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Alessandro Strumia: Another Politically-Correct Witch-Hunt, or a More Complicated Story?

In recent and even not-so-recent years, the quest for gender balance in science and technology has taken some troubling turns—from the collection of male scalps over trifling offenses (such as the pillorying of British physicist Matt Taylor over a shirt adorned with comic-book-style scantily-clad babes) to the squelching of dissent on whether gender gaps in STEM are caused solely by discrimination (heresy that got software engineer James Damore fired from Google two years ago and cost Lawrence Summers his post as Harvard president in 2005). In this climate, it’s easy to see another “politically correct” witch-hunt in the recent drama surrounding Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia. Last month, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, elected not to extend Strumia’s guest professorship after previously suspending him over a controversial presentation at a CERN gender diversity workshop in September 2018.

From the start, the Strumia scandal elicited warnings about an orthodoxy that disallows questioning claims of pervasive anti-female discrimination in science. In a recent article in the French weekly Le Point (reprinted in translation in Quillette), science journalist Peggy Sastre describes Strumia as the latest victim of “the enforcers of contemporary moral orthodoxy,” even comparing him to Galileo—like Strumia, a professor at the University of Pisa. Strumia’s own article in Quillette argues that the reaction to his talk exemplifies the triumph of ideology and identity politics over scientific objectivity.

The anti-Strumia backlash is certainly a cause of concern. But the story in this case is more complex than the “political correctness gone mad” narrative, and includes some facts that are missing from both Sastre’s and Strumia’s accounts. And, given those facts, the rights and wrongs are not so easy to sort out.

Strumia’s 35-minute talk, entitled “Bibliometrics data about gender issues in fundamental theory,” has sometimes been described by him and his defenders as a data-based argument that women in physics face no sexist bias. In fact, his claims were substantially more controversial: Strumia asserted that the field is currently rife with discrimination against men and favoritism toward women, and that female physicists are generally less productive than their male counterparts.

And there was something else: a slide using Strumia’s own experience as a “case study” in anti-male discrimination. Last year, a post he had sought at Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN)—research coordinator for theoretical physics—went to a female scientist who had far fewer citations. The slide in question (see below) named not only that scientist, Anna Ceresole, but the commission member allegedly responsible for the hire, Silvia Penati. Both women were at the workshop, and Penati was one of its organizers.

In the audio of the talk, at around 20:20, Strumia says, “The commissar [Penati] was a gender expert who hired only gender experts, and I am also a great gender expert but I was not hired.” (While some have questioned his use of the word “commissar” with its Soviet connotations, Strumia told me in an email that he thought it was the proper translation of the Italian commissario.) While the wording is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the swipe at Ceresole and Penati does not seem particularly humorous. In an added touch of what looks like trolling, the slide also features a quote from a 2016 document co-written by Ceresole for a gender equity project: “The oppressive ambient started to open.” (I don’t know what that means either.)

This was, at least officially, the principal basis for the charge against Strumia. The CERN press release on his suspension last October noted that “the presentation, with its attacks on individuals, was unacceptable in any professional context and was contrary to the CERN Code of Conduct.” A subsequent email from the CERN press office to a Strumia supporter further stressed that the problem was not with his opinions or data analysis, but with the “personal attacks.” The press release from the INFN, which also suspended ties with Strumia, accused him of violating its code of ethics by making public statements “detrimental to the image of the institution and…damaging to the reputation of [its] researchers.”

Strumia has asserted, both in the Quillette article and in our email exchange, that CERN found no code-of-conduct violations on his part since it declined to initiate disciplinary proceedings (and simply unpersoned him). However, CERN’s March 7 press release says that the organization’s decision not to extend Strumia’s guest professorship was made “[a]s a result of its own investigation and following the decision taken by the University of Pisa,” which leaves open the question of whether he was deemed to be guilty of any violations. The University formally censured Strumia on January 18, though without any penalties.

Was the issue of “personal attacks” at least partly an excuse to punish a heretic who had dared to question the “diversity and inclusion” creed reaffirmed by CERN and the University of Pisa in their press releases? Probably. (“One can always find some casus belli,” Strumia told me in an email.) Nonetheless, even the anonymous physicist who strongly criticized the backlash against Strumia in Areo magazine conceded that he “acted very unprofessionally in naming a competitor for a position he ultimately lost, and in comparing his citation count to hers.”

(When I raised this issue with Sastre on Twitter, it turned out that she had missed the slide with the reference to Ceresole and Penati because Strumia had removed it from the file with the slides now posted on his website.)

Thus, Strumia actually did what Damore was wrongly accused of doing: he disparaged his female colleagues, not by insinuation but overtly and by name. He also made what was, in effect, a grave accusation, suggesting not only that Ceresole undeservedly got her job because she is a woman but that Penati used her position to hire a less qualified candidate because of gender favoritism.

