The Equity/Bias Fallacy

February 3, 2021 • 9:00 am

The claim I’ll discuss here is so common, but so clearly fallacious, that it deserves a name. So far I haven’t seen it given a name, so I’ll tentatively call it the “Equity/Bias Fallacy.”  Before I define it, I’ll say that I define “equity” as “representation of groups in an organization in the same proportions that they occur in the general population.” (“Inequities“, of course, reflect differences between observed proportions in a population and their occurrence within organizations or groups.)

And I define “equality” as “equality of opportunity”. (One could also define it as “equality under the law”, but in this case opportunity is more germane.)  But the exact definitions don’t matter that much, for the issue is identifying why there is disproportional representation of groups in colleges, firms, academic departments and so on. These disproportions usually take the form of minority groups or oppressed groups (races, sexes, and so on) represented in smaller proportions within organizations than in the general population.

Here’s the fallacy:

If equity isn’t achieved in an organization, it means that bigotry from that organization was responsible.

or, to put it in a longer but less jargon-y way,

If groups within an organization  do not occur in the same proportions that they occur
the general population, one can assume that there is bigotry in the organization itself.

or to put the fallacy in a simple equation:

Inequities = Existing bigotry (immediate lack of equality)

This fallacy will hold so long as there are causes of inequities in organizations other than bigotry within those organizations.

And of course we know that this is the case. There are differences in preference that may be due to sex or culture (and yes, the “cultural preferences” could reflect bigotry of society in the past or present, but not of the organization showing inequities); or to different opportunities afforded different groups starting at an early age (for example, poor schooling available to minority groups); or to socioeconomic class differences correlated with group membership that make some career options more or less appealing. Some have imputed differences in childhood environments, due, say, to family integrity, as a cause of differential achievement. All of these factors affecting opportunity can be due to historical factors as well as current bigotry, and all can create inequalities early in life whose results persist throughout life because they “tilt the playing field.”

If one takes inequity as a datum that requires scientific explanation, then, the presence of alternative causal hypotheses means that none can automatically be assumed to be true. No explanation can be the default option, as bigotry seems to have become. In fact, it’s nearly taboo to even mention any “cause” other than current and immediate bigotry.

Why is it important to recognize this fallacy? That’s easy: if you want to remedy inequities, you have to know why they exist in the first place. If you automatically assume there’s bigotry in an organization such as the National Institutes of Health (I’ll post on this tomorrow), then you may spend a lot of time and money trying to weed out biases that may not exist. Alternatively, if bigotry does exist and is a cause of inequity, you need to establish that before fixing it.

Finally, if inequities in, say, groups of scientists are the product not of bigotry within those groups, but of unequal educational opportunities starting in grade school, it does no good to accuse those organizations of bigotry when the real cause lies way earlier down the line. Fixes in that case would involve creating and funding greater opportunities for underrepresented groups beginning at the very start of life. The hard-to-enact but necessary promotion of true equality of opportunity, essential in a democracy, can also be combined with affirmative action—a mechanism that creates greater equity in organizations that aren’t themselves rife with bigotry.

h/t: Luana

36 thoughts on “The Equity/Bias Fallacy

  1. Question:

    Should the players and owners and coaching, etc of the NBA and NFL and NHL, etc….look like America?

    How is equity to be achieved there given demographics? Ditto Google, Apple, Salesforce, etc…..

    1. I do not think you are talking about the same thing. Physical sports, particularly at the professional order are never going to look like America as you say and it has nothing much to do with bigotry. It would be like saying why don’t we have equity in track. There is no bigotry in determining who is fastest on the track or who is best in the NFL.

      1. You are assuming that non-physical differences must be due to bigotry. That is the fallacy which Jerry is discussing.

        Note also that racial differences in sports do not necessarily mean physical inequality between the races. Bigotry in other areas could cause some groups to move to sports where ability is more objectively measured.

        1. I am not assuming that at all. I only said that in the example he defined (sports) it was not. Where does this 1 + 1 = 4 come from. And your second statement is pretty much wrong. Give some examples of this objectively measured ability.

