By now the story has been echoed by many major newscasters around the world, and discussed in public and private forums, blogs, twitter feeds. I wanted to stay away from it here, mainly because it is a sensitive issue and the situation is still evolving, but after all, why not offer to you my personal pitch on the matter? Strumia, by the way, has been an occasional commenter to this blog - you can find some of his comments signed as "AS" in threads of past articles. Usually he makes good points here, as long as physics is the subject.
Anyway, first of all let me give you a quick recall of the events. The three-day workshop, which took place on September 26-28, was meant to"focus on recent developments in theoretical high-energy physics and cosmology, and discuss issues of gender and equal opportunities in the field"; it followed three previous events which combined string theory and gender issues. Strumia's presentation was titled "Experimental tests of a new global symmetry", a physicist's way of describing the issue of man-woman equality. It is important to note that the talk was not an invited one - its author had asked the organizers for a slot as he said he would be talking of bibliometrics, and indeed his contribution was listed in the agenda of September 28 with the innocuous title "Bibliometrics data about gender issues in fundamental theory".
Strumia's slides contain a collection of half-baked claims, coming from his analysis of InSpire data from citations and authorship of articles in theoretical physics. I consider his talk offensive on many levels. It starts by casting the woman discrimination issue in scientific academia as a test of hypothesis of whether the "man-woman" symmetry is explicitly broken (i.e. there is no symmetry) or spontaneously broken (by a difference of treatment) - something that could even raise a smile in a geeky physicist; but the fun ends there.
He uses all sorts of ways, from methodologically questionable to ridiculous, to try and make his point. Correlations are used to show "this does not look like discrimination", when of course with correlations you can prove that chocolate wins Nobel prizes just as easily. Complex test statistics come out of the blue, and appear cooked up for the goal of proving his points. Irrelevant statistics are taken as if they are relevant (e.g.: age at hiring is smaller for women by O(1 year) according to Strumia - somebody should explain to me how this proves that women are better off here).
The motivation for the talk is apparently revealed on slide 15, when he describes his personal case of failing a selection when a woman scientist was hired. His complaint is based on having had more citations than the competitor! Now, Strumia is good at writing heavily cited papers - we know how, for instance, in 2015-16 he wrote seven (7) different articles on theoretical explanations for fake 750 GeV diphoton resonance. If one took away similar useless ambulance-chasing articles, and the articles published by the CMS experiment when he was added as an author, probably the difference with his competitor would diminