Cursed Scientific Prophecies: Accurately Predicting the Future and Being Ignored

Scientists warned policy makers about a global pandemic for years, and we were still unprepared. What other predictions are scientists making that we should be reacting to?

In the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon, Cassandra, the princess of Troy, is given the ability to see into the future but is cursed to never be believed. In the tragedy, Cassandra knows of the impending doom of all she holds dear, her own life, the lives of her family, and indeed Troy itself. But she was powerless to stop it. No matter how much she implored those around her towards action… she was ignored.

The story of Cassandra can be seen as an allegory for actionable knowledge that, for one reason or another, is ignored to tragic ends. This dynamic of ignoring accurate predictions of the future is more prevalent now than ever before. In the 21st century, people don’t pay much attention to dodgy prophecies from temperamental gods or elaborate spooky rituals. Instead, the world has millions of the best and brightest scientists making predictions based on empirical evidence, complex technology, and scientific consensus. Our predictive ability has gotten humans to the moon, has prevented hundreds of deadly diseases, and has made it possible for me to easily share this thought with you now. Yet, the curse of Cassandra lives on and we, as a result, all live in our own modern tragedy. 

In the early days of 2020, our lives changed irrevocably when a highly contagious novel coronavirus started spreading around the globe. A year later there have been 574,00 excess deaths in the US as the result of this pandemic, and globally over 3.1 million deaths have been attributed to COVID-19. This happened in the final year of the Trump administration. Two years prior to the pandemic, the Trump administration disbanded the pandemic response team (though some team members were reassigned to other roles). The pandemic response team was put together by the Obama administration explicitly in anticipation of a global pandemic.

Of course, President Obama didn’t have the gift of prophecy, he was reacting to other infectious diseases that impacted the US and the world during his presidency, H1N1, Ebola, SARS, and ZIKA. While none of these 4 diseases became as big of a problem as the novel Coronavirus–in terms of number of deaths or infectivity–they signaled the possibility of a global pandemic. But decades before the slow reactions of politicians, scientists had been sounding the alarm.

For example, in the mid-1980s a leading influenza vaccine researcher named Edwin Kilbourne participated in a virology conference, and proposed a highly contagious virus with scary properties–actually far worse than those of the coronavirus–that would wreak havoc on the globe. 30 years later, prophecies of a global pandemic reached a fever pitch in the 2010s. But, a consensus had been building for years in the public health and virology community that a virus with the right characteristics to lead to a global pandemic will inevitably emerge. Experts implored us to get prepared right away. 

“Agamemnon is coming! Troy will fall and we will all die unless we do something now!” said the prophets.

South Korea showing what happens when science-based policy is implemented

And some did listen! There are plenty of success stories from countries who successfully navigated the global pandemic by heeding scientific expertise. Some countries, like New Zealand and South Korea, are all but back to normal (minus the usual influx of tourists) while comparably wealthy countries like the US and the UK continue to have massive spikes of infections. In other words, some saw past the curse and escaped Troy, while some are still not listening to reason as Troy burns down around them.

But the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is just a very obvious example of the much larger problem. There is a curse on science, where scientific consensus emerges that identifies a problem and solutions to that problem and then these prophecies go unheeded. I will quickly explore two general types of cursed scientific prophecies. The first category– the “easy problems”–of cursed scientific prophecies are of an almost banal nonpartisan nature. The second category–the “hard problems”–are those prophecies that found willful partisan political opposition. 

The “Easy” Problems

Food waste is worse in rich countries

Food waste

An estimated 40% of food that is grown in the US for consumption is wasted. This is the equivalent of about 1,250 calories per day per American, or 400 pounds of food per person annually. This is a tragic injustice given that an estimated 37 million (1 out of every 9) Americans experience food insecurity. It is an environmental tragedy as well, accounting for more than one quarter of total freshwater consumption, and roughly 300 million barrels of oil per year. There is a scientific consensus that A) this is a massive problem and B) the solutions are known. Nevertheless, progress to solve the problem of food waste remains slow.

Antibiotic resistance is on the rise

Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance occurs when disease-causing microorganisms (i.e. bacteria and fungi) evolve the ability to survive treatment from antibiotic drugs designed to kill them. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes antibiotic resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development”. This danger has been discussed as early as 1945 when Alexander Fleming raised the alarm, and the problem has only worsened. To some extent, resistance is naturally occurring, but it is exacerbated by sparse regulations in many countries, inappropriate prescribing, and overuse in agriculture. These issues continue, despite WHO guidance on how to prevent and control the spread of antibiotic resistance.  

