Intellectual Integrity

September 25th, 2017

My sternest moral precept is to honor intellectual integrity. We lie to ourselves all the time and those lies blind us. “When a man lies, he murders a part of the world.” The single easiest and simplest path to genius is intellectual integrity. 

The acid test of intellectual integrity is the willingness to embrace an abominable truth. Suppose, for example, scientists, after much study and many experiments, determined that people of your own race/gender/ethnicity/religion/nationality are not as intelligent as the average person. Could you truly embrace that truth? Could you look in the mirror and say “I’m not as smart as the average person.” The scenario is preposterous, of course, but it does provide a vicious test of your integrity. And in fact, most people cannot accept unpleasant facts about whatever tribes to which they belong. Americans refuse to believe that their country is not the greatest country in the world. A French person will never acquiesce to observations about the small role that France plays in the world community. When tribal loyalties are involved, integrity flies out the door.

I know very few people who have what I consider to be a modicum of intellectual integrity. Everybody has a soft spot where they simply refuse to listen to reason. Here are some examples:

Climate Change
The evidence that human emissions of carbon dioxide were causing the earth to warm was strong in the 1990s; by the 2000s, it was convincing; now it is overwhelming. Yet a large number of conservatives continue to deny the scientific evidence. They do so solely for reasons of loyalty to their tribe. I have never met a denier who know anything of substance about the science of climate change. I have found a number of deniers who have amassed big piles of scientific papers that they use to argue some fine point. But they never understand what the paper actually states, nor do they understand how it fits into the larger picture. They are stubborn beyond all measure. I have never, in more than 15 years of contesting deniers on the Internet, encountered a single one who conceded a single point, even when I have demolished their claims with masses of evidence. These people have no intellectual integrity.

Creationists provide another example. They believe that their interpretation of the Bible requires them to deny evolution. Their arguments are so absurd that nobody much bothers to answer them any more. 

Nuclear Power
We have plenty of examples coming from the left as well. The most egregious of these is opposition to nuclear power. Many people still host terrifying images of monsters created by radioactivity. In a perfect example of conservation bias, they look at the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and remember only the failures at the Fukushima nuclear power plants — which resulted in zero deaths — while ignoring the 18,000 who were killed by the tsunami. I have studied the issues surrounding nuclear power and the evidence convinces me that they are safe and that radioactive waste can be safely disposed of at the Yucca Mountain facility. But all the evidence in the world has no effect on these people. Their tribe has pronounced that nuclear power is bad, and that’s that.

Genetically Modified Organisms
Here’s another example: opposition to genetically modified foods. Again, the wild fantasies of monsters deprive people of rational analysis. These things have been studied up, down, right, left, forwards, and backwards, and the evidence is clear: these things pose no threat. Yet many on the left actively attempt to obstruct the use of these crops. Someday we’ll be using gene-editing technology to save lives; perhaps then opposition to GMOs will diminish.

Gender-based Cognitive Differences
This is, for me, the most frustrating example of a paucity of intellectual integrity. The quick summary: science clearly demonstrates gender-based cognitive differences (men and women think differently), but most women reject that as sexist.

First I must walk you through the scientific evidence supporting the hypothesis. I will NOT cite the results of IQ tests because I do not believe that they adequately measure intelligence. Nor will I attempt to argue that the poor status of women in business, academia, and politics says anything about their intelligence — it reflects cultural factors, not innate factors.

Instead, I will rely on two sources of evidence: common knowledge and evolutionary psychology — and no, I don’t give a damn if some people think that evolutionary psychology is bunk. I present the arguments and let you decide for yourself.

You will surely object that “common knowledge” includes a great deal of bunkum. That is true, but I am not asking you to accept all common knowledge. Instead, I will ask you to evaluate the truth of statements individually.

Here’s a simple example of common knowledge:

Men tend to desire more copulation than women.

At this point, the nitpickers with poor reading skills will object that there are some women who desire more copulation than some men. I dismiss that argument by pointing to the word “tend”. I’m not claiming that all men desire more copulation than all women; I am arguing that most men desire more copulation than most women. You can quibble over whether the proper qualifier should be “most” or “many” or “the majority of”, etc. but you cannot deny that the generalization contains a hefty portion of truth. It’s common knowledge.

Now let me show how evolutionary psychology leads to the same conclusion. Start with the obvious fact that all creatures strive for “reproductive success” — having lots of descendants. Now apply that to the human male and the human female. For males, the act of reproduction takes about five minutes of strenuous effort. For females, the act of reproduction requires nine months of weakness followed by several years of commitment to the child. Obviously, the reproductive effort for females is immensely greater than it is for males.

Therefore, the optimal male reproductive strategy is to impregnate as many females as he possibly can. He will desire lots of copulation. Quantity is the best strategy.

