Thoughts on rationalism and the rationalist community from a skeptical perspective. The author rejects rationality in the sense that he believes it isn't a logically coherent concept, that the larger rationalism community is insufficiently critical of it's beliefs and that ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY IS NOT THE TRUE CALIF.
Disapproving Of Tactics Isn't Grounds For University Discipline
I don’t know what I think of Boghossian’s hoax. I’m fully convinced these subjects fundamentally lack any truth-relevant standards. However, I haven’t actually read the papers in question and some of the rebuttals have claimed that the papers made observational claims. Peer review isn’t meant to challenge those kind of claims but it is meant to reject nonsense. So, before I settle on a view about the hoax I’d need to see if the papers themselves were obviously absurd even taking the factual claims for granted. However, how you feel about the underlying hoax doesn’t really matter here. There is no question that the hoax was undertaken as a rhetorical tactic to demonstrate the intellectual weakness of certain academic disciplines via the normal practice of submitting journal articles (even if there was dishonest intent). Moreover, many prominent academics praised it as an important contribution. Even if you think this was a pointless, dishonest and mean spirited attack on these disciplines it is well within the traditional academic role. This makes the use of human subject experimentation rules to punish Boghossian for his antics raises serious academic freedom concerns.
While Boghossian’s punishment was, in one sense, a slap on the wrist the particular form it took (essentially a complete ban on participating in human subject research) is very concerning. It is suggestive (though not conclusively) of a desire to bar him from doing further work on this question and not just a desire to see the niceties of IRB review followed. Regardless of the motives of his punishment the value laden choice to apply human subjects rules to a context where they are generally not applied raises concerning questions about academic freedom.
To illustrate the fact that we don’t normally think of human subject rules as being applicable to interactions with other academics in anything resembling normal practice consider the following examples.
Consider the case of Professor Wood debunking N-rays by surreptitiously removing part of the apparatus (without effect) to show it was a hoax. If this episode happened today should we punish Wood for performing an experiment on professor Blondlot without his knowledge? As this episode illustrates, misrepresentations in academic discussion have a long history and as such shouldn’t just be pushed outside the protections of academic freedom.
But maybe you’d object that Boghossian’s research was systematic in a way that Professor Wood’s was not. In that case consider Nosek’s Open science Collaboration. This collaboration literally asked people (other researchers) to perform a task (replicate these existing results) and published papers evaluating the percentage of those tasks that succeeded (successful replications). The project was expressly designed both to prompt researchers in the field to engage in these representations (so wasn’t merely observational) and then to do a systemic evaluation of how the researchers performed (successful replications or not). That’s the archetypal structure of research that requires IRB approval in other contexts.
Or what about going to a philosophy conference and asking your colleagues how they feel about some interesting moral dilemma you thought up. Is it human subjects research to write a philosophy paper noting that this dilemma seems to divide philosophers in such and such a fashion? Does making sure you ask a wide range of colleagues mean it suddenly qualifies? What if your goal is to write a paper arguing that other philosophers are deeply confused about some issue? Surely we don’t want to be running to an IRB every time we get a gestalt sense of what our colleagues believe or accept as evidence. Is it somehow that one is being inexact and summarizing a gestalt sense one’s colleagues believe that saves ones from needing IRB approval?
In that case consider all the conferences, such as the American Geophysical Union meeting, which have taken to releasing the race/gender breakdown of submitted/accepted papers to facilitate analysis and publication. That’s an archetypal experiment which any IRB would deny in another context. The reviewers (subjects) surely didn’t give meaningful consent as they risked professional consequences if they tried to back out after being informed the data summarizing their behavior would be released, if they were informed at all. I mean imagine what your colleagues would think of you if you backed out after finding out that your work would be statistically analyzed to determine racial and gender fairness. Worse, the research would convey potentially highly disturbing information directly to friends and colleagues aware of your status as a subject (perhaps even able to infer how you affected the data if conference organizers gossip).
