Friday, August 11, 2017

Consider The Source

When I was in high school, our English (language arts?) teacher taught us to challenge everything we read.  See who the author is.  Does he or she have the expertise required?  Is there a hidden agenda or built-in bias?  How does this come across in the story, book or report?

Now here is a story that hit the news earlier in the week.  I picked it up from Yahoo News, but it also appeared in Forbes, the AP and several other outlets.  “Many Google employees have expressed outrage over a document in which a senior Google engineer reportedly claims that biological gender differences make women less effective programmers and argues that the company should not actively work to improve diversity in staffing.”

Wait a minute!  This guy is a computer engineer.  Do we expect him to know anything about biological gender differences?  I certainly don’t.  In fact, the statement shows that he is somewhat ignorant on the subject.  Later in the article it states: “There is no evidence that women are inherently less skilled coders than men.” Additionally, about a year ago the Guardian published the results of a study showing that a peer review of work “approved code written by women at a higher rate than code written by men, but only if the gender was not disclosed.” 

(This is the same kind of gender bias that infected many symphony orchestras until they started holding auditions behind a screen.  It also shows up when we hear of a female visual artist after being  overlooked for many years finally getting recognition.  What were the critics looking at instead of the pictures?  The problem has clearly not been confined to Silicon Valley.)

The conclusion in this case:  He doesn’t know what he is talking about.  He has no particular expertise in the field.  This is easy – consider the source.  The leaders of the company should take him aside and require behavior that does not reflect this error in judgment or if they didn’t think that was possible, fire him.  No outrage necessary.  Problem solved.  (As it turned out, he was fired.)

But also consider this next paragraph of the story.  “The document is a personal statement not sanctioned in any way by the company, but has been circulating widely within Google.”  Of course it’s been widely circulated.  You can’t be outraged without sharing your outrage with as many other people as possible.  That’s no fun.  And the media likes nothing better than a case of outrage to feature in headlines to help spread the outrage around.  This becomes not a Google issue to deal with, but another national crisis.

In America, the truth is no longer something sought out and discovered.  The truth is voted upon – by voice vote, usually shouting.  If you are outraged, you tweet or post on Facebook or start a petition.  The point is to get likes and shares and signatures and others shouting about it.  Spread the outrage!  That’s how you win for your point of view.  It’s not a matter of a simple counterargument with better facts.  Especially when there are no legitimate facts to support a particular point of view, outrage becomes the only avenue.  Unfortunately it has become a habit, even among those who, as in this case, are clearly in the right and have the facts on their side.

Maybe we need a little less outrage, which can easily turn into bullying to cut off all debate, and more actual conversation.  Maybe we need Americans to follow the consider-the-source rule and not cling to the pronouncements of every actor, musician, politician or scientist with a different field of specialization on subjects they are not in the least bit qualified to represent, for example, economics, climate, nutrition and vaccinations.  Sure, they have a right to express opinions, but the fact that their opinion is no more valid than almost anyone else’s too often goes unchallenged.

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