      2. Why is determining who is fastest in a 100-m sprint different in principle from determining who is best at mathematics in an exam? People are certainly going after the latter concept, regarding the whole concept of “merit” as being “racist”.

        1. Replace mathematics with English or history or creative writing to see why. Mathematics might be more objective, but it is a continuum, especially if one wants to determine the individual’s innate ability and not merely what they have already learned. That applies to some extent in sports as well, of course, but not nearly to the same degree.

      3. It probably *is* partially related to bigotry. Not in terms of who is selected for the teams, but in terms of black American youth seeing (certain) athletics as a more realistic path to success due to bigotry in other career areas. Thus more of them put their efforts towards those careers, thus more of them succeed at it. It’s the same reason why school teachers and nurses used to be practically all women; because of the discriminatory barriers to them in other fields.

        1. So, now these barriers have been removed for decades, and nurses and elementary school teachers are *still* overwhelmingly women. Now what?

  2. This equity/bias fallacy has been usually referred to as The Disparity Fallacy, as in differences of results is evidence for bias/discrimination needing intervention. This fallacious assumption is a longstanding platform used by those to insist police killings of Blacks is evidence for systemic racism so there is no need to investigate any other causes like much ratio of contacts to shootings or police responding to calls located in areas of higher crime rates and areas with higher rates of violence and the use of deadly force, and all such research can be dismissed as irrelevant. Without the Disparity fallacy to rely on, supporters of equity programs have to meet a much higher bar of justification for legal intervention that is itself intentionally discriminatory. Why work at finding out the real causes of targeted differences when an assumption fueled by faith alone will suffice?

    1. Other very closely related concepts are:

      Gambler’s fallacy
      Law of Small Numbers
      Hasty Generalization.

      They’re all slightly different, but each of them covers the reasoning error where the person thinks a small sample of events or things “ought to” resemble the true population or correct odds of things happening.

      1. It is actually an instance of the logical fallacy called “affirming the consequent.” If presence of bigotry implies inequity, then observing inequity doesn’t imply bigotry if other implications exist that result in inequity.

  3. RULE: “If groups within an organization do not occur in the same proportions that they occur
    within the general population, one can assume that there is bigotry in the organization itself.”

    I would add something more to this definition: If groups within an organization do not occur in the same proportions that they occur within the general population, one can assume that there is bigotry in the organization itself, [unless the underrepresented group is men in higher education or a white collar occupation, or the underrepresented group is women in a blue collar and/or dangerous occupation].”

    This is obviously the case if one looks at the trends in, say, higher education, in which women have been earning the bulk of degrees for, what is it, at least two decades now, with the gap continuing to grow? And the gap widens even further the more high-status the degree is (e.g. graduate degrees and doctorates). Furthermore, nobody in the “equity now!” circles seems to mind that men make up about 92% of the workforce in the top ten most dangerous occupations, resulting in 92.3% of workplace deaths being men. This number will only rise as we continue to have thousands of initiatives, scholarships, campaigns, etc. to get women an even greater share of higher education and white collar jobs, while ignoring blue collar jobs and dangerous work. In fact, one of the many confounders that explains the supposed “gender pay gap” is the “hazard pay” that comes with the dangerous jobs filled almost entirely by men.

    Facts like the above really put to rest the idea that the social justice crowd actually cares about equality. Social justice groups are just interest groups like any other: they’re not fighting for equality of even “equity,” but for the interests of certain groups that they favor.

    1. “I would add something more to this definition: If groups within an organization do not occur in the same proportions that they occur within the general population, one can assume that there is bigotry in the organization itself, [unless the underrepresented group is men in higher education or a white collar occupation, or the underrepresented group is women in a blue collar and/or dangerous occupation].”

      Exactly! The equity/bias fallacy is not even consistently applied. If functions less as a fundamental principle, and more as a tool to promote the interests of certain groups over others.

    2. Genuine question: has anybody come across “diversity and inclusion” stuff in areas like deep sea fishing, heavy industry, people who do highway maintenance in the middle of the night etc etc?

  4. Claims of systemic bias in this or that institution or organization by the Woketariat are typically devoid of *any* hard data in support of those claims. In my own department, a colleague who leans heavily that way asserted in a faculty meeting last autumn that our own program is afflicted with systemic racism. When I responded by asking her to provide any evidence whatever to support that accusation, she was unable to do so, but just repeated the claim, saying, in effect, that it was obvious. What was obvious, I think, was her conflation of inequity with racism.

    In my field, highly qualified minority candidates for faculty positions are sought after desperately, and typically wind up with multiple offers, but there just aren’t enough of them to go around. And my field is one in which that dilemma holds all the way up the academic intake stream to the point where promising high school students are recruited for university admission. Whatever the reason, it’s obvious that mindless proclamation of systemic racism does way more harm than good. But the SJW mindset just does not want to hear critical arguments about cause and effect.

    What’s really troubling is that my colleague has excellent analytic skills and applies them relentlessly in her own highly regarded research. But as soon as we get into political territory, ordinary canons of scientific argumentation go out the window.

  5. This article reasonably calls for a common sense approach to look for the causes of inequity before declaring inequality. Unfortunately, so many people would rather yell and scream and protest before taking this approach. This is too nuanced for many to think this through. We are living in an increasingly toxic society.

  6. The trouble is: This (the Fallacy) is part of the Woke Catechism and, as such, requires no evidence, for the Woke. One must simply submit. Like any other religion, Wokeism isn’t based on data and logic (those are only the tools of the cis- het- white patriarchy).

    1. And yet the Woke, when flying at the speed of a rifle bullet seven miles above the earth, or going under the surgeon’s scalpel while in a near-death state induced by a general anaesthetic, are betting their lives on data and logic (and will quite freely acknowledge the fact, if pressed).

      Funny, that…

  7. When I see the word “equity”, all I can think of is how much available credit do you have based on how much the current value of your home exceeds the amount you have due on your mortgage.

  8. I love that this could have a name.

    For a few months I understood this as a shortcoming in modern social justice; the unwillingness to separate correlation from causation by thoughtful analysis. Instead of wanting to separate racial discrimination from economic discrimination, they repackage them both together under the name of “systemic racism”.

  9. In all seriousness, it DOES seem perfectly legitimate to raise bigotry as part of the differential diagnosis of inequity in an organization or situation…but it has to be considered among all possible explanations, not – as pointed out – just assumed automatically to be the cause. If one assumes any symptom cluster is always and only caused by one particular disease or disorder, then one is going to miss many important diagnoses and the patients’ health will suffer because of it…to push the metaphor perhaps too far.

    [Amusing – to me – aside: Because of a typo I made, I just realized that “bigotry” is an anagram of “big tory”.]

  10. Based on claims of inequities from groups on the Woke side of things, I’ve had reason to think they were claiming that “inequity” is about minorities simply being less common in certain positions. For example, that there should be equal numbers of white, black, hispanic and asian researchers in academia.

  11. “Fixes in that case would involve creating and funding greater opportunities for underrepresented groups beginning at the very start of life.”
    YES!!! One of the comments above mentioned sports organizations. If education and opportunities were “equal” for everyone from the start of life, it’s quite possible that we would see even sports (staff and players) take on a different look.

    1. In sports, more equal opportunity can lead to less equity.

      Obvious examples include black sprinters and long-distance runners. But there are lesser-known ones too, like Pacific Islanders having a very high share of rugby players or the virtual elimination of Japanese among winners of sumo tournaments.

  12. The equality of opportunity is the root problem, and I think the only way to fix it is to implement reparations for all of the Federal programs (sometimes aided and abetted by the private sector) that helped white people but systematically excluded black people.

    Redlining, for example, excluded many black people from home ownership that thus prevented them from enjoying the huge increase in property values and thus equity that white people enjoyed since the 1930s. And because the property values remained low, and local taxes pay for schools, schools in historically redlined neighborhoods also remained underfunded. Kids get a poorer education, and growing up with the stress of poverty makes it harder to excel, so fewer go to college ready to set the world on fire. Generous loan problems that allow the descendants of the victims of redlining to fix up or rebuild housing in old neighborhoods, or buy homes elsewhere, would be a crucial step in building equity and, by funding renovations, broader economic prosperity. These loans should also go for small businesses, because these were also historically impacted by what was, in fact, the systematic racism of redlining.

