Unrelated Update: To everyone who keeps asking me about the “new” P≠NP proof: I’d again bet $200,000 that the paper won’t stand, except that the last time I tried that, it didn’t achieve its purpose, which was to get people to stop asking me about it. So: please stop asking, and if the thing hasn’t been refuted by the end of the week, you can come back and tell me I was a closed-minded fool.
In my post “The Kolmogorov Option
,” I tried to step back from current controversies, and use history to reflect on the broader question of how nerds should behave when their penchant for speaking unpopular truths collides head-on with their desire to be kind and decent and charitable, and to be judged as such by their culture. I was gratified to get positive feedback about this approach from men and women all over the ideological spectrum.
However, a few people who I like and respect accused me of “dogwhistling.” They warned, in particular, that if I wouldn’t just come out and say what I thought about the James Damore Google memo thing, then people would assume the very worst—even though, of course, my friends themselves knew better.
So in this post, I’ll come out and say what I think. But first, I’ll do something even better: I’ll hand the podium over to two friends, Sarah Constantin and Stacey Jeffery, both of whom were kind enough to email me detailed thoughts in response to my Kolmogorov post.
Sarah Constantin completed her PhD in math at Yale. I don’t think I’ve met her in person yet, but we have a huge number of mutual friends in the so-called “rationalist community.” Whenever Sarah emails me about something I’ve written, I pay extremely close attention, because I have yet to read a single thing by her that wasn’t full of insight and good sense. I strongly urge anyone who likes her beautiful essay below to check out her blog, which is called Otium.
Sarah Constantin’s Commentary:
I’ve had a women-in-STEM essay brewing in me for years, but I’ve been reluctant to actually write publicly on the topic for fear of stirring up a firestorm of controversy. On the other hand, we seem to be at a cultural inflection point on the issue, especially in the wake of the leaked Google memo, and other people are already scared to speak out, so I think it’s past time for me to put my name on the line, and Scott has graciously provided me a platform to do so.
I’m a woman in tech myself. I’m a data scientist doing machine learning for drug discovery at Recursion Pharmaceuticals, and before that I was a data scientist at Palantir. Before that I was a woman in math — I got my PhD from Yale, studying applied harmonic analysis. I’ve been in this world all my adult life, and I obviously don’t believe my gender makes me unfit to do the work.
I’m also not under any misapprehension that I’m some sort of exception. I’ve been mentored by Ingrid Daubechies and Maryam Mirzakhani (the first female Fields Medalist, who died tragically young last month). I’ve been lucky enough to work with women who are far, far better than me. There are a lot of remarkable women in math and computer science — women just aren’t the majority in those fields. But “not the majority” doesn’t mean “rare” or “unknown.”
I even think diversity programs can be worthwhile. I went to the Institute for Advanced Studies’ Women and Math Program, which would be an excellent graduate summer school even if it weren’t all-female, and taught at its sister program for high school girls, which likewise is a great math camp independent of the gender angle. There’s a certain magic, if you’re in a male-dominated field, of once in a while being in a room full of women doing math, and I hope that everybody gets to have that experience once.
But (you knew the “but” was coming), I think the Google memo was largely correct, and the way people conventionally talk about women in tech is wrong.
Let’s look at some of his claims. From the beginning of the memo:
- 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
Okay, so there’s a pervasive assumption that any deviation from 50% representation of women in technical jobs is a.) due to oppression, and b.) ought to be corrected by differential hiring practices. I think it is basically true that people widely believe this, and that people can lose their jobs for openly contradicting it (as James Damore, the author of the memo, did). I have heard people I work with advocating hiring quotas for women (i.e. explicitly earmarking a number of jobs for women candidates only). It’s not a strawman.
Then, Damore disagrees with this assumption:
- 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.
Again, I agree with Damore. Note that this doesn’t mean that I must believe that sexism against women isn’t real and important (I’ve heard enough horror stories to be confident that some work environments are toxic to women). It doesn’t even mean that I must be certain that the different rates of men and women in technical fields are due to genetics. I’m very far from certain, and I’m not an expert in psychology. I don’t think I can do justice to the science in this post, so I’m not going to cover the research literature.
