Strumia’s lament

On September 28, 2018, Professor Alessandro Strumia gave a talk at CERN at a conference on “High Energy Physics and Gender.” In the talk, he took the unpopular view that the reason that there are fewer women than men in physics is primarily because of inherent differences between men and women (on average) as far as talent and interests are concerned, and not because physics is oppressive of women.

The organizers promptly distanced themselves from his talk, and removed the video recording and his slides from public access. CERN, where he is a research leader, suspended him, and his home university of Pisa put him under investigation. The ERC is considering to retract Strumia’s 1.9 million euro grant. While his talk is not available for viewing, his slides can be found online. The media have reported a general outcry and wide condemnation of the talk. A collection of physicists published an open letter, signed now by over 1600 people, in which they express their anger, and state that Strumia’s ideas are unsound.

I should mention that the impression that the media give that the whole of the scientific world condemns Strumia is incorrect. I examined some of the twitter feeds which followed the talk, and I found that besides a minority which vocally condemns Strumia and another minority which vocally supports him, the reasonable middle states that Strumia presented facts, and that they would like to see counterarguments against either the facts or Strumia’s interpretation of them, before dismissing Strumia’s statements.

What I find striking about all of this, is that most people who condemn Strumia have not witnessed his talk. For instance, the open letter starts with “[t]he statement here is based upon widely reported events, publicly available slides, and eyewitness accounts.” I.e., the only input that the writers used which is not hearsay are Strumia’s slides. I find that a weak basis for publicly raking someone over the coals.

It has to be said that Strumia’s slides give the impression that he has an axe to grind, and that rather than limiting himself to objective facts, he spent a considerable portion of his talk on his personal experiences, on politicizing his ideas, and on insulting his audience which consisted for the majority of young female physicists.

Within the slides, however, there is also some solid research. Basically, what Strumia does is examining scientific quality based on an objective measure, namely number of citations. Using a very large dataset, he makes comparisons between men and women in physics in relation to citations, and shows that with regards to citations on average women underperform compared to men. You may rightfully argue that citations do not give a complete picture of scientific quality. However, there are few other objective measures which you can use for such research, so at least he provides a factual starting point for a discussion. The question is: how do you explain the observations which Strumia makes?

Strumia compares the “mainstream” explanation (“all the differences between men and women are culturally determined and thus physics is oppressive of women”) with the, what he calls, “conservative” explanation (“women are inherently less interested in physics, and the people with the most talent for physics are predominantly men”). Neither of these explanations can be shown to be “the correct one,” but Strumia at least gives some indications on why the mainstream explanation can be considered faulty. The most damning argument against the mainstream explanation is the “gender equality paradox,” which entails that the more a country does to erase the cultural differences between men and women and the more it does to erase the barriers that women face to make free choices in their careers, the fewer women choose a career in science and technology. This observable fact falsifies the notion that there are no differences between the interests of men and women.

Strumia also rightfully wonders why people are so concerned about the fact that men form the majority of the people in the STEM fields, while nobody cares that women form the vast majority in education, psychology, the humanities, and medicine. He also notes that “equal representation of women” in a field that is dominated by men is demanded where it concerns STEM, but as soon as it concerns jobs that are dirty or dangerous (such as construction, firefighting, or mining), the fact that almost no women are found in these jobs is not seen as a problem at all.

Unfortunately, these sensible statements are overshadowed by Strumia’s wailing about his personal experiences, his suggestion that physics is a men’s job, his complaints about the way institutes tend to assume that men have no issues and that all women are oppressed everywhere, his annoyance with the widespread support that women get but men lack, and his explicit mocking of domains such as gender studies. Mind you, there are grains of truth in his wailing, but he should not have included it in his talk as it undermines the other things he says.

Strumia should simply have presented observable facts, and then either leave the interpretation up for debate, or weigh his own arguments against the arguments of “the other side.” While simply ignoring counterarguments is something that a majority position can do without penalties, Strumia is talking from an underdog position (especially at this conference), and as such he has to be much more careful about how he explains his ideas.

The open letter I referred to does provide some interesting counterarguments to Strumia’s statements. Some of these are convincing (in particular where they concern Strumia’s obsession with citations), others much less so (for instance where they refer to “unconscious biases” and where they attempt to dismiss the “gender equality paradox” by stating that oppressive countries have more women in STEM because of a lack of choice, which only underlines Strumia’s statements).

But is does not matter whether your sympathies lie with Strumia or the open letter (or neither): the point is that both Strumia’s statements and the statements of the open letter should be up for debate. And that debate is not going to happen because (a) CERN tried to erase all of Strumia’s materials, making it impossible to know what he actually said, and (b) Strumia immediately got punished so harshly for expressing his ideas that few people will be willing to examine his statements objectively, as they know that they face similar punishment if they publicly reach the same, “abject” conclusion.

The open letter, in the first paragraphs, states in bold font: “We write here first to state, in the strongest possible terms, that the humanity of any person, regardless of ascribed identities such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, disability, gender presentation, or sexual identity is not up for debate.” I find this text rather unworthy of serious scientists.

The statement makes clear that the authors of the text want the reader to believe that Strumia was attacking the humanity of women in physics. As far as his slides are concerned, there is absolutely no evidence of that, unless you assume that stating that there are inherent differences between men and women amounts to attacking someone’s humanity. You will find that most people believe that there actually are inherent differences between men and women, and rightly so, as these differences can be observed. Claiming that such differences do not exist is dogma and not science.

Now, the statement gives the strong impression that it considers a number of topics as “not up for debate” at all. Because as soon as you bring one of them up, you are probably going to be condemned for attacking someone’s “humanity,” and such topics may not be debated. To declare a topic so sacred that it cannot be debated is as unscientific as you can get. You may find a person’s statements despicable, but if they are supported by falsifiable claims, then your responsibility as a scientist is not to dismiss them outright (and penalize the perpetrator), but to have the debate, offer counterarguments, and if possible falsify the claims.

Unfortunately, Strumia is a proponent of reason and free speech that we could have done without. He is a man who let his frustration with certain trends in science and society get the better of him. The best thing you can hope for with a talk like this is that at least certain topics are opened up for debate rather than being untouchable. However, the steps his opponents took, making him suffer personally for daring to speak his mind, ensured that fewer people will be willing to speak up about these topics in the future.

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