An avid fan writes…

This arrived in my mailroom pigeonhole today — a proper, honest to goodness, old-school letter (but, disappointingly, written in boring monochrome rather than the traditional green.) It’s a response, of sorts, to my recent letter to The Sunday Times. I can’t quite decide as to whether it’s a pitch-perfect parody — the line about girls not instinctively “learning to throw” is perhaps a little too good — or if my aggrieved correspondent somehow joined Jacob Rees-Mogg in teleporting here from the 18th century…

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Bad Statistics and the Gender Gap

The exchange with Alessandro Strumia rumbles and lumbers on in the comments sections of previous posts, while over at his “In The Dark” blog, Peter Coles highlights that credulous over-interpretation of gender gap data is not the sole preserve of aggrieved and ideologically-biased particle physicists…

In the Dark

So there’s an article in Scientific American called How to Close the Gender Gap in the Labo(u)r Force (I’ve added a `u’ to `Labour’ so that it can be understood in the UK).

I was just thinking the other day that it’s been a while since I added any posts to the `Bad Statistics’ folder, but this Scientific American article offers a corker:

That parabola is a  `Regression line’? Seriously? Someone needs to a lesson in how not to over-fit data! It’s plausible that the orange curve might be the best-fitting parabola to the blue points, but that doesn’t mean that it provides a sensible description of the data…

I can see a man walking a dog in the pattern of points to the top right: can I get this observation published in Scientific American?

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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.

“It is not enough to wear the mantle of Galileo…”

Alessandro Strumia is back in the press again. Earlier this month CERN decided to sever all ties with him due to the fallout from that presentation. I’ve written about the Strumia case previously, both here at the blog (at some length — see this and this) and in the pages of Physics World, so won’t rehash the many arguments against his thoroughly biased and pseudoscientific claims about women in physics. Prof. Strumia also got in touch with me in January, following my criticism in Physics World, and an e-mail exchange ensued. I’d have liked to have made that exchange public here at Symptoms… but Alessandro preferred not to have our debate in the open.

What’s clear from today’s article in The Sunday Times is that Strumia isn’t going to let counter-evidence or counter-arguments affect his ideology. Once again, and to quote from the piece I wrote for Physics World (if you’ll excuse the self-plagiarism), he’s presenting himself 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.” Cue a Letter To The Editor…

“Dear Editor,

Alessandro Strumia (Alessandro Strumia: the data doesn’t lie
— women don’t like physics, Sunday Times, March 24) claims that his views on women in physics have been censured due to “excessive political correctness”. Many years ago, the physicist Robert L Park highlighted a key proviso for those who opine that their “radical” theories are being stifled, viz.

Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right

Your article on CERN’s severance of ties with Strumia, while refreshingly even-handed, didn’t quite capture the deeply pseudoscientific tenor of his “analysis” (and I use that term advisedly). Prof. Strumia asserts, on the basis of a fundamentally flawed and credulous set of suppositions, that the IQ of the authors of a scientific paper scales directly with the number of citations accrued. En route, he confused correlation with causation, cherry-picked his cited sources to a remarkable extent, and indulged in overwrought rhetoric more akin to an amateur YouTube pundit than a professional, established scientist speaking to his peers at a conference.

Strumia’s presentation was a masterclass in what Richard Feynman, the physicist’s physicist, described as cargo cult science: to the untrained eye it looks scientific, but the essential ingredients of objectivity, rigorous self-criticism, and lack of ideological bias are sorely missing. Although I don’t agree with Strumia being dismissed for his reactionary views, his time would be better spent on informing himself about the complexity of the underlying science than crying victimhood at the hands of “The Establishment”. Might I recommend Angela Saini’s “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong“?

Yours sincerely,

Philip Moriarty”

 

 

How Science Got Women Wrong

They say you should never meet those who’ve inspired you because it’s impossible to live up to the weight of expectations. Well, sometimes they’re just flat-out wrong. Angela Saini, whose Inferior is a masterclass in compelling science writing (for all of the reasons Jess Wade discusses in her review for Physics World), visited Nottingham yesterday evening, rounding off a week of events for International Women’s Day, to give what may well have been her very last talk on the subject of that exceptionally influential book: how science got women wrong. And she was every bit as impressive in person as her writing would suggest.

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Angela carefully, scientifically, and engagingly dismissed the various stereotypes and zombie myths that continue to be trotted out, unthinkingly, by those who claim that women are just not “wired” for science. She was too polite to name and shame the academic responsible for the nonsense below — from a book published as recently as 2010 [1]–  which drew incredulous chuckles and laughter from the audience…

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I’m not as polite as Angela, however. That quote is from Simon Baron-Cohen, whom I’ve mentioned before once or twice at this blog in the context of over-aggrieved gentlemen and their wilfully uninformed assertions on the natural order of things. Angela highlighted how even the best scientists (Darwin included) can unblinkingly accept the cultural and societal mores and prejudices of their time.

My colleague and friend Mark Fromhold neatly summed up Angela’s talk:

..and I agree entirely with @UoNBioscicareer’s take on the take-home message:

Thank you, Angela, for visiting Nottingham to explain not only how science got women wrong but what we need to do to put things right. Those biases are deeply engrained but, to echo the message we closed on last night, recognising them is the first step towards addressing them.

Angela’s new book Superior: The Return of Race Science is out at the end of May. It is set to be just as influential as Inferior. You can pre-order it now…

[1] That’s not a typo. 2010. Not 1910.

 

 

 

 

 

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.