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James Damore, Diversity Martyr

Facts and logic cannot withstand the power of 'the truth you can feel'

David Brooks says that just about everybody involved in the James Damore debacle — including Damore himself — could have handled themselves better. But Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, was worst of all. Excerpt:

The mob that hounded Damore was like the mobs we’ve seen on a lot of college campuses. We all have our theories about why these moral crazes are suddenly so common. I’d say that radical uncertainty about morality, meaning and life in general is producing intense anxiety. Some people embrace moral absolutism in a desperate effort to find solid ground. They feel a rare and comforting sense of moral certainty when they are purging an evil person who has violated one of their sacred taboos.

Which brings us to Pichai, the supposed grown-up in the room. He could have wrestled with the tension between population-level research and individual experience. He could have stood up for the free flow of information. Instead he joined the mob. He fired Damore and wrote, “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not O.K.”

That is a blatantly dishonest characterization of the memo. Damore wrote nothing like that about his Google colleagues. Either Pichai is unprepared to understand the research (unlikely), is not capable of handling complex data flows (a bad trait in a C.E.O.) or was simply too afraid to stand up to a mob.

Regardless which weakness applies, this episode suggests he should seek a nonleadership position. We are at a moment when mobs on the left and the right ignore evidence and destroy scapegoats. That’s when we need good leaders most.

Conor Friedersdorf is appalled by how so many in the media have been outright lying in the way they frame the Damore memo. Excerpts:

Every prominent instance of journalism that proceeds with less than normal rigor when the subject touches on social justice feeds a growing national impulse to dismiss everything published about these subjects—even important, rigorous, accurate articles. Large swathes of the public now believe the mainstream media is more concerned with stigmatizing wrong-think and being politically correct than being accurate. The political fallout from this shift has been ruinous to lots of social-justice causes—causes that would thrive in an environment in which the public accepted the facts.


I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.

Casually perusing “anti-diversity” headlines without reading the memo might mislead readers into thinking a Google employee had assigned a negative value to gender diversity, when in fact he assigned a positive value to gender diversity, but objected to some ways it was being pursued and tradeoffs others would make to maximize it.

The distinction is not insignificant, especially as some news reports mentioned that some at Google agreed with the memo. Many people might prefer to have colleagues with the actual views of the memo’s author, however objectionable or wrongheaded they find those views, rather than work alongside colleagues who believe that the presence of women at the company is a net negative, and want a future in which only men are recruited and employed there. Coverage that conflates those perspectives ill-serves even readers who would object to both views, but who do not see them as remotely equivalent. And it doesn’t capture the contents of a memo which concludes, “I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more.”

If anything good is to come of the broad public circulation of this story, news outlets must do a better job of accurately characterizing the memo’s contents—I’ve seen numerous mischaracterizations that would lead readers to believe that women had been attacked or disparaged in ways that the text of the memo does not actually bear out.

At Heterodox Academy, Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt survey in depth the science behind Damore’s claims, and conclude:

The research findings are complicated, as you can see from the many abstracts containing both red and green text, and from the presence on both sides of the debate of some of the top researchers in psychology. Nonetheless, we think that the situation can be greatly clarified by distinguishing abilities from interests. We think the following three statements are supported by the research reviewed above:

1. Gender differences in math/science ability, achievement, and performance are small or nil.* (See especially the studies by Hyde; see also this review paper by Spelke, 2005). The one exception to this statement seems to be spatial abilities, such as the ability to rotate 3-dimensional objects in one’s mind. This ability may be relevant in some areas of engineering, but it’s not clear why it would matter for coding. Thus, the large gender gap in coding (and in tech in general) cannot be explained as resulting to any substantial degree from differences in ability between men and women.

2. Gender differences in interest and enjoyment of math, coding, and highly “systemizing” activities are large. The difference on traits related to preferences for “people vs. things” is found consistently and is very large, with some effect sizes exceeding 1.0. (See especially the meta-analyses by Su and her colleagues, and also see this review paper by Ceci & Williams, 2015).

3. Culture and context matter, in complicated ways. Some gender differences have decreased over time as women have achieved greater equality, showing that these differences are responsive to changes in culture and environment. But the cross-national findings sometimes show “paradoxical” effects: progress toward gender equality in rights and opportunities sometimes leads to larger gender differences in some traits and career choices. Nonetheless, it seems that actions taken today by parents, teachers, politicians, and designers of tech products may increase the likelihood that girls will grow up to pursue careers in tech, and this is true whether or not biology plays a role in producing any particular population difference. (See this review paper by Eagly and Wood, 2013).

Our verdict on Damore’s memo: Damore is correct that there are “population level differences in distributions” of traits that are likely to be relevant for understanding gender gaps at Google. Even if we set aside all questions about the origins of these differences, the fact remains that there are gender differences in a variety of traits, and especially in interest/enjoyment (rather than ability) in the adult population from which Google and all other tech firms recruit.

This distinction between ability and interest is extremely important because it may lay to rest  one of the main fears raised by Damore’s critics: that the memo itself will cause Google employees to assume that women are less qualified, or less “suited” for tech jobs, and will therefore lead to more bias against women in tech jobs. But the empirical evidence we have reviewed should have the opposite effect. Population differences in interest may be part of the explanation for why there are fewer women in the applicant pool, but the women who choose to enter the pool are just as capable as the larger number of men in the pool. This conclusion does not deny that various forms of bias, harassment, and discouragement exist and contribute to outcome disparities, nor does it imply that the differences in interest are biologically fixed and cannot be changed in future generations.