I’m not saying that any of these behaviors is comparable to Boghossian’s misrepresentations. But I think they show that the choice to apply the human subject rules to Boghossian was highly value laden. Indeed the case with Wood shows we approve of this behavior when we believe the victims truly are charlatans suggesting it’s the belief that grievance studies researchers aren’t charlatan that is driving this application. No matter how wrong you may think that conclusion may be, not being punished for advocating (even in a mean, disrespectful and unpleasant way) for an incorrect view is at the heart of academic freedom.
I mean if universities can use human subjects research ethics as an excuse for condemning Boghossian in this situation I see no reason why they couldn’t do the same next time a philosopher talks to a bunch of colleagues at the APA to get a sense of their view on some controversial topic, e.g., the argument that we have a moral obligation to abort the disabled. I happen to be a fan of what Boghossian was trying to do (even f I might quibble with his implementation) but even if you aren’t you should recognize the potential to apply human subjects rules to do an end run around academic freedom guarantees and use their interactions with other academics, attempts to achieve more transparently on racial/gender fairness and other normal aspects of academic life as an excuse to apply them to controversial academics.
For instance, even though it’s a normal practice to get widespread feedback on a philosophical puzzle or argument from colleagues and reference the overall nature of those opinions in subsequent papers one can easily imagine that in the face of a public controversy about a philosopher advancing a a version of the (very philosophically reputable) argument that women have a moral duty to abort a disabled fetus the same excuse might be used. Just gather evidence that they had indicated their intent to poll colleagues about this argument at the conference (say because they planned to write a paper arguing that philosophers are insufficiently responsive to unpopular moral views) and use that to claim it was a systematic investigation of human subjects.
Shouldn't Harvard Believe In Educating Misbehaving Children?
Harvard’s recent decision to rescind it’s offer of admission to Kyle Kashuv really bothers me for a number of reasons. The fact that adolescent boys will egg each other on to do stupid shit shouldn’t surprise anyone. Indeed, any guy who tells you that they are sure they wouldn’t have done something equally offensive (though perhaps not online) at that age in the right circumstances (deliberately being extreme in what was foolishly assumed to be a private context) isn’t telling the truth. The admissions department at Harvard knows this and deliberately chose to put headlines over their supposed goal of educating admitted students. There isn’t any actual evidence this student is racist. Just someone who showed bad judgement like other adolescents. Harvard is willing to admit confessed violent criminals so the idea that this conduct was just too extreme is absurd.
No, he isn’t being sent to prison and his life is surely not ruined because he has to go to state school but it is a serious consequence and even if it wasn’t that just changes the extent of the damage and isn’t a justification for Harvard’s actions. Though, I’ll grant that if Harvard came back around after the controversy died down and offered to let him into the next year’s class that might make for an overall sound response. But I doubt they will do that.
Second, this further contributes to the troubling social narrative that not getting caught using bad words and otherwise signalling a certain kind of social virtue is more important than actually being good to other people. Yes, racist words can be quite hurtful but compare using the n-word in this context to making fun of a socially awkward classmate or even cheating on your significant other. If Harvard wants to condition admission on being a good person how about they start by kicking out students who were mean to their fellow classmates or their significant others. If the worst that kids do in highschool is use racist/sexist/whatever language in a context they believe won’t be seen by anyone likely to be offended that would be an infinitely better world than the one we live in now.
Third, one can reasonably infer that this past conduct surfaced as a result of Kyle’s public political positions. Using someone’s own words to counter their public arguments is certainly justified but the net effect of punishing kids for engaging in political advocacy. The exact opposite of the position that Harvard seemingly advocates. Moreover, one has to wonder if these documents would have come out (and if Harvard would have reacted as it did) if he wasn’t publicly known as the Parkland survivor with a conservative viewpoint. Moreover, the absence of any similar stories about the other contributors to that google doc having their admission to college rescinded suggests that either other schools don’t see things the same way Harvard does or raises questions of selective enforcement based on public visibility.
Fourth, it suggests that Harvard really does see it’s own admissions system as a kind of prize to be doled out for good behavior rather than a scarce resource that is allocated based on perceived benefit. If Harvard was interested in taking the best, brightest and likely future influencers and molding them for the benefit of the country this is the last thing they should do. Yes, make it clear this behavior is bad but then admit the student and mold him into a better person. Rescinding the admission just engenders bitterness and the kind of ugly emotions that led to Trump’s election.