The optimal female strategy is quality, not quantity. She needs to find a male who has good genes AND who will provide nutrition for her and her child until the child can take care of itself. She must carefully select the best possible mate.

Therefore, the optimal female reproductive strategy is to copulate with just one carefully chosen male. 

You can see then that a simple analysis of biological factors can explain some bits of common knowledge.

Mental Modules
Next, I must explain a fundamental truth about the human mind: it is not a general-purpose computer. The mind is not organized as one vast mass of computing neurons. Instead, it is a collection of modules, each one specialized for dealing with a particular task. This should be obvious when you consider the evolutionary process. From the earliest creatures equipped with neurons, changes in the nervous system were always dictated by environmental demands. The nervous system added, feature by feature, whatever worked best in solving its adaptive challenges.

Thus, the human mind is composed of mental modules. The oldest of these mental modules are localized to a single area of the brain. For example, the cerebellum is probably the oldest structure in the brain because it directly controls muscles — and it is a completely separate chunk of nervous tissue. 

Another major module is the visual-spatial module. This tells us what we see in the world around us. There’s an enormous amount of computational power in that module, and it resides at the rear of the brain. However, it is not so old that it is separate from the brain; it is instead confined to a general area at the rear of the brain.

Additional mental modules are not so well-localized; they might have areas in the brain that are dedicated to them, but their function can be spread over large areas of the brain. For example, some of our language skills are handled by Broca’s area on the left side of the brain, and we think that some processing of music takes place on the corresponding location on the right side of the brain. 

But mental modules are primarily functional modules, not spatial modules. They are well-separated behaviorally, but not so well-separated spatially inside the brain.

We don’t know how many mental modules there are inside the brain. There is a certain amount of fuzziness in the definition of a mental module; hence different scientists slice the pie differently. But there are a few mental modules that are well-established. The four best-defined are as follows:

Visual-spatial. As previously mentioned, this module provides the mind with a representation of the 3D space surrounding the person. It includes the ability to imagine extensions of the visual field so that a person can plan a spatial path to their objective.

Language: This allows us to speak and hear. It also appears to include some elements of sequential thinking.

Social Reasoning: This all-important module gives us the ability to understand the motivations of other people so that we can anticipate their responses to our own behaviors. 

Natural history knowledge: This module is not well-defined. It allows us to remember rules specific to the environment in which we find ourselves. It enables a polar dweller to remember to be careful when walking on ice, lest they break a hole in the ice and fall in. It enables a desert dweller to know what a mirage is so as not to be fooled by it. Our heads are full of memories that also constitute rules of prudent behavior.

Every human being has all four of these mental modules, as well as many more. And we all have roughly the same amount of brain mass, hence the same amount of overall processing power. However — and this is the crucial fact — there is nothing requiring that every mental module in every brain be exactly as powerful as every corresponding mental module in every other person. Thus, we all have different COMBINATIONS of cognitive skills, even though the TOTAL is roughly the same for everybody. 

These differences in mental modules are not well-understood. Right now, the differences appear to arise only from chance, but that appearance arises from our ignorance, not the true state of the brain. Nevertheless, there are two differences that we have recognized, both in psychological testing and in evolutionary psychology. 

The two mental modules I refer to are the visual-spatial reasoning module and the social reasoning module. Males and females demonstrate statistically significant differences in their abilities in these two fields. 

First, here’s the explanation for how these differences might have evolved. Hominines have spent at least the last few million years living a hunter-gatherer existence. The males go on long hunting expeditions to get meat, while the females gather nuts, seeds, and berries close to home. This division of labor is an obvious response to environmental dangers. In the first place, for any small group, reproductive capacity is directly proportional to the number of fertile females — but such a group could lose most of its males and still be reproductively viable. In other words, men are expendable, but women aren’t. Therefore, men get the more dangerous task of hunting. 

Furthermore, fertile women would often be breastfeeding, so they must return to the camp every few hours. 

This division of labor engendered a greater need for effective spatial navigation in males. In traveling long distances, it was essential that they be able to visualize the best route to follow, to read the landscape and correctly anticipate what topographical features lay ahead, and so forth. This created a selection pressure for males to have more powerful spatial reasoning powers than women. 

Meanwhile, females faced their own unique challenges. Successful reproduction hinged on their ability to recruit the nutrional contributions of her mate — she needed him to bring home the bacon for the kids. Yet her mate would prefer to inseminate another woman, using the rewards of his hunting to purchase her reproductive services. This leads to the tendency of men to abandon their partners — a behavior that has continued right down to the present. 

