All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Why Are Women Under-Represented in Physics?

Six months ago CERN hosted a workshop on “High Energy Theory and Gender.” Nearly all the contributors to this and previous workshops on the same topic endorsed the view that gender imbalances in physics, particularly in the higher echelons, are predominantly due to sexual discrimination. The following phrases appeared in the presentations: “men mobilize their masculinity supporting…men in ways that advance careers,” “evaluators tend to favor men,” “scientific quality is a gender social construction,” “practically all women share the same kind of sad and unfair experiences since the beginning of their scientific career,” and physics is an “oppressive ambient.” One attendee claimed that only the military has a higher rate of sexual harassment, although she didn’t say which country’s armed forces she was thinking of. In an attempt to go beyond mere anecdotes and measure the amount of discrimination, I did a bibliometric analysis using a public database of publications, references, authors and hiring decisions in fundamental physics world-wide over the past 50 years. CERN maintains this database, but nobody had used it for this …

Scientific Progress and the Culture Wars

On April 10, 2019, an international team of scientists from dozens of research institutions involved in the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration published the first direct image of a black hole. This groundbreaking achievement, representing tremendous progress in both fundamental astrophysics as well as the many technologies adopted and advanced for this work, received acclaim around the world and throughout the internet. Scientists had shed metaphorical light on the literal darkest objects in the universe, and they had done it by combining signals from radio telescopes at opposite ends of the globe, a technical achievement with far-reaching implications in many areas of science. (Indeed, I believe that my own research specialty, quite remote from astrophysics, will draw upon some of the fruits of this imaging technique.) Of course, no good thing can last, and people soon found a way to turn this scientific accomplishment into a cultural flashpoint over the issue of gender equity in science. It began on the morning of the announcement, when Twitter activists chided news outlets for not paying attention to Dr. …

How I Lost My Partner to a Parasite

I have given only the first rough outlines of a province of a great terra incognita, which lies unexplored before us, and the exploration of which promises a return such as we can at present scarcely appreciate. ~Johann Steenstrup, Danish zoologist, on parasites (circa 1854) This monster isn’t David. It’s a parasite of some kind. You see, another consciousness inside him. This thing burrowed into David’s brain … and has been there, feeding off him ever since. ~Loudermilk, FX Legion. Some lose a lover to a younger woman or an irreversible illness. I lost my partner to a parasite named Edwin. Imagine watching someone you love slowly die—except they’re still alive, still walking around, and still functioning. This is what it must feel like losing them to some kind of cult. Except that intervention and deprogramming can revert them back into the person you knew. And, although reversing a parasite invasion is possible, my now-ex ultimately didn’t care to do so. I often find it hard to believe myself, which is when I have become …

Ignoring Differences Between Men and Women Is the Wrong Way to Address Gender Dysphoria

Among the many divisive topics animating people these days, sex and gender are perhaps the most incendiary. This is in large part because not one but two groups feel that their political identities are at stake. On one hand, many women feel blindsided by the argument that trans women should be considered literal women, and question the effect of the trans movement on female sex-based rights and protections, as they have come to define them. On the other, many trans people are aghast at what they feel are attempts to block their political advancement toward equal social and legal status. Whether the arenas of dispute are bathrooms, schools, sport, women’s organizations, or parades, the emotions are intense and the arguments apparently intractable. To understand what’s at stake, it’s helpful to delineate two argumentative positions at play: (1) sex eliminationism, which argues for the abolition of the recognition of biological sex as a meaningful category; and (2) gender eliminationism, which argues for the abolition of gender. As a feminist and philosopher who finds herself stuck between …

From Hegemonic to Responsive Masculinity: the Transformative Power of the Provider Role

Since the ‘60s the male provider role has been under assault. Associated with the strongly bi-furcated gendered division of labor which has come to prevail in the West, it is blamed for hegemonic masculinity—a term used to describe the problems that have followed from that. However, what I want to suggest here is that we should not hurry to label the provider role as a problem. As I argue in my chapter recently published in The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health, male provisioning is actually closely associated with and an expression of responsive masculinity, that aspect of the male psyche that responds to the needs of partner and offspring. Not only is male providing an expression of male nurturing behavior, the providing actually generates the nurturing. The bad publicity has been undeserved. In 1981 Jessie Bernard wrote an influential paper on the provider role which set the terms of the debate. She explained that the provider role “delineated relationships within a marriage and family in a way that added to the legal, …

