“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”

 

 

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.

 

The Worm That (re-)Turned at CERN

“The dateline is 2012. England is in the grip of a new regime of terror. Traditionally a land of great heroes and brave statesmen — Nelson, Wellington, Disraeli, Churchill – Britain now laboured under the yoke of a power guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of all men. The country is now being run by women.”

That’s how The Two Ronnies mini-series The Worm That Turned kicked off all the way back in 1980. I realise, however, that this, um, lost gem of eighties British TV may have passed some of you by. Let me rectify that right now. Here’s the first episode. Sit back and enjoy (for want of a better term) this classic take on gender politics by those masters of subtle-as-a-sledgehammer satire…

The Two Ronnies was a firm favourite in our household as I grew up during the 70s and 80s. The Worm That Turned ran for eight consecutive weeks, although my memory ain’t what it once was and I assumed that it had gone on for much longer. It certainly seemed that way at the time…

Much more amusing than the series itself, however, is that, almost forty years after it was broadcast, there’s a certain type of gentleman for whom the premise of The Worm That Turned is less hackneyed eighties comedy and much more a chillingly accurate prediction of the sub-Orwellian dystopia that he and his poor, repressed, downtrodden mates now have to endure. The comments under that YouTube video are comedy gold…

YouTubecomments.png

I was reminded, and not for the first time in recent years, of The Worm That Turned as I followed the reaction to Alessandro Strumia‘s overwrought, poorly-researched, and cliche-ridden diatribe about women in physics. For those of you who haven’t been following the story, in a nutshell this is what happened: Prof. Strumia stood up at the 1st Workshop on High Energy Theory and Gender  and delivered a talk bemoaning the drive towards greater gender balance in physics. He trotted out the same zombie arguments about male vs female ability/aptitude/preference for physics that have been addressed and/or debunked time and again. (More on this below but if you’re not aware of Angela Saini’s Inferior and/or Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex, put down this blog post right now and go and do something less boring instead (as another staple of 80s British TV used to put it). Read Saini’s and Fine’s books).

Tellingly, and not entirely unexpectedly, Strumia’s slides (which are here) include mention of cultural Marxism so one might guess that a certain Canadian YouTube guru (and social scientist [1]) inspired at least a little of the “woe is men” pearl-clutching. Just like James Damore before him (another fan of the ubiquitous Canadian guru), Strumia wears the mantle of the ever-so-courageous rational scientist “speaking truth to power” and just “telling it like it is”, when, in fact, and despite his loud claims to the contrary, he’s wedded to a glaringly obvious ideology and unscientifically cherry-picks his data accordingly. In Strumia’s case, there’s also a pinch of seething resentment mixed in. (But again, that’s hardly new. Gentlemen of Strumia’s persuasion tend to get very distressed and emotional about women getting above their station; anything from a Ghostbusters movie to female superheroes featuring on tins of pasta can set them off…)

Molyneux

The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, the BBC, and the New York Times, among very many other august publications, have covered the Strumia story in depth. It’s worth reading those articles, of course, but I would also take the time to trawl the Twitter thread below for the lowlights of Strumia’s talk…

Moreover, you should read Jess Wade‘s article in New Scientist.

[Update 10:41 03/10/2018. See Joachim Kopp’s comment below (and my response) re. Jess’ initial tweet above.]

Strumia’s arguments are tediously predictable and totally derivative. Like Damore, his cherry-picking of the data is at astronomical levels. Heterodox Academy, not exactly a left-leaning organisation, laudably took a detailed overview of the literature on gender differences hot on the heels of the furore about Damore’s “manifesto”. I recommend that you take a look at those HA articles; note that the literature is very, very far from unequivocal on the matter of gender differences.

Strumia is clearly a well-cited scientist — he was not exactly shy about highlighting this during his talk — so he must know that any useful review of the literature should be well-balanced and cite both sides of any controversy. But he made no attempt to do this during his talk at the CERN workshop. Instead, he behaved like any tabloid hack, evangelical MRA YouTuber, or pseudoscientist keen to play to the gallery, and completely skewed his sampling of the literature so that he selected only those publications that aligned with his ideology. That’s not how we physicists do science. (Well, at least it’s not how we squalid state physicists do science…)

I’ve been down this road before. Many times. I wrote a post titled The Natural Order of Things a couple of years back to rebut the arguments of those, like Strumia, who misleadingly present the literature on gender differences as cut-and-dried in their favour.  And yet, instead of attempting to address the points I make in that post, those who contact me to complain about my views on gender balance instead trot out the received wisdom ad nauseum, with no attempt to revise their stance in the light of new data or evidence. (With that potent mix of arrogance and ignorance that is the signature characteristic of so much internet traffic, they cite The Blank Slate or Baron-Cohen’s work, assuming, on the basis of no evidence at all, that I have yet to read either.)  I’ll quote Philip Ball yet again: “It’s as if they’re damned if they are going to let your actual words deprive them of their right to air their preconceived notions.”

