On the dangers of read-only activism

Protest is American, solidly at the heart of any democratic society. Many of our cherished institutions have a long history of protest. But the protests on college campuses today are not what they seem.

Mid-February in Portland, Oregon, a panel on diversity was disrupted by protesters when the biologist — that would be me — made the outrageous claim that, anatomically and physiologically speaking, men and women are different.

That is a factually accurate description of what happened, but it is misleading, and obscures the most troubling part of the story.

A two-minute clip of the disruption has been widely circulated, and is excerpted from the hour and a half video of the entire event, below, which has considerably more nuance. Andy Ngo, the graduate student organizer, wrote about the run-up to the panel in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, in which he noted that violence had been threatened; as a result of that threat, there was considerable police and other protective presence on site.

The event, titled “We Need To Talk About Diversity,” was headlined by James Damore, author of the “google memo.” That was enough to prompt protest. James and the other panelists — Peter Boghossian, a philosopher, and the moderator; Helen Pluckrose, a scholar and critic of intersectional feminism; and myself, an evolutionary biologist — planned to engage ideas in a public forum, to take difficult questions and discover both points of agreement and disagreement.

I think that we did that, but the protesters who walked out, breaking the audio equipment as they left, weren’t around to listen. Outside, unbeknownst to those of us on the panel, the individuals who left said things like, “even the women in there have been brainwashed!” and “Nazis are not welcome in civil society.”

When banal observations like “men and women are different heights” prompts the accusation that I’m both brainwashed and a Nazi, it’s clear that this was not good faith protest.

It is true that the authoritarian-left is denying biology, but the deeper truth of the situation is perhaps even more concerning. The incoherence of the protesters’ responses and the fact that the walkout was scheduled in advance suggests something darker: the protesters are “read-only,” like a computer file that cannot be altered. They will not engage ideas — they will not even hear ideas — because their minds are already made up. They have been led to believe that exposure to information is in and of itself dangerous.

Scientists, philosophers, and scholars of all sorts have effectively been accused of thoughtcrimes before it is even known what we’re going to say. The very concept of thoughtcrime, as Orwell himself well understood, is the death knell to discourse, to discovery, to democracy.

One thing I argued, after the protesters came and went, to which I would like to hear a nuanced objection, was this: Google, like the entire tech sector, has a very skewed sex ratio among its software engineers. It’s something like 4 to 1 — nearly 80% of software engineers are male. At first pass, that sounds wrong, egregiously far off the sex ratio in the population which, for well understood evolutionary reasons, tends to be 1:1. But not everyone in the population is suited to or interested in being a software engineer. If we are interested in detecting hiring bias at Google we should compare Google’s 4 to 1 ratio to the population likely to be seeking these positions. How about people earning degrees in computer science? It’s not perfect, but it’s a better match than “everyone on the planet.” Tellingly, the sex ratio of people earning degrees in computer science has hovered, for years, right around 4:1. This suggests that, at the very least, Google is hiring software engineers at the same sex ratio at which they are being produced by the universities — hardly evidence of rampant discrimination against women at Google. In fact, it’s the ratio we would expect if applicant quality was independent of sex, and Google’s hiring process was sex-blind.

As recent protests go, the walkout at the Portland State University was minor. While there were threats in advance, the actual damage was slight, and the number of people directly involved tiny. Yes, we need better science education and literacy. But more important — more fundamental — we need to reinvigorate the concept of education itself. Those who are truly educated are also educable, which means taking in new information throughout your life, and being willing to re-investigate, and perhaps throw out, even your most cherished beliefs. If our schools and universities are not prepared to do this job, we must ask ourselves: where shall our next educational structures be built?

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