A Pill To Eliminate Racism? What’ll Science Think Of Next!

Publishable p-values

If it weren’t for the miracle of statistics, specifically the p-value, a device which can be used to “prove” anything, scientists would have a lot more time on their hands and a lot fewer papers on their curriculum vitae. Just this week we’ve already seen statistics “prove” that wearing a white lab coat—and believing it to be a doctor’s and not a painter’s coat; the same coat, mind—improves precision play in certain games, and premenstrual women can pick out black and white photos of snakes on a computer monitor 0.2 s faster (on average) than menopausal women.

Now we have a pill that researchers claim cures racism. A p-value said so!

implicit racismThe drug is propranolol which is ordinarily used for “high blood pressure, anxiety, migraines, and a number of heart ailments” and panic attacks. And now racism—well, not exactly racism-racism1, but something academics call “implicit racism,” which may be defined as “not racism” or “racism which can only be discovered by academics.”

Implicit racism

It helps in understanding this difficult concept by listening to Sylvia Terbeck, who lead-authored “Propranolol reduces implicit negative racial bias” in the journal Psychopharmacology, who tells us that “implicit racism” is the kind of racism which “can occur even in people with a sincere belief in equality.”

How do you discover whether you suffer from “implicit racism”? There’s a test you can take. It will not just discover occult racism, but lurking sexism, too. Regarding misogyny, the Harvard website helpfully explains, “you may believe that women and men should be equally associated with ‘science’ – yet, your automatic associations may show that you (like many others) associate male (more than female) with science.” There’s no word that you “may believe” that women and men are unequally represented because of the empirical fact that men outnumber women by five- to ten-to-one in science.

The racism test has you “sort words and pictures into categories as quickly as possible.” “Bad” words are “Agony, Terrible, Horrible,” etc.; “Good” words are “Joy, Love, Peace,” etc. You also have to categorize whether a faces are “African American” or “European American.” You are told repeatedly to do this as fast as you can. Keep this in mind.

Identifying the faces and just the words is easy, but then they have you pair the faces and categories, first blacks with “bad” and whites with “good”, later swapping them (in the website FAQ, they admit this ordering can bias results). This is followed by a questionnaire with items such as, “People ought to put less attention to the Bible and religion, instead they ought to develop their own moral standards,” and “Prosperous nations have a moral obligation to share some of their wealth with poor nations.” No word on how these biased questions are used in computing results (the wording is obviously skewed to the left).

Like all experiments designed to confirm a theory, “outliers” are thrown out so that the data better conforms to what researchers think racism, sexism, ageism, is. They say, “Going too slow or making too many mistakes will result in an uninterpretable score.”

I did the test and discovered “a slight automatic preference for African American compared to European American.” So I am not a racist, implicit or otherwise (the picture is a snapshot of my results, so you won’t think I’m fibbing). You, however, probably are a racist, since 68% of people taking the test have a white bias. Only 17% have no bias, and 15% have a black bias. This is science, folks!

The new study

The digression was necessary to understand Terbeck’s results. She and her co-authors fed 18 white college students a dose of propranolol and gave 18 more whites a placebo. Those in the placebo group scored higher on average (but not statistically “significant”) on the “Beck Depression Inventory” and Eysenck’s “Neuroticism scale”.

Terbeck is a good scientist, just like the Harvard folks, so she threw out data which did not conform, too. “Only data from blocks with less than 15% errors were analysed (one participant was excluded due to more than 20% errors on practice and main trials, for three other participants only the main trials were analysed due to too many errors in the practice trials).” No word on which groups this bad data came from. Drug group possibly? Especially considering what the drug does (see below). It’s a little fishy that this information is missing.

There were plenty of no effects. Some of these were:

We found no effect of propranolol on the measure of explicit prejudice as judged using the Mann–Whitney U-test for independent, non-parametric data. Additionally, no significant difference between the propranolol and placebo groups was found for religious prejudice, sexual prejudice, or prejudice against drug addicted individuals (all p>0.2), see Table 2.

Terbeck thought it would be fun to label the black-good/white-bad pairings “incongruent” and black-bad/white-good pairings “congruent”, thus revealing her racial bias. “Post hoc t-tests revealed no significant difference between groups in mean response time (ms) on congruent…or incongruent.” There was also “no main effect of treatment.”

However, an unpaired t-test showed the difference between congruent and incongruent trials (the IAT effect) was significantly smaller in the propranolol…as compared to the placebo group.

That is, the placebo group averaged about 860 milliseconds on the “incongruent” and about 700 ms on the “congruent” pairings, while the drugged up kids averaged about 825 ms on the “incongruent” and about 780 ms on the “congruent” pairings.

Conclusion? “Relative to placebo, propranolol significantly lowered heart rate and abolished implicit racial bias.”

By “abolished” she does not mean “abolished”, but “reduced”, as the drug group still had higher response times for the “incongruent” portions of the test.

Now, the “implicit racism” test is one of speed, as mentioned. The drug group, under the influence of the drug, all had lower heart rates. They were mellow, more even-keeled just because of the drug. Just as the results showed. Which is why I wondered what data was tossed. Terbeck’s response to this criticism? Drag out the over-used amygdala! Is there nothing this wee but mighty organ cannot do? (We last met the amygdala in the papers linked in the opening paragraph.)

Terbeck says that although (surprise) further “research is needed to clarify the causal mechanisms through which noradrenergic pathways may influence implicit bias” other studies “have shown that propranolol can reduce amygdala response to visual stimuli associated with negative emotions such as fear and anger.” Phelps has it that the amygdala “may be involved in the acquisition of emotional bias”, so that base is covered.

