I got lots of response, both public and private, to my blog post titled “Google’s Bad Boy,” on Google’s firing of James Damore, who had written a negative analysis of Google’s diversity hiring policies, especially regarding women. I must say that those responses, like the coverage of incident (pro and con) in the media, exhibited a lot more emotion that careful, impartial, open-minded thinking. This clearly is a topic on which different, reasonably-thinking people can come to different conclusions, but unfortunately emotion has tended to prevail in this instance.
A number of readers were upset that I had defended Google’s firing Damore. The fact is, though, that I didn’t say any such thing. On the contrary, when the San Jose Mercury News interviewed me last Monday (at a time that it was not yet known whether Damore would be fired), I stated, no, Damore should NOT be fired. (The reporter ultimately did not use my remarks.) By the time I wrote my post on Wednesday, Damore had been fired, and it had become clear that Google had been forced to fire him for legal reasons, whether they wanted to or not. So I did not comment in my blog on the propriety of the firing, just not an interesting issue to me at that point.
Though missed by many readers, my prime objection to Damore’s essay concerned the blind faith he placed in biological scientific research that supports the Nature side in “Nature vs. Nurture.” Hardly surprising, given his own background in biology research, but in fact that means that he should be extra vigilant about confirmation bias, which he was not.
Contrary to Damore’s unquestioning acceptance of science, there is fairly wide agreement today that science is in a crisis. Plug the term “reproducibility crisis” into (pardon me) Google, and you will see a ton of statements from top researchers and editors of scientific journals who are really bothered by the sorry state of science. The fact is that people have started to realize that Emperor Science has no clothes. There is lack of transparency, sloppy handling of data, erroneous use of statistical methodology, failure to check for inter-laboratory variation, unconscious assumptions, and last but not least, out and out fraud, which is more common than the average person realizes. The Website, Retraction Watch, does a thriving business; indeed, it seems they can hardly keep up.
And that is just what is blatant enough to be caught. The (sincere but still destructive) misuse of statistics is a huge problem, especially issues of effect size, such as those relating to the difference between statistical significance and practical significance. One scientist quoted widely by pro-Damore journalists, Deborah Soh, wrote:
This includes a study that analyzed the exact same brain data from the original study and found that the sex of a given brain could be correctly identified with 69-per-cent to 77-per-cent accuracy.
Use your common sense, folks! I don’t want to go off on a tangent here on the details of the studies and counter-studies, not to mention how much of that gender difference itself is due to Nurture (thinking produces furrows in the brain etc.), but what in the world does this “brain gender identifiability” have to do with software development? Are the brain measurement differences seen by the researchers large enough to make any kind of practical difference in programming talent? Soh is making a huge leap here. Similar statements can be made for the various distributional differences cited by Damore in his essay.
A related matter is the common study flaw I mentioned in my blog post, in which rats with virtually no variation in Nurture are tested and found — surprise, surprise — to indicate that Nature is much more important than Nurture.
It is thus no wonder that research in the Nature vs. Nurture issue has been riddled with the academic equivalent of “he said, she said” disputes, with many studies supporting each side of the issue. Obviously Damore is wrong to simply choose studies supporting his side, and even more wrong to make statements claiming that engineers such as he rely only on facts, and worse still for couching his opinions in ideological terms. I dare say that Damore and his supporters live in their own Echo Chamber, just like the one he rightly pointed out rules at Google.
I stated my belief that in intellectual activity such as software development, Nurture has far more effect than Nature. (Nurture, of course, is meant as a metaphor for all inputs a person receives, both while growing up and later on.) I wrote that this belief has been formed by long years of observation of students, children and so on. Note, though, that I simply stated it as a belief; I did not offer proof, and am in fact skeptical that it is possible to firmly prove or disprove such a thing.
For some readers, the assumption of a major Nature effect was so ingrained that they took statements I made in my post citing certain differences between the genders as a contradiction to my dismissal of Nature. They didn’t notice that I was attributing the differences I cited to Nurture.
Others referred me to such-and-such an author or so-and-so a YouTube video, saying that I then would see the light. Sorry, no light emerged for me. Could be my own failure, but my view, again, is that their views are so ingrained that they saw certain things as “obvious” which might be seen by some others as vague, inconclusive or plain old wrong.
One reader whom I particularly respect brought up the subject of competitive chess, in which men dominate, and which he seemed to show that Nature plays a major role in chess-playing ability. What he didn’t realize that I was planning to cite chess as yet another reason for my belief that Nurture is the key factor, not Nature.
I have been fascinated, indeed inspired, by the story of “The Queen of Katwe,” Phiona Mutesi, an African girl who grew up in such poverty that the word abject would be a gross understatement, but who became an amazing chess prodigy. Nurture here was not having a grandmaster coach and so on, just an extremely intense level of single-minded determinedness to beat everyone in sight. She dreams chess openings and end games like the top programmers dream about compilers and OOP languages. I submit that these traits of hers came from Nurture, especially the excruciating poverty and injustice in which she grew up, and her mother’s heroic efforts to keep the family together after the passing of her husband.
Again, Ms. Mutesi’s story is just one of many, many incidents that have shaped my views, hardly proof. On the contrary, some would insist that she has a Chess Gene. But really, does that sound plausible to you? Well, not to me.
Just how far does the Damore crowd want to take this gene stuff, anyway? Why stop at saying that Linus Torvalds (inventor of Linux) has a Programming Gene? Maybe what he really has is an Open Source Operating System Kernel Gene? And that fellow Einstein must have really won the genetics sweepstakes, having been blessed not with a Physics Gene but with both a Relativity Gene and Photoelectric Effect Gene, eh? Economics? Well, obviously John Keynes was born with a Deficit Spending Gene while Arthur Laffer possessed a Trickle Down Gene.
Pardon my sarcasm (second post in a row now). But I hope I might have planted here at least a seed of doubt in the Damore crowd as to the validity of his arguments.