Physicists, sex differences, and a new inquisition

When a book entitled 100 authors against Einstein came out in Germany in 1931, Einstein allegedly exclaimed: “If I were wrong, then one [author] would have been enough!”

Unlike Einstein, many contemporary physicists apparently believe that—even in discussions about science—there is strength in numbers. So when several months ago Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia gave a talk at CERN, arguing that there is little discrimination against women in physics, many of his colleagues signed a strongly worded statement to condemn his view.

How many of them? One hundred? More. Surely not one thousand? Actually, around four thousand, including professors from Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, Princeton, NYU, MIT, Chicago, Yale, Berkeley, etc. Here is that statement, pompously entitled “Particles for justice”.

I will comment on a few sections from that statement. Let me start with the beginning, which sets the tone:

We write here first to state, in the strongest possible terms, that the humanity of any person, regardless of ascribed identities such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, disability, gender presentation, or sexual identity is not up for debate. Physics and science are part of the shared inheritance of all people, as much as art, music, and literature, and we should strive to ensure that everyone has a fair opportunity to become a scientist. The question of discrimination based on ascribed identity is a moral one, and we write to affirm that discrimination is not a welcome feature of our field, however pervasive it may be.

What does it even mean that “the humanity of any person is not up for debate”? And who said that it is? Strumia certainly did not.

Also, when thousands of physicists say that “discrimination is not a welcome feature of the world” they seem to imply that Strumia thinks otherwise and that he supports discrimination. But this is manifestly false. Rather than supporting discrimination against women, he actually argues that such systematic discrimination does not exist.

It is clear to all of us that Strumia is not an expert on these topics and is misusing his physics credentials to put himself forward as one. Furthermore, those among us who are familiar with the relevant literature know that Strumia’s conclusions are in stark disagreement with those of experts.

OK, Strumia is a physicist and not an expert on the causes of gender disparity in science. But, first, where is the evidence that he misused his physics credentials and put himself forward as an expert on other topics? He just did some reading on these issues and gave reasons for his opinion. Aren’t physicists allowed to say what they think about why there are fewer women in physics than in other fields?

And second, how about those other physicists who claim that the main cause of the dearth of women in their discipline is sex discrimination? Aren’t they also misusing their physics credentials and putting themselves forward as experts on psychology or sociology? And if not, why not?

It seems it all basically comes down to this. Those who believe that physics is ridden with discrimination against women are seen as upstanding academic citizens who are not “misusing their physics credentials” when they move from physics to psychology. In contrast, anyone who argues against the discrimination hypothesis is not just wrong but deserves massive condemnation and should be deplatformed.

Strumia’s arguments are morally reprehensible. Belittling the ability and legitimacy of scientists of color and white women scientists using such flimsy pretexts is disgraceful…

Strumia didn’t say a single word about race or people of color!

Finally, we would also like to underline how grossly unethical it is to misrepresent the topic of one’s talk to workshop organizers to promote an agenda which is antithetical to the workshop itself.

No explanation is offered about how exactly Strumia misrepresented the topic of his talk. Thousands of physicists joined the condemnation of his “grossly unethical” behavior without knowing the nature of his allegedly abhorrent transgression.

And how can one promote an agenda that is “antithetical” (i.e. opposed) to the workshop itself? Apparently only if the workshop itself had an agenda, rather than being an open discussion of a given topic. Were the workshop participants all expected to defend a certain view, and Strumia was just rude enough to reach an “undesirable” conclusion on the basis of his data? 

We hope that Strumia’s professional colleagues and superiors will take all these points into careful consideration in all future decisions involving him.

This is a call to Strumia’s colleagues and (more menacingly) his superiors to remember his gender talk whenever they make decisions involving him in the future. It’s not clear why this episode should be taken into consideration in all future decisions. Anyway, we have recently learned that the call to Strumia’s superiors has indeed been answered. Two days ago, after months of an internal investigation of his misconduct, CERN has decided not to extend his contract as a guest professor, emphasizingits commitment to the paramount importance of respect and diversity in the workplace”. Strangely, in this case, the diversity of opinion seems to be much less important for an organization that prides itself on being “one of the world’s largest and most respected centers for scientific research”. The Academic Senate of the University of Pisa also ruled that Strumia has violated some vaguely described ethical rules. No satisfactory explanation of his wrongdoing has been given in either case.

There is bitter irony here, especially when we think of two physicists associated with the University of Pisa who were—at different times—both found guilty of thought crime. In contrast to Galileo who was condemned in 1633 by the Catholic Church, in 2019 Strumia has been denounced by CERN, his own university and thousands of his colleagues.

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