The Missing Diversity of Intelligence Squared

Intelligence Squared is a group that organizes live public debates on political and philosophical topics. I’ve been to one of their New York City events before, a debate about whether the world would be better off without religion.

In general, I’m all for this idea. It’s a welcome echo of the era of Robert Ingersoll, when public lectures and debates were considered the height of popular culture, and I’m all in favor of any kind of entertainment that encourages people to turn their brains on and think critically. But looking at the IQ2 upcoming debate schedule for the fall, it’s hard not to notice a trend.

There are six debates scheduled for the rest of the year, on the U.S. drone program, on veganism, on breaking up the big banks, on the right to bear arms., among others Those are all fine topics. But of the 23 named debaters, 21 of them are white men, and zero are women. (When the schedule was first announced, 22 of the speaker slots had been filled; since then, one more has been taken up by a white man.) There’s just one slot left to be filled, and although I’d encourage them to pick a woman, just 1 out of 24 seems like a too-little-too-late gesture toward diversity against the background of a largely monochrome lineup.

Since we can take it as given that there are plenty of women who are qualified to debate these issues, I think the only reasonable conclusion is that bias is playing a role. I’m not saying that IQ2′s debate schedule has to be an exact 50-50 split between men and women. Nor am I saying that this result has to be due to deliberate and malicious sexism. But when white men are consistently and hugely overrepresented relative to their share of the population, it’s right to point out to the debate organizers that something is obviously influencing their choices, because they may not realize it themselves. (IQ2′s Twitter account says it brings together “leading authorities“. What are we meant to conclude when the set of “leading authorities” includes no women?)

Just the same way, if I had a bag containing 50 red balls and 50 green balls, and I reached in 24 times to pull one out, you’d expect that I’d get a roughly even split between the colors. If my selection process instead resulted in 23 green balls, you’d be right to conclude that something was going wrong with the process, that the way I was choosing them wasn’t random.

This is a case where consciousness-raising is called for. An all-male panel debating an issue that affects both men and women shouldn’t be the unremarkable norm, as it so often is. It should be viewed as strange, as out of the ordinary, as an unusual fact that cries out for an explanation.

In fairness, although they’ve never been close to parity, Intelligence Squared has included women in past debates, including some that took place earlier this year. And if there were even a few women on the schedule for the rest of 2013, I wouldn’t have written this. But I have to call attention to it because this kind of unconscious selection bias is self-perpetuating. When people only see men debating serious issues, they come to think of men as the only kind of people who should be debating serious issues, the only kind of people who have anything interesting to contribute. In that hostile climate, proposals for being more inclusive tend to be decried as “tokenism” – as though the only reason for including women or minorities was to soothe their feelings, rather than because a debate which contains only or mostly white men is potentially leaving out a huge breadth of viewpoints.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • L.Long

    Better off without religion? Full Stop!! YES!!!
    But I would go one step further….NO DOGMATISTS!!!!!! of any sort!
    I’ve seen some pretty fanatical, dogmatic American Patriots that I would just as soon seen as gone.
    Also Faith in Cheeses and heaven is NOT religion, a collection of bigots that state you will do X cuz our gawd says so, is a religion.

  • EmpiricalPierce

    While I agree with the sentiment that dogmatists of any stripe are a bad thing, could you please ease up on the shoutpoles?

  • Nancy McClernan

    You make excellent points. Thanks.

  • Michael

    Not only women, but some “people of color” would be nice.

  • Jason Wexler

    After going through most of their archive I found that the only debate with women was the one on whether or not “Men are Finished”.

    I saw the one debate after it came out on whether or not “Science disproves God” and found the entire system to be fairly liberally biased (and I am a liberal) and after going through the archives the debate topics and “results” generally with one notable exception, I am convinced that the series is more akin to a beat the strawman hour. That said the one and only thing that really stuck with me from the “Science disproves God” debate was when Ian Hutchinson a Nuclear Engineer on the side of God, made the stupendously inaccurate claim that universal applicability/universality isn’t a pre-requisite for science, when it is in fact one of the underlying foundational pillars of the scientific method.

