In “Lying as a Research Tool” (Liberty, April 2013) I cited a study of employers’ possible discrimination by race as suggested by fictitious applicants’ names on fictitious résumés. Because such studies are remote from my own main interests, I was not then fully aware of how numerous and respected they have become.
One new example, not yet published in an academic journal, has received prominent and enthusiastic attention in the Wall Street Journal’s weekend issue of 17–18 May 2014 and in Auburn University’s online media. The researchers responded to job announcements by emailing thousands of phony résumés of recent college graduates. The fictitious applicants differed in college majors, recent employment or unemployment, internships, prestigiousness of home address, and typically white or typically African-American name. One conclusion was that experience as an intern before graduation improved one’s chances of being invited to a job interview.
The Southern Economic Journal of July 2014 publishes a similarly conducted study of landlords’ possible discrimination according to whether a prospective tenant’s name and writing style suggested (to use the authors’ categories) a white person, a well-assimilated Hispanic, or a recent immigrant from Latin America.
The authors of such studies cite dozens of similar ones, commenting on the particular questions investigated and on the effectiveness of the particular deceptions employed — but little if at all on their dishonesty. I discussed one of the studies mentioned above by email and then in person with one of its coauthors. What happens when an employer offers a job interview? Answer: the fictitious applicant replies that he or she has meanwhile accepted some other job. Apparently unabashed by the lying that pervades the study, the coauthor excused it with the remark that the end justifies the means, using those very words.
Sissela Bok’s Lying (1978) included a chapter on “Deceptive Social Science Research.” Bok expressed dismay at her examples (though not, of course, at the not-yet-familiar deceptions described here). One reason such deceptions are objectionable is that they create noise in the job and rental markets, possibly disadvantaging genuine applicants. They suggest unconcern about the additional burdens, slight in the individual case but significant in the aggregate, imposed on business, especially small business. The authors presumptuously call such studies, done by correspondence or occasionally with hired actors, “audits” (an “audit” being an official or formal investigation of someone’s accounts or activities to uncover possible error or worse).
Apparently unabashed by the lying that pervades the study, the coauthor excused it with the remark that the end justifies the means.
But why do they consider business firms fair game for such targeting, almost as if they just existed automatically? Actually, no one is obliged to be in business at all and hire employees or offer rental housing, let alone to endure just anyone’s intrusive impositions.
One ground for hope is that such experiments will destroy their own effectiveness if they become familiar enough to arouse the suspicion and noncooperation of the unwitting guinea pigs. By then, sadly, the general presumption of honesty and trustworthiness essential to a free society and market economy will have become further eroded. Many TV ads and the assertions and promises of politicians are already doing damage enough.
At least in their own profession, academic researchers should uphold standards of honesty.