But I do think it’s irresponsible to assume a priori that there are no innate sex differences that might explain what we see. It’s an empirical matter, and a topic for research, not dogma.
Moreover, I think discrimination on the basis of sex to reach equal representation is unfair and unproductive. It’s unfair, because it’s not meritocratic. You’re not choosing the best human for the job regardless of gender.
I think women might actually benefit from companies giving genuine meritocracy a chance. “Blind” auditions (in which the evaluator doesn’t see the performer) gave women a better chance of landing orchestra jobs; apparently, orchestras were prejudiced against female musicians, and the blinding canceled out that prejudice. Google’s own research has actually shown that the single best predictor of work performance is a work sample — testing candidates with a small project similar to what they’d do on the job. Work samples are easy to anonymize to reduce gender bias, and they’re more effective than traditional interviews, where split-second first impressions usually decide who gets hired, but don’t correlate at all with job performance. A number of tech companies have switched to work samples as part of their interview process. I used work samples myself when I was hiring for a startup, just because they seemed more accurate at predicting who’d be good at the job; entirely without intending to, I got a 50% gender ratio. If you want to reduce gender bias in tech, it’s worth at least considering blinded hiring via work samples.
Moreover, thinking about “representation” in science and technology reflects underlying assumptions that I think are quite dangerous.
You expect interest groups to squabble over who gets a piece of the federal budget. In politics, people will band together in blocs, and try to get the biggest piece of the spoils they can. “Women should get such-and-such a percent of tech jobs” sounds precisely like this kind of politicking; women are assumed to be a unified bloc who will vote together, and the focus is on what size chunk they can negotiate for themselves. If a tech job (or a university position) were a cushy sinecure, a ticket to privilege, and nothing more, you might reasonably ask “how come some people get more goodies than others? Isn’t meritocracy just an excuse to restrict the goodies to your preferred group?”
Again, this is not a strawman. Here’s one Vox response to the memo stating explicitly that she believes women are a unified bloc:
The manifesto’s sleight-of-hand delineation between “women, on average” and the actual living, breathing women who have had to work alongside this guy failed to reassure many of those women — and failed to reassure me. That’s because the manifesto’s author overestimated the extent to which women are willing to be turned against their own gender.
Speaking for myself, it doesn’t matter to me how soothingly a man coos that I’m not like most women, when those coos are accompanied by misogyny against most women. I am a woman. I do not stop being one during the parts of the day when I am practicing my craft. There can be no realistic chance of individual comfort for me in an environment where others in my demographic categories (or, really, any protected demographic categories) are subjected to skepticism and condescension.
She can’t be comfortable unless everybody in any protected demographic category — note that this is a legal, governmental category — is given the benefit of the doubt? That’s a pretty collectivist commitment!
Or, look at Piper Harron, an assistant professor in math who blogged on the American Mathematical Society’s website that universities should simply “stop hiring white cis men”, and explicitly says “If you are on a hiring committee, and you are looking at applicants and you see a stellar white male applicant, think long and hard about whether your department needs another white man. You are not hiring a researching robot who will output papers from a dark closet. You are hiring an educator, a role model, a spokesperson, an advisor, a committee person … There is no objectivity. There is no meritocracy.”
Piper Harron reflects an extreme, of course, but she’s explicitly saying, on America’s major communication channel for and by mathematicians, that whether you get to work in math should not be based on whether you’re actually good at math. For her, it’s all politics. Life itself is political, and therefore a zero-sum power struggle between groups.
But most of us, male or female, didn’t fall in love with science and technology for that. Science is the mission to explore and understand our universe. Technology is the project of expanding human power to shape that universe. What we do towards those goals will live longer than any “protected demographic category”, any nation, any civilization. We know how the Babylonians mapped the stars.
