On tabooing epistemic humility

One of the worst things I’ve seen is when social justice activists, in the wake of the latest Incident of Outrage, castigate those who wish to withhold judgment until more facts come out. If you turn epistemic humility into a taboo, then you have sounded the death knell for any hope of rationality, truth, or progress.

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Confirmation bias in an article about gender bias

Harvard Business Review reports on a study on gender bias in the workplace. Here’s the experimental design:

We decided to investigate whether gender differences in behavior drive gender differences in outcomes at one of our client organizations, a large multinational business strategy firm, where women were underrepresented in upper management. In this company, women made up roughly 35%–40% of the entry-level workforce but a smaller percentage at each subsequent level. Women made up only 20% of people at the fourth level (the second highest at this organization).

We collected email communication and meeting schedule data for 500 employees in one office, across all five levels of seniority, over the course of four months. We then gave 100 of these individuals sociometric badges, which allowed us to track in-person behavior. These badges, which look like large ID badges and are worn by all employees, record communication patterns using sensors that measure movement, proximity to other badges, and speech (volume and tone of voice but not content). They can tell us who talks with whom, where people communicate, and who dominates conversations.

We collected this data, anonymized it, and analyzed it. Although we were not able to see the identity of individuals, we still had data on gender, position, and tenure at the office, so we could control for these factors. To retain privacy, we did not collect the content of any communications, only the metadata (that is, who communicated with whom, at what time, and for how long).

It sounds like an interesting approach, and N=100 is respectable for what they were trying to accomplish.

A “large business strategy firm” might be representative of one type of work environment, but there are many others where women are allegedly discriminated against. I’m curious why the researchers chose this type of workplace over others, and whether they think discrimination against women happens in various types of workplaces for the same reasons.

Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated.

I wonder if they did interviews with participants after the study was over, to generate qualitative data that would have supported the analysis. Nothing like that was reported so I guess they didn’t.

Bias, as we define it, occurs when two groups of people act identically but are treated differently.

This strikes me as a very flawed definition of bias. Bias connotes an unfair treatment, but people can be treated differently for more than just how they act, as the authors flat out admit:

Bias is not only about how behavior is perceived in the office, but also includes out-of-office expectations. At this company, women tend to leave the workforce between the third and fourth level of seniority, after having been at the company for four to 10 years. This timing presents another possible hypothesis: Perhaps women decide to leave the workplace for other reasons, such as wanting to raise a family. Our data can’t determine whether this is true or not, but we don’t think this changes the argument for reducing bias.

I agree this doesn’t change the argument for reducing bias as commonly understood, but it does change the argument for reducing bias as the authors define it.

If men and women are equal stakeholders in a family, they should presumably be leaving the workforce at the same rate. But this isn’t happening.

Here the authors confuse “equal” with “identical.” A man and woman can be equal stakeholders in a family but the husband fulfills his role by working hard to put food on the table and keep the bills paid, while the wife fulfills her role by keeping house and doing most of the day-to-day child-rearing. Their roles are not identical. The aforementioned pattern is in fact so established that it’s a cliche, and I’m puzzled why the authors feign ignorance about it. Maybe it’s because that pattern grows out of our natural sexual dimorphism, fighting against which is the essence of feminism.

Previous research has also shown that men are perceived as more responsible when they have children, while women are seen as being less committed to work.

Left unsaid is whether those perceptions are based in fact. It would be inconvenient to let facts get in the way of an agenda:

One way to [reduce bias in the workplace] is to make promotions and hiring more equal.

And there it is. Gotta love the circular logic there. In related advice, one way to be the top chess player in the world to make Magnus Carlsen knock over his king whenever the two of you play each other.

Significant research suggests that mandating a diverse slate of candidates helps companies make better decisions. A study by Iris Bohnet of Harvard Kennedy School showed that thinking about candidates in groups helped managers compare individuals by performance — but when managers evaluated candidates individually they fell back on gendered heuristics.

If you have a mixed barrel of apples and oranges, and you’re going through looking for the tastiest piece of fruit, it might be easier to systematically compare one apple to one orange rather than to just grab random pieces of fruit and evaluate their flavor one after the other. It seems like that’s what the study basically found.