To be clear, I don’t think these are “easy” problems in that solving them would be simple and quick. Rather, I mean that they are problems that a) have been documented for decades, b) have readily available solutions that are under-utilized, and c) do not have an obvious political or ideological opposition (debatably at least). These problems may not create the attention-grabbing headlines they deserve, but they don’t exist in some political or scientific grey area; these problems are widely acknowledged. Nor do solutions require a vast renegotiation of the political system. And yet, over the decades, scientists raising the alarm (and providing solutions) simply hasn’t led to the resolution one would expect of a constructive society that reacts to actionable scientific knowledge. Sadly, it only gets worse from here. If these “easy” problems seem difficult to address, imagine the difficulty that emerges when those in power disagree on whether the problems even exist or deserve to be addressed. In other words, think of how much more intractable these problems become when they are politicized.

The “Hard” (Politicized) Problems

Environmental degradation is happening on many levels

Environmental degradation

This is a massive subject that I will quickly overview by noting several “sub-crises” under this umbrella.

Greenhouse Emissions

The vast majority (estimating the exact percentage is a bit complicated) of scientists agree that climate change is human-caused as a result of the explosion of greenhouse gas emissions (and other human activities). While the impacts of climate change on sea-levelsocean acidityhuman healthweather, and food production (to name a few) are open areas of research, there is a consensus (as articulated by the Global Commission on Adaptation) that the response from the world’s governments are “gravely insufficient”.

Plastic pollution

There is a consensus that the estimated 4.8 – 12.7 million metric tons of plastic added to the oceans annually is having a devastating effect already and will cause irreparable harm to the world’s ecosystems. This is a global problem that no one country can solve on it’s own, which has led scientists to call on policy makers to form international alliances to address this problem, a step that has not been taken by the US or the UK.

Biodiversity loss

We are living through the 6th mass extinction event in the earth’s history, but this time it is largely due to human activity. The extinction rate of species is hundreds or thousands of times faster than the estimated “background” rate seen over the last tens of millions of years. A recent UN report describes the “overwhelming evidence” of this “ominous picture” and provides a road map of the “transformative change” needed to address this issue.


Again, this is a massive topic with a mountain of research on a global level, within specific countries and within specific communities around the world. I will provide only a brief summary of poverty in the US. We know that child poverty costs around $1 trillion per year, unstable housing will cost an estimated $111 billion over the next ten years, the cost of food insecurity alone was $178 billion in 2014, and in the year 2000 172,000 deaths could be attributed to individual- and area-level poverty.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 12% of the US population (40 million people) in the US live in poverty. But this is a low estimation. The international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), estimates that 18% of Americans (~59 million people) live in poverty (meaning they have less than half the American median income). By looking at other countries like Denmark and Finland where only 5-6% of the population is in poverty, we can see that our level of poverty is not an intrinsic aspect of human society. Indeed, of the 37 countries in the OECD, 35 of them have less relative poverty compared to the US. It is for these reasons that the US government has been called on by the UN and Human Rights Watch to address poverty. Furthermore, the American Psychological Association has made several recommendations for how to address poverty in the US, for example by raising the minimum wage (which likely will not occur in 2021).

The price we pay for high inequality


Economic inequality, meaning the size of the gap in incomes and wealth between different economic class groups, is a distinct problem to poverty that also predicts social problems. Inequality is easily seen by statistics like: 80% of the wealth in the US is held by 20% of it’s wealthiest citizens. I’ve discussed the link between inequality and health and social problems in a previous article, but the gist is that economic inequality predicts lower life expectancy, math and literacy skills, trust, and social mobility as well as higher infant mortality, homicide, imprisonment, teenage births, obesity, and mental illness. In other words, the harms of economic inequality are very clear and solutions are available. 

Curses aren’t real, so why is this happening?

As with the “easy” problems, the “hard” problems are well-understood and the solutions are readily available. However, politicization of these issues adds a deep layer of intractability to these problems. In part, politicization is to be expected because there are extremely influential vested interests in environmental and economic issues. There is a long history of corporations opposing environmental regulations intended to protect human health and the environment. Similarly, campaign contributions and lobbying can facilitate the development of pro-corporate economic policies at odds with egalitarian policies. 

