Saturday, April 17, 2021

Microaggression Theory Debunked?

There are many pop, pseudo-scientific theories floating around out there.  One that I have written about extensively is the disproven theory that students have "learning preferences."  (Theory-Induced Blindness in Legal Scholarship).  Now, a law professor and a leading psychologist have written an article that tries to debunk microaggression theory. Read the article, and decide for yourself.

Microaggressions, Questionable Science, and Free Speech by Edward Cantu & Lee Jussim.


The topic of microaggressions is hot currently. Diversity administrators regularly propagate lists of alleged microaggressions and express confidence that listed items reflect what some psychologists claim they do: racism that is, at the very least, unconscious in the mind of the speaker. Legal academics are increasingly leveraging microaggression research in theorizing law and proposing legal change. But how scientifically legitimate are claims by some psychologists about what acts constitute microaggressions? The authors—one a law professor, the other a psychologist—argue that the answer is “not much.” In this article, the authors dissect the studies, and critique the claims, of microaggression researchers. They then explore the ideological glue that seems to hold the current microaggression construct together, and that best explains its propagative success. They close by warning of the socially caustic and legally pernicious effects the current microaggression construct can cause if academics, administrators, and the broader culture continue to subscribe to it without healthy skepticism.


"By “current microaggression construct” (hereafter CMC), we mean the current definition of microaggressions and the set of claims microaggression researchers make about them, the most important of which are claims about what acts count as microaggressions and why."

"One risk is that, after some claim becomes a popular research topic in another field, but before research establishes that claim as valid, it will take off like wildfire in legal scholarship without sufficient gatekeeping. This is what has happened with microaggressions: educators, scholars, and administrators have accepted the CMC as valid even though psychologists have not established its scientific legitimacy."

"The possible reasons for this are manifold. First, academics and administrators may have a willingness to accept a claim at face value because they deem the concept to be useful—ideologically, for example—such that confirmation bias cancels vigilance."

" In short, it is a mistake to believe that, merely because an idea appears frequently in academic publications, it constitutes scientific fact."

"After reviewing scholarship in which psychologists attempt to confirm the legitimacy of the CMC, and in which they debate the issue with dissenting psychologists, we conclude that the current operationalization of the CMC in social justice discourse, legal scholarship, and education administration is significantly unwarranted."

"We are also concerned about how the current propagation of the CMC, given its lack of adequate bases and therefore its limited utility, might have the primary effect of proving socially caustic—and therefore counterproductive in the quest for social justice—without countervailing benefits."

"Therefore, we recommend that scholars and administrators—and everyone else for that matter—generally refrain from relying on commonly propagated lists of microaggressions as reflecting anything meaningful, at least until psychologists perform the significant amount of empirical work left to be done to render the CMC scientifically valid and useful."

"There is little to no basis for academics and administrators to responsibly accept commonly propagated lists of microaggressions as reflecting actual microaggressions."

"Microaggression researchers’ fundamental challenge is one they so far have failed to meet: they have not provided sound scientific bases for labeling as microaggressions most of the items they so label."

"As such, the legitimacy of lists of microaggressions depends on researchers being able to divine objectively racist meaning in facially innocuous acts that others cannot detect. And the propagative success of the CMC has relied on the public believing that researchers are able to do just this. This assumed ability to discern hidden forces and essences in social phenomena is now common in social justice discourse and critical academic theory."

"Notwithstanding, the evidence to support the claim of intrinsic racism is non-existent. Such evidence is conceivably obtainable. Researchers would need to: (1) assess levels of racism among a group of Whites; (2) assess whether those levels of racism perfectly or very substantially correlate with the likelihood of microaggression commission; and (3) rule out alternative explanations for the commission of alleged microaggressions. Nothing provided so far by microaggression researchers comes close to meeting this threshold. Rather, researchers seem to simply assume the respective embedded meanings, and therefore declare statements and questions to be microaggressions essentially by fiat."

"Of course, the assumption of embedded racist meanings is not stated as an assumption, but a reliance on intuitive assumptions is what researchers’ methodology in this regard seems to boil down to."

"Of course, this methodology simply makes the study participants’ intuition controlling rather than the researchers’, but the problem remains: this subjective self-reporting is clearly insufficient for showing that listed microaggressive items have objectively embedded in them racist messages. It merely demonstrates that some POC suspect such subtle racism is at play when hearing some listed microaggressions."

"In short, the methodology generally employed to generate lists of microaggressions has been to simply ask POC or other psychologists (“diversity experts” for example) to think of ways in which racism can subtly manifest in language, then to generate examples of statements or questions that they intuitively conclude reflect this subtle racism. The problem with this methodology should be obvious: how do we know the respondents are correct?"

"So the problem remains: microaggression researchers, no matter how many times they respond to criticism, seem to be unable to substantiate their designation of listed acts as microaggressions consistent with their own definitions of the phenomenon. The intractability—and the significantly discrediting nature—of this evidentiary problem with the CMC is highlighted when one engages in steelmanning attempts to reconstruct the methodology of the CMC in order to ground the relevant conclusions in something measureable and verifiable."

"Idea laundering refers to a process that may be growing more common in academic publishing. It involves the capture of peer review processes by activists to create the false impression that certain ideologically and rhetorically useful claims have scientific credibility, even when, by conventional scientific standards of rigor, logic, and strong evidence, the claims command no credence."

"The process at its most extreme works like this. Some idea is presented or even claimed to be true in a book chapter or article, with little or no evidence. It might even be done reasonably, as speculation, or it might involve a researcher leaping to an unjustified conclusion based on weak evidence. The idea, now published in a peer reviewed journal, can now be cited by other researchers publishing in other peer reviewed journals as “evidence” for the validity of the claim. In the total absence of validity evidence, new researchers can then further cite one another’s peer reviewed publications in support of the claim."

"The CMC appears to be a product of idea laundering because it is currently ricocheting through psychology scholarship and the broader culture as if its validity has already been scientifically established. The problem is, discovery that the emperor has no clothes (at least not yet) requires the deep dive into primary sources that most writers are not inclined to, or don’t have time to, undertake."

"What’s needed is “severe testing.” A severe test is one that will find flaws in a claim, including alternative explanations, if they are present. After surviving severe testing, application of claims to the real world then require additional research that is plausibly described as an order of magnitude more difficult. For example, far more validity work is needed to identify which types of behaviors consistently stem from prejudice and are perceived as slights."

"At this point, it should be sufficiently clear that researchers have not come close to meeting their central premise about embedded meanings. Researchers rather assume the validity of the premise, and this assumption is the thread that holds the CMC together. Without it, the CMC would reduce to simply lists of items that people do or say that could be inspired by, or interpreted as, racist. But such a construct would be next to useless for obvious reasons."

"In short, we are concerned that the CMC can be disruptive to what arguably is the most significant prerequisite to effectively combat bigotry: interpersonal connection, goodwill, charity, and a reflexive humanism (as opposed to a reflexive emphasis on difference). In light of this, we think greater vigilance about the integrity of knowledge production is needed, especially when it comes to socially controversial, complicated, and sensitive topics such as the nature and extent of subtle racism."

If you have an opinion concerning this article, please post a comment.  I am very curious as to what legal scholars think about this article.

(Scott Fruehwald)

| Permalink


Post a comment