Originally posted at Scatterplot.

There has been a lot of great discussion, research, and reporting on the promise and pitfalls of algorithmic decisionmaking in the past few years. As Cathy O’Neil nicely shows in her Weapons of Math Destruction (and associated columns), algorithmic decisionmaking has become increasingly important in domains as diverse as credit, insurance, education, and criminal justice. The algorithms O’Neil studies are characterized by their opacity, their scale, and their capacity to damage.

Much of the public debate has focused on a class of algorithms employed in criminal justice, especially in sentencing and parole decisions. As scholars like Bernard Harcourt and Jonathan Simon have noted, criminal justice has been a testing ground for algorithmic decisionmaking since the early 20th century. But most of these early efforts had limited reach (low scale), and they were often published in scholarly venues (low opacity). Modern algorithms are proprietary, and are increasingly employed to decide the sentences or parole decisions for entire states.

“Code of Silence,” Rebecca Wexler’s new piece in Washington Monthlyexplores one such influential algorithm: COMPAS (also the study of an extensive, if contested, ProPublica report). Like O’Neil, Wexler focuses on the problem of opacity. The COMPAS algorithm is owned by a for-profit company, Northpointe, and the details of the algorithm are protected by trade secret law. The problems here are both obvious and massive, as Wexler documents.

Beyond the issue of secrecy, though, one issue struck me in reading Wexler’s account. One of the main justifications for a tool like COMPAS is that it reduces subjectivity in decisionmaking. The problems here are real: we know that decisionmakers at every point in the criminal justice system treat white and black individuals differently, from who gets stopped and frisked to who receives the death penalty. Complex, secretive algorithms like COMPAS are supposed to help solve this problem by turning the process of making consequential decisions into a mechanically objective one – no subjectivity, no bias.

But as Wexler’s reporting shows, some of the variables that COMPAS considers (and apparently considers quite strongly) are just as subjective as the process it was designed to replace. Questions like:

Based on the screener’s observations, is this person a suspected or admitted gang member?

In your neighborhood, have some of your friends or family been crime victims?

How often do you have barely enough money to get by?

Wexler reports on the case of Glenn Rodríguez, a model inmate who was denied parole on the basis of his puzzlingly high COMPAS score:

Glenn Rodríguez had managed to work around this problem and show not only the presence of the error, but also its significance. He had been in prison so long, he later explained to me, that he knew inmates with similar backgrounds who were willing to let him see their COMPAS results. “This one guy, everything was the same except question 19,” he said. “I thought, this one answer is changing everything for me.” Then another inmate with a “yes” for that question was reassessed, and the single input switched to “no.” His final score dropped on a ten-point scale from 8 to 1. This was no red herring.

So what is question 19? The New York State version of COMPAS uses two separate inputs to evaluate prison misconduct. One is the inmate’s official disciplinary record. The other is question 19, which asks the evaluator, “Does this person appear to have notable disciplinary issues?”

Advocates of predictive models for criminal justice use often argue that computer systems can be more objective and transparent than human decisionmakers. But New York’s use of COMPAS for parole decisions shows that the opposite is also possible. An inmate’s disciplinary record can reflect past biases in the prison’s procedures, as when guards single out certain inmates or racial groups for harsh treatment. And question 19 explicitly asks for an evaluator’s opinion. The system can actually end up compounding and obscuring subjectivity.

This story was all too familiar to me from Emily Bosk’s work on similar decisionmaking systems in the child welfare system where case workers must answer similarly subjective questions about parental behaviors and problems in order to produce a seemingly objective score used to make decisions about removing children from home in cases of abuse and neglect. A statistical scoring system that takes subjective inputs (and it’s hard to imagine one that doesn’t) can’t produce a perfectly objective decision. To put it differently: this sort of algorithmic decisionmaking replaces your biases with someone else’s biases.

