Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Who attracts you

OKCupid occasionally publishes interesting data on who does what on their dating website.  It is often very revealing and usually not very complimentary - those that bet on our better natures rarely win.  Sometimes they are funny such as when the writers note that everyone around OKCupid thought that men posting pictures of themselves shirtless with their heads cut off was a terrible idea.  Turns out no - muscle shots were actually a very successful tactic.

Recently they published some data on race and attraction detailing who got how many replies based on race and sex.  In this case race was self described and nobody at OKCupid tried to evaluate it themselves, which is certainly a good thing.  Their data is disappointing but not at all surprising.  People exhibit strong racial biases when responding or contacting others, penalizing black people in general and asian men in particular.

One interesting thing is that the way people answer questions has changed substantially over the past few years in a good way - people answer questions to indicate that they don't think taking race into account in dating is acceptable.  Unfortunately when the data comes in on who people talk to it turns out that they still take race into account just as much as they did ten years ago.  It is good that people are trending towards the notion that you *shouldn't* dismiss people based on race but unfortunately actions aren't matching up with words yet.

The comments after the piece were what really got me though.  A lot of people were outright furious that this data was even published and railed at OKCupid for talking about race at all.  There were a lot of accusations of racism on their part and suggestions that even talking about race and dating preferences explicitly like this was unacceptable.  (Of course there were also plenty of white supremacist posts and other awful garbage so wade through it at your peril.)  I think that the accusations of racism and the suggestion that this sort of data shouldn't be published are really problematic but not in as obvious a way as the other dreck.

It is hard to look at stats that indicate widespread racism like this.  Instinctually we look at our group of friends and associates and find plenty of exceptions to these rules whether it be people we are sure aren't racist or people who don't fit easily into a single racial group chosen from a drop down box.  We wish the world weren't like this and hope that banishing the data will banish the problem, or simply insist that the people who publish the data must be responsible for it.  Unfortunately refusing to look at a problem doesn't make it go away.

If we want to actually tackle issues of racism or any other sort of bigotry we have to take the best data we have and look at it, unpleasant as that experience may be.  The uncomfortable feeling we get acknowledging these issues publicly is far less serious than the feelings of those who are on the wrong end of them.  It isn't racist to point out that race exists and that people who look particular ways are treated differently.  I am white and that gives me a lot of advantages I did not earn and do not deserve.  I can't ignore that.  We notice race and it powerfully affects us and no amount of pretending to be colourblind will make that go away.

We have to look at data like this head on.  That doesn't mean that we have to take it without any criticism because of course methodological errors exist but the harsh light of day is the treatment such things deserve.  Only by knowing and understanding the issues can we know how best to approach solving them.

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