I have been reading about this recently, partially because of the protests against Charles Murray. I agreed with everything people were protesting, but did not see a clear connection between that and what Murray actually said. He seemed rather tame compared to what he was being accused of.

Gender and race differences are socially acceptable when speaking about physical abilities, but not when speaking about intelligence. We can accept that our bodies evolved and were adapted to suit their environments (and see the results in sports), but we consider intelligence to be sacred and off limits.

It turns out that differences in intelligence are not that interesting. They are small, with great overlap, and likely have social causes as their major influencing factors – from family values to the success of state-funded support systems. They are taboo because every study produces some differences between groups and these differences, no matter how small, can be abused by people with an agenda to promote sexist and racist views. According to some, that’s why we shouldn’t even talk about them.

If you assume that people are unwilling or incapable of treating each other as equals, then you can assume that all differences in representation (more people of any group in a given field) are always proof of injustice. Interestingly, if you hold this view long enough and have enough influence, the “Pygmalion effect” can prove you right. Tested in the classroom, this effect showed that a strong expectation by a teacher regarding the good or bad potential performance of their young students, when maintained over a sufficient period time, led to the expected results. If this applies equally to social interactions, this means that if we “see” sexism and racism everywhere, and with enough conviction, we could actually be creating it too.

The story of James Damore’s Google memo could have been titled, “Google Engineer Thinks Changes to the Workplace Could Attract More Intelligent Women to Tech”, but instead many headlines read, “Google Engineer says Women Biologically Unfit for Tech.” How much conflict was created by the memo, and how much by the coverage? Did our desire to find sexism contribute to it? Certainly, some people saw the headline as confirmation of their sexist beliefs…

But, if you think that people are generally good and give them the benefit of the doubt with regard to their intentions, you get the mundane and probably correct: some is nature, some is nurture.  The ratio between the two is unknown, so intelligence or ability testing measures a portion of both.

What I learned about interpreting test results or measuring demographics:

  • results of testing depend on how you define “intelligence”, and what kind(s) of intelligence you are measuring
  • testing can be biased, and results can depend on who created the test
  • if you keep the test exactly the same, the results for any group can go up every generation (usually every 20-25 years), and that can’t be genetic
  • the divides between gender and race in any field of expertise, from intellectual to physical, are partly determined by nature and nurture, but also by personal preference (formed from a complex combination of life experiences)
  • entering any field or area of expertise, from intellectual to physical, may require some minimum level of ability (meaning some people will be excluded), but the most successful people in a field do not necessarily have the highest scores in those measures; overall success is strongly connected to other factors like ambition, discipline, and determination (so, the best athletes in a given sport are not necessarily the strongest or fastest, as is the case with soldiers)
  • because of the complicated nature of most professions, intelligence in any one area can only indicate the probability of high performance in another (e.g. high mathematical intelligence and being a good architect); but no one factor can predict overall success.

Perhaps we should be fighting for a healthy form of capitalism, in which employers are looking to hire the best people to create the most successful teams, and must therefore look at people individually, case-by-case, because a good candidate is a complicated combination of ability, desire, will, resilience, etc. These qualities can be cultivated over time, so personal history matters, and this must be taken into account.

I think we can also look at statistical differences between groups as a way to find deficiencies in our social networks, which can then be improved. If just considering differences between groups is considered racist or sexist, we could miss out on this opportunity.

There is also an intimidation factor that is created when we talk about something all the time. If we say ad nauseam that tech is a male-dominated sexist environment (I’m sure it is some of the time, but not all of the time), then some normal women who could do well there will be discouraged from even trying. Not everyone wants to “fight the good fight” and be a hero, some people just want to do an interesting job, pay their bills, and have a nice life.

Despite the deficiencies we see in today’s modern world, I hope we don’t take a step backwards by forgetting all the progress we have made so far. Certainly, we need to stay vigilant, especially in raising children to understand that the opportunities are there but require hard work, that there will always be personal challenges and moments that feel unfair, and that all people must be treated fairly and with dignity.

Finally, sometimes the diversity within a society’s professions shows how healthy a it is, not how sick.


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