Beauty and the Biased

A big thank you to Matin Durrani for the invitation to provide my thoughts on the Strumia saga — see “The Worm That (re)Turned” and “The Natural Order of Things?” for previous posts on this topic — for this month’s issue of Physics World. PW kindly allows me to make the pdf of the Opinion piece available here at Symptoms. The original version (with hyperlinks intact) is also below.

(And while I’m at it, an even bigger thank you to Matin, Tushna, and all at PW for this immensely flattering (and entirely undeserved, given the company I’m in) accolade…

From Physics World, Dec. 2018.

A recent talk at CERN about gender in physics highlights that biases remain widespread, Philip Moriarty says we need to do more to tackle such issues head on

When Physics World asked several physicists to name their favourite books for the magazine’s 30th anniversary issue, I knew immediately what I would choose (see October pp 74-78). My “must-read” pick was Sabine Hossenfelder’s exceptionally important Lost In Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, which was released earlier this year.

Hossenfelder, a physicist based at the Frankfurt Institute of Technology, is an engaging and insightful writer who is funny, self-deprecating, and certainly not afraid to give umbrage. I enjoyed the book immensely, being taken on a journey through modern theoretical physics in which Hossenfelder attempts to make sense of her profession. If there is one chapter of the book that particularly resonated with me it’s the concluding Chapter 10, “Knowledge is Power”. This is a powerful closing statement that deserves to be widely read by all scientists, but especially by that especially irksome breed of physicist who believes — when all evidence points to the contrary — that they are somehow immune to the social and cognitive biases that affect every other human.

In “Knowledge is Power”, Hossenfelder adeptly outlines the primary biases that all good scientists have striven to avoid ever since the English philosopher Francis Bacon identified his “idols of the tribe” – i.e. the tendency of human nature to prefer certain types of incorrect conclusions. Her pithy single-line summary at the start of the chapter captures the key issue: “In which I conclude the world would be a better place if everyone listened to me”.

Lost in bias

Along with my colleague Omar Almaini from the University of Nottingham, I teach a final-year module entitled “The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics”. I say teach, but in fact, most of the module consists of seminars that introduce a topic for students to then debate, discuss and argue for the remaining time. We dissect Richard Feynman’s oft-quoted definition of science: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”.  Disagreeing with Feynman is never a comfortable position to adopt, but I think he does science quite a disservice here. The ignorance, and sometimes even the knowledge, of experts underpins the entire scientific effort. After all, collaboration, competition and peer review are the lifeblood of what we do. With each of these come complex social interactions and dynamics and — no matter how hard we try — bias. For this and many other reasons, Lost In Math is now firmly on the module reading list.

At a CERN workshop on high-energy theory and gender at the end of September, theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia from the University of Pisa claimed that women with fewer citations were being hired over men with greater numbers of citations. Following the talk, Strumia faced an immediate backlash in which CERN suspended him pending an investigation, while some 4000 scientists signed a letter that called his talk “disgraceful”. Strumia’s talk was poorly researched, ideologically-driven, and an all-round embarrassingly biased tirade against women in physics. I suggest that Strumia needs to take a page — or many — out of Hossenfelder’s book. I was reminded of her final chapter time and time again when I read through Strumia’s cliché-ridden and credulous arguments, his reactionary pearl-clutching palpable from almost every slide of his presentation.

One criticism that has been levelled at Hossenfelder’s analysis is that it does not offer solutions to counter the type of biases that she argues are prevalent in the theoretical-physics community and beyond. Yet Hossenfelder does devote an appendix — admittedly rather short — to listing some pragmatic suggestions for tackling the issues discussed in the book. These include learning about, and thus tackling, social and cognitive biases.

This is all well and good, except that there are none so blind as those that will not see. The type of bias that Strumia’s presentation exemplified is deeply engrained. In my experience, his views are hardly fringe, either within or outside the physics community — one need only look to the social media furore over James Damore’s similarly pseudoscientific ‘analysis’ of gender differences in the context of his overwrought “Google Manifesto” last year. Just like Damore, Strumia is being held up by the usual suspects as the ever-so-courageous rational scientist speaking “The Truth”, when, of course, he’s entirely wedded to a glaringly obvious ideology and unscientifically cherry-picks his data accordingly. In a masterfully acerbic and exceptionally timely blog post published soon after the Strumia storm broke (“The Strumion. And On”), his fellow particle physicist Jon Butterworth (UCL) highlighted a number of the many fundamental flaws at the core of Strumia’s over-emotional polemic.   .

