I woke up this morning thinking about a very invidious, nay, odious, nay, heinous comparison.
The comparison that I consider so heinous is pretty much any comparison of the form:
Are <these people> better at <this thing> than <those people>?
It came to me in my morning musings, in that twilight dozing before I roll out for the morning. And, of course, it came to me in a more specific form, remembering when a certain former colleague of mine had written in support of James Damore, who was fired from Google after writing a memo suggesting that biological differences explained the under-representation of women at the company.
You’re probably familiar with the form such remarks typically take, styled to seem very “logical” and “reasonable”:
“Surely there are biological differences, we should look at this rationally, the mean and standard deviation must be different, blah blah yadda yadda.”
What is most striking about such screeds is that they never seem to conclude “And thus we see why under-represented people are discernibly better than over-represented people at this task we all consider important”. They always wind up explaining why the people on the bottom deserve to be there.
What heinous [DELETED]!!
And it’s not even good science. Anything humans do that matters enough to have a name, be it science, programming, art, whatever, is made up of a complex almost endless mix of inherent capabilities, learning, practice, training … and we all differ on all of those dimensions. And even if it were to turn out that there is a cluster of dimensions where Group A has higher values than Group B, those groups will overlap profoundly.
I would wager that almost every woman programmer at Google is a far better programmer than I am. And I am the quintessential old white male geek! What’s up with that? How is it that all these women can seriously kick my [DELETED] at my primary skill?
That’s not the point. The point is, plenty of people in the under-represented group are capable of exceeding the performance of even really good people, far beyond the average people, in the over-represented group.
We, the humans on this planet, need to recognize that every single individual deserves to be considered and treated just as well as any other, regardless of the shape of their body, the color of their skin, the people they love, the clothing they wear. They deserve the same quality of upbringing, housing, health care, opportunity, everything that comes our way, as everyone else.
I am not lessened by the many women, people of color, people of different orientation who are better than I am at the things I do. I am lifted up by them, and I only regret that I do not have the opportunity to observe every one of them, applaud their skill and talent, and perhaps even learn from them.
I do not know how to make things fair, and in fact I tend to believe that things cannot be made fair. There is a story told about an Air Force cockpit design. In brief, having set out to design a cockpit that would fit the average pilot, they took measurements of over 4000 pilots … and discovered that among those pilots, none of them actually fit the average. The conclusion: the cockpit must be adjustable.
Fairness must be adjustable. When we look at what it would take to be fair, we will not find a bunch of settings that say everyone should get this many calories of food daily, this much room in their house, this range of temperatures, this many vaccinations, this much education, and then everything will be fair. We might — maybe — be able to set some minimums, but let’s get real. For people to have their best shot, providing them the minimum possible support is clearly not good enough.
We need to recognize that the more we support people, the more we get people who can and will contribute back into society more than we put into them. Sure, there may be some folks who just don’t thrive no matter how hard we try, but overall we don’t need to worry about where the resources will come from. We can figure it out.
We must figure it out. It’s simply wrong to live in a world where some people do not get a chance to thrive because of the accidents of their situation. We can do better and therefore we must do better.
That kind of better, doing better … I do support.