Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Blinded Me With Science

The Choate educated Freshman at Dartmouth got more than she bargained for when she signed up to earn some extra money in exchange for a couple hours of her time. She had been taught to support scientific inquiry, and to reject superstitious beliefs, and if she could earn a few dollars in doing so than all the better. But she noticed her palms break out in a slight cold sweat about halfway through the questioning. At the same time the diodes and connectors, wired up to measure her brain activity, felt suddenly heavy on her head. She had internalized 13 years of diversity - hadn't she? There was nothing to fear in answering questions that dealt with her feelings about minorities - surely the brain activity being measured so precisely by psychologist's machine would only support what she was saying in response.

She could recite 1000 different cliches about the value of diversity, and she thought she really believed them. But she also knew through the same early training that racism was probably endemic - inescapable despite the best efforts of her conscience. She sat there, convinced of her own guilt, wondering what the consequences would be - this was a blind study, right? And indeed the psychologist found what he was looking for - deep down, beneath the cynical recitations she made regarding the importance of diversity, she was guilty!

Brain waves don't lie, and hers were revealing her discomfort with such questions, which could only mean one thing - she was uncomfortable around the handful of rich minorities that the college had managed to recruit through the extensive resources dedicated to ensuring a diverse student body. She was a racist, pure and simple - maybe not the type to burn a cross, but when push comes to shove, she prefers her own kind. Evidence indeed of persistent institutional racism - evidence indeed of the need for affirmitive action! You can try to say the right thing, but now we know what you are thinking!

But was she guilty of racism? Here is an alternative interpretation, which has some historical support. Stalin was fond of show trials, where enemies of communism, who until being arrested thought themselves his most loyal adherents, would confess to trumped up charges made against them. Some did so only to relieve the torture, others because they believed it must be necessary to the revolution even if such charges were false, and still others - this last and important category for our purposes - thought that it must be true otherwise all that they believed in was false. For that last category, the confessions came easy. So convinced of the truth of the dogma they had internalized, they trusted it over their own experience and readily confessed to crimes they didn't commit, although they were convinced that somehow they must have.

So here is this poor Freshman, tricked into an inquisition, convinced now that there must be some truth to notions such as institutional racism, which relies on some form of racism that lies far beneath the usual verbal committments to diversity. She is understandably nervous. She sticks to the slogans she has voluntary offered in discussions with her classmates about that evil conservative newspaper on campus, but somehow with the diodes hooked up, she's not so sure. She sweats a little, not because she's guilty, but because she thinks the question of her guilt now lies in the hands of someone else.

The actual experiment was conducted with a CAT scan, I believe, and it did take place at Dartmouth. I never read the study, but I am guessing my alternative interpretation of the evidence it produced was never considered, and I know the newspaper entry I read in regard to it mentioned specifically the institutional racism angle. Science is OK in the academy when it supports, or at least appears to support, the prejudiced beliefs of the academy. When it doesn't, well, that's a story for tomorrow's blog.


Anonymous Jim O said...

What is the difference between institutionalized racism and institutionalized diversity?

Who gets to decide what the difference is?

11:39 AM  

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