Oct 282018

Allow me to preface this post with the following: I despise Donald J. Trump, the infantile, narcissistic, racist, misogynist “leader of the free world” who is quite possibly a traitor and may never have become president without help from his Russian buddy Putin. Also, when it comes to matters that I consider important, I am a small-l liberal; I support, for instance, LGBTQ rights, the right to have an abortion, or the legalization of cannabis, to name a few examples. I celebrate the courage of #MeToo victims. I reject racism and misogyny in all forms, open or covert.

Yet I am appalled by some of the things that happened lately in academic circles, sadly justifying the use of the pejorative term “SJW” (social justice warrior) that is so popular on the political right. A few specific cases:

  1. Last month, the European nuclear research institution CERN held a workshop with the title, High Energy Physics and Gender. One of the speakers was the Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia. Strumia offered a semi-coherent presentation, whimsically titled Experimental test of a new global discrete symmetry. In it, Strumia argued that men are over-represented in physics because they perform better. In the presentation, he offered some genuine data, but he also offered what may be construed as a personal attack, in the form of a short list of three names: those of two women who were hired by Italy’s nuclear research institute INFN, along with Strumia’s, who was rejected despite his much higher citation count. Strumia’s research is questionable. His conclusions may be motivated by his bitterness over his personal failures. His approach may be indefensible. All of which would be justification to laugh at him during his presentation, to not accept his work for publication in the workshop proceedings, and perhaps to avoid inviting him in the future.

    But CERN went a lot further. They retroactively removed Strumia’s presentation altogether from the conference archive, and have since administratively sanctioned him, putting his future career as a physicist in question. When this response was questioned by some, there came the retroactive justification that his one slide containing the three names constitutes a “personal attack”, violating CERN policy.

    I don’t agree with Strumia. I don’t like him or respect his research. But I have to ask: If he is not allowed to offer his views at a conference dedicated to “high-energy physics and gender” without fear of severe repercussions, where can he?

    Now you might ask why he should be given a platform at all. Because this is (supposedly) science. And science thrives on criticism and controversial views. If we only permit views that preach to the choir, so to speak, science dies. I’d much rather risk getting offended by clowns like Strumia from time to time.

  2. Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, we learned of Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, who prepared and submitted 20 completely bogus papers to reputably social science journals. Here are a few gems:
  • The paper titled Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity in Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon argues that dog parks are “rape-condoning” places of rampant “canine rape culture”. Accepted, published and recognized for excellence in the journal Gender, Place and Culture.
  • The paper, Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use argues that heterosexual men should practice anal self-penetration using sex toys in order to decrease transphobia and increase feminist values. Accepted and published in Sexuality & Culture.
  • The paper, An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant demonstrates how papers, even when they rely on made-up bogus data, are accepted when they problematize the attraction of heterosexual males to women. Accepted and published in Sex Roles.
  • The paper with the ominous title, Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism was accepted for publication in the journal Affilia, despite the fact that it is just a paraphrasing of Adolf Hitler’s opus Mein Kampf (My struggle), with feminist and grievance-related buzzwords replacing Nazi hate terms.
  1. How could such nonsensical papers be accepted for publication? Perhaps because life, in this case, imitates art: because of papers like those written by Rochelle Gutiérrez, who apparently believes that mathematics education as currently practiced is just a vehicle to spread white supremacism. In her paper, When Mathematics Teacher Educators Come Under Attack (published by the journal Mathematics Teacher Educator of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) she argues (citing her earlier work) that there exists “a direct link between White supremacist capitalist patriarchy and mathematics”. In an earlier paper, she introduces her invention, “Mathematx” (supposedly an ethnically neutral, LGBTQ-friendly alternative to the white supremacist term “mathematics”), with the intent to “underscore with examples from biology the potential limitations of current forms of mathematics for understanding/interacting with our world and the potential benefits of considering other-than-human persons as having different knowledges to contribute.” The reader might be forgiven if they thought that these were just further hoax papers by Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian, but nope; these papers are for real, penned by an author who plays an influential role in the shaping of mathematics education in the United States.
  2. Meanwhile, another paper has been “disappeared” in a manner not unlike how persons were “disappeared” in communist or fascist dictatorships. Theodore P. Hill’s paper, An Evolutionary Theory for the Variability Hypothesis, discusses the mathematical background of what has been known as the “greater male variability hypothesis”: an observation, dating back to Charles Darwin’s times, that across a multitude of species, males often show greater variability in many traits than females. (Simply put, this may mean that a given group of males may contain more idiots and more idiot savants than an equal size group of females.)

    Unlike Strumia, Hill does not appear to have a personal agenda. The stated goal of the paper was neither to promote nor to refute the idea but to see whether a simple mathematical basis might exist that explains it. After being rejected (even following initial acceptance) by other journals, it was finally published in the New York Journal of Mathematics, only to be taken down (its page number and identifier assigned to a completely different paper) three days later after the editors received a complaint and a threat of losing support.

    One of the justifications for this paper’s removal (and for these types of actions in general) is that such material may discourage young women from STEM fields. Apart from the intellectual dishonesty of removing an already published paper due to political pressure, I think this is also the ultimate form of covert sexism. The message to young women who are aspiring engineers and scientists is, “You, womenfolk, are too weak, too innocent to be able to think critically and reject ideological bias masquerading as science. So let us come and defend you, by ensuring that you are not exposed to vile ideas that your fragile little minds cannot handle.”

I call these incidents “irritants” when it comes to free speech.

On the one hand, publications dedicated to social science and education publish even the most outrageously bogus research so long as it kowtows to the prevailing sociopolitical agenda.

On the other hand, obscure research is thrust into the spotlight by intolerant “SJW”-s who seek to administratively suppress ideas that they find offensive. While this goal is technically accomplished (Strumia’s presentation and Hill’s paper were both successfully “unpublished”), in reality they achieve the exact opposite: they expose these authors to a much greater audience than they otherwise would have enjoyed. The message, meantime, to those they purportedly protect (e.g., women, minorities) is one of condescension: these groups apparently lack the ability to think critically and must be protected from harmful thoughts by their benevolent superiors.

Beyond all that, these actions also have negative consequences on academic life overall. In addition to suppressing controversial research, they may also lead to self-censorship. Indeed, I am left to wonder: Would I have the courage to write this blog entry if I myself had an academic career to worry about?

Last but not least, all this is oil on the fire. Those on the right, fans of Jordan Peterson and others, who are already convinced that the left is dominated by intolerant “SJW”-s, see their worst fears confirmed by these irritants, and thus their hostility increases towards the scientific establishment (including climate science, political economics, genuine social science research on refugees and migration, health, sexual education, etc.) with devastating consequences for all of us living on this planet.

If we truly believe in our small-l liberal values, it includes defending free speech even when it is vile speech. It also includes respecting others, including women and minorities, not misguidedly protecting them from hurtful ideas that they are supposedly too weak and fragile to handle. And it includes defending the freedom of scientific inquiry even if it is misused by self-absorbed losers. After all, if we can publish the nonsensical writings of Gutiérrez, surely the world won’t come to an end if Hill’s paper is published or if Strumia’s presentation remains available on the CERN workshop archive.

 Posted by at 5:09 pm

  4 Responses to “Free speech and irritants”

  1. Strumia should have been rejected. Not for his ideas, but because he named people. If he wants to claim men are better in general, and cite himself as an example, he should be laughed at. And even if he made the exact same argument, there was no need to attack others. He could have just cited data, as in “I was recently involved in a hiring decision, competing with A and B. Here are our citation counts, ages, cites to most-cited paper, conference chairmanships, invited talks, etc.” That’s even better for the argument without being offensive. And incidentally, at least to me, his very example shows perhaps why he was not hired. One hiring criteria is personality. There are plenty of smart people to hire – hiring one who either has no idea he is offending others, or worse does know but does not care, or still worse does it on purpose – is often bad for the organization’s productivity no matter how smart that person is individually.

    Hill’s paper is also dubious. If he stuck to the math (picky mates inspire wider variation in the opposite sex, regardless of means and distributions) there would be no problem whatsoever. And if he wants to motivate the question, noting that biologist have observed different variations in the different sexes suffices. There is no need to even bring up *which* distribution is larger, since his formulation is symmetrical. The quotes about boys and girls test scores, and speculation about parenting, has absolutely no influence on his mathematical argument and should not have been allowed by the (math journal) editor. Of course he is free to make these points, but the proper forum for that would be a biology journal, where there are experts on mate selection, evolutionary costs of parenting, and other relevant considerations. So I can see why a math journal would reject this paper as written. Of course it should have been rejected before publication, and not after.

  2. I am not defending either Strumia’s or Hill’s so-called “research”.

    Regarding the naming of people… I am not sure to be honest if there might be a double standard here. Suppose the point is not gender but, say, dark matter vs. modified gravity, and Strumia gives a presentation arguing for modified gravity, in which he names two people who were (according to him) promoted ahead of him because they are dark matter supporters. I think it is a _very_ safe bet that there would be no repercussions for Strumia, other than the fact that some in the audience would consider him an idiot. This is why I believe that it is an after-the-fact justification.

    And I agree with you about Hill’s paper. It should have been rejected. But it wasn’t. And pulling the paper after it was formally published stinks.

    And as I said in my blog post, all these actions accomplished is giving both Strumia and Hill a global audience.

  3. An institute has a right to prefer researchers in a given area, so I agree rejecting a more-qualified bur modified-gravity candidate would be a non-issue, even if he named names. But that should not be true of race, gender, or skin color. If he called out two people by name as inferior to himself, and they were black, or physically disabled, the result would have been the same, and I would agree with it.

  4. I would wholeheartedly agree with you if he brought up gender in a conference on dark matter vs. modified gravity. Or if he brought up race or disability in a conference dedicated to the topic of gender. But he brought up gender on, well, a conference the topic of which was gender. And before you jump to answer, allow me to raise another point. Suppose that at this same conference, a female researcher presented a set of slides documenting gender discrimination, and one of the slides contained the names of herself and two male colleagues who were, say, promoted ahead of her or were paid more than her in equivalent positions (which, as we know, happens often.) Would you have advocated that this female researcher be removed from CERN, her career terminated?