Another potential problem lies in workload. In this company, we measured higher workloads as individuals advanced to higher levels of seniority. This isn’t intrinsically gendered, but many social pressures push women around this age to simultaneously balance work, family, and a disproportionate amount of housework. Companies may consider how to modify expectations and better support working parents so that they don’t force women to make a “family or work” decision.

Am I misunderstanding, or are the authors calling for companies to give women less work than men at the same seniority level? And they call this a solution to gender bias??

Companies need to approach gender inequality as they would any business problem: with hard data.

The problem is, anyone can find the hard data they need to support their argument. The important part isn’t just having the data, it’s in what data you collect, how you evaluate it, and whether you’re open to updating your initial views after you and the person arguing against you agree on the source of the data and the method of analysis.

These researchers collected data about the tone of conversations and people’s physical proximity to one another, but they didn’t cross-reference it with data from interviews that might have suggested whether the bias they thought they were seeing was really there. They also didn’t disclose whether their hypotheses changed as a result of the experiment. Just because you’re collecting data doesn’t mean you’re doing science.

Most programs created to combat gender inequality are based on anecdotal evidence or cursory surveys. But to tailor a solution to a company’s specific problems, you need to seek data to answer fundamental questions such as “When are women dropping out?” and “Are women acting differently than men in the office?” and “What about our company culture has limited women’s growth?” When organizations implement a solution, they need to measure the outcomes of both behavior and advancement in the office. Only then can they transition from the debate about the causes of gender inequality (bias versus behavior) and advance to the needed stage of a solution.

I like that these researchers have introduced another approach to measuring bias, and I like that they talk about reducing bias on an organizational rather than an institutional level. But I wish they’d have used multiple approaches together to get more reliable findings, and I wish the article had resisted the clickbaity impulse to give the impression, especially in the headline, that the findings they got were universally applicable.

By the way, can’t gender inequality be caused by bias and behavior? Pitting the two against each other as mutually exclusive seems extremely disingenuous to me. We actually can’t advance to the needed stage of a solution so long as people–including even professional researchers!–are engaging in this kind of bad-faith false-dichotomizing.

When is equality?

I don’t really understand how racial equality activists measure their results. (I’ve met some who seem like they’d at least be interested in measuring them.) The most obvious way is to use statistics, but then you run into the problem of “Whose statistics?” And “What do those statistics control for?” Am I missing something?

This is what I’m missing by not having a Twitter account

I wound up reading a post on Twitter.com by looking at my brother’s Twitter page and clicking on a twittering he replied to, and then clicking on the twittering that twitterer was replying to.

At first I didn’t get it. So what? The House prioritizes all kinds of things over other things. That’s kind of a key part of their job. Then I realized there was an invisible “Isn’t that crazy?!?! What monsters!!!” at the end of the headline, that would have been clear to me had I been part of the intended audience.

And then I read the replies, and met some representatives from that audience. Below is just a sampling:

Not much else to say about this.

I do wonder if these people genuinely feel this way, or if Twittering is just catharsis for them. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine that none of these people have a single friend or loved one who is anti-abortion or Republican. On the other hand, bubbles can be pretty thick.

Something that doesn’t make sense to me, though, is how people can go online and, using their real names, write this kind of stuff where anyone can see it? (Employers, family members, kids, etc.) This wasn’t in some dark hidden corner of Twitter, it was a single click from the page of some D-list actor’s Twitter feed that my brother subscribes to.

Do they not care? Do they have some good reason not to fear consequences? Or are they oblivious to the tone and messages in their own writing? Has Twitter.com made it easier to be oblivious?

(P.S. Yes, all the Twitterings and the hashtags that used “white” as a put-down were written by…white people.)

Trump-bashing is boring, so why are people still doing it?

I don’t understand people who are still vocally anti-Trump. It’s been passé for 2 full years at this point, yet it remains bizarrely popular to go out of your way to bash Trump, point out his flaws, etc. Don’t the people who do that get bored with themselves?

