Diversity Sucks

A while back, ERV wrote about a rather silly study trying to equate viruses with obesity. I don't have anything to add to that, but I mention it because in that post, she linked to William M Briggs. He seemed to have a pretty good take on that study, and since I wasn't reading any other blogs by statisticians (and know fairly little about statistics), I added the blog to my RSS feed. It soon became abundantly clear that he and I do not see eye to eye on most issues; he seems very conservative, doesn't have a very high opinion of science, and might be a global warming denier (he never comes right out and says this, but is constantly trashing the models that climate scientists use). Still, he writes well and seemed willing to engage in discussion the few times I commented, and so I continued reading. Though it's often comforting to be in an echo chamber for your own ideas, I valued reading diverse views.

Unfortunately, Briggs himself just penned a devastating critique of the notion that diversity is a positive thing:

Suppose then that we have agreed upon a locale; for definiteness, imagine it is the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. What would maximizing "diversity" mean here? Consider only physical characteristic. We'd have to staff the team with the short and tall, the fat and skinny, the able and disabled...but enough. This is obviously absurd. It is idiocy to insist on diversity of characteristic for any profession in which physical ability is important. And this is most professions: orchestra member, line worker, fireman, physician, sportsmen of any kind, jailer, soldier, and on and on. We're done: we have just proved that requiring diversity of physical characteristic for nearly all defined scopes is idiotic and a truly stupid idea. I hope you realize that this is a proof and not an opinion.

Oh, I do Briggs, I do. Such an ironclad argument bears repeating: because the idea of having a 5-foot-tall, 90-pound weakling on the Detroit Redwings is clearly absurd, ANY diversity must therefore be absurd. Got it? There's no way to argue against this, but just in case you feebs can't grasp the utter simplicity and universality of this argument, Briggs deftly elucidates another, more relevant example:

The simple proof that requiring diversity of characteristic is idiotic is this: we would require that our professors contain members who are brain damaged, who have congenital defects of the brain, who are diagnosed as "learning disabled", who are senile, who are infantile, and so forth[...] To maximize diversity means that one must positively discriminate in favor of each possible physical realization. To exclude any is to eschew diversity.

That's it. We're finished.

"But Kevin," you might be thinking, "Surely those advocating diversity aren't suggesting achieving diversity to the exclusion of other important qualifications, basic competence or brain function." You might be thinking that, but you're stupid. It's obvious: if you think diversity has any value whatsoever, you must seek to maximize diversity. And if, when choosing among equally qualified applicants, you decide to choose a woman over a man, or someone black over someone white, or someone from a disadvantaged background over someone a trust fund, all in the name of diversity, you are bound by logic to accept an unqualified psychopath with a learning disorder and a penchant for smearing goat cheese on his face, because THAT would constitute diversity too. It's so obvious!

The only assumed premise is that we wish the members of each of these professions to be "the best". Meaning we want doctors to be the best doctors, not the best white doctors weighing over 300 pounds born in Cleveland. We want the best violinists, not the best bald violinists. Our proof does not hinge on our imperfect methods of measuring "the best", either: it is enough that the method of discovering the best exists and does not itself invoke diversity: part of "the best" includes the idea of minimal competence, suitably defined. [emphasis added]

This premise is self-evident. We want the best doctors, and we know what makes the best doctors, so the only reason women and minorities are under-represented among physicians is because woman and minorities suck at medicine. If you think that the elite professions and schools clearly have an historic, pervasive and systematic prejudice built into their hiring practices then again, you're stupid. Human beings are completely rational, and only make decisions based on maximizing utility, so all the doctors ever hired were the best ones for the job.

As I said before, I started reading Mr. Briggs to increase the diversity of the opinions I was exposed to. But he's convinced me: reading his opinions is a terrible idea.

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You know, (while i dont disagree with your major point), Briggs is worth reading, because he is so different from you (and also me). His stuff on stats is extremely interesting, and i feel like he has some valid points on climate models (though i would be more convinced of anthropogenic global warming than he appears to be).

That being said, the point of reading diverse opinions is precisely what just happened to you - to be presented with ideas firmly held that are anathema to you. In that sense, Briggs is a very successful blogger.

Just my 0.02.

Even within the context of a hockey team, you need some diversity, nitwit. A combination of different skills.
Hockey isn't my game, but if your basketball team consists of nothing but 7-foot tall dunkers, you're going to have a hard time getting the ball up the court.

Extremely well put. What a facetious argument on the part of Briggs... I would hope for better.

By Magnetic Crow (not verified) on 16 Dec 2010 #permalink

Briggs is big on rhetoric, small on substance.