Another reason for the intractability of politicized problems is ideology. In general, political conservatism in the US is related to ideals of individual freedom, private property rights, limited government, and promotion of free markets. Political liberalism in the US is related to collective rights, market regulation to protect citizens and public goods, extending rights to underprivileged groups, and expanding the social safety net. This ideological framework can explain why, research has found that conservatives tend to attribute poverty to self-indulgence and laziness, while liberals tend to view poverty as a result of a poorly functioning society. Similarly, other research has found that conservatives are more likely to tolerate and justify inequality and deny or minimize problems associated with high inequality. Liberals and conservatives tend to differ on climate change as well, such that liberals are more likely to recognize the problem and support policies that address climate change.

Every specific instance of the phenomenon we are exploring has it’s own nuanced explanation, but there are general tendencies that contribute to societies lack of response to scientific prophecies. One tendency is that humans are just not good at long-term decision-making, particularly when the risks we need to avoid are in the distant future (or in a far away place). A second tendency is that we often assume someone else will take care of a known problem (the so-called “bystander effect”). Another tendency is the sunk cost fallacy, or sticking with something that doesn’t work because we have already invested so much into it. 

To some extent scientists are responsible for science getting ignored. Setting aside the racistsexist, and homophobic roots of scientific institutions (that have sown seeds of distrust in specific communities), there have been many high profile instances of “science getting it wrong”. Granted, this is most often science journalists getting the science wrong, but scientists get things wrong as well, like during the pandemic when the public was initially told not to wear masks and then the advice shifted. There is a fuzzy dividing line between actionable solid science, and science that isn’t actionable and solid. Unlike the fictional predictions of Cassandra, the predictions of science and the proclamations of scientists are not divine Truths (with a capital T). Yet, for all their fallibility, scientific predictions–particularly those with the weight of expert consensus behind them–represent the peak of human knowledge on the subject. While these predictions may shift slowly with new scientific investigation, those of us outside of these areas of expertise are best served by humbly accepting this gift of knowledge.  

It is important to state unequivocally: science is no replacement for politics or policy-making. As recently argued by Dr. Carlo Rovelli in Nature Materials, politics requires the navigation between competing values and interests and science is not suited to replace this process. That being said, in a world without divinely granted gifts of prophecy, science is the best tool we have for predicting the future, for identifying problems in society, and for developing evidence-based solutions. Thus the default position of politicians should be to often consult with scientists and give heavy consideration to scientific evidence for or against a policy. Furthermore, policy-makers should be held to account by the public and journalists when they take policy steps that are counter to the scientific consensus. Science is the best method we have to make accurate predictions of the future and members of the public and policy-makers ignore the warnings and prophecies of science at our collective peril. We live in an age of truly awe-inspiring scientific prophesizing beyond what was anticipated by the mind that dreamed up the Princess of Troy; let us act like it.

Original posted to the Pipette Pen where it was peer edited by Aditi Kokothari

The Links Between Past Racism and Current Inequality

Racial disparities are not new; they are a continuation of the legacy of 246 years of slavery followed by 100 years of virtually no citizenship rights for Black people in North America

Racial inequality is a well-documented phenomenon in the United States. Based on polling data taken in 2019, most Americans agree that Blacks are at a disadvantage compared to whites. Those polls also show that whites and conservatives (as groups) are least likely to agree that Blacks are at a disadvantage. In a previous article, I outlined two competing narratives used to explain racial inequality between whites and Blacks. One narrative favored by the majority of liberals and Black people in the US is that historical and current discrimination is the primary cause of Black/white racial inequality. The other narrative favored primarily by conservatives and by a significant portion of the white population is that individual differences in things like cultural orientation, values, motivations, and behaviors are the primary cause of Black/white racial inequality. I outlined evidence that shows that a science-based model of the causes of inequality accepts both narratives as partly true and not mutually exclusive. In this article, I would like to cover this topic more by exploring the relevant history that precedes racial inequality. We will continue with these two competing narratives in mind. 