Women deserve an equal chance at a berth on the journey of exploration not because they form a political bloc but because some of them are discoverers and can contribute to the human mission.
Maybe, in a world corrupted by rent-seeking, the majority of well-paying jobs have some element of unearned privilege; perhaps almost all of us got at least part of our salaries by indirectly expropriating someone who had as good a right to it as us.
But that’s not a good thing, and that’s not what we hope for science and engineering to be, and I truly believe that this is not the inevitable fate of the human race — that we can only squabble over scraps, and never create.
I’ve seen creation, and I’ve seen discovery. I know they’re real.
I care a lot more about whether my company achieves its goal of curing 100 rare diseases in 10 years than about the demographic makeup of our team. We have an actual mission; we are trying to do something beyond collecting spoils.
Do I rely on brilliant work by other women every day? I do. My respect for myself and my female colleagues is not incompatible with primarily caring about the mission.
Am I “turning against my own gender” because I see women as individuals first? I don’t think so. We’re half the human race, for Pete’s sake! We’re diverse. We disagree. We’re human.
When you think of “women-in-STEM” as a talking point on a political agenda, you mention Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper in passing, and move on to talking about quotas. When you think of women as individuals, you start to notice how many genuinely foundational advances were made by women — just in my own field of machine learning, Adele Cutler co-invented random forests, Corrina Cortes co-invented support vector machines, and Fei Fei Li created the famous ImageNet benchmark dataset that started a revolution in image recognition.
As a child, my favorite book was Carl Sagan’s Contact, a novel about Ellie Arroway, an astronomer loosely based on his wife Ann Druyan. The name is not an accident; like the title character in Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith, Ellie is a truth-seeking scientist who battles corruption, anti-intellectualism, and blind prejudice. Sexism is one of the challenges she faces, but the essence of her life is about wonder and curiosity. She’s what I’ve always tried to become.
I hope that, in seeking to encourage the world’s Ellies in science and technology, we remember why we’re doing that in the first place. I hope we remember humans are explorers.
Now let’s hear from another friend who wrote to me recently, and who has a slightly different take. Stacey Jeffery is a quantum computing theorist at one of my favorite research centers, CWI in Amsterdam. She completed her PhD at University of Waterloo, and has done wonderful work on quantum query complexity and other topics close to my heart. When I was being viciously attacked in the comment-171 affair, Stacey was one of the first people to send me a note of support, and I’ve never forgotten it.
Stacey Jeffery’s Commentary
I don’t think Google was right to fire Damore. This makes me a minority among people with whom I have discussed this issue. Hopefully some people come out in the comments in support of the other position, so it’s not just me presenting that view, but the main argument I encountered was that what he said just sounded way too sexist for Google to put up with. I agree with part of that, it did sound sexist to me. In fact it also sounded racist to me. But that’s not because he necessarily said anything actually sexist or actually racist, but because he said the kinds of things that you usually only hear from sexist people, and in particular, the kind of sexist people who are also racist. I’m very unlikely to try to pursue further interaction with a person who says these kinds of things for those reasons, but I think firing him for what he said between the lines sets a very bad precedent. It seems to me he was fired for associating himself with the wrong ideas, and it does feel a bit like certain subjects are not up for rational discussion. If Google wants an open environment, where employees can feel safe discussing company policy, I don’t think this contributes to that. If they want their employees, and the world, to think that they aim for diversity because it’s the most rational course of action to achieve their overall objectives, rather than because it serves some secret agenda, like maintaining a PC public image, then I don’t think they’ve served that cause either. Personally, this irritates me the most, because I feel they have damaged the image for a cause I feel strongly about.
