This is the way physics ends. Not with a Big Bang, but a feminist whimper
We live in the era of the forced apology, and so it’s refreshing to see theoretical particle physicist Alessandro Strumia of the University of Pisa, refusing to apologize for defending science from feminist blitzkrieg. Unsurprisingly, thousands of Strumia’s colleagues are now denouncing him in a disturbing example of the war on science being waged across the western world today.
It has become a truism that any academic field in which the number of women is not at least equal to the number of men must be a field in which sexism is keeping women out. Any man who contends that there is no sexism in his field is immediately held up as one of sexism’s most dangerous exemplars.
We’re talking about elite fields in academia, not dirty and dangerous male-dominated jobs like front-line soldiering, long-haul trucking, garbage collection, street paving, commercial fishing, mining, logging, roofing, sanitation, construction, sewer repair, and so on. Feminists aren’t fighting to get more women into these jobs. Hence these jobs are never the focus of panels of outraged experts or public statements by academics who have made comfortable and well paying careers out of enforcing male guilt.
When Professor Alessandro Strumia of the University of Pisa presented a paper at a conference of the elite European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN); a conference on high-energy theory and gender, he must have known that a non-feminist presentation would go down about as well as Galileo’s cosmology before the Inquisition. According to the church of feminism, all men in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), must manifest deep concern about the declared “woman problem” and must pledge to make ever greater efforts, even including perhaps sacrificing the best and brightest, in order to meet diversity goals.
And this is a church in which confessing your sins won’t bring you any forgiveness—so don’t even think about it.
As Strumia mentioned in his presentation, physics is a special community of researchers dedicated to understanding the truth of nature; its requirements are rigorous intellectual honesty and reliance on quantitative evidence. Real science cannot flourish when these requirements are suppressed for any social goal.
Strumia must have known that a non-feminist presentation would go down about as well as Galileo’s cosmology before the Inquisition.
Strumia created a series of graphs to show that, far from being discriminated against, women are significantly advantaged over men in physics’ hiring, promotion, and financial assistance, and that claims of bias against women don’t rest on any hard evidence.
On page 8, he looked at the claim, made in a 2016 paper, that women’s contributions to physics are passed over because male physicists tend not to cite papers with female-first authors. He analyzed the data and found that both male and female researchers cited more papers with male-first authors, and to the same degree. Male-first authored papers were likely more often cited by both men and women, he suggested, because the male-authored papers were more significant, not because of a bias against women.
On page 12, Strumia considered the evidence for bias against women in physics hiring by plotting the number of citations male and female researchers have typically had when hired for their first job. Citations—the number of times one’s published work is cited by others—are one major way of determining the quality of a person’s research: the more cited, the more significant and influential. Up until 1995, male and female researchers had a comparable number of citations when first hired. But since 1995, female researchers have been typically hired with less than half of the citations a male PhD graduate has needed to be hired. In other words, Strumia’s graph shows that from 1995 to the present—over the past 23 years—hiring has been overwhelmingly stacked against men.
Strumia showed that female scientists are, at whatever stage, hired with fewer citations than male scientists. In addition, bias against men extends to the awarding of fellowships also. On page 15 of his presentation, Strumia showed that the average number of citations for young male physicists awarded prestigious CERN fellowships is about twice the number of citations for female CERN fellows. So CERN fellowships are being awarded regularly to lesser qualified female physicists because they’re female. Strumia demonstrated that male physicists are more productive, again by a factor of 2, than female physicists throughout the whole course of their careers (see page 16).
Why do men outperform women in physics generally? Strumia hypothesized that the intellectually honest answer is that more men than women have the desire and skills to do high-level physics. This is most likely because there are more men clustered at the very highest levels of intelligence according to the standard deviation models—which is not to say that there aren’t women who are brilliant, just not as many, because men’s IQ distribution is broader—and that accounts for the fact that there are more men in physics.
There is no plot against women; in fact, right now there is a plot, so to speak, against men. If we care about what is best for physics, by implication, we should stop pretending that heroic measures are needed to guarantee female participation.
Reaction to Strumia’s presentation was swift and harsh. CERN immediately removed the video of his talk from its website, so we can’t watch it to see if it was really, as CERN officials claimed, “highly offensive.” CERN authorities claim that Strumia stepped over the line of acceptable conduct by naming a person present at the conference, saying that in a competition for a theoretical physics position at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Padua, a woman with far fewer citations than he was given the position: in fact, as he showed in his presentation, he had ten times the number of citations she had.
