Anthropologists need to address the Google memo on its merits. Again.

When Google engineer James Damore wrote his now-infamous memo about how woman are naturally unsuited to work at Google, anthropologists everywhere groaned inwardly. Our discipline’s lot in life is tragic. After about a century of research, we have a pretty good understanding of how human beings work. And yet, our findings run counter to what the average American’s ideas about how society and culture function. As a result, we face the unenviable task of having to constantly explain, over and over again, generation in and generation out, our truths to a skeptical public. It sucks. It’s tempting to throw up your hands and walk away from discussion. But we have no choice: Our integrity as scholars and scientists demands that we wade in to every public debate about race, gender, and human nature in order to explain — once again — how people actually work.

Damore’s memo exemplifies a now too-familiar trend: A bright person receive no real social science training in high school or college. They start thinking about human nature for the first time. They  use their intuitions to start generating hypotheses about the difference between men and women. And voila — Google memo!

There are lots of scientific conclusions out there in the world: The Pacific was settled from Asia, not North America. Gold has one more proton in its nucleus than platinum. The Battle of Hastings happened in 1066. Most Americans don’t wake up every morning and say “wait as second, does gold really have one more proton in its nucleus than platinum? That just doesn’t seem right to me.” And yet the James Damores of the world do wake up every morning and say “wait a second, do women really have what it takes to survive in a brutal work place environment? That just doesn’t seem right to me.” Why is the first finding accepted and the second is questioned?

The answer is: incorrect claims about the weight of gold have no cultural appeal. Incorrect claims about the incompetence of women, on the other hand, have tremendous cultural appeal for people like James Damore, because he has been socialized into a culture which has very strong feelings about the essential nature of men and women, and not very strong feelings about how heavy gold is.

Armed with the intuition that women can’t code, the James Damores of the world can then get on the Internet and find a large body of poor, discredited science which confirms exactly what they’ve suspected. They can also find existing, non-suck research and string it together in a way that doesn’t really make sense. Simple answers of precisely the sort you were hoping to hear — who doesn’t love that?!? The Internet is a massive graveyard of latent possibilities, waiting to be dusted off and employed by people who have been trained to optimize algorithms, but not to think critically as citizens about the world we are building together.

This is what anthropologists face: The self-perpetuating loop of the cultural appeal. Someone comes up with an idea for what they think is the first time. They find research that supports it. We knock it down. And then their idea is picked up by the next person in the loop. It’s like endless mode in a video game which features wave after wave of brilliant but undereducated white guys who spawn before you get a chance to heal or switch weapons.

How should we respond to Damore and others like him? On the whole, it feels like people have chosen not to engage with his ideas. Google fired him — which I imagine was in their best interests. Many on social media have argued that we should not dignify his arguments with a response. Others, especially women, have chosen not to engage, because wading into this discussion again probably feels to them like a slow, endless crucifixion. Even the abundant denunciations seem more like ad hominem attacks than genuine engagement with the merits of Damore’s claims.

We anthropologists — especially male anthropologists like myself, for whom the memo is not incredibly wounding — can never stop doing the work of concrete engagement with these issues. We must always address their substance and explain why they are wrong. And we must not trot out centuries-old Boasian nostrums and call it good. We need to keep up on current research and recognize how essentialist arguments have shifted over time. We must read generously and analyze critically. We need to be able to admit when our opponents have a point,  even when that makes us uncomfortable. It makes us credible, and stronger. Honestly, I don’t think it’ll happen too often.

This is the ‘profess’ in ‘professor’: To have these discussions, over and over again. To have the belief that you can win on the merits because your work is sound. The AAA or Sapiens should just create a fact-checking website where anthropologists do this full-time so that other people can just link to it and save themselves some time (for instance, here’s a good response). Someone needs to respond to the substance of these claims or else we really will become an ideological echo chamber. I feel both a sense of pride, sadness, and hope knowing that in the future, anthropologists will always be among the the people who engage with these issues. Again. And again. And again.

 

 

 

 

Rex

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

12 thoughts on “Anthropologists need to address the Google memo on its merits. Again.

  1. “The AAA or Sapiens should just create a fact-checking website where anthropologists do this full-time so that other people can just link to it and save themselves some time”

    This would be amazing. At the AskAnthropology subreddit we have been trying to develop a FAQ where we can do exactly that – but since we depend on the volunteer work of mostly grad students that is pretty much an uphill battle. So yes, a platform created, hosted and administered by paid professionals under a credible organisation would be a great resource for the discipline.