Even after reading the counterarguments it seems clear that part of the mathematical community suppressed a mathematical [article] (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1703.04184.pdf) because it was ideologically inconvenient. As detailed in the quillette piece a paper accepted for publication (and actually published online) at the Mathematical Intelligencer was yanked from publication because some mathematicians felt it’s mathematical modeling of the greater male variability hypothesis might be discouraging to prospective female mathematicians and/or be picked up by conservative media.
Obviously (if the account is close to accurate) this is a horrific violation of academic norms. If there is anything that academic freedom means it’s that ideas can’t be suppressed because they might support politically inconvenient conclusions and it appears that is exactly what happened. What makes the whole situation truly absurd is that the people complaining about the paper were the ones doing the real damage to gender equality. Obviously, one unheralded paper entertaining a greater male variability hypothesis will have a lot less of a harmful effect than even the chance of a controversy over pulling it and the subsequent attention and overreactions1. Not to mention that explaining the gender imbalance via bias and harassment is far more discouraging to potential female mathematicians than invoking a biological difference in male/female variability2.
Some mathematical blogs critisize the argument in the paper (see back and forth in comments) but don’t allege it’s absurd or incoherent. A more substantial counterargument is made in the comments at ycombinator where it is suggested that a rogue editor deliberately pushed the piece through and directed changes to make it an overtly political piece supporting his own views. However, looking at the actual [article] (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1703.04184.pdf) reveals a piece perfectly appropriate to the Intelligencer or indeed many peer reviewed journals (perhaps excepting the relatively unspecialized nature of the content)3:. Moreover, if the editor had truly gone rogue rather than just having made a decision the board disagreed with she would have been summarily fired.
Of course, at this point it’s just one isolated incident (and new facts could always emerge to change the narrative) but it’s critical to express our disapproval now so this doesn’t become acceptable behavior. Ideally, I’d like to see some kind of resolution or statement of principles at an AMA meeting so hopefully we don’t need to move to a boycott or anything. Of course, political and ideological considerations do affect what gets published all the time but it’s critical to reinforce the norm that such considerations shouldn’t matter which makes our response in the few clear cut cases like this all the more important.
What to do about the original paper is more of a puzzle. I’m tempted to say that some other periodical should publish it merely to avoid giving even an apparent victory to the forces of censorship. However, there aren’t many equivalents to the Intelligencier and maybe it really isn’t a great model (though hopefully peer review could tell us). Also, at this point publishing the paper really would send a very different politicized message that other periodicals would be understandably reluctant to send. So other than moving quickly to the end of the journal format I don’t really know what should be done about the paper.
I do not expect many women inclined to fight through group theory and differential geometry (as well as any gender specific barriers) to be deterred because some mathematicians aired an idea about gender differences in a journal. ↩
Moreover, prospective female mathematicians have no reason to believe that conditional on being the sort of woman even considering going into math they are any less likely to be good than their male colleagues. Indeed, after conditioning they might expect to be better if it is true boys are more encouraged to enter these fields as well. ↩
Indeed, the inclusion of the appendix citing support for the greater male variability hypothesis seems necessary to insulate against criticisms that it’s perpetuating an unacademic, unsupported talking point. ↩
This nytimes article made salient a certain harmful dynamic that often occurs in liberal circles.
There is some class of behavior like domestic abuse or sexual assault which has a relatively clear cut and highly salient definition, e.g., domestic abuse (unmodified) is physical violence by an intimate partner or family member and sexual assault is sexual touching despite a clear lack of consent.
Then people (correctly!!) observe that some related behavior which doesn’t quite fall under the existing definition can be just as bad and harmful and start using the existing word to describe that behavior. For instance, in the article below using digital smart devices to harass, intimidate and stalk ex-partners and calling it domestic abuse. Or calling situations where an older man puts a young impressionable woman in a situation she feels uncomfortable and unsafe and applying substantial pressure (or legal but unsavory social threats) to coerce her into sexual activities sexual assault.