The way so many folks are these days.

You've got the simply stupid, who are dismissible to an extent, but the harder to deal with are the idiots who have learned to make pretty paragraphs.

By Katharine (not verified) on 16 Dec 2010 #permalink

Hockey isn't my game, but if your basketball team consists of nothing but 7-foot tall dunkers, you're going to have a hard time getting the ball up the court.

But that's all a basketball team looks like to me...

To take an example from a sport I actually watch and know something about, rugby union is celebrated as a game for all body types and abilities. The overweight piano shifting props in the front row, the lanky locks, the tiny scrum-half, the skinny speed merchants in the back three. On Briggs' own terms, that blows his theory out of the water.

Anyway, the example completely misses the point of positive discrimination, which is to counter-balance negativew discrimination, and is useless if the people who are discriminated in favour of aren't up to the job in the first place.

And, of course, his post falls foul of the law that says, if the title of an article is a closed question, 99% of the time the answer is "no".

we would require that our professors contain members who are brain damaged

The nerve of Briggs! One of my favorite professors had brain damage and died of it halfway through the semester when I was in his class. He had been quite capable of teaching with it for years right up until a week or two before he died. Shit happens to people, and by no means does brain damage guarantee that a professor cannot teach nor does it necessarily render a teacher incapable of teaching with excellence.

Lol, Briggs is pretty heavy on the false dichotomies here.

Hi all, Briggs here.

I don't normally do this, but our host Kevin appears to be a sweetheart (which I mean sincerely) that I thought I'd say hello.

RE: Climate change. I'm a member of the American Meteorological Society's Probability and Statistics Committee, have published in the Journal of Climate and other places, and specialize in the statistics of forecast goodness. My objective, quantitative, and professional view of climate models, judging strictly by their real-life performance, is that they stink. Using the word "denier" is---and I'm sure you can take this criticism---asinine. Venture over to my place and click the "Statistics" tab at the top to see a list of my pieces on climatology. My guess is that I have more experience on this topic than readers here do.

RE: Science. My respect for and devotion to science is positively obscene. But my suspicion and loathing of scientism (look it up) is profound. Much of what passes for science isn't, particularly in the realm of statistics. Science can never replace philosophy.

RE: Diversity. You are making the same mistakes many do, and which I discuss in Parts II and III. I welcome discussion of this on my page. But in brief: what I offered in Part I was an explicit proof that diversity of physical characteristic is impossible---if we accept "the best" premise. In Part II, I weaken this premise. In Part I, I say nothing about "historical injustices", "counter-balancing" etc., these being logically irrelevant to the point I make. Re-read that and pause for breath. I am making logical points, not political ones.

This is an understandable mistake, of course. But it's typical of the sloppy thinking on this subject. People go by the gut here, and rarely think things through.

To those who have commented: have you read what I have written I wonder? Scott: I invite you to come over and show me just one false dichotomy.

Sports-team guy: would you accept those without legs on your rugby team in the name of diversity? The blind? The catatonic? Newborns? Your error is common: you create, without explicitly defining, a limited, pre-set definition of characteristics that you feel are important, ignoring all others. Interesting, no?

Brain-damaged-professor person: I'm sure Kevin, who is more conversant in medical maladies than I, can name several other kinds of brain disorders and injuries, including, of course, retardation (I'm sorry I don't know they politically correct term for this). You make the same error as Sports-team guy.

I apologize that I won't have time to answer comments here. But please feel free to drop by my place. I'll try and answer all reasonable questions.

Incidentally, Kevin, I've got plenty of facial hair that I wouldn't mind donating.

I guess Briggs is an adherent of 'if something's worth doing, it's worth overdoing.'

And Briggs, science can't replace philosophy, being a branch of it - natural philosophy(look it up).

@ disgruntledphd - Yeah, I'm not actually going to stop reading, the constant straw-man and reductio ad absurdum just finally got to me.

@ Briggs - thanks for stopping by. I apologize if my characterization was inaccurate, but you can hardly blame me for thinking you don't have a high opinion of science when all of your posts on science since I started reading were critical. And to be fair, I did say "might be" a denier in regards to your climate stance. Every post on climate change since I started reading your blog (forgive me for not digging into the archives) has been critical of the idea - even if it's couched entirely in criticism of the models themselves.

But in brief: what I offered in Part I was an explicit proof that diversity of physical characteristic is impossible---if we accept "the best" premise.

