in Politics, Tech

Cotton, hay, and rags: giving bias the veneer of rationality

As you’ve surely heard by now, a mid-level engineer at Google—he’s anonymous, so I’ll call him Mr. Rationalface—wrote a memo called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” in which he argued that “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.” (His words, not mine.) In response, recently former Google engineer Yonatan Zunger wrote the simply-titled “About this Googler’s manifesto,” in which he argues it’s manifest bullshit. (My words, not Zunger’s).

Between the time I started writing this and now, news has come out that Mr. Rationalface has been fired. I’ll come back to that.

I’ve been thinking about responses I saw on Hacker News to Zunger’s piece. The most common defense of Mr. Rationalface’s thesis was to restate its core premise: This whole drive for diversity rests on the premise that there’s no difference between men and women, but the falsehood of that is apparent to even the most casual of observers.

This is a common rhetorical trick I see in this particular corner of the internet (i.e., rationalists who want to rationally prove that PC SJW WTFery is irrational): restate the opposing premise incorrectly, then commence a full frontal assault on the restatement. Of course there are biological differences between men and women; who claimed otherwise? Mr. Rationalface proceeds from here to assert the following totally objective, non-sexist truths:

  • Women are more open toward feelings and aesthetics, while men are more open to ideas.
  • Women have more empathy than men, while men have more interest in systematizing.
  • Women are gregarious and agreeable; men are assertive!
  • Women are more neurotic, with higher anxiety and lower stress tolerance.
  • Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that! Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags!

Whoops! While the first four are from Mr. Rationalface, that last bullet point was from noted academic rationalist Henry Higgins.

A fairer way to state the “pro-diversity” case is more like, some perceived differences between men and women used to justify associating higher-paying professions with men are rooted in dubious stereotypes. And we can test whether there’s prima facie evidence for that by looking at the actual history of software engineering. In the early days, it was women’s work: it was seen as more like filing and typing than math and logic—the hard stuff was the hardware. But by the mid-1970s, it was men’s work. But the work hadn’t changed. What changed was the perception of the work: society started to consider it high-status white collar work rather than low.

I know that—irony of ironies—I’m trying to rationally analyze an argument that is, at its heart, not about rationality at all. It’s about reclaiming ground in the Great Culture War. If the gender disparity in the engineering workforce at Google reflects something broken in their culture, it demands a solution that involves taking action one might call “affirmative.” PC! SJW! Cthluhu fhtagn! So don’t even allow the possibility that the problem is in the culture. If the problem isn’t in the culture, it must be in women. The solutions offered must involve working with and around Essential Feminine Nature.

But it’s the argument style that leaves me fascinated, the same style employed by many of his defenders, and a style that echoes through GamerGate, the Sad Puppies and other geeky outposts in the Great Culture War. If I may engage in some stereotyping myself, it’s an argument style beloved of folks who are mostly white, mostly male, mostly under 30, and mostly a little too sure of their razor-sharp logic. I don’t think this kind of guy gets redpilled because of deep-rooted anxiety over losing white male privilege—I think they get redpilled because it’s just effin’ cool to be told you’re one of the few people smart enough to see reality as it is, rather than buying into the conventional wisdom that traps all the other sheeple. This is why so many fringers, from anti-vaxxers to white supremacists, construct elaborate, nearly-logical theories built on a stack of unexamined premises. This is obvious to the most casual of observers, so let’s move on, they say, while the rest of us sheeple are making the time-out signal and saying wait, what?

Isn’t it obvious when premises are false? Isn’t this willful—and malicious—ignorance? Sometimes. If we’re honest with ourselves, more often than not. But the more boxes you tick on the cis-het-white-male line, the more advantages you get for no actual work on your part. You have, if I might be so bold, a rational self-interest in supporting arguments that those advantages are immutable nature, and attacking arguments that they’re uncomfortably squishy social constructs. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his social status depends on his not understanding it.”

So about Mr. Rationalface’s firing. If I were his manager, would I have canned him? I admit I’m not comfortable with hey, it’ll only chill the speech we don’t want; you can’t know that only the “right” group of people will take away exactly the message you intend to send. (Exhibit A: Hacker News.) But as Yonatan Zunger noted, a substantial number of Mr. R’s (former) coworkers were likely furious; he might as well have scrawled Does Not Work Well With Others, Especially Wimmen across his face with a Sharpie. From a—dare I say it—coldly rational standpoint, Google HR gets a firestorm no matter what, but keeping him risks a second, bigger firestorm when he shoots his mouth (or text editor) off to a coworker again.

I looked back at Hacker News briefly on the day of his firing and saw, well, what I expected. This is an outrage! This proves all the author’s points! This was not the anti-diversity manifesto the SJWs are claiming it is, it’s a well-written, polite, logical argument! It definitely had the appearance of logic, and it was debatably civil. But from its mischaracterization of the “pro-diversity” arguments through its “you’d agree with me if bias wasn’t blinding you to my truth” conclusion, it was precisely what its critics claimed it was. It’s easy to say Mr. Rationalface lost his job for not kowtowing to liberal groupthink, but sometimes a burning bridge is just a burning bridge.

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  1. Burning bridges is never a good idea, whether you are right or wrong in your assertions. After all, you might need to use it again.

    Oh, what about the whole reaction and the incident causing it? It’d be nice to have an opposing opinion . . . even if it’s built on bad premises and misunderstandings . . . met with something other than pitchforks. I may be off-base but I’d rather say “thank you for your view, but we don’t agree on this” and move on.

    Unfortunately, when opposing opinions meet someone has to “win”. Someone has to be “wrong”. We’d probably do much better just having a time-out prior to the pitchforks and going “we aren’t going to agree on this, let’s move on”.

    Then again . . . the Internet does love to get out the popcorn and watch drama after stirring the pot for a while.

  2. You did a bit of mischaracterizing yourself. Agreeableness, gregariousness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, etc. are jargon terms from big five personality trait research. That approach has its critics, and ultimately it may not have much to say about what happens at Google. But someone else will have to write that article, I guess.
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits

    • I did know those were “personality trait” jargon terms before I wrote the post (although I confess not very long, since it came up in the context of the original Googler’s post). But it seemed like a bit of a sidetrack from my post, which was already getting rather long as it was, at least by my standards. I admire Scott Alexander’s ability to write novella-length missives on Slate Star Codex—and know he’s way less likely to have people pop up with valid criticisms, like yours—but I don’t have the stamina for that. 🙂

      I don’t doubt that there’s a statistically significant variance between the way women and men as a population perform on personality trait tests, but—even setting aside the question of how useful the tests are—the Googler’s piece takes it as a given that those traits explain why there are fewer women engineers at Google. That seems to me to be an unexamined, or at least poorly examined, premise—and even if we accept it, I don’t think his conclusions about diversity programs necessarily follow. (“Actively recruiting minorities requires you to pass over more qualified majority candidates” certainly could be an outcome, but it’s by no means required by the mandate.)

      • That sounds like the beginning of a better refutation of his point than you provided in the main article.

Webmentions

  • “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his social status depends on his not understanding it.” coyotetracks.org/2017/08/cotton…

  • Scruffian Tufty reposted this Article on twitter.com.