We have already looked at the most powerful method for investigating cause and effect: scientific experimentation. I described the experimental and empirical evidence that supports the claim that racial inequality in the US is due both to discrimination and individual differences. But there are other ways to evaluate cause and effect besides conducting experiments. One can evaluate evidence for “temporal precedence”, i.e., that the cause precedes the effect in time. For A to cause B, A must occur before B. In the case of racial inequality, there are two timelines that come from the liberal and conservative narratives. By claiming that discrimination is the cause of racial inequality, liberals are implying that discrimination precedes inequality. Alternatively, conservatives that claim individual factors like culture, values, and behavior cause racial inequality, are implying that individual factors precede racial inequality. Let’s consider the liberal perspective and then the conservative perspective. 

From a historical standpoint, current inequality is entirely consistent with previous inequality. Racial disparities are not new; they are a continuation of the legacy of 246 years of slavery followed by 100 years of virtually no citizenship rights for Black people in North America (a cumulative total of 87% of the relevant history starting in 1619). It is only in the last 54 years of US history where Black Americans have had access to rights as citizens. Yet despite these legal advances, many racial gaps have not closed in that time. It is a historical fact that the worst form of discrimination (brutal dehumanization and enslavement) preceded the inequality that Black people face today in the New World. In fact, researchers have predicted the level of implicit bias in a US geographic region today based on the per capita enslaved population in that region in 1886. Basically, the degree to which a county or state depended on slavery before the civil war predicts how much pro-white bias exists in that same region today. Not only that, but slavery was also linked to forms of contemporary structural inequality such as black poverty rates, racial segregation, and Black social mobility. This is striking empirical evidence that the legacy of slavery persists into the current era in both the structure of society and attitudes of many. Of course, since the ending of slavery there were other intervening instances of codified racism such as redlining, the practice by which Blacks were systematically discriminated against when buying a home (until it became illegal in the 70s), which still has negative effects today. In other words, we have good historical and scientific reasons to think that the timing (discrimination precedes inequality) fits the narrative that discrimination causes inequality. 

life isn’t just a foot race, it’s a relay race!

What about the conservative viewpoint that choices and cultural values precede racial inequality? Did racial inequality emerge out of the choices of Black people in the United States? Well, let’s consider the timeline. Over 90% of Black Americans are the descendants of people who were captured, enslaved and brought to the New World. When they arrived, they were intentionally stripped of their culture and separated from their families. Over the course of many generations, millions of African Americans were forced to live in a state of deadly inequality for around 200 years (depending on when they arrived). It isn’t until 1965 that Black Americans could even have the possibility of making free choices that could result in parity with whites. So as we can see, the idea that choice, values, and culture could cause inequality is not supported by the timeline: inequality preceded legitimate self-determination of African Americans to make their own choices, establish values, and build a sense of culture.

Of course, people who endorse this narrative may balk at this line of reasoning and clarify that the persistent inequality in the modern era is the result of choices, values, and culture because now people of all demographic backgrounds are free. To evaluate this perspective, let’s consider an analogy where we think of life in America as a foot race. We start this race from the moment we are born and how far we get is a measure of our health, wealth, and status. Those who run the least distance over time are least successful and those who cover the most ground are the most successful. But, this isn’t the only measure of success, another important measure of success is just how far you have gotten, which is not just about your ability to cover ground, but also a question of where you started in the race. This is because life isn’t just a foot race, it’s a relay race! Meaning, people “pass the baton” to their familial successors in the race, so that those who are related to people who succeeded in earlier eras of the foot race (say from 1619 – 1964) are more likely to succeed in the current era. In life, this is analogous to the intergenerational passage of tangible resources like money, homes, vehicles, and economic opportunities, and also intangible resources like familial support, role-modeling, motivational orientation, and values. 

the modern era cannot so simply be separated from the eras that preceded it.

Intergenerational passage of tangible and intangible resources is a well studied topic in the social sciences. Contrary to popular belief, social mobility (i.e. one’s ability to move to a higher level of economic success than one’s parents) is generally quite low in the United States compared to other similar countries. This means that intergenerational economic advantage is particularly decisive in the US. Consider the racial wealth gap: Black families on average have around 10% the median net worth of white families. In terms of actual dollars this means that as of 2016, the median net wealth of whites was $171,000 compared to about $17,600 for black households (and this has likely gotten worse due to COVID-19). This Black-white wealth gap is largely a result of intergenerational wealth transfer. This is also true of homeownership

