Association for Psychological Science claims that they can “add our voice and expertise to bring about positive change and to stand against injustice and racism in all forms” . . . but I’m skeptical.

David Leonhardt writes:

Close to 10 percent of black men in their 30s are behind bars on any given day, according to the Sentencing Project. . . .

When the government last counted how many black men had ever spent time in state or federal prison — in 2001 — the share was 17 percent. Today, it’s likely closer to 20 percent (and this number doesn’t include people who’ve spent time in jail without being sentenced to prison). The comparable number for white men is about 3 percent.

Even 3% seems like too much. But 20% . . . I can’t even.

In the midst of all this, the Association for Psychological Science issued a statement:

The United States is once again confronting its history of racial discrimination and inequity. . . .

From its inception, the field of psychological science has studied the causes and harmful impacts of stereotypes, prejudice, and disparity. . . . our profession now has a sizable body of research that can be brought to bear to understand the persistent racism and subsequent confrontations we are witnessing in cities and communities across our nation and throughout the world. . . .

We stand ready to add our voice and expertise to bring about positive change and to stand against injustice and racism in all forms. . . .

As a diverse, international organization of more than 30,000 scientists and researchers around the world working to understand all aspects of mind and behavior, APS profoundly respects the essential worth of all people and cultures, regardless of race, gender, and ethnicity.

They also feature this page, which links to 18 past APS articles about racism, on topics ranging from health risks to the implicit association test.

That’s all fine—I mean, no, it’s not all fine, there are lots of problems with the implicit association test (see here and here) which I don’t see mentioned on that APS page—but it is what it is.

But that’s not the only way that the field of psychological science has studied the causes and harmful impacts of racial disparity. There’s also to this recent paper, which features some bold claims:

The prescriptive values of highly educated groups (such as secularism, but also libertarianism, criminal justice reform, and unrestricted sociosexuality, among others) may work for groups that are highly cognitively sophisticated and self-controlled, but they may be injurious to groups with lower self-control and cognitive ability.

The above-cited paper has a politically right-wing take on racial politics, writing that “religion would have greater utility for regulating violent behavior among societies with relatively lower average IQs than among societies with relatively more cognitively gifted citizens,” which is academic-speak for “People with African descent need religion to stop them from criming.” I’m not at all convinced by their argument, but it did appear in the flagship journal of the Association for Psychological Science, and one of its authors is Roy Baumeister, a William James Fellow, which is pretty much the highest award given by the Association for Psychological Science (oblig kvell).
Indeed, if you want to understand “persistent racism,” what better place to start than with the psychology literature, which has a rich history of racial essentialism, past and present? Indeed, so much of academic psychology is left-wing, that it’s only fair that they occasionally publish something from the right.

Just to be clear, nothing special about psychology. I’m a statistician, and racism is central to the history of statistics. Galton, anyone? Racism is one framework that people have to understand the social world, and a popular framework it is.

No easy answers

There are no easy answers here. As noted above, the APS is a diverse organization of more than 30,000 people, and these people have diverse views. Some of them are all into the implicit association test, others are into the idea that secularism, criminal justice reform, and “unrestricted sociosexuality” don’t work for countries full of black people.

If the Association for Psychological Science wants to make a statement about racism, I think they should acknowledge the diversity of views on racial politics as evidenced in the papers they publish.

When they say, “We stand ready to add our voice and expertise . . .”, I don’t know what they’re talking about. What is their “voice”? Is Roy “The large institutions have almost all been created by men. The notion that women were deliberately oppressed by being excluded from these institutions requires an artful, selective, and motivated way of looking at them” Baumeister part of this voice? Do his statistical methods count as part of their “expertise”?

Look. My point is not to “cancel” Baumeister and his colleagues, or drop their work down the memory hole, or whatever. It is what it is. It was published by Psychological Science. Baumeister won the APS’s top award. I’m not a member of the APS, nor am I even a psychologist. Who am I do judge what they publish in their publications (except when they print flat-out lies; that does bother me). My point is that Baumeister’s right-wing perspective on sex roles and his right-wing perspective on race relations are part of otherwise-mostly-left-wing academic psychology—not just part of its prehistory but part of it right now.

Assuming psychology wants to keep this research in the fold, I think they should acknowledge it, and not pretend that the only things psychology has to say about race are coming from the left side of the political spectrum. Psychology is also continuing to offer old-school racial and gender-essentialist explanations of social patterns.

Summary (including a mangled quote from John Tukey)

As the statistics quoted at the top of this post indicate, there are serious disparities in American society. But I’m not convinced that the profession of psychological science “has a sizable body of research that can be brought to bear to understand the persistent racism and subsequent confrontations we are witnessing in cities and communities across our nation and throughout the world.” I’m not convinced that the implicit association test and things like it have anything useful to add, and I’m not convinced that traditional racial explanations of social and economic disparities have anything to add.

I understand that, as individuals and as an organization, the members and leaders of the Association for Psychological Science would like to be helpful in these difficult times. As individuals, they can help in various ways: they can peacefully protest, they can join neighborhood watch groups to protect their communities, they can be good parents, friends, and neighbors, they can vote and write their congressmembers etc. They can be productive members of society and coach Little League and support local businesses, they can minimize their ecological footprint and bring a smile to work every day. They can give Ted talks, they can blog, they can even go on twitter. Lots of ways to make yourself useful. But, to paraphrase John Tukey, the combination of an archive of Psychological Science articles and an aching desire to be helpful does not ensure that reasonable help can be extracted from a given archive of articles.

This is similar to my feelings about social science and coronavirus. I get that we all want to feel useful, but maybe promoting old journal articles isn’t actually useful at all.