2 Things About that Google Memo…

When people who should know better don’t.

The now-infamous #GoogleMemo set off a firestorm of debate. Unsurprisingly, many of the same issues I noted in my last post emerged in this debate.

But let’s leave aside the issues at the heart of this event and mention two adjacent ones:

  1. the original, most-publicized version of James Damore’s memo published by Gizmodo was marketed as the ‘full’ version of the memo but really wasn’t
  2. Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s memo to Google staff to address the debacle asserts that the memo calls women ‘neurotic’ when it doesn’t

When ‘Full’ Means Full of Omissions

As Gizmodo’s post gained momentum, a common objection to it was that Damore makes statements without backing them up with evidence. As it turns out, he did —there are at least 27 links embedded in the original memo that back up his statements, along with 2 charts.

But Gizmodo didn’t publish those in its post which it marketed as including the ‘Full 10-Page’ memo. Why? It noted the omissions in a small note at the bottom most people missed. The effect: all chances of sparking a meaningful debate based on controversial statements backed by evidence vanished in favor of a flame-throwing debate backed by feelings.

Why would Gizmodo do that?

Neuroticism v Neurotic

English is a weird language. I get it. But I expect the CEO of one of the most powerful companies in the world to get it right in an official correspondence on a touchy, controversial, public issue. Mr. Pichai’s memo sent to Google staff shortly after the diversity story made headlines condemns the memo for making some employees feel hurt and judged because of their gender.

But then he goes on to say that the memo calls women ‘neurotic’. That is incorrect. The memo actually says women tend to have more neuroticism, which refers to a term from psychology’s ‘five-factor-model’ to describe human personality — not related to the term neurotic which means mentally ill and unstable, which is the term Pichai seems to think Damore’s memo uses.

It’s entirely possible Pichai simply didn’t know the difference, but the reactions this mistake will spark from people are unwarranted nonetheless.

So What

Awareness of #fakenews has grown in recent times. But the phenomenon is often wrongly regarded as a black-and-white issue: either a story is right, or it’s wrong.

But media is so much more complicated than that. Factual errors are just the tip of an iceberg made of sensationalized stories, conflicts of interest, lack of attention to detail, incompetence, incomplete coverage, innocent mistakes…the list goes on.

So it’s important to acknowledge subtler things that can effect our media consumption. Sometimes ‘full’ doesn’t really mean ‘full’ and ‘neuroticism’ may have nothing to do with ‘neurotic’.

Whether intentional or not, one thing’s for sure: no one ever knows the whole story. Subtleties, misunderstandings, and gaps abound.

Debate accordingly.

Edit: I’ve removed ‘Dr’ honorifics since there are reports that James Damore didn’t actually finish his Phd at Harvard. I checked before publishing the article and his LinkedIn profile indicated that he had a Phd.