Pulling Back from the Brink of Misrepresenting the Science

On June 11th, 2020 Sam Harris posted his 207th podcast that asked, “Can we pull back from the brink?” I agreed with plenty of things Sam said, and I disagreed with plenty of things he said. However, I will not get into all of our agreement and disagreement over politics and framing of the issues. Instead, this blog post is simply an evidence-based response to some of Sam’s points that I feel needed a bit more exploration. I will offer a few critiques as well as supporting evidence for those critiques. 

I’ll leave this quote from Sam in episode 207 as a representation of my intentions: “We have to pull back from the brink here. And all we have with which to do that is conversation. I mean, the only thing that makes conversation possible is an openness to evidence and arguments, a willingness to update one’s view of the world when better reasons are given. And that is an ongoing process, not a place we ever finally arrive.”

  1. The characterization of public health statements about protests as “hypocritical” is subjective and two-dimensional at best and is uncharitable and needlessly inflammatory at worst.

Here is a relevant quote from Sam: “Now, as I said, trust in institutions has totally broken down. We’ve been under a very precarious lockdown for more than three months, which almost the entire medical profession has insisted is necessary for doctors, and public health officials have castigated people on the political right for protesting this lockdown. People have been unable to be with their loved ones in their last hours of life. They’ve been unable to hold funerals for them. But now we have doctors and public health officials and news anchors by the thousands signing open letters. Making public statements saying it’s fine to stand shoulder to shoulder with others in the largest protests our nation has ever seen. The degree to which this has undermined confidence in public health messaging. It’s hard to exaggerate. Whatever your politics, this has been just a mortifying piece of hypocrisy. Especially so given that the pandemic has been hitting the African-American community hardest of all.

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It’s important not to reduce a serious issue within the public health sphere into one uncharitable label. Arguably this is the exact thing that Sam feels people do to him by calling him a racist, but in this case he is labeling thousands of health professionals who signed an open letter to support the protests “hypocrites”. The reality is that public health experts know how much racism and racial inequality contributes to health problems. Racial disparities are associated with over $200 billion in annual  costs (bear in mind the human cost behind these numbers). Furthermore, there is reason to see these disparities as partly due to racial bias. They also know how much preexisting distrust the black community has toward the healthcare system and how this distrust leads to worse medical outcomes (even now during the pandemic). So when health professionals see a grassroots movement fighting for racial equality in the middle of a pandemic, they have to decide whether to tell everyone to stay home or to support this fight for equality. Epidemiologists have thoughtfully discussed the tension here. In fact, these issues are discussed in some detail in the actual open-letter Sam mentions. To summarize it as “hypocritical” is inflammatory and one-sided and seems counter to Sam’s professed intention to have an open conversation in view of all the evidence.

  1. Sam’s summary of the evidence for racial disparities in lethal policing is misleading and is not strong evidence of the contention that people are “misinformed.”

Relevant quotes from Sam: “The problem with the protests is that they are animated to a remarkable degree by confusion and misinformation. And I’ll explain why I think that’s the case. And of course, this will be controversial.”

“I see no reason to doubt that African-Americans get more attention from the cops. Though, honestly, given the distribution of crime in our society, I don’t know what the alternative to that would be. And once the cops get involved, blacks are more likely to get roughed up, it seems, which is bad. Right. But again, it’s simply unclear that racism is the cause of that.”

“But Fryer also found that black suspects are around 25 percent less likely to be shot than white suspects are. And in the most egregious situations where an officer was not first attacked, but nevertheless fired his weapon at a suspect. The police seem more likely to do this when the suspect is white. Again, these data are incomplete. This doesn’t cover every city in the country and a larger study tomorrow might paint a different picture. But as far as I know, the best data we have suggests that for whatever reason. Whites are more likely to be killed by cops once an arrest is attempted.

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On the subject of racial disparities in police violence, Sam references primarily 1 study and on its basis (paired with rhetorical arguments) concludes that the protests “are animated to a remarkable degree by confusion and misinformation.” Let’s review the research he cited.

First Sam mentions the Fryer study, which, taken at face value, supports the claims that blacks are disproportionately targeted by nonlethal violence but not necessarily lethal violence. Let’s evaluate the quality of this study, then discuss the strength of it as evidence of Sam’s claims.

Harvard faculty member and social epidemiologist Justin Feldman wrote a blog post rebutting Fryer’s paper. In it he describes how Fryer’s research suffers from “major theoretical and methodological errors” and how the research team “communicated the results to news media in a way that is misleading.” 

One of Feldman’s primary critiques is that the distinction between “racial bias” and “statistical discrimination” is not made clear when communicating the findings to the public, but also that the distinction narrows the definition of injustice in policing in a way that most people would not agree with. To quote Feldman, “Once explained, it is possible to find the idea of ‘statistical discrimination’ just as abhorrent as ‘racial bias’. One could point out that the drug laws police enforce were passed with racially discriminatory intent, that collectively punishing black people based on “average behavior” is wrong, or that – as a self-fulfilling prophecy – bias can turn into statistical discrimination (if black people’s cars are searched more thoroughly, for instance, it will appear that their rates of drug possession are higher).” 

Furthermore, the results rely on police reports themselves. This is dubious in light of a recent New York Times article that revealed that the number of people killed by police was more than twice what was reported.

