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.


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.


Given a good Hyding…

Marina Hyde is on wonderfully acerbic form in today’s Guardian, masterfully knocking Prof. Peterson’s polemic down a peg or two…

What’s particularly delicious, however, is that after Hyde highlights Peterson’s humourless, po-faced, “woe is me(n)” shtick, the comments section lights up with, you guessed it, humourless, po-faced Peterson disciples whining about the lack of intellectual rigour in the article. An article published in the, um, “Lost In Showbiz” column…

Let’s close with a verse from the Good Book. I think that Rule #9 is especially apposite: “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.



Bullshit and Beyond: From Chopra to Peterson

Harry G Frankfurt‘s On Bullshit is a modern classic. He highlights the style-over-substance tenor of the most fragrant and flagrant bullshit, arguing that

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says
only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye
is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

In other words, the bullshitter doesn’t care about the validity or rigour of their arguments. They are much more concerned with being persuasive. One aspect of BS that doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves in Frankfurt’s essay, however, is that special blend of obscurantism and vacuity that is the hallmark of three world-leading bullshitters of our time:  Deepak Chopra, Karen Barad (see my colleague Brigitte Nerlich’s important discussion of Barad’s wilfully impenetrable language here), and Jordan Peterson. In a talk for the University of Nottingham Agnostic, Secularist, and Humanist Society last night (see here for the blurb/advert), I focussed on the intriguing parallels between their writing and oratory. Here’s the video of the talk.

Thanks to UNASH for the invitation. I’ve not included the lengthy Q&A that followed (because I stupidly didn’t ask for permission to film audience members’ questions). I’m hoping that some discussion and debate might ensue in the comments section below. If you do dive in, try not to bullshit too much…