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Aug 08

Anti-diversity “science”

Somebody at Google wrote a memo/manifesto arguing against diversity (mainly gender), caused something of a ruckus and got himself fired.  The author was clearly either trying to get terminated (as a martyr) or simply not very bright.  A particularly articulate explanation of why it is necessary to fire somebody who did what he did is here (TL;DR the memo author doesn’t seem to understand very important things about engineering or being part of a company that has engineering teams):

https://medium.com/@yonatanzunger/so-about-this-googlers-manifesto-1e3773ed1788

 

There are a number of interesting things about the whole episode, but one that we’ve had pop up in the lab recently in discussion is when it is possible for science to be ‘dangerous.’  The memo provides a convenient example since an early section attempts to wrap assumptions of biologically-driven gender differences in a thin veneer of science.  It’s a particularly poorly done argument, which I think makes it easier to see the overall inference flaws.

The argument is something like:

Men and women differ on X due to innate, biological and immutable differences (feel free to throw “evolutionary” in there as well if you’d like).  Men and women also differ on Y, which therefore must also be due to innate and immutable biological causes.

That there exists some value of X that make the first statement true (e.g., the number of X chromosomes) is not really worth arguing about. It should be obvious that you can’t assert the second statement regardless.  I usually frame it as a reminder to consider the alternate hypothesis, which we can state here as “Men and women differ on Z, which is due to cultural and environmental differences.”  Cross-cultural studies of gender differences make it unambiguously clear that there are values of Z that make this third statement true as well.

So what do we do about the middle statements, for values of Y for which we do not know if they are based mainly on nature or nurture?  Well, for one thing, we don’t make policy statements based on them.

For another, though, we’d like to do science that tackles difficult and thorny issues like nature vs nurture, individual differences, stability of personality measures, effects of education, culture and environment.  But how do we do science, which is often messy and even unstable on the cutting edge, when there are ideologically minded individuals waiting to seize on preliminary findings to drive a political agenda?

I don’t actually know. And that bothers me a fair amount.

If you doubt the danger inherent here, consider that you can make a pretty good case that the current president of the US is largely in place due to exactly this kind of bad, dangerous science.  The alt-right, which probably moved the needle enough to swing the very close election, is a big fan of genetic theories of IQ, especially ones that support the assumption that the privileged deserve all their advantages.  So they are highly invested in the discredited book The Bell Curve and the type of argument that got Larry Summer’s fired from Harvard (the ‘fat tails’ hypothesis of gender differences).  These ideas are generally focused through the lens of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism which asserts the moral necessity of rule of the privileged over the masses — which is, fwiw, pretty well reflected in the googler’s memo as well.

 

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