🎧 The Questionable Science of Microaggressions
The left has made several far-reaching claims about microaggressions that the empirical research—which is only in its infancy—does not support at this point.
from the CONNORS FORUM
On this episode of the Utterly Moderate Podcast we are joined by Lee Jussim, Rutgers University distinguished professor of psychology. He is here to discuss the questionable science behind microaggressions.
If you are unfamiliar with the term, microaggressions are claimed to be “acts, often facially innocuous, that convey subtle animus or bias against someone in a traditionally marginalized group.”
Our guest, Dr. Jussim, has written multiple excellent articles detailing the problems with microaggression research.
According to Jussim, research on microaggressions is mixed, unsettled, and “in its infancy, and is most definitely not ready for applications in the real world.” Many of the claims made by progressives and academics about microaggressions have weak (and oftentimes nonexistent) empirical support.
As Jussim and his research collaborator Edward Cantu note:
“Many would assume that the social scientists who study and publish scholarship on [microaggressions] have already answered these questions to a degree that makes the current microaggression construct valid. But have they? The answer should inform the degree to which legal scholars and university administrators can responsibly incorporate the current microaggression construct into legal scholarship or diversity training materials.”
Cantu and Jussim, like many other scholars, argue that social scientists have not adequately answered these questions:
“After reviewing scholarship in which psychologists attempt to confirm the legitimacy of the [the prevailing microaggression perspective], and in which they debate the issue with dissenting psychologists, we conclude that the current operationalization of [microaggressions] in social justice discourse, legal scholarship, and education administration is significantly unwarranted.”
The authors add, quite scathingly, that it appears “to be ‘methodological activism’ that drives much of the debate over the legitimacy [of microaggressions]” and that the prevailing microaggression perspective “appears to be designed primarily to reinforce a critical race theory narrative about social reality.”
They go on to say that, based on their analysis, “[Researchers’] claims about microaggressions are without adequate scientific basis.”
If the research is this unsettled, it would be paramount that any credible news commentary or policies that flow from this research should be extremely careful in what they claim to be factual. Unfortunately, much of it fails to be:
“[E]ducators, scholars, and administrators have accepted [the prevailing microaggression perspective] 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. More charitably, many people outside the field of psychology simply make the mistake of assuming that peer-reviewed publication of a social science idea means the idea has by definition been thoroughly vetted scientifically. This mistake is easy to make. But psychologists have a long and embarrassing history of canonizing claims that have turned out to be false, a situation that has come to be known in psychology as ‘the replication crisis.’ In short, it is a mistake to believe that, merely because an idea appears frequently in academic publications, it constitutes scientific fact. Often, it is only after withstanding decades of skeptical vetting that a new scientific claim can be established with a reasonable level of certainty.”
The authors go on to argue that:
“We are also concerned about how the current propagation of the [prevailing microaggression perspective], 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 [prevailing microaggression perspective] scientifically valid and useful.”
Yet many on the left nonetheless treat the prevailing microaggression paradigm as settled fact: writing about it in news stories, teaching about it in classrooms, and creating university and workplace policies around it.
Here are some of the main problems that Jussim notes about microaggression research in his analyses:
Researchers state that several acts are microaggressions simply by claiming them to be so, without a proper scientific basis.
No scientifically rigorous method exists for identifying whether many microaggressions have or have not occurred. Proof that a microaggression has occurred often largely depends on the subjective experience of the victim, leaving the researcher (a) no way to verify what took place and (b) no way to verify the intent of the perpetrator.
Microaggression researchers argue that microaggressions cause harm, but in many instances this has not been empirically demonstrated.
There is no evidence that most racial minorities consistently consider several microaggressions offensive.
No demonstrated link exists between many microaggressions and racial bias on the part of the perpetrator.
For some microaggressions identified by researchers, it is claimed that even though the person who committed the act did not intend harm, the microaggression itself was designed by somebody else with the intention of doing harm and/or upholding racial inequality. These researchers argue that microaggressions are a “manifestation of the aggressive goals of the dominant group, taught to unwitting actors through. . . social mechanisms.” Yet these same researchers have not provided empirical support for these claims.
Many supposed microaggressions have multiple interpretations but are determined to be microaggressions by researchers because the researchers themselves privilege a particular interpretation.
Some researchers claim that microaggressions occur with a frequency that they have not empirically demonstrated.
Much of the microaggressions research depends on small or unrepresentative samples and/or has not been replicated—meaning the field itself is in its infancy and is nowhere near ready for real-world application.
The term “microaggression” itself seems to be an example of concept creep. To the layperson, “aggression” suggests hostility and intent, but microaggression researchers maintain that hostility and intent are not required for something to be categorized as a microaggression.
Priming people to look for microaggressions in every social interaction could plausibly (a) be more damaging to racial minorities and socially corrosive to society than the infrequent experience of microaggressions in the first place and/or (b) not achieve any meaningful reduction in racial inequality in America.
Microaggression researchers frequently respond in intellectually dishonest ways to good faith critiques of their work.
Jussim will help us unpack a lot of these critiques in this episode. Enjoy!
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