But, intergenerational transfer goes beyond tangible assets like wealth and homes. Something as intangible as propensity to be incarcerated is intergenerational. A 2017 meta-analysis that synthesized results from 3 million children found that risk of criminal behavior is 2.4 to 1.8 times higher for kids with criminal parents (a trend that has actually gotten worse since 1981). This is partly because parents (even those who have not been incarcerated) often have little choice but to pass their low income, high crime, and overpoliced community to their children. In highly policed areas, children’s contact with law enforcement is linked to psychological distress that predicts criminal behavior (even after controlling for prior delinquent behavior). Black kids that do not have life altering experiences with crime or police find similar intergenerational effects apply to educational advantage. If they do get to college, Black Americans are far more likely to be first-generation college students who do not have the benefit of parents who successfully navigated college. The intergenerational passing of educational advantage is a well-documented mechanism in the white/black achievement gap. People also inherit a positive attitude towards working hard from their parents according to another meta-analysis of nearly 10,000 people. Even the propensity to participate in political struggles that can address some of the systemic issues at play here is itself intergenerational. In the year before Trump won the election with 3 million less votes than Clinton, a study found that political participation intention is partly intergenerational. 

In so many ways, the groups that succeeded in previous generations “passed the baton” of cumulative advantage to those who have come after them.

Other lines of evidence demonstrate how disparities influence choice and behavior. For example, lead poisoning is 2 to 6 times higher in Black communities (due in large part to discriminatory housing policies) in comparison to white communities. Poisoning of this sort is a causal factor in higher criminal behavior, intellectual decline, and downward social mobility. But unwelcoming environments aren’t just due to toxins. Experiences with discrimination can also leave very long lasting negative societal effects. In one Africa based study the slave trade was linked to societal levels of trust today by having a detrimental effect on the “norms, beliefs, and values” of modern Africans. In summary, discrimination and mistreatment of Black Americans preceded racial disparities, whether we are talking about tangible inequality, like money and homes, or inequality of an intangible nature, like behavioral patterns, cultural orientation, or motivation. These studies demonstrate that the modern era cannot so simply be separated from the eras that preceded it. In so many ways, the groups that succeeded in previous generations “passed the baton” of cumulative advantage to those who have come after them.

So yes, conservatives are correct in some sense, individual differences matter, but individual differences are largely passed intergenerationally and thus are in large part the result of past discrimination and racial inequality. Like everything else, behaviors and choices don’t emerge out of nowhere, they emerge from a specific historical and social context. As we have seen the relevant historical context is quite unequal. This is a rehashing of the point I made in my last article that bears repeating: The conservative position does not really grapple with the full problem. Sure, there are differences in choices and values within certain communities, but why? 

Here, I should note that for some, this question leads to a fundamental notion in the history of psychology: nature vs nurture. In previous eras racial disparities were thought to be either due to the environmental differences in the lives of Blacks and whites, or they were due to genetic differences (an idea with an ugly past and present). Scientists now know that this is a false dichotomy, it’s not nature or nurture, it’s both in a complex and often hard to predict interaction. Separating them can be impossible, particularly when certain environmental conditions, like experiences of discrimination are inseparably linked to one’s genetically determined race. For these reasons, the history of focusing on genetics as a cause of racial inequality is both racist and seen as pseudoscientific. But even from a strictly pragmatic perspective, we can only influence environmental factors since we don’t have the tools to ethically influence genetics. Besides, given that around a quarter of the population today were alive when overt discrimination and racism was legal and normalized, and we have compelling evidence that previous inequality intergenerationally became current inequality (as previously discussed), we have every reason to focus on addressing environmental causes for racial inequality. 

Whether we rely on empirical experimental evidence or evaluate temporal precedence, it’s clear that the origin of racial inequality is historical and current discrimination. In view of all the facts, there is not a solid basis to argue that somehow the black community is ultimately to blame for their lower position on the social and economic hierarchy. Racial discrimination was codified into law for 87% of the relevant history for US citizens. In the remaining 13% of history, progress towards racial inequality has been slow. The intergenerational transmission of both tangible and intangible resources has ensured that those who benefited from subjugation and discrimination continue to win the relay race of life in the US. Likewise, the descendants of those who suffered through this history remain behind with little recourse but to continue to struggle for equality hopefully with the allyship of people from other racial groups who understand the need for racial equality. 

Why is there racial inequality in the US?

Conservatives and liberals offer differing views on the causes of racial inequality.
What does the experimental evidence say?

