Sunday Times caption: Strumia admits that he is ‘no good at politics’
A piece by Peter Conradi in yesterday’s Sunday Times:
When Alessandro Strumia, an Italian professor of theoretical physics, stood up at the Cern research centre in September last year to give a talk dismissing claims of sexism within his heavily male branch of science, he realised he was venturing into a sensitive area. Quite how sensitive became clear as soon as he began to speak.
It was wrong to claim the domination of physics by men was a product of discrimination, Strumia, 49, told his sceptical audience, many of them young women. He dismissed those who argued the contrary as “cultural Marxists” out to promote a “victimocracy of minorities”. Matters were not helped by the caption he had written for one of his slides: “Physics was invented and built by men”.
The reaction had the force of the clashing of particles at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider. Strumia was suspended from his visiting professorship for his “unacceptable” presentation, publicly sanctioned by Pisa University, his main academic base, and denounced by fellow physicists, more than 3,000 of whom signed a withering letter calling his arguments “morally reprehensible”. This month Cern, based outside Geneva, announced that it was severing all ties with him, while his bosses at Pisa are clearly becoming twitchy about the fallout.
All of which makes Strumia — who admits, with justified understatement, that he is “no good at politics” — choose his words carefully when he agrees after some hesitation to speak to The Sunday Times. Six months after the offending talk he appears bemused by the resulting “mess” and dismayed at the decision by the Cern administrators to reheat the controversy by publicly sacking him, given that he had been led to believe by his fellow physicists there that the matter would be resolved quietly.
Yet despite the powerful forces ranged against him, the Italian insists he will not back down. “It’s not only Cern, but a lot of institutions that have a problem when someone says something that is not politically correct,” he says.
“A big mess happens and the institutions are no longer strong enough to protect freedom of speech or freedom of research . . . But this is not my opinion, it is what comes out if you check the data.”
What did Strumia say that caused such offence? Trawling through a database to count “citations” — the extent to which an academic paper is quoted by others — he claimed that women given academic posts tended to have fewer such mentions than men.
As their careers progress, women also increasingly write fewer papers than men, he found. The implication of such claims was clear: decisions to hire physicists are being distorted by positive discrimination in favour of women.
Within days, leading American particle physicists put up a statement on a specially created website, Particles for Justice, accusing Strumia of a lack of scientific rigour and conflating correlation with causation.
Simply totting up the number of citations was not a reliable way of establishing scientific quality, its authors said: “In between intrinsic ability and citation counting . . . there is the huge and complicated process of how physicists are raised, trained, hired and perceived.”
Their comments reflected a broader argument — highlighted in a new best–selling book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by the campaigner Caroline Criado Perez — that seemingly objective data can be skewed along gender lines.
The controversy surrounding Strumia also raises questions about the authority of scientists who stray off discipline — most dramatically James Watson, who helped discover DNA but was disgraced after claiming that genetics shows black people are intellectually inferior to whites, the latest in a series of racist, sexist and homophobic remarks.
Strumia, who during his talk had jokingly called himself a “great gender expert”, dismisses the suggestion that he should stick to what he knows best — physics — rather than venturing into social science. He says he has the backing of fellow physicists, including two who have opened websites to support him — although they insisted on anonymity for fear of the impact on their own careers.
“There is no discrimination,” he says. “Why should society keep women out of physics when these days they can do law or medicine or anything else? In physics we don’t care about the colour of people, their gender or that kind of thing. What matters is scientific merit. No one has privileged access to physics. Everybody is welcome and can try and will be appreciated based on their achievements.”
Courting further controversy, Strumia argues that the underrepresentation of women — who he says make up less than 20% of experimental physicists and 12% of theoreticians — reflects “sound scientific evidence of gender differences in interests”.
“People do whatever they like and the result is not 50-50%,” he says. “It is not as if they send limousines to pick up boys wanting to study physics and build walls to keep out the women.”
Indeed, paradoxically, countries such as the Scandinavian nations that score best on measures of gender equality have a lower proportion of women in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, he argues.
“When you work hard to remove these social pressures, what happens is the differences increase rather than decrease. The percentage of people doing physics is roughly twice as high in countries such as India, Iran or Algeria than in Sweden.”
Lurking in the background is a much broader — and even more divisive — issue: the “greater male variability hypothesis” dating back more than a century to Charles Darwin which asserts that, while male and females are equally intelligent on average, males are overrepresented at both the higher and lower ends of distribution. In other words, more men than women will be idiots, but more will be geniuses, too.
It was such thinking that underpinned comments by Lawrence Summers, who resigned from the presidency of Harvard in 2006 after suggesting the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering could be because of a “different availability of aptitude at the high end”; and by James Damore, a Google engineer, sacked in 2017 after he claimed biological differences between men and women were the reason “we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership”.
Although the theory is by no means universally accepted, Strumia is a believer. “This idea is supported by scientific results but if you mention it, you get fired. It’s a crazy situation,” he says, claiming it is the existence of such “huge pressure to silence this kind of research” that has prompted him to speak out.
To continue his campaign he has turned his lecture into a scientific paper that he has posted online and is trying to persuade a scientific journal to publish it. Whether he finds one ready to brave the inevitable backlash remains to be seen.
In the period since the talk, Donna Strickland, a Canadian laser pioneer, has won the Nobel prize in physics — only the third woman in its 118-year history to do so, after Maria Goeppert Mayer, a German-born American theoretical physicist, and Marie Curie, who took the chemistry prize as well. For Strumia, the honouring of Strickland further proves the openness of his subject. His opponents, by contrast, cite the examples of other deserving women who had been overlooked in the past.
Does Strumia regret the whole controversy? As the date of the talk had approached, he says it had become clear to him and his colleagues working on the subject that their findings would be controversial, provoking jokes last summer about “who would be fired” over it.
His readiness to put his head above the parapet was inspired in part by disappointment at Cern’s failure in past years to follow up its discovery of the Higgs boson, popularly known as the God particle, in 2012 with other breakthroughs. “If Cern had made more big discoveries in physics, I would have remained silent and focused on physics,” he says.
“I was willing to risk this now because it was important to talk and I would regret more the opposite — staying silent.
“I expect that the bad politics that forbids you from talking about this will disappear in 10 or 15 years, so maybe it’s a good long-term investment. This is not about gender. It is about excessive political correctness. There are ideas that are wrong but nobody is allowed to say it.”
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