2014-01-02

Differences Important And Unimportant

Explaining any phenomenon is a four-step process:

  1. Differentiate
  2. Hypothesize
  3. Text
  4. Explain
The first step is very different from the last step, and we shouldn't conflate the two. That is, if you bounce a ball twice, and observe that the ball bounces in a different direction both times, you haven't explained anything about motion. Even if all red balls are observed to bounce in one direction and all green balls are observed bounce in another direction, you're still at Step #1.

"Balls of different colors bounce in different directions" sounds like a nice story, but it's only Step #2. Even verifying this story through observation takes you only to Step #3.

"The color is what determines which direction the ball bounces" is an explanation. That's Step #4. How reliable ought we consider that explanation?

Part One:
It is said that people are not fungible resources. Or rather, it is not merely said that labor is not fungible. It is an argument that has been deployed for and against all manner of claims about law, society, economics, and government. Like any other shotgun theory, this claim is superficially true and specifically vacuous. It cannot support any particular claim because it is not specific enough to count as evidence for anything. That differences merely exist among people tells us nothing. If we would like to draw any conclusions at all, then we must be more specific about the differences we have in mind. This, however, is a bad idea.

Part Two:
Forty years ago, Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian psychologist, conducted an epistolary courtship with a Ukrainian foreign language teacher named Klara. His letters to her weren't filled with reflections on her cherubic beauty or vows of eternal love. Instead, they detailed a pedagogical experiment he was bent on carrying out with his future progeny. After studying the biographies of hundreds of great intellectuals, he had identified a common theme—early and intensive specialization in a particular subject. Laszlo thought the public school system could be relied upon to produce mediocre minds. In contrast, he believed he could turn any healthy child into a prodigy. He had already published a book on the subject, Bring Up Genius!, and he needed a wife willing to jump on board.
Laszlo's grandiose plan impressed Klara, and the two were soon married. In 1973, when she was barely 4 years old, Susan, their rather hyperactive firstborn, found a chess set while rummaging through a cabinet. Klara, who didn't know a single rule of the ancient game, was delighted to find Susan quietly absorbed in the strange figurines and promised that Laszlo would teach her the game that evening. 
Chess, the Polgars decided, was the perfect activity for their protogenius: It was an art, a science, and like competitive athletics, yielded objective results that could be measured over time. Never mind that less than 1 percent of top chess players were women. If innate talent was irrelevant to Laszlo's theory, so, then, was a child's gender. "My father is a visionary," Susan says. "He always thinks big, and he thinks people can do a lot more than they actually do."
 - Carlin Flora, The Grandmaster Experiment

Part Three:
Oh, we can argue with Laszlo Polgar, if we want to. Perhaps Polgar gave his daughters two gifts: excellent training in chess and an excellent set genes. Surely it is no strike against the heritability hypothesis that a leading European intellectual would sire three female chess champions. Even the article itself questions the validity of Polgar's experiment.

This is one situation in which contradiction simply will not do. Those who contend that intelligence is genetic must ultimately explain why so many geniuses come from more modest parents, and ultimately raise less-genius children of their own. Anyone who chooses to assert that men are better-suited to becoming chess grandmasters must reconcile that belief with a satisfactory explanation of the Polgar sisters.

Thus, we can accept at face-value the claim that there are "differences" between men and women, but the existence of ill-defined "differences" does not help us explain why we should expect to see (or not to see) three female chess masters raised by a reasonably intelligent man who was not himself a chess grandmaster. If the answer is that men are better inclined to formal logic than women, then why was Laszlo Polgar able to train three women to rival any male chess player? If the answer is that intelligence is genetic, then the question goes from being "Why are all three Polgar sisters so good at chess?" to being, "Why did the genes of two average-intelligence parents combine to form, not one, but three female chess masters?"

"Differences" offer no insight here. Women were once barred from participating in marathons under the belief that their bodies could not handle it. Had that belief endured, no man would have had the honor of losing a race to Deena Kastor.

Nor is it sufficient to use statistical variation as an explanation here. If it is true that women tend to be inferior when it comes to chess and marathons, then that only begs the question, Why? "Genes!" is not an answer, it is a hypothesis, one that a Hungarian man once decided to test and found the opposite.

Part Four:
One might suggest that it is banal and risk-free to assert, here and now, in the year 2014, that men and women are not so different, that race is not a good predictor of intelligence, and so forth. And one would be correct to make that suggestion. However, if we don't take the time to clearly state the context in which the discussion is being had, the discussion itself becomes meaningless.

To reiterate the point, then. There are fewer female chess grandmasters than there are men. That's a factual difference between men and women. If the hypothesis is that women tend to be unable to compete at the same level as men, then the existence of the Polgar sisters is a problem for the hypothesis. If, on the other hand, the hypothesis is that girls tend to lack sufficient encouragement to pursue excellence in chess, then the Polgar sisters offer confirmation. It would be incumbent upon the opposition to show reasonable counter-evidence in the form of a sample of girls who were trained in chess but failed to rise to any level of excellence. The matter doesn't end here, of course. As much evidence can be collected as we deem sufficient.

