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What the ‘Google memo’ row says about free speech and STEM

by AprilSix Proof



This blog is a personal opinion by Paul Noonan. 

Google was embroiled in a global controversy this week, after the worldwide leak of an internal anonymous memo by an employee questioning the assumption that the lack of women in some STEM fields is solely due to discrimination.

The memo had pointed to research showing women may have a stronger interest in ‘people’ than ‘things’ (or ‘empathising’ over ‘systemising’) and are therefore more likely to work in STEM fields like psychology rather than computer engineering. Employment policies such as ‘affirmative action’ are unfair, it argued, since they are based on the unproven assumption that men and women are the same and thus all gender disparities are due to discrimination rather than choice.

The ironic fact that its’ author James Damore was subsequently fired for writing a memo accusing his employer of stifling debate and the resulting media furore surrounding the memo, raises questions over the need for free speech in shaping evidence-based policy in STEM and elsewhere.

Google stated that the memo’s author was guilty of having “advanced incorrect assumptions”. Yet surely in STEM, even more than any other field, it is vital that we have the freedom to challenge fashionable consensus on what is “correct” without fear of losing our jobs? And, if the STEM sector believes in ‘evidence-based policy’ then our employment policies, along with all other policies, must be shaped by evidence and not ideology.

Yet some of the condemnation of the memo was ideological and unscientific. For example, Google denounced the document for perpetuating harmful stereotypes because it quoted studies indicating there are gender differences in personality. Yet, if this constitutes stereotyping, we would have to blacklist much of evolutionary psychology – which often produces research showing gender differences in personality traits – for fear of collectively denigrating an entire sex. And despite Google’s denouncement of the memo as ‘incorrect’, there is evidence that biological differences may account for some of the gender gaps in workforce composition. This was evident from the resulting media debate, when leading academics weighed in on both sides. Professor Lee Jussim, a distinguished psychologist, wrote that the memo “gets nearly all of the science and its implications exactly right.” Professor Geffrey Miller, the evolutionary psychologist, agreed that “Its key claims about sex differences are especially well-supported by large volumes of research across species, cultures, and history.” However, David Schmidt, a personality psychologist, wrote that although there is evidence for average differences in traits among men and women, they are too small to account for such widespread gender gaps in STEM. Similarly, Professor Gina Rippon, a professor of brain imaging, also argued that some gender differences can be overcome.

Much of the media misrepresented the memo, with a Guardian headline referring to it as an “anti-diversity memo when it in fact argued for other ways of achieving greater workforce diversity, such as allowing greater work/life balance and making tech roles more people-oriented. Owen Jones accused the memo of asserting the “biological inferiority of his female colleagues.” In fact, the memo argued that there are no gender differences in cognitive ability, but cited evidence that differing personality traits may cause men and women to choose different types of roles and professions. It is no wonder that current scientific debates-such as the nature vs nurture argument in gender psychology-are so poorly understood if the media does such a poor job of communicating them.

The irony is that those who denounced the memo are themselves guilty of many of the charges they lay at the author’s door; many accused the memo of making the “assumption” that biological differences may account for STEM gender gaps, yet they are equally guilty of making the assumption that all differences in workforce representation must be the result of injustice. As the memo points out, the Left tends to think that all inequality is artificial while the Right tends to think all inequality is natural. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Yet the fact we are all having this debate is credit to the memo’s author. “Google memo” now produces over 233,000 Google News search results and as a result millions more people are engaged in this issue and many of them will come away knowing more about everything from biology to evolutionary psychology, than they did before. A consensus has been challenged and scientists have been able to feed into a prominent public policy debate in the media. It’s a good example of how allowing challenging views to be aired can result in healthy public debate and discussion on science and research. Indeed, the scale of the media coverage even resulted in Mr Damore being offered a new role, over Twitter, by Julian Assange at Wikileaks.

Google’s VP of “Diversity” claimed the search giant values “tolerance, inclusion and diversity” but that is meaningless unless it also includes tolerance for a diversity of opinion. Allowing dissenters to challenge fashionable assumptions is like opening the doors and windows in a stuffy room, transforming it from a stale echo chamber into a lively public space. That is what engaging the public in science should be all about.

The STEM sector must fight against censorship and for an open exchange of evidence and ideas, if it wants to encourage wider engagement in science and evidence-based policy.

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