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.

 

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s