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The Google Memo: Four Scientists Respond

Lee Jussim

Professor Lee Jussim

Lee Jussim is a professor of social psychology at Rutgers University and was a Fellow and Consulting Scholar at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (2013-15).  He has served as chair of the Psychology Department at Rutgers University and has received the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize, and the APA Early Career Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology.  He has published numerous articles and chapters and edited several books on social perception, accuracy, self-fulfilling prophecies, and stereotypes. His most recent book, Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, ties that work together to demonstrate that people are far more reasonable and rational, and their judgments are typically far more accurate than social psychological conventional wisdom usually acknowledges. You can follow the twitter account: @PsychRabble for updates from his lab.

The author of the Google essay on issues related to diversity gets nearly all of the science and its implications exactly right. Its main points are that: 1. Neither the left nor the right gets diversity completely right; 2. The social science evidence on implicit and explicit bias has been wildly oversold and is far weaker than most people seem to realize; 3. Google has, perhaps unintentionally, created an authoritarian atmosphere that has stifled discussion of these issues by stigmatizing anyone who disagrees as a bigot and instituted authoritarian policies of reverse discrimination; 4. The policies and atmosphere systematically ignore biological, cognitive, educational, and social science research on the nature and sources of individual and group differences. I cannot speak to the atmosphere at Google, but: 1. Give that the author gets everything else right, I am pretty confident he is right about that too; 2. It is a painfully familiar atmosphere, one that is a lot like academia.

Here, I mainly focus on the reactions to the essay on the Gizmodo site, which indirectly and ironically validate much of the author’s analysis. Very few of the comments actually engage the arguments; they just fling insults and slurs. Yes, slurs. In 1960, the most common slurs were insulting labels for demographic groups. In 2017, the most common slurs involve labelling anyone who you disagree with on issues such as affirmative action, diversity, gaps, and inequality as a racist, sexist, homophobe, or bigot.

This starts with the title of the Gizmodo post, which labels the article as a “screed,” which dictionary.com defines as a “rant.”

This essay may not get everything 100% right, but it is certainly not a rant. And it stands in sharp contrast to most of the comments, which are little more than snarky modern slurs. The arrogance of most of the comments reflects exactly the type of smug self-appointed superiority that has led to widespread resentment of the left among reasonable people. To the extent that such views correspond to those at Google, they vindicate the essayist’s claims about the authoritarian and repressive atmosphere there. Even the response by Google’s new VP in charge of diversity simply ignores all of the author’s arguments, and vacuously affirms Google’s commitment to diversity. The essay is vastly more thoughtful, linked to the science, and well-reasoned than nearly all of the comments. If I had one recommendation, it would be this: That, before commenting on these issues, Google executives read two books: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.

Mill: “…unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them.”

Haidt: “If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you.”

Lee Jussim’s recommended reading list on this topic can be found below. 

David P Schmitt

Professor David P Schmitt

Since earning his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in personality psychology from the University of Michigan David P. Schmitt has authored or co-authored more than 50 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. He is founder and director of the International Sexuality Description Project (ISDP). The ISDP is among the largest-ever cross-cultural research teams, involving over 200 psychologists from nearly 60 countries around the world whose collaborative studies investigate how culture, personality, and gender combine to influence sexual attitudes and behaviors.served two terms as Chair of the Psychology Department at Bradley University from 2005-2010. He blogs at Psychology Today and you can follow him on Twitter @PsychoSchmitt

A Google employee recently shared a memo that referenced some of my scholarly research on psychological sex differences (e.g., personality traits, mate preferences, status-seeking). Alongside other evidence, the employee argued, in part, that this research indicates affirmative action policies based on biological sex are misguided. Maybe, maybe not. Let me explain.

