I blogged here recently about the very interesting new study by Terbeck et al. which suggests that propranolol may reduce measures of implicit racial bias. I was recently quoted about the research in this article and thought I'd use the blog to make a correction and to clarify the discussion.
Here is the relevant discussion from the article (in black type) with my comments (in blue type):
“It’s an interesting area of research but it also raises serious ethical questions,” says Adam Kolber, a psychologist at the Brooklyn Law School. First, I'm a law professor and bioethicist, not a psychologist. A correction has been requested, but so far the online article still looks the same. Second, this is a direct quote, so I guess I actually said it. It seems true enough to me, though the "but" doesn't make a lot of sense. There's really no conflict between research being interesting and raising serious ethical questions. Raising serious ethical questions can be a good thing! As it is phrased, it makes it seem like the research is good on the one hand because it is interesting and bad because it raises ethical questions. I don't think that's the case.
He feels that if the results are accurate, there could be a time when people are pressured to take such drugs —perhaps as a condition of parole for prisoners. What matters is not so much whether the results are "accurate" (what exactly does that mean?) but rather how reproducible the results are, how they would apply outside the lab, how implicit bias actually affects people's behavior and so on. As a general matter, I do think there are lots of interesting questions about what drugs we can require prisoners to take as a condition of parole (see especially the debate over "chemical castration"). Indeed, such questions might be raised here. I think I even mentioned the issue in my earlier blog post. But it's not an example that leaps out at us, because it's not obvious how implicit bias relates to whatever the person was imprisoned for. Perhaps we could imagine someone who engaged in racially-motivated hate crimes and somehow we think that reducing his implicit racial bias wil reduce the likelihood he will recidivate. So I suppose there is an ethical issue here, but not one that rolls off the tongue, so to speak.
Kolber also questions the methodology. You can probably question the methodology of just about every research experiment. But again, my comments were more about reproducibility, how the research applies to the real world, and so on. A number of these issues are raised in the study itself.
Although the implicit association test is respected, implicit racism is “hard to measure” and can result in “superficial” analysis. I do think we're still figuring out exactly what we mean by implicit racial prejudice and how well the implicit association test measures it. I simply don't know what the last part of the sentence is supposed to mean, though. ("[I]implicit racism" can result in "superficial" analysis?)
I think the article tries to fit a standard journalistic mold: Here are some scientists with exciting new research and here's our ethicist to throw some cold water on it. But the standard mold doesn't capture a lot of nuance.
Here are the last two lines of the article (not related to me):
Although Terbeck’s study is causing excitement in psychology circles, anti-racism campaigners are worried this approach could detract from grass-roots efforts.
“We should be convincing people that racism is wrong instead of papering over the cracks with this miracle cure.” Youth Against Racism spokesman Ian Pattison said. Did he really say or mean that this is a "miracle cure"?