But the bald fact, the mere existence, of "differences" offers absolutely no insight into the matter whatsoever. Worse, mere facts have a tendency to mislead. That I am holding an empty water glass and standing in a puddle looks like I am clumsy. Add to it the fact that it has recently rained, and I just appear to be eccentric. Either way, we still don't know why I am holding a glass and standing in the rain.

Part Five:
Suppose we were to stage a chess tournament among a representative subset of the human population. Then, we would expect that the inclusion of females in that tournament would, as a matter of pure statistics, lower the average level of chess playing. This much, at least, should be understood to be true and uncontroversial.

But before the feminists have my head, consider this: We would expect the competition in a chess tournament to be much tougher if anyone on Earth can participate than it would be if only males could do so. How can the competition be stiffer despite the fact that the average level of playing is worse? Is it because all the grandmasters in our sub-population stoop to the level of the reduced average? Of course not! The best players will quickly rise through the ranks, only now there will be more of them, because the population now contains both Bobby Fischers and Judit Polgars. And it's more difficult for Bobby Fischer to beat Benjamin Finegold and Judit Polgar than it is for Bobby Fischer to beat Benjamin Finegold only.

Once again, we arrive at a theme so often-discussed at Stationary Waves: that context matters, that we cannot just rattle off a list of facts and expect the secrets of the universe to present themselves to us. Had we relied on that approach, we would never have conquered the neanderthals. Facts without hypotheses are meaningless.

All that is to say that "differences" between human beings are neither any sort of an explanation, nor any reason to fret.

Part Six:
I'll leave you with one final point, this time in the other direction. It's not as though all differences are unimportant, but rather that differences are only important if they are shown to be so. In other words, there is a right way to do differences.

Here's a picture that you may have seen before. It turns up on social media websites every now and then.
The point of the graphic is to highlight that a woman wearing a hijab is no more "oppressed" than a Catholic nun.

But, of course, there are important differences between the woman on the left and the woman on the right. The first and foremost difference is that a nun's habit serves and entirely different purpose than a Muslim woman's hijab. To see this, all one need do is Google the question, "Why do ______ wear _____?" while filling in the blanks with the appropriate nouns. I took the first link that came up for both questions, and each website looked reputable and friendly to each faith, in my opinion. Here is what they said:

Why do nuns wear a habit (emphasis mine)?
A "habit" tells who the nuns are. Nuns are women of prayer who have dedicated themselves to a life of prayer, penance and sacrifice. They do not keep to themselves the fruit of their contemplation, but share it with others. The nuns accept with gratitude people who come to them for prayers for through them they are fulfilling their mission of bringing to God the needs of the suffering world. So a "religious habit" is a visible manifestation for people to know and see that nuns are giving and sharing their lives for others for the salvation of the world and for God's glory.
Compare that to the answer for why Muslim women wear the hijab:
There are a myriad of reasons why, but the easy, one sentence answer is, because they believe God has made it an obligation for believing women. In the Quran God tells the believing men and women to lower their gaze and to dress modestly. He (God) specifically addresses women when He asks them not to show off their adornment, except that which is apparent, and draw their veils over their bodies.
So a nun's habit is a uniform, to help you know whether or not you are talking to a nun, while a Muslim woman's hijab is an act of modesty that is a prerequisite for eternal salvation. The former is a voluntary article of clothing to increase the visibility of nuns, to help non-nuns seek out the services of nuns; nuns may remove the habit at any time (provided they are wearing something underneath - heh). The latter is an obligatory rule applied to women, whether or not they are religious servants, not to help identify them to others, but to actually do the opposite - to hide their bodies and restrict visibility.

That is a fairly significant difference.

Another important difference is that, while it is quite commonplace to find a Muslim woman wearing a hijab like the one in the picture, nuns haven't dressed like that for decades. Consider this picture of a modern-day nun, which I found in the Denver Post:
Hence, another important difference between the nun's habit and the Muslim hijab as pictured in social media is that nuns don't actually wear anything like the hijab anymore.

What these differences mean depends entirely on the question. The graphic I pulled from social media asks why there is a double-standard between nun habits and hijabs. To that, I would respond that nuns are not committing a sin when they walk out into public in plain clothes, whereas Muslim women who do so are said to be immodest. If the hijab really is no different than a nun's habit, then there should be no problem going out in public without it. Thus, the real question is why do Muslims commit a double-standard here?

None of that, of course, says anything about which religion is "better" or "truer," nor does it lend any legitimacy to religious discrimination.

It does, however, serve to illustrate how we can explore differences in meaningful ways. That religious Muslim women tend to wear hijabs is not itself indicative of the kind of "oppression" to which the picture above refers. But that a hijab is obligatory, and a habit voluntary, may offer a small window into that matter.

Conclusion
There are differences between people. Of course they are. Parse any population and the resulting subsets will display different statistical means. Highlighting differences is not particularly informative unless those differences are paired with a theory. And, importantly, the theory itself is not an argument for anything, either. It is merely the second step in a four-step process:

  1. Differentiate
  2. Hypothesize
  3. Test
  4. Explain
So the next time someone tells you that differences exist, keep in mind that they are at Step #1. Too often, people believe that the existence of a difference is Step #4.