If a skunk sprays a dog just outside your window, you don’t sit there sniffing furiously and complaining for two years. You close the window.

Spoilers don’t spoil anything

You know what’s a spoiler? Bad acting. Bad writing. A boom mic dropping into frame. Someone in the back of the movie theater who won’t stop yelling into his cell phone. Knowing the plot in advance is not a spoiler. Tell me the plot in advance! I’ll go read it online if I can! Maybe it will save me 12 bucks, or maybe it will let me focus on other aspects of the movie: the aspects I care about.

Exploring diversity preferences, part ii

Continued from Part I.

The polite, mainstream view of diversity is that it’s of course very good and valuable. A majority of people seem to either hold this view or are too intimidated to admit they disagree. Why, then, don’t very many people…

  • …racially intermarry?
  • …have a diverse mix of friends?
  • …go to work in highly diverse fields?
  • …live in very diverse neighborhoods?

Here are what I would summarize as the stated and revealed diversity preferences of most people, across five dimensions of diversity.

Diversity type: Racial
Stated preference: strong
Revealed preference: weak

If you say, in mixed company, that you don’t care that much about your neighborhood or company being predominantly white, you might hear audible gasps. Yet, your neighborhood and company are both things you thoughtfully chose. If they are predominantly white, then clearly racial diversity is not that important to you. You’re just not supposed to say it out loud.

Diversity type: Gender
Stated preference: strong
Revealed preference: weak

If you say, in mixed company, that you don’t care that much about your profession or the list of Oscar-winning directors being predominantly male, you might hear audible gasps. Yet it’s unlikely that you or anyone else in the room boycotted your industry or refused to go see movies because of this disparity.

Diversity type: Sexuality
Stated preference: strong
Revealed preference: strong*

This is one where people seem pretty consistent. Those who are vocal supporters of gay rights and the inclusion of non-straight viewpoints probably do tend to have more gay friends and coworkers. But there’s an asterisk there because there just aren’t that many gay people to begin with, so most “allies” are simply likely to wind up with not many gay people in their lives.

Diversity type: Socioeconomic
Stated preference: strong
Revealed preference: weak

It’s fashionable to say you care about the poor, about allowing poor people opportunities to live in middle-class or wealthy areas, and so on. But then when your kids are school-age, all of a sudden they’re in private schools or you’re moving to a new school district. That’s just one example illustrating this pattern, which I see as widespread. Even poor people do their best to move away from other poor people, while complaining that the new places they move to don’t have the same culture as the places they left.

Diversity type: Ideological
Stated preference: weak
Revealed preference: weak

Ideological diversity receives little attention (except from Jonathan Haidt) and as a result there are few if any serious efforts to increase it.

Pro-diversity signaling seems to be a kind of marker that Nice White People wave around to show others how conscientious and with-it they are. It’s like driving a Prius to show how much you care about the environment: it actually does nothing for the environment, and the few important ways you could be helping the environment go unnoticed.

The misalignment between stated and revealed preferences, at least where there is a stated preference FOR something when the revealed preference is NOT FOR it, is a symptom of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is frustrating. It’s even frustrating to be frustrated about hypocrisy, because it’s never a surprise.

More on tattoos

I feel like I’m probably one of the last people willing to outright condemn tattoos and say it’s bad to get them.

As I said in my other post on tattoos, I have no grounds on which to judge the people who get tattoos. There are people I love and respect who have tattoos, and I can’t honestly say their tattoos have made me love or respect them perceptibly less. I recognize that I am a relic of the very last flickerings of a strange and brief moment in history when (some) humans abandoned tattoos and most other types of body modification.

One of the most common justifications I’ve heard for tattoos is that the body is a blank canvas. For the longest time I just didn’t see what the point of that statement was, but now I understand it to be not just an empty and confusing statement, but a wrong one.

To see the body as a blank canvas is to miss the intricate masterwork that is obviously there already. I don’t medicalize lightly, but seeing the body as a blank canvas is indicative of some kind of body-dismorphic-disorder-meets-some-kind-of-blindness…body appreciation blindness?

It’s fascinating that whatever this disorder/blindness is, it seems learnable. Is there such a thing as cultural epidemiologists? If so, they should study this.

