Human Rights, Privilege, Social Science

False Hopes and Invisible Enemies

People are pattern-seekers. When we observe patterns in the natural world we often seek a deeper explanation for them. An example of a pattern that has captured the attention of academics is the disparity between men and women in fields like mechanical engineering and pediatrics.

Culture is an obvious explanation for some disparities: if a wave of Irish immigrants to Boston joins fire departments, and Italians start restaurants, then we might expect that the next generation of Bostonians will contain a disproportionate number of Irish firefighters and Italian restaurant owners. Similarly, if low-skilled immigrants tend to work in jobs like construction and agriculture, we might expect to find a lot of low-skilled workers who move from Central America to the United States to work on construction sites and strawberry farms.

Another obvious way to explain divergent outcomes between groups is that some groups – ranging from races and sexes, to religions and political partisans – have been discriminated against or persecuted by others. In other words, members of some groups throughout history were not given the opportunity to show their true talents in some fields.

Historically, ethnic discrimination was the norm, not the exception. In fact, ethnic discrimination was almost certainly adaptive for our ancestors who had to decipher, however crudely, who to trust and who to shun. Discrimination often served the function of increasing trust within a group by preventing members of other groups from enjoying access to valuable social goods that took effort to produce and preserve.

Persistent Performance Gaps

When we want to explain performance gaps, the obvious places to start are culture, bias, and discrimination. But in the mid-to-late twentieth century nearly every Western country abolished discriminatory laws, and many also implemented affirmative action programs. Governments, universities, and private firms made active efforts to recruit traditionally persecuted minorities into schools and jobs to which they previously lacked full access.

Under these conditions, some groups improved their outcomes while others did not. Jews and Asians, in particular, have thrived in every Western country in which they are found, and in many cases, they make more money, commit fewer crimes, and attain higher levels of education than the majority group in the societies to which they have migrated.

Moreover, despite the tedious proclamations of politicians that women have a long way to go in Western countries, we are much closer to parity than many believe. The majority of college graduates are now women, and the pay gap between men and women is almost non-existent when we compare workers in the same occupation at the same level. (According to Harvard economist Claudia Golden, most pay gaps are due to choices made by men and women to work in different occupations based on personal interests: women who have children, for example, understandably prefer more flexible jobs, which often pay less.)

As explicit discrimination decreased, social scientists began proposing alternatives to explain remaining gaps. Two, in particular, became popular in the 1990s: stereotype threat and epigenetics. Stereotype threat (supposedly) occurs when people are asked to perform a task and then informed that, on average, members of their group are not especially good at that task. They then perform worse than they otherwise would have. Epigenetics refers to the fact that gene expression is influenced by extra-genomic factors. Some social scientists proposed that if genes can be expressed differently in different environments, perhaps stressful environments can lead some groups to perform more poorly than others by affecting gene expression.

But stereotype threat has turned out to be a spectacular failure in explaining achievement gaps. And epigenetics is unlikely to explain disparities like why Asians outperform Africans on math exams, and why Africans outperform Asians in sports that involve sprinting.

Unfalsifiable Hypotheses

When the predictions generated by these explanations failed to pan out, many began to turn to invisible forces like “structural racism” and “implicit bias” to explain achievement gaps. One problem with these hypotheses (as they are often employed) is that they are impossible to falsify. In fact, that seems to be the point: if we can’t test the hypothesis that unconscious bias and structural racism explain achievement gaps, they become perfect candidates for an all-purpose explanation that can be held with the force of a religious dogma.

When we see an achievement gap, we can invoke bias without even thinking about alternatives, and dismiss as a “racist” or “sexist” anyone who proposes the hypothesis that biology plays a role in explaining some achievement gaps.

Of course, biases exist, and sometimes they are at odds with our explicit value judgments. In these cases, it’s worth spreading social norms that aim to combat unfair biases. But some biases are useful heuristics, and some stereotypes are rational generalizations, like the belief that we have a greater chance of being violently assaulted by a man than a woman, or that the next international chess champion is more likely to be Jewish than Eritrean. In these cases, it is arguably morally wrong to prevent ourselves from believing what the evidence suggests.

When we hear someone attribute achievement gaps to implicit bias or structural racism, an obvious question to ask is: What would count as evidence against your hypothesis?

Vague Language

Structural racism (or sexism) is such an amorphous term that it is hard to know how to analyze it. We might first look to government institutions and private firms and ask whether they have policies of discrimination. In some countries, government agencies and businesses alike have policies that explicitly discriminate against entire classes of people (for example, in Saudi Arabia a man’s testimony in court has twice the evidentiary value of a woman’s). But in many Western countries like the United States and Australia, discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and sexual orientation is explicitly forbidden by law. Affirmative action programs actually do allow employers to discriminate – but they typically discriminate against rather than in favor of men of Asian or European descent.

