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Bad Study Claims Lawyers are Racist

Written in Black & White

Exploring Confirmation Bias in Racialized Perceptions of Writing Skills
This is a paper about bias which claims lawyers are racist. But they don't know what bias is:
CONFIRMATION BIAS: A mental shortcut – a bias – engaged by the brain that makes one actively seek information, interpretation and memory to only observe and absorb that which affirms established beliefs while missing data that contradicts established beliefs.
Some mental shortcuts, like some shortcuts while driving, are good ideas. They can be time savers. This is a stupid definition of what a "bias" is.

Some mental shortcuts work, and are valuable. Others don't. It's important to try to figure out which are which. And an unbiased person can make a mistake evaluating whether a particular mental shortcut works well.

Shortcuts don't make one do anything. They are options but can't control you.

The idea of a bias making someone do something makes more sense than a shortcut controlling a person, but is still mistaken. One way to see it's mistaken is to consider that sometimes a person recognizes he's biased and doesn't obey the bias.

The dictionary doesn't know what a bias is either:
a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others that usually results in treating some people unfairly
Is the belief rational? This definition doesn't care.

I believe Objectivism is better than most rivals one might compare it with. But some anti-Objectivists believe I treat them unfairly in discussion by not conceding that Ayn Rand is a monster.

Recognizing something is superior isn't automatically bias. Some things are superior. Bias has to do with irrationality: e.g. believing something is superior for bad reasons you are unwilling to reconsider.
The partners were originally given 4 weeks to complete the editing and rating, but we had to extend deadline to 7 weeks in order to obtain more responses.
The study changed the rules midway in order to reach different conclusions than it would have if it followed the original plan.
we deliberately inserted 22 different errors
Maybe the response rate was worse than expected because people weren't thrilled about editing an essay containing 22 deliberate errors. I wonder how realistic the errors were, and why they didn't use a real research memo. Using an artificial memo adds an extra source of error: it could be poorly designed.
Name: Thomas Meyer

Seniority: 3rd Year Associate
Alma Mater: NYU Law School
Race/Ethnicity: African American
Half the participants saw the same headings except with "Caucasian" instead of "African American". I see a danger here that people would find it strange to be told the Race/Ethnicity of the author of what they are reading, and therefore act differently than in regular life.

One possibility is some people saw this was a transparent attempt at a racism study and gave a reply to manipulate the results according to their political preference. Others might decide not to participate when they see this. It's important the participants don't know it's a racism study, but this is a big clue.

An even bigger issue here is there was no control group which received memos with no Race/Ethnicity heading. Wouldn't a control group be a good idea?
There was no significant correlation between a partner’s race/ethnicity and the differentiated patterns of errors found between the two memos. There was also no significant correlation between a partner’s gender and the differentiated patterns of errors found between the two memos.
What about the partner's political party? His age? Or a million other things.

Why are race/ethnicity and gender the two things they looked at? It's plausible that one major US political party is more racist than the other one. And it's plausible that old people are more racist than young people.
In order to create a study where we could control for enough variables to truly see the impact of confirmation bias, we did not study the potential variances that can be caused due to the intersection of race/ethnicity, gender, generational differences and other such salient identities.
How does ignoring the age of participants make the study better controlled?
The exact same memo, averaged a 3.2/5.0 rating under our hypothetical “African American” Thomas Meyer and a 4.1/5.0 rating under hypothetical “Caucasian” Thomas Meyer.
This is their main point: they claim lawyers are racist.
We undertook this study with the hypothesis that unconscious confirmation bias in a supervising lawyer’s assessment of legal writing would result in a more negative rating if that writing was submitted by an African American lawyer in comparison to the same submission by a Caucasian lawyer.
What about conscious bias? They explicitly said the race. A participant could consciously notice.
When expecting to find fewer errors, we find fewer errors. When expecting to find more errors, we find more errors. That is unconscious confirmation bias. Our evaluators unconsciously found more of the errors in the “African American” Thomas Meyer’s memo, but the final rating process was a conscious and unbiased analysis based on the number of errors found.
This is a story which isn't contradicted by their study. Many other stories also aren't contradicted by the study. Why are they concluding this particular story? For example, the evaluators could have had conscious bias. Saying it's unconscious bias is just making up a story about what happened.

Other things could be going on. Maybe the writing style of the memo was culturally white. Then the people told it had it had a white author would just read it and nothing special happens. But the people told it had a black author might notice the clash between the white style and the black author claim. This could get them to wake up and pay more attention because there was something unexpected or surprising or interesting about the memo. They could then have found more errors simply because they were more awake while reading.
When partners say that they are evaluating assignments without bias
Wait, were they asked if they were racist? Wouldn't that give away what kind of study it was? Or was that only done afterwards? Why wasn't the procedure explained?

In any case, wouldn't you expect a lot of conscious racists to lie? So people claiming they aren't racist doesn't differentiate between conscious and unconscious racists very well.


The paper is too light on details, and has too many errors, to make a big deal out of. If racism is a big problem, it shouldn't be that hard to do a high quality study to show it. I would expect that already to have been done, given the intense interest in this topic.

So, people claiming racism is a big problem: where is that high quality study? Link me to it or tell me why it hasn't been done yet.


