SATURDAY, AUGUST 14, 2021
Just look at this morning's Post: We're so old that we can remember when man [sic] was widely said to be "the rational animal."
Major anthropologists with whom we consult have persistently laughed at that notion. Actually, we humans are the tribal animal, these disconsolate scholars insist.
We divide ourselves into warring groups. We then invent, and we promulgate, mandated Storylines and Beliefs. Or so these award-winning experts all tell us!
To what extent do current events suggest that these experts are right? Consider two snapshots of our warring red and blue tribes.
First, take a look at the current behavior of many of the reds. A snapshot of their tribal behavior and beliefs is offered in a humane but despondent guest essay in today's New York Times.
The writer is Anton DiSclafani, a novelist and associate professor of creative writing at Auburn University. DiSclafani says she loves living in her native South, but she also offers this about her region's many refuseniks:
DISCLAFANI (8/14/21): Southerners are famous for their graciousness. All of that seems lost right now; one only has to witness a City Council meeting, as I did last week, and listen to people ranting furiously about their freedoms and all that they have lost, and stand to lose, by masking to understand that we live in a deeply troubled place. A place where a local pediatrician is mocked online for enrolling her children in vaccine trials, where science and medical advice are sources of deep, unending suspicion.
If only the people who are so opposed to masks and vaccines could put that energy to something that is a real threat, like climate change. But they won’t. I sometimes imagine that their houses could be washed away in a flood or burned down by a wildfire, as is happening in some places right now, and they’d still refuse to believe that humans have any effect whatsoever on the weather. You could put them on top of a melting iceberg. You could—well, I could go on. But there’s no point, because the idea of truth has suddenly become slippery. There is no truth, it seems. Only what you choose to believe, and how.
Among the people she describes, "there is no truth" at the present time. There is "only what you choose to believe."
According to experts, DiSclafani is describing our war-inclined species as it actually is—and as it has always been. Sadly enough, it's true:
Our brains are wired in similar ways over here in our own blue tribe!
Is there "only what you choose to believe" within our blue tribe too? If you're inclined to reject such assessments, consider an instructive news report in today's Washington Post.
The report was written by Perry Stein, a Post education reporter. In print editions, the report is bannered across the top of page B1—the first page of the paper's Metro (D.C. area) section.
The report is thus given substantial prominence. In print editions, its headline, and its boxed sub-headline, advance these striking claims:
Study finds racial bias in District's teacher evaluation system
Black, Hispanic instructors received lower average scores than White colleagues
We'll assume that Stein didn't compose those headlines. That said, it's easy to see what those headlines seem to be saying.
What do those headlines seem to be saying? For starters, the headlines flatly say this:
On average, black and Hispanic teachers in D.C. received lower evaluations than their white counterparts.
That fact is specifically stated. Also, the headlines seem to say this:
The headlines seem to attribute this difference in average scores to "racial bias" in the evaluation system. Also, the headlines seem to attribute this finding to a recent study.
Taken at face value, those headline may seem to make a certain suggestion. They may seem to suggest that any such difference in average scores just has to be an artifact of racial bias.
It can't be that the white teachers, for whatever reason, actually did perform somewhat better, on average, than their black and Hispanic counterparts. If the average scores don't come out the same, it has to be racial bias!
How about it? If the average scores don't come out the same, does it have to be racial bias? Rational people will understand that this assumption involves a giant irrational leap.
It could be racial bias, of course—but it could be something else! A person who's even slightly rational will understand this obvious fact.
That said, you can see the judgment which seems to be implied by the Post's headlines. For the record, those headlines reflect an assertion which appears at the start of the actual news report.
STEIN (8/14/21): The District’s teacher evaluation system is not pushing effective teachers out of the classroom in significant numbers, according to a city-commissioned study released Friday. But the study found that the evaluation system, known as IMPACT, is racially biased, with White teachers on average receiving higher scores on their evaluations than their Black and Hispanic colleagues.
Dozens of teachers and principals interviewed for the study—which was conducted by the American University School of Education—said that IMPACT could be an effective tool at getting rid of bad teachers, but many said it also created a culture of fear and fell short of achieving its second goal of supporting teacher growth.
The study was conducted by American University—and sure enough:
Right there in the opening paragraph, we're told that "the study found that the [D.C.] evaluation system...is racially biased." The evidence seems to be the fact that the average scores didn't come out exactly the same.
If the one group's average score is higher, can that only be an artifact of racial bias? No rational person would make that assumption. But also, consider this striking fact:
This news report never attributes any such statement to the study itself! No such statement from the study is ever quoted. There's no sign that the authors of the study ever said that the difference in average scores resulted from racial bias.
The Post's report does describe, or at least seems to describe, the magnitude of the difference in average scores. But it does so only in this incompetent manner:
STEIN: The study portrayed a complicated picture of how teachers are assessed and why teachers may be leaving the school system.
In the 2018-2019 academic year, Black teachers—who account for 54 percent of the teacher workforce—on average received an IMPACT score that was 17 points lower than their White colleagues. (IMPACT is based on a 400-point scale). Hispanic teachers scored 9 points lower than White teachers.
In that passage, Stein and her editor seem to report the size of the difference in average scores. But as part of a 400-point scale, do those 9- and 17-point differences in average scores represent differences which are large? Or are they rather small?
Absent further information, there's no way to make such an assessment. Those differences seem to be rather small, but those numbers tell us very little.
The report goes on to offer possible explanations for the differences in average scores. This might seem to undermine the claim that the differences were an artifact of "racial bias" as commonly imagined.
As commonly pictured, a reader might think that this alleged "racial bias" would result from a system in which white evaluators are marking down non-white teachers.
Is that what happened in this case? Very late in her report, Stein mentions this:
STEIN: [Chancellor Ferebee] said the study is the first step in making changes [in the evaluation system] and plans to meet with the union and school leaders to determine how to move forward and what else needs to be assessed.
Among the next steps: Ferebee said the school system would develop anti-bias training for the people who evaluate teachers. According to the D.C.’s data, 70 percent of people who evaluate teachers are Black and 23 percent are White.
Very late, we're offered those facts. Only 23 percent of the people who evaluated the teachers were white.
In a system where 54 percent of the teachers were black, 70 percent of the evaluators were black. Inevitably, Ferebee is going to develop anti-bias training for future evaluators, given these recent results.
Did racial bias play some significant role in these evaluations? We have no way of knowing. The answer could of course be yes. The answer could be no.
That said, right from the jump, the Washington Post seemed to be saying this:
What else could it possibly have been? It simply had to be "racial bias!" We're even willing to pretend that that's what "the study" asserted!
As with our red friends, so too with us. Here within our embattled blue tribe, we now have an array of facts which, by dint of tribal law, simply have to be true.
DiSclafani is humane but unhappy in Alabama. We can't say we blame her. These are destructively tribalized times.
Way up north, where our blue tribe roams, we increasingly function in similar ways. Sadly, the Washington Post now features such tribally mandated work pretty much every day of the week.
Our own blue tribe is long gone too! To us, this meltdown has gotten so bad that we've moved on to loftier topics on a daily basis.
Still, this is the way our brains are wired, disconsolate experts all tell us. Also, there's no good way to get out of this mess, or so these top scholars have said.