The Feldman blog cites 2 more papers that extensively critique the statistical methodologies used by the Fryer paper. 

  • One paper is quite long and offers a more substantial discussion on the issues of accounting for bias in the data used in these types of analyses. In it, they reanalyze the data from the Fryer study and make the following comments, “Using the coding rules and estimation procedures in Fryer (2019), we were able to closely replicate the published results. However, in doing so, we discovered this procedure involved an unconventional and inadvisable step in which all observations with non-zero force below the threshold of interest were dropped—a severe case of selection on the dependent variable.” Their analysis indicates that the effects found in Fryer are likely underestimating the effect of race. 
  • The second paper the authors state the issue with Fryer’s data most directly in this quote, “the findings of Fryer (2016) suggesting null or anti-white disparities in the encounter-conditional rates of the use of lethal force by police are actually consistent with a situation in which all police have elevated encounter-conditional rates of the use of lethal force against black individuals, but a small subset of police encounter and assault black individuals sub-lethally at elevated rates. In other words, apparent anti-white racial disparities in encounter-conditional rates of the use of lethal force by police may arise not from bias against white individuals, but rather from elevated rates of unjustifiable encounters with black individuals.” (While this is in response to a different Fryer study, they are criticizing the same analysis approach taken in 2019.)

I’ll finally note that I am not the first to write an article questioning the validity of the Fryer study. The popular press has also had its share of criticisms.

  • Vox: Points out that the Fryer study, “found that there weren’t big racial disparities in how often black and white suspects who’d already been stopped by police were killed. But they deliberately avoided the question of whether black citizens are more likely to be stopped to begin with (they are) and whether they’re more likely to be stopped without cause (yup).
  • Washington Post: Documenting the issues with relying on police reporting when investigating police shootings.
  • Snopes: which discusses the aforementioned Washington Post and Vox articles.
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education: They point out that the Fryer study only looks at individual level factors and largely ignores sociopolitical differences across municipalities and doesn’t take into account the differential rates of police stops.
  • Another science-based blog post by Sociologist Dan Herschman: Similar to other writers, the author here makes the point that, “to rigorously test the hypothesis of whether Black Americans are more likely to be killed by police, we need to consider both unequal rates of police encounters and the outcomes of those interactions.”

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the Fryer study should be dismissed or is otherwise worthless. Based on Sam’s arguments we are answering the question: is this good enough evidence to claim that protests “are animated to a remarkable degree by confusion and misinformation?”

One question we might ask is: Is this Fryer study the only one of its kind?

The answer is no. A study by Ross in 2015 completed an analysis with a different dataset and a different statistical approach that does take into account the differential rates of police stops. Ross found that there is a “significant bias in the killing of unarmed Black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being {Black, unarmed, and shot by police} is about 3.49 times the probability of being {white, unarmed, and shot by police} on average.”

Let’s consider one more line of research before we conclude this discussion.

There is actually a highly relevant second area of research that should have been tapped, namely racial bias shooting studies. Racial bias shooting studies simulate the kinds of situations police find themselves in (see a video example). In these studies, participants (police or otherwise) witness a scene and need to make quick decisions about how to respond. The scenes vary on a variety of relevant factors such as skin color of the victims/perpetrators of depicted crimes, whether the perpetrator has a gun, phone, or nothing in their hand, and whether a crime is being committed at all. Dozens of these studies have been done over the years. A recent meta analysis reported the following: “Our results indicated that relative to White targets, participants were quicker to shoot armed Black targets, slower to not shoot unarmed Black targets, and more likely to have a liberal shooting threshold for Black targets.” 

In other words, there is a whole other area of research Sam didn’t mention which provides evidence to the contention that blacks are targeted by shootings disproportionately. Is this perfect evidence about policing? Certainly not. In many of these studies the participants are not police officers. Police officers were also slightly better than non-police participants in their threshold bias. But they were still found to be biased. 

To conclude: The issues about racial bias and discrimination in policing are incredibly complicated. However, it is clear that even with Fryer’s “conservative” (not political, methodological) analysis, police do dole out more non-lethal violence in a way that goes beyond mere “statistical discrimination” and is partly explained by “racial bias”. Taking in the wider area of literature, it seems like that there is weaker evidence for bias in lethal violence, particularly if one keeps in view the sociological precursors to individual policing actions. 

Thus, it seems uncharitable to characterize those who protest racial bias in policing to be “animated to a remarkable degree by confusion and misinformation.”

  1. There is reason to keep a look out for racism in science.

Relevant quote from Sam: “But is that really the concern in the scientific community right now? Unchecked racism, sexism and homophobia. Is that really what ails science in the year 2020? I don’t think so.”

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In her recent book “Superior: The Return of Race Science” Angela Saini lays out a case for concern for racism in science in the modern era. Two papers (here and here) were recently retracted in highly regarded journals for using shoddy methods to come to conclusions that support a racist ideology. I think we ignore this conversation at our peril.

In the end, I have left out much that I agree and disagree with Sam about from his podcast. What I offer here instead is a substantive evidence-based critique to the facts he employs to service his rhetoric.

I hope we grapple with the nuances here in the spirit of a better conversation. Thank you.

Thanks to Hatchum for the transcript of the episode 207.

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