The Black Lives Matter protests and associated high profile cases of police violence against unarmed Black men has catalyzed a conversation about race in the US. However, the problem of racial inequality extends far beyond policing. Racial inequality has a deep history in the US and despite the struggles in the Civil Rights Era that resulted in (mostlylegal equality, there is still vast inequality between Black and white citizens in practice.

It is hard to overstate just how clear the evidence is for the claim that racial inequality is an ongoing problem in the United States. While there is probably a handful of people who would deny this reality, most people across the political spectrum agree that there is racial inequality. Where people disagree is on the question of why there is racial inequality. There are essentially two competing narratives: 1) “Racial inequality is caused by historical and ongoing discrimination,” or 2) “Racial inequality is due to differences in choices, culture, and/or values.” The former narrative emphasizes that the Black community has been (and continues to be) held back by racism on an individual and systemic basis. The latter narrative emphasizes the legal equality that Blacks and whites share and thus attributes disparities to differences across individuals in each group. 

Which of these narratives one endorses is highly correlated with their demographic group.  Conservatives (compared to liberals), are more likely to adopt the latter narrative. In other words, they are much less likely to agree that discrimination is the main reason Black people can’t get ahead. Similarly, whites (compared to Black Americans), are much less likely to cite discrimination, lower quality schools, and lack of jobs as the causes of inequality. The polls cited above also show there are similar racial and ideological splits on perceptions of the Black Lives Matter movement. Beyond this polling data, you can find plenty of examples of these narratives emerging out of their respective demographic camps. 

In the conservative magazine National Reviewattorney Peter Kirsanow argues that “individual behavior, family structure, perverse governmental policies, and culture” are largely ignored when discussing racial inequality. He also claims that “systemic, structural, or institutional racism” are over-emphasized by liberals in a politically convenient ploy. Popular conservative commentator Ben Shapiro echoed this perspective here saying racial inequality, “has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with culture.” 

The alternative narrative, that racial inequality is caused by historical and ongoing discrimination, is actually quite widespread in the news media even within outlets that are somewhat “down the middle”. For example, this USA Today article connects disparities in police violence and coronavirus deaths to systemic racism. The author argues that aspects of racial inequality are “intimately connected” and points to a legacy of discrimination as the cause of current housing disparities between white people and Black people. For a more liberal example, this Mashable article succinctly claims that systemic racism “is everywhere” and also links it to racial disparities related COVID-19 and high profile policing deaths. 

Experimental research

The statistics about racial inequality are basically correlations. Being Black is correlated with a variety of disadvantages; being white is correlated with a variety of advantages. So how can we understand what causes these advantages and disadvantages? Well, how do scientists typically establish causation? The best tool scientists have to determine cause and effect is the Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT). In an RCT, researchers randomly assign participants to a treatment condition, where they undergo some sort of intervention, or to a control condition. Since the assignment to condition is random, we can assume that any differences between the treatment and control conditions are the result of the intervention, since without it the groups would be the same. This methodology is the gold standard for investigating the cause of something. However, in many cases, there are practical and ethical reasons for why we cannot do the experiment we would need to do in order to fully establish causality.

As an example, take the assertion that racism is responsible for an academic achievement gap between Black people and white people. This claim could be experimentally tested by exposing white and Black children to racism against their groups, and then testing their  academic achievements. We would want to control for other factors, so the children would need to be moved to three isolated communities that are treated identically except for how they are treated in terms of their race. In one community, the white children would be taught about the long history of their subjugation and then be subject to systemic and individual discrimination. In another community the Black kids would get this treatment. In the control, there would be no racial inequality or discrimination. We would test them every year for ten years to see what the effect of racism is on the achievement gap. Clearly, the above example would be an ethical nightmare. There is no way to (ethically) randomly assign the things that are said to cause racial disparities we see in society. We cannot randomly assign people to be white or black, or to be subjected to racism and discrimination, or to have specific values and culture. However, scientists have found ways to conduct ethical experiments to test the effects of discrimination. 

