"The End of Bias"| Reviewed by Bill Schwab
“The End of Bias” is another piece of the puzzle in the effort to dismantle sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism and other biases that make living unpleasant for countless people.
Why do parents search “Is my son gifted?” twice as often as “Is my daughter gifted?” Why “Is my daughter overweight?” googled twice as often as the same question about sons, even though, statistically, boys are more obese than girls. And when author Jessica Nordell submitted articles to publishers under her full name, she received many rejections. When she pitched them under the gender-neutral name of J. D. Nordell, more of her articles were accepted.
These are just a smattering of examples of personal and institutional bias that science journalist Nordell incorporates in “The End of Bias.” Nordell has studied prejudice and its origins for more than 15 years. She states there is a chasm “between the values of fairness and the reality of real-world discrimination.” She names this reality “implicit” or “unconscious” bias.
Bias is costly to society because it undervalues the potential contributions of women, ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups. Nordell maintains biases are typically not innate or intended but learned, beginning about age four, and seldom examined.
One case study she cites details transgender neurobiologist Ben Barres who transitioned from a woman to a man, and discovered his professional skills were more highly valued as a man. In another instance, an unskilled Asian-American was routinely promoted to jobs that required high math ability because his supervisors held the biased understanding that all Asian-Americans were excellent mathematicians. That was not the case at all.
A Black student and a White student were presented to a White audience as two who “behaved in an antisocial way”. The audience was then polled about what they thought the future would look like for each of the two students. The number one choice of options for the Black student was that that student would be a future criminal. The same prediction was considerably down the list of futures selected for the White student.
Nordell’s plethora of anecdotal, statistical, and empirical evidence all lead to the same conclusions, so there is a certain repetition to the narrative. Although the reader can resonate with almost all of the stories, the most helpful part of the book is her recommendation that we address such biases using techniques such as “mindfulness meditation” (used by the Los Angeles Police Department officers before their shift), imagining others’ perspectives, developing such tools as gender-neutral diagnostic checklists for doctors and counseling.
Nordell writes that all these efforts build trust and deepen relationships, both of which are essential to ending bias. In a business setting, she reports, for example, “Racially diverse teams where all employees were able to feel psychologically safe enough to learn from one another outperformed homogeneous teams.”
Nordell’s book is a plea to readers to examine their own biases, determine their origins and discard them when they are harmful, and then together seek to change society. Her research is refreshingly upbeat and the book offers a deep dive into how society can meet one of its knottiest problems.
About the Author: Jessica Nordell is a journalist specializing in science and culture. Her essays and reporting on the subject have appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Educated at MIT and Harvard in physics and at the University of Wisconsin- Madison in poetry, she is a former writer and radio producer for American Public Media.