I think it’s really important to discuss this topic scientifically, keeping an open mind and using informed skepticism when evaluating claims about evidence. In the case of personality traits, evidence that men and women may have different average levels of certain traits is rather strong. For instance, sex differences in negative emotionality are universal across cultures; developmentally emerge across all cultures at exactly the same time; are linked to diagnosed (not just self-reported) mental health issues; appear rooted in sex differences in neurology, gene activation, and hormones; are larger in more gender egalitarian nations; and so forth (for a short review of this evidence, see here.)

But it is not clear to me how such sex differences are relevant to the Google workplace. And even if sex differences in negative emotionality were relevant to occupational performance (e.g., not being able to handle stressful assignments), the size of these negative emotion sex differences is not very large (typically, ranging between “small” to “moderate” in statistical effect size terminology; accounting for less than 10% of the variance). So, using someone’s biological sex to essentialize an entire group of people’s personality would be like operating with an axe. Not precise enough to do much good, probably will cause a lot of harm. Moreover, men are more emotional than women in certain ways, too. Sex differences in emotion depend on the type of emotion, how it is measured, where it is expressed, when it is expressed, and lots of other contextual factors.

As to sex differences in mate preferences and status-seeking, these topics also have been heavily researched across cultures (for a review, see here).  Again, though, most of these sex differences are moderate in size and in my view are unlikely to be all that relevant to the Google workplace (accounting for, perhaps, a few percentage points of the variability between men’s and women’s performances). Sex differences in occupational interests, personal values, and certain cognitive abilities are a bit larger in size (see here), but most psychological sex differences are only small to moderate in size, and rather than grouping men and women into dichotomous groups, I think sex and sex differences are best thought of scientifically as multidimensional dials, anyway (see here.)

Now, treating people as dichotomous sexes is exactly what many affirmative action policies do. As this is not my area of expertise, I can only offer my non-expert opinion on this issue, which is this: There have been (and likely will continue to be) many socio-structural barriers to women working in technological jobs. These include culturally-embedded gender stereotypes, biased socialization practices, in some cultures explicit employment discrimination, and a certain degree of masculinization of technological workplaces. Within this sea of gender bias, should Google use various practices (affirmative action is not just one thing) to especially encourage capable women of joining (and enjoying) the Google workplace? I vote yes. At the same time, should we be able to openly discuss and be informed by some of the real psychological sex differences that might account for variation in men’s and women’s workplace performance? In the right context, I vote yes to that, too.

Geoffrey Miller

Associate Professor Geoffrey Miller

Geoffrey Miller is an evolutionary psychology professor at University of New Mexico. He is the author of The Mating Mind, Mating Intelligence, Spent, and What Women Want. His research has focused on sexual selection, mate choice, human sexuality, intelligence, humor, creativity, personality traits, evolutionary psychopathology, behavior genetics, consumer behavior, evolutionary aesthetics, research ethics, virtue signaling, and Effective Altruism. He did a podcast called The Mating Grounds; you can follow him on Twitter @primalpoly.

An anonymous male software engineer recently distributed a memo titled ‘Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber’. Within hours, this memo unleashed a firestorm of negative commentary, most of which ignored the memo’s evidence-based arguments. Among commentators who claim the memo’s empirical facts are wrong, I haven’t read a single one who understand sexual selection theory, animal behavior, and sex differences research.

When the memo went viral, thousands of journalists and bloggers transformed themselves overnight from not understanding evolutionary psychology at all to claiming enough expertise to criticize the whole scientific literature on biological sex differences.

It was like watching Trinity downloading the pilot program for flying the B-212 helicopter in The Matrix. Such fast learners! (Even Google’s new ‘VP of Diversity’, Danielle Brown, criticized the memo because it ‘advanced incorrect assumptions about gender’; I was impressed to see that her Michigan State B.A. in Business and her U. Michigan M.B.A. qualify her to judge the scientific research.)

