Did the University of Queensland suppress a study?

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Possibly and so I am putting the question out there in the hopes a journalist might investigate.

But first some context. In 2013, Redzo Mujcic and Paul Frijters (a frequent blogger here) published a study demonstrating unconscious discrimination on the part of bus drivers in Brisbane. Today, Ian Ayres took to the New York Times to promote the study’s findings.

As they describe in two working papers, Redzo Mujcic and Paul Frijters, economists at the University of Queensland, trained and assigned 29 young adult testers (from both genders and different ethnic groups) to board public buses in Brisbane and insert an empty fare card into the bus scanner. After the scanner made a loud sound informing the driver that the card did not have enough value, the testers said, “I do not have any money, but I need to get to” a station about 1.2 miles away. (The station varied according to where the testers boarded.)

With more than 1,500 observations, the study uncovered substantial, statistically significant race discrimination. Bus drivers were twice as willing to let white testers ride free as black testers (72 percent versus 36 percent of the time). Bus drivers showed some relative favoritism toward testers who shared their own race, but even black drivers still favored white testers over black testers (allowing free rides 83 percent versus 68 percent of the time).

The study also found that racial disparities persisted when the testers wore business attire or dressed in army uniforms. For example, testers wearing army uniforms were allowed to ride free 97 percent of the time if they were white, but only 77 percent of the time if they were black.

Wow. That’s quite a result and certainly the sort of thing we want our social scientists to be doing. No wonder Ayres raised it in the NYT. I did wonder, therefore, why I hadn’t heard much about it.

A possible answer came from Ian Ayres in a follow-up post at Forbes.

Professors Mujcic and Frijters deserve our thanks for authoring a study that is not only illuminating about what white privilege means.  But their employer, the University of Queensland, has not thrown them a parade.  After the City of Brisbane complained that the study encouraged fare evasion, the University initiated a complaint process against Professor Frijters and has ordered the authors to suppress this important paper.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.  Instead of being persecuted, the authors should be praised for offering us a model for civil rights testing in the new millennium.

Now that is some allegation. If it is true it is shocking to an incredible degree. Not just that the City of Brisbane complained to the University but that the University, my alma mater, actually went so far as to suppress a paper.

I did a quick — but hardly investigative search — to see what this might all be about but didn’t come up with anything. But I think a response at the very least from UQ is required.

22 Responses to "Did the University of Queensland suppress a study?"
  1. I agree that this is worth investigating and requires an explanation. And also that the study’s findings are themselves interesting and merit publicity.

    But there is a complication: the study seems to require agents of the researchers to commit a crime (riding without a valid ticket) and also is designed to prompt the study’s subjects (the bus drivers) into complicity in that crime and perhaps the crime of defrauding the public revenue. It would be good to know more about the ethics approval process of the study and whether the concerns raised by Brisbane City Council and the University were directed to that ethics issue.

    • I disagree with the ‘crime’ part. If you read the experimental design in the paper-the authors clearly state that the testers asked for a favour of getting a free ride from bus drivers. The testers did not force themselves onto the bus independent of the bus driver’s decision (i.e. fare evade).

      It’s like the beggar on the street asking a stranger for some coins (spare change) and the stranger deciding to give the person some money. Would you call the beggar a criminal if the stranger acts in a generous manner and gives him/her a few dollars?

      The bus drivers made these decision voluntarily. The design is clean. What is interesting is that 65% of bus drivers allowed people on the bus for free, which shows how nice they are- however these favours were distributed differently according to skin colour.

      As with all other field experiments, it is a study which had to be done undercover (without the subjects being aware)- Otherwise the results would be simply useless.

      • That’s a fair point- the subjects didn’t break the rules or were at least up front about what they were doing. Also, I’m not sure that its strictly a crime to ride a bus without a ticket, though its clearly against a rule somewhere.

        In the same line of thinking, did the subjects ask the driver to break a rule/ law/ condition of their own employment. In other words, is a driver authorised to waive the fare? What happens if you don’t pay, the driver says that’s okay and then a ticket inspector gets on and you don’t have a ticket? You have still broken the rules I guess.

        If so, does that have implications for the research? Personally I hope not, because the research seems valid and worthwhile.

        Just asking…

  2. You may be right about the fare not being evaded in the lay sense of that word. But Queensland law defines fare evasion to include ‘travel[ling] on an invalid ticket’. (See http://www5.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/qld/consol_act/tota1994502/s143ab.html). Maybe it’s possible that the bus driver’s permission may provide some sort of ‘lawful authority’ defence? The problem is that the crime is against the bus company (or the state, for a state-owned bus), not the driver. The bus company won’t think it’s nice that 65% of passengers who ask get to travel free, any more than Coles/Woolies would think it’s nice if 65% of customers who ask to take something without paying were allowed to do so. We all have different views on right and wrong when it comes to bus fares, of course, but the question is who decides.

    I agree that the design requires that the subject isn’t aware. On the other hand, there may have been designs that avoided or minimised criminality, for example the passenger ‘remembering’ that s/he could pay the fare after all, once the driver’s reaction is ascertained.