At the end of the paper there is some extra stuff like brags about how the people doing the study are biased. They get paid to teach people to be less racist. Their study is marketing for their services. Is that sad or is it amusing? I don't know. I want to point out one more error:
EXAMPLE: In one law firm where we found that minority summer associates were consistently being evaluated more negatively than their majority counterparts, we created an interruption mechanism to infuse the subjective with objective. We worked with the firm to create an Assignment Committee, comprised of 3 partners through whom certain assignments were distributed to the summer associates and through whom the summer associates submitted work back to the partners who needed the work done. When the work was evaluated, the partners evaluating the work did not know which associate had completed the work. The assignments for this process were chosen judiciously, and there was a lot of work done to ensure buy-in from all partners. At the end of the summer, every associate had at least 2 assignments that had been graded blindly. The firm then examined how the blind evaluations compared with the rest of the associate’s evaluations and found that the blind evaluations were generally more positive for minorities and women and less positive for majority men.
It could be that people give better evaluations to their friends. And it could be that of the new employees, white men have the best social skills, due to different upbringings. So they make friends with the people doing the evaluating the best, and then get the best evaluations when it's not blind. But when there's blind evaluations, the social skills are irrelevant.

This is merely a story I made up. The point is it's possible. What happened in the example could involve racism by lawyers, or not. That the study authors only think about how their material is compatible with racism happening, but don't consider and discuss the non-racist explanations that account for it, shows their own selective attention, which they would call "bias".

[I wrote this post in one hour.]

Elliot Temple on May 31, 2015

Messages (6)

One problem though

The problem is there have been countless of studies that back up this study's claim. That there is implicit bias in everyday life. Instead of typos, they could have used ethnic sounding names and got the exact same, or worse, result.

Sam at 11:39 PM on July 1, 2016 | #6082 | reply | quote

Many **bad** studies shouldn't persuade anyone.

Anonymous at 7:10 AM on July 2, 2016 | #6084 | reply | quote

Implicit bias IS a problem

Dear Elliot,

I would like to propose that this study does not claim that Lawyers are racist in an accusatory, burn them at the stake, manner. It adds to the growing body of research that attempts to unpick the intricacies of bias in the human mind. It is important that we as a society understand that those who make and implement law are subject to the same bias as lay people and protections are necessary to uphold the rule of law.

I would agree with your criticisms of the study in that there is no substantive data provided, no appendix or obvious link to find it. I myself am researching in this area and without access to the design it is impossible to check for validity.

If you are interested in this area still (I understand this was 4 years ago) then I urge you to read the following:

Sheheryar Banuri, Stefan Dercon, Varun Gauri, Biased Policy Professionals, The World Bank Economic Review, Volume 33, Issue 2, June 2019, Pages 310–327, https://doi.org/10.1093/wber/lhy033

Anonymous at 2:42 AM on December 3, 2020 | #18944 | reply | quote

#18944 curi didn't claim that lawyers should be burnt at the stake. And he didn't say the paper said that either. You're implying that he did say something like this, which is wrong.

Also, you might want to check the definition of 'accusatory':

> indicating or suggesting that one believes a person has done something wrong.

Do you think the paper claims lawyers are racist but they did nothing wrong? I'm not sure why you bring this up.

You say:

> I would agree with your criticisms of the study in that there is no substantive data provided, no appendix or obvious link to find it.

There's no 'but' in that sentence. Typically someone would say something like "I would <verb phrase>, but <noun phrase>."

Why do you say 'would'?

> I understand this was 4 years ago

It was ~5.5 years ago.

Max at 6:24 AM on December 3, 2020 | #18945 | reply | quote

I read #18944 as making a visible effort to be non-adversarial (despite having some disagreement). I read Max's reply as adversarial to anon and trying to defend me.

I think the most effective way to move the discussion forward is to look at the link anon gave. I think the main point of his comment is to say basically "yeah that particular study is bad, but here's one I think is better that has a similar theme or conclusion".

I plan to look at it later. I'm saving this to return to. Later could be today or could be in a few days. If it takes longer I'm probably still planning to catch up on it later (I have 100 unread curi comments atm) but feel free to post again in this thread to remind me.

I'm commenting early b/c I don't want anon to be chased away be a negative response + silence from me.

Also a question that I think is going to be relevant: *Do you think anti-black racial bias is a high priority problem in the US today?*

I will readily grant it is a non-zero problem with many people in ~all fields. But in general I'm not convinced it's a high priority problem that's significantly bigger than other problems society has. Racism is something that was a high priority in the past, but has genuinely been improved a lot, so now it's a lot worse than I'd like it to be but not especially high on my list of concerns about my society. I think USA is currently a reasonable pick for the least racist society that has ever existed. Whereas some people act like USA is clearly more racist than many other current countries, which I doubt. (I say all this without wanting to get into anti-white racism, which is a high priority political issue related to recent riots, but which I think is not the type of racism you're trying to bring up or which the studies are about.)

curi at 11:39 AM on December 3, 2020 | #18947 | reply | quote

#18947 Wait, I read the abstract of https://doi.org/10.1093/wber/lhy033 and it's not focused on USA, lawyers or racism. It just says people who deal in government policy make lots of thinking errors in the ballpark of stuff people call a "bias". Yeah I agree. People screw up thinking a lot, and lots of the errors fall into standard categories and are repeated.

I have some serious issues with the sorts of studies done about "cognitive biases", and have found major methodology flaws in some I've looked at, but I do agree a broad overall conclusion similar to theirs is correct (people screw up at thinking a lot, and some of it is systematic error). (One of the problems with some studies like that is they sometimes take a common sense conclusion people already know and then find specious "scientific" support for it, but then it sounds plausible to people, despite being bad research, because they started with a conclusion that was already known to be plausible.)

curi at 12:16 PM on December 4, 2020 | #18955 | reply | quote

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