The elephant in the room, of course, is whether that accusation has a factual basis—an impossible question to answer without inside knowledge. In a post last October, retired science journalist Sylvie Coyaud, now a blogger for the Italian newspaper La Reppublica, wrote that the INFN commission ranked 10 candidates more highly than Strumia and that four of the first five “research coordinator” posts went to men. (Coyaud told me in an email that this information came from Penati.) According to Strumia, two of the 10 openings were in theoretical physics and both hires were women, selected from a pool of 10 women and 34 men.

It’s a fact Ceresola has far fewer papers and citations than Strumia, or than the other four INFN research directors at her level (three men and one woman). Did she receive preferential treatment, either because of her sex or because she and Penati were both part of a network promoting women in physics? Again, no one can tell without being privy to the internal decision-making  process at the INFN. Strumia’s detractors counter that Ceresola may have had an edge in “experience leading national and international collaboration,” one of the job criteria. However, an excerpt from the commission’s evaluation which Strumia posted on his website gives him the highest grade on this item—“più-che-ottimo,” or “more than excellent.” Critics also accuse Strumia of inflating Penati’s role in Ceresole’s hiring when she was one person on a five-person commission of three men and two women. Strumia told me that Penati was the only theoretical physicist on the panel and thus presumably had a greater input in the hiring decision for the theory post.

It’s possible that Strumia was treated unfairly, for gender-related or other reasons. (Interestingly, his blogpost on the controversy mentions a 15-year-old incident in which he was passed over for a less productive male rival—in the context of arguing that women’s experiences of shabby treatment are not necessarily due to their gender.) But if he does have a legitimate complaint, a potshot at his adversaries in a gender diversity workshop is surely not the way to pursue it.

What about the rest of Strumia’s presentation?  He undeniably had some solid data suggesting that hiring practices in STEM (in this case, physics) now favor women overall, at least at the faculty level; this is consistent with other recent research. His claim that female physicists are less productive—with the apparent inference that they are, on average, not as good as the men—has been questioned by German theoretical physicist and science writer Sabine Hossenfelder, who argues that the citation disparity is almost entirely due to more women dropping out, for full-time child-rearing or for other work after publishing only one or two papers. (One may debate whether including such cases in the overall count is an appropriate comparison.) Hossenfelder’s initial calculations showed that the gap virtually vanishes if one counts only currently active researchers. Her subsequent analysis, presented in a talk at California’s Chapman University last fall, found that the gap still persists but is partly due to more self-citing by male scientists. However, in contrast to Strumia—who argued that sexism cannot explain the citations gap since men get cited more by researchers of both sexes—Hossenfelder reports that in the last 15 years or so, men tend to “undercite” women but women tend to cite male- and female-authored papers at the same rate. Whether this means that there is some (conscious or unconscious) gender bias among men or that some women are (consciously or not) making an effort at “equity” is anybody’s guess.

More fundamentally, Strumia’s talk challenged feminist claims that the gender imbalance in physics is due to sexism and offered alternative, “conservative” explanations rooted in biology: greater male variance in high-level mathematical ability, differences in interests, and the uneven distribution of “systemizing” traits. One may agree or disagree; but to suggest that such an argument is offensive and unacceptable is bizarre, given that studies reflecting this perspective—often authored by women—routinely appear in scientific journals. (When Strumia brought up the research of neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen, other workshop participants dismissed it as “discredited” and mocked it as “neurotrash”—which certainly doesn’t reflect the consensus view of Baron-Cohen’s work.)

Unfortunately, Strumia also gave some ammunition to detractors who would later accuse him of “mistruths [and] false facts.” At least two of his claims were flat-out incorrect and apparently based on misread headlines. Thus, he asserted (in slide 18 and at 22:35 in the audio) that “today, Oxford gives extra time to women on examinations.” In reality, as a British attendee pointed out, exam time was extended for everyone in the hope of narrowing the gender gap in math and science scores. (It didn’t work.) Strumia also claimed that “in Italy, women don’t have to pay university taxes” under a feminist minister’s decree. This was, at best, a dramatic exaggeration: his source, an article on a three million-euro program to encourage female STEM participation, mentioned that among various incentives “universities may provide for partial or total exemption from taxes.”

It also didn’t help that, in trying to debunk claims of rampant present-day sexism, Strumia made some dubious claims of his own that appeared to discount historical inequities. He declared that, while “physics was invented and built by men,” women were welcome if they could prove they were good, as evidenced by Marie Curie’s two Nobel Prizes. (On his blog, Strumia makes a rather jumbled attempt at clarification, asserting that the founders of physics built institutions where “[n]obody has privileged access,” and that Curie was honored “[d]espite the fact that at the time it was unheard for a woman to even study physics.”)

The notion that physics was a gender-blind meritocracy in Curie’s day—let alone earlier—bears little relation to reality. Curie herself was nearly cheated of the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics which she shared with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel: she was initially omitted from the nomination and added only after Pierre Curie complained. In the previous century, Sophie Germain, a largely self-taught mathematician and physicist whose work was hampered by lack of a proper education, won the Paris Academy of Sciences’ grand prize in 1816 for a paper on elasticity but was still barred from Academy sessions until seven years later, when a male colleague arranged for her to attend as his guest. Strumia’s glib dismissal of the overt barriers once faced by female scientists made it much easier to paint him as a clueless sexist.