  3. Aside from the ethical issues raised in the original paper, and in Joshua’s post, and in Jeremy’s comments, there is a technical problem with the type of experiment used in the paper.
    The problem usually arises in trying to baseline the environment for the impact of repeat behaviour – sometimes called the panhandler effect. It blights all sorts of studies that try to investigate the handling of welfare recipients, in particular disability benefits claimants.
    The panhandler effect is this: if a beggar approaches you in the street asking for money there is some probability that you will give that person some money, however, if the same person approaches you again the next day the probability of you giving money will be lower because you come to believe that they are more likely professional panhandlers. The more often that person approaches you, the less likely you will give them money. We are all Bayesian at some level.
    If some socio-economic groups (for whatever reason: low income, unemployed, welfare dependent, foreign student, etc.) more frequently ask bus drivers for favours (or it is understood from experience that statistically those groups are more likely to be contain fare evaders) then it is entirely possible that bus drivers engage in statistical discrimination for no other reason than – in this context – they do not believe the integrity/sincerity of the person asking for the favour.
    The panhandler effect may or may not be influencing the findings of this paper. I don’t know. But observations such as: “but even black drivers still favored white testers over black testers (allowing free rides 83 percent versus 68 percent of the time”, suggest that an important element of the findings may be due to a panhandler effect rather than racial discrimination. The matter requires investigation.
    So let’s be cautious when interpreting the findings in Redzo Mujcic and Paul Frijters interesting paper.

    • so such studies/randomized experiments should not be done due to this ‘panhandler effect’? well, that’s a lot (or most) of top published articles in the field experimental literature…

    • Statistical discrimination of this sort was my initial response. However, they do find that among testers wearing suits, the rate of acceptance was higher for whites than blacks (93 vs 67%). This gap is smaller than the gap for non-suit wearing, suggesting that the ‘panhandler’ effect explains some of the average response – but not all of it.

    • Yes, the panhandler effect is an example of “statistical discrimination” – people making individually rational judgements of probability based on someone’s group membership, given their limited knowledge of that someone. It is distinct from discrimination based on some irrational distaste. If young Somalis are objectively more likely to be panhandling than young skips and the bus driver does not know much more about that individual, then the bus driver’s discrimination is personally rational no matter how costly and unjust that is to innocent young Somalis; information asymmetry rules.

      But the whole point of the statistical discrimination literature is that “individually rational” and “socially optimal” are not the same – statistical discrimination is often socially harmful even as it is benefits the discriminator because of the dynamic it creates (this is exactly the argument against the sort of racial profiling I gave as an example – google “Schelling models”).

      IOW ascribing the study’s effects to statistical discrimination rather than bus drivers’ irrational antipathies does not change either the need for the study or its policy implications.

      • DD,
        Most of the discussion that has subsequently flowed from this blog post concerns the ethics approval process for Redzo Mujcic and Paul Frijters. My concern is interpretation of the study findings, and I probably would not bother to add the following comments if it weren’t for Rabee’s post
        I agree with what you say, but I think the policy issue might be more nuanced than your brief comment can convey.
        It is not possible to make statistical discrimination per se illegal. Some form of statistical discrimination is involved in almost every decision that we make. Sometimes the outcome probabilities make the decision obvious, at other times there is more “balancing of probabilities”. It is how we lead our lives, from deciding when and where to cross the street, up to what we eat for dinner. There is no issue of moral turpitude.
        For good reasons our society has laws that limit our ability to discriminate.
        Racial and religious intolerance motivated discrimination offends our sense of fairness and equality, and beyond that it alienates groups within society, and it causes loss of social cohesion.
        Statistical discrimination using racial or religious criteria (although in the abstract economically benign) is costly in a social setting for similar reasons, and the problem becomes more pressing when the victims of statistical discrimination interpret their outcome as racial intolerance – which is easy because it exculpates possible poor group behaviour. Victim status, or “oh poor me”, is a place we can all get to very easily.
        So why do I think the policy issues are nuanced.
        (1) If the primary motivation of bus driver decisions is statistical discrimination, then it is unlikely that bus drivers are thinking through all of the social implications that might ensue. If as a society we need bus drivers to behave differently there are options:
        (a) train bus drivers to never allow free riders, or
        (b) allow all requests for free rides to be permitted, or
        (c) create guidelines and training on appropriate questions for the bus driver to assess each request according to explicit criteria before engaging in statistical discrimination. With this knowledge bus drivers do not rely on default criteria such as physical appearance for statistical discrimination.
        (2) If the primary motivation of bus driver decisions is statistical discrimination, then careless interpretation of study findings by media outlets that imply racial intolerance motivated discrimination will cause deep personal offence. Accusing bus drivers of moral turpitude will not, in this case, help anything. Indeed, it creates new problems.
        (3) If the primary motivation of bus drivers is socially systemic racism or religious intolerance, then the problem is much deeper. It will require different type of social education of bus drivers, a type that focuses on building ethnic tolerance and understanding. Such a finding would have implications for the entire society.
        The issues that arise here are already a major concern in the welfare system, and are likely to become larger as the disability benefits system expands. Policy responses need to be thought through carefully. So my primary admonition is only that we be careful when interpreting research like the interesting Mujcic-Frijters paper.

