This week an engineer at Google wrote a piece, in part, about what he saw as a certain amount of scientific denialism at Google. Diversity programs incorporate science denial. Gender, he argued, is not merely a social construct but has biological underpinnings. Testosterone is a thing, guys. It affects how people think. And maaaaaaybe the reason why so many men are engineers and rise to positions of prominence is because testosterone makes thinking more systematic and drives status-driven males to rise to the top. Silicon Valley is a boys club because biologically boys are better engineers and have the drive to lead. Girls are good at things too says the author. They like people and talking. And, yet, we ALL know that’s not a very important skill. Have a few token women engineers but let’s face it. Men are just better at engineering computers. The future is male, guys. Accept it.
After all, human intelligence is in the information age is all about who is best at math, computer programming, science and engineering.
The funny thing about this piece is that it perfectly reveals one of the tremendous ironies of our age. Silicon Valley may understand artificial intelligence but it doesn’t understand human intelligence at all. And nowhere is this more obvious than in their attempts to fix education. Making young humans smarter is something that Silicon Valley’s brightest (and wealthiest) minds have all taken a crack at and failed dismally. Why? Because connecting up human minds isn’t like connecting up computers. It requires understanding desires, interest, context and feeeeeeelings. The problem with education isn’t a lack of access to the information; it’s a lack of interest in the information.
Silicon Valley is great at computers and bad at humans. And that’s why we have to be far more discerning about what we look to them for guidance on. Silicon Valley may be expert at making social media tools but they are not experts at social relations. In fact, they’re often freaking awful at them. Silicon Valley is bad at the thing that has made humanity successful. This graph is from a book called The Secret of Our Success by Joe Henrich. I think it’s the foundation of a new age because it clearly reveals that as toddlers humans are naturally bad at spatial reasoning, quantities (math) and causality (figuring out why things happen which is much of the focus of science). Humanity’s Superpower is Social Learning. Our superpower is doing all those things that engineer thinks is for GIRLS.
That’s what’s so hilarious about what this engineer is saying. He’s claiming that he has science on his side but, actually, if you know the science (and you accept his assumptions about gender differences) then he’s literally making the case that Google should hire more women. He’s literally shooting himself in the foot. His argument only seems to make sense because a) most people are as ignorant as he is about how human intelligence works and b) most people in the Valley of the Nerds have the same cultural biases he does. They’re really, really W.E.I.R.D and they confuse W.E.I.R.D. science for science all the time. The engineer’s piece is the perfect example of why lining up a few carefully chosen pieces of science can lead to a view of the world that completely misses the point.
I obviously don’t know this particular engineer although I would LOVE to meet him. I would LOVE to really see who this guy is and see how his thinking works. What allowed him to arrive at these conclusions? What feeeeeeelings drove his thinking? And, from the science, we know that feeeeeeelings were driving his thinking because feeeeeeelings are always driving all of our thinking. We just may not realize it because we’ve never done enough reflection to acquire emotional self-awareness. I didn’t…until I met a GIRL!
Having majored in Biochemistry at Harvard, I thought I was hot shit. I thought I saw reality as it was. After all, isn’t seeing reality what science is about. Didn’t I have a HARVARD BIOCHEMISTRY degree? Yeah, I did. I knew reality. And then, I moved out to LA and started tutoring and going to acting class. And I saw that my students BELIEVED they didn’t have the math gene and they didn’t have a natural ear for languages. And these beliefs were obviously scientific claims that had no scientific support. The error of these children’s thinking needed to be corrected. But I knew that while I understood the science that I didn’t know how to write (because I didn’t know how to communicate to other human beings) and so I asked this GIRL named Katie O’Brien to help me turn all this science into a book. But Katie O’Brien was so ANNOYING. She was gadfly. She kept buzzing on about these annoying things called emotions. And I had a feeeeeeeling that emotions were irrelevant. We were talking about scientific FACTS here!!! And then, one day, I got so ANNOYED by this WOMAN and these ARTISTS talking about emotions that I decided to take a look at the science of emotion and I got a rude awakening. I realized that emotions were driving my thinking and had been the whole time. I’d just never bothered to pay attention to them because I had a feeeeeeeling about feeeeeeelings. I felt like feeeeeeelings were stupid and irrelevant. They were a waste of time. And then I was humiliated by reading the science and realizing how little I knew.
Katie and I wrote a book together called The Straight-A Conspiracy to turn all that science into a form that kids could use.
However, in the age of Facebook and YouTube, we knew how little social power we had to get these ideas out there. So, when we got the chance to go up to Silicon Valley and meet with some people from the Khan Academy, we were incredibly excited. And so, we laid out all the science and here’s what we got in response: we got a graph. The person we were talking to put up a graph that had on the x-axis the number of videos made and on the y-axis the number of kids reached. And then, in typical engineer fashion, he drew a nice, straight line. The problem was simple. Why hadn’t education been fixed? Because Khan Academy just hadn’t made enough informational videos yet. We presented science and it just bounced right off. It didn’t fit the cultural biases of Silicon Valley. Human brains reject facts that don’t fit what they believe. Social Justice Warriors reject science about a biological basis for gender. Liberals reject science that supports conservative viewpoints. Conservatives reject science that supports liberal viewpoints. And engineers reject talk about emotions. And if GIRLS are made to feeeeeeel like they have less ability in math and science, then they will reject that. So, let’s talk about the #relevantbiology. Let’s just make sure we talk about ALL the #relevantbiology.
In response, Katie and I wrote a piece called The Rational Case for Emotions that then got retitled. We deliberately didn’t mention the Khan Academy because we didn’t want to embarrass anyone. But, you know what, the embarrassment of finding out how little I knew about the science of emotion and human intelligence did me a lot of good. I think it would do our society a lot of good if Silicon Valley quickly found out how unscientific their thinking about human intelligence is. Let’s rip that bandaid off and get it over with!
Silicon Valley has a lot of power and the ideas of powerful people get implemented on a large scale whether those ideas are good (as many of theirs are) or bad (as some of their ideas are). As automation drives the jobocalypse, we’re going to have to figure out what machines are good at and what humans are good at. Silicon Valley understands machines but they don’t understand human intelligence YET. They can learn. And from personal experience, I can tell you that women are great at teaching nerds how to embrace their humanity. Whether by dint of biology, cultural conditioning or a mix of the two, they have the patience and the empathy to make narrow-minded, know-it-alls overcome the W.E.I.R.D. cultural biases we blindly copied from our environment. And that is the most important point here. We all blindly copy ideas from our environment. Girls copy bad ideas about engineering, math and science not being for them. Engineers and scientists copy bad ideas about emotion being irrelevant when they’re actually always driving our thinking. In the end, rather than ganging up on each other, we should gang up on the problem of culture. And that is the most important point for Google. A successful culture is one that approaches problems with the view that we are all blind and trying to figure out an elephant. Silicon Valley has given us all the tools for everyone to have a voice. The challenge now is a human one to become aware of how our brains really work. That’s an engineering problem that Silicon Valley’s male engineers seem particularly unqualified to solve. It’s cool to WANT to save the world but you need the right people for the job. But, sometimes, you’ve got to set your ego aside and let the right people do the job. Who are the kind of people who can solve the challenges humanity faces right now? We’re not struggling with artificial intelligence. We’re struggling with human intelligence. And, on that right now, women are kicking men’s butts. If men don’t up their game, the future really will be female.