Don’t shoot the messenger when confronted with inconvenient ideas

| March 23, 2018

In August 2017, James Damore, a Google software engineer, was fired for writing an internal memo that offered views about sex-related differences in interests and emotions.

Damore had suggested that part of the over-representation of men in software engineering at Google might be due to psychological differences between women and men: not intellectual differences, but differences in what activities the sexes find attractive and enjoyable. He argued that Google should focus on equality of opportunity for individuals, without necessarily expecting equality of outcomes across its workforce.

Damore’s firing from Google was an example of an increasing intolerance of inconvenient or controversial ideas within democratic societies. Here, then, is one great moral challenge of our time. Once an issue becomes politically toxic, we may reject inconvenient viewpoints out of hand. We may reject opponents – viewing them as ill-disposed people – without listening to them, and we may even try to punish them for their views.

The memo

Damore’s memo cited a body of mainstream, though often controversial, scientific research. The research suggests that women tend, compared to men, to be more willing to please others, more anxious and susceptible to stress, more oriented to feelings and people (rather than to solving and using impersonal, rule-bound systems), and more attracted to life balance (rather than status).

Damore explained that these are statistical differences, discernible at the level of populations, and that there is a large overlap in the distribution curves for the respective sexes. For example, many individual men might be more oriented to feelings and people than most women. Thus, he emphasised, these findings should not be used to stereotype or prejudge individuals.

Social psychologists Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt have since attempted an assessment of Damore’s specific claims.

Though Damore expressed his ideas thoughtfully and mildly, his memo is often referred to online as a rant or a tirade. Its tone is unemotional, but it evidently stirred passions in others. After the memo was publicly leaked, Damore was shamed on social media platforms, then promptly fired. Throughout these events, his opponents blatantly demonised and misrepresented him.

A compassionate, feminist response

In the aftermath, the high profile psychologist and feminist author Cordelia Fine made some remarks worth taking to heart. Fine has long been a critic of research into sex differences in cognition and emotions. She regards many claims based on this research as scientifically doubtful and socially troublesome, insofar as they can be used to undermine activism for gender equality.

Though she criticised Damore’s knowledge and reasoning, Fine also stated that his summary of the extant research was “more accurate and nuanced than what you sometimes find in the popular literature” and, indeed, that some of his ideas were not especially controversial.

Fine added: ‘So there was something quite extraordinary about someone losing their job for putting forward a view that is part of the scientific debate. And then to be so publicly shamed as well. I felt pretty sorry for him.’

This shows a level of human decency that is often missing from public debate. Fine expressed compassion for an intellectual opponent who was poorly treated.

Moral challenge

We can all be tempted to reject inconvenient ideas, whether or not they turn out to be truths. So we face an urgent moral challenge to overcome this tendency and address ideas on their merits rather than how well they accord with our pre-existing beliefs.

The stakes are high. There is plenty of evidence that our tendency to dismiss ideas with potentially unsettling implications for our worldview is hampering our ability to deal with pressing issues, like climate change.

In their 2016 book, Asymmetric Politics, Matt Grossman and David A. Hopkins argue that the Republican Party has shown a distrust of the scientific consensus on biological evolution and anthropogenic global warming, but that this is not the consequence of an underlying hostility to science itself. Rather, Republicans tend to reject science where its findings are inconvenient.

Because they dislike government intervention in economic markets, Republicans baulk at proposed solutions to climate change. They begin here and “work backward” to reject climate science itself.

Often, indeed, the situation is even worse. Once an issue has become intensely politicised, we may interpret others’ views as evidence of their overall ideology, which then sways whether or not we regard them as fundamentally ill-disposed people who are not worth listening to.

In a recent article, Neil Levy presents evidence that this is now the case with global warming. For many American conservatives, acceptance of the scientific consensus has become a marker of untrustworthiness. It’s a cue to stop listening.

Such reactions are not new, nor are they found on only one side of politics. Hostile and dogmatic reactions to ideas can be found across the political spectrum. When combined with social media shaming, they can produce cruel outcomes for well-meaning individuals.

New ideas

All too often, we automatically dismiss ideas with potentially unsettling implications for our worldviews. We may go further in rejecting, and even attempting to harm, the messenger.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but it has become so common that it frustrates good-faith efforts to discuss and solve the large problems confronting humanity in the 21st century. Such rejection of messages and lashing out at messengers blocks useful discussion across moral and political divides.

To make progress, we will need to reboot our thinking. We need to focus on evidence and arguments, and on ordinary fairness and compassion to others, even when we disagree.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



  1. Alan Stevenson

    Alan Stevenson

    March 24, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    The concept that we find it difficult to accept ideas which run counter to what we have previously accepted is not new. I am not sure we can just blame the Republicans here. We all tend to accept ideas which do not run counter to our current thinking and shy away from others. One of the things we must do is try and elect as our leaders those who can change their minds when the facts change or differing theories emerge.

  2. Amelia


    March 24, 2018 at 5:04 pm

    Thomas Kuhn wrote about this in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He noted that even scientists, who should be the people most amenable to changing their views in light of new evidence, tended to reject challenges to the tenets they’d learned and that only when a new generation took the stage did the consensus change.

    There is a right/left difference in this as well. People on the right think leftists are stupid, people on the left think rightists are evil, which makes them loathe to give an inch in debate. Identity politics and the silos of the internet don’t help, people think their experience is somehow sacrosanct and so even their opinions cannot be challenged these days. Debate gets less rational, more emotional and the truth loses all meaning.

    It was funny when it was just post-structuralists talking jibberish in university courses twenty years ago, but now it’s undermining rational progress in actual society.