You did not prove this, unless your definition of "diversity" is binary. If "diversity" means "the state where nothing can be more diverse," then of course it's impossible - but this reduces the argument to complete pedantry. Taking the Rugby example, if a team has 20% enormous guys, 70% middle-size, and 10% tiny guys, this team is more diverse than a team of 100% enormous guys, but less diverse than an infinite number of other combinations. This is not surprising or interesting.

I look forward to the next parts of the argument, but really, this foundation is pretty weak. Most philosophical proofs begin with a precise definition of terms, and in this case you seem to have assumed a definition of diversity (without explicitly stating it) that bears only superficial resemblance to the common usage, and then rail against your definition in an effort to discredit the common usage. This is intellectually disingenuous and pretty transparent.

I think you have encountered a situation in which a relatively rational person is more concerned with using science to make a political point or support a philosophical argument, rather than understand the implications of the science. In many instances people are drawn to others like themselves and don't want to have to be forced to acknowledge that someone not like them is equally capable. If you grow up at the Country club playing tennis and go to an Ivy league school, you are going to be more comfortable around others with the same sort of experience. If you grew up hanging at the rec center, attending community college and then a state school....you might very well be as qualified or even more so than the Ivy league crowd...but you are less likely to be hired by them...particularly if you are of a different race. You are different, and the idea that an "outsider" could compete raises all sorts of xenophobic issues. I'd point out that diversity doesn't mean a loss of job qualifications. Being part of a diverse SEAL team doesn't mean you are loading a wheel chair onto the zodiac, nor does it mean you take along a tourettes sufferer. It does mean that you will take persons who are physically capable of doing the job who have passed the ASVAB with a relatively high score, who might be of different faiths, ethnicities, or even sexual preferences. The problem in this case, contrary to Demi, is that for all the attempts at being diverse, you can only have persons who meet the physical requirements. You can't change them based on gender in that particular situation.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 16 Dec 2010 #permalink

Isn't 'equal opportunity' a more accurate phrase than 'diversity'? "Diversity' is problematic because people don't really know how to define it, and studies have shown that it isn't always such a great thing, and that homogeneous societies have many advantages.

It's true that the US population is diverse, and professions should reflect that, but making that the goal, rather than the outcome of fair chances at success, has always seemed rather odd to me. It takes the focus off creating a level playing field.

@14 What's the point of your post? Why bother posting if only a small minority can read it?

Briggs: The opinion you expressed on your blog about Bob Carter's talk - "It is the best statistical and scientific public talk I have yet seen." - is evidence enough for me to conclude you don't have any credibility wrt skepticisim, statistics, or climate science.
The fact that you go further than that and lavish praise on the work of such well known anti-science propogandists as the Heartland institute and Lord Monckton makes me doubt not only your credibility but also your motives.
BTW, congratulation on getting your own page on sourcewatch.

I think allegories can be used to clarify or obfuscate in argumentation, but they cannot prove or disprove a thesis. Therefore I regard excessive use of allegories as evidence of a centrally weak argument.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 19 Dec 2010 #permalink

@ Mike Olson - Yeah, he's arguing as if diversity is the only goal, and stupid progressives want to maximize diversity at all costs. This is clearly absurd (several commenters at his site have called him on his BS), and he's just arguing at straw men.

@ Isabel - precisely

@ Strider - you are now 14, the comment above you was spam, I've been getting a lot of it in that form (I think it's turkish)

@ Jim - I agree, and not only that, the allegories don't even make much sense.

We're done: we have just proved that requiring diversity of physical characteristic for nearly all defined scopes is idiotic ...

Such an ironclad argument bears repeating: because the idea of having a 5-foot-tall, 90-pound weakling on the Detroit Redwings is clearly absurd, ANY diversity must therefore be absurd.

That is not what he said. Although "nearly all" is almost as silly, it is not the same thing as your strawman. I don't know the context, but if his position is that diversity is an artifact of the world that desk and office workers live in, then perhaps he has a point.

@ Paul - I would encourage you to check out his argument and double-check me, but even though I might be a touch snarky on this one, I think my characterization of his argument is accurate. Essentially, it seems he's defined a group of people he calls "the faithful," which want to maximize diversity at all costs. Of course this group doesn't exist in real life, but Briggs seems intent on proving that their position is impossible (which of course it is).

At the same time, he throws in enough references to big university hiring committees etc to make it clear that his real beef is with a group of real-life people, but none of the arguments actually seems to address what they advocate.

I've only quoted a few lines from his first in a series of essays on this topic, but the link to the first one is there at the top. If you can stomach it, read through what he's written and let me know if you think I've seriously mis-characterized what he said.