Friday, August 11, 2017

I'd say: The Damore Memo

Image via Phawker.

David Brooks ("Sundar Pichai Should Resign as Google's C.E.O.") picking villains:

There are many actors in the whole Google/diversity drama, but I’d say the one who’s behaved the worst is the C.E.O., Sundar Pichai.
Am I alone in thinking there's something weird about conducting an examination of this case around the question "who has behaved the worst?" There are many actors in Shakespeare's Hamlet, but I'd say the one who behaved the worst was Polonius. What a dick that guy is. I'm glad he's dead.

No, I'd say the job is to understand what happened and what, if anything, it means. I'm fond of worrying through the argument of who was the worst person in the George W. Bush administration (on the whole, I go for Wolfowitz, who was better intellectually equipped than Cheney or Rumsfeld to know what they were doing and thus has a greater responsibility than those two simple-minded sociopaths), but only in the context of a broader analysis of the story.

What happened at Google was that sometime in July a software engineer called James Damore attended a mandatory company diversity training session that made him really mad (he said it was "secretive" and "shaming"), so on a flight to China, to while the time away and assuage his hurt feelings, he wrote a lengthy note under the title "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber"

criticizing what he called Google's liberal leanings and its training around "unconscious bias," particularly with regard to women. The document cited purported principles of evolutionary psychology to argue that women are unsuited to be good engineers because they are more interested in people than ideas. (Scott Thurm/Wired)
and posted it on a company message board. Other Google employees began criticizing the thing on Twitter, and the document itself was leaked to journalists last Sunday, and on Monday Pichai fired Damore for violating the company Code of Conduct by "advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace" when he asserted that
women were more social and artistic and could not take the stress of high-pressure jobs. Hence, “neuroticism,” or higher anxiety and lower stress tolerance, which he claimed was backed up by studies.
Or, in the telling of David Brooks,

The first actor is James Damore, who wrote the memo. In it, he was trying to explain why 80 percent of Google’s tech employees are male. He agreed that there are large cultural biases but also pointed to a genetic component. Then he described some of the ways the distribution of qualities differs across male and female populations.
First piece of spectacular bad faith there is the statement of what Damore was "trying to" do in the memo, as if it were an uncontextualized bit of scientific speculation. Brooks could take the trouble to ask Damore, who has told Wired
he wrote the document "to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment, and to bring up potentially illegal behavior."
The memo offers a great deal of just-sayin "explanation", but it is explanation with a goal, to argue that there's nothing wrong with the numbers disparity between men and women among the Google techies, and nothing that needs to be fixed with a diversity policy because that's just the way things are because of women's inherent neuroticism, so that any attempt to fix it is effectively discrimination against males; it is an angry complaint, as you can sample from his tl;dr (via gizmodo):
  • Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offense with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety.
  • This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.
  • The lack of discussion fosters the most extreme and authoritarian elements of this ideology.
  • Extreme: all disparities in representation are due to oppression
  • Authoritarian: we should discriminate to correct for this oppression
  • Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.
Or, putting it in simpler terms, it looks as if somebody in that training session told James to shut up and listen, and he can't get over it. It goes without saying that "silencing" employees is the least Google thing in the world, there is endless discussion in numerous forums of everything, that the kind of training he's talking about is pervasive among educated workplaces nowadays, and that the concept of affirmative action is not extreme or authoritarian.

Damore was tapping into the long and contentious debate about genes and behavior. On one side are those who believe that humans come out as blank slates and are formed by social structures. On the other are the evolutionary psychologists who argue that genes interact with environment and play a large role in shaping who we are. In general the evolutionary psychologists have been winning this debate.
Straw man: nobody thinks genetics is irrelevant to personality development. Nor would I say evolutionary psychologists deny the existence of social structures (the way Margaret Thatcher kind of did), but they do have an institutional bias, as shown in the field's name, for crafting a genetic-selection account of every aspect of human behavior, with sometimes unacceptable results:
In practice, evolutionary psychology has been used to justify everything from rape to claims that certain groups of people are inherently more intelligent than others. It has also been criticized for shoddy methodology, ignoring cultural context, and “leaping to conclusions on inadequate evidence.” Evolutionary psychologists have tried to use their science to determine the best way to seduce women, which they think can be gamed out like Battleship. (Rae Paoletta/Gizmodo
Imagine, if you will, some guy sends out a memo to tell everybody that the disproportionately small number of black software engineers in the company is explained by data reported by Charles Murray claiming that black people have lower IQs. You don't even need to ask why the guy did that; you just need to fire him, because he's creating a hostile work environment. Why should it be any different when it's women that are being attacked in this way?
Of course, using “science” to justify male superiority is much older than anything espoused by evolutionary psychologists. The idea that women are less psychologically stable—or more, bluntly, “hysterical”—has been around at least since Hippocrates wrote about it in the 5th century BCE. As Freud and his contemporaries later posited, women’s biology explained their “inherent” insanity. Or, as this particular Google employee called it, their neuroticism.

Geoffrey Miller, a prominent evolutionary psychologist, wrote in Quillette, “For what it’s worth, I think that almost all of the Google memo’s empirical claims are scientifically accurate.”
I'm sure he did, but why don't you quote one of the many non-cult psychologists who disagree (for more, Wikipedia has a very useful major article on "Criticism of Evolutionary Psychology)? And to whom this approach looks like a pseudo-scientific rationalization for crude old patriarchalism simply meant to keep women under control.

We should all have a lot of sympathy for the second group of actors in this drama, the women in tech who felt the memo made their lives harder. Picture yourself in a hostile male-dominated environment, getting interrupted at meetings, being ignored, having your abilities doubted, and along comes some guy arguing that women are on average less status hungry and more vulnerable to stress. Of course you’d object.
I wouldn't say "sympathy", as in "the poor little things!", but other than that, yes, that's the point. Damore was reacting to his failed experience in diversity training by making the work atmosphere more hostile than it was before.

What we have is a legitimate tension. Damore is describing a truth on one level; his sensible critics are describing a different truth, one that exists on another level. He is championing scientific research; they are championing gender equality. It takes a little subtlety to harmonize these strands, but it’s doable.
Show us how, Brooksy. Oh, you don't have any space?

Damore is not "describing a truth on one level", though; he's disguising a political gripe as a dispassionate scientific argument; that's the mansplaining pose par excellence, and we ought to be getting able to recognize it faster. His "sensible critics" and I imagine the intemperate ones too are recognizing it as such. But his point is that he shouldn't have to work in an environment where he's not allowed to insult female employees by calling them inherently neurotic and biologically unsuited ("on average"! not you in particular! just sayin!) to the work. And really, in firing him, Pichai has harmonized this strand pretty effectively.

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.
Two fucking minutes ago you were all about "sympathy" and how "sensible" the critics were, now you're calling them tribalist fanatics, make up your mind. "I'd say." I'd say Brooks shouldn't jump on these conservative-media trains without a plan for jumping off if it starts going too fast.

And as Steve M wonders, how is that peremptory demand for Pichai's resignation not "moral absolutism... purging an evil person"? Also check out the very useful summary of the current science (Damore's is out of date, in addition to having been useless before that) from Nancy Le Tourneau, and some infectious laughter from Driftglass.

Update: And Language Log takes the opportunity to publish a complete linked list of its posts on David Brooks's "long-standing fascination with pseudo-scientific justifications of gender and ethnic stereotypes" and related matters.

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