My position is independent of the validity of Damore’s attempt at scientific argument, which is outside my area of expertise. I personally don’t think it’s very productive for non-social-scientists to take authoritative positions on social science issues, especially ones that appear to be controversial within the field (but I say this as a layperson). This may include some of the other commentary in this blog post, which I have not yet read, and might even extend to Scott’s decision to comment on this issue at all (but this bridge was crossed in the previous blog post). However, I think one of the reasons that many of us do this is that the burden of solving the problem of too few women in STEM is often placed on us. Some people in STEM feel they are blamed for not being welcoming enough to women (in fact, in my specific field, it’s my experience that the majority of people are very sympathetic). Many scientific funding applications even ask applicants how they plan to address the issue of diversity, as if they should be the ones to come up with a solution for this difficult problem that nobody knows the answer to, and is not even within their expertise. So it’s not surprising when these same people start to think about and form opinions on these social science issues. Obviously, we working in STEM have valuable insight into how we might encourage women to pursue STEM careers, and we should be pushed to think about this, but we don’t have all the answers (and maybe we should remember that the next time we consider authoring an authoritative memo on the subject).
Scott’s Mansplaining Commentary
I’m incredibly grateful to Sarah and Stacey for sharing their views. Now it’s time for me to mansplain my own thoughts in light of what they said. Let me start with a seven-point creed.
1. I believe that science and engineering, both in academia and in industry, benefit enormously from contributions from people of every ethnic background and gender identity. This sort of university-president-style banality shouldn’t even need to be said, but in a world where the President of the US criticizes neo-Nazis only under extreme pressure from his own party, I suppose it does.
2. I believe that there’s no noticeable difference in average ability between men and women in STEM fields—or if there’s some small disparity, for all I know the advantage goes to women. I have enough Sheldon Cooper in me that, if this hadn’t been my experience, I’d probably let it slip that it hadn’t been, but it has been. When I taught 6.045 (undergrad computability and complexity) at MIT, women were only 20% or so of the students, but for whatever reasons they were wildly overrepresented among the top students.
3. I believe that women in STEM face obstacles that men don’t. These range from the sheer awkwardness of sometimes being the only woman in a room full of guys, to challenges related to pregnancy and childcare, to actual belittlement and harassment. Note that, even if men in STEM fields are no more sexist on average than men in other fields—or are less sexist, as one might expect from their generally socially liberal views and attitudes—the mere fact of the gender imbalance means that women in STEM will have many more opportunities to be exposed to whatever sexists there are. This puts a special burden on us to create a welcoming environment for women.
4. Given that we know that gender gaps in interest and inclination appear early in life, I believe in doing anything we can to encourage girls’ interest in STEM fields. Trust me, my four-year-old daughter Lily wishes I didn’t believe so fervently in working with her every day on her math skills.
5. I believe that gender diversity is valuable in itself. It’s just nicer, for men and women alike, to have a work environment with many people of both sexes—especially if (as is often the case in STEM) so much of our lives revolves around our work. I think that affirmative action for women, women-only scholarships and conferences, and other current efforts to improve gender diversity can all be defended and supported on that ground alone.
6. I believe that John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women is one of the masterpieces of history, possibly the highest pinnacle that moral philosophy has ever reached. Everyone should read it carefully and reflect on it if they haven’t already.
7. I believe it’s a tragedy that the current holder of the US presidency is a confessed sexual predator, who’s full of contempt not merely for feminism, but for essentially every worthwhile human value. I believe those of us on the “pro-Enlightenment side” now face the historic burden of banding together to stop this thug by every legal and peaceful means available. I believe that, whenever the “good guys” tear each other down in internecine warfare—e.g. “nerds vs. feminists”—it represents a wasted opportunity and an unearned victory for the enemies of progress.
OK, now for the part that might blow some people’s minds. I hold that every single belief above is compatible with what James Damore wrote in his now-infamous memo—at least, if we’re talking about the actual words in it. In some cases, Damore even makes the above points himself. In particular, there’s nothing in what he wrote about female Googlers being less qualified on average than male Googlers, or being too neurotic to code, or anything like that: the question at hand is just why there are fewer women in these positions, and that in turn becomes a question about why there are fewer women earlier in the CS pipeline. Reasonable people need not agree about the answers to those questions, or regard them as known or obvious, to see that the failure to make this one elementary distinction, between quality and quantity, already condemns 95% of Damore’s attackers as not having read or understood what he wrote.
