On this page:
A Short Story of Courage
The Google Memo
What Would a Scientist Do
So ...

Free Speech

Matthias Felleisen

Jan 14 2018

Changed in version 1.4: Wed Jan 24 08:37:07 EST 2018
Typos, anonymous source

Changed in version 1.3: Fri Jan 19 18:13:32 EST 2018
Clarified scope of test

Changed in version 1.2: Tue Jan 16 22:16:14 EST 2018
Postscript on Holman’s opinion piece added

Changed in version 1.1: Tue Jan 16 22:16:14 EST 2018
Postscript on Finley’s opinion piece added
plus link to Damore’s lawsuit

Changed in version 1.0: Sun Jan 14 21:18:23 EST 2018, initial release
Thanks to Greg Morrisett for suggesting that I put this memo story in context.

A Short Story of Courage

A couple of years ago, I recruited a young woman who had obtained her PhD in a foreign country. She had gone there because of a top-tier advisor in her experimental area (not programming languages). The two quickly agreed on a course of exploration and experimentation. Not much later, this advisor asked the young woman to present the data from these experiments to a visiting funding panel; apparently, this would be an important site visit. When she informed her advisor that she had no data yet (because experiments take a while to run), he told her make them up.

The courageous young woman refused and left the research group, even though this work had been the motivating factor of moving to this foreign country whose language she did not speak and whose customs she did not yet understand.

Keep this story in mind as you read the rest of this thought.

The Google Memo

In the summer of 2017, James Damore wrote and circulated a memo on Google’s internal company politics. The memo is, on one hand, a cri de cœur concerning the way Google wishes to indoctrinate its employees about gender and minority issues. As the memo correctly states, such "indoctrination camps" almost always backfire and do little or no good. On the other hand, it is a sophomoric collection of random quotes from social science (and proto-science) papers to support a highly questionable thesis concerning the innate programming abilities of women. If Damore had focused on his primary concern, the extreme culture of political correctness at Google, he might have had an impact.

Not surprisingly, Google’s VP of Diversity condemned the memo and shamed the author in public, like she had done with others according to the memo. The mainstream mediaI regularly read the Wall Street Journal in depth and scan the Frankfurter, the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Sueddeutsche. This is what I mean with "mainstream media". tore into this memo and Damore. Even though most of them eventually published alternative viewpoints, I quickly realized that some of the newspaper writers and many of the commenting readers had apparently not read the memo. Good enough for the man or woman on the street.

What Would a Scientist Do

My first reaction was that a scientist must read the memo before condemning it. My second one was "let’s test the PhD students in my lab and the College". And then I realized it would also be a test of free speech on campus. Surely, free speech hurts but I have suffered free speech from The Left for three decades, and I know it doesn’t kill.

So I posted the memo on my door and linked to it from my professional web page

Universities routinely complain that Computer Science employs too few female faculty members. Now, have you ever searched for conservatives on campus? Well yes, not even Google can find them.

with the word "Google" linked to Damore’s memo.

Then I waited.

I waited to see whether anybody would approach me with specific comments on the memo. I wanted to see whether he/she had read the memo (or would read it at my suggestion) and could critique it. Nobody ever approached me.


In December, Northeastern’s administration informed me that four female PhD students in the College had complained about the memo. It made them feel uncomfortable. The women wished to stay anonymous because of the "differential in authority". In response,
  • I explained my motivation, exactly as above, and eventually followed up with a corresponding email.

  • I also explained that colleagues had posted Left WingI played on the common misconception among academics that people in the military are automatically conservative. items on their doors for more than a year. I asked how this would make the ROTC officer candidates feel when they came to visit me during my office hours.

  • And I explained that if the university wanted to censure me, it had the right to do so because the first amendment applies only to laws of the government, not private companies such as Northeastern.

    (I was surprised that this came as a surprise to the administrator.)

We left it at that, and I promised to take down the memo when I’d do my annual office clean up.

In January 2018, the administration asked me to take down the memo. I did so, because they have the right to impose a speech policy on me as a faculty member. Plus, I had made my point.

So ...

Do you think that these four young women would have the courage to reject a request for fake data from their advisors?

Campus is where centrist speech goes to die.


p.s. By coincidence, Allysia Finley wrote a wonderful opinion piece (PDF) on Google’s culture. She is citing extensively from Damore’s discrimination lawsuit (PDF) against it. The text of Damore’s lawsuit shows screenshots of internal Google postings and emails that call for violence against Damore or denigrate conservatives and religious people. It is an interesting read.

p.p.s. And a day later, Holman Jenkins has a different take (PDF) on Google. He also extensively cites the Damore lawsuit, and his citations are even scarier than Finley’s. His conjecture is that Alpha’s CEOs have lost control over their employees.