Politicks and Opticks

There’s been a great deal of opprobrium directed at The Sunday Times and the journalist Peter Conradi for the publication of that interview with Alessandro Strumia at the weekend. Although the criticism has (just) fallen short of calling for Conradi’s head on a plate, he’s certainly been very widely castigated. The responses to Conradi’s tweet below are a good representation of the tone of the critique:

I’m strongly of the opinion that this opprobrium is misplaced, misdirected, and ultimately entirely counter-productive. It plays completely into the hands of the “leftists/liberals/PC orthodoxy/feminazis are crushing free speech” brigade. Conradi didn’t, as some have claimed, completely ignore the “other side”; for one thing, he points out that the variability hypothesis — which Strumia unblinkingly takes as a matter of received wisdom — is “divisive” and “by no means universally accepted”. It’s a profile of Strumia, not a debate or a well-balanced discussion piece. One might as well take the Times Higher to task for not including a well-balanced rebuttal from a VC or PVC of my comments about “corporate uni bollox” in this.

Moreover, wind back a couple of years and we find, also in the pages of The Sunday Times, a double-page feature on Angela Saini. Simon Baron Cohen et al., whose work Saini roundly and rightly criticises in the piece, could well have taken umbrage at the lack of focus on their counter-arguments (such as they are.) But the piece is, in essence, a profile of Saini.

The target of our opprobrium should be Strumia (with whom I am currently engaging in the comments section of my previous post) and his pseudoscience, not The Sunday Times or Conradi, especially when the latter noted on more than one occasion that there was intense criticism of Strumia’s stance.

Those of us who strive for equality, diversity, and social justice are sometimes not the most cognisant of, to use the buzzword du jour, political “optics“. (And I very much include myself in the criticism here.) We should always consider just who might be in our audience. If it comprises solely those who share our principles then, in effect, why are we preaching to the converted? If, instead, we want to try to convince readers of The Sunday Times (who may well be slightly more towards the right of the political spectrum) that Strumia’s ‘analysis’ is bunk then is arguing that the article should never have published really the most productive approach to adopt? Doesn’t this live up to all of the stereotypes of the left that a more right-leaning Sunday Times reader may accept?

Let’s just focus on highlighting the glaring deficiencies in Strumia’s ridiculous “physics was invented by men” and “citation counts are directly related to IQ” assertions. Arguing that his views shouldn’t be published only serves to strengthen his (and his supporters’) martyrdom complex and, worse, creates the impression that we have something to hide. His pseudoscience speaks for itself.

Author: Philip Moriarty

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

17 thoughts on “Politicks and Opticks”

  1. If you view it as a profile, then the decision to profile a disgruntled & debunked controversialist is the main problem I’d have with the Sunday Times. If it was an attempt to report the controversy, then it was far too one sided, IMO, and the journalist seemed more ignorant of the context than I would expect, judging also by his responses on twitter. I wouldn’t call for any sackings (and as you say, people have stopped short of that I think/hope?) or be abusive, but most of the criticism seems fair as far as I can tell.

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    1. “A disgruntled and debunked controversialist…”

      Jon, turn a few pages past that article about Strumia and you’ll encounter the ravings of a certain Roderick E Liddle who is about as disgruntled and debunked a controversialist as one would ever hope to find. And he’s got a regular column.

      The Sunday Times didn’t print that piece on Strumia because they wanted to run a well-balanced, thoughtful assessment of his views. The controversy sells and the clicks keep on coming. Polarisation and polemic sell newspapers and generate web traffic. This is the game.

      So let’s be a little more canny in how we play that game. If we are attempting to speak to as wide an audience as possible, rather than preach to the converted, and convince those who may well have similar views to Strumia about the “natural order” of things, then attacking the journalist (and/or his editor) for not reporting Strumia in the way we’d like is not going to help us.