Let that be the measure of just how terrifyingly efficient the social-media outrage machine has become at twisting its victims’ words to fit a clickbait narrative—a phenomenon with which I happen to be personally acquainted. Strikingly, it seems not to make the slightest difference if (as in this case) the original source text is easily available to everyone.
Still, while most coverage of Damore’s memo was depressing in its monotonous incomprehension, dissent was by no means confined to the right-wingers eager to recruit Damore to their side. Peter Singer—the legendary leftist moral philosopher, and someone whose fearlessness and consistency I’ve always admired whether I’ve agreed with him or not—wrote a powerful condemnation of Google’s decision to fire Damore. Scott Alexander was brilliant as usual in picking apart bad arguments. Megan McArdle drew on her experiences to illustrate some of Damore’s contentions. Steven Pinker tweeted that Damore’s firing “makes [the] job of anti-Trumpists harder.”
Like Peter Singer, and also like Sarah Constantin and Stacey Jeffery above, I have no plans to take any position on biological differences in male and female inclinations and cognitive styles, and what role (if any) such differences might play in 80% of Google engineers being male—or, for that matter, what role they might play in 80% of graduating veterinarians now being female, or other striking gender gaps. I decline to take a position not only because I’m not an expert, but also because, as Singer says, doing so isn’t necessary to reach the right verdict about Damore’s firing. It suffices to note that the basic thesis being discussed—namely, that natural selection doesn’t stop at the neck, and that it’s perfectly plausible that it acted differently on women and men in ways that might help explain many of the population-level differences that we see today—can also be found in, for example, The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, and other mainstream works by some of the greatest thinkers alive.
And therefore I say: if James Damore deserves to be fired from Google, for treating evolutionary psychology as potentially relevant to social issues, then Steven Pinker deserves to be fired from Harvard for the same offense.
Yes, I realize that a employee of a private company is different from a tenured professor. But I don’t see why it’s relevant here. For if someone really believes that mooting the hypothesis of an evolutionary reason for average differences in cognitive styles between men and women, is enough by itself to create a hostile environment for women—well then, why should tenure be a bar to firing, any more than it is in cases of sexual harassment?
But the reductio needn’t stop there. It seems to me that, if Damore deserves to be fired, then so do the 56% of Googlers who said in a poll that they opposed his firing. For isn’t that 56% just as responsible for maintaining a hostile environment as Damore himself was? (And how would Google find out which employees opposed the firing? Well, if there’s any company on earth that could…) Furthermore, after those 56% of Googlers are fired, any of the remaining 44% who think the 56% shouldn’t have been fired should be fired as well! And so on iteratively, until only an ideologically reliable core remains, which might or might not be the empty set.
OK, but while the wider implications of Damore’s firing have frightened and depressed me all week, as I said, I depart from Damore on the question of affirmative action and other diversity policies. Fundamentally, what I want is a sort of negotiated agreement or bargain, between STEM nerds and the wider culture in which they live. The agreement would work like this: STEM nerds do everything they can to foster diversity, including by creating environments that are welcoming for women, and by supporting affirmative action, women-only scholarships and conferences, and other diversity policies. The STEM nerds also agree never to talk in public about possible cognitive-science explanations for gender disparities in which careers people choose, or overlapping bell curves, or anything else potentially inflammatory. In return, just two things:
- Male STEM nerds don’t regularly get libelled as misogynist monsters, who must be scaring all the women away with their inherently gross, icky, creepy, discriminatory brogrammer maleness.
- The fields beloved by STEM nerds are suffered to continue to exist, rather than getting destroyed and rebuilt along explicitly ideological lines, as already happened with many humanities and social science fields.