    Ultimately that one experience coupled with watching any Sam Harris debate has left me with the sense that debate is a useless method for disseminating ideas and should be replaced with peer review and repeatability testing.

    So it occurs to me, now that I’ve been replied to that, I forgot to include one of my more important points which was probably the only one relevant to the discussion Adam started. That point is about how we are often discussing the gender and ethnicity/race disparity that exists throughout academia and politics, and how it becomes more acute the more elite one becomes. It should be noted that each debater in these debates all have just published a general audience book or has one forthcoming at the time they are asked to debate, and based on the one debate I saw I wouldn’t be surprised if these IQ2 debates are at least partially just a chance for the writer to hawk their books. Given the small number of potential “celebrity scholar” women and minorities, I think that may explain the lack of diversity coupled with the fact that many of those people may not find the topics they are approached about dovetails nicely with their interests, or as I suspect may be the case with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson they share my opinion of debate vs. scholarly publication.

  • smrnda

    I agree that debate is useless, mostly since defending a position takes time, research, and extremely clear writing that requires a number of edits and revisions. Debates are mostly about sounding smart and having a come-back more than presenting a compelling case for anything.

    For a brief time I studied psychology, and questions are not settled by debate, but (like you said) by a rigorous process of peer review. Even issues not really open to experimentation (“is society better off without god?”) is at least open to research. Debate’s just rhetoric over substance, in my opinion.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Yes, after reading Bruce Schneier give Sam Harris a well-deserved beat-down over racial profiling I’m convinced that bigots won’t change their minds no matter how much evidence is provided against their firmly held beliefs.

    Not only will they not change their bigoted views, they will continued to be lionized by their true believers.

  • Jason Wexler

    Thank you for your response, it reminded me that I left out a piece of my original post. I think the idea that we would want to settle issues by debate is fairly frightening. Debate at the Constitutional Convention, gave us the terrible notion that black people are 3/5 of a person, in late Wiemar Germany political debate gave the world Nazism, or on a much smaller scale and referencing back to my comment about Sam Harris, it validates bad and stupid positions with no supporting evidence when debates include people like Ray Comfort or William Lane Craig.

  • Jason Wexler

    So in fairness to Sam Harris whom I hold no specific animosity towards and am not entirely convinced that he is a bigot, my point in mentioning him, was that after watching him debate I tend to be convinced that he is wrong, even though we are almost always on the same side, in other words that he is an atrocious debater. He also has a bad habit of using words that have very distinct popular and scholarly meanings, in the scholarly sense only without first letting people know that he is doing that, think for instance moral relativism or free will. If I didn’t know better I would almost believe that he is ignorant of the more popular meanings of the words and phrases he uses which cause the biggest headaches and disagreements for him.

  • con-science

    Totally agree that the panel should be more representative of the population, and the way it stands at the time of your writing this, it is clearly not.

    However being more representative of the population is also NOT random. It’s here where your whole green ball / red ball argument is fairly ineffective.

  • Adam Lee

    Agreed. Since they did include two debaters who were people of color (both of South Asian descent), I didn’t want to press that point too hard – I feel as though that could have sparked a pointless argument about how many POC debaters would be “enough”. But yes, more ethnic and racial diversity would also be welcome.

  • Adam Lee

    What do you mean? My thinking is that, if debaters were chosen in an unbiased way, we should see a gender and ethnicity balance that’s at least roughly similar to the population at large, since that’s the sample pool they’re drawing from.

  • Figs

    The green ball/red ball thing does not mean that you’re going to get 50% green balls and 50% red balls. It just means that it’s very, very unlikely that you’re going to get 23 green balls and no red balls.

  • cipher

    I also agree that debate is pointless. Debate is performance art; it has nothing to do with any sort of attempt to understand objective reality.