The Strumia Affair

I’m very late to this story as it broke over the weekend when I was preoccupied with many things, but it has triggered quite a reaction in the media (including here in Ireland). The story involves a physicist by the name of Alessandro Strumia who works at the University of Pisa in Italy. This person used the opportunity provided by a Conference on Theory and Gender to deliver a talk that contained highly inflammatory comments about gender and physics ability.

As a service to the community I’ve uploaded the slides for Strumia’s talk to Slideshare so you can read them here if you’re interested in his argument:

There are detailed discussions of Strumia’s talk by fellow bloggers Philip Moriarty here and Jon Butterworth here. Between them they cover most of what I’d say on the topic if I had time so I’ll direct you to them rather than repeat the arguments here. There are a host of other reaction pieces elsewhere, and I won’t attempt to summarize them either. Suffice to say that the old argument that `women are intrinsically not as good at physics as men’ has been refuted many times using solid empirical evidence; see the above post by Philip. It’s no wonder, though, that women get put off doing physics, when there are people like Alessandro Strumia in the field and potentially responsible for evaluating the performance of female staff.

What I will do add is that, for someone who purports to be a scientist, Strumia’s use of evidence is shockingly unscientific. His argument is riddled with non sequitur, unjustified assumptions and formulaic prejudice. Apart from everything else I think this is symptomatic of a malaise that is a widespread affliction in the field theoretical physics nowadays, which is worst among string theorists (which Strumia is not), namely a lack of basic understanding of, or even interest in, the proper application of scientific method.

27 Responses to “The Strumia Affair”

  1. I see that Strumia likes citation counting. No wonder, he himself is very good at getting citations even when he’s writing about nothing:

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, he’s a well-known `ambulance chaser’.

      • Strumia’s talk would be very stupid even if all the male oppression silliness were removed. He’s indulging in the worst kind of citation counting and chasing, which is a huge problem in science.

      • Counting citations, whether one’s own or others’, without taking into account the zeroth-order correction of dividing by the number of authors, should immediately disqualify anyone from further discussion on the subject of scientific merit.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Buried in the dross of this silly and reprehensible talk was a suggestion that the greater male variability hypothesis (GMVH) plays a role. For it is in principle possible that the average woman is as smart as (or a bit smarter than) the average man, yet more of the super-intelligent people are men, if there is a wider male distribution of intelligence about a similar mean – since more of the unintelligent would be men too. There is wider male than female variability in many attributes across the animal kingdom.

    Whether this actually *is* true of human intelligence, I do not know (Strumia’s 23rd slide gives no sources); whether what is measured when testing intelligence is partly cultural rather than genetic, I do not know. But hypotheses should not be ruled out a priori, and an evolutionary model for differences of this sort, based on sexual selection of the broader-variance sex by the narrower-variance sex, was recently deleted from the website of an online journal without notice – having passed refereeing – and its ‘slot’ filled by an unrelated paper. See the submission history of this paper by TP Hill at the arXiv:

    People may google for the associated rumpus; I do not wish to be accused of taking sides according to what websites I offer, and plenty of the backroom happenings have been aired online. I support CERN in deleting Strumia’s talk from its website and I am also glad of Peter’s commitment to free speech online, so that we can see how improper this talk was. But I regret the removal of (Emeritus) Prof Hill’s paper from the website of the New York Journal of Mathematics. If it’s wrong, prove it and move on. The deletion could give online journals a bad name.

    • telescoper Says:

      I should have explained that CERN took down Strumia’s slides from the conference site but there are still available via Google Docs here. I’m not sure if that will get taken down at some point, which is why I put them on Slideshare.

    • That whole Hill debacle managed to make the both sides of the debate look bad.

    • I agree with Anton here. 😐 Note that with regard to the idea of increased variation among males and the tendency to sample one tail of the distribution (in German, I could work in a pun here), whether or not it is true (I think that the jury is still out), no-one that I know of doubts genetic (in the broadest sense) explanations for the fact that most criminals and mentally retarded are males. But when it comes to chess players (such a macho sport!) and Michelin-star chefs, not to mention rock and jazz musicians (as opposed to Baroque musicians), often one can’t even discuss the issue, whatever one’s own opinion is (which is pretty much the definition of taboo).

