The Comprehension Gap

The logo for the organization Reading Is Fundamental

I feel it is obligatory to write about the whole Google memo thing; it’s all everybody is talking about anyway, so why not chime in?

“Because enough is enough, Alex!”

Ah, but I think you’ll find my take to be slightly different than your average customers’.

(See what I did there? It’s called foreshadowing).

So the memo, what some are calling an “anti-diversity screed” and are characterizing as “arguing that women are not biologically fit for tech roles.”

Which begs the question: did these outlets even read the memo, or are they lying about it?

You see, I am not here to discuss the contents of the memo, or its now-fired author James Damore, or even discuss what this means to the future of the American workplace–if you want to read a good article about all that stuff, check out Lord Adeonistake on the whole controversy.

I’m not even here to talk about the media: I do not expect honesty from them, nor do I expect them to be particularly intelligent enough to grasp what the memo actually said, which can be boiled down thusly:

The gap in representation in STEM fields does not stem from sexism, but from the AVERAGE PREFERENCES women make when choosing an occupation, some of which are driven by biological differences between men and women, and Google’s strategy of using discrimination to promote women, and certain other groups in general, does more harm than good.

That’s it. The author wanted more women to be working in STEM fields generally, and at Google in particular–in fact, he sounds like a fan of diversity (this is where reading comprehension comes in: did people just skip that part, or ignore it?). The memo is not “anti-diversity”; it is more “anti-Google’s current diversity policies, which he claims are not producing the desired effect, and are in fact causing more harm than good.”

A picture of the outside of Google headquarters

That’s a bit more nuanced, right? It’s not as good for clickbait, though. And you’ll notice that I am neither attacking nor defending the contents of the memo . . . I’m just trying to set a baseline of understanding so we know what we are talking about. It’s like in a formal debate or an informal argument: both sides need to be sure that they are talking about the same thing. Remember when that used to be important?

And yet, people want him drawn and quartered. People are frothing-at-the-mouth mad. You may find the contents of the memo offensive or distasteful–and that’s fine–but I certainly hope you at least read and understood what it actually said.

More shocking, to me at least, is this:

So many people seem to lack both a basic understanding of statistics and of basic reading comprehension.

And many of these people went to college.

This is what disturbs me the most.

I cannot understand how so many fail to understand the difference between an average and an individual or an exception.

An average is when you take a whole group of numbers–let’s say 45 million–add up all the values, and then divide by the amount in the group–that is, 45 million. What you get is an average, a number expressing the central or typical value in the group. At least, this is how it goes for a qualitative data set.

A simple explanation of how to derive an average
It doesn’t get any easier than this.

Or, when dealing with a quantitative data set, you determine how many members of a class there are–for example, out of 100 trees in a forest, 70 are oak, 20 are pine, and 10 are birch. You use these numbers to compute your average to determine that the average tree in your forest is most likely to be an oak. With qualitative data, you can’t derive as many statistics, but you can at least observe the most common categories.

An average is not meant to apply to every single member of that group. It is there to give a basic overview. It is not a perfect explanation for anything, nor is it meant to be.

Saying “On average, men are taller than women” is not the same as saying “All men are taller than all women.”

Saying “On average, people from different cultures prefer different foods,” is not the same as saying “All people from India eat ghost peppers all the time.”

And saying that “On average, women do not flock to certain professions because on average, women tend to display certain behaviors that are not a good fit for said professions,” is not the same as saying “Women are biologically unfit for careers in technology, and therefore are bad at it.”

Let’s use a baseball analogy: If a player has a .350 batting average, he’s (a) probably an All-Star and (b) hits the ball 35% of the time. It doesn’t mean that he hits it all the time, or that he always strikes out, or that he always hits a single.

In fact, the only thing I can think of that has a 0 average is Communism . . . and yet people keep wanting to try that too.

How can people–adults, who have ostensibly been well-educated–misunderstand averages so badly?

It’s like trying to discuss raw numbers versus proportions with people. Beating your head against the wall is honestly more fun.

A bald man banging his head against a brick wall

Why do people have such a hard time with this? There are a few explanations:

  1. People understand and are deliberately lying about it
  2. People actually do not understand
  3. People just parrot whatever the outrage du jour is in order to fit in

Are average IQs falling that precipitously? Is our education system that bad?

Can people just not read. Do people just decide not to read?

I know I’m doing that thing the media does which is report on a reaction to an event over the actual event itself, but I can’t help it. This is utterly dumbfounding. What should have elicited nothing more than a collective “That’s interesting; maybe we should talk about this” has turned into a hysterical shrieking match.

Listen: I work in Washington, D.C. and live in the area. I know all about highly educated people that are really not all that smart–what Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls “Intellectual Yet Idiot” (IYIs). But still, this has me absolutely nonplussed.

We use averages all the time, even when discussing (drumroll, please!) biological differences between the sexes:

  • Women are on average better communicators than men
  • Men are on average more likely to get into a car accident
  • Women are on average more nurturing parents than men
  • Men are on average more likely to be aggressive and prone to violence

Hmm…it’s almost as though things that make men look bad and women look good are okay to be chalked up to biological differences.

Nah, just a coincidence. I thought we were all the same and that there is no difference, right?

I’m being sarcastic to prove a point. But people are falling into that trap where, if reality doesn’t fit the narrative, they just decide to ignore reality even if grappling with this reality may help find a solution to the problem.

This leads, I think, to both a deliberate misunderstanding of a rather easy-to-follow bit of analysis and an absolute inability to even see anything that contradicts a deeply held worldview.

The “open-minded” people seem utterly incapable of accepting and grappling with different information. How fragile! How brittle!

You will never change people’s minds, I suppose.

"One of my favorite philosophical tenets is that people will agree with you only if they already agree with you. You do not change people's minds." Frank Zappa

But at the very least, I would hope that we could at least be disagreeing about the same damn basic facts. What a dreamer I am . . .

“Learn to code”? Nah.

Learn to read.

Follow me on Twitter @DaytimeRenegade and @DaytimeRenegade

And check out my Instagram here.

4 thoughts on “The Comprehension Gap

  1. Great take on the subject. I read the memo and thought the employee made a reasonable debate about the issue. It should be discussed not get the guy fired!

    I didn’t get too into reading about it because it would just wind me up. Unfortunately the IYIs read into it what they are told to read into it exactly like they were taught at university.

    What concerns me is that this is an emerging issue in corporate culture where employees have to watch what they say. Funny your more likely to be fired in the modern workspace for saying the wrong thing than being incompetent!

    All this is going to lead to is more segregation as more groups are created preaching ‘diversity’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks James. The reaction to the memo is what got me. People either don’t understand it, are lying about it, or both.

      You are spot-on about the dangers of wrongthink in corporate culture. Who knew that the real threat to freedom of speech and thought wouldn’t necessarily be coming from governments?

      Liked by 1 person

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