Returning to Hossenfelder’s closing chapter, she highlights there that the “mother of all biases” is the “bias blind spot”, or the insistence that we certainly are not biased:

“It’s the reason my colleagues only laugh when I tell them biases are a problem, and why they dismiss my ‘social arguments’, believing they are not relevant to scientific discourse,” she writes. “But the existence of those biases has been confirmed in countless studies. And there is no indication whatsoever that intelligence protects against them; research studies have found no links between cognitive ability and thinking biases.”

Strumia’s diatribe is the perfect example of this bias blind spot in action. His presentation is also a case study in confirmation bias. If only he had taken the time to read and absorb Hossenfelder’s writing, Strumia might well have saved himself the embarrassment of attempting to pass off pseudoscientific guff as credible analysis.

While the beauty of maths leads physics astray, it is ugly bias that will keep us in the dark.


Should we stop using the term “PhD students”?

I’m reblogging this important post by Jeff Ollerton on retiring the description of postgraduate researchers as “PhD students”. This has been something of a bugbear of mine for quite some time now. We ask that PhD researchers produce a piece of work for their thesis that is original, scholarly, and makes a (preferably strong) contribution to the body of knowledge in a certain (sub-)field. Moreover, the majority of papers submitted to the REF (at least in physics) have a PhD candidate as lead author. Referring to these researchers as “students” seems to me to dramatically downplay their contributions and expertise. I’m going to follow Jeff’s example and use the term “postgraduate researchers” from now on. The comments section under the post is also worth reading (…and there’s something you don’t hear every day.)

Over to you, Jeff…

Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

2018-11-10 17.40.18

Back in the early 1990s when I was doing my PhD there was one main way in which to achieve a doctorate in the UK.  That was to carry out original research as a “PhD student” for three or four years, write it up as a thesis, and then have an oral examination (viva).  Even then the idea of being a “PhD student” was problematical because I was funded as a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant and to a large extent treated as a member of staff, with office space, a contributory pension scheme, etc.  Was I a “student” or a member of staff or something in between?

Nowadays the ways in which one can obtain a Level 8 qualification have increased greatly.  At the University of Northampton one can register for a traditional PhD, carry out a Practice-based PhD in the Arts (involving a body of creative work and a smaller…

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“I’m a social media manager who hates social media”

A very, very quick blog post about this brutally honest and deliciously forthright cri de coeur: “Anonymous: I’m a social media manager who hates social media“. Well worth a few minutes of your time to read.

Sample quotes:

I hate being part of this machine. I hate helping these platforms grow – these spaces that fail to deal with fake news and abuse, and that are contributing to so many people having poor mental health.

These are all the kinds of things you’d probably expect to hear from a middle-aged man – the sort of old git who loves to get on his high-horse about, well, anything that disagrees with his world view.

But – surprise! – the person writing this article is actually a millennial. Moreover, a millennial who also happens to be a social media professional with more than a decade’s experience.

Is Science Self-Correcting? Some Real World-Examples From Psychological Research.

…or The Prognosis Is Not Good, Psychology. It’s A Bad Case Of Physics Envy*

Each year there are two seminars for the Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics module that are led by invited speakers. First up this year was the enlightening, engaging, and entertaining Nick Brown, who, and I quote from no less a source than The Guardian, has an “astonishing story…[he] began a part-time psychology course in his 50s and ended up taking on America’s academic establishment.”

I recommend you read that Guardian profile in full to really get the measure of Mr. (soon to be Dr.) Brown but, in brief, he has played a central role in exposing some of the most egregious examples of breathtakingly poor, or downright fraudulent, research in psychology, a field that needs to get its house in order very soon. (A certain high profile professor of psychology who is always very keen to point the finger at what he perceives to be major failings in other disciplines should bear this in mind and heed his own advice. (Rule #6, as I recall…))

Nick discussed three key examples of where psychology research has gone badly off the rails:

    • Brian Wansink, erstwhile director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, whose research findings (cited over 20,000 times) have been found to be rather tough to digest given that they’re riddled with data manipulation and resulted from other far-from-robust research practices.
    • The “audacious academic fraud” of Diederik Stapel. (Nick is something of a polymath, being fluent in Dutch among other skills, and translated Stapel’s autobiography/confession, making it freely available online. I strongly recommend adding Stapel’s book to your “To Read” list; I found it a compelling story that provides a unique insight into the mindset and motivations of someone who fakes their research. Seeing the ostracisation and shaming through Stapel’s eyes was a profoundly affecting experience and I found myself sympathising with the man, especially with regard to the effects of his fraud on his family.)

