If you work at a university or live in a cosmoplitan city, you'll probably have heard the claim that we're all unconsciously racist to some degree. Unlike a lot of the things people say about sexism and racism in such environments, this one's actually based on research. The only problem is that the research now looks flawed.
The research focuses on the so-called Implicit Association Test, or IAT. This test shows you various faces and words and asks you to click the mouse if you see (say) a black face or a positive word, or a white face or a negative word. Then it switches them around, asking you to click if you see a white face or a positive term, or a black face or a positive term. If you're slower at the first of these tasks than the second, then you're said to exhibit a positive bias for white faces.
That's one part of the research, which claims to establish that we all have unconscious bias. But that only raises the question of whether that unconscious bias actually gets translated into prejudiced behaviour. To try and demonstrate a link, researchers have taken a further step, which involves various sorts of experiments involving inter-racial interactions using people who've previously done the IAT. If people display prejudiced behaviours, they can then link the unconscious biases implied by the IAT with actual racist or sexist actions.
Critics of the IAT have pointed out problems with both stages of this research paradigm. The main problem with the IAT itself is that there's very little consistency in people's results if they take the test multiple times. Of course, with most tests you'll get slightly different results each time you take it, but if there's too much variance then it suggests the test isn't really measuring anything. (Imagine a scale that said you weighed 200 pounds one minute and then 3 pounds then next. You'd think it was broken.)
Variance in test results is, unsurprisingly, a common issue in science. Because of this, scientists have developed a scale which measures how much results vary between the different times you take a particular test. On this scale, 1 is perfection (the test always give the same results for a particular person) and 0 is disaster (the variance is huge). 0.8 is seen as an acceptable score for publications in the social sciences. How does the IAT score? Somewhere between 0.3 and 0.6. Not only is it not a very reliable test - it's well below the conventional bar for respectable research.
Let's just imagine that enormous problem didn't exist, though. If we take certain people's IAT scores, do they predict racist behaviours? Again, scientists are used to looking at a spectrum of explanation. Some things predict behaviours perfectly, and others not at all. What percentage of behaviours do IAT scores explain? According to one meta-analysis (a combination of many different studies), it's something like 2 or 3%. (Another meta-analysis, which confirmed the powerlessness of IAT scores to predict prejudiced behaviour, was published just this year.)
The IAT is currently being used by police forces, schools, and other institutions. It's being pushed especially hard on university campuses. Often the test is followed by some sort of 'cultural awareness training,' which aims to correct the unconscious biases the IAT has supposedly identified.
Of course, the weakness of the research doesn't necessarily mean that we're not unconsciously racist and sexist. But given the unreliability of the IAT and the flimsiness of its link with actual racism, it's fair to say that there's no good evidence that unconscious prejudice of this sort exists, and even less evidence that it's doing any harm.
The scientists who've been pushing the claim that we're all unconscious racists are welcome to try to find more evidence that we are. But until they do, we should resist or ignore attempts to introduce compulsory IAT testing and compulsory 'cultural awareness' programs. Such endeavours may often be well-intentioned, but it's pretty clear now that they're based on flawed research.
is an English settler in New Zealand, a writer and an anti-intellectual.
Earlier this year the American professor Bruce Gilley was attacked for publishing an article arguing that the British Empire had some benefits. Let's look at one particular case of the British Empire in action, the case of New Zealand.
If you live in New Zealand, you'll hear a lot about the sins of Empire. About how British settlers made things worse for Maori in virtually every way.
But imagine you were an alien scientist, sent from another planet specifically to track how the Maori were doing. Let's say you visit in the early 19th century, before the British started to come in large numbers, and then visited again today. One of the things you'd want to look at would be how many Maori there were. And you'd find that there were a few more:
A lot more, in fact. You'd find that the Maori population had increased from less than 100 000 in the mid-19th century to almost 800 000 today.
Not only that, but you'd find that the pre-modern society you'd encountered in the early 19th century had been transformed. You'd find that Maori were living longer (with life expectancies more than twice what they were). You'd find that Maori were much more prosperous (with per capita GDP skyrocketing from the level of a pre-industrial economy to that of a first-word country).
You'd find that Maori were living in warmer houses, that the burden of disease had plummeted, and that they were better educated, with a more accurate picture of the world beyond their immediate environment. You'd also find that Maori culture was flourishing like never before, with high-quality carving showcased in marae all over New Zealand, and with the haka admired in faraway cities like London and Paris.
You'd even find that there were a few more people able to speak the Maori language - far fewer as a percentage of the Maori population (about 20% on your second visit), but a few more overall than the total Maori population on your first visit (20% of 800 000 is still 160 000).
Of course, as a good alien scientist, you wouldn't want to jump to any conclusions about what caused this transformation. But a working hypothesis would be staring you in the face: that this transformation had something to do with the pale-skinned outsiders who'd arrived from a distant part of planet Earth.
You wouldn't necessarily need to conclude that the outsiders increased Maori living standards on purpose. You might prefer to hypothesize, for example, that they simply acted as a conduit for more advanced technologies and ways of doing things, which in turn powered the positive changes.
