All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Why Women Don’t Code

Ever since Google fired James Damore for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace,” those of us working in tech have been trying to figure out what we can and cannot say on the subject of diversity. You might imagine that a university would be more open to discussing his ideas, but my experience suggests otherwise. For the last ten months I have been discussing this issue at the Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering where I work. I have tried to understand why Damore’s opinions generated such anger and have struggled to decide what I want to do in response. As a result of my attempts to discuss this, our mailing list known as ‘diversity-allies’ is now a moderated list to prevent “nuanced, and potentially hurtful, discussion.” Instead, I have been encouraged to participate in face-to-face meetings that have often been tense, but which have helped me to understand where others are coming from. I embarked on this journey because I worry that tech companies and universities are increasingly embracing an imposed silence, …

The Birth of the Narcissism Revolution

Editor’s note: the following is an extract of Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, The Overlook Press; 1 edition (March 27, 2018), 416 pages. In the months leading up to his death, in 1970, the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow began worrying about his legacy. He’d been preparing to write a critique of Esalen ‘and its whole chain’. One of the issues he’d become concerned with was self-esteem. Maslow was famous, most of all, for his hugely influential ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, which said that people are motivated to fulfill certain psychological appetites. At the top of his pyramid was ‘actualization’, which was extremely difficult and had, he thought, only been achieved by a few. But just beneath that was ‘esteem’. It seems that Maslow had been carrying out some tests on high-esteeming people that had been the cause of some concern: ‘High scorers in my test of dominance feeling, or self-esteem, were more apt to come late to appointments with the experimenter, to be less respectful, more casual, more forward, more condescending, …

The Tragedy of Australian Education

In April, the Australian government finally published its airy and platitudinous report and review of the country’s schools. Popularly known as ‘Gonski 2.0’ after David Gonski, the businessman who chaired the review panel and who had chaired a previous review of school funding, it provided little evidence to support its proposals, despite evidence being a key requirement in the terms of reference. The report states that Australia must ditch its ‘industrial model’ of school education, the sort of cliché you would expect to hear in the most derivative education conference speech. Instead, each young person must “emerge from schooling as a creative, connected, and engaged learner with a growth mindset” (see here for a double meta-analyses of growth mindset interventions which shows that they have virtually no effect). The details of how to achieve this are vague, but the panel is clear on one key point: rigid, age-based curriculum content must be blown apart in favor of progressing students individually through a set of skills such as literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, and self-management. Despite its managerial …

Giving the Devil His Due: Why Freedom of Inquiry in Science and Politics is Inviolable

In the 1990s I undertook an extensive analysis of the Holocaust and those who deny it that culminated in Denying History, a book I coauthored with Alex Grobman.1 Alex and I are both civil libertarians who believe strongly that the right to speak one’s mind is fundamental to a free society, so we were surprised to discover that Holocaust denial is primarily an American phenomenon for the simple reason that America is one of the few countries where it is legal to doubt the Holocaust. Legal? Where (and Why) on Earth would it be illegal? In Canada, for starters, where there are ‘anti-hate’ statutes and laws against spreading ‘false news’ that have been applied to Holocaust deniers. In Austria it is a crime if a person “denies, grossly trivializes, approves or seeks to justify the national socialist genocide or other national socialist crimes against humanity.” In France it is illegal to challenge the existence of “crimes against humanity” as they were defined by the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg “or in connection with any crime within the …

Race, Gender and Trump: Everything You Think You Know is Wrong

Following Election 2016’s “shocking” finale, many in academic and journalistic circles have seemed less interested in dispassionately analyzing why Trump won than finding excuses for why Hillary lost. As far as excuses go, sexism or misogyny (like racism, “foreign meddling,” or “fake news”) is pretty effective: it isn’t that Clinton was a non-charismatic candidate with a lot of baggage and a boring platform who ran a bad campaign — instead, those who didn’t vote for Hillary were driven by irrational and immoral impulses, preventing them from embracing the only ‘legitimate’ candidate in this race. Therefore, it should not surprise that a vast academic literature has emerged on the alleged role of sexism and misogyny in the 2016 U.S. General Election (given that scholars overwhelmingly lean left). Co-occurrence searches on Google Scholar can provide insight into the scale of this enterprise. Restricting our search to 2016 and beyond, “Donald Trump” and “misogyny” yields 1,480 results to date; pairing “Donald Trump” and “sexism” brings in 2,760 hits; “Donald Trump” and “feminist” has 5,080 entries. There is certainly some …