But it “remains possible that automatic fear or threat responses related to amygdala activation and normally elicited by viewing of out-group faces might be the central emotional component mediating implicit attitudes.” Amygdala, amygdala, amygdala!

To be fair, Terbeck says it’s “also possible that the effect of propranolol to decrease racial prejudice is mediated through a more general reduction in out-group denigration, in-group favouritism or both.”


Besides the many criticisms leveled above, there are three major ones I’ve been saving until last. Ready?

1. Terbeck did the wrong experiment. Each person should have been his own control. We should be comparing measurements before and after the drug (or drug first, placebo second) within the same people—especially because these are such small sample sizes, because the effects of this drug on young healthy college students is not well understood, and most especially because this is such a controversial test. This means that the entire paper should be ignored.

2. Suppose it is true that “implicit racism” is more than a figment of academic minds and that, indeed, propranolol “eliminates” it. Then what? Do we start lacing the water supply with the drug? Forcing kids, say, to take the “implicit racism” test and then require those who “fail” to eat propranolol? Mandate suspects on trial take the test to see whether their crimes had an “implicit racism” bias? Prescribe the drug with guilt verdicts? Do you think these questions are far fetched? Then you are ready for criticism number three.

3. One of the co-authors is the notorious Julian Savulescu, editor of the “Why should the baby live?” paper which gave the thumbs up to killing newborns. Savulescu is an advocate of eugenics and a host of other bizarre activities, such as amputation to promote well being. Any sane person would classify Savulescu as certifiable: see, inter alia, David Soderg’s essay on the subject (pdf). There is no telling what somebody who defends killing newborns (“after birth abortions”, they call them) will say. And there’s no guessing how seriously his statements will be taken just because he has a credential.


1I am reminded of Whoopi Goldberg’s “rape-rape” distinction.


  1. Speed

    The link, she is broke.

  2. DAV

    It would seem propranolol is not the desired final solution of racism.

  3. Big Mike

    The junk that is passed off as “science” truly is cause for despair. My amygdala hurts!

  4. Ray

    Is 36 liberal arts major female college students a valid statistical sample? Doesn’t look to representative to me.

    This shows you the truth of the old joke about college degrees. When you receive your BS degree, everybody knows that BS stands for bull manure, and of course MS means more of the same, and PHD stands for piled higher and deeper. This study is truely a heap of bull manure.

  5. Roman

    Do the authors give any reason for studying the effect of beta blocker on implicit racism? Why not any other signaling system in the brain?
    There are several types of beta receptors. Do they plan to extend the study by applying more selective blocking agents? How about the agonists: pharmacologically induced implicit racism? The manipulation of sub-cellular signaling pathways seems also a possibility.
    Who knows, may be they will accumulate enough evidence to apply for a grant: just $250,000 plus indirect costs 3 times that amount?

  6. Noone

    Regarding criticism #3, here’s a quote from David Oderberg essay linked above (p8):

    “First, the current of major and fundamental dissent in bioethics is
    to be found among pro-life thinkers. These thinkers defend the inviolability
    of innocent human life; they support traditional families and human rights;
    and they call for curbs on rampant biotechnology. They attack untrammelled
    scientific developments, the commodification of humanity in all its forms,
    and anything that lessens the dignity and exceptionality of the human being.
    For they see the human being as a creature with a soul, a conscience, and a
    free will obedient to the dictates of an objective moral system that transcends
    personal preference and unrestrained autonomy.”

    Which is a long-winded way of saying that he rejects the bioethics position on the basis of his religious beliefs, which I suspect Briggs also does.

    Now, I *really* want to believe the same thing: that we’re special, has soul, free will, there is an authority that provides absolute objective moral system, and justice will be done eventually in the afterlife.

    The problem is, offcourse, the evidence for such wishful thinking.

  7. Briggs


    Well, maybe or maybe not. But none of this is relevant to the criticisms of the study I outlined. It’s only relevant to the suggestions people will give about what to do if the results are correct (the chance of which is near zero). What do you think about the study?

  8. Rich

    I did the test and discovered “a slight automatic preference for African American compared to European American.” So I am not a racist, implicit or otherwise. Wow! You’re only racist if you prefer white people and not if you prefer black people? How does that work then?

  9. Noone

    Briggs, about the study I agree with your criticism.

  10. DEEBEE

    Noone, could it not be possible that you might lack the proper senses to perceive and evaluate evidence whose lack you seem to lament.

  11. Roman

    which sense are you talking about? A common sense?

    Professor Briggs: I marvel over your masochistic tendency to read junk science. It is very nice of you that you share your critical remarks. It is educational and sometimes very funny. As a teacher you are probably convinced that this is time well spent. But then …. don’t you have the desire to ditch junk and take something more worthwhile? After all, time is limited.

  12. Ye Olde Statistician

    As soon as I saw “unpaired t-test,” I thought “uh-oh.” A paired t-test at the very least, for the reasons you gave. Adam-before vs. Adam-after; Betsy-before vs. Betsy-after; etc.

    The historian John Lukacs once lamented that the amount of historical documentation has resulted in inflation, with more and more documentation on matters less and less important. It seems there are regions of science where the same holds true.

  13. Speed

    From Overlawyered

    Class action lawyers are suing the government of Iowa on an theory that “subconscious” bias resulted in employment discrimination against black employees and job-seekers. “The plaintiffs — up to 6,000 African-Americans passed over for state jobs and promotions dating back to 2003 — do not say they faced overt racism or discriminatory hiring tests.” Instead, they are relying on the work of an expert witness who is the developer of something called an Implicit Associations Test meant to measure subconscious bias.

    Not that anyone is going to see a comment on an eight day old post …

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