How can a woman defend herself against a cheating mate? Sexual dimorphism (men are bigger than women) means that she does not have the physical power to force him to honor his commitment to her. The only solution is to recruit the support of the rest of the group. The woman can publicly accuse her mate of cheating, and plead for the group to force him to proper behavior. This is her best chance of success — and it depends entirely on the degree to which she is liked and respected by others. A popular woman can easily recruit the support of her group. An unpopular woman would be ignored. Therefore, the ability to become popular was crucial to reproductive success. 

Females were therefore subjected to selective pressures on their social reasoning skills. Women with stronger social reasoning modules reproduced more successfully than women with weaker social reasoning modules.

We therefore conclude from evolutionary psychology that men should have stronger spatial reasoning skills than women, and women should have stronger social reasoning skills than men. 


Do we have data to support the conclusion? Yes, and in abundance. Here are some sources addressing the matter from a variety of angles:

And here is an excellent summary of what is known, providing citations to its sources:

The key point I wish to make here is that there truly are gender differences in cognitive skills. 

A Failure of Integrity
The other day I delivered a lecture about game design to a group in Europe. During this lecture, I pointed out that women do not spend as much money or dedicate as much time to playing videogames as men do. In other words, videogames don’t appeal as much to women as to men. I pointed out that this comprises both a serious failure on the part of game designers, and a huge lost opportunity. The solution, I pointed out, can be found by utilizing social intelligence in game designs. In other words, make a game about social relationships, not spatial relationships. 

Ironically enough, a woman in the audience objected to my claims. She appeared to believe that males and females have identical sets of cognitive skills, and so any discussion of gender differences in cognitive skills is essentially sexist. 

She is not alone; indeed, every woman to whom I have mentioned this has denied the existence of gender differences in cognitive skills. I have discussed this with some very smart women, and they are in unison in rejecting it. 

I understand why women would be prickly about this subject — every woman has suffered the abuses of sexist males, and they rightly refuse to tolerate any more such abuse. But I have yet to meet a woman who recognizes the difference between sexism and science in this matter. 

If you are a woman reading this, I’m sure that your gorge is rising. But I ask you rhetorically, do you respond with any of the following straw men:

“Women are not less intelligent than men!” 
I wrote no such thing; I wrote that women are stronger in social reasoning and weaker in spatial reasoning. 

“There have been plenty of brilliant female mathematicians/physicists/economists etc.”
Where did I say otherwise? What in this essay contradicts that assertion?

“Men consistently underestimate the intelligence of women.” 
Where did I say otherwise? 

“You’re just trying to confine women to lowly service jobs.” 
For most of human history, muscular strength was the most important ‘talent’ for almost any job. But as the population has increased, the number of interactions between people has increased exponentially, so that nowadays the ability to effectively interact with other people has become much more valuable. The advantages that women have in social intelligence are growing in their value. We still have a male-dominated economy, but that must change as teamwork becomes ever more important to the economy. Women should be able to manage teams better than men.

“You’re just trying to justify the male-dominated structure.” 
Good lord, where in the world did that come from? There is nothing in this essay to support that accusation. Moreover, I am absolutely certain that any of the women who know me will testify that I am about as far from being a sexist as is possible for a man to be. 

None of this should be taken to in any way question the undeniable truth that sexism is rampant in our society. The catalog of evidence for this is huge. Just today I read two more stories demonstrating sexism at work. When “Women’s Lib” rose to become a mass movement in the early 70s, I fully supported it, although it took me a decade or so to stamp out the subtly sexist behaviors that had been ingrained in me. By the 1980s I believed that any remaining sexism was confined to a bunch of old fogeys who would die out soon enough. In the 1990s I realized that sexism was still common among younger people. We still have a long way to go in bringing genuine equality to women. 

However, denial of truth never helps. Rather than insisting that a woman is a man with breasts and a vagina, women would do better by asking themselves whether the cognitive differences I describe here apply to them, and then adjusting their behavior accordingly. In times past, a woman had to behave like a man to be taken seriously. But trying to be somebody else is never a good strategy. Each person — male or female — performs best when pursuing the areas in which their talents are strongest, and avoiding those areas to which their talents are poorly suited. The poor social reasoning skills of males hinder the efficiency of many organizations; if more women are given the opportunity to apply their social reasoning skills to their work, economic efficiency will increase. As always, justice improves the lot of everybody. 

At last I can come back to the central theme of this essay: intellectual integrity. Even smart women cannot accept the truth of gender differences in cognitive skills — even when that truth provides them with the means to better their situations. Ultimately, the failure of intellectual integrity hurts them. Whenever you deny some truth of the world, you cut yourself off from the fullness of truth and narrow the universe in which you live. You see less of the world and your perspective shrinks. So, for your own good, discipline yourself to maintain your intellectual integrity.