It was a great pleasure to host Nick’s visit to Nottingham (and to finally meet him after being in e-mail contact on and off for about eighteen months). Here’s his presentation…

*But don’t worry, you’re not alone.

** Hmmm. More psychologists with a chaotic concept of chaos. I can see a pattern emerging here. Perhaps it’s fractal in nature…


Update 18/11/2018. 15:30. I am rapidly coming to the opinion that in the dismal science stakes, psychology trumps economics by quite some margin. I’ve just read Catherine Bennett’s article in The Observer today on a research paper that created a lot of furore last week: “Testing the Empathizing-Systemizing theory of sex differences and the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism in half a million people“, a study which, according to a headline in The Times (amongst much other similarly over-excited and credulous coverage) has shown that male and female brains are very different indeed.

One would get the impression from the headlines that the researchers must have carried out an incredibly systematic and careful fMRI study, which, given the sample size, in turn must have taken decades and involved highly sophisticated data analysis techniques.


They did their research by…asking people to fill in questionnaires.

Bennett highlights Dean Burnett ‘s incisive demolition of the paper and surrounding media coverage. I thoroughly recommend Burnett’s post – he highlights a litany of issues with the study (and others like it). For one thing, the idea that self-reporting via questionnaire can provide a robust objective analysis of just about any human characteristic or trait is ludicrously simple-minded. Burnett doesn’t cover all of the issues because, as he says at the end of his post: “There are other concerns to raise of course, but I’ll keep them in reserve for when the next study that kicks this whole issue off again is published. Shouldn’t be more than a couple of months.


Denim and leather brought us all together

After the thrash metal overkill of last weekend, this week it was the turn of some heavy duty NWOBHM to crank the volume to the point of pain. I’m still recovering from the early eighties flashbacks induced by Saxon’s set at the Royal Concert Hall on Saturday night so please forgive this relatively short review. (Fortunately, my voice is now rather less croaky — it spent most of Sunday recuperating from my hollering along to “Wheels Of Steel”, “Dallas 1 pm”, “Strangers In The Night” and a bevy of other (head)banging metal classics…)

Up before Biff and the Barnsley boys, we had the classic rock of Wayward Sons, fronted by Toby Jepson, the erstwhile Little Angels frontman. (Bonus review points before they played a note for wandering on stage to the strains of Johnny Cash’s “I Shot A Man In Reno”). As a thrash metal fan in the late eighties I had to keep my penchant for Little Angels material well under wraps — “Too posh to mosh” and all that — but I always had a soft spot for Jepson’s voice. (After all, he comes close to Geddy Lee’s stratospheric vocal register at times. Even now in the throes of middle age. Bastard.) She’s A Little Angel is still very welcome indeed when it appears on shuffle on my phone.

But Wayward Sons aren’t about capturing Mr. Jepson’s past glories — they’re a much more seventies-style hard riffing, hard rocking band with none of the hair metal pretensions of Little Angels. Their down to earth rock ‘n’ roll is imbued with a wonderfully infectious sense of enthusiasm, some beefy Bonham-esque backbeats, and even a very welcome Thin Lizzy feel at times. Last year’s “Until The End” is as good an introduction as you’ll get…

I’ll definitely be looking out for Wayward Sons in the future — high octane rock with a sound that may well not be fashionable ever again. But that’s just the way we like it.

Doro Pesch, the long-crowned Queen of Metal, was next to tread the Royal Concert Hall boards. I’ve never been a fan, I’ve got to admit, but Doro deserves quite some respect for flying the metal flag so loyally for quite this long. And she and her band certainly can command a crowd…

Doro’s set took the Spinal Tap influence and, it’s got to be said, cranked it far beyond 11. Here are the lyrics for the chorus of the closing song of the set, “All For Metal”…

Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh
Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh
Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh
All for metal (Metal)
Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh
Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh
Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh
Gods of metal (Metal)

How much more metal could this be? None. None more metal. (Metal)