For what it’s worth, I think that almost all of the Google memo’s empirical claims are scientifically accurate. Moreover, they are stated quite carefully and dispassionately. Its key claims about sex differences are especially well-supported by large volumes of research across species, cultures, and history. I know a little about sex differences research. On the topic of evolution and human sexuality, I’ve taught for 28 years, written 4 books and over 100 academic publications, given 190 talks, reviewed papers for over 50 journals, and mentored 11 Ph.D. students. Whoever the memo’s author is, he has obviously read a fair amount about these topics. Graded fairly, his memo would get at least an A- in any masters’ level psychology course. It is consistent with the scientific state of the art on sex differences. (Blank slate gender feminism is advocacy rather than science: no gender feminist I’ve met has ever been able to give a coherent answer to the question ‘What empirical findings would convince you that psychological sex differences evolved?’)

Here, I just want to take a step back from the memo controversy, to highlight a paradox at the heart of the ‘equality and diversity’ dogma that dominates American corporate life. The memo didn’t address this paradox directly, but I think it’s implicit in the author’s critique of Google’s diversity programs. This dogma relies on two core assumptions:

  • The human sexes and races have exactly the same minds, with precisely identical distributions of traits, aptitudes, interests, and motivations; therefore, any inequalities of outcome in hiring and promotion must be due to systemic sexism and racism;
  • The human sexes and races have such radically different minds, backgrounds, perspectives, and insights, that companies must increase their demographic diversity in order to be competitive; any lack of demographic diversity must be due to short-sighted management that favors groupthink.

The obvious problem is that these two core assumptions are diametrically opposed.

Let me explain. If different groups have minds that are precisely equivalent in every respect, then those minds are functionally interchangeable, and diversity would be irrelevant to corporate competitiveness. For example, take sex differences. The usual rationale for gender diversity in corporate teams is that a balanced, 50/50 sex ratio will keep a team from being dominated by either masculine or feminine styles of thinking, feeling, and communicating. Each sex will counter-balance the other’s quirks. (That makes sense to me, by the way, and is one reason why evolutionary psychologists often value gender diversity in research teams.) But if there are no sex differences in these psychological quirks, counter-balancing would be irrelevant. A 100% female team would function exactly the same as a 50/50 team, which would function the same as a 100% male team. If men are no different from women, then the sex ratio in a team doesn’t matter at any rational business level, and there is no reason to promote gender diversity as a competitive advantage.

Likewise, if the races are no different from each other, then the racial mix of a company can’t rationally matter to the company’s bottom line. The only reasons to value diversity would be at the levels of legal compliance with government regulations, public relations virtue-signalling, and deontological morality – not practical effectiveness. Legal, PR, and moral reasons can be good reasons for companies to do things. But corporate diversity was never justified to shareholders as a way to avoid lawsuits, PR blowback, or moral shame; it was justified as a competitive business necessity.

So, if the sexes and races don’t differ at all, and if psychological interchangeability is true, then there’s no practical business case for diversity.

On the other hand, if demographic diversity gives a company any competitive advantages, it must be because there are important sex differences and race differences in how human minds work and interact. For example, psychological variety must promote better decision-making within teams, projects, and divisions. Yet if minds differ across sexes and races enough to justify diversity as an instrumental business goal, then they must differ enough in some specific skills, interests, and motivations that hiring and promotion will sometimes produce unequal outcomes in some company roles. In other words, if demographic diversity yields any competitive advantages due to psychological differences between groups, then demographic equality of outcome cannot be achieved in all jobs and all levels within a company. At least, not without discriminatory practices such as affirmative action or demographic quotas.

So, psychological interchangeability makes diversity meaningless. But psychological differences make equal outcomes impossible. Equality or diversity. You can’t have both.

Weirdly, the same people who advocate for equality of outcome in every aspect of corporate life, also tend to advocate for diversity in every aspect of corporate life. They don’t even see the fundamentally irreconcilable assumptions behind this ‘equality and diversity’ dogma.

