Taboo, Controversy and Over Generalization

Even scientific studies can incur bias and controversy because research methods are determined by those who conduct it and the way people interpret the same data may differ sometimes. In some instances, peer reviewers’ criticisms are prompted by the seemingly insufficient subjectivity in the data presented because ethnocentrism and over generalization is present.

Let’s look at an example. Until a while ago many psychological studies argued that human behavior of a race of people is best explained by genetic heredity. A classic example is the theories and assumptions presented in the book: The Bell Curve by Hernnstein and Murray (reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bell_Curve#Criticism_of_assumptions_made_in_book), such that intelligence are hereditary and associated tests are not biased with regard to race, ethnic group or socioeconomic status. However, this study was later heavily criticized by many, including Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote the book The Mismeasure of Man, and in it he said: “”the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status.” (Reference:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mismeasure_of_Man)

In the context of country perspectives, taboo and controversy, what we are saying is, while distinguishing between populations based on ethnic groups is common in medicine and genetics, it’s less common and often controversial in social sciences like psychology and linguistics, because the conclusions can be considered racist. Look at the following two paragraphs and analysis, compare how professional they seem:

Paragraph A

“The clinical trials on the effectiveness of this drug on patients of different race showed that the effectiveness was the greatest amongst Group X patients, whereas lowest amongst Group Y patients. It is suggested the trials be conducted amongst intra-ethnic patients groups and then compared between different ethnic groups to verify this preliminary findings.”

  • Clinical trial on drug effectiveness – the word ‘clinical’ (scientific tests with formal methodologies and stringent procedures) makes this subject hard science. This means there is little or no room for bias in the methods or result interpretation.
  • Simply stating findings and fact – here the author is not making assumptions and generalizing based on the results, but simply stating the result from the scientific procedural outcome (“effectiveness was the greatest amongst Group X patients, whereas lowest amongst Group Y patients”)
  • Acknowledgement of potential bias or suggestions to make good scientific conclusions – even though this first sentence in this paragraph is purely stating test results and seems no room for bias or subjectivity, the author recognizes that the results cannot be generalized, and there is area for improvement or verification, thus suggesting to conduct further tests to verify preliminary findings rather than jumping to conclusion. This conforms to an important principle explained by this chapter, about recognizing the potential bias and giving the reader appropriate information or recommendation in order to minimize the impact of potential bias.

Paragraph B

“The results produced by the intelligence test given to test subjects of different ethnic groups showed that the Japanese respondents scored high/lower overall and would therefore suggest they have higher/lower mental capacities.”

  • Bias in nature of test – in the case of the intelligence test where literacy and psychological interpretation is involved, it is impossible to compare on the exact same basis if the tests questions are translated into different languages because some subtle meanings may have been lost or altered in translation and the questions may be interpreted differently from originally intended. (i.e. The test questions were originally devised and written in British English, the questions are given to test subject group A, who are native English from the UK. The same test questions are then translated into Italian and given to test subject group B, who are native Italians)
  • Taboo and controversy in assumption – this is present in this paragraph because the author is making the claim based on this test result to suggest people of a certain ethnic group are more superior or inferior in the sense of mental capacity is very controversial, and regarded taboo.
  • Over generalization – of nationals residing in Japan there are several different ethnic groups (the dominant group being the Yamato people). (reference:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_people). By generalizing the result to all ‘Japanese’ people would not seem scientifically sound. Plus, if the test was conducted on a sample of the population from each ethnic group, not recognizing the specificity of the outcome but to generalize it to all population of that group seems taboo and bias, especially when the subject is of the social science nature.

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