Individuals who then protest that such behavior isn’t domestic abuse or sexual assault are often accused of not taking the suffering of such related behavior seriously and this creates a strong social pressure to expand the category. When those on the right stand up and mock such expansions as not really being domestic abuse or sexual assault it further cements the narrative that this is all about whether or not one takes the suffering of victims seriously.
This is unfortunate because measuring harm is not the only, or even primary, purpose served by such categorizations. Rather, such categorizations serve to clearly delineate certain kinds of blameworthy activity which can be clear adjudicated to provide deterrence (legal or social) as well as creating a clear, psychologically salient bright line which people will be reluctant to cross.
For instance, while having someone grab your ass without permission or tear off an item of clothing is obviously sexual assault it is almost surely less harmful and traumatic than being tricked into a sexual relationship with someone based entirely on lies and finding out they were mockingly journaling the entire course of their deception online. Yet the former is sexual assault, in part, because we can clearly define the offense while it is hard to draw useful lines about how much deception in a relationship or how much sharing unflattering details with friends justifies punishment. It’s deeply unfortunate but the sad truth is that the lack of clear standards means we can’t use punishment to deter all kinds of deeply harmful behavior.
When we use the fact that some kinds of non-violent behavior perpetrated by intimates are just as harmful as physical abuse or that some types of technically consensual relationships have, via lies or pressure, the same kinds of harms as sexual assault to justify expanding the terms we erode the deterrent barriers that make negative behavior less likely.
Yes, there are ways to hurt people we can’t yet deter well but every time social norms and fear of legal consequences cause someone to refrain from hitting their spouse or touching someone without permission that’s a victory. The more we blur those lines that are being crossed the more we imperil those victories. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to introduce new terms that characterize other classes of behavior we also wish to deter but there is no cause to undermine the terminological clarity of the words we already have. Respecting such terminological clarity doesn’t deny the suffering of victims who don’t fall under the description. It’s just a recognition the world is far from perfect and we need to preserve our partial victories.
So in all the discussion about denying Sara Huckabee Sanders service at the Red Hen I’ve seen several places argue that it wasn’t a big deal to deny her service because they were very polite about the incident. While it’s surely better to be asked to leave politely this fails to grasp what’s upsetting about it and is completely inconsistent with our attitude about the harm in Masterpiece Cakeshop where the customers were denied service because they were gay1. Whether or not you think it’s warranted any honest analysis should admit that it is still likely very upsetting and, should it spread, has the potential to be a very big deal.
Don’t get me wrong. The long history of discrimination against homosexuals and their status as a vulnerable minority in much of the country makes it much worse to deny someone service based on sexual orientation. Also, I firmly believe it should be legal to deny someone service because of their partisan affiliation2. However, just because it’s less bad doesn’t mean it isn’t still plenty unpleasant. Note that I also think Sara Huckabee Sanders is a pretty awful person and spokespeople are surely different than random Trump supporters but I’ve seen many people defend such partisan denials of service generally not just for high ranking officials and that is what I feel deserves comment.
Humans are acutely sensitive to exclusion. It’s bad enough not to be invited to a party or know that you aren’t attractive or cool enough to be waived into a club. It’s much worse to be overtly told you don’t belong and asked to leave. This is especially true when you are asked to leave a place of public accommodation such as a restaurant and doubly true when one is there with family (especially children who might not understand).
Of course there isn’t the same history of discrimination as with race, sexual orientation or religion but surely the immediate emotional response of feeling hurt, confused and angry will share a fair bit in common. If you are skeptical imagine a Bedouin who has lived his entire life out of the reach of modern technology or history on his first visit to the United States who is politely asked to leave a restaurant because of his race or his religion. Do you doubt the very real pain and humiliation that will cause — even though that diner’s lack of contextual knowledge means that our fraught racial and religious history can’t play a causal factor?