  2. Anthropologists may not know about NCWIT, which has been campaigning for years to get more girls into the computing fields, with notable successes in universities and in finding funding for students from Very Large Tech Companies. Many campuses have chapters that work with university students and assist them to work with younger girls. That doesn’t let anthropologists off the hook, but it means there are people ready to use what we know. https://www.ncwit.org/

  3. Agustin Fuentes has a good response – http://blogs.plos.org/scicomm/2017/08/14/the-google-manifesto-bad-biology-ignorance-of-evolutionary-processes-and-privilege/. And Holly Dunsworth talked to the Boston Globe after it came out – https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2017/08/10/how-internet-got-google-memo-wrong/US4NlaIvQ00UdsyofYbMyM/story.html. Shari Jacobson write a letter to the editor of the NY Times – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/11/opinion/the-gender-gap-in-the-tech-world.html?_r=0. And there are more examples of anthropologists talking to reporters on this topic.

  4. Yes, to the proposition that engagement with these issues is a never-ending task. Could it, however, be time to reconsider how we engage? Expressions of shock and disgust and invocations of the blessed Boas and Benedict have become so common that they fade into the background noise of 24-hour punditry. What if we did our jobs as anthropologists and probed a bit more deeply into the social and cultural contexts of the incidents we discuss before trotting out the usual cliches? We might be able to write pieces like this one: https://medium.com/@yonatanzunger/so-about-this-googlers-manifesto-1e3773ed1788?source=linkShare-5685faf21419-1502767017

  5. Reading this, one might think that anthropologists are messengers of what passes for God’s Truth in this secular age. They, unlike the mass of ignorant, deluded, or prejudiced Americans, know what social-cultural reality is. What are they to do? Throw up their hands and retreat into their esoteric world? No, tedious as it may be, they must, day after day, year after year, generation after generation, soldier on, valiantly attempting to impart their superior wisdom to the . . . Deplorables? The Irredeemables? Sounds a bit too much like the white man’s burden for my tastes. As I recall, a previous post in Anthrodendum – then Savage Minds – (perhaps Rex’s own) urged anthropologists to combat the mass delusion of Trump supporters by sharing with them the findings of their learned journals. Picture this scenario: Keen to impart their knowledge, anthropology’s true believers fan out across America, to the farms, rural hamlets, towns, cities of the heartland. There they approach folks in the field or street. “Hello. I’m from Anthrodendum, and I’ve come to discuss the role of alterity and precarity in your life.” Good luck with that.
    I don’t think this country can be groomed or fine-tuned by specialists schooled in social-cultural mechanics. “America” is a runaway train, barreling its way to destruction. Probably the best anthropologists can do is hang on for the ride, and in the process try to produce intellectually honest and insightful chronicles of that train on its way to oblivion. Who knows, perhaps a few doomed passengers may find those interesting and important.
    Regarding the Damore memo: While social justice warriors bask in the condemnation of his gender bias, it may be well to take a critical look at the other side, that is, the gargantuan corporation that is Google. Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil,” is calculated hypocrisy in view of the fact that corporations, through their suppression of the individual’s thoughts and actions, approximate that abstraction, “evil.” And the bigger the corporation, the greater the suppression. Hence a passage from Damore’s memo:

    “Echo chambers maintain themselves by creating a shared spirit and keeping discussion confined within certain limits. As Noam Chomsky once observed, ‘The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.’”

    In his WSJ photo Damore wears a T-shirt bearing Google’s technicolor logo, slightly misspelled: Goolag.

  6. Dr. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary geneticist, wrote a cogent blog piece about Demore’s memo. In it, he is generous but analytic: pointing out where Demore is correct, possibly correct, and incorrect. I found Dr. Sadedin’s piece too politically laden for my taste. While she correctly points out that either or fallacy of the so-called nature-nurture dichotomy, she fails to consider that we do not know enough about human behavioral genetics to make too many grand standing claims about the species. As Dr. Coyne mentions, some behavioral differences between the sexes most likely did evolve; in particular, those concerning sexual selection–in a side note, a biological anthropologist (who was heavy on political rhetoric and light on empirical studies and theory) had attempted to vilify Dr. Coyne for his blogs about human sexual selection. With this particular mishap in mind, I end by agreeing with Rex while adding that if any anthropologist seeks to contribute to discussions concerning human biology then she not only should keep up to date on the latest research findings but also check her political biases and understand that evolution doesn’t care about them (it is a non-sentient process,so duh!).

  7. Great write-up, except the glossing of this as “cultural appeal” is a bit too neutral for me. Why don’t we go ahead a say it’s symbolic violence, which will happen as long as the structure of the field of software engineering is what it is. See e.g. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038515573475.

