In an advisory letter made public last week, the Associate General Counsel to the National Labor Relations Board recommended dismissing a complaint filed by software engineer James Damore, citing his sharing of findings in psychology that Google considers sexist.
James Damore, the software engineer who was fired from Google last August for writing a memo challenging aspects of the company’s diversity policies, is currently pursuing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) claiming his firing was retaliatory.
The most recent NLRB letter equated his arguments about sex-linked traits with offensive stereotypes and racial slurs. This has stirred alarm among some noted scientists and science commentators.
Biologists, wake up. Scientists, wake up. Now. It's not going to get better until you stop this idiocy. The psychometric measure of gender differences is rock solid research. https://t.co/ojsxU29ad6
— Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) February 18, 2018
Much disinformation has already circulated about the nature of the NLRB recommendation and its weight. The recommendation does not itself carry the weight of a legal ruling. It is instead the advice from associate board counsel – an attorney memo.
The issue before the NLRB is whether Damore’s criticism of social engineering at Google is protected by law. Ordinarily, employees criticizing company policies are afforded legal protection. In making his case for review of policies at Google, Damore cited findings that men and women express differing levels of interest in tech and so may experience slightly different job satisfaction. Damore’s implication was that the male-to-female ratio at Google may reflect employees’ personal preferences more than ingrained systemic oppression or bias. Damore cited sources reflecting the current consensus of social psychology to illustrate his points. Still, his points critiquing Google’s approach were received with hostility and Damore was harassed and fired.
Google’s approach reflects more of a hard-left postmodernist theory that gaps in gender representation are the result of bias or oppression and require strident corrective measures. Deeming the findings of psychology ‘offensive’ to its goals, Google, in its letter firing Damore, caricatured his points as using, “offensive gender stereotypes to suggest women cannot be successful in the same kinds of jobs … as men.”
Advisory letter equates points of psychology with abusive slurs
In the advisory letter, there was no discussion of whether Damore’s memo and the evidence presented within it were based in accepted psychology or argued in good faith. The standard the NLRB counsel argued for instead was whether the statements could be anticipated to be disruptive, arguing that there was no protection for making statements protesting work policy, regardless of their technical meaning or truth, if enough people take offense.
The NLRB letter dismissed Damore’s reference to scientific sources and ‘limiting language’ which he used to stress general findings showed small effects and did not imply anything about individuals.
Despite the fact the NLRB counsel’s advice stated that much of the content of the 10-page Damore memo was protected activity, it said some statements in the memo were not protected, and zeroed in on two specific points:
1) Damore noted women on average score higher in measures of Neuroticism than men which may make women more prone to experiencing stress.
2) Damore also supposedly noted men and women have different variances or distributions in IQ (not that one group is smarter than the other) with more men shifting outward to the bottom and top percentiles of IQ.
The NLRB advisory letter further suggested these are offensive and disruptive stereotypes, drawing analogy to cases where employees were terminated for making sexually abusive slurs against coworkers while protesting their work environment, using the words “spook” and “Uncle Tom,” and cases where employees attacked others with various racial slurs. The letter claimed Google’s firing decision was protected since it was in line with these cases.
When truth is not a defense
Point number two mentioned above did not appear in versions of the memo actually circulated among Google employees, but both are true representations of the current understanding of psychology. To reiterate, these statements are true and accurate representations of the current science. The results are well-known in the field and have been reliably replicated, holding up to academic review. This is why Peterson notes in the tweet quoted above, this is rock-solid research.
“Neuroticism” in the first point refers to the clinical sense in psychology, being one of the Big Five traits of personality. It applies to everyone – men and women – and refers to the measure of the formation of negative emotions in response to stress. The claim here is that women, on average, tend to score higher in this measure.
That this was referencing a clinical meaning of the term seems readily apparent on even a cursory reading of the memo. So does this really fall in the same basket as racial slurs?
The NLRB gives employers broad leeway when taking action in furtherance of their anti-discrimination policies. Since Google claimed that by firing Damore it was taking action to address Damore’s introduction of offensive stereotypes in the workplace, the NLRB could be expected to shift scrutiny to Damore, whereas ordinarily it would be on Google. The point that seems entirely missed is the question of the findings of psychology and Google’s treatment of such data as offensive. Should companies that form policies which ignore or even contradict social psychology be allowed to use those same beliefs to condemn scientifically-backed criticism of the policies as offensive? Could criticizing the policy possibly rise to the level of workplace sexual harassment?
Resolving the status of such a weighty question is really not the purview of the NLRB. The NLRB attorney advisory letter did not just fumble the point, it picked the two very best-studied and established claims in the memo to give as examples of what Google marked offensive. If this is not just comically poor argument, then it would seem almost as if this is designed as a softball to set up the issue to for the appellate court to reverse later.
The fight over facts
The labor complaint is but one small part of the Damore story. A class action lawsuit is in progress in California state court as well. We should eagerly watch this case since it raises a number of vital questions. Do the findings of contemporary psychology and neuroscience constitute offensive speech in violation of anti-harassment laws in the workplace? Can an employer fire you for repeating them even though they come backed by the broad consensus of the scientific community?
If such statements of common findings in psychology are themselves offensive, would a woman who offered these same scientific findings as evidence in the workplace be just as subject to termination as a man? Was Damore fired because of his sex as much as his message? Are there uncontroverted scientific facts a woman could bring up to a male colleague that are fireable for being sexist stereotypes of men? ‘
The NLRB advisory letter seems to stand for the proposition that people who are trying to change company policy can be fired for using facts and scientific sources to argue for those changes if the company, or simply other employees, label them offensive.
What this and parallel cases seem to be boiling down to is a referendum on the whether companies or even universities can ban academically-rigorous findings or discussion of them as harmful. It is a question of whether we are allowed to have fair and objective standards of speech that apply equally to people of all races, genders, and orientations, or whether the line for ‘offensiveness’ is drawn by whoever can claim offense. In the latter case, we would need court rulings about what categories of people can legally be offended by scientifically-couched arguments.
Would it not just be easier to say enough is enough, and protect people who make a good faith effort to argue facts in a truthful manner? When we allow entire fields of knowledge to be declared harmful and forbidden to mention, our public and private lives become a cage where we are governed by other people’s arbitrary mores of psychological comfort. Is that really any way for a nation of individualists, academics, programmers, and scientists, to live?