      Of course, individuals should be judged individually; the distribution of the group they belong to is irrelevant.

      There is an interesting discussion on gender in physics in Physik Journal (member organ (perhaps not the best choice of phrase here) of the German Physical Society), prompted by an opinion piece in the August/September issue and followed up in letters.

      There are fields where women are over-represented and/or earn significantly more than men. But hardly anyone claims that this is due to discrimination.

      People interested in this sort of thing should read the works of a professional rather than internet rants of people with axes to grind. I recommend Steven Pinker, a psychologist who has spent most of his career working at Harvard and MIT (and happens to work in a field dominated by women). (He also gets bonus points for looking like a cross between Simon Rattle and Brian May; a good one for “psychology lookalikes”.)

      From the liberal (i.e. correct) point of view, one must distinguish between people who support a rational and scientific discussion and the “regressive left” who clutch at straws, using the most absurd claims to support their world view. Examples of blogs where such topics are often (among others) discussed are, for the former, (which I mention even though I was banned for disagreement with the blogger (which supposedly has been lifted on my appeal, though I still can’t post, despite noting the fact)) and, for the latter (which I hardly read anymore because of its degeneration), (note that both are run by biologists, though both work in areas far removed from gender studies (which I suppose is a branch of biology)).

      Just as serious cosmologists distance themselves from crackpots, this should be done in the field of gender studies as well. Just search the internet for (without the quotes) “Newton Principia rape manual” and “speed of light privileged” to get a flavour; wake up and taste the bullshit. 😐

  3. I know next to nothing of physics. Instead, I served 20 years in the US military. Women in the military? Hmm. Rather than be accused of misogyny, I should just say that women, on a 50-mile forced march in full field gear, plus mission gear–ahem.

    • telescoper Says:

      (a) If the ability to do a 50-mile forced march etc is necessary, use that as the criterion and set a test for entry rather than simply assuming no woman can do it. As far as I’m concerned if women can complete, e.g., triathlons then they can serve in the army.

      (b) Not all roles in the military require that anyway..

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    this is symptomatic of a malaise that is a widespread affliction in the field theoretical physics nowadays, which is worst among string theorists… namely a lack of basic understanding of, or even interest in, the proper application of scientific method.

    Yes, not even wrong. As one Amazon reviewer said of Brian Greene’s exposition of string theory for non-experts, The Elegant Universe,

    This book is written at such a level and with such clarity that almost anyone can get an appreciation for string theory. The book contains one of the best explanations for layman of special and general relativity and quantum mechanics that I have ever encountered. Even though the author is a proponent of string theory, he has presented it in such an evenhanded manner that anyone with a modicum of scientific wisdom can see that it is one of the biggest scientific boondoggles in history. Contrary to the claim of elegance in the title of the book, string theory is an arbitrary mathematical construct with parameters, topologies, and dimensions tacked on at every turn…

    • sphaerenklang Says:

      String theory is not ‘arbitrary’ in any sense, it puts strong restrictions the dimensionality of space and the field content in order to exist at all. (Key concept Virasoro symmetry.) Which quantum field theory in general does not.
      The space of all string theories is therefore much, much smaller than the space of all QFTs. To rule out string theory immediately one would only need to be able to measure the dimensionality of space at near-Planck scale energies with answer that was neither 9, 10 nor 25.

  5. Just wanted to add that there is a letter sponsored by the high energy physics community that is open to people from related fields to sign, i.e., physics and astronomy.

    I encourage people to sign it because right now Strumia is claiming that those signing the letter aren’t representative of the high-energy physics community, which is actually true at this point because most of that community hasn’t signed it. So those in all fields need to show how reprehensible Strumia’s comments are.


  6. telescoper Says:

    Quite a few people attempting to post anonymous comments. I remind you of my policy:

    “Feel free to comment on any of the posts on this blog but comments may be moderated; anonymous comments and any considered by me to be abusive will not be accepted. ”

    In order to get a comment published you need to be identifiable to me, though once that is the case you may use a pseudonym here.

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