  8. Sex-linked Abilities

    A considerable part of my misspent youth involved an obsession with chess. Einstein and Bobby Fischer were my grade-school heroes, and, while Einstein’s math was beyond me, I could and did learn chess. Over time, I read a lot about the history of the game, the life stories of the great players, and pored over classic games. And, yes, entered chess tournaments. Those have been, to say the least, humbling experiences. I’ve been wiped off the board by pimple-faced boys, by young girls, by pregnant women, by geezers with one foot in the grave, and, perhaps most galling, by lots of ordinary guys who worked construction or sold cars and who had never been inside a university classroom. Eventually the truth sank in: I was mediocre at the game. Studying openings and combinations helped, but only to a limited extent. At my best, in familiar terms, I was a C+ player, little more than a wood-pusher.
    It was an early and extremely painful lesson in how very different people are one from another. Age and experience brought the realization that lots, if not most, things people do involve individuals with a tremendous range of abilities.
    Some will find even this rejection of all-around equality disturbing, but in certain avenues of experience things become more controversial: some abilities are sex-linked. Chess is one such ability. As I’ve noted, there are plenty of girls and women who are much stronger players than I. And there are some women who are formidable, masters and even grandmasters. But the male-female distribution is extremely skewed. Of some 1550 grandmasters in the world, only 35 are female. And of the top 100 grandmasters, only one, Judith Polgar, is female.
    Here it is crucial to note that this skewed distribution says nothing about “intelligence,” whatever that may be. Efforts to correlate chess ability with other abilities or personality traits have had very limited success. Basically, chess ability correlates with the ability to play chess well or poorly. What the skewed distribution does show, I think, is that individuals are not infinitely malleable in their abilities. There is such a thing as a “natural,” whether in chess, math, baseball, marathon running, swimming, language learning, painting, sculpting, and on and on. In the case of chess, “naturals” are usually male.
    Regarding Damore’s Google memo, I suggest it is an empirical question whether computer coding is a sex-linked ability. I have no idea whether it is or not, but to declare the question off-limits because it offends an ideological commitment to gender equality is, I think, close-minded and unworthy of anthropologists.

  9. Since there are considerably fewer women players, that’s not a statistically valid argument. Were it so that equal amounts of women to men played chess at all levels of the hobby/sport, something like that could be claimed. As it is, here’s a better explanation: https://dx.doi.org/10.1098%2Frspb.2008.1576 (“extreme values in a large sample are likely to be greater than those in a small one”).

  10. hwilenu: “extreme values in a large sample are likely to be greater than those in a small one” is an observation, not an explanation.

  11. Actually, I read the article by Bilalic et al before writing my comment. I find two major problems with it. The first, and probably most serious here, is that the article is devoted to refuting a proposition I explicitly rejected in my earlier comment:

    “Chess has long been renowned as the intellectual activity par excellence . . . and male dominance at chess is frequently cited as an example of innate male intellectual superiority.

    It may comfort Bilalic et al and their readers to deliver another blow to male chauvinism, but that does not address my two-part argument, viz., that individuals vary greatly in their ability or aptitude to perform a great many human activities, including chess; and that in the case of chess that ability appears to be sex-linked. Far from demonstrating “intellectual activity par excellence” or “innate male intellectual superiority,” chess grandmasters are all too often unexceptional or downright ignorant in their general knowledge of the world. Bobby Fischer, in particular, was hopelessly one-sided in his intellectual development and thoroughly obnoxious to boot. And, in later years, he was a loathsome bigot. But in 1972 in Reykjavik he sat down at the board with Spassky and almost single-handedly demolished the entire Soviet chess machine. Hence my suggestion that “naturals” (or call them prodigies, geniuses) are found in most walks of life, individuals who possess an ability or aptitude for an undertaking that is well beyond what training or preparation could provide. Here I’m very attracted to Howard Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences, although I’d prefer to use “multiple abilities or aptitudes” instead. Chess, math, music, dance, sports, the arts, even politics attract and reward individuals with exceptional talent in a given field. Bill Clinton, for all his warts and greed, may be the Bobby Fischer of interpersonal relations (and, no, it didn’t rub off on Hillary).
    The second problem I have with Bilalic et al is their theory of “participation rate” as accounting for the predominance of males in chess. Simply put, lots more males than females take chess seriously enough to enter tournaments, so it should not be surprising that the best players are male. Since SM limits comments to 500 words, here I must recommend a thorough critique of that argument by Robert Howard, “Explaining male predominance in chess,” rather than consider it in detail.
    https://en.chessbase.com/post/explaining-male-predominance-in-chess
    However, I would like to suggest that a major problem with the theory is its ignoring, and seeming inability to account for the phenomenon of prodigies. At the age of four, Capablanca was playing and winning games with family members. At six, Reshevsky held simultaneous exhibitions, at thirteen Bobby Fischer played what has become known as the Game of the Century. FIDE lists 28 players to obtain a Grandmaster rating before the age of 15, of whom one is female. How might participation rates determine this distribution?

  12. Yes, apologies for not being clear. That observation is the basis of a statistical model that explains the scarcity of top-level women chess players, as you can see from the abstract of the article I linked to. Actually, it explains the diffence surprisingly well, given that “the structure of the field” (symbolic violence) very probably plays a role as well.

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