Apart from the cherry-picking, there’s also the inadvertent comedy of Strumia’s credulous and uncritical methodology to savour. He assumes — on the basis of what evidence? — that citations scale directly with IQ levels, assuming a nicely arbitrary “6 sigma among 10^9 persons” (why 6 sigma? why 10^9?) criterion to ‘fit’ his data. Leaving aside his plucked-from-thin air” assumptions here, there’s a rather more robust analysis of the “tails of the distribution” argument from Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz in their analysis of gender, culture, and mathematics performance.

Why would IQ be immutable? Or independent of environmental influences? And why would citations be solely dependent on IQ? Do prestige, track record, and/or serendipity not play a role? And this is before we even get to the question of the extent to which citations are a measure of scientific quality in the first place. Not everything that counts can be counted…

I’m not going to rehearse, (re-)repeat and rehash the arguments here. They’re covered at length in both The Natural Order Of Things and in a stream I did shortly after the furore about Damore’s manifesto hit:

The slides I used for the discussion in that stream are here. I’ll just highlight one slide in particular:

MathsPerformance.png

On the left hand side of that slide are the distributions of eighth grade girls’ and boys’ mathematics scores (in the traditional — well, recently traditional — blue and pink, respectively) for the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Unlike Strumia’s naive, unquestioning, and simplistic argument that males “universally” feature in the tails of IQ distributions, what we see here are strong geographical differences in maths ability [2]. While boys in Bahrain outperform girls in the tail of the distribution towards higher maths scores, in Tunisia the situation is reversed, whereas in the Czech republic the mark distributions overlap. So, far from having an innate, immutable, “hard-wired” distribution, there are strong geographical variations.

Similarly, and as discussed elsewhere in that stream above, there are distinct temporal variations when it comes to male vs female performance in maths over the years. It is rather difficult to reconcile these geographical and temporal variations with Strumia’s argument that everything can be reduced down to innate male vs female aptitudes and/or preferences. (That’s not to say that there aren’t real differences in male and female brains…)

Despite disagreeing entirely with Strumia’s lazy ‘analysis’, however, I have deep qualms about just how his comments and views are being addressed. Suspension (or, worse, dismissal) plays directly into the martyrdom mindset that underpins and strengthens the popularity of Peterson, Damore et al. (“Those feminazis are quashing free speech.”)  Strumia is in a much different position to Tim Hunt, for example. The latter — despite loud, uninformed protestations (that continue to this day) about a man “losing his livelihood” — was retired at the time he made his misjudged comments at a science journalism conference in Korea back in 2015. Hunt was, in fact, an honorary professor at UCL (and, by definition, was therefore not paid by the university). Strumia is not retired, although some are strongly of the opinion that he should be retired forthwith.

Instead of outright dismissing the man, Strumia’s views should be dissected and dismissed for what they are: hyperbolic, over-simplistic, cherry-picked polemic more befitting a politician than a scientist. His arguments, such as they are, should be taken apart and used as, for one, an example of the lazy lack of appreciation and/.or cherry-picking of the wider literature that is the hallmark of the “Men just are hard-wired to be better at science. Deal with it, ladies” mindset. Let’s not play directly into his and others’ hands by fuelling the narrative that they are oh-so-brave free speech warriors silenced by the “feminazi establishment”.  Their fevered imaginations can conjure up scenarios much worse than Messrs Barker and Corbett ever did…

Update 09:29 03/10/2018: Just been sent a link to Jon Butterworth’s biting and brilliant take on Strumia’s attack of the vapours. Thoroughly recommended.


 

[1] Yes, psychology is a social science. It’s always chuckle-worthy to hear fully paid-up members of the Cult of Peterson whine incessantly about the social sciences while simultaneously failing to appreciate just where psychology lies on the academic landscape. (And while we’re on the subject, psychology is hardly the most robust of the sciences in terms of reproducibility and credibility. Peterson really should follow his own teachings (and parables) and spend a little more time considering the beam in his own discipline’s eye before whining about the mote in others’…)

[2] I should note that, despite some physicists’ biases to the contrary, ability at math(s) is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to intelligence.