So in summary, neither side advances its theories about the causes of gender gaps; both sides simply agree that there are more interesting topics to explore. In concrete terms, the social-justice side gets to retain 100% of what it has now, or maybe even expand it. And all it has to offer in exchange is “R-E-S-P-E-C-T“! Like, don’t smear and shame male nerds as a class, or nerdy disciplines themselves, for gender gaps that the male nerds would be as happy as anybody to see eradicated.
The trouble is that, fueled by outrage-fests on social media, I think the social-justice side is currently failing to uphold its end of this imagined bargain. Nearly every day the sun rises to yet another thinkpiece about the toxic “bro culture” of Silicon Valley: a culture so uniquely and incorrigibly misogynist, it seems, that it still intentionally keeps women out, even after law and biology and most other white-collar fields have achieved or exceeded gender parity, their own “bro cultures” notwithstanding. The trouble with this slander against male STEM nerds, besides its fundamental falsity (which Scott Alexander documented), is that puts the male nerds into an impossible position. For how can they refute the slander without talking about other possible explanations for fields like CS being 80% male, which is the very thing we all know they’re not supposed to talk about?
In Europe, in the Middle Ages, the Church would sometimes enjoy forcing the local Jews into “disputations” about whose religion was the true one. At these events, a popular tactic on the Church’s side was to make statements that the Jews couldn’t possibly answer without blaspheming the name of Christ—which, of course, could lead to the Jews’ expulsion or execution if they dared it.
Maybe I have weird moral intuitions, but it’s hard for me to imagine a more contemptible act of intellectual treason, than deliberately trapping your opponents between surrender and blasphemy. I’d actually rather have someone force me into one or the other, than make me choose, and thereby make me responsible for whichever choice I made. So I believe the social-justice left would do well to forswear this trapping tactic forever.
Ironically, I suspect that in the long term, doing so would benefit no entity more than the social-justice left itself. If I had to steelman, in one sentence, the argument that in the space of one year propelled the “alt-right” from obscurity in dark and hateful corners of the Internet, to the improbable and ghastly ascent of Donald Trump and his white-nationalist brigade to the most powerful office on earth, the argument would be this:
If the elites, the technocrats, the “Cathedral”-dwellers, were willing to lie to the masses about humans being blank slates—and they obviously were—then why shouldn’t we assume that they also lied to us about healthcare and free trade and guns and climate change and everything else?
We progressives deluded ourselves that we could permanently shame our enemies into silence, on pain of sexism, racism, xenophobia, and other blasphemies. But the “victories” won that way were hollow and illusory, and the crumbling of the illusion brings us to where we are now: with a vindictive, delusional madman in the White House who has a non-negligible chance of starting a nuclear war this week.
The Enlightenment was a specific historical period in 18th-century Europe. But the term can also be used much more broadly, to refer to every trend in human history that’s other than horrible. Seen that way, the Enlightenment encompasses the scientific revolution, the abolition of slavery, the decline of all forms of violence, the spread of democracy and literacy, and the liberation of women from domestic drudgery to careers of their own choosing. The invention of Google, which made the entire world’s knowledge just a search bar away, is now also a permanent part of the story of the Enlightenment.
I fantasize that, within my lifetime, the Enlightenment will expand further to tolerate a diversity of cognitive styles—including people on the Asperger’s and autism spectrum, with their penchant for speaking uncomfortable truths—as well as a diversity of natural abilities and inclinations. Society might or might not get the “demographically correct” percentage of Ellie Arroways—Ellie might decide to become a doctor or musician rather than an astronomer, and that’s fine too—but most important, it will nurture all the Ellie Arroways that it gets, all the misfits and explorers of every background. I wonder whether, while disagreeing on exactly what’s meant by it, all parties to this debate could agree that diversity represents a next frontier for the Enlightenment.
Comment Policy: Any comment, from any side, that attacks people rather than propositions will be deleted. I don’t care if the comment also makes useful points: if it contains a single ad hominem, it’s out.
As it happens, I’m at a quantum supremacy workshop in Bristol, UK right now—yeah, yeah, I’m a closet supremacist after all, hur hur—so I probably won’t participate in the comments until later.