And then it was time for the main event. Saxon were not only one of the first metal bands I got into but were a formative part of my musical education back when I were a lad. I distinctly remember feeling rather pleased with myself when I nailed the riff for “Strong Arm Of The Law” as a fledgling guitarist — one of the first “proper” guitar parts I learned — after rewinding and replaying the cassette of the album for what seemed like weeks (but was probably months). Here’s that riff reverberating across the Concert Hall on Saturday night…

Classic old school metal tunes were mixed with Saxon’s newer (and rather heavier) material. I’ll be brutally honest, however — I was there for the nostalgia trip. Kudos to Biff and the boys for not resting on their laurels and continuing to write and perform new material, but give me “And The Bands Played On” over “Sacrifice” any time. Fortunately, they did. Better still, the Barnsley ‘bangers closed their fan-pleasing set by belting out this anthem for the NWOBHM generation…

I can’t hear you…

Where were you in ’79 when the dam began to burst?
Did you check us out down at the local show?
Were you wearing denim, wearing leather?
Did you run down to the front?

Did you listen to the radio every Friday night?

A Suspension of Hostilities

An eloquent and affecting post from Peter Coles on the centenary of Armistice Day and the poppy.

“The message of the poppy is supposed to be “Lest We Forget”. I’m afraid far too many have already forgotten.”

In the Dark

Among all the images produced during this weekend’s commemorations of the centenary of Armistice Day, this image of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron struck me as particularly moving.

Part of the reasons is that it reminded me of this photograph, of President Mitterand and Chancellor Kohl, taken in 1984:

Exactly one hundred years after the truce that effectively ended the First World War, these images remind us how much suffering took place before Europe reached a point at which war between France and Germany became unthinkable. That peace now looks increasingly fragile as the forces of nationalism, spurred on by populist demagogues, and funded by greedy disaster capitalists, threaten to tear apart the institutions that have brought Europe together in a spirit of mutual cooperation for so long. All that has been achieved could so easily be lost.

As Fintan O’Toole has written in a long article in this…

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Crossing The Divide: Communicating with the Comms Crew


I’m just back from a fascinating and thought-provoking day at Woburn House Conference Centre in London where I had the pleasure of contributing to Making An Impact: Marketing and Communications in Higher EducationI’ll quote directly from the blurb for the conference:

 Making an impact: Marketing and communications in higher education will bring together communications, marketing, external relations and digital professionals to discuss the particular nature of university marketing and communications, to draw inspiration from outside the sector, and to examine case studies to help you progress and enhance your own marketing and communications strategy.

At the start of the academic year, the conference organisers, Universities UK, invited me to present and run a breakout session on the upsides and dark sides of social media in academia. I was delighted to have been invited, but what I found rather surprising, if not a little disconcerting, when I scanned down the list of hundred or so delegates this morning was that I was apparently the only academic attending.

Now, I realise that, as is clear from the blurb above, the conference was pitched at those in higher education comms, marketing, and external relations. But still. A conference on core aspects of HE that was largely academic-free is symptomatic of the troublesome “us and them” divide that increasingly exists between those “at the chalkface” and our marketing and comms colleagues at the “centre”. Although I’ve been fairly — or unfairly, depending on which side of the divide you fall — scathing of the more corporate aspects of HE branding, I of course fully recognise that we academics need the support and guidance of our colleagues in marketing and comms. But that runs both ways; there has to be mutual recognition of each other’s expertise. I hope that more academics will get involved with this type of conference in future.

Despite initially feeling like a stranger in a strange land, however, I got a great deal out of the conference. Robert Perry‘s opening presentation on “influencer mapping” was fascinating. Perry made a strong case for the much greater online influence of the individual academic over that of the institution, which chimes with our experience with Sixty Symbols (and Brady Haran‘s other channels): the lack of a corporate “sheen” in connecting and engaging with an audience is almost essential.  As a fellow geek, I was also intrigued by the “connectivity mapping” that Perry presented in the self-styled “Geeky Bit” part of his presentation.

Next up was the engaging and informative Sian Griffiths, Education Editor for the Sunday Times, who was interviewed by Michael Thompson of Universities UK. This was a wide-ranging discussion covering everything from the unhelpful defensiveness of a certain breed of  university press officer to whether unconditional offers for university applicants are a good idea. (As an admissions tutor, the latter certainly piqued my interest.)


Closing the morning session, we had Kirsty Walker, Director Media Relations, University College London and Beth Button, Campaigns Manager, Universities UK on the #MadeAtUni campaign. Georgina Munn’s tweet below captures the core rationale for #MadeAtUni. (Georgina is Customer Success Manager at The Access Platform (TAP)).