Explaining Monogamy to Vox

In the first episode of their new Netflix series, entitled Explained, the folks over at Vox set out to explain monogamy. Or at least, that is what the title (“Monogamy, Explained”) appeared to promise. But by the time it was over, very little seemed to have been explained. The central arguments, as I understand them, are that monogamy didn’t exist until after the invention of agriculture, marrying for love didn’t exist until roughly 1700 AD, and the concept of sexual selection was developed by Victorian scientists like Charles Darwin in part to justify traditional gender roles. Vox interviews four experts for their video: relationship advice columnist Dan Savage, historian Stephanie Coontz, author Christopher Ryan, and evolutionary biologist David Barash. Of these contributors, Barash is given the least screen time. He is allowed to provide a brief description of classic sexual selection theory, noting the problem of paternity uncertainty for males, and that because of differences between sperm and eggs, males can have larger fitness payoffs by being more promiscuous than females generally can. The narrator, however, …

Are Liberal Democracies ‘Rape Cultures’?

What are we to make of the claim that we inhabit a ‘rape culture’? Those making this claim seldom make it clear if they are being descriptive or expressive. A descriptive claim purports to tell us that something is or is not the case (“The exam is over”) while an expressive claim conveys subjectivity and sentiment (“That exam was torture!”). If the claim that we live in a rape culture is descriptive—that our culture condones or promotes rape—those making the claim must support it with adequate evidence. If they are not being descriptive, then the expressive meaning of the claim is not entirely clear. Let’s begin by considering a passage from an article by Alyn Pearson entitled “Rape Culture: It’s All Around Us,” which appeared in the (now defunct) feminist publication Off Our Backs in 2000: Rape is the common cold of society. […] We have assimilated rape into our everyday culture much as we have the cold. […] There is a silence surrounding the recognition that we live in a cultural environment where rape is endemic, but it is true. …

The Limits of Expertise

“People are sick of experts.” These infamous and much-derided words uttered by UK Conservative parliamentarian Michael Gove express a sentiment with which we are now probably all familiar. It has come to represent a sign of the times—either an indictment or a celebration (depending on one’s political point of view) of our current age. Certainly, the disdain for expertise and its promised consequences have been highly alarming for many people. They are woven through various controversial and destabilising phenomena from Trump, to Brexit, to fake news, to the generally ‘anti-elitist’ tone that characterises populist politics and much contemporary discourse. And this attitude stands in stark contrast to the unspoken but assumed Obama-era doctrine of “let the experts figure it out”; an idea that had a palpable End of History feeling about it, and that makes this abrupt reversion to ignorance all the more startling. The majority of educated people are fairly unequivocal in their belief that this rebound is a bad thing, and as such many influential voices—Quillette‘s included—have been doing their best to restore …

The Trouble with Technocracy

Technocrats are the technical experts who help to lead industries. Considerable and constant success can launch a technocrat’s career into such lofty heights that they reach orbit (especially if said technocrat has ambitions which most of us share as kids). It creates an intelligent, wealthy, and powerful member of society who has the ideas, the money, and the means to direct technology, and therefore society, in the direction they want it to go. The label ‘technocrat’ has no moral connotations, so one can be a technocrat whether or not one’s intentions are pure. A technocrat is also usually an expert in just one specific area (increasingly in science and technology as their prominence continues to increase). Elon Musk offers a good example of how technocrats don’t always get it right, and why trusting them with the world’s progress is risky. On 23 May, Musk sent a tweet declaring he will create a new website “where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & …

Racism and Underdetermination by Evidence

This week, Starbucks will be shutting down 8000 of its stores for one day. Employees at these locations will undergo anti-discrimination training, including arguably dubious efforts to combat implicit bias. And all of this is a response to the recent arrest of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson—both black men in their twenties—at a Philadelphia Starbucks, which triggered widespread condemnation and accusations that a culture of anti-black prejudice pervades the coffee chain. Slightly different accounts of the incident have been given by different news outlets, but something like the following sequence of events seems to have taken place. Upon arriving at the Starbucks in Rittenhouse Square, Mr Nelson asked to use the restroom. Permission was refused by the manager, who told him that the facilities were for paying customers only. Mr Nelson and Mr Robinson then took a seat at a table. The manager asked them if she could bring them drinks or water, and they declined, saying they were waiting to meet someone. Mr Nelson and Mr Robinson were then asked to leave by the manager, on …