        • A good post. I hope that after the necessary discussion about ethics approval procedures and the UQ suppression directive, we can discuss exactly these kind of issues that are relevant for an assessment of the value of the study. There are a few other ones. For example, were the testers blind to the research hypothesis/design?

  4. I assume the design of the study is reasonable and legal according UQ’s ethics committee, who not only should be experts at this sort of thing but no doubt have decent legal advice as well. That’s what those committees are for.

  5. i had more of a problem with the military uniform! its not nice (and possibly illegal?? tho unlikely, surely not since this went thru ethics committees etc, but see section 803 of http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/F2005C00883) to dress up in a military uniform to try and explot bus drivers’ sense of patriotism (or “motivate prosocial behaviour” as the paper put it).

  6. I have a different take on field research such as this. I attended a course on ethics in field research once. It really was about how to get cover for using people as playthings in Academic research.

    At no time do they mention that people were gracious enough to give up their time to participate in your research and you should respect that. It was simply taken for granted that the subjects of the research were something that was to be used by the researcher.

    The best example of this is correspondence studies or audit studies. Correspondence studies or audit studies are where you send thousands of dummy job applications out to job vacancies to see what happens in terms of how varying the race, the sex or other characteristics of otherwise identical dummy applicant influences the call-back rate to applicants.

    If the dummy application gets a call back, the researcher just says that the application has been withdrawn.

    The researcher never tell the employer who phoned that the application was a dummy and part of field research approved by an ethics board and that they were wasting that employer’s time when they made the dummy application. At no time, does the researcher express any regret that perhaps they call the dummy applicant in preference to a genuine applicant who was since moved on because they were not contacted in time.

    These researchers were wasting peoples’ time.The rudeness of that was never discussed.

    Reality TV programmes and radio shock jocks have a higher standard of ethics. When they pull one of their pranks, they always ring back to ask for written permission to broadcast the material. When they don’t get that permission they don’t use the material. One reason they do this is to comply with start protection and malicious communication laws.

    • Obviously this was not a correspondence study (the method which you define and describe in detail above). This was an audit study, used in several papers published in top economics and other journals.

      The key aspect and cleverness behind this study is that it mimics everyday real life occurrences and behavior so closely that it can also be done as a pure observational study by sitting on a bus and recording such occurrences- however it would take much much longer to collect the data. Hence, it seems to be this clear link to reality and everyday life why it was cleared by the ethics/research coordinators.

      This for example cannot be done in resume studies as the employer(s) would never let an outside researcher know or directly observe what resumes they received and whom they initially rejected (outside of any correspondence study). Similarly, in other audit studies such as bargaining for a particular good or service (such as a car), the seller/buyer bargaining conversation and interaction would have to be naturally observed (without any actors) from the side….which is very hard to do (outside of an audit methodology).

      If you want to harmlessly study real behavior and actual societies, this is the way to go.

        • *this. It’s hard to imagine that the researchers or some of the commenters here actually rely on the bus to get to work every day as I do. They’d know that people are, rightly, passionate about seeing 95% of their fellow passengers be courteous, efficient, and pay the very reasonable fare; and then seeing 5% abuse the system for kicks.

  7. Has anyone asked Paul to comment? Knowing his usually extroverted blog persona, if he is not willing to comment then he must have been gagged. Paul….how about it?

    • Well, he has been quoted/commenting extensively in various newspaper articles. I figure blogging is right now the least of his worries …

  8. The reaction of the University is wholly expected though fundamentally wrong. If the study design is illegal then so what? The University have deep pockets. They should relish the publicity. The chance of Brisbane Bus Company dragging them through the courts? Zero.

    But Universities behave this way all the time. They are extremely risk averse for reasons I have never had articulated (and I have asked).

    Why for instance do Universities care about the technical complaints of failing students who have been excluded? Again, forcing the student to take them to court would enhance their reputation for high academic standards.

  9. If Brisbane and UQ acted as described here, that’s perfectly reasonable. Brisbane’s interest is in having a public transit system, and as a lifelong transit rider I can tell you that fare evasion is destructive to the system on a fundamental level: it discourages paying the fare (no one likes to be that sucker who’s paying when he doesn’t have to) and leaves the system to the rapidly-changing whims of public finance.

    So, Brisbane’s perfectly reasonable to call up UQ and say “we heard you paid people to break our transit system” and then of course you know what UQ’s reasonable reaction’s going to be, which is, “this is an obvious ethical violation and God save us if Brisbane decides to go after the testers on this.”

    Both institutions are behaving in perfectly rational ways; the Q is why the researchers decided to burn money on this without considering the ethical issues for a few minutes.

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