Dan Hirschman is a professor of sociology at Brown University. He writes for scatterplot and is an editor of the ASA blog Work in Progress. You can follow him on Twitter.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Did Donald Trump’s campaign and election cry havoc and unleash the dogs of racism?

Last June, hauling out Sykes and Matza’s concept of “neutralization,” I argued that Trump’s constant denigration of “political correctness” allowed his supporters to neutralize norms against racism. If the denigration of political correctness means that the people who condemn racism are wrong or bad, then what they are condemning must be OK. The logic might not be impeccable, but it works. I argued that I wasn’t sure that Trump had caused an increase in racist attitudes, but he gave people a license to express those attitudes.

Aziz Ansari made a similar point on Saturday Night Live  the day after the inauguration. (Apologies if you have to wait through an ad.)

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Ansari’s version is much better than mine, and it reached a slightly larger audience. But there’s another important difference. I was talking about the message Trump supporters took from Trump himself before the election. Ansari is talking about the message they got from the electorate. The election changed their perceptions of the norms about expressing anti-immigrant views.

It’s as though minds of half the country had been clouded by “pluralistic ignorance.” That’s the scenario where each person thinks X but assumes that everyone else thinks Y, so everyone keeps their true ideas to themselves. Then something happens that reveals those previously hidden preferences, and suddenly everyone feels liberated. From the Trump supporters’ perspective, Trump was Dorothy throwing a bucket of water to dissolve the Wicked Witch of Political Correctness, and now all the Munchkins were free to express their feelings about Mexicans and Muslims (and perhaps others).

The 20% increase in hate crimes after the election certainly suggests that racists felt liberated by the election. Unfortunately, because of the uncontrolled variables and the small sample size of just one candidate winning one election, this bit of evidence is hardly conclusive.

But we now have some experimental evidence on the topic. In the two weeks before the election, three economists surveyed Mechanical Turkers in eight very Red states. The MTurkers were asked, in addition to other on-topic questions, if they would authorize the economists to make a donation on their behalf to a strongly anti-immigrant group, FAIR.  Mturkers were told, “The founder of FAIR is John Tanton, author of `The Immigration Invasion’ who wrote ‘I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.’”

For half the MTurkers, the donation question included this:

Note: just like any other answer to this survey, also your donation decision will be completely anonymous. No one, not even the researchers, will be able to match your decision to your name. [emphasis in original]

The other half were told:

Important: in order to ensure the quality of the data collected, a member of the research team might personally contact you to verify your answers to the next question and the following ones. [emphasis in original]

In addition, some of the people were told that Trump was certain to win their state. Others were given no information.

The results strongly support the idea that norms – or at least people’s perceptions of the norms – make a big difference. People who thought their choice would be public were much less likely to make the anti-immigrant donation – 34% vs. 54%. But that difference held true only for people who were not told how popular Trump was in their state. Among the people who were told basically, “Trump is a sure thing to win your state,” knowing that their donation would be public (i.e., known to the surveyors) made no difference in their willingness to donate.

If the researchers had stopped there, they would have been able to say

  • there seems to be a norm against giving money to anti-immigrant groups
  • the knowledge of that norm makes people less willing to make a donation to blatantly racist anti-immigrant group if even one stranger can know about that donation
  • if people think that many others in their state support an anti-immigrant candidate, they no longer feel that they need to keep their anti-immigrant views to themselves

Thanks the results of the election, though, they didn’t have to stop there. The gave the researchers a natural experiment to find out if the norms – or at least perceptions of the norms – had changed. Had Trump’s victory caused the scales of pluralistic ignorance to fall from the eyes of these Red-state Turkers?

The answer was yes. The election had the same effect as did the information about Trump support in the person’s state. It obliterated the difference between the public and private conditions.

To people who were reluctant to let their agreement with FAIR be known, Trump’s victory said, “It’s OK. You can come out of the closet. You’re among friends, and there are more of us than you thought.”

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

The average man thinks he’s smarter than the average woman. And women generally agree.

