I think unconscious racial prejudice is real and consequential,” said Robb Willer, a sociologist at Stanford University, “but my sense is that racial inequality in America is probably driven more by structural factors like concentrated poverty, the racial wealth gap, differential exposure to violence, the availability of early childhood education, and so on. Though it is also worth noting that past and present racial prejudice helped create these structural inequalities.” This is a fairly common sentiment among social scientists who study race and discrimination.
So it’s an open question, at least: The scientific truth is that we don’t know exactly how big a role implicit bias plays in reinforcing the racial hierarchy, relative to countless other factors. We do know that after almost 20 years and millions of dollars’ worth of IAT research, the test has a markedly unimpressive track record relative to the attention and acclaim it has garnered. Leading IAT researchers haven’t produced interventions that can reduce racism or blunt its impact. They haven’t told a clear, credible story of how implicit bias, as measured by the IAT, affects the real world. They have flip-flopped on important, baseline questions about what their test is or isn’t measuring. And because the IAT and the study of implicit bias have become so tightly coupled, the test’s weaknesses have caused collateral damage to public and academic understanding of the broader concept itself. As Mitchell and Tetlock argue in their book chapter, it is “difficult to find a psychological construct that is so popular yet so misunderstood and lacking in theoretical and practical payoff” as implicit bias. They make a strong case that this is in large part due to problems with the IAT.
(Thanks to Phillipe Lemoine for the pointer.)