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Reduce Implicit Bias through Data Science: Focus on Islam

In the field of workplace diversity, uncovering our own unconscious bias is a trend for raising awareness and creating equitable workplace cultures. Google and Facebook, for example, are using the online tool developed by Harvard University, the “Implicit Association Test” (IAT), to assess unconscious bias. The IAT measures our response times to different word pairings (for example, “good” and “Islam”; or “good” and “Christianity”) and associations between concepts (e.g., “black people”, “gay people”).[1] Longer response times mean that the word pairings are weaker for us, pointing to an implicit bias.

These are a truly interesting set of tests that correlate hesitation or processing time with cultural messaging. These are a great way to begin discussions around diversity. Plus they have the added benefit of being asynchronous, and private. People can take the tests on their own time, and no one needs to share their results. (You can read more about or take the range of IAT’s on Harvard’s Project Implicit website here:

Given the tests are based on response times, it is almost impossible to complete them without some kind of bias in one’s result. Plus, once one receives this result, what is the next step? Just knowing we have an unconscious bias will not help us overcome our bias. Harvard asserts we may never be able to overcome our bias, and provides a couple of strategies for simply managing it and compensating for it. I aver, however, that we can take steps to overcome our bias—we do not have to simply manage or compensate for it. We can reduce it significantly through two different types of education. The first type of education focuses on where these implicit biases come from, and this is what I illustrate below. The second type is experiential education, which I have discussed formerly in some detail.[2]

Let’s take one example now to examine where implicit biases come from. I’ll use the example of Islam, as Islam has been one of the most misunderstood, misrepresented, and vilified religions in our culture of late. According to a 2017 research survey by the Pew Center, for instance, respondents were asked to rate their feelings toward Muslims on a “feeling thermometer”. The survey yielded that the general feelings toward Muslims were at about 48% (where 0 equals cold and 100 equals very warm). Atheists only slightly outperformed Islam at 50%, and other religious groups rated significantly higher.[3]

Implicit biases certainly come from our culture—they are the water we swim in, if you will. So through the example of Islam, let’s step out of our cultural water for a moment and take a look at how our culture, particularly our media, has communicated about Islam to create such abbreviated hospitality toward its adherents.

The Hype over Islamic Radicalism

For this study, seven news media stations were data scraped for mentions of radical Islam over the period of the last two years.

This first graph depicts the number of mentions of radical Islam from 2015 to the present according to news station. As the graph shows, Fox News far exceeds the number of mentions of Islamic radicalism as compared to the other stations scraped, which included CNN, Fox Business, MSNBC, Bloomberg, Al-Jazeera, and CNBC. While Bloomberg, Al-Jazeera, and CNBC had each less than 500 mentions, Fox News had over 4,500 mentions.

Station Histogram of Radical Islam 2015-2017

The next graph below depicts not just the number of mentions per news outlet, but the date-frames during which these mentions of radical Islam were made. The graph shows the enormous spike in mentions in the months leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. Mentions of radical Islam triple beginning mid-summer before the election, and then radically drop off in its wake.

Timeline Mentions of Radical Islam

These two data sets importantly demonstrate the incongruence of Fox “News”, and perhaps also CNN, with other news sources. While the various networks analyzed certainly report on incidents of violence associated with Islamic extremism, Fox and CNN perpetrate hype over such extremism. CNBC, Al-Jazeera, and Bloomberg, in particular, seem little bothered to join in to this hype.

Islam vs. Christianity in the News

This second set of graphs, as below, depict a data scraping of the New York Post, a conservative-leaning newspaper, to see what words were most likely to be found in the same phrase as either Islam or Christianity. The first chart, which shows the words most closely affiliated with Christianity, are mostly on the topic of country and presidency, also the pope and faith. Interestingly, the words Muslim, ISIS, attack, and war are also strongly affiliated, appearing between 1/3rd and 1/6th the number of times as the most highly correlated words.

The second graph on words most closely associated with Islam notably holds “radical” as one of the top four, appearing up to 2000 times in since 2015. ISIS and war also figure in the top ten words, and terrorism, anti, and terrorist, are a bit further down the list. Of import is the close affiliation of negative word pairings with Islam not only in relation to the word Islam, but also in the data resulting from the search on Christianity.

top words and christianity 2015-2017

top words and islam 2015-2017

Of additional import, we notice that the mentions of Christianity in the media peak out at under 300 mentions across the seven news media outlets scraped. The number of mentions of Islam, however, adds a zero; it peaks out at just under 3000. So our exposure to media influence related to Islam is 100 times greater than media influence related to Christianity. (And even the Christianity search, as stated above, included negative word affiliations with Islam.)

In returning to the 2017 Pew survey for a moment, the survey results additionally measure opinions of Islam according to political affiliation:

Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to say they are very concerned about extremism in the name of Islam around the world (67% vs. 40%) and in the U.S. (64% vs. 30%). In addition, a December 2016 survey found that more Republicans than Democrats say Islam is likelier than other religions to encourage violence among its believers (70% vs. 26% of Democrats).[4]

The data charts above, by breaking out mentions of radical Islam according to news station, illustrate powerfully – even explainthe messages (and biases) communicated to their media consumers that emerge in these Pew results. At the same time, it is reported that most Americans know little or nothing about Islam. The media is responsible for the bulk, if not all, of our general cultural knowledge of the religion. It seems logical to postulate, given the strong and pervasive negative affiliation with Islam in our media, that this a powerful source of unconscious bias against it.

The Shoe on the Other Foot

It’s necessary to consider, in light of this, how negative hype (which we might even call propaganda) has constructed our biased views of Islam. Such negative and constant exposure to any religion—especially a minority religion– would raise fears and doubts about the very nature of that religion, as has certainly happened with Islam in the west.

What if, for example, a “Christian” carried out an act of terrorism (which has certainly happened on many occasions). Further, what if their religion became the focus of media attention? And what if our news media made a story out of the “religious” event 3000 times over 1½ years, in accordance with what our data shows above? This comes to an approximate 5½ mentions per day for 1½ years. As has happened with Islam, I think we might start asking if Christianity is inherently violent, too. And if we are not Christian, and happened to be unfamiliar with many adherents of Christianity, we might truly believe it. Indeed, anything we are exposed to this much cannot help but have an influence upon our thoughts—conscious or unconscious—and create biases. This is how advertising works.

If the media—at least certain popular outlets—has constructed Islam for us, then it is possible to take responsibility for our own thoughts—indeed our own biases– and construct them otherwise.

[1] Retrieved on May 25, 2017.

[2] “Engaging Difference: Exercises and Tips for Creating Experiential Learning Environments,” in Modern Believing, Vol. 48:3 (July 2007), UK: Modern Church.

[3] Retrieved on May 25, 2017.

[4] Retrieved on May 25, 2017.