Why didn’t the thousands of people working to promote equality and diversity in corporate America acknowledge this paradox? Why did it take a male software engineer at Google who’s read a bunch of evolutionary psychology? I suspect that it’s a problem of that old tradeoff between empathizing and systematizing that I wrote about in this Quillette article on neurodiversity and free speech. The high empathizers in HR and the diversity industry prioritize caring for women and minorities over developing internally coherent, evidence-based models of human nature and society. High systematizers, such as this memo’s author, prioritize the opposite. Indeed, he explicitly calls for ‘de-emphasizing empathy’ and ‘de-moralizing diversity’, arguing that ‘being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts’. He is right.

His most important suggestion though is apparently the most contentious: ‘Be open about the science of human nature’. He writes ‘Once we acknowledge that not all differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination, we open our eyes to a more accurate view of the human condition which is necessary if we actually want to solve problems.’ This is also correct. If American businesses want to remain competitive in a global market, they must open their eyes to the research, and ground their policies in the known facts about the genetic evolution of sex differences, rather than blank slate delusions about the ‘social construction of gender’.

American businesses also have to face the fact that the demographic differences that make diversity useful will not lead to equality of outcome in every hire or promotion. Equality or diversity: choose one. In my opinion, given that sex differences are so well-established, and the sexes have such intricately complementary quirks, it may often be sensible, in purely practical business terms, to aim for more equal sex ratios in many corporate teams, projects, and divisions.

The evolutionary psychology research on sex differences is one of the best reasons to promote sexual diversity in the workplace – and one of the best reasons to expect that there may still be some inequalities of outcome in particular jobs, companies, and industries.

Debra W Soh

Debra W Soh PhD 

Debra W Soh is a Toronto based science writer who has a PhD in sexual neuroscience from the University of York. Her dissertation used four types of neuroimaging, including structural and functional MRI, to investigate brain differences associated with sexual orientation, paraphilias (or unusual sexual interests), and hypersexuality. You can find her columns in The Globe and Mail, Playboy, LA Times and elsewhere. You can also follow her on Twitter @DrDebraSoh

As a woman who’s worked in academia and within STEM, I didn’t find the memo offensive or sexist in the least. I found it to be a well thought out document, asking for greater tolerance for differences in opinion, and treating people as individuals instead of based on group membership.

Within the field of neuroscience, sex differences between women and men—when it comes to brain structure and function and associated differences in personality and occupational preferences—are understood to be true, because the evidence for them (thousands of studies) is strong. This is not information that’s considered controversial or up for debate; if you tried to argue otherwise, or for purely social influences, you’d be laughed at.

Sex researchers recognize that these differences are not inherently supportive of sexism or stratifying opportunities based on sex. It is only because a group of individuals have chosen to interpret them that way, and to subsequently deny the science around them, that we have to have this conversation at a public level. Some of these ideas have been published in neuroscientific journals—despite having faulty study methodology—because they’ve been deemed socially pleasing and “progressive.” As a result, there’s so much misinformation out there now that people genuinely don’t know what to believe.

No matter how controversial it is or how great the pushback, I believe it’s important to speak out, because if we can’t discuss scientific truths, where does that leave us?

***

 

Lee Jussim’s Recommended Reading

Haidt & Jussim, May 16, 2016, Hard Truths about Race on Campus. Wall Street Journal.

Jussim, L. (2017). Why to Girls Tend to Prefer Non-STEM Careers? Psychology Today.

Jussim, L. (2017). Gender Bias in STEM or Biased Claims of Gender Bias? Psychology Today.

Ceci & Williams (2011). Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 3157-3162.

Duarte et al (2015). Political diversity will improve social psychological science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, doi:10.1017/S0140525X14000430, e130

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate. New York: Penguin Books

Wang et al (2013). Not lack of ability but more choice: Individual and gender differences in choice in careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Psychological Science, 24, 770-775.

Williams & Ceci (2015). National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112, 5360-5365.

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