The Implicit Association Test (IAT) has been used by a piece of research into implicit racism which Julia posted on here. Briefly the original paper used IAT to demonstrate the effectiveness of the beta blocker drug propranolol in supposedly reducing (treating?) implicit racism among a small subject group of young white people.
So what is IAT? The Implicit Association Test is used by social psychologists to detect the strength of a subject’s automatic association between mental representations of objects (concepts) in memory. In that respect it is not dissimilar to word-association tests or the Rorschach inkblot test.
Tests of this kind seem to have three main problems.
Firstly – the test may gain professional traction merely because enough psychologists are attracted to it as a tool to generate research papers and funding. This is how far too much science works in the real world and it would be naive to think otherwise.
Secondly – association is not causation.
Thirdly – the test may define the association rather than discovering it. In other words the association is a feature of the test environment and not the world outside.
However IAT has obvious political uses too – such as the implicit racism test referred to above. In this case, implicit racism seems to be an axiom of the theory, rather than a scientific finding. White people are assumed to be implicitly racist – the task of the psychologist is to uncover their racism. Sound familiar?
So apparently one can be racist without ever exhibiting racist behaviour and presumably without even knowing that one is racist. In other words it is nothing more than yet another example of the hidden variable fallacy. Einstein, fell for that one in his attempts to refute quantum theory.
It isn’t difficult to think up another explanation for imputed racist reactions to the IAT either. For example, it is surely probable that people may differ in their reactions to different racial characteristics through a lack of familiarity.
A non-Chinese person with Chinese friends will not react to Chinese people in the same way as someone who has had no contact with Chinese people. In other words, a simple idea such as racial familiarity could easily sort out the hidden variable fallacy of implicit racism. Does it matter though?
Yes it doesn’t matter – especially if games are being played here – just as we suspected in the first place. This kind of research seems to have been going on for some time. In fact it may be best to see it as another policy-based science game, one of the many we come across in post-normal science.
If this post-normal game has political objectives, then racism may quietly become classed as a personality disorder, possibly amenable to drug treatment. Is it too far-fetched to suppose that pharmaceutical companies might divert some R&D into anti-racism drugs? Is the political environment ready for such a move?
In principle, any imputed political attitude such as racism may be turned into an association of concepts amenable to analysis by the IAT. In fact with a little imagination, any political stance may be defined as a personality disorder using the IAT as evidence.
Of course this scenario is grossly alarmist as it would require an appalling lapse of scientific integrity.
That never happens – does it?