At this point I’m sure that many liberals are marshaling reasons why it’s not at all similar. Partisan affiliation is a belief not an immutable characteristic, they aren’t a minority almost half the country is on their side, it doesn’t have the same potential to normalize harmful discrimination.
But religion is every bit as much a belief people choose (in both cases many people simply believe what their peers do) and people do identify very strongly with their partisan affiliation. Whether or not it is objectively different in some sense being excluded for partisan affiliation feels like being excluded for who you are to many people.
It’s certainly true that Trump supporters are hardly a minority in America but they are very much a minority in many areas (including large parts of DC). It’s also true that there are large swaths of the country where there is strong, vocal support for homosexual equality but we don’t feel that merely knowing that this would never happen in San Francisco obviates the harm to the couple denied service in Masterpiece Cakeshop. Nor would this intuition change if 40 of the 50 states were strong and vocal defenders of homosexual equality. Besides, you don’t really think the question turns on the fact that Trump supporters are 40 some percent of the population rather than 15% (the percentage of African-Americans in the US) and you’d surely never accept the response in the racial case.
Moreover, in terms of normalizing harmful discrimination, it is surely far more likely that (as many people openly suggested following the incident) people wearing MAGA hats will be denied service in a wide range of establishments in blue parts of the country sometime in the near future than homosexuals will face similar widespread denial of service (if for no other reason than the stronger norm against such discrimination). Note that if you want to argue this isn’t truly harmful discrimination you need to challenge one of the points above about this being a very painful and unpleasant experience.
Again, it’s not as bad as discrimination based on sexual orientation but we’re being hypocrites if we don’t recognize that it’s still a pretty intense and humiliating experience which we should avoid inflicting on people unless we have a very good reason.
Ok, technically because they planned to use the cake at a gay wedding. ↩
I’m unsure about legal protections based on gender identity since that turns on tough questions about how fast norms are changing versus the long term harms from such legislation but this uncertainty doesn’t stem from any doubt about the degree of pain imparted by such denials of service but merely from concern about the long term costs of such legislation and the hopeful belief that such denials of service will quickly become the kind of silly extremism (like refusing to sell to people with bare knees in the US) that is so rare as to no longer be seen as a threat. ↩
In an earlier post I was very critical of the form the me too movement took predicting that simply conveying me too in the absence of any clear agreement on what was being claimed (did someone once ask you out in a way you found creepy or did your boss threaten to have you blacklisted from the industry if you didn’t sleep with him) would do more harm than good. I didn’t believe that merely expressing vague pro-social feelings of unknown intensity on social media would do much to persuade anyone to change their ways nor would it do much to change anyone’s justified belief in the prevalence of any particular kind of behavior. To be clear, I always supported the goal of eliminating the impunity with which many powerful men harassed I just thought it would require sharing emotionally detailed accounts of actual harassment to shift people’s beliefs.
Now I still believe I was right about many of the unimportant issues. MeToo didn’t directly do much to change people’s estimates of the incidence of harassment and I do think that the temptation for those who wouldn’t have otherwise judged their experiences as qualifying to participate (with the best of motives) might have lead some people to see harassment as less serious1 but all these effects were trivially small if real at all and I totally missed the real importance of the movement it created common knowledge that there was widespread condemnation of sexual harassment and that many people were finally willing to take accusations against powerful and admired figures seriously. Note, that conveying common knowledge didn’t require shifting belief in any particular frequency (of incidence or of people willing to stand up) and I totally missed this possibility[^facebook].
Was MeToo the optimal vehicle to accomplish this? I don’t know but it seems to have worked quite well and there is a good chance any little tweak I might have preferred would have undermined it. So I was totally, extremely wrong about all the parts that mattered and I believe in owning up to that. Indeed, I even vaguely remember someone mentioning the theory I endorse here on facebook at the time but I wasn’t convinced.
In retrospect I let my annoyance that people seemed to be just doing things because they felt emotionally satisfying rather than having any particularly good justification biased me so even when someone made the right argument I missed it.
