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”



Standards at Cambridge just ain’t what they used to be…

I’ve been swamped with the day job of late so my rate of blogging has accordingly dropped substantially. But I woke up this morning and blearily-eyed checked my Outlook inbox, to find, nestling between the usual spam conference invitations from predatory publishers [1], an e-mail about this Guardian article: Cambridge University rescinds Jordan Peterson invitation. (Thanks, Lori. Peterson to wake up to at 6:00 am. You’re too kind.) And I just can’t let this go without a quick post before I get back to the e-mail backlog.

Just what the hell was Cambridge thinking?

Peterson’s pathetically transparent, overwrought, and highly lucrative “anti-PC” crusades are of course entirely at odds with the ethos of Cambridge, and the university’s staff and students quickly and forcefully pointed this out. [2]

But what I can’t get my head around is how and why the invitation to Peterson was made in the first place. One would hope that Cambridge of all places would very carefully consider and vet the scholarship of any visiting fellow. Fellowships are generally exceptionally difficult to secure. Did no-one involved with inviting Peterson take the time to read and assess his writings and witterings?

This, for example…

(from his, um, “seminal” Maps Of Meaning.)

Cambridge took that seriously? Over the years, I’ve received green ink letters and e-mails that rank at the top of the Baez scale that make much more sense.

Or what about Peterson’s lobster nonsense, as, for example, forensically dissected by Bailey Steinworth, a third year PhD student researcher, in her masterful take-down last year? Here’s Steinworth’s closing argument. (I urge you to read the entire piece.)

“No biologist would argue with Peterson that dominance hierarchies have probably existed for a long time, but it’s also true that plenty of animals live together without the need to assert dominance over one another. It seems as if his discussion of lobsters illustrates far more about his own worldview than it does about human behavior, but he’s the psychologist, not me. “

Peterson’s lobster fixation is a fantastic example of what Feynman described as Cargo Cult science — all of the hallmarks of science but lacking the essential objectivity and self-critical reasoning.  But yet this level of “scholarship” is good enough to warrant a visiting fellowship at one of Britain’s most august seats of learning?

And the less said about Peterson’s wilfully uninformed playing to the gallery when it comes to climate change, the better.

It takes a minimal amount of background reading about Peterson to discern the “Emperor’s New Clothes” character of his appeal. It’s rather depressing that academics of the calibre of those who lecture in the hallowed halls of Cambridge couldn’t manage this modicum of research. As a starting point, I thoroughly recommend Nathan J. Robinson’s profile of Peterson: “The Intellectual We Deserve“. Or for a rather more pithy insight into Peterson’s style-over-substance shtick, Private Eye nailed it in this parody.

It’s very worrying indeed that the standard of scholarship required of visiting academics at what is arguably Britain’s most prestigious university [3] has slipped this low [4]. 

[1] These somehow always seem to make it through Nottingham’s otherwise rather gung-ho spam filter…

[2] Peterson will be rubbing his hands with glee at the news that his invitation has been rescinded. What better example of the “PC orthodoxy”/cultural Marxists/leftist snowflakes/ (…insert tiresome cliche of choice...)  clamping down on his free speech could there be? He’ll dine out on this for quite some time.

[3] Settle down, Oxford.

[4] However, Cambridge — or, at least, its associated publisher, Cambridge University Press — has form when it comes to pseudoscientific woo.