In Defense of Scientism

I hear the jury’s still out on science. ~Gob Bluth In science, the jury is always out. This is because science is a methodological approach to the world, not a set of inflexible principles or a catalog of indisputable facts. Truth is always provisional. Science does not hold something to be incontrovertibly true. It says, “This appears to be true according to the best available theory and evidence.” On science, the jury long ago returned a verdict: it is awesome. It has conquered deadly diseases and eradicated oppressive superstitions. It has increased human flourishing and extended life expectancies. It has put humans on the moon and many fathoms under the ocean’s surface. It has uncovered the forces that guide the crudest motions of matter and those that govern the most exquisite processes of life. In short, it has vastly improved human existence while dramatically increasing our knowledge of the universe. Despite all this, skeptical philosophers and pundits continue to forward arguments against scientific “arrogance”—or against what they see as science’s hubristic attempt to crowd out …

Sex Differences, Gender, and Competitive Sport

Sport often presents us with striking visual examples of how certain aspects of society play out. Whether it be nationalism, leadership, teamwork, competitiveness, or the ability of humans to achieve truly great acts, sport is an embodiment of how these factors interact and display themselves on a world stage. Sport also offers some of the most obvious visual representations of inherent biological sex differences between men and women. Unfortunately, although perhaps not surprisingly, the current desire for equality and inclusion, and the general misunderstandings about biological sex as an evolutionary process has resulted in questions and confusion around the traditional use of sex categories in sport. In some ways this also highlights the difficulties that may be apparent with the erosion of sex categories in other areas of life, such as regarding prisons, changing areas and the issues of equal pay. As a performance scientist and someone who has worked in elite sport for over a decade, I am interested in the determinants of physical performance and how to manipulate and enhance these variables. Over …

Activists Must Stop Harassing Scientists

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Le Point and has been translated by Holly Haahr. Is this the end of the era of factual, scientific inquiry? In today’s labs, the line between affirmative action and ideological harassment is vanishingly thin. But prioritising scientists who have the correct opinions and tick the right identity boxes rather than because of the quality of their research can lead to real persecution. “At the moment I prefer to stay anonymous,” explains an astrophysicist. “I am not proud of this, but I have to eat, and I am also responsible for the research opportunities of my students and my postdocs.” He hadn’t killed anyone. Rather, he had just chosen to move from Australia, the country where he earned his degrees and spent most of his career, to China. Why? Because, as a researcher, he has more freedom in China. As unbelievable as this may sound, it’s true. Indeed, for more and more scientists, the pressures in universities and other research institutions to be “politically correct” (for lack of …

When a Question of Science Brooks No Dissent

Back in December 2012, six days after a mass shooting ended the lives of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama seized the opportunity created by our period of national mourning to hold forth on a surprising topic: catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. The deaths at Sandy Hook, he told a group of foreign diplomats, had elicited from the world community “a fundamental human response that transcends cultures and transcends borders.” The Earth’s rising temperatures, instructed the president, should induce a similar response from world leaders. “This must be our work,” Obama implored the assembled ambassadors and chargés d’affaires regarding the need to forestall climate change. “That, I think, is one of the ways we can honor all these beautiful children and incredible teachers who were lost this past Friday.” Perhaps I should refrain from condemning too harshly a partisan figure’s routine decision to make political hay in the aftermath of a tragedy. For one thing, the president’s remarks may have been prepared by the same inept speechwriting staff who had coached him …

On the Eve of the Great Psychedelic Debate

Trippy “Medicine” Listening to some of the opponents of medical marijuana over the last few years, one could be forgiven for thinking that they have never heard of a psychoactive substance being used in medicine before. These people might be surprised to learn that in England the doctor can send you home with a prescription for pain called diamorphine, a fancy word for heroin. They might be equally surprised to learn that the anti-obesity prescription Desoxyn is nothing more than methamphetamine in a pill, or that the popular ADHD medication Adderall is very similar to methamphetamine chemically and physiologically. If you’ve had throat, dental or nose surgery there’s a chance the anesthetist used cocaine to numb your senses as it restricts the flow of blood more than any other local anesthetic (the cocaine alkaloid is extracted from coca leaves for medical use and the leftover de-cocainized extract sent to Coca Cola for flavoring). You won’t hear it put this way. No doctor says to the cancer patient, “I suggest you use smack from here on …