Weird Science: David Brooks Gets It Wrong on Google

Wrong, wronger, Brooks

Politics Features David Brooks
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Weird Science: David Brooks Gets It Wrong on Google

I was reading David Brooks’ latest column about the Google controversy, and I came across this interesting passage:

“As the female head does not measure so much round as the male, neither is it so wide, so high, nor so long … It follows necessarily that the Brain being the Mental Organ, and size being a measure of its power, though not the only one, the female mind is much less fitted for the hard and rough work of life than the male, and that those philosophers who would prove the female mind to be equally strong with the male know little or nothing of the Brain and its laws. As well may they content for equal bodily strength and activity between the sexes as for equal mental power; woman is but the softer man, and he who would give her equal strength of mind with man would at once deprive her of her best charm.”

Oh, whoops! I’m sorry. That’s from an 1870 book called “A Handbook of Phrenology,” written by Cornelius Donovan, who was probably the David Brooks of his day. Brooks’ Times column, titled “Sundar Pichai Should Resign as Google’s C.E.O.” is predictably horrible, and not that distant from Donovan’s conclusions:

Damore was tapping into the long and contentious debate about genes and behavior. On one side are those who believe that humans come out as blank slates and are formed by social structures. On the other are the evolutionary psychologists who argue that genes interact with environment and play a large role in shaping who we are. In general the evolutionary psychologists have been winning this debate.

That’s a false dilemma. Brooks is using his white-or-black trick here. Nobody today thinks the human beings come out of the womb totally blank. Find me a modern brain scientist who honest-to-God thinks this way, Brooks. Name me one person.

Brooks’ next step is to take a true, banal statement—”Genes interact with environment to make us who we are”—and jump to his usual backwards-looking conclusion:

But there are some ways that male and female brains are, on average, different. There seems to be more connectivity between the hemispheres, on average, in female brains. Prenatal exposure to different levels of androgen does seem to produce different effects throughout the life span.

What is Brooks claiming here?

What we have is a legitimate tension. Damore is describing a truth on one level; his sensible critics are describing a different truth, one that exists on another level. He is championing scientific research; they are championing gender equality. It takes a little subtlety to harmonize these strands, but it’s doable.

Ah. Here we arrive at what Brooks actually wants to say: We conservatives are doing science, as opposed to everyone else, who is doing feelings. He lists a depressing catalog of the usual concern trolls. There were several other people in the pro-Damore camp who Brooks didn’t mention. Steven Pinker, a reliable right-leaning pop science guru in the Dawkins mold, threw his hat into the ring and supported Damore. So did Peter Singer, famous Australian ethicist and answer to “who cares.” They looked at Damore’s screed, and then said it was science.

No, it’s not.

Let’s zoom in on the heart of Brooks’ argument:

He is championing scientific research; they are championing gender equality.

David Brooks does not understand how science works. Pseudo-scientific bullshit is not the same thing as science. Pseudo-scientific bullshit, or PSB, has a long history. As long as science has existed, there have been cranks, ideologues posing as scientists. These cranks use science to justify their own beliefs. They are the purveyors of PSB. PSB is what happens when you care more about your political hobbyhorse than truth. PSB proves the old phrase “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”

James Damore, and David Brooks (and the rest of the Damore-loving Squad) believe they are gender scientists of genius. But they are not. I have no doubt that Damore knows something about software engineering. But if you spend, oh, five minutes actually reading his manifesto, it is clear that software is all he knows. Scientifically and philosophically, his screed is a mess. Damore and Brooks are suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect. Rational Wiki defines the Dunning-Kruger effect as follows:

The Dunning-Kruger effect (also Mount Stupid or Smug Snake), named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University, occurs where people fail to adequately assess their level of competence — or specifically, their incompetence — at a task and thus consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. This lack of awareness is attributed to their lower level of competence robbing them of the ability to critically analyse their performance, leading to a significant overestimation of themselves. In simple words it’s “people who are too stupid to know how stupid they are.”

Here’s what probably happened: Damore is a fairly typical young alt-right ideologue. At some point during his upbringing, Damore decided he was the Smartest Man in the World, and could speak on all matters. That’s why the screed is so shoddy and lazy. It doesn’t read like someone who cares about the topic. It comes across as the writing of someone who believes they are the cleverest boy in the world. Someone who doesn’t have to provide evidence. Dunning-Kruger, in other words.

The Dunning-Kruger effect leads to PSB the way the One Ring draws you to Mordor. There are many ways to do PSB, but the most popular way is draw sweeping generalizations from very little data. This is how Brooks writes. No wonder he thought Damore was doing science.

What happened with Pinker, Brooks, and Singer? There are three possibilities. They:

1) Are not serious, or
2) Have not actually read the screed, or
3) Have the old Dunning-Kruger syndrome

Wipe away all the greasepaint. Look past the sleight-of-hand tricks. What do Pinker, Singer, Brooks, and their hero Damore want? What are they arguing for?

What is the proposition?

“Women are qualitatively and quantitatively less suited by biology to excel at STEM.”

Is that your argument? Then you must prove it—by multiple, peer-reviewed studies, across a variety of fields, over time. You must discount for the overwhelming societal, cultural, and economic injustices women face. You must say that women are unable to do this categorically: that even in a just world, women would underperform men.

Pinker and Singer and Brooks cannot offer proof for this proposition. They cannot deliver, for the simple reason that the evidence is not there.

Neither Singer nor Pinker nor David “I Just Wrote My Column at Panera” Brooks can logically demonstrate male supremacy because it’s just not true. They fail for the same reason all PSB fails, because our science doesn’t know that much about human nature.

PSB is a curse on our society. It’s prejudice dressed in the robe of science. This is the same half-assed, bigoted theorizing that once told us that the people of Africa had strangely-shaped skulls and that women were not rational enough to vote.

There are slight physical differences between female and male brains, just as there are differences between your brain and my brain and Abraham Lincoln’s brain, and between David Brooks’ brain and a functioning human brain. But these differences do not amount to real variances in any real-world sense.

Lise Eliot is a professor of neuroscience at The Chicago Medical School. In a 2011 paper for the journal Neuron, “The Trouble with Sex Differences,” she wrote:

Indeed, one reason for the difficulty in identifying reliable brain sex differences is probably because behavioral sex differences themselves are mostly modest in magnitude (Hyde, 2005). For example, verbal abilities differ between females and males by just 0.1 standard deviation, so it is not surprising that sporadic findings of sex differences in language-related neural activation have failed to hold up to replication. Even for one of the largest sex differences in cognition, visuospatial ability, it has been challenging to identify consistent differences in fMRI activation patterns between males and females (Clements-Stephens et al., 2009).

In her book, “Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities: 4th Edition,” Diane F. Halpern, former president of the American Psychological Association, writes:

One of the most distressing outcomes of modern neuroscience is the way findings are being misused to advance political agendas. Fine (2010) has coined the term “neurosexism” for the misuse of neuroscience to justify sex role stereotypes. In a clever play on words, she calls the irresponsible use of findings from the brain sciences “brain scams.” Supporters of the idea that men and women are essentially different—not just in their respective roles in reproduction but in how they learn and think—cite differences in the female and male brain to support their conclusions … What they do not understand is the very long leap from neurons to actual behavior and the way experiences alter the brain.

Ask yourself, what is more likely?

A) Human science has perfectly proven that women are intellectually inferior to men, forever.
B) Some powerful men have prejudices and are full of it.

I think we know the answer.