For example, consider disparities such that compared to white people, Black people were less likely to be employedmore likely to be in poverty, have about 10% of the net worth of whites, and have half the median income of white people. Is there any experimental evidence that this situation is the result of discrimination? The quick answer is yes. Hiring discrimination occurs when equally qualified Black people are less likely to receive a job offer than their white counterparts. Researchers study this phenomenon through what are called “hiring audit studies”. In these hiring audit studies, researchers respond to job advertisements with 2 job applications that are identical in every way except the race of the applicant (usually using a Black-coded name like “Jamal” vs a white-coded name like “Steve”). In 2017, a meta-analysis representing data from 28 previous hiring audit studies found evidence of racial bias in hiring such that whites receive 36% more callbacks than identically qualified Black people. They also did not find evidence that this level of discrimination had changed over the last 25 years. Worse, these researchers also found that discrimination doesn’t stop at callbacks, even after getting callbacks, black applicants face further discrimination. These experiments demonstrate that discrimination has been happening for the last few decades and is currently ongoing, and it is keeping qualified Black people out of work.  

Over this same period of time, dozens of similar audit studies have been completed to detect housing discrimination, where Black prospective home-buyers or renters are denied housing while identically qualified white buyers or renters are welcomed to the neighborhood. In these studies, there are white and Black auditors who submit housing applications with identical information, except the person submitting the application is either Black or white. Often, the auditors are even trained to give the same responses during interactions with realtors. Again, scientists here try to control for every other conceivable factor besides race. In a meta-analysis representing 72 housing audit studies in the US, Canada, and Europe, researchers evaluated the level of housing discrimination since the 70s. During the 70s through the 90s, Black people were about 50% less likely to receive a positive response from a housing application compared to whites. Other studies showed that discrimination decreased after the 90s so that Blacks are only 25% less likely to receive a positive response on a housing application. The most recent estimate shows that Black people today are still about 15% less likely to get those positive responses compared to whites. While it has decreased, this current level of discrimination still represents a significant difference in how equally qualified Black people and white people are treated. Worse still, this decrease has coincided with other forms of housing discrimination such as on Airbnb where applications from accounts with Black names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical white accounts. Homeownership is an effective way of building wealth, particularly for low-income and minority households, so housing discrimination has likely had important downstream effects that have contributed to economic inequality across the generations.

Economic discrimination between equally qualified Black and white people is found in a variety of domains, such as car purchasinggetting home insurancegetting a mortgage, and even hailing a taxi! The discrimination Black Americans face is sickening–literally. A 2015 meta-analysis documented that experiences with discrimination and racism in day-to-day life predicts poorer health for Black people. Data taken from 293 studies showed that reported racism predicted both poorer mental and physical health. Even within the doctor’s office, patients cannot escape the effects of racial discrimination. An audit-style study was done with physicians making recommendations about Black and white patients portrayed by actors with identical histories. Black patients were less likely to be referred for potentially life-saving treatment compared to whites with the same clinical presentation. Similar audit work has found racial discrimination towards middle class Black patients in the mental health context. Doctors have been found to harbor a racial bias that Black people are less sensitive to pain (which is likely the opposite of what is true) and thus under-prescribe pain medication to Black patients. But the effects of bias extend beyond just pain treatment. A 2015 systematic review found that racial bias of medical professionals predicts racial disparities in treatment decisions, treatment adherence, patient-provider interactions, and ultimately patient health.

discrimination has been happening for the last few decades and is currently ongoing, and it is keeping qualified Black people out of work.  

The evidence is clear*: discrimination does indeed cause racial disparities. It’s important to recognize that these studies demonstrate discrimination between otherwise identical people. In the audit studies I reviewed above Black people weren’t discriminated against for being poor, or uneducated, or having a criminal background. All of that is controlled for in these studies. These studies demonstrate in no uncertain terms that Black Americans in the modern era are being discriminated against simply because of their race. As discussed above, racial discrimination accounts for some significant portion of disparities in employment, income, wealth, housing, transportation, and medical treatment. Black people are even discriminated against in the primary domain they have to meaningfully influence the policies that could change this situation: voting

But, what about the conservative position that individual factors cause racial disparities? We run into a bit of a problem at this point; while researchers have cleverly devised a way to experimentally measure the effects of discrimination through audit studies, there is no way of auditing the effects of culture, choices, motivation and/or values. To credit the conservative position, psychologists study individual differences in choices, cultural orientation, values, or behavior, and we know that these things play a role in success. But again, this is correlational. How do we know if these individual factors play a causal role in racial inequality? 

