When Brilliant People Say Silly Things

Don’t get me wrong.  Stacy Chou, featured in this article in the most recent edition of Wired, has not only an undergraduate degree but also a master’s in computer science, with a specialty in artificial intelligence.  Her day job is coding for Pinterest, and she interned at Google and Facebook before signing on as one of the first 15 employees at Pinterest.  She’s got chops, in other words.  I’m quite satisfied she’s brilliant in ways I don’t even suspect a human can be brilliant.

I’m just some ol’ redneck.

But Comrade Chou is also an “activist.”  And how, whom, or what does she activate?  Well, she’s trying to increase the number of women employed as engineers in Silicon Valley.  Among the 200-odd smaller tech firms who voluntarily responded to a survey she’s organized, she found — just to what extent can this have been news to her or anyone else? — that only a tiny number of the engineers were women.  Sound the diversity klaxon!

She’s also trying to recruit more women directly into her company.  This summer, 21 of 57 interns scheduled to work for Pinterest are women.  And she trots out:  “It’s still not enough.”  Enough?  For someone as hyper-intelligent as she is, she seems to understand very little about either basic human nature or the demographics of the world in which she works and moves.

For starts, specific humans are not random events.  Each of us in the product, to a greater or lesser extent, of everything that has happened to us, every decision we’ve made over the course of our entire lives up through today, starting with the family we were born into and continuing on until this morning.

Secondly, Pinterest and its peers aren’t just hiring people to work the loading dock.  Their hiring criteria are painfully exacting.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but there aren’t a whole lot of Stacy Chous out there to hire, of either sex, of any race, of any age, of any ethnic or national background.  Period.  With folks like Mlle Chou, you’re talking three standard deviations above the mean just in raw mental horsepower, and that’s before you even get to the questions of talent and inclination.  Yes, it’s possible today for people in that field to work closely together from all over the world (a cousin of mine works from home outside San Francisco and his immediate boss works in London; the rest of his team is similarly scattered about the globe), but you still have to find them first, and that takes proximity.  The world is a huge place and the gross number of humans with the requisite mental capacity is finite.  A half-percent of seven billion humans (gross population isn’t at that level yet), which is actually a bit more than the proportion of the gross population at 3+ standard deviations above mean IQ, is 35 million (that same proportion of the U.S. population shakes out to roughly 1.65 million), and those people are scattered everywhere from villages in sub-Saharan Africa to Central Asia to Polynesia to Scandanavia to Dothan, Alabama.  The likelihood of any single one of them finding his or her way to Silicon Valley and even scoring an interview at a top-level tech firm is dauntingly, vanishingly remote.

Thirdly, no one at Pinterest or anywhere else in Silicon Valley is going to hire someone to learn computer engineering on the job.  That’s called learning how to shave on someone else’s face and Silicon Valley has no more money for that sort of indulgence than any other industry.  Nor are they likely to hire someone who’s just a pretty skilled engineer.  They’re looking for the very top layer of the very upper-most crust of the most talented people in the industry.  They’re looking for people who can strap themselves in and immediately launch down the catapult.  Those people don’t just coalesce from thin air sometime during their senior year at college.  Those are the people who’ve already been doing this sort of stuff, not only at school but also as a hobby, in clubs, on their own, for years before they ever darken a door in Silicon Valley.  They’re the kind of people for whom computers and programming are not just a field, but a vocation.  I’d bet that if Mlle Chou polls this summer’s interns, she’ll not only find out that most if not all of those 57 have — just for giggles — written multiple apps of their own, but that a large portion of them wrote their first apps before their junior year in high school.  It takes a long, long time for the talents and drive Pinterest and its peers are looking for to grow within any person.

All of which is to say that the pool of eligible hires for any serious firm in Silicon Valley is not only going to be minuscule, but it will be, even more so than in any other industry, incredibly self-selected.

And here we get to ordinary human nature.  It is neither more nor less an undeniable fact that girls, beginning right at the point in life when that sort of fanatic devotion to an activity begins to manifest itself (my hobby — my consuming passion — from the time I was in 7th grade was designing ships; had I been able to do calculus I’d have majored in naval architecture and this blog wouldn’t exist), girls self-select out of the STEM fields.  They just do.  Sure, some of it’s cultural, but unless Mlle Chou’s got plans she’s not sharing with us, neither she nor anyone else in Silicon Valley is going to be able to change the cultural forces to which 6th grade girls are exposed, either here in the U.S. or in any other country.  Some of it’s not cultural; a few years ago Larry Summers posed the question why there are so many fewer women at the very top of the field of (I think it was) mathematics than there are men.  He posed the question of whether there might be a sex-correlated difference in talent at that level.  Notice he did not say, “women can’t do math” or anything of that nature.  He merely speculated that — at that very highest level of achievement — there may be some physiological sex-correlated achievement differential.  He was crucified for even asking the question; lost his job, if Gentle Reader will recall.  You don’t, however, have to do a whole lot of digging to find credible support for the notion that female and male brains are adapted to different modes of thought and reasoning, that these adaptations lend themselves at different levels to different fields of human endeavor, and that these adaptations express themselves in the differing frequency of the voluntary pursuits of women versus men.  It’s just that simple.

So for Mlle Chou to say that X out of Y engineers’ being female is “not enough” is to assume any number of facts that not only aren’t in evidence, but rather are directly contradicted by some of the most basic facts which are.  Additionally, how the hell can you tell when the number of people exhibiting any arbitrarily selected characteristic is “enough,” when you’re talking about recruiting from a tiny talent pool for an incredibly demanding job?  You know when you have “enough” women, or “enough” blacks, or “enough” Jews, or “enough” left-handed people, or “enough” Pacific islanders?  You have “enough” when your team has sufficient talent to get the job done, right, on time, and within budget.  Then and only then can you say you’ve got “enough” of anyone.  If you can do all that, then, irrespective of what it is you’re looking for, you have enough of it; if you can’t do that, you need more talent and more dedication, not more women.

But then again if Comrade Chou had said that, she wouldn’t be featured in Wired, would she?

If Comrade Chou wants to recruit more women (or more of any arbitrary and largely irrelevant characteristic) into her job field, bully for her.  If her employer is OK with her doing that on the company’s dime, that’s fine too.  It’s their money to squander.  If I were the company’s general counsel I’d jolly well see to it that any such recruitment effort gets assayed over a Bunsen burner to make sure the company doesn’t get itself sued into oblivion by someone not wearing Mlle Chou’s favorite sort of genitals (this is California we’re talking about; if Comrade Chou fails to hire a man who’s had himself surgically mutilated into resembling a “woman” because he’s, you know, still a man, then God help her and her employer).  But to say that some X specimens of anything out of Y total employees is “enough” or “too many” or “woefully inadequate” is nothing more than silly.

Once again we see demonstrated that awe-inspiring levels of intelligence and garden-variety silliness are not mutually exclusive traits.

Leave a Reply