CERN authorities interpreted this as an attack, which they state was “contrary to the CERN Code of Conduct.” Strumia was immediately suspended from CERN pending an investigation. The University of Pisa has opened an ethics investigation into his conduct.
One can disagree about whether Professor Strumia stepped over the line in mentioning this personal factor. Perhaps it was unwise and it definitely gave ammunition to his enemies. In an email he sent to me, Strumia said that he mentioned it in a joking manner. In my opinion, his suspension from CERN was excessively punitive given that much of the talk was pure numbers-based analysis and that the so-called “attack” appears to have been a simple statement of fact.
But the CERN suspension wasn’t enough for some members of the academic physics community. A public letter condemning Strumia, co-authored by 18 mostly U.S. based physicists, was posted on a website calling itself Particles for Justice. To date, the letter has received thousands of scientists’ signatures.
I’ve read a lot of public statements by far-left intellectuals, but I think this one might be the most unhinged I’ve ever seen. It begins with a histrionic assertion that the “humanity of any person, regardless of ascribed identities ...” is “not up for debate.”
The clear implication is that Strumia himself, merely by objecting to feminist policy, was calling into question the humanity of women or of any other people, which he was not. Everyone who signed this letter should be ashamed of such dishonesty. The co-authors of the letter also lament that Strumia used his physics credentials to pretend that he had something to contribute to a discussion of gender bias, which is not his area of expertise (though of course if he had made a plea for more aggressive measures to promote women in physics they would never have complained that he lacked the credentials to do so).
There is no plot against women; in fact, right now there is a plot, so to speak, against men.
They continued that “those among us who are familiar with the relevant literature know that Strumia's conclusions are in stark disagreement with those of experts.”
This is a classic academic feminist modus operandi. Create a discipline that is based not on scientific methodology but on untestable claims about privilege, intersectionality, lived experience, and unconscious bias. Staff the discipline with ideologues who launch journals and cite one another in their articles. Then claim that a real scientist has no standing to use quantitative methods to challenge the findings of your fake discipline.
In order to show us what only gender experts can see, the letter writers enumerate a series of rebuttals to Strumia’s points. Their first and most general criticism is that Strumia “frequently made the basic error of conflating correlation with causation.” This might be a meaningful criticism, but they fail to give a single instance in which it is the case.
Strumia’s basic argument is that when feminists claim that something must be done about physics’ so-called woman problem, and when it can be shown that less-qualified women are being hired in place of more qualified men, then feminist policies are causing discrimination against men in physics. I don’t see where the logical error is. On the other hand, one could certainly argue that the authors of the letter continually confuse correlation with causation. They find that fewer women work in high-level physics than men, and that fewer women receive Nobel Prizes in Physics, and they conclude that therefore women are discriminated against due to sexism.
This is a clear case of correlation not necessarily involving causation. Physicist, heal thyself!
The letter writers also include a personal attack on Strumia, undermining his research record in order to suggest that he is a mediocrity bitter about being beaten out of a job by a female competitor. For example, they pooh-pooh his involvement in one experimental paper with thousands of authors, claiming that this one paper accounted for almost 1/3 of his total citations, and that his contribution to the paper was likely modest.
I call sour grapes. Strumia was included in this very prestigious paper because he worked on the theory of the Higgs boson, a revolutionary concept in understanding how particles acquire mass; it was hardly insignificant. But even if you take away those thousands of citations, he still has many more than his competitor and the vast majority of his papers have few authors and are highly cited. His h-index of 82 is knock-down impressive, far better than his competitor’s 28. Of course it’s true that quality cannot be measured solely by numbers—Strumia himself didn’t claim it could be—but there is no doubt that in terms of influence as a scientist, Strumia was the superior candidate, and it is astounding that the letter writers try to pretend he wasn’t.
When it comes to specific rebuttals of Strumia’s points, the wobbly logic is even more obvious. Responding to Strumia’s demonstration that both men and women cite more male-authored papers than female-authored papers, the letter writers say that “Choice of references is subject to unconscious bias in addition to conscious discrimination. Such unconscious bias is often found at similar levels in both men and women.”
In other words, when women cite more male authors than female authors, bias is still a factor because women can be just as biased as men. This is a real stretch. What happened to the special authority of women’s “lived experience,” which has become the basis for much feminist theory? If women themselves are just as biased against women as men are said to be, how can bias against women be measured at all, if there is no unbiased standpoint, and then why is it so important to hire more women into physics if they will merely replicate the biases of their male colleagues? The authors do not pursue this line of reasoning.