It starts early. At the age of five, most girls and boys think that their own sex is the smartest, a finding consistent with the idea that people tend to think more highly of people like themselves. Around age six, though, right when gender stereotypes tend to take hold among children, girls start reporting that they think boys are smarter, while boys continue to favor themselves and their male peers.

They may have learned this from their parents. Both mothers and fathers tend to think that their sons are smarter than their daughters. They’re more likely to ask Google if their son is a “genius” (though also whether they’re “stupid”). Regarding their daughters, they’re more likely to inquire about attractiveness.

Image via New York Times.

Once in college, the trend continues. Male students overestimate the extent to which their males peers have “mastered” biology, for example, and underestimate their female peers’ mastery, even when grades and outspokenness were accounted for.  To put a number on it, male students with a 3.00 G.P.A. were evaluated as equally smart as female students with a 3.75 G.P.A.

When young scholars go professional, the bias persists. More so than women, men go into and succeed in fields that are believed to require raw, innate brilliance, while women more so than men go into and succeed in fields that are believed to require only hard work.

Once in a field, if brilliance can be attributed to a man instead of a woman, it often will be. Within the field of economics, for example, solo-authored work increases a woman’s likelihood of getting tenure, a paper co-authored with a woman has an effect as well, but a paper co-authored with a man has zero effect. Male authors are given credit in all cases.

In negotiations over raises and promotions at work, women are more likely to be lied to, on the assumption that they’re not smart enough to figure out that they’re being given false information.

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Overall, and across countries, men rate themselves as higher in analytical intelligence than women, and often women agree. Women are often rated as more verbally and emotionally intelligent, but the analytical types of intelligence (such as mathematical and spatial) are more strongly valued. When intelligence is not socially constructed as male, it’s constructed as masculine. Hypothetical figures presented as intelligent are judged as more masculine than less intelligent ones.

All this matters.

By age 6, some girls have already started opting out of playing games that they’re told are for “really, really smart” children. The same internalized sexism may lead young women to avoid academic disciplines that are believed to require raw intelligence. And, over the life course, women may be less likely than men to take advantage of career opportunities that they believe demand analytical thinking.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Photo by Ted Eytan; flickr creative commons.

President Trump recently declared that Obamacare is “essentially dead” after the House of Representatives passed legislation to replace existing health care policy. While members of the Senate are uncertain about the future of the proposed American Health Care Act (AHCA) — which could ultimately result in as many as 24 million people losing their health insurance and those with pre-existing conditions facing increasing health coverage costs — a growing number of Americans, especially women, are sure that the legislation will be bad for their health, if enacted.

On the same day that the House passed the Republican-backed plan, for example, a friend of mine revealed on social media that she had gotten her yearly mammogram and physical examination. She posted that the preventative care did not cost anything under her current employer benefit plan, but would have been prohibitively expensive without insurance coverage, a problem faced by many women across the United States. For instance, the American Cancer Society reports that in 2013 38% of uninsured women had a mammogram in the last two years, while 70% of those with insurance did the same. These disparities are certainly alarming, but the problem is likely to worsen under the proposed AHCA.

Breast care screenings are currently protected under the Affordable Care Act’s Essential Health Benefits, which also covers birth control, as well as pregnancy, maternity, and newborn care. The proposed legislation supported by House Republicans and Donald Trump would allow individual states to eliminate or significantly reduce essential benefits for individuals seeking to purchase health insurance on the open market.

Furthermore, the current version of the AHCA would enable individual states to seek waivers, permitting insurance companies to charge higher premiums to people with pre-existing conditions, when they purchase policies on the open market. Making health insurance exorbitantly expensive could have devastating results for women, like those with a past breast cancer diagnosis, who are at risk of facing recurrence. Over 40,000 women already die each year from breast cancer in our country, with African-American women being disproportionately represented among these deaths.

Such disparities draw attention to the connection between inequality and health, patterns long documented by sociologists. Recent work by David R. Williams and his colleagues, for instance, examines how racism and class inequality help to explain why the breast cancer mortality rate in 2012 was 42% higher for Black women than for white women. Limiting affordable access to health care — which the AHCA would most surely do — would exacerbate these inequalities, and further jeopardize the health and lives of the most socially and economically vulnerable among us.

Certainly, everyone who must purchase insurance in the private market, particularly those with pre-existing conditions stand to lose under the AHCA. But women are especially at risk. Their voices have been largely excluded from discussion regarding health care reform, as demonstrated by the photograph of Donald Trump, surrounded by eight male staff members in January, signing the “global gag order,” which restricted women’s reproductive rights worldwide. Or as illustrated by the photo tweeted  by Vice-President Pence in March, showing him and the President, with over twenty male politicians, discussing possible changes to Essential Health Benefits, changes which could restrict birth control coverage, in addition to pregnancy, maternity, and newborn care. And now, as all 13 Senators slated to work on revisions to the AHCA are men.

Women cannot afford to be silent about this legislation. None of us can. The AHCA is bad for our health and lives.

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Ripon College. Her research interests include inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs, work, and organizations.

This month sociologist Matthew Desmond won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond’s book documents, in rich and depressing detail, what it’s like to try to pay rent as a low income earner and how easy it is to end up on the street. Eviction is not caused by personal “irresponsibility,” Desmond insists, it’s essentially “inevitable.”

Eviction is psychologically scarring, but it also throws families further into poverty, destabilizing their work and family lives, often stripping them of their few possessions, and costing money — all while enriching landlords.

Here’s 7 minutes from Desmond about his experience living among low income families and the lessons he learned:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Sometimes you have to take the long view.

This week Bill O’Reilly — arguably the most powerful political commentator in America — was let go from his position at Fox News. The dismissal came grudgingly. News broke that he and Fox had paid out $13 million dollars to women claiming O’Reilly sexually harassed them; Fox didn’t budge. They renewed his contract. There was outcry and protests. The company yawned. But when advertisers started dropping The O’Reilly Factor, they caved. O’Reilly is gone.

Fox clearly didn’t care about women — not “women” in the abstract, nor the women who worked at their company — but they did care about their bottom line. And so did the companies buying advertising space, who decided that it was bad PR to prop up a known sexual harasser. Perhaps the decision-makers at those companies also thought it was the right thing to do. Who knows.

Is this progress?

Donald Trump is on record gleefully explaining that being a celebrity gives him the ability to get away with sexual battery. That’s a crime, defined as unwanted contact with an “intimate part of the body” that is done to sexually arouse, gratify, or abuse. He’s president anyway.

And O’Reilly? He walked away with $25 million in severance, twice what all of his victims together have received in hush money. Fox gaves Roger Ailes much more to go away: $40 million. Also ousted after multiple allegations of sexual harassment, his going away present was also twice what the women he had harassed received.

Man, sexism really does pay.

But they’re gone. Ailes and O’Reilly are gone. Trump is President but Billy Bush, the Today host who cackled when Trump said “grab ’em by the pussy,” was fired, too.  Bill Cosby finally had some comeuppance after decades of sexual abuse and rape. At the very least, his reputation is destroyed. Maybe these “victories” — for women, for feminists, for equality, for human decency — were driven purely by greed. And arguably, for all intents and purposes, the men are getting away with it. Trump, Ailes, O’Reilly, Bush, and Cosby are all doing fine. Nobody’s in jail; everybody’s rich beyond belief.

But we know what they did.

Until at least the 1960s, sexual harassment — along with domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, and rape — went largely unregulated, unnoticed, and unnamed. There was no language to even talk about what women experienced in the workplace. Certainly no outrage, no ruined reputations, no dismissals, and no severance packages. The phrase “sexual harassment” didn’t exist.

In 1964, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, it became illegal to discriminate against women at work, but only because the politicians who opposed the bill thought adding sex to race, ethnicity, national origin, and religion would certainly tank it. That’s how ridiculous the idea of women’s rights was at the time. But that was then. Today almost no one thinks women shouldn’t have equal rights at work.

What has happened at Fox News, in Bill Cosby’s hotel rooms, in the Access Hollywood bus, and on election day is proof that sexism is alive and well. But it’s not as healthy as it once was. Thanks to hard work by activists, politicians, and citizens, things are getting better. Progress is usually incremental. It requires endurance. Change is slow. Excruciatingly so. And this is what it looks like.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Sexism in American society has been on the decline. Obstacles to female-bodied people excelling in previously male-only occupations and hobbies have lessened. And women have thrived in these spaces, sometimes even overtaking men both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Another kind of bias, though, has gotten worse: the preference for masculinity over femininity. Today we like our men manly, just like we used to, but we like our women just a little bit manly, too. This is true especially when women expect to compete with men in masculine arenas.

A recent study by a team of psychologists, led by Sarah Banchefsky, collected photographs of 40 male and 40 female scientists employed in STEM departments of US universities. 50 respondents were told they were participating in a study of “first impressions” and were asked to rate each person according to how masculine or feminine they appeared. They were not told their occupation. They were then asked to guess as to the likelihood that each person was a scientist, then the likelihood that each was an early childhood educator.

Overall, women were rated as more feminine than men and less likely to be scientists. Within the group of women, however, perceived femininity was also negatively correlated with the estimated likelihood of being a scientist and positively correlated with the likelihood of being an educator. In other words, both having a female body and appearing feminine was imagined to make a woman less inclined to or suited to science. The same results were not found for men.

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Banchefsky and her colleagues conclude that “subtle variations in gendered appearance alter perceptions that a given woman is a scientist” and this has important implications for their careers:

First, naturally feminine-appearing young women and those who choose to emphasize their femininity may not be encouraged or given opportunities to become scientists as a result of adults’ beliefs that feminine women are not well-suited to the occupation.

Second, feminine-appearing women who are already scientists may not be taken as seriously as more masculine-appearing ones. They may have to overperform relative to their male and masculine female peers to be recognized as equally competent. Femininity may, then, cost them job opportunities, promotions, awards, grants, and valuable collaboration.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The term “inspiration porn” was coined by disability activist Stella Young. Aimed at able-bodied viewers, inspiration porn features people with disabilities who appear happy or are doing things, alongside an encouraging message. She explains:

Inspiration porn is an image of a person with a disability, often a kid, doing something completely ordinary — like playing, or talking, or running, or drawing a picture, or hitting a tennis ball — carrying a caption like “your excuse is invalid” or “before you quit, try.”

Or, the famous one: “The only disability is a bad attitude.”

She called it porn quite deliberately, arguing that inspiration porn is like sexual porn in that the images “objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people.”

And, as with sexual porn, it sometimes involves animals.

At Disability Intersections, Anna Hamilton suggests that inspiration porn involving animals is another step removed from recognizing the full humanity of people with disabilities. These “inspiring” stories, she argues, “provide a way for nondisabled people to talk about and engage with disability in a facile way.”

Disability isn’t just othered; it’s cute, adorable, fuzzy.

Hamilton continues:

If one is constantly gawking and aww-ing over pictures and stories about animals with disabilities, then they don’t have to spend time thinking about actual disabled people, or the ableism against disabled humans that still exists.

When featuring animals, accommodation is no longer the least a society can do: a basic acknowledgement that human beings in all forms deserve access to their societies. Instead, it’s over-the-top, idiosyncratic and rare, even excessive in its generosity. To find inspiration in a turtle who has been fitted with a tiny skateboard, for example, is to frame accommodation as something one does out of the goodness of one’s heart, not a human and civil right.

Inspiration porn others and objectifies people with disabilities. When featuring animals, it dehumanizes them, too.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.