Critical Perspectives On Vision Science: Towards Unbiasing Our Methods and Role in Knowledge Production

Symposium: Friday, May 19, 12:00 – 2:00 pm, Talk Room 1

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Organizers: Eline Kupers1, Kathryn Graves2, Kimele Persaud3; 1Stanford University, 2Yale University, 3Rutgers University
Presenters: Sholei Croom, Pawan Sinha, Jasmine Kwasa, Joel E Martinez, Vassiki S Chauhan

Reckoning with a global pandemic and widespread social inequality has resulted in increased consciousness around issues such as racism, sexism, ableism, and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. As scientists, academics and industry professionals, our work operates within the larger context of these societal issues. Therefore, we must consider how our science perpetuates or mitigates the systemic oppressions that those most marginalized among us struggle against. The failure to use a critical lens in understanding how these systems impoverish our science can pose the risk of our science reifying oppressive systems. This symposium, organized by a team of historically underrepresented researchers and their allies, brings together complementary perspectives to call attention to how racial, ethnic, gender, and other systemic biases are perpetuated in our current methods and practices, and discuss approaches to ameliorate them in the scientific cycle. Specifically, our theoretical frameworks, visual stimuli, and data collection—both behavioral and neuroimaging. Speakers will present recent empirical and theoretical work in service of important questions such as: What are the bottlenecks in making our human participant pool more inclusive? How do our visual stimuli—a critical component of our scientific hypotheses—reflect historic and structural imbalances in our society? How does the way we study human perception affect how we perceive people? And how may these representations reflect and justify social oppression, or motivate social change? We argue that addressing systematic biases in science and higher education institutions is not only a moral obligation, but an epistemic one: By critically examining our tools and frameworks, and making a conscious effort to promote equity, our science will become more effective, innovative, and impactful. By providing a platform to leaders in our field who are taking this challenge head-on, we hope that more researchers across the vision science community will feel empowered to enact much-needed change. This symposium will start with a brief overview of the history of vision science, delivered by one of the organizers, Sholei Croom. Four speakers will then present their work in 20-minute presentations, plus 5 minutes for audience questions. Speakers will engage in different aspects of our overarching theme, focusing on current disparities as well as suggesting specific solutions. A final talk will be given by Vassiki Chauhan (one of the organizers), to encourage the audience in ways they can promote diversity and inclusivity in their own research and scientific community.


Making the Case for Critical Vision Science: Beyond Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Sholei Croom1; 1Johns Hopkins University

The principles of “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” (DEI) have become standard across industry and academic spaces to promote awareness and advocacy around issues of identity. Many institutions, including VSS, have dedicated DEI committees whose focus is to foster diversity in communities that have historically been homogenous. While such initiatives have certainly led to positive institutional changes and more cultural competency, a primary focus on diversity can obfuscate—rather than illuminate—the myriad ways in which power dynamics shape our field. Further, fixating on inclusion as the remedy to oppressive structures ignores opportunities within our research practices to promote social justice. In this respect, this symposium urges our community to adopt a more critical frame. Borrowing from contemporary perspectives in critical psychology, philosophy, and sociology, this introductory talk explores the premise that our current methods and theoretical frameworks in vision science reflect back the social conditions in which they are produced. Rather than framing structural forces as external to our scientific practice, revisiting the history of vision science reveals that such forces necessarily inform the way we perform our research. From the advent of psychophysics, to technological advances in neuroscience, to the cognitive revolution and the subsequent rise of computational modeling, each step in the intellectual history of our field has been shaped by ideological and socio-historical factors. By elevating this perspective, we hope that researchers in our vision science community can see our field in a new light; one that embraces rather than ignores context in service of positive social change.

Looking Beyond Parochial Participant Pools

Pawan Sinha1; 1Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Our inclusion criteria for study participants are typically strongly biased by geographic and cultural locality. This is understandably dictated by convenience and logistics, but the upshot is that we end up studying those who are most like us. In holding up our studies as general contributions to the study of cognition, the unstated assumption is that we are adequately representative of the human species at large. In succumbing to this hubris, we not only run the risk of gathering data that do not, in fact, capture a general view of human cognition, but also may miss out on novel opportunities that exist beyond our local catchment areas. I shall present an initiative from my lab, Project Prakash, that illustrates some of the benefits that can accrue by going beyond the constraint of parochiality. The project has proactively enlisted participation from marginalized populations in the Global South and, in doing so, has been able to pursue scientific avenues that would not otherwise have been accessible. I shall also discuss the challenges inherent in operationalizing efforts of this kind, potential approaches to overcome them, and ethical considerations that must necessarily be addressed. The overall takeaway is that although moving beyond parochial participant pools can be difficult, the potential benefits of doing so make it worth the effort.

Addressing Racial and Phenotypic Bias in Human Neuroscience Methods

Jasmine Kwasa1; 1Carnegie Mellon University

Typical EEG systems, the standard of care for neurological monitoring and a popular modality for vision sciences, do not work well for individuals with the coarse, dense, and curly hair common in the Black population (Etienne et al., 2020; IEEE EMBC). With more than 1 billion individuals of African descent across the globe, this not only compromises neurological care for a significant portion of the population, but also excludes these groups from basic neuroscience research studies. Our team developed the first solution to this problem by creating Sèvo Systems, a simple yet effective set of devices that leverage the strength of braided hair to improve scalp contact during brain recordings in individuals with coarse, dense, and curly hair. In this talk, I will briefly describe the Sèvo system and outline our ongoing assessments of its effectiveness in both research and clinical settings. Our work is the first step towards mitigating phenotypic biases embedded in this popular technology that may lead to misunderstandings of brain science and the exclusion of marginalized groups in human neuroscience and psychology research. I will also speak to other examples of phenotypic bias in neurotechnologies that we are seeking to improve at Carnegie Mellon including functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and pulse oximetry. I will outline ways that vision scientists can join the cause and use equitable and inclusive methodologies based on published work (Webb et al, 2022; Nature Neuro) and my personal experience in preparing different hair textures for neuroscience research.

Facecraft: Race Reification in Psychological Research with Faces

Joel E Martinez1; 1Harvard University

Faces are socially important surfaces of the body upon which various meanings are attached. The widespread physiognomic belief that faces inherently contain socially predictive value is why they make a generative stimulus for perception research. However, critical problems arise in studies that simultaneously investigate faces and race. Researchers studying race and racism inadvertently engage in various research practices that transform faces with specific phenotypes into straightforward representatives of their presumed race category, thereby taking race and its phenotypic associations for granted. I argue that research practices that map race categories onto faces using bio-essentialist ideas of racial phenotype constitute a form of racecraft ideology, whose dubious reasoning presupposes the reality of race and mystifies the causal relation between race and racism. In considering how to study racism without reifying race in face studies, this talk describes how these practices reproduce racecraft ideology and impair theoretical inferences, then explores preliminary ideas for counter-practices.

Scientists in Context

Vassiki S Chauhan1; 1Barnard College

This final talk will be a reflection on the topics that have been discussed throughout the course of the symposium. We have collectively recognized the importance of putting issues about representation at the forefront of scientific discourse, mapped some of the current disparities in scientific practice, and heard about necessary and creative ways to address these imbalances. There are certain subdisciplines of vision science where these issues are more apparent than others, but regardless of the discipline we work in, the society within which scientific inquiry occurs shapes how it occurs. To conclude the discussion, I will describe how lived experience shapes our ability to participate in the scientific process and the role scientists can and should play in society. I will go over some existing resources that practitioners at all levels of academia can benefit from in centering equitability and fairness in their work and their lives.