      Arguing that the Strumia article should be retracted, or should never have been written, is playing up to every single stereotype about the censorious nature of the big, bad bogeyman of the left that Strumia and his mates whine about incessantly. Let’s just highlight the absurd, nonsensical, ridiculous nature of his views. There’s a piece I like to cite regularly that does just that so very well. You might recognise it: https://lifeandphysics.com/2018/10/01/the-strumion-and-on/

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  2. Fair enough, it’s a judgement call. It is indeed the lazy clickbait nature of the piece and the decision to give him credence and prominence that are the problem. And spreading clickbait by complaining about it just makes it worse at some level, sure. But pointing out the poor research (by him and the journalist IMO) is necessary too. I kind of expected he’d get more of this hero treatment to be honest (hence the “…and on.” 😉 ) but thankfully this is the only significant one so far. Hope it doesn’t set a trend. FWIW, I think we only disagree on the “and the journalist” bit…

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    1. Hi, Jon.

      He might not have got the “hero treatment” in traditional media to the extent you initially suspected but he’s certainly joined the ranks of poster boy for a number of online factions. The reach of YouTube, in particular, is much greater than traditional media for certain demographics. YT, after all, is how Jordan Peterson rose to fame and it’s where the right is winning the “culture war”. (I wrote something on this for Peter Coles’ blog a couple of years back.) Damore has, of course, fought Strumia’s corner and hacks like Gad Saad have bemoaned the treatment of a “brilliant scientist facing down the PC hordes” (or similar; for the overly literally-minded Saad/Peterson/Damore/Strumia fans that may be reading, that’s not a direct quote.)

      What’s amusing is that Strumia bemoans what he calls the “victimisation narratives” of equality and diversity initiatives, yet all the while he plays the victim: https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2019/03/24/it-is-not-enough-to-wear-the-mantle-of-galileo/#comment-1709

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dear Philip,

        I am not playing the victim. I am telling what the real problem is: a powerful political area degenerated in a radical equalist world-view that become an electoral machine that needs painting some groups as victims to get their votes. Differences between human groups (mis)attributed to discriminations are used as political weapons, attacking majorities. The truth is that STEM welcomes women: imposing the opposite narrative is just a small example of how this politics is damaging our societies. Normally people revise ideas that don’t agree with facts. But this political area insists with the world-view that makes adherents feel morally superior. It’s the same mistake done centuries ago by the Church, when Enlightenment thinkers casted doubts on sacred beliefs. Talking about such topics become a matter of free speech. The sooner the problem is solved, the better is for everybody.

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        1. Alessandro,

          First, apologies for the long delay in replying.

          Your comment above really made me smile. A claim that you’re not playing the victim… followed by a hyperbolic victimisation narrative straight out of the Jordan B Peterson/James Damore/Gad Saad/insert anti-SJW-of-choice playbook! Thanks also for the equally amusing unintentional link to my previous post (via the reference to persecution by the Church). You’re certainly wearing that Galilean mantle with quite some pride…

          The right is just as anti-free speech as the left (if you’ll excuse, for a second, the unhelpful sweeping generalisation into “left” and “right”) . Here’s a very good example:

          https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/02/us-universities-professor-watchlist-free-speech

          Or this: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-right-shuts-down-free-speech-too/2016/12/15/745fa352-c30d-11e6-9578-0054287507db_story.html

          Or how about this: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/8/3/17644180/political-correctness-free-speech-liberal-data-georgetown

          Are there examples of where “the left” has been rather too extreme in its stance? Yes, of course. I, for one, am not at all a fan of no-platforming. Moreover, there can be a tendency towards a “holier than thou” attitude in some quarters.

          But, as those articles to which I’ve linked clearly point out, this is an issue on both sides of the political spectrum.