Well, in some sense this topic is at the center of a lot of academic research. Researchers in psychology often cannot experimentally change the systematic factors related to racial disparities (like policy-makers could), so they come up with interventions to influence characteristics of individuals to help alleviate gaps. For example, Black students who enter college often do not feel a sense of belonging and this lack of perceived belonging is linked to worse academic outcomes for Black students compared with white students. Researchers designed an intervention where participants read stories from other students that encouraged participants to think about belonging as something that develops over time and strengthens as you make connections with students and faculty. This simple one-time intervention was replicated across a wide variety of schools and resulted in a 31-40% decrease in the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. 

At the heart of this approach is seeing individual differences as a component of a recursive cycle, where disadvantage facilitates the development of tendencies (such as a lack of belonging and the resulting vulnerability to failure or academic disengagement) that maintain or exacerbate disadvantage (which reinforce negative tendencies, etc). This cycle means that something like feeling you don’t belong is both a result and cause of racial inequality. This theory has led to wonderful scientific findings! For example, there was a 2009 intervention where students participated in a series of writing tasks to reflect on their values. In the task, students wrote about the personal importance of a self-defining value. This simple task in early seventh grade resulted in Black students having a stronger belief in themselves to fit in and succeed in school. These changes in the psychological orientation of students accounted for a significant decrease in the white/Black achievement gap by 8th grade graduation. There are plenty more examples of these types of interventions throughout psychology. 

Thus, the conservative viewpoint is partly correct: choices, values, and behavior can lead to differences in terms of who gets into college, who succeeds academically, and who becomes successful. I suspect most liberals and academics would agree with this view but do not agree that this view should be used to dismiss discrimination and systemic problems. Racial differences in choices, values, and behavior may help maintain and exacerbate racial inequality but we need to ask, “where do racial differences in choices, values, and behavior come from?” The academic answer is that they emerge from contexts that are deeply related to discrimination in the past and in the present. Furthermore, by understanding the origins of racial differences in behavior we can more effectively develop interventions that mitigate these differences. But it’s important to note that interventions like the belonging intervention are attempts to address the symptoms of racial inequality; they do not deal with inequality at its source by ameliorating historical injustice or correcting current discrimination (as found in the hiring and housing studies discussed above).

In summary

Taking in all of the research discussed above, the role of discrimination in racial inequality has such a strong foundation in historical and empirical facts that denying the role of discrimination is to depart from a scientifically informed view. On the other hand, the notion that racial inequality is at least in part due to values, behavior, and choices is true to some extent as well. Indeed, this is at the heart of much of the research about how to close achievement gaps between Black and white students. However, the perspective found in academic journals is communicated in quite different terms compared to some conservative arguments. Scientists and historians know that racial disparities in values, behaviors, choices, and even culture have emerged in a continually discriminatory environment with intergenerational disadvantages that maintained racial inequality (the subject of another article of mine). My investigation suggests that a science-based model of the causes of inequality accepts both narratives as partly true and not mutually exclusive

If someone uses the argument that individual differences in values, culture, or behavior accounts for racial disparities as a way to deny discrimination as a cause, they are no longer aligned with the scientific evidence; we know discrimination is real, is currently happening, and is part of the story of inequality. If they cite individual differences as a way of blaming disadvantaged groups for their own disadvantage, they are also not aligned with the scientific evidence; we know that many of these individual differences emerge from a historical and current context of inequality that Black communities have had minimal control over. On the other hand, if someone is denying any role for individual differences, they have also departed from the relevant science. 

In this era of extreme partisanship and misinformation, it is more important than ever to ensure that our ideological perspectives are tempered and informed by the scientific evidence. The causal story behind racial inequality is extremely complex; I have barely scratched the surface in this article. We should leave no tool out of our tool box in order to solve the problem of racial inequality. We need people to investigate and study discrimination, the individual differences that account for inequality, the contexts that give rise to the individual differences, and the systematic forces at work. We also need science-based interventions and advocacy to address both the causes and symptoms of racial inequality. The resulting research should guide our thinking about these topics and help us find solutions. That means admitting the interplay between contexts and choices, between decisions and discrimination, and between history and the here-and-now. 

*Update 1/5/2021: For the sake of time, I left off the interesting academic debate about audit studies. These critiques have not borne out as particularly effective (also see here).

Originally posted on the Pipette Pen
Peer edited by Melody Kessler and Rachel Ernstoff
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