News Story

NIH’s implicit bias training commits the social sins it warns against

Jingoism, ableism, cultural appropriation tar the program’s aims

Michigan’s 400,000-plus medical professionals are required as of June 1 to participate in implicit bias training.

But a potential model training program, offered by the National Institutes of Health, commits the social sins it warns trainees against. A PDF version of the 108-page training course is available on the NIH website.

Jingoism: Waving the China card, for diversity’s sake

Page 12 warns that America is losing its advantages in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“According to recent reports by the National Science Foundation, developing nations like China have recently experienced robust growth trends in Science and Technology,” the report warns.

The People's Republic of China is America’s top rival. The institute's praise for the communist giant's progress in STEM is the one and only mention of another country in the entire report.

But this claim goes against a treasured modern belief: that only with diversity can America grow its advantage. What the report does not say, because it is not true, is that diversity is where China’s growth came from.

If anything, China is a poster child for a monoculture. Diversity is not China’s great strength – not one person among its billion would say so. If America were to be more like China, as the NIH materials imply, that would not serve the cause of diversity.

This is a shell game, dressed up in jingoism.

Faking it is easier than making it

To hear the NIH tell it, the institute is committed to growing female representation in science. Great.

But this is hard work. It’s a long game. So it shifts the focus to public perceptions of women in science.

If reality is problematic, changing it is hard. The easier thing to change is the public view, so that’s what the training focuses on.

Page 24 cites a 1999 study that found when kids draw a scientist, they typically draw a white man – and that that became truer the older the students were.

“Over time, repeated exposure to media from a young age is one powerful way that implicit associations are formed—and reinforced,” the training reads.

You might think that it’s the children’s mental associations that are wrong. But the children are reflecting reality in their drawings. It’s not their associations that teach this, it’s their lived experience. If you asked a child to draw a sanitation worker, how many would draw a woman? Not many. But women don’t want to be sanitation workers, so this has not become a civil rights issue.

Increasing the numbers of women scientists is hard work. Don’t be shocked when, in lieu of talking about its failures to do so, the diversity apparatus blames the public and its perceptions for the problem.

It’s not the kids' mental associations of scientists that were wrong, as they reflect reality, in 1999 or today. If there were not low numbers of women in science, we wouldn’t need Women In Science initiatives.

Why not change reality, and let perception sort itself out? Because that’s hard. Turning the problem around on the public, and its problematic perceptions, is easier – just as it’s easier for public health officials to talk “stigma” in the opioid crisis, and not the 2,800 deaths last year in Michigan they failed to prevent.

It’s easier, so it’s the conversation you’ll hear. It’s your thoughts, your perceptions, and your drawings that are wrong. The failure is never on the people hired to fix the problem.

Ableist language a “blind spot”

Throughout, the materials rely on assumptions of what the other person is thinking, or assign motives to their actions – this guy must have been hired because he went to an Ivy League school, that woman must’ve called the cops because she was racially biased.

In so doing, the materials are guilty of the very stereotyping they warn trainees to avoid.

The training materials call this a blind spot, which it defines as “a tendency to recognize cognitive biases in others, but not recognize how bias affects your own thinking.” Like a training course whose whole purpose is for people to check themselves for bias, but was apparently never put to that test itself.

And in so doing, the training materials use ableist language, using an entire community’s disability, blindness, as comparable to a moral deficiency. This does not present blindness as merely different, or rare, or something that happens to people, but worse. Less-than. Oops.

The deaf experience is two earplugs away

“My culture is not your costume” is a common refrain in these sensitive times. Halloween costumes must be triple-checked and signed off on by the appropriate parties, lest you be accused of cultural appropriation.

If cultural appropriation for fun’s sake is bad, the recommendation on page 47 is worse: “Wear earplugs for a day to see what you notice about the world when you cannot hear.”

This passes off ignorance as learning. It mistakes what’s chosen voluntarily, earplugs, for a condition the other person cannot escape – and it is unlikely this bit of pretending would be appreciated.

The NIH did not respond to a CapCon request for comment. Which is a shame, because the answer I really want is: If earplugs are a good way to learn about deafness, how would NIH recommend someone learn about black people?

Follow your gut? Your bias is showing

The training attempts to talk people out of common sense. It advises, on page 8, that people would be better off choosing a racially heterogeneous jury over the monochromatic alternative.

Elsewhere, the training covers the value of cognitive diversity, and evinces an understanding that diversity runs beyond skin deep, to layers not easily seen.

But in this specific case, when picking a jury that might determine your freedom or your future, you are told to seek out racial diversity. Specifically.

Imagine showing up for an implicit bias training, and leaving with advice on how to handle voir dire. To what do you owe this generosity?

Page 22 warns against trusting one’s gut feelings, as they carry bias.

“If System 1 is our ‘gut reaction’ system of thinking, where do those reactions come from?” the training asks. “They are created from our past experiences, our culture, our parents, our environment, our religion, the media. All of these influences form our preferences for or against something—which is a definition of bias.”

The work, we are told, is tapping into System 2, the part of the mind that deliberates purposely. We need to move beyond our instincts, and tap into the part of the brain that’s been molded by years of sensitivity training.

If you’ve wondered why your smart friends often lack common sense, ask them what mandatory training they’ve taken recently. Chances are, they feature some instruction against gut feelings, or slippery slope arguments, or doing your own research.

Entire professions, and generations, are being talked out of common sense, one mandatory training at a time. If you are today exempt at your workplace or career field, how much longer until you are not? How long until Equity Inc. demands that you Do The Work?

Implicit bias training will be a thing, apparently.

As it reaches the mainstream in Michigan, let’s make sure the people telling us to check our bias have checked theirs – before we take their mandatory training.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.