Monday, August 07, 2017

Two, Three, Many Galileos...

Aug. 10, 2017 UPDATE: James Damore was indeed fired by the Google Inquisition, subsequent to publication of this post on August 7th:

  I could recount what I have seen and heard in other Countries, where this kind of inquisition tyrannizes; when I have sat among their lernedmen, for that honor I had, and bin counted happy to be born in such a place of Philosophic freedom, as they suppos'd England was, while themselvs did nothing but bemoan the servil condition into which lerning amongst them was brought; that this was it which had dampt the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had bin there writt'n now these many years but flattery and fustian. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo grown old, a prisnerto the Inquisition, for thinking in Astronomy otherwise then the Franciscan and Dominican licencers thought. And though I knew that England then was groaning loudest under the Prelaticall yoakneverthelesse I took it as a pledge of future happines, that other Nations were so perswaded of her liberty. 
                                                            --Milton, Areopagitica (1644)
Recently, I saw a production of James Reston, Jr.'s play Galileo's Torch at late Maestro Lorin Maazel's Castleton Theatre, directed by Maazel's widow, Dietelinde. 

In writing his earlier biography of the Italian astronomer and physicist persecuted by the Inquisition, Reston had discovered actual Vatican Library transcripts of Galileo's interrogation by the Grand Inquisitor. These documents were so powerful that the playwright, son of the namesake New York Times columnist and Washington Bureau Chief, felt compelled to dramatize the confrontation between reason and faith on stage.  

Reston's play has been performed sporadically since its premiere in 2014, and although not quite Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo, it offers much food for thought today, as Political Correctness has come to dominate so much of contemporary institutional discourse in the arts, humanities, and sciences.  A new Inquisition can be found among diversity and compliance officers ready to sanction the slightest offense against the Catechism of Diversity, which has come to dominate, destroy, and suppress free inquiry much as the Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which also was central to Brecht's 1943 play.  

This is the dilemma at the heart of both dramas: What happens when a person makes a discovery that undermines the established order? 

Does he persist, confront authority, and possibly perish...or does he recant, apologize, and survive?  

Reston's play brought to mind some contemporary high-profile heresy cases, where to be fair the issue was losing a job rather than losing a life, but still shocking--such as the firing of Lawrence Summers from his post as Harvard University President, for saying that women have lower math scores than men; the ousting of Nobel-prize winning scientist Tim Hunt, for making a joke about women in the lab (he had married one); the forced resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, after he was outed for opposition to same-sex marriage, among others. Not to mention violent riots on American campuses when outspoken outsiders like Charles Murray, Ann Coulter, or Milo Yiannopolous attempt to speak.

Reston's play seemed old-fashioned in its commitment to the rights of the truth-teller, rather than the duties of the Inquisitor.

Life imitating art came the case of James Damore, a Google employee who sent out an anonymous memo--headlined "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber" and known as #GoogleManifesto among opponents, or #googlememo among defenders--questioning the rationale for diversity hires in the high-tech company, arguing that group sex differences in engineering aptitude were primarily due to biology and so impervious to social remediation. The resulting firestorm was immediate.

Damore was denounced by the company's Diversity and Compliance officer, he was outed although he wished to remain anonymous (itself damning evidence of a climate of fear within the company), and online commenters inside and outside the company not only called for firing, but also for physical violence to be perpetrated against him.

It turned out that the author of the Google Memo is a scientist who knows a great deal about biology, because studied for a Ph.D. at Harvard University and has published scientific research papers in his field. By any normal standard, that alone would entitle his stated position to respectful consideration and discussion--especially in a company of scientists and engineers, dedicated to "Search," where the company motto still is "Don't Be Evil."

Instead, the response has been positively medieval. Google VP Danielle Brown officially condemned Damore's expression of his views, in a memo quoting another Google VP, Ari Balogh. The statement essentially declares company policy to be Holy Writ not subject to doubt or refutation (by definition an unscientific position under Karl Popper's "falsifiability" hypothesis, as stated in Science and Falsification): 

Diversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of our values and the culture we continue to cultivate. We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company, and we’ll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul. As Ari Balogh said in his internal G+ post, “Building an open, inclusive environment is core to who we are, and the right thing to do. ‘Nuff said.”

Thus, an official statement of Google puts the issue of Diversity beyond the scope of scientific inquiry--which makes it into religious dogma, in a philosophical sense. So has a company founded by skeptical scientists and engineers, heirs to Galileo, been converted into a Church of Political Correctness by a corporate commitment to unscientific concepts such as "Diversity and inclusion."

Whether James Damore will eventually lose his job and fall victim to Danielle Brown's Google Inquisition has yet to be determined. But it is obvious from the Google Memo affair that today's corporate management is no less evil than the Grand Inquisitor was in the time of Galileo, suppressing scientific truth to preserve religious dogma...for, as Brecht and Reston show, the Catholic Church, like Google management, also thought God was on their side.