Anonymous Group Challenges Statistical Validity of Fireside Report

In a report dropped just after the close of the Hugo nomination deadline last night, the timing chosen purposefully (I’m told by a source) though the reasons are not obvious, “a group of writers and editors” has challenged the statistical basis of the Fireside Report which said last July,” We don’t need the numbers to know that racism is a problem in our field. But we have them.”

Published at Medium under the pseudonym “Lev Bronstein” (Leon Trotsky’s real name), “Bias in Speculative Fiction” counters the Fireside Report by applying additional statistical study methods to the data, or enlarging the field from which relevant data can be drawn.

Fireside Fiction’s July 2016 report “Antiblack Racism in Speculative Fiction” [FR] purports to have found pervasive racism in speculative fiction publishing. With 38 out of 2,039 (1.9%) published works authored by black-identifying authors, there is unquestionable underrepresentation. FR ascribes this disparity to widespread anti-black editorial bias. We share Fireside’s concerns about underrepresentation and commend its authors for raising awareness. At the same time we find the report to be fraught with error.

The article’s many examples include:

The misuse of the binomial distribution in FR is a significant cause for concern. Under the binomial distribution, we treat each publication as an independent random event with some fixed probability of occurrence. FR assumes that each submitted submission should have a 13.2% chance of black authorship. The probability of observing their data subject to this assumption is 3.207×10^–76. They provide no rationale for using population rather than occupational rates. Suppose instead that science fiction slush is submitted from a pool of professional writers uniformly at random. Under these assumptions we assume that there’s a a 4% probability that a story is written by a black author. The data becomes 68 orders of magnitude more likely. Still unlikely, yes, but this demonstrate the impact of our assumptions.

The article can be presumed to serve as a defense of editors in the speculative fiction field. It argues there is bias, but that it is exerted in the culture in ways not directly related to the fate of slushpile manuscripts, such as in the educational system where PoC may or may not take degrees in literature, and other things that discourage black people from becoming authors at all.

The authors of the article defended their choice to remain anonymous in these terms —

Who are you?

We’re a group of writers and editors. We have chosen to publish under a collective pseudonym. Our identities would only serve as a distraction.

It’s puzzling why a group that agrees in their preamble that “There is a race problem in speculative fiction and we need to make an effort to understand its causes” is unwilling to engage under their own names, essentially reducing this to a drive-by correction of somebody else’s homework.

Justina Ireland, an executive editor at FIYAH magazine, has responded at length on Twitter. Here are several of her tweets:

Another comment:

Brandon O’Brien, a poet and writer in Trinidad and Tobago, also has made some observations:

O’Brien has many other comments, though one in particular about “nebulous maths” begs the question:

Bear in mind this quote from the Fireside Report —

To adjust for the methodological flaws, as well as the fact that we don’t have access to submission-rate data concerning race and ethnicity either overall or by individual magazine, we used binomial distributions. The purpose of this was to find the probability that such numbers could be random?—?the chances that numbers like that could exist without biases in play (which could extend to biases that are literary in nature, such as story structure), systemic problems, and/or structural gaps. In the first binomial distribution we ran the data assuming that submission rates of black authors are equal to the proportion of the black population in the United States, which was 13.2% in 2015 (according to Census projections).

The Fireside Report picked U.S. population statistics as the battleground, treated them as a valid tool for analyzing racism, and made arguments based on their own analysis of them. It’s not fair in that context to say the Fireside Report is above criticism because there are PoC writing SFF throughout the world, or that we all know racism is a problem in the publishing industry (as it is elsewhere).

Troy L. Wiggins, the other FIYAH executive editor, questioned the motive behind the new article:

Update: Hours later the authors of the article took it down and left in place the statement, “We’ve been receiving threats. Forget we were ever here.”  

For as long as it lasts, the original post can be read in the Google cache file.