    Other government programs (e.g., ones run by the Dept. of Agriculture) were similarly biased, and similarly should make up for support that was given out to whites but withheld from blacks.

    A political stumbling block is the old one in which a substantial proportion of white people don’t want to give anything to black people, even if is is to make up for past disparities. A possible way forward is that making loans with generous terms (almost grants) is a great way to pump money into poor rural areas across the nation. If you replace your roof or barn, you are paying local people to do the work. If whites also benefit, the politics might work.

  13. NIH has a new policy for conference grants, establishing the sacred ritual of the Diversity Statement in the application process. Details copied from an NIH bulletin are below.

    “The new conference grant policy describes plans to enhance diversity by increasing the participation of individuals from diverse backgrounds in all aspects of the conference. Such plans will be required, as a separate attachment, for applications received beginning for the April due date (the revised FOA coming soon, see active funding opportunities here). If a plan to enhance diversity is not included, the application will not be reviewed. Applicants can also outline, in the biosketches for their key personnel, past experiences in enhancing diversity in the biomedical sciences.
    We encourage conference grant applicants to consider the following points when putting together a Plan to Enhance Diversity:

    Identify ways to increase participation from underrepresented groups throughout the entirety of the conference, including selection of organizing committees, speakers, panelists, attendees, and other participants
    Consider the geographical area where participants will come from and expected size and composition of the conference
    Develop strategies (with appropriate data) to monitor effectiveness
    Highlight success at enhancing diversity at previous conferences, especially for those which reoccur

    Peer reviewers will take an application’s diversity plan into consideration as part of the overall impact score (see R13/U13 reviewer guidance here).”

  14. > Finally, if inequities in, say, groups of scientists are the product not of bigotry within those groups, but of unequal educational opportunities starting in grade school, it does no good to accuse those organizations of bigotry when the real cause lies way earlier down the line.

    I don’t see this as getting to the heart of the problem. As long as one believes that someone must be to blame, in this case for low black educational achievement, a scapegoat is needed, to be chosen for being low in status. Nameless primary school teachers make easy targets, influential academics do not.

    Concerning education, I read about allegations that schoolteachers and even pre-school teachers are racist. Failing schools and failing teachers are supposed to be punished (for the failure of teaching bad students?). There is a consensus that no child should be left behind when at-risk children get a headstart, but such efforts have had little effect. So maybe the pre-K educators are to blame? If you want to start at birth, I would almost expect to find articles that accuse racist doctors and midwives of killing black babies. It seems that not even reparations could end this pattern of finger-pointing.

  15. At a slight tangent perhaps but if you look at “Women and men in Sweden 2018 Facts and figures” – page 66 – you will find that many, but not all, of the 30 largest occupations show unequal numbers of men and women.

    Now Sweden is regarded as a country where sexism is very low… yet the makeup of many occupations still does not reflect the makeup of the population. This is evidence that asserting that jobs should reflect the makeup of the population is a fallacy, mostly. The trick is to identify what the makeup of any occupation should be if there were no unwarranted discrimination.

    1. The figure showing the sex distribution in the 30 largest professions is very revealing, showing drastic disparities in some jobs, such as economic assistants and preschool teachers in one direction, or carpenters and lorry drivers in the other. Given the intense Swedish focus on sex equality—I remember when Gudrun Schyman left the Left Party to form a feminist Party —I expect these disparities are in the förbjuden category, things that everybody sees but nobody talks about.

  16. TV

    They are all based on [ dramatic stab ] English words. It’s a conspiracy!

  17. I look at it from another angle: can you find any human activity, no matter what it is, no matter how unlikely it is that discrimination plays a role, where there are no differences in participation between men and women? I find it really hard. Men and women tend to have different preferences in food, hobbies, sports they play, movies they watch, music they listen to, books and journals they read… and many of these things are not under a lot of societal pressure, or the observed behavior even goes against societal pressure.
    Therefore it would be a huge surprise if you started any organization, with any structure or purpose, and wound up with the same number of men and women, filling the same roles. So, uneven distribution should be the expected default, and any malicious discrimination would be the thing that needs to be proven, instead of the other way round.

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