          You also have an exceptionally naive view of just how conscious and unconscious biases work, Alessandro. This has been pointed out time and again (by me and many others) but you simply ignore the arguments. For example, I have highlighted this important trail of references a number of times now and each time you ignore the studies cited there and make exactly the same tired, cliched points:

          Put the JB Peterson playlist to one side, stop whining about “cultural Marxists” and “PC orthodoxy”, examine *all* the evidence (including that which doesn’t align with your ideological preferences), stop playing the victim, and approach the issues rather more scientifically, Alessandro.

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    2. Dear Jon

      As the author of the piece in The Sunday Times that has generated such criticism from you and your physicist colleagues on Twitter, let me make a few points in a slightly calmer forum.

      I agree with much, if not all, of what Philip says in his initial posting here.

      Let me, however, respond to some of your criticisms. You start by questioning if the piece should be viewed as a profile or as an attempt to report a controversy. It was neither: it was very obviously an interview with Mr Strumia, labelled as such and in the same slot in the News Review section where we run an interview every week.

      The point of a newspaper interview is to draw out the subject’s views, which, typically, will make up the bulk of the piece. Yes, context and background will obviously be inserted, and if the subject’s views are controversial, then it should be made clear that there are people that disagree with him/her. This is what I did in this piece, mentioning the letter signed by the 3,000 or so physicists.

      An interview should not, however, be confused with an investigation into a broader subject or a feature in which the journalist would set out to listen to a number of different opinions and base a conclusion on them. Hence, it is absurd, as some critics have done, to attack me for not including any female voices in the piece. Just as it would be absurd to complain there were no male voices in an interview with a woman.

      Nor should it be seen as a forum for the journalist to set out his or her own views. At no point in the piece do I express whether I agree or disagree with Mr Strumia. That is simply not relevant. My job as an interviewer is to tease out a subject’s views. As you can imagine, in this case they did not require much teasing.

      Finally, what precisely do you mean by the “lazy clickbait nature” of the piece? You may not consider Mr Strumia worthy of an interview but that is another point. And in any case, shouldn’t a newspaper be free to interview whomsoever it chooses, provided the content is legal and does not contravene media codes of conduct? Furthermore, if you pause for a moment and consider the The Sunday Times’s business model – namely paid subscriptions – then you will realise we have no interest in clickbait headlines aimed at luring in passing traffic. Our aim is building up subscriber numbers and maintaining them. You don’t do that by tricking your readers, which is the essence of clickbait.

      With best wishes

      Peter Conradi

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      1. Dear Peter,

        Thanks for the response and clarification of what your piece was intended as. An interview is more of a privileged exposure that either a report or a profile, as far as I can tell.

        A newspaper should definitely be free to interview whoever it chooses (within the law of course…), and others should then be free to criticise its judgement in making that choice, which was my intent. I don’t view Prof Strumia as being interesting enough in his views or accurate enough in his analysis to be worth such a prominent interview. That’s my judgement, yours obviously differs, as I am sure does Prof Strumia’s. So be it.

        What I meant by clickbait was a hot-topic headline designed to cause outrage; but you’re right it was not misleading about the content. “Lazy” in that (as was also clear from your question on twitter) there had not been any investigation into the validity of Strumia’s claims and the overall controversy. From what you say, this is not something you would normally do for an interview, so please don’t take that as a personal attack – it becomes a criticism of the use of an “interview” piece to raise this issue in the paper.

        Thanks again for a measured response. I hope the criticisms from colleagues didn’t get overly personal, despite some pretty fundamental disagreements on matter that impacts upon many of them daily.

        Best wishes,
        Jon

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          1. Dear Alessandro,

            I think my main issue is the lack of consideration in your analysis of other (cultural and socioeconomic) confounding contextual factors that certainly convolute with any innate gender differences in physics ability or interest. There are others, including what strikes me as a rather naive equation of citations with ability/success. Also, as I said in my blog in October, you calculate citation bias in you matrix in a way which makes no sense to me since the evidence is that both males and females are biased against citing females, rather then both being biased to cite their same gender.

