The Conversation site has featured a lot of stinkers lately, but occasionally a good piece manages to sneak in. One of these is by my old friend, philosopher and writer Russell Blackford: “Don’t shoot the messenger when confronted with inconvenient ideas“.
As we know, there are certain ideas that, in many political circles—and Blackford is talking about both Left and Right here—are not to be expressed because, although they might be true, they contravene the political narrative of the group.
For the Left, evolutionary psychology is one of these. The field, though it sometimes uses unacceptably low standards of evidence, also has an undeniably intriguing and worthwhile purpose: to figure out what part of our behaviors and thoughts reflect natural selection in our ancestors. After all, if our bodies show traces of our evolutionary ancestry—and they do in spades—then why not our minds?
Yes, culture can alter behaviors and ideas more easily than it can change bodies (though, with fast foods, plastic surgery, hair dye and the like, the difference is waning), but it would be foolish to deny flat out that evolutionary psychology is a worthless field that’s foolish to pursue, much less think to ponder. In fact, as I wrote in January about one of the most rabid and thoughtless of evo-psych critics:
P. Z. Myers is on a constant tirade against evolutionary psychology, and has made the ludicrous statement that “the fundamental premises of evo psych are false.” But those “fundamental premises” are only that the human mind, like the human body, bears traces of our evolutionary ancestry and the selective pressures that molded it. (See my longer response here and here.)
Yet only a blinkered ideologue would refuse to even consider the possibility that the difference between men and women in their sexual behaviors, preferences, and in their variance in reproductive success—the difference among males in the number of offspring they produce is much larger than the difference among females, a reflection of differences in sexual behavior—is due to sexual selection in our ancestors. After all, other primates and most animals show the same difference, which is nearly universal in our species. It would be very odd of this distinctive pattern across nature was due to sexual selection in all other animals, but only to culture in humans! That’s a bizarre form of Leftist human exceptionalism.
Another demonized idea is connected with evolutionary psychology: the claim that differential representation of sexes in professions like teaching or STEM areas must reflect discrimination and sexism and cannot be due, even in part, to differential preferences of men and women for areas of work. (See here for a recent analysis that supports a “preference” explanation for some differential representation.)
But I digress. In his piece, Blackford concerns himself with these taboo topics, referring to the infamous Google employee James Damore:
Damore had suggested that part of the over-representation of men in software engineering at Google might be due to psychological differences between women and men: not intellectual differences, but differences in what activities the sexes find attractive and enjoyable. He argued that Google should focus on equality of opportunity for individuals, without necessarily expecting equality of outcomes across its workforce.
Damore’s firing from Google was an example of an increasing intolerance of inconvenient or controversial ideas within democratic societies. Here, then, is one great moral challenge of our time. Once an issue becomes politically toxic, we may reject inconvenient viewpoints out of hand. We may reject opponents – viewing them as ill-disposed people – without listening to them, and we may even try to punish them for their views.
. . . Though Damore expressed his ideas thoughtfully and mildly, his memo is often referred to online as a rant or a tirade. Its tone is unemotional, but it evidently stirred passions in others. After the memo was publicly leaked, Damore was shamed on social media platforms, then promptly fired. Throughout these events, his opponents blatantly demonised and misrepresented him.
Indeed—even though the Damore issue may be more complicated, as I’ve heard he had a history of being obnoxious at Google. Still, the memo was not obnoxious to those who aren’t looking for offense, and if that had any part in his firing, it’s wrong. Damore may have mis-cited some data, but his aim was to make a point about preferences, not to say that women are less qualified for STEM jobs. Firing, it seems to me, was an overreaction, but then I don’t know all the details (note, though, that Damore was fired two days after his memo appeared).
Blackford cites an example of what he calls a “compassionate feminist response” to Damore cited in a Guardian article. Surprisingly, the compassion came from Cordelia Fine, a critic of biological differences between men and women whose own agenda, as I’ve mentioned several times before, seems to have involved cherry-picking her own data. Yet while decrying some of Damore’s data and the possibility they could be used to feed gender bias, Fine says this (from the article):
Despite authoring two acclaimed books on gender, Fine, a leading feminist science writer, feels “torn in many different directions” by Damore. She believes his memo made many dubious assumptions and ignored vast swaths of research that show pervasive discrimination against women. But his summary of the differences between the sexes, she says, was “more accurate and nuanced than what you sometimes find in the popular literature”.
Some of Damore’s ideas, she adds, are “very familiar to me as part of my day-to-day research, and are not seen as especially controversial. So there was something quite extraordinary about someone losing their job for putting forward a view that is part of the scientific debate. And then to be so publicly shamed as well. I felt pretty sorry for him.”
As Russell notes, “This shows a level of human decency that is often missing from public debate. Fine expressed compassion for an intellectual opponent who was poorly treated.”
Then considering the Right, Blackford uses global warming as an “inconvenient truth” rejected by Republicans.
Because they dislike government intervention in economic markets, Republicans baulk at proposed solutions to climate change. They begin here and “work backward” to reject climate science itself.
Often, indeed, the situation is even worse. Once an issue has become intensely politicised, we may interpret others’ views as evidence of their overall ideology, which then sways whether or not we regard them as fundamentally ill-disposed people who are not worth listening to.
In a recent article, Neil Levy presents evidence that this is now the case with global warming. For many American conservatives, acceptance of the scientific consensus has become a marker of untrustworthiness. It’s a cue to stop listening.
As a scientist, I’m appalled when certain ideas that may be true, but offend some group or other, are considered off limits, even when those ideas—like global warming—must be accepted and discussed if we’re to save the planet. Psychological differences between men and women aren’t as dangerous to the welfare of Earth as a whole, but if we’re to figure out the reasons for sex disparity in professions, we have to take them seriously and figure out what effect, if any, they have on gender parity.
Russell’s conclusion, which sounds positively Pinkerian, would seem to be a no-brainer, but won’t appeal to those for whom ideology trumps truth (something true for many post-modernists):
All too often, we automatically dismiss ideas with potentially unsettling implications for our worldviews. We may go further in rejecting, and even attempting to harm, the messenger.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but it has become so common that it frustrates good-faith efforts to discuss and solve the large problems confronting humanity in the 21st century. Such rejection of messages and lashing out at messengers blocks useful discussion across moral and political divides.
To make progress, we will need to reboot our thinking. We need to focus on evidence and arguments, and on ordinary fairness and compassion to others, even when we disagree.
As Pinker has said, let’s first accept what seems to be true, and then worry about whether it should have any influence on social policy (global warming will, while difference in gender preferences should not influence equal-treatment and equal-opportunity policies). There is never anything to be gained by ignoring empirical truths, though those never by themselves imply social or moral consequences. Even the fact of global warming itself has no moral lesson unless you add to it the preference that humanity and other species are worth saving.