Of course, we might think that although laws forbid discrimination, implicit bias leads some people to unconsciously discriminate against potential employees and co-workers. Implicit bias is hard to test, but the best evidence we have so far suggests that even when implicit bias exists it does not affect behavior very much, if at all. Despite the weak evidence for implicit bias as an explanation for achievement gaps, many corporations, and educational institutions have diversity training programs aimed at combating its allegedly pernicious effects.

Similar claims can be made about “misogyny,” which is the new term for “sexism” coined by radical feminists who claim that even if most people don’t consciously discriminate against women, an unconscious hatred of women helps explain why men and women exhibit different characteristics, which lead to different outcomes.

Will those who cite implicit bias, structural racism, or internalized misogyny respond to the evidence against their claims? Or will they instead retreat to untestable claims couched in vague language which allows them to save their hypothesis no matter what scientists find?


Those of us who suspect biology plays a role in explaining some group differences do not deny the existence of bias, which is especially powerful in traditional societies that lack norms of toleration and laws that protect minorities. But we are skeptical that racism or sexism or other pernicious forms of bias can explain all of the gaps that we see. More importantly, our hypothesis is falsifiable. One way to falsify it would be to find that genes which influence physical and mental traits – including abilities and interests – are identically distributed across human groups.

If people want to search for the different causes of achievement gaps by proposing testable scientific hypotheses, we welcome them to the debate. But we are frustrated by the seemingly unfalsifiable nature of the hypotheses that are increasingly put forward to defend the view that all groups are the same, and that all indications of difference are evidence of evil.


Jonathan Anomaly is a core faculty member of the Department of Political Economy, and Assistant Professor in the PPEL Program, at the University of Arizona.


  1. Pingback: 1 – False Hopes and Invisible Enemies

  2. Michael Shaughnessy says

    First of all the author should be applauded for attempting to deal with some serious issues in an academic fashion, without the usual vitriol and attacks- and has attempted to look at some of the issues- although there are many. I appreciate that the author has put things in historical contexts. This is 2018, not 1776 and not 1886- things have changed over the past two decades- and this needs to be clearly indicated. I join with him in asking for a scientific, empirical approach to achievement gaps- as I believe there are many, many variables ( both hard and soft ) that need to be examined, explored and addressed. Certainly genes, and culture and health and nutrition are some, but there are other often extraneous and other variables that are often ignored or not examined. It is almost a disservice to ignore many operative variables of concern.

    • Stephanie says

      Lee Jussim has an excellent series on gaps on his Rabble Rouser blog at Psychology Today. He’s one of the few social scientists that I think is worthy of the title scientist.

  3. I’ll chime in with a request as well. This question is for the Diversity Bureau (police) of all college campuses and organizations. You are constantly making statements, writing articles and hand wringing that the gender and the diversity gap is too large in STEM fields on corporation boards, as leaders everywhere. Where are all of the women and minority groups who are banging on the door to these fields and corporations but are being discriminated against at? Who are these people and where do they live? We always here this accusation but we NEVER HERE OF ONE SINGLE INSTANT where this happens in real life?

    Do we have statistics on women who are applying in STEM but are being turned away? Or minorities? If you can’t come up with real people or real discrimination then what is the problem?

    There is NO bias except for the bias of choice, in that the above groups are not choosing to go into these fields. Maybe because they think they’ll be discriminated against, I don’t know because we never here from them, just the various admin talking heads of Diversity Ink.

    I propose before accusing male and non-black / hispanic dominated fields of bias, racism ect… and loading the bureaucracy with more admin, that you go investigate the groups themselves. Go pressure women and others to go into in these fields and if they aren’t interested then ask them why??? These people are going about this the wrong way. I want to see studies done from incoming freshmen on what their interests are and what they’re thinking of majoring in. I’d be almost 100% certain that, at least with women, the majority of them will go into humanistic fields, i.e. teaching, nursing, communication, medical, some business, arts & design, social sciences.

    I guess the Diversicrats can always force women and minority groups into these fields to get their quota systems. If women are more interested in a family then too bad for them, diversity trumps family and kids! They can do it the old way and just appoint people at birth or in elementary school. Since talent is arbitrary and just a lie created by white men then anyone should be able to fill any spot. The Soviets had great success replacing the Kulaks in this way, worked out really great!

    • ga gamba says

      Re STEM, you ever notice that the STEM fields where women excel disproportionately are ignored? For example, take a look at veterinary science. Women make up more than 80% of the field. And this isn’t just in the US, it’s also found in Australia, where there’s such a shortage of men entering the profession large animals in rural communities are under treated (female vets prefer treating urban pets), and in the UK, where women are about 60% of profession. And when one looks at age, women are 75% of the vets aged 35 and under in the UK. This disparity repeats in many other STEM fields such as statistics, chemistry, and pharmacology.