            Best,
            Jon

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            1. Dear Jon,

              Let me clarify the motivation of the “citation gender bias” asymmetry starting from a practical example. In your blog post you tell that the presence of gender bias is shown by a paper by Caplar et al. What Caplar et al. really claim is “papers authored by females receive 10% fewer citations than what would be expected if the papers with the same non-gender specific properties were written by the male authors”. This means 10% less with respect to what expected by some model attempted by Caplar et al. to compensate for some social factors, neglecting others. At some point they understood that the background of social factors is too complicated to be reliably modelled, and write “of course we cannot claim that we have actually measured gender bias”. In these situations (a background too complicated to be computed) the approach I followed is often more fruitful: inventing an asymmetry that projects the background out, obtaining background-free results (altought partial, as you correctly remark). To make an analogy with physics, the asymmetry is analogous to the R_K electron/muon ratio: its definition is similarly dictated by the background that must be projected out, loosing some information in the projection. Details that I could not put in the talk are discussed in section 3.1 of this draft: https://alessandrostrumiahome.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/artgender.pdf

              About confounding factors: they are discussed in the draft. One confounder is numerically important: the different age distribution of male and female authors (due to historical accidents). It’s possible to mathematically compensate for this confounder, and the gender difference in (upper) variability becomes more clearly visible in the deconvoluted data. In the talk I discussed the difference in variability and presented raw (‘true”) data.

              The issue of citations has been discussed at death with Philip. While I could not persuade him, the discussion helped me in better addressing this issue in the draft, so maybe I should put Philip in the acknowledgments (PS don’t worry Philip, many colleagues helped me asking of not being publicly acknowledged fearing bad consequences).

              best,
              Alessandro

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  3. @Alessandro (March 29 2019 at 7:30 pm)

    Very happy for you to include mention of me in your acknowledgements, Alessandro. I would appreciate, however, if you could link to this blog for the relevant context. Thanks.

    “obtaining background-free results (altought partial, as you correctly remark)”

    Smiling again.

    “…background-free results (although partial)…”

    So not background-free at all, then…

    Thanks, Alessandro. Your comments (both here and elsewhere) never fail to amuse me.

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    1. Dear Philip, the situation is similar to the RK example, where one gets rid of hadronic backgrounds by focusing on a partial clean information about the relative muon/electron rate, giving up on the total rate. It’s a standard simple strategy in statistics (surely you did something similar when working in physics and encountering a large correlated uncertainty) but it’s here applied to a context that affects you so much that, instead of reasoning in neutral way, you search for words that can be used to cast doubts.

      A similar criticism seems relevant for the books by Saini etc that try questioning scientific results about gender differences, see https://quillette.com/2019/03/11/science-denial-wont-end-sexism

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      1. “Words to cast doubts.”

        Not at all, Alessandro. I’m simply reading what you’ve written and both interpreting it and responding accordingly. A partial background removal is clearly not a full background removal. Therefore there remain confounding and convolved variables/processes that you cannot discount (nor can you accurately model). What’s worse, and as I’ve said before multiple times, you have no idea of what the uncertainties are in your ‘analysis’. You yourself have said that bibliometrics are an imperfect proxy for scientific quality. When I’ve asked you (repeatedly) to quantify that uncertainty, you’ve ignored the question. We both know why.

        I’ll quote Pauli slightly out of context yet again: without including uncertainties/error bars your conclusions aren’t even wrong. I told our 1st year undergrads this in a session on lab report writing on Tuesday. Surely you’d agree that it’s good advice?

        So, your background removal isn’t complete *and* your bibliometric measures aren’t a direct measure of scientific quality. That’s bad enough. You then make the exceptionally unscientific leap of claiming that IQ differences underpin citation rates solely on the basis of a correlation: “Look! The curves look the same!” To make definitive conclusions, as you do, based on nothing more than confusing correlation with causation and with no quantification of the uncertainties in your analysis is very, very sloppy science. Indeed, I’ll go further and state (again) that it’s nothing but pseudoscience.

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