For instance, someone assumed that those posting mostly just to be supportive were the extent of harrassment with rare exceptions. ↩
The Chinese Example And The Dangers Of Restricting Free Speech
This interesting post reminded me of my suspicion that a lot of the censorship in China isn’t the result of Xi Jinping’s crazed desire to be repressive. Almost certainly Xi would benefit from far less censorship and may indeed benefit from reports in the media exposing misbehavior by low level party officials but the incentives of those with the power to control expression (both to show off their loyalty and hide embarrassing events) means that far more censorship gets implemented than Xi would ideally want.
I think this is an important lesson for those who want to limit our free speech (or academic freedoms) when it comes to issues of race, gender harassment and the like. Even though the speech that one intends to ban may not have much value and impose great harms one needs to keep in mind the risks posed in delegating the practical authority to determine what speech qualifies.
How Good People Make It Impossible To Discuss Race, Gender and Religion
Listening to the Klein-Harris discussion about the Charles Murray controversy affected me pretty intensely. I was struck by how charitable, compassionate and reasonable Klein was in his interaction with Harris. Klein honestly didn’t think Harris was a bad guy or anything just someone who was incorrect on a factual issue and, because of the same kind of everyday biases we all have, insufficiently responsive to the broader context. Indeed, it seemed that Klein even saw Murray himself as merely misguided and perhaps inappropriately fixated not fundamentally evil. How then to square this with the fact that Klein’s articles (both the ones he wrote and served as editor for) unquestionably played a huge role in many people concluding that Harris was beyond the pale and the kind of racist scum that right thinking people shouldn’t even listen to?
Unlike Harris I don’t think Klein was being two-faced or deliberately malicious in what he wrote about Harris. Indeed, what Klein did is unfortunately all too common among well-intentioned individuals on the left and academics in particular (and something I myself have been guilty of). Klein spoke up to voice his view about a view he felt was wrong or mistaken about race but then simply choose to keep silent rather than explicitly standing up to disclaim the views of those who would moralize the discussion. This can seem harmless because in other contexts one can simply demure from voicing an opinion about controversial points which might get one in trouble but key ambiguities in how we understand notions like racist/sexist/etc and accusations of bias or insufficient awareness of/concern for the plight of underprivileged groups has the effect of turning silence into complicity.
The danger is that someone in Klein’s position faces strong pressure from certain factions on the left not to defend Murray’s views and those of his supporters as being within the realm of appropriate discussion and debate. Indeed, as Klein thinks that not only is Murray wrong but wrong in a dangerous and potentially harmful way it’s understandable that he would see no reason to throw himself in front of the extremists who don’t merely want to say Harris is mistaken but believe he should be subject to the same ostracism that we apply to members of the KKK. So Klein simply presents his criticisms of Harris and Murray and calls attention to the ways in which he thinks their views are not only wrong but actively harmful in a way that resonates with past racial injustices but doesn’t feel the need to step forward and affirmatively state his belief that Harris is probably just making a mistake for understandable human reasons not engaging in some kind of thought crime.
In other contexts one could probably just stand aside and not engage this issue but when it comes to race and racism there is a strong underlying ambiguity as to whether one is saying a claim is racist in the sense of being harmful to racial minorities or in the sense that believing it deserves moral condemnation. Similarly, there is a strong ambiguity between claiming that someone is biased in the sense of having the universal human failing of being more sympathetic to situations they can relate to or is biased in the sense of disliking minorities. These tend to run together since once everyone agrees something is racist, e.g., our punitive drug laws, then only those who don’t mind being labeled racists tend to support them even though there are plenty of well-intentioned reasons to have those beliefs, e.g., many black pastors were initially supportive of the harsh drug laws.
Unfortunately, the resulting effect is that failing to stand up and actively deny that one is calling for moral condemnation for having the wrong views on questions of race (or gender or…) one ends up implicitly encouraging such condemnation.
I’m generally a defender of Harris and I believe Vox (under Klein) was uncharitable to Murray and Harris. Even in this interview I think he (probably unintentionally) suggests that we should take Murray’s arguments less seriously because of his political aims and implied motivations.
