Often, an idea will pop up that defies conventional wisdom. Sometimes these are mere hoaxes and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that are advanced by paranoid analysis of coincidences and unusual phenomena about which the speakers are usually ignorant. The recent revelation that rapper B.o.B. was a flat-earther was accompanied by supposed “evidence” of the earth’s lack of roundness, such as the lack of curvature in the skyline from certain vantage points. As astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson quickly explained, these discrepancies were more a display of B.o.B’s willing ignorance of a settled debate than a sign of a massive lie by the powers-that-be.
This is kind of a funny example, but the thing about it is, sometimes the conventional wisdom is wrong. For example, in America as well as other places in the world, it’s been ‘common knowledge’ since as far back as I can remember that diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol were bad for you. We were told by our government to cut down on eating red-meat and foods such as egg yolks, as they could lead to heart disease and other conditions. However, evidence continues to grow that suggests that saturated fat in and of itself is not bad for us, and also that foods high in cholesterol are in fact, not a high risk. Of course it is still important to have a balanced diet, including a variety of healthy fats, but the common wisdom that cholesterol and saturated fat causes disease just doesn’t seem to be supported by the evidence. So these days, I tend to keep an ear open for things that defy what we unflaggingly think is true. Even if it ends up being confirmed, putting your convictions under scrutiny is still a good exercise.
Occasionally these disputes of our accepted knowledge come from more than just one inquiring celebrity on Twitter, but even so sometimes the ideas gain widespread public support, often due to someone with a large audience-base making the suggestion on a public platform. And like I implied, when something becomes a widespread or well-documented notion (especially among people who I think are smart), I’m immediately eager to check it out, if I haven’t before. This has been the case with the idea of the gender pay gap in America–the idea that women get paid less than men for the same work. This is an idea that has been advanced for basically as long as women have been working, and an claim that is backed by the Obama administration. It is one of the most longstanding proofs that the feminist movement points to as evidence of a patriarchal society that advantages men.
But there is a loud and confident voice of dissenters. It has become very common, almost mainstream, to argue that the gender pay gap is a “myth.” They argue that once you take into account things like the fact that women tend to have less experience and tend to make different choices than men, the the pay gap disappears. These arguments are usually framed as part of a take-down of feminism in general, or at least the idea of “the patriarchy.” And perhaps if it were true that the gender pay gap was a myth, that would be very unfortunate for feminists and people who use that claim as a basis for their arguments. It wouldn’t discredit the movement as a whole, but it would force them to reframe their argument.
And this happens, by the way. Sometimes the things that are true are unfortunate and don’t line up with your agenda. For example, after reading the Department of Justice’s findings about the killing of Michael Brown, it’s really hard to maintain my previous thought that his death was unjustified. Of course that doesn’t have any bearing on the demonstrable fact that there is racial bias in how police interact with the police, but it is a fact that has forced me and others to rethink how we talk about the issue of racially motivated police brutality. Some people, either those who are ignorant or dishonest (or those who don’t trust the word of government officials) continue to use Michael Brown as an example of racially motivated police brutality. I think this harms the credibility of the movement. It’s important to have your facts straight. So of course, I needed to make sure my facts were straight about the gender pay gap. The argument that the pay gap can be explained by innocuous measurable factors is a compelling, so I looked into it a bit more than I had before. What I found was pretty surprising, considering how confidently and eloquently people are saying that it’s a huge myth.
Not only is the gender pay gap not a myth, there is study after study after study that confirms that it isn’t. There is literally mountains of evidence that confirms the existence of not only the gender pay gap, but also a racial pay gap as well. These studies do acknowledge that a large portion of the pay gap is due to the fact that women tend to make different choices than men, like spending more time at home with family, or choosing lower paying jobs overall. Women also just generally tend to have less work experience than men, and women are also less likely to negotiate their salaries or ask for raises. These studies also show that in rare cases (such as within certain age groups in certain occupations), there is no gender pay gap or even sometimes a gap in favor of women. However, every reputable study done on the subject invariably also shows that even when you take all of these factors into account, there is still an unexplained overall gap in pay, anywhere from 7-20% depending on how you measure it (and again, these gaps get even larger when you factor in race). There is no reputable study that I’m aware that concludes that “the wage gap is a myth.” The amount of evidence in favor of the notion that the pay gap exists is so expansive that I do not think it a stretch to compare dissenters to flat-earthers like B.o.B. So that leads me to ask, why do so many people subscribe to this dissent?
I suppose it goes back to the problem with how we’re communicating with each other online. A lot of people are in general not looking to come to agreement on what’s true or find common ground in arguments. We instead divide ourselves based on surface level disagreements, and subscribe to any fact or claim we hear that confirms our preconceived biases. We ignore or dismiss any evidence that doesn’t line up with the narrative we’ve solidified in our brains.
This is a sad reality of discourse on the internet–that we can’t even agree on issues for which there is substantial evidence. It’s really hard to get problems solved when half the people in the conversation don’t even think the problem exists.