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Noteworthy Endeavors

  Lu-in Wang

Built-in Bias

Will we ever end discrimination?

Law Professor Lu-in Wang has spent many years immersed in research on antidiscrimination law, social psychology, and stereotyping. She is probably more determined than most to treat people fairly and equally, but even she wonders—as she looks out at the more than 80 students in her contracts class—Am I making unfair assumptions about the background and experiences of the young African American man who sits at the side of the room? Did gender bias lead me to soften my questions for the woman in the front row, yet grill the man who sits behind her?

Wang wonders—and worries—because she knows that, like everyone else, she is susceptible to acting on reflex and not reflection, to relying on stereotypes in deciding how to treat a person rather than on information and interaction specific to that individual. Wang’s recently published book Discrimination by Default: How Racism Becomes Routine (New York University Press) asserts that, while intentional discrimination certainly occurs, most people don’t deliberately discriminate. Rather, we often unintentionally discriminate because we fail to recognize our own reflexive biases in categorizing, judging, and interacting with people.

“Most people agree that we shouldn’t discriminate, but we do it even if we don’t realize it,” says Wang, who has been teaching at Pitt for 12 years. “Unintentional forms of discrimination pervade our society and are especially pernicious, because they both promote and conceal inequality.”

In fact, she compares our stubbornly rooted propensity for discrimination to the operating system of a computer, with its embedded default settings that guide the computer’s operation. The computer’s user hasn’t chosen the settings—they’re preset and operate automatically. The user may not even realize that there is a choice, that the settings can be changed. So, the preset settings—the defaults—become the accepted standard.

In particular, Wang has identified three “default” processes that help to sustain discrimination and inequality:

  1. Situational Racism happens when people who don’t consider themselves to be racist or sexist nevertheless do discriminate in situations that are ambiguous—where, for instance, their treatment of another person is not clearly negative or, even if it is clearly negative, might be explained on grounds other than race or gender. Is it discrimination, for example, not to help a stranger of color who is struggling with a clumsy load of groceries, or to deny a job interview to a woman who, while presenting some strong credentials, also has some weaker ones? Ambiguous situations such as these provide “cover” for discrimination, so that observers and even we ourselves may not realize we’re treating people differently based on race or gender.

  2. Self-fulfilling Stereotypes operate unconsciously to promote discrimination when unfounded and possibly erroneous assumptions about other people set in motion a chain of events that results in what appears to be objective evidence to support the initial assumption. For example, studies have shown we tend to assume that beautiful people are nicer than unattractive people, a stereotype that leads us to treat attractive individuals in a friendlier way that elicits warmer behavior in response—“proving” the expectation to be correct, while concealing the role it played in shaping the situation.

  3. Failures of Imagination cause us to overlook and accept the consequences of discrimination, because we have a hard time conceiving an alternative. In other words, over time it has become “normal” for us to see certain racial or ethnic groups suffer particular kinds of indignities—like being followed by security guards as they shop—on a regular basis. Because we don’t think twice, injustice becomes routine and accepted, itself a default setting.

Wang’s work also suggests that the U.S. legal system isn’t well equipped to stop modern-day discrimination, because antidiscrimination law typically requires proof of intent. “The way the law defines discrimination doesn’t fit the common experience,” she says. Her research posits that many of today’s discriminatory practices exist below the surface of consciousness, embedded in our psyches, social practices, and institutions.

So, how can discrimination by default be stopped?

There are ways to “override the default,” says Wang. In particular, she notes, self-awareness about our own embedded stereotypes and our own potential for bias is a powerful force in preventing unintentional discrimination. Beyond that, she says, “significant improvement will require structural, institutional, and social change.” The struggle marches on.

Breakthroughs in the Making

Galileo’s Lab

Paolo Palmieri, a research engineer turned philosopher, descends the Cathedral of Learning steps to the ground floor. As he treks down, he mentally moves backward through time into a world before gravity was known, before the scientific method was practiced. Soon, he enters his makeshift lab and walks toward the object of his attention—a tall wooden easel with a lead weight on a string dangling from the top. It’s a primitive pendulum. He gently swings the hanging ball and, apart from the soft buzz of computer equipment, he is completely immersed in Galileo’s world.

  Paolo Palmieri

Palmieri, an assistant professor in Pitt’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science, has spent much of his life studying Galileo, an Italian intellectual who helped usher in the scientific revolution of the 17th century. The famous thinker was, in particular, a pioneer in astronomy and physics experimentation. “Before Galileo, there was no such thing as modern physics,” says Palmieri. “People did not believe that science was based on experimentation and measurement.”

Supposedly, about 400 years ago, Galileo sat in a cathedral in Pisa observing the swaying motion of a lamp suspended from the ceiling. His mathematical mind must have leapt to thoughts about time, space, and motion. Back in his study, he experimented with the swaying motion. Again and again, he observed that a pendulum always took the same amount of time to swing from the extreme left of its arc to the extreme right, no matter the size of the arc. Because the swings measured out equal time intervals, this finding had implications for the measurement of time and other principles of physics.

Unfortunately—for scientists like Palmieri, who study the creative inner workings of science—Galileo did not leave behind detailed notes about his experiments. Did his pendulum use hemp or cotton string? Exactly how many times did Galileo measure the oscillations? Countless details are unaccounted for, leaving many scientists to doubt the source of discoveries that Galileo reported. But Palmieri wants to change that.

Drawing upon his engineering background, he is recreating some of the experiments to figure out exactly how Galileo reached his famous conclusions. Others have tried such replications before, with mixed success. “Experimentation is always a messy thing,” he says. “You cannot possibly control for all the imperfections, the imprecision of human operators.”

Until you rig the whole thing up to a computer, that is.

Building from a mathematical model he developed to reduce fuel slosh in Ferrari Formula One cars, Palmieri is creating equations for the pendulum experiments. In an instant, the computer calculates results for thousands of variations and repetitions, noting—as Galileo did—the constant period of the pendulums. “We can now enter Galileo’s lab and have a glimpse of what he was really up to,” says Palmieri.
—Katy Rank


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