‘Unconscious Bias’: voodoo for the industrial age

Reading through the Weekend Fin I couldn’t help but notice this story about a bloke called Angus Aitken who has got himself on the wrong side of the Thought Police:

Bell Potter’s dumped institutional equities head Angus Aitken has launched legal action against ANZ Banking Group and its public relations chief Paul Edwards, two days after the bank’s charge of sexism against the star stockbroker led to his resignation.

Mr Aitken has engaged top defamation lawyer Mark O’Brien.

In a letter of demand sent to Mr Edwards on Thursday evening, Mr Aitken is seeking a public apology, substantial monetary compensation for damage to his reputation and the deletion of a Tweet in which Mr Edwards posted a client note written by Mr Aitken, with the comment: “Sexism alive and well in stockbroking?”

Mr Edwards told AFR Weekend that ANZ rejects the demands of the letter. Herbert Smith Freehills is acting for the bank. Bell Potter is not a party to the suit.

Mr Aitken’s note to clients was damning in its criticism of ANZ and its announcement on Tuesday that Greenhill Australia managing director Michelle Jablko would be its next chief financial officer. He described it as “one of the dumber appointments I have seen [because] investment bankers tend to be crap at most things in the listed world”.

Ms Jablko’s gender was not mentioned or alluded to in the note.

Mr Edwards’ Twitter profile identifies him as the bank’s Group General Manager of Corporate Communications. His tweet was “liked” by ANZ’s chief executive Shayne Elliott, which Mr Aitken will argue represents the company’s endorsement of the suggestion that he is sexist.

Yes, that’s right, you can’t criticise a woman on any grounds these days because to do so is prima facie evidence of sexism, and that’s crimethink – according to the goodthinkingDuck-Speakers, anyway.

Chris Joye gives the accusation short shrift:

Stockbroker Angus Aitken’s comments on ANZ’s appointment of investment banker, Michelle Jablko, as chief financial officer were not remotely sexist. The suggestion is arguably scandalous.

On any objective reading, there is not one explicitly or implicitly sexist statement in Aitken’s now nationally publicised excoriation of ANZ’s decision on the basis of his entirely credible view that investment bankers tend to make bad business people.

There is certainly a long empirical track-record that shows corporate advisors struggle when they transition to buy-side decision-makers. The same observation is true of lawyers.

The acutely ironic aspect of ANZ’s argument – as broadcast by their otherwise outstanding head of corporate affairs Paul Edwards – is that it represents a form of reverse discrimination against Aitken. This appears to be an attempt to censure Aitken’s critique by using Jablko’s gender against him.

And it has been totally counterproductive: nobody was seriously thinking ANZ’s hard-headed chief executive Shayne Elliott would predicate his choice of CFO on the basis of their gender.

Yet now Jablko admirable ascension to one of the most senior executive positions in corporate Australia will forever be tarnished by the sordid insinuation it was not exclusively attributable to merit.

I had privately argued to Elliott and Edwards that ANZ was carrying far too much fat and needed a tough-minded outsider with experience working in a boutique business that could bring fresh eyes to the challenge of squeezing its inflated expenses.

The notoriously steely Jablko, who started life as a lawyer at Allens and most recently worked at the small corporate finance house Greenhills, was an ideal candidate.

Jablko’s job is not to run a business or make inspired investments: her role is help Elliott ruthlessly identify and eliminate unnecessary costs and liberate inefficiently allocated capital through divestitures of minority shareholdings and non-core operations across what is an unbelievably complex conglomerate enterprise.

She’s effectively been doing that job for most of her professional life.

Yet Aitken is still entitled to question the integrity of Elliott’s decision irrespective of how frustrating his characteristically hyperbolic opinions may be to one of the biggest banks in the world.

OK, so apart from the modern (and thankfully muted) expression of the totalitarian behaviours expressed in 1984, not much of interest to those interested in thinking and decision-making.

Until we get to Joanne Gray’s column on the argument:

ANZ’s ‎Group General Manager Corporate Communications Paul Edwards says former Bell Potter stockbroker Aitken’s strongly worded repudiation of Michelle Jablko’s credentials for the role of chief financial officer at ANZ was a classic example of “unconscious bias”.

What’s unconscious bias, you ask? When facts are in short supply, we process information to fit our biases, many of which we aren’t aware of. He says the email wouldn’t have been written about a man with equivalent qualifications.

“We’re all carrying these biases and we have to become conscious of them. We are not going to see more women in senior roles until we address them.”

I haven’t done unconscious bias training but when I read the Aitken note I thought it was factually wrong and unnecessarily aggressive. I didn’t think he was being consciously sexist. It’s a fair bet that Aitken isn’t familiar with the concept of unconscious bias, and as a man of apparently little subtlety, I would guess he thinks it is a crock.

All the major banks are requiring their executives and managers to do unconscious bias training, but the still very blokey world of stockbroking is hardly a pioneer in gender equity.

‘Unconscious bias’. I remember coming up against it in the last office job that I worked in. All of the executives were given training in it. And, when compiling a guide to the use of behavioural economics for the staff of the organisation, I was encouraged by one woman to incorporate the idea of unconscious bias into the report.

I was sceptical of it then, and remain so. Where is the diagnostic evidence for the existence of unconscious bias? It seems similar to ‘groupthink’ to me: an easy accusation to throw around, but how would you test for it?

