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ClimateGate…And "Stereotype ThreatGate"?
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January 06, 2010, 04:00 AM
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Is "Stereotype Threat", the currently popular theory that blacks average lower scores on cognitive tests in response to stereotypes held by the testers, just a product of publication bias?—defined as

"the tendency for researchers, editors, and pharmaceutical companies to handle the reporting of experimental results that are positive (i.e. they show a significant finding) differently from results that are negative (i.e. supported the null hypothesis) or inconclusive".

Looks like it.

The recent whistle-blowing publication of emails from within the Climate Research Unit of East Anglia University plotting the manipulation of research results demonstrated again the unsurprising effects on scientists of incentives:

You get more of what you pay for!

It`s hardly surprising that some climate scientists want climate to be considered a very big deal.

Nor is it startling that, for example, more medical journal articles tend to get published when a drug company`s clinical trial of a new drug turned out positively than when it had no effect. After all, who paid for the trial?

So what about IQ research?

When you consider how our society`s reward system is structured, what`s actually striking is psychologists aren`t more corrupted by career considerations. Nothing is worse for your future in academia than simply mentioning in public the body of research on IQ. (Ask geneticist James D. Watson.)

Conversely, nothing could be better for your career than to come up with a politically-correct finding about IQ, the most unpopular topic in the human sciences.

Yet, the facts about IQ tend to be so one-sided that the anti-IQ case has been largely left to be argued by lightweights, such as business book author Malcolm Gladwell. (See his New York Times dispute with Harvard cognitive science heavyweight Steven Pinker, in which Gladwell is left with little ammunition other than ad hominems, including an attack on me).[ Let`s Go to the Tape, Letter By Malcolm Gladwell, NYT< November 19, 2009]

Over the last 15 years, the most popular theory about IQ has been "Stereotype Threat". The New York Times summarized it in its 2009 Year in Ideas featurette on the purported "Obama Effect"—the widespread assumption that the politician`s success might raise black test scores:

"In 1995, two Stanford psychologists, Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, demonstrated that African-American college students did worse on tests of academic ability when they were exposed beforehand to suggestions that they were being judged according to their race. Steele and Aronson hypothesized that this effect, which they labeled stereotype threat, might explain part of the persistent achievement gap between white and black students. In the years since, this idea has spread throughout the social sciences."

S-u-r-e it has!

I summarized the logic behind this extrapolation in my 2004 VDARE.com article, Occam`s Butterknife:

"At some point back in the mists of time, a stereotype somehow emerged that blacks do less well on the SAT. So, now, blacks are seized by panic over the possibility they might mess up and score so poorly that they validate this stereotype. And, indeed, this nervousness makes them score exactly as badly as the stereotype predicted they would."

Stereotype Threat is a beautiful theory. Indeed, I myself have often felt there might even be a little bit of truth to the idea that expectations matter—even though common sense suggests that incentives matter more.

But now, it turns out that the vaunted evidence for this wildly popular concept rests heavily upon another Effect, the File Drawer Effect—defined as "the practice of researchers filing away studies with negative outcomes". We seem to have another Climate Research Unit scandal on our hands.

A researcher, who doesn`t want his name or any potentially identifying information mentioned, for unfortunately obvious career reasons, recently attended a presentation at a scientific conference. Here is his summary of what he heard:

"One talk presented a meta-analysis of stereotype threat. The presenter was able to find a ton of unpublished studies.

"The overall conclusion is that stereotype threat does not exist. The unpublished and published studies were compared on many indices of quality, including sample size, and the only variable predicting publication was whether a significant effect of stereotype threat was found. …

"This is quite embarrassing for psychology as a science."

Here`s the abstract of the presentation he heard (see p. 68 of the PDF)

"Numerous laboratory experiments have been conducted to show that African Americans` cognitive test performance suffers under stereotype threat, i.e., the fear of confirming negative stereotypes concerning one`s group. A meta-analysis of 55 published and unpublished studies of this effect shows clear signs of publication bias." Stereotype threat and the cognitive test performance of African Americans,, by Jelte M. Wicherts & Cor de Haan University of Amsterdam

In other words, if a study doesn`t find the existence of stereotype threat, it`s less likely to see the light of day. Positive results are more appealing to journal editors, and politically correct positive results are loveliest of all. In contrast, how much of a market is there for punching holes in society`s fondest hopes?

The Dutch researchers continue:

"The effect varies widely across studies, and is generally small. Although elite university undergraduates may underperform on cognitive tests due to stereotype threat, this effect does not generalize to non-adapted standardized tests, high-stakes settings, and less academically gifted test-takers."

Note that "Stereotype Threat" mostly seems to exist in settings where test-takers, such as "elite university undergraduates", are smart enough to pick up on researchers` hints about what results they hope to publish.  In the marketing research industry, it`s well known that survey respondents tend to respond with the answers that they surmise the pollster wants. Human beings like to be cooperative if it doesn`t cost them anything. Similarly, it`s likely not hard for black students at top research universities to gather that they can benefit their professor with a publishable paper just by working less diligently.

Moreover, "Stereotype Threat" doesn`t seem to exist where the test is important enough to matter to the students.

That`s not shocking either. One obvious problem with the notion that "Stereotype Threat" was proven was that it would be flagrantly unethical for researchers to try to induce artificially lower test scores among blacks, but not whites, on high-stakes tests, such as the Graduate Record Exam.

Hence, most of the published evidence for the syndrome comes from meaningless tests concocted by the researchers—tests that don`t matter much to students.

In fact, Claude Steele`s original study found that he could get his black students to score worse on his made-up test than their SAT scores would predict, not that he could lower their high-stakes tests, or get them to score better on a meaningless one. In a 2004 article in the American Psychologist, Paul R. Sackett, Chaitra M. Hardison, and Michael J. Cullen reported:

"Thus, rather than showing that eliminating threat eliminates the large score gap on standardized tests, the research actually shows something very different. Specifically, absent stereotype threat, the African American-White difference is just what one would expect based on the African American-White difference in SAT scores, whereas in the presence of stereotype threat, the difference is larger than would be expected based on the difference in SAT scores."[ On Interpreting Stereotype Threat as Accounting for African American–White Differences on Cognitive Tests, January, 2004 (PDF)]

In summary, Wicher`s and de Haan found:

"Stereotype threat cannot explain the difference in mean cognitive test performance between African Americans and European Americans."

It has long been obvious that what we at VDARE.COM call "Race Denial" has deep, non-scientific motivations. It`s no surprise that it can involve fraud.  

Exposure won`t embarrass, much less stop, the Race Deniers, of course. But they will have to go back to the drawing board on this one.

[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA`S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA`S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]