Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Maria Konnikova's Bias

Maria Konnikova’s analysis of bias in The New Yorker and stereotyping starts out hopefully. But then, as you might imagine, it turns into an attack on the man she considers America’s bigot-in-chief… that would be President Trump. When she writes about anti-Semitism, she talks only of hateful white people. It's her own private bias.

So, could it be that Konnikova's own culturally influenced bias has blinded her to the anti-Semitism coming to us from the Democratic Party, from the Congressional Black Caucus’s embrace of Rev. Louis Farrakhan, from the failure of the leaders of the Women’s March to denounce Farrakhan and from Barack Obama’s notable and public contempt for the prime minister of the state of Israel?

Donald Trump said two bad words about some demonstrators, and this has apparently caused the nation to be awash in anti-Semitism. And yet, Barack Obama ran policies that manifested clear bias against the state of Israel and Konnikova utters not a peep about it. Wouldn’t that count as bias? When the Congressional Black Caucus boycotted a speech that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu gave to Congress, wasn't that bias?

When Muslim terrorists murdered people in a kosher supermarket in Paris, President Obama refused to say that the attack was motivated by anti-Semitism. And he consistently refused to label Muslim terrorists as Muslim terrorists. Why isn't that bias?

Today, we see Jew hatred dripping from the lips of Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And the Democratic Congressional leadership is incapable of calling them out about it. Doesn't that mainstream anti-Semitism.

About these instances of bias, the biased Konnikova has nothing to say. Still, allow me to present some of her thinking on the topic.

She begins with a useful observation, namely, the the human brain stereotypes people. Bias is built into the brain. We cannot function without it. There is, effectively, nothing irrational about it, though Konnikova does believe that a baby who prefers the faces and voice of those who are familiar to him is thereby manifesting bias. Since certain faces and sounds signify comfort and protection, it makes rational good sense that a baby would be drawn toward them.

Anyway, the notion of perfect impartiality is unrealistic. It never really exists, except in the fantasies of people who want to use pretend science to attack conservatives.

Konnikova writes:

… although we may wish to be perfectly rational and impartial, bias is an inescapable part of what it means to be human. At three months old, we already prefer the faces of people who share our skin color over the faces of those who don’t. By five years old, we’re aware of our group’s status and have imbibed certain community ideas about how various groups are perceived and treated. As we grow older, these ideas are constantly reinforced by popular culture, our social environments, and even our language and symbolism. The question, therefore, isn’t “Do biases exist?” but, rather, “How much do we let them affect our behavior?” In 1990, Susan Fiske and Steven Neuberg, then psychologists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Arizona State University, respectively, described the process by which bias sways behavior using what they called the “continuum model of impression formation.” According to their model, our reliance on stereotypes in decision-making exists on a continuum and shifts by degrees, rather than operating in absolutes. No one is ever bias-free, but some people let their biases influence their actions more than others.

Group status should not really count as bias. We belong to groups. We gain pride and or shame from the behavior of other members of our group. We do not, in almost any case, see people as unique individuals who do not belong to any social groups. In truth, there is no such thing as an individual who does not belong to a group.

As for how these ideas are reinforced, let’s not be so simple minded as to blame it all on social media. We formulate and maintain opinions about ours and other groups through our rational evaluation of the behavior of group members. If people see Islamist terrorists committing multiple acts of terrorism, in the name of their religion, we are more likely to associate politicized Islam with terrorism. It's about probabilities.

The actions, as members of a convocation in Saudi Arabia in 2017 discussed, diminish the reputation of Islam, around the world. The best way for Muslims to restore the good name of their religion is to band together to denounce the terrorists in their midst and then to rid the world of their behaviors. If Muslims in non-Muslim nations want to be respected as citizens of their nations they need to assimilate, to adopt the local culture… not to imagine that they have special rights to do whatever they want. Remember the grooming gangs of Rotherham, England. Was it bias to see them as Muslims? Since members of the local Muslim community allowed it to happen, why shouldn't their reputations suffer? The same applies to the apparently unbiased local constabulary? Oughtn't they to have been relieved of their jobs. Was it a blow against bias to let Muslim men gang rape and sex traffic local high school girls because stopping them would have been racist?

Of course, Konnikova continues, society’s leaders set an example of good or bad behavior. If the Supreme Court says that same-sex marriage is the law of the land, people are more likely to accept it. Or at least, to say that they do. If the president says the wrong thing about Neo-Nazis then this is the root cause of American anti-Semitism.

We also find them in the behavior of people we respect, or who occupy positions we respect. If someone in a powerful position acts in a certain way or expresses a certain view, we implicitly assume that those actions and views are associated with power, and that emulating them may be to our advantage. As a result, while our biases may be slow to change—they’re based on long-standing stereotypes, and we have been learning them since birth—our norms can shift at the speed of social life. We might think of anti-Semitism as stemming from deeply rooted beliefs, and, in some sense, that’s true, but the expression of anti-Semitism depends on highly changeable facts about our social environment.

Again, not a one of the experts Konnikova gathers us suggests for an instant that the Obama administration promoted and fostered anti-Semitism in America. And not one of them is sufficiently perspicacious to remark that a Democratic Party that is wallowing in anti-Semitism has cornered the market in that form of bigotry:

The psychology of norms suggests that you don’t “need a nation of raging anti-Semites to license the use of anti-Semitism as a social weapon,” Paluck said. Instead, an authority figure could make the expression of anti-Semitism—an old bias that had previously been subtle, implicit, and almost imperceptible—suddenly appear to be one of the broadly “acceptable” ways of showing pent-up anger. “A leader could whip up everyone’s frustration and channel it to these scapegoats and make it normative to use this language,” Paluck said, “encouraging people to say, ‘Ah, this is how to express my frustration, to lash out against liberalism and so-called élites.’ ” Such an authority figure can create the impression of a social consensus where none exists.

You see, the fault lies entirely with Donald Trump. Democrats are good people fighting bigotry. Republicans are all bigots. Seriously? As I said, in an essay about overcoming bias Konnikova manages to express her own animus against Republicans and to exonerate the anti-Semites in the Democratic Party, and the bias that was visited on us by Jeremiah Wright’s protege.

Democrats, therefore, must reach out to leaders in the Republican community and ask them to model a different sort of norm. Moderate Republicans must reach out to sympathetic but less vocal colleagues. “Implore your Republican neighbors to get their formal or informal leaders to speak out,” Paluck said. A broad-based, authoritative counterbalance may well have an impact.


Anonymous said...

"Maria Konnikova, I am a fanatical Jew. I am very much astonished to discover myself as such in spite of all efforts to be unprejudiced and impartial."

trigger warning said...

My favorite bias is Implicit Bias, a bias that can only be detected by initiated adepts peering at patterns of marks on paper or selections on a computer screen (the Implicit Association Test). There's an entire project at Harvard, funded at least in part by the National Science Foundation, to support this new field of cleromancy. The technique is a science-ish version of the I Ching, using statistics and computers instead of yarrow stalks and hexagrams, very popular among persons with "social science" PhDs and their acolytes.

Sam L. said...

Thou shalt not diss the Muslims, and you MUST diss the Jews. Just BECAUSE.

UbuMaccabee said...

$20 says she went to one or several prestigious universities in the US and has very little attachment to religious Judaism. She strikes me as a secular ideologue living exclusively in over-lapping collegiate and media circles who uses her own deeply set biases to identify bias outside her circles. And her home team applauds her insight.

Anonymous said...

Ubu, are you Polish?

UbuMaccabee said...

I was the King of Poland for a stint, but the ingrates failed to appreciate my talents so I murdered most of them. Just a days work.