I suspect ‘unconscious bias’ of being much more sinister than ‘groupthink’. What an accusation of ‘unconscious bias’says to people is: ‘You are biased, not only in what you say and do, but in ways that you simply cannot control and cannot be aware of.  But I have a solution for you: if you think and act in a way that I tell you, to get these particular outcomes of which I approve, then you get a pat on the head’.

Here, check out this definition from Diversity Partners (the name is a dead giveaway):

Unconscious or hidden beliefs – attitudes and biases beyond our regular perceptions of ourselves and others – underlie a great deal of our patterns of behaviour about diversity.

Having looked at all this, my conjecture is that, all of the previous programmes discriminating against white males and in favour of women and non-Europeans – affirmative action, equal opportunity, etc – having failed to produce the ‘correct’ outcomes, the Frankfurt School mob have decided that the core of the problem lies in ‘unconscious bias’ – that there is something happening, beyond anyone’s sight or consciousness, which is frustrating the move towards the ‘correct’ actions, and thus must be dealt with by promoting goodthink.

Still not convinced? Have a look at this presentation and decide for yourself:

Reality =

79.5 % male

93.7% white (among UK nationals – 86.0% white among non-UK nationals)

97.6% non-disabled

95.8% over 40

As if there were no other explanation for these outcomes than ‘unconscious bias’.

This ‘you can’t see it working’ aspect makes ‘unconscious bias’ indistinguishable from voodoo, or black magic, and its proponents indistinguishable from witch-doctors. On which point, this provocative essay by the late Henry Harpending:

That evening we had something like a seminar with our employees and neighbors about witchcraft. Everyone except the Americans agreed that witchcraft was a terrible problem, that there was danger all around, and that it was vitally important to maintain amicable relations with others and to reject feelings of anger or jealousy in oneself. The way it works is like this: perhaps Greg falls and hurts himself, he knows it must be witchcraft, he discovers that I am seething with jealousy of his facility with words, so it was my witchcraft that made him fall. What is surprising is that I was completely unaware of having witched him so he bears me no ill will. I feel bad about his misfortune and do my best to get rid of my bad feelings because with them I am a danger to friends and family. Among Herero there is no such thing as an accident, there is no such thing as a natural death, witchcraft in some form is behind all of it. Did you have a gastrointestinal upset this morning? Clearly someone slipped some pink potion in the milk. Except for a few atheists there was no disagreement about this. Emotions get projected over vast distances so beware.

Even more interesting to us was the universal understanding that white people were not vulnerable to witchcraft and could neither feel it nor understand it. White people literally lack a crucial sense, or part of the brain. An upside, I was told, was that we did not face the dangers that locals faced. On the other hand our bad feelings could be projected so as good citizens we had to monitor carefully our own “hearts”.

As I recall my description above is similar to what has been reported from many regions of Africa. I am not so sure of that since it has been forty years since I read any of the anthropological literature on the matter. A colleague pointed out a few weeks ago, after hearing this story, that if it is nearly pan-African then perhaps some of it came to the New World. Prominent and not so prominent talkers from the American Black population come out with similar theories of vague and invisible forces that are oppressing people, like “institutional racism” and “white privilege”. Then I recalled that the most prominent atheist among the Herero I knew was the son of a German engineer and a Herero woman.

You could, in that story, substitute ‘unconscious bias’ for ‘witchcraft’, and stories about disappointments in office politics for physical misfortunes befalling oneself, and it would read just as well as, and for some people, such as ‘Diversity Partners’ crowd, more persuasively than, the original.

What is also interesting is that, just as the witch-doctors used accusations of black-magic and stories of their special magical powers to control the people in their tribes, so the Frankfurt School mob use accusations of ‘unconscious bias’ and stories of their special power to create more diverse and more equal social outcomes, to create power and influence for themselves within our modern societies.

UPDATE: a relevant insight from candid_observer (June 6, 2016 at 11:49 pm GMT), which I noticed while reading through the comments on a Steve Sailer post:

In general, the science of things really constrains political belief a lot more than people realize. This is indeed perhaps the dominant reason for so much bad social science: it simply must be true that stereotype threat exists, and that “structural racism” must have a major effect on outcomes, because otherwise the standard identity politics of the left, and its moral system, collapses.

 In the context of the topic of this post: ‘unconscious bias’ must exist, because if it didn’t, there would be no explanation of differential outcomes between men and women other than differences between the sexes in preferences and abilities. And because that is counter to the narrative, it simply cannot be. Unconscious bias is a fabulation which allows the Equalists to sleep easy at night.
And another one:
In this destructive enterprise the left’s chief weapon is race, which it uses to attack departures from its orthodoxies as racial bigotry. But even as progressives prosecute this race war, racial bigotry by whites has ceased to be a factor in public life. Progressives deal with this intractable reality by inventing a fictional construct called “institutional racism” to which they attribute all the disparities affecting blacks. “Institutional racism” is a necessary fiction – institutionalized racism has been outlawed for sixty years – because actual racists have become so hard to find.
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About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
This entry was posted in Groupthink, Mind-sets and Logic-Bubbles, Narrative and Taboo, Problems with perception intuition and judgement, The Mind & Society. Bookmark the permalink.

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