Stop using population estimates as evidence of racism

I’ve long been critical of population estimates as ‘evidence’ of racism, but now there is no reason left to do so. The basic ‘evidence’ is as follows: There are say 5% immigrants in country X, you ask the general population, and their mean estimate is maybe that there are 15% immigrants in the country. Shocking, they overestimate the immigrant population, which is ‘evidence’ that the general population is generally racist (I enjoyed this phrase). I’ve been critical of this because of three reasons. First, we don’t generally tell survey participants what we mean by ‘immigrants’, but use a specific definition (foreign citizens, foreign born) for the supposedly correct answer. Second, why should members of the general population have a good grasp of the size of the immigrant population? We might be able to estimate the share of immigrants in our personal network, but that’s not the same as estimating population shared. Third, if we see this as evidence of racism, we assume that the threat perspective is dominant.

It turns out, however, that there is a general human tendency to overestimate the population share of small groups: immigrants, homosexuals, you name it. David Landy and colleagues demonstrate that this tendency to overestimate small groups comes hand in hand with a tendency to underestimate large groups — a pull towards the average. There’s nothing particular about immigrants there, and nothing about racism either.

Landy, D., B. Guay, and T. Marghetis. 2017. ‘Bias and Ignorance in Demographic Perception’. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, August, 1–13.

Photo: CC-by-nc-nd by IceBone

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