However, Klein is dead on the nose when he accuses Harris of not being willing to extend the same charity to others he wants extended to him. Disagreements are hard and understanding other people is very difficult and Harris (like all of us) does have trouble extending charity when it feels near something that’s a personal attack on him or understanding how other people’s errors may be motivated by similar emotional response to prior unfairness.
My sense is the Klein’s real position is a reasonable view that Murray is very wrong on the science in a way that is harmful and that Harris gets it wrong because of the issue above. However, I think Harris is absolutely right in criticizing Klein for speaking in ways he should know are likely to lead to extreme moral condemnation.
Klein should know that the way his articles (and the articles in Vox while he was editor) will be interpreted by the public as going far beyond a mild criticism that Harris makes the same kind of unremarkable mistake we all do talking about tough political issues. I don’t think Klein is being malicious here and Harris is uncharitable in assuming this but I think he should be faulted for not being much more clear to his readers that he isn’t suggesting Harris is beyond the realm of reasonable disagreement…merely that he thinks he is well-intentioned, but wrong, in a way that happens to be harmful.
In short Harris and Klein both fall short of the ideal of charity and they both could do a great deal more to communicate that well-intentioned good people can disagree intensely and even think another person’s views are harmful without having to think they are a bad person.
In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Ezra Klein, Editor-at-Large for Vox Media, about racism, identity politics, intellectual honesty, and the controversy over his podcast with Charles Murray (Waking Up #73).
So apparently the Swedish government is going to pay women to edit Wikipedia out of concern that wikipedia contribution is heavily biased in favor of men. This misunderstands what’s desirable about gender equality in a serious way. While this may be nothing more than harmless idiocy it provides an important warning about the importance of taking a hard look at programs designed to increase gender equity.
There is no intrinsic good to having the same number of women editing Wikipedia (or engaged in any particular career or activity) as men. Rather, there is a harm when people are denied the ability to pursue their passion or interest on account of bias or stereotypes about their gender.
Now, if one believes that some activity discriminates against interested women one might think that artificially inducing women to participate (affirmative action, or even payment) is an effective long term strategy to change attitudes, e.g., working with women will change the attitudes of men in the field and place women in positions of power so future women won’t face the same discrimination. However, wikipedia actively encourages using unidentifiable user names, doesn’t require gender identification and there is no evidence of a toxic bro-culture among frequent editors. Thus, there is no reason to think injecting more female editors into wikipedia will reduce the amount of discrimination face by women in the future. Indeed, even if you believe that women are underrepresented on wikipedia because of discrimination or stereotyping, e.g., women aren’t techie or women aren’t experts, then paying women to edit wikipedia is wasting money that could have been used to combat this actual harm.
Moreover, there is no particular evidence that the edits made by frequent editors to wikipedia are particularly likely to be somehow slanted against women or otherwise convey a bias that this kind of program would be expected to rectify. Indeed, paying members of particular groups to edit wikipedia is an assault on wikipedia’s reliability. While I’m not particularly concerned about Swedish women the underlying principle that no one should be able to pay to ensure wikipedia is more reflective of the views of a certain identity group is important. I mean what happens to information about the Armenian genocide if Turkey decides that it should pay Turks to increase their representation on Wikipedia?
But why care about this at all? I mean so what if the Swedes blow some money stupidly? It’s not like men are suffering and need to be protected from the injustice of it all.
The reason we should care is that it’s shows in a clear and uncontrovertible fashion how easily well intentioned concern about gender equity can go off the rails. Given the potential blowback and murkiness of the issues there is a tendency to just take for granted the fact that programs which claim to be about improving gender equity are at least plausibly targeted at that end. However, this proves that even in the most public circumstances its dangerously easy for people to conflate ensuring numerical equality with increasing gender equality. Given that in many circumstances the risk isn’t merely wasting money but, as in affirmative action and quota programs, actively making things worse (e.g. by making people suspect female colleagues didn’t really earn their positions) we need to be far more careful that such programs are doing some worth those costs.
by Pierre Lemieux …women need state encouragement to do some of the one million edits that are made on Wikipedia every day. Presumably, this will promote the liberation of women. The Swedish government, or at least its foreign minister, wants…