But in any case, the facts you found on the ground on your second trip to New Zealand (and to Earth) would rule out one course of action. If you went back to your alien overlords and told them, 'Some new settlers arrived and made everything worse for the Maori,' and then relayed to them the improvements mentioned above, they'd think you'd been inhaling too much of the Earth's atmosphere.
Now, if you were a very sensitive and careful alien scientist, you might well want to add some details to your report. About how you found evidence that some of the outsiders had pressed some pretty dodgy deals in terms of land purchases, and that the they sometimes used force to found their new state, which was for a long time dominated by the outsiders themselves. But you'd also want to add that by the time of your second visit, there was nothing barring Maori from political activity, and that the outsiders were making great efforts to make amends for the transgressions of some of their ancestors.
If your alien overlords looked very carefully at your data, they might notice that Maori still lagged behind the outsiders in various measures of the quality of life, despite the vast improvements in their own population. But they'd doubtless put that down to the different starting positions of the two groups, one of which was already an industrial society when they arrived, while the other was still living in pre-modern conditions. They'd doubtless think about how quickly Maori living standards would have improved had the outsiders not come, and conclude that progress would have been slow and uncertain.
That's probably enough of that thought-experiment. The point of it was, I hope, obvious enough: to step back from the current orthodoxy within New Zealand universities and look at the facts in the way that a dispassionate observer might. (The progress of post-colonial theory in universities has meant that it's more difficult than you might think to find a dispassionate observer on this planet.)
If we do that, the facts speak clearly: Maori are better off in virtually every way than they were before the British settled New Zealand. That doesn't mean that no British settler ever did anything wrong. It doesn't mean that absolutely nothing was lost in the great transformation of Maori life over the past few hundred years. And it definitely doesn't mean that we should go back to the early days of New Zealand history, when Maori were effectively excluded from many areas of life.
But it does mean that the net effect was positive - indeed, spectacularly positive. More cautiously we can say that it suggests that Gilley is right, and that the British Empire did have some positive effects (whether it did so consciously or on purpose is another question). But don't expect our alien sicentist's data to be highlighted in a course in any New Zealand university nowadays.
As pretty much everybody knows, in the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, women have been posting #metoo stories on social media sites - claims that they've been sexually harassed or assaulted in the past. A common reaction to this is to say, 'Gosh, I didn't realise how bad the problem was! Women are being assaulted all over the place!' It's an understandable reaction, but it's based on a basic error of social science methodology.
In polling, the gold standard for junk science is a self-selecting poll, where instead of asking a random sample of people what their experiences of something have been, you get people to volunteer for your study. The reason this kind of poll is so worthless is because the people who are already concerned about something are more likely to call in. So if I invited everyone who's ever had a run-in with a cyclist to tell me about it, and didn't ask anyone else about their experiences, I'd probably end up with a survey in which the vast majority of the people surveyed had had run-ins with cyclists.
Now, that pretty clearly wouldn't necessarily mean that we have a big problem with cyclists in our society. We might have a problem with cyclists; but my poll wouldn't be evidence for that, because I didn't take any care to make sure it was properly representative. All my poll would show is that there's a certain number of people out there who are upset enough about cyclists to volunteer for my survey.
Ditto for sexual assault and harassment. Doubtless there are some men who assault and harass women, but some women posting stories on social media isn't a good way of figuring out how many of them there are.
There's also, of course, the problem that #metoo stories have including everything from actual rape (physically coerced sexual intercourse) to remarks that a woman found 'uncomfortable' (or later decided to interpret as 'inappropriate'). The problem with definitions makes the movement even more useless as a barometer of the real level of sexual assault and harassment. What number of these claims actually reflect things that most people would take seriously? We don't know.
Finally, of course, we don't know what percentage of these stories are true. Again, doubtless some of them are true; but there's no way of knowing, just from social media, what proportion. Some sexual assault and harassment does occur, but we knew that already, and #metoo in itself shouldn't lead people to believe that these things are happening at a much higher rate than we thought.
Sam Butler is an English settler in New Zealand, a writer and an anti-intellectual.
Heretics are rarely thanked. This fact, combined with the difficulty of arriving at, and developing, heretical viewpoints, means that inviting people to participate in heresy can be a difficult sell. Still, we'd like to extend an open invitation to all readers - even, or especially, those at the centre of the current orthodoxy - to take the opportunity to read our posts, consider them, and post comments on them (even rude ones - we won't be deleting any).
We're starting this blog because we believe that there is, in effect, a new intellectual establishment, that this intellectual establishment has repressive tendencies, and that many of its core beliefs need to be questioned. They need to be questioned partly because all ideas should be questioned, and partly because many of the core beliefs of the new establishment are wrong.
Of course, the intellectual establishment that we're facing now is hardly the Spanish Inquisition. But it is dominant in certain key centres of ideological power (in the universities, especially, but also in the media and the arts). And it does incorporate certain beliefs (that knowledge is power, for instance, and speech violence) that make it indifferent, and sometimes hostile, to free expression.