      It’s not just the west. In Korea women flock to pharmacology because chemists shops aren’t dominated by major chains. A woman opens her own chemist shop, sets her own hours, brings her children to it if need be, and it’s very well paid. Further, female pharmacists are considered amongst the most desired marital partners by men, so these women’s marriages prospects are very bright, having the pick of high-status men.

      When women complain about under “representation in STEM”, what it really is about is computer science and engineering. Demands are made for more resources to “encourage girls to look at STEM careers.” Yet, they already do. Why does a scientifically inclined woman choose to study animals and not computer coding? No one is asking these questions. I suspect no one wants to because the answer is likely “preferences”. Then the whole charade of the Patriarchy falls apart.

      Further, women dominate the challenging non-STEM fields of psychology and sociology. When women decide to greatly dominate certain fields this will result in shortfalls in other fields. You can’t get 50:50 everywhere when subjects such as veterinary science and psychology are 80:20 and 66:33, respectively.

  4. Bryan Peterson says

    Wonderful Quilette, do the The Protocol of the Elders of Zion next. Jamaicans and some African nations are the best at running because guess this, school children trained at it from a young age and it is a sport they are obsessed with like Europeans do soccer. They also like soccer because it is a weather sport they can play. Africans do not do worse then East Asians on math, Asians do better then most because guess what, their similarly obsessed with math. Nigerians are the highest scoring out of all ethnicities in the UK. I don’t remember but I think thats for math as well.

    • Dennis says

      Nigerians in the UK and Indians in the US are a case of selection bias: the ones who migrate are not representative of the population at large.

      Also, did it ever occur to you that some groups emphasize activities that they’re already inclined to be good at, rather than being good at those activities because of arbitrary facts about how they were raised?

    • Larry says

      You might want to study some physiology, physiognomy, and biomechanics before coming up with garbage like this.
      West Africans and their descendants have a very clear, and long and well known advantage, in high speed running due to some subtle structural differences in their legs, both muscular and skeletal.
      That’s why there has never been a European or Asian run under 10secs flat for the 100m.

    • Simon Evans says

      Dangerously hyperbolic opening line, Bryan. Clear attempt to shut down the debate by equating a perfectly reasonable discussion of attainment gaps with anti-semitic propaganda of almost mythical status. Essentially, you’ve gone from zero to Hitler in a single leap. You follow it up with half baked sixth form level thought experiments that are a plain insult to anyone intelligent enough to have got this far. This kind of nasty, bullying approach has no place on Quillette. It was created specifically to make space for rational discussion and leave hysterical mudslinging for the You Tube comments section. Get a grip.

    • John B says

      Bryan, You should read up on the genetic adaptations of the Sherpa or indigenous populations in the Andes, which allow them to survive in high-altitude/low oxygen environments.

    • Why are you reading Quillette Bryan? I wouldn’t have thought it would hold any interest for a regurgitator of doctrine.

  5. David J says

    Very good article, excellently written. Seriously impressed by it. Hopefully it will get more comments, because it deserves them.

  6. Caligula says

    What seems likely is the dream of Proportional Representation will remain forever unrealizable. Why are Russian Jews vastly over-represented as chess grandmasters, and not Egyptians? There has never been anything close to proportional representation in human endeavors, and no reason to expect there ever will be. Unless quotas are imposed, of course.

    And, “If people want to search for the different causes of achievement gaps by proposing testable scientific hypotheses” they will be excoriated in today’s academy. At a minimum, no one who lacks tenure will risk expressing even an interest in doing so, and those who have obtained tenure have probably learned not to stick their necks out.

    Logically, it is those who insist inequality of outcome is evidence of discrimination who should bear the burden of proof that this is evidence of discrimination. If for no other reason than because if all do, in fact, have more-or-less equal opportunity then it follows that proportional representation can only be achieved by discriminating against some for no reason other than because they belong to “overachieving” identity groups.

    I don’t know why the world’s best long-distance runners are more likely to come from Kenya than from Cambodia, any more than I know why more Chinese-Americans are proficient at classical music performance than Mexican-Americans. Nonetheless, is it reasonable that if I am a member of some group that is over-represented in some human endeavor I must accept discrimination from those who demand proportional representation unless I can present quality science to show that there are reasons why my group excels?

    And even if I were to accept the burden of proof, what makes you (or anyone) think champions of Proportional Representation would accept even the most overwhelming scientific evidence that the gap was caused by natural human difference, and not by my assumed “privilege”?

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