Exploring diversity preferences, part i

Sometimes I find it frustrating when people talk about how important diversity is but then they go live very non-diverse lives: they marry people who look and think like them, they move to neighborhoods where everyone looks and thinks like them, they get jobs in industries where everyone looks and thinks like them, etc. It’s always someone else’s job to provide the diversity they go on and on about. My wife summed it up well. Clearly there is a split between what economists would call people’s stated and revealed diversity preferences.

Digging deeper into my thoughts, I realized “diversity” can be said to have many possible dimensions. Most commonly, when people say diversity they are talking about racial diversity (a mix of people of different races). In organizational, recreational, or social settings they might also be referring to gender diversity (a mix of men and women). Those who are a bit more savvy as culture warriors might include sexuality diversity (a mix of people who are straight, gay, bisexual, etc.). Occasionally you can hear calls for socioeconomic diversity (a mix of people from lower, middle, and upper classes and/or the cultures associated with those classes) and on very rare occasions, calls for intellectual diversity (a mix of people of different ideologies and belief systems)–this last one disproportionately coming from Jonathan Haidt.

(Religious diversity is sometimes called for as its own dimension, but it is often confused with racial diversity–e.g. “Muslims” used for “Arabs”–and properly fits within intellectual diversity anyway. Outside of maybe Ireland, nobody cares much about white Catholics and Protestants getting along anymore.)

Next I decided to examine my own stated and revealed diversity preferences.

Diversity type: Racial
Stated preference: weak
Revealed preference: strong

I have trouble getting worked up over complaints that countries, neighborhoods, companies, or schools are “too white.” Same would go for “too Japanese” or “too Nigerian.”

Yet I’m in an interracial marriage and several of my closest friends are black. Before I got married and since about my sophomore year of high school, I dated black girls almost exclusively. And what’s more, on a meta level this diversity is an aspect of my life I enjoy and appreciate.

Diversity type: Gender
Stated preference: weak
Revealed preference: weak

While I might be a feminist in some sense, I just don’t care that much about how many women work in tech, how many women are CEOs, how many female broadcasters get their own shows on CNN, and so on.

Nor do I have many female friends. Discounting family, the only women I’d say I’m close to are a couple former coworkers and my best friend’s wife. Compare that to dozens of male friends, at least half of whom I’m equally close to. And I’m fine with that.

Diversity type: Sexuality
Stated preference: weak
Revealed preference: weak

I have no problem working and socializing with gay people, but I don’t long for them if they’re not there. And, unfortunately I suppose, they have not endeared me to their political causes–quite the opposite. (“Unfortunately” because I really do think their causes such as gay marriage etc. are generally well-intentioned.)

I had a number of very close friends in high school and college who were gay, but my only remaining of those friends has become more of a friend of a friend. I have not acquired any new gay friends since then. I’m not sure why; one theory could be that when you’re married and have kids you just wind up in different circles from most gay people even if you otherwise share similar interests. Apparently I don’t care enough to change that.

Diversity type: Socioeconomic
Stated preference: weak
Revealed preference: strong

This one is interesting since in theory, when I think about where I’d want to live or work, I’d say I prefer to be surrounded by people who are approximately in the same or slightly higher socioeconomic class as me. (That is, people who read nonfiction, actively listen to classical music, don’t pay much attention to sports, have 401Ks, eat raw vegetables, etc.)

But I find myself with friends who smoke, earn way less money than me, have southern accents, and/or never finished college. I value those friendships and the perspectives and groundedness they provide for me as well. Knowing I was moving closer to several such friends recently was very comforting to me.

Diversity type: Ideological
Stated preference: strong
Revealed preference: strong

This is the one type of diversity I care about enough to evangelize. And sure enough my own world is full of this kind of diversity, as I can think of names of close friends from several religions and a quite full range of political orientations.

In a follow-up post, I’ll give my impressions on the stated and revealed preferences of the polite/”mainstream” culture around me. I’ll look for patterns in those preferences and compare them to my own, and then try and figure out what makes this topic so frustrating for me.