the President, the Police Officer and the Professor

America is rich grounds for both cooperation and conflict around race.  The recent story on the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his Cambridge home has lasted surprisingly longer than many expected. Culturally framed as a “teachable moment”, it’s a decent occasion on which to revisit one of the best designed experiments on race I’ve encountered, first published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Now ten years old, The Effect of Race and Sex on Physicians’ Recommendations for Cardiac Catheterization remains an exceptionally well-designed experiment in general, and the best designed experiment around race I’ve observed in medicine to date.

Perhaps most powerfully though are its implications for professions beyond medicine where its case is made more strongly. Medicine is supposedly based on the scientific method (“evidence-based medicine”) and is the profession of longest and most scrutinized apprenticeship.  But its better doctors (specifically chosen from a thought leader pool) failed the experiment. Other professions—surely business and law that define so much of American life— thoroughly lack medicine’s objective  methodology, and rigorous and lengthy apprenticeship. The older work of Jane Elliot and her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment is another study I encountered years ago that was unique in its design and examination of race.  Both remain remarkable for their out-of-the-box illumination and breakthrough inquiry, arguably still unmatched.

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