Google Sexism Scandal from Another Perspective: Chess

In the world outside of ISKCON, the controversy over the firing of a Google engineer for distributing an allegedly sexist manifesto can be seen from another non-spiritual perspective: competitive chess. In 2015, a similar firestorm within the sport arose when Nigel Short, a U.K. Grandmaster said that “we should ‘gracefully accept it as a fact’ that men possess different skills to women that make them better able to play chess at a high level.”[1] The reaction was widespread and brutal yet irrational.

For example, many, including many women international grand masters, pointed out that former women’s world champion Judith Polgar had formerly trounced Short in a series of games and held this up as proof that he was wrong. “Judith Polgar, the former women’s world champion, beat Nigel Short eight classical games to three in total with five draws, said Amanda Ross, who runs the Casual Chess Club of London. “She must have brought her man brain. Let’s just hope Nigel didn’t crash his car on those days, trying to park it. At least this resolves the age-old debate as to whether there’s a direct link between chess-playing ability and intelligence. Clearly not.”

But to such criticisms, Short noted that outlier events do not invalidate the general case. “The fact that I have one bad score against an individual doesn’t prove anything” he said. “I’m talking about averages here . . . statistically women don’t [compete] in the same numbers. The average gap is pretty large and that is down to sex differences . . . Those differences exist.”

For example, fact that some women are over six-feet tall, which would be taller than most men, does not invalidate the fact that men generally are taller than women. The point Short is making with regard to chess is that the exception does not invalidate the general case, which is that men appear to be better equipped to master chess than women. Even if mental abilities are equivalent (and there are many well-conducted scientific studies that make this case), seemingly unrelated characteristics like temperament could still dramatically affect ability to succeed.

(For example, men tend to be more competitive than women, and that competitiveness can drive one to perfect his (or, in the less common case, her) skills to succeed in that competition.  Competitiveness is not a proxy for logical reasoning, but it will determine whether you are going to prevail over adversity and put in the time to perfect your game.)

So, what is going on here?

Whenever someone raises the notion that some non-trivial difference between men and women is on account of innate differences, a furor arises because most people in the West have been brought up to believe that all differences are socially constructed. This is an idea that arose from a period of Western cultural history called the Enlightenment, a period of philosophical and scientific development in the West that occurred between approximately 1650 and 1798. What was rejected by the intelligentsia of that time was the idea that there is such a thing as fixed human nature.

Since then, it has been a central tenet of faith among those educated with Western values that only nurture, not nature, accounts for the non-trivial behavioral and mental differences between the sexes. By now, that idea has become so entrenched that those who openly challenge it are quite literally treated as heretics. This is demonstrated in the reaction not only to Nigel Short but to recently fired Google engineer James Damore.

What worries some in the West, however, is that this belief is so out of step with experimental science yet so firmly entrenched in the minds of Western elites and their governing institutions (like Government and Google) that they fear that such a wide-spread attachment to non-reality will eventually undermine Western influence. A possible scenario might be something like how Soviet antipathy toward capitalist economic principles eventually brought down the Soviet state itself. Damore made a similar argument in his own manifesto.

As far as us followers of Vedic principles are concerned, we are on the side of nature on this one. Nurture is not unimportant, but as far as we are concerned, nature plays a much larger role than some would like to believe. (See Bhagavad-gita 18.47 for more information about this.)

[1] Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Nigel Short says men ‘hardwired’ to be better chess players than women”, 20 Apr. 2015, The Guardian, 10 Aug. 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/…better-chess-players-women>.

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