At this point I had not imbibed caffeine for a good ninety minutes, so rushed to grab a coffee before the palpitations kicked in. (Again.) Then it was up two flights of stairs to the Boardroom for a session on crisis management from Will Marsh, Head of Media at Bristol University, and Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Manager for the Science Media Centre. Universities UK worked Will hard for the conference — not only did he co-present this session but he and I jointly delivered a breakout session after lunch (see below). Will discussed the tragic student suicides that have happened at Bristol University over the last two academic years, describing just how he and his team dealt with the issues with sensitivity and insight. (Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail did not exactly cover itself in glory in its coverage of the tragedies. Handling intrusive tabloid coverage was a recurring theme of Will’s talk.)

Tom Sheldon similarly made mention of tabloid hyperbole in his presentation…


Despite being very much of the “glass half-empty, fallen on the ground, crushed to bits…and we’ll never get the wine stains out of the carpet” persuasion, I was hugely encouraged by Tom’s slide below:


In case you can’t read the text above, the headline message is that 90% of the UK public (via the MORI Public Attitudes To Science survey in 2014) trusted scientists working for universities to follow the rules and regulations of our profession. That is remarkable (and, from certain perspectives, rather at odds with attitudes to academics across the pond).

Will and Tom’s Q&A had to be curtailed so we all could go to lunch. Will and I made our way back to the Boardroom for our session, “Communications professionals and researchers: Collaborating for success”. I discussed my rather polarised relationship with social media. Working with Brady Haran on Sixty Symbols, Numberphile (and, very, very occasionally, Periodic Videos), and with Sean Riley on Computerphile, has completely changed how I think about not only public engagement but teaching in general. But I’ve also written about the deep downsides of social media engagement both here at Symptoms… and elsewhere.

The key message I wanted to get across to the comms/marketing audience in the room (who kindly listened to me drone on for twenty minutes or so) was that it’s a mistake to think that there’s an adoring public out there waiting for academics to enlighten them about our most recent world-leading, pioneering, game-changing, cutting-edge (add buzzwords ad nauseum…) research. As ever for this type of presentation, I asked how many in the audience had heard of GamerGate (just five hands went up) or Anita Sarkeesian (three hands raised). This is a concern, given that this was an audience of (social) media professionals. My slides are below.

Will’s presentation focussed on just how a university Media and Communications team can collaborate with academics who have been targeted on social media (and beyond) due to research which is perceived as contentious. Remarkably, one especially contentious area of research turns out to be work on chronic fatigue syndrome. Will, depressingly, discussed how Bristol academics have received death threats due to their work in this area. (This article in The Guardian, which Will cited, highlights one example of targeting of a Bristol researcher.)

There is, of course, no silver bullet solution to protecting academics from the adverse consequences of engaging publicly. (The related issue of just where the line is drawn between professional and personal online activity was something that was raised in the Q&A session following our presentations.) Will made this point repeatedly for very good reason throughout his talk. Regardless, however, of just how we respond to each crisis, what is essential is that there are always good lines of communication and a strong professional relationship between the comms/media team and the academic staff.

For all of these reasons (and many more), next time I attend a conference on marketing and communications in HE, I sincerely hope that, as an academic, I’m not in a minority of one.

Update 09/11/2018: I’ve just scanned this week’s Times Higher Education over breakfast and read Charlotte Galpin‘s insightful and timely article on academics engaging via video: “Video must not kill the female stars of public academic debate“. Her article certainly resonated with me — Galpin echoes a number of the points that Will and I raised during our breakout session yesterday:

Live streaming, live tweeting, posting and podcasting of academic events has become a standard part of universities’ dissemination strategies, and I had been asked to participate in this one just months into my first lectureship. Yet, it is not clear that the wider implications of the practice have been considered in any depth.

My university has been supportive, but it also expressed surprise over my Daily Express experience, and reassured me that nothing like that had happened before.

It beggars belief that a university can express surprise at the type of backlash Dr. Galpin received. This lack of appreciation of just how toxic and aggressive it can get “out there” is troubling and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. For one thing, Galpin’s article should be on the list of required reading for all HE media and comms professionals. Anita Sarkeesian’s TEDx talk should similarly be part of the learning resources for Social Media for Academics 101…