That explains why many of us have chosen to write anonymously. This is something we regret. We'd rather be able to use our names, just as we'd rather be able to to put our actual views honestly to our friends and colleagues. But we've found through bitter experience that this is, in the current intellectual climate, impossible (or, at least, that it can have very high costs). We didn't create this situation; we're only reacting to it in the only way we know how to.
So what is this new ideological hegemony that we're trying to combat? Anyone who's set foot in a Western university campus has experienced it; students have probably been taught it as the gospel truth. More lately it's leaped, with alarming rapidity, over the walls of academe into public broadcasters, arts institutions, and public discourse. It has a few key strands, but they are all tangled together in a way that just makes the whole knot harder to unpick.
One key strand is the notion of privilege. The central idea is that the reason people's lives turn out differently can be explained pretty much entirely by unfairness of various sorts. People don't make choices, or strive to do things - they get what the system has designed for them, a system which everyone else is somehow conspiring to perpetuate (excepting, perhaps, those who oppose it).
There are various sorts of privilege (racial, sexual, gender-based, economic), although white men are always the most privileged (even in countries like the US, where Asian men actually earn higher wages). This means that we have a duty to level things out, and if white men (and white women, sometimes) are treated unjustly as a result, that's not racism or sexism, or even injustice (even when the white men in question aren't actually wealthier than some of their non-white peers).
All this, of course, is due to imperialism, or European and US imperialism (we're asked to forget at this point that most of human history is the story of empires, most of them non-European). The model of history that most university students now imbibe (and it's a beautifully simplistic one) is: some countries are poorer than others because at some point, the Europeans beat everyone else up and took their stuff. Nobody mentions that most nations throughout history have been trying to beat up other countries and take their stuff, or asks the complex historical question of why it was that some countries somehow, and quite suddenly, got much better at it than everybody else.
Nor does anybody ask how much stuff the imperial powers really took, and how much stuff they generated themselves. There's a general ignorance of the state that we're living in, of unprecedented wealth, health, longevity, and happiness. There's a refusal to acknowledge the vast strides that have been made in the rights of women, minorities, and pretty much everyone, over the last few hundred years.
Indeed, the idea that countries like Canada and the UK are racist, sexist, and homophobic places with a 'rape culture' is another of the strands of the currently privileged set of beliefs. In fact, of course, these countries are some of the least racist and sexist places in history, and are some of the only societies to have openly embraced homosexuality; they're also countries in which rape is heavily punished and very rare (extremely rare by historical standards). But this idea is necessary to the current orthodoxy, because without it the idea that white men are privileged might seem under threat.
And privilege is, in man ways, the key idea of the whole system. It's so essential, in fact, that it serves a kind of gatekeeper function, explaining why it is that certain people should be able to speak less than others. Based on a certain amount of fairly dubious social science, and a lot of repetition, the belief has taken hold that some people (men) always get more of a hearing than others, and that therefore we should 'balance' their advantage by privileging 'other voices.' An interesting view, considering well-established findings such as that most people respond more positively to women than to men.
A corollary is that some views should be elevated above others. More than that, in fact: some view don't deserve to be heard at all, because they prop up or exacerbate privilege, which, as university students all know (despite never having heard any real discussion of the issue) is an all-important fact. The idea that speech is violence, and that ideas can traumatise, only serves to strengthen this strand in the current thinking.
A final strand I'll mention today is tightly bound up with the last one. Since some ideas are known a priori to be better than others, and some people are more worthy than others (because they've previously been oppressed, or their ancestors were - or they're still being oppressed subconsciously), democracy is rarely a good idea. It's a good idea in certain circumstances, of course - when favoured candidates or causes win a vote. When they lose, though, it's clearly because the media have manipulated people, favouring the bad views rather then the worthy, deserving ones. The current orthodoxy is against the elite, but that doesn't mean that it's for the people - the people, you see, are too easily swayed.
That should do as a brief tour of the reigning orthodoxy. You may disagree with all of it, as most of us do, or you may think some of these ideas have more to say for themselves than others. Different readers will also disagree with the current orthodoxy for very different reasons. Liberals ('classical liberals'), libertarians, religious people, conservatives, even traditional left-wingers - all these sorts of people will find the current orthodoxy distasteful. That's not surprising, because the current orthodoxy has no room for heresy. Remember - doubting the current order means not that you have a different conception of the good or how to arrive at it. It means that you're an oppressor.
Combatting these conceptions is the whole point of this blog; though, since these ideas can be combatted in many different ways, and since freedom of speech is one of our main ideals, we don't aim for any ideological uniformity of our own. The people who contribute to this blog are academics and intellectuals united only by their impatience with the current orthodoxy, and the harm that it is doing. In universities in countries like the US and Australia, it's going to take a generation of sustained effort just to get things back to where views from both sides of the political spectrum are on a level playing field. We think that freedom of speech, democracy, and basic fairness are worth fighting for. We hope that you think so too.
Sam Butler is an English settler in New Zealand, a writer and an anti-intellectual.