If our three conclusions are correct (and we grant that they are open to debate), then Damore was drawing attention to empirical findings that seem to have been previously unknown or ignored at Google, and which might be helpful to the company as it tries to improve its diversity policies and outcomes.  What should Google’s response to the memo have been?

That’s a good post, with lots of links to scientific papers.

Blind, an anonymous chat app, surveyed over 4,000 employees of Silicon Valley companies in the wake of Damore’s firing to see where they stood on it. Fifty-six percent of the Google employees who participated in the survey oppose Damore’s firing. True, this survey was voluntary, and is therefore scientifically meaningless, but it does make you wonder how many people within Google are upset with what was done to Damore, but who now know that they must keep their mouths shut if they want to avoid the same fate.

Damore’s great sin here was in saying out loud things that may be true, or at least well within the bounds of debate, but not popular within his social environment. In every office I’ve worked in that had diversity programs, grumblers — and they weren’t all conservatives, believe me — knew very well to keep their criticism to themselves. They knew that the justification for these particular diversity programs had very little to do with facts or logic, and everything to do with an ideology held by the leadership class with a fervor and an unfalsifiability that can only be described as religious. If you questioned it, no matter how solid the grounds of your questions might be, you would instantly draw attention to yourself as a likely racist, sexist, and so forth.

Damore didn’t understand this. The poor fool apparently thought that by saying explicitly in the memo that he favors diversity, and that racism and sexism are real, and must be fought — he thought that that would protect him. What he criticized in his memo was the means by which Google was pursuing diversity. And he also criticized Google’s “ideological echo chamber” that made rational discussion of ideas and analyses that conflict with progressive ideology impossible.

Which Google subsequently vindicated.

Here’s Damore’s memo in full. If you have not read it, and read it carefully, and are going only by media reports of what it allegedly said, educate yourself. The media is part of the same ideological echo chamber as Google. When it comes to matters of cultural and religious conflicts, I have no trust at all in the mainstream media to report fairly and accurately. Bill Keller, formerly the executive editor of The New York Times, said in 2011 that the paper tries to play it straight in its coverage of every field except social issues, where it consciously slants things to the left. I don’t think the Times is different from any other major media outlet on this. In general, when it comes to these issues, journalists think that they are fighting evil. As one of my Dallas Morning News colleagues told me a decade ago, when I questioned our newspaper’s fairness in its coverage of the gay marriage issue: “If we were covering the civil rights movement, do you think we ought to give equal time to the Klan?” He was serious.

The unwillingness of people to confront truths that complicate or confound our preferred narratives is universal. It’s not a left or a right thing; I’ve had incredibly frustrating conversations with fellow conservatives who were absolutely immune to logic or facts that contradicted their prejudices. Today, in this emotivist culture, we allow feelings to drive out reason. A couple of days ago I was driving and listening to NPR, and heard host Audie Cornish interviewing a couple of black filmmakers who did a documentary about the riots in Ferguson. This passage struck me:

CORNISH: Did you end up talking to the police or the mayor? And if so, why didn’t you include them in the film?

FOLAYAN: Yeah, we definitely did. We interviewed the mayor twice. We interviewed one of the police chiefs. We interviewed retired officers, the city manager. Ultimately none of those folks were really willing or able to break out of their talking points. And we felt like we could use this platform better by showing real human stories.

CORNISH: Well, one of the consequences of that are people kind of questioning the objectivity, so to speak, of the film. And I know, Sabaah, you’ve said that the film’s a recognition that facts and truth are not the same thing. What did you mean by that?

FOLAYAN: You can find a fact to prove almost any point that you want, but I think that there is a truth that resonates. It’s a truth that you can feel. It can’t always be articulated in words. It can’t always be encapsulated with numbers, but you know it because it resonates. And I think that’s why this film resonates with people. I think that’s what we were really trying to get at with telling this story – is going deeper than the numbers and getting to that real human space.

Remarkable. They wouldn’t let city and police officials give their side of the story in the film, and they discarded or ignored facts that got in the way of the “truth that you can feel.”

That debased hermeneutic explains James Damore’s defenestration, I think.

UPDATE: A reader comments:

I am a Googler and a longtime reader of your blog. This week has been, as you can imagine, somewhat stressful. I’ve been obsessively following events and reactions, but I’m wise enough not to talk about it at the office. There’s work to do…who wants to risk a distracting blowup?

Still, it’s clear that something fundamental has shifted in company culture. Google has always prided itself on its “flat” organization: employees have an extraordinary amount of freedom to question authority, voice their opinions and pursue their own initiatives. At the weekly town-halls, rank-and-file employees regularly challenge the founders and executives with an amazing lack of deference. The price of transparency within is opacity without. We are regularly warned not to share information with outsiders.

The leak of James Damore’s memo was like a pebble through the wall of the aquarium (thrown from inside by a fish, somehow!). This started a trickle of leaks; internal chats started appearing on external sites–mostly far-right sites, it seems, but perhaps also on the SJW left. The trickle has now become a cascade. Every private internal communication on this subject becomes public within minutes.

Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect that a company of seventy-thousand could operate like a secret brotherhood (er, brother-and-sisterhood, that is!). Still, it’s demoralizing. That sense of demoralization is the most palpable emotion on campus.



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