Sexist or not, it seems obvious that Strumia’s talk was deliberately provocative. He seems to admit as much in a post in the comments beneath Sastre’s Quillette article, revealing that he had prepared a less inflammatory version but was worried it would have “disappeared in silence.” (As an example, he cites Ted Hill’s paper on male variability and gender disparities in mathematics—even though the removal of Hill’s article due to apparent political pressure got quite a bit of attention.)

Had CERN punished Strumia and deep-sixed his talk and slides for a factual presentation of the kind offered in his Quillette essay, it would have been inexcusable. As it is, the organization’s actions seem more legitimate (though specific details remain disturbing, such as Strumia’s claim that he was dropped from a workshop without being told about it in advance). It’s worth noting that Strumia retains an associate professorship at the University of Pisa, and the European Research Council grant for his team is being transferred from CERN to the University.

This case still has worrying implications for academic freedom—especially since the University of Pisa reprimand does not single out the personal issues but suggests more generally that Strumia’s public statements about “the effect of gender on competitions in certain scientific fields” violate the rules of “respect” and “responsible conduct.” But one cannot fairly discuss those implications without knowing the full picture.

Acknowledging problems with Strumia’s presentation does not mean overlooking the problems with the backlash.

As the Areo article noted, the anti-Strumia screed titled “Particles for Justice”—signed by over 1,600 researchers—made numerous questionable assertions, even misrepresenting some of the material it referenced. (It is telling that the author of the Areo critique, a high-energy researcher, chose anonymity due to career and social concerns.)

Meanwhile, a report on the LiveScience website dismissed as “laughable” the claim that greater male variance in cognitive skills explains gender imbalances in physics—only to concede that it could well be a factor, though not sufficient to explain all the disparities. (Strumia never claimed it was.) On another science website, in a post entitled “Alessandro Strumia, The Mansplainer,” INFN/CERN physicist Tommaso Dorigo compared the denial of “woman discrimination in STEM” to the denial of “human-made global warming.” He also blasted Strumia as a disgruntled job-seeker prone to padding his citation count with “useless ambulance-chasing articles.” Even fellow CERN researcher Andrea Giammanco, who wrote his own blogpost highly critical of Strumia and his analysis, had some scathing words for attempts to portray him as “not that good a physicist.”

Virtually none of Strumia’s critics made a genuine effort to engage with the data he presented. Hossenfelder—who believes women in science are still held back by sexist cultural biases but also opposes preferential treatment as a shortcut to equality—is a welcome exception.

Lastly, one can disapprove of the way in which Strumia chose to throw down the gauntlet to the “gender experts” and yet recognize that he was responding to a genuinely toxic atmosphere created by the feminism-in-science movement in its current form. Summers was defenestrated over a very measured talk suggesting that biological differences (along with cultural norms and entrenched sexism) might contribute to the underrepresentation of women in science and technology; he was also widely misrepresented as saying that women can’t do science. More recently, Cornell psychologist Wendy Williams spoke of an “outpouring of vitriol” in response to the 2015 study in which she and colleague Stephen Ceci found that women have an advantage in STEM hiring.

The same year, British Nobel Prize-winning cancer researcher Tim Hunt fell victim to a disgraceful public trashing over a misreported joke about the troubles caused by “girls in the lab” in a brief talk at a women-in-science luncheon at a conference. In the social media and in opinion pieces, Hunt was savaged as a misogynist, despite his record as a supporter of women in science and his marriage to a prominent female scientist, immunologist Mary Collins. The tone of the mobbing can be gleaned from a Twitter exchange in which someone using the account of the Journal of Experimental Medicine joked about Collins beating up her 72-year-old husband, and science writer Deborah Blum—who currently heads the science journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—replied, “I wish I’d said that.”

A month after the storm, Hunt—who had lost an honorary professorship at University College London and had been forced off the science committee of the European Research Council—was essentially vindicated. A belatedly discovered partial recording of his talk, published by the London Times, confirmed what his supporters had been saying: his remarks were clearly facetious and self-deprecating, were met with laughter (rather than “stony silence” as some had claimed), and were made in the context of praising women’s achievements. Yet no apologies were made, and none of the people who smeared Hunt were censured for far worse attacks than Strumia’s jab at his colleagues.

Given this history, it’s not surprising that some Strumia supporters have asked whether a female scientist who used a lecture on sexism to air a personal grievance against two men would have been denounced as unprofessional or praised as courageous.

Perhaps, contra Strumia, there is more to be done to improve opportunities for women in science. But a movement for gender equity cannot rest on double standards. And, no less important, both the defense of academic freedom and the defense of equity in science must rest on a commitment to truth.


Cathy Young is a Russian-born American journalist and author. You can follow her on Twitter @CathyYoung63.

 

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