Instead they go on to assert that just because women and men both cite more male-first-authored research papers, that doesn’t mean that there are more significant male-first-authored papers. On the contrary, according to the letter writers, the citation rate “only suggests that male and female scientists are equally capable of identifying the most cited papers in their field.”
I’m at a loss with this one. It seems to say that these scientists are citing the male-first-authored papers only because everyone else is citing them, and that has little, if anything, to do with the importance of the publications. If true, this would seem to suggest that physicists are incapable of, or are not interested in, judging the worth of the research conducted by their fellow scientists, quite an astounding assertion that would surely call the entire physics enterprise into question. The letter writers do not pursue this line of reasoning either.
They go on to bridle at Strumia’s emphasis on male achievement in physics, including his suggestion that overall more men than women are interested in and talented in high-level physics. They say, “Strumia argues that since the most cited papers are disproportionately by men, this gives evidence that men are intrinsically better at physics. In between intrinsic ability and citation counting, however, there is the huge and complicated process of how physicists are raised, trained, hired, and perceived. Even at the professorial level, discrimination can still play an important role.”
The implication is that Strumia, merely by objecting to feminist policy, was calling into question the humanity of women or of any other people, which he was not.
Strumia didn’t say that men are intrinsically better at physics; he recognized that men and women are, on average, of equal intelligence, but that there are more men who are brilliant at physics and that men’s interests tend to be in things while women’s interests are in people. This is generally recognized in discussions of IQ; he didn’t make it up. But the letter writers simply rule out this whole area of serious research; they won’t deal with it, and in the letter they fall back on their standard claim of pervasive bias despite Strumia’s having presented hard evidence that far from experiencing negative bias, women are positively advantaged in training, hiring and promotion, three of the main areas they refer to.
Again the letter writers rely on a classic feminist modus operandi: it doesn’t matter how often female advantage can be concretely proven; a generalized, conveniently unmeasurable anti-woman bias can never be absolutely disproven and is constantly evoked as if it were a self-evident truth.
Unmeasurable factors are again the fail safe in response to Strumia’s graph about women’s lesser achievements in physics throughout their careers: They say “Strumia uses as evidence for his case a claim that the number of citations for women increases more slowly than for men as their careers progress. His numbers however do not control for many factors, including social expectations that may result in women taking on more primary caregiver roles at home, or more departmental roles earlier in their careers.”
I have no idea how such factors could possibly be controlled for so it is a meaningless criticism, in my opinion. And if social expectations are factors in female underachievement in physics, why is it that in many other academic fields in the Social Sciences, and the Humanities, where presumably women face the very same social expectations, women’s numbers and career contributions have massively increased over the past three decades? Why would social expectations be a deciding factor in suppressing female achievement only in Physics and other Mathematics-based disciplines? The letter writers, of course, do not attempt an explanation.
Overall, the letter writers make no attempt to analyze Strumia’s graphs to show how any of his numbers or inferences are inaccurate. All they’ve got is their moral outrage.
And such outrage powers their concluding ad hominem attack. The letter writers end by pointing to what they call Strumia’s “deep contempt for more than half of humanity that clearly comes from some source other than scientific logic.”
I suppose they couldn’t resist. Not only were they compelled to denounce Strumia as a misogynist (and a racist, even though he said nothing about race in his presentation), but they had to claim in good Stalinist fashion that he may be mentally ill as well, or at least a hater, as anyone must be who would object to the hiring of less qualified people on the basis of characteristics totally irrelevant to physics.
And the letter writers go even further to allege that women and other marginalized people who come into contact with Strumia will suffer from his claimed bigotry, the clear implication being that Strumia’s professional colleagues and superiors should remove him from positions in which he would supervise graduate students or participate in hiring decisions.
The mind boggles at their willingness to make such a vicious allegation. But when you can’t rebut someone’s arguments, and when you can’t begin to prove that he harbours contempt for women, the only thing you have left is mob attack in an attempt to ensure that Strumia’s professional life never recovers from his decision to call out the bullshit that passes for serious discussion at a science conference.
I can only hope that Strumia’s colleagues will resist the call to punishment, that they will recognize the utter irrationality of the letter writers’ claims. And yet thousands of scientists have seen fit to attach their names to the document. Just scroll through the list on the additional page attached to the letter and look at the roll call of shame.
Name after name after name of presumably smart people, patting themselves on the back for their virtue, finding it easier to demean a leading scientist than to deal honestly with his data. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, this is the way that physics ends, not with a Big Bang but a feminist whimper.
(Dr Janice Fiamengo is Professor of English at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Her books include Sons of Feminism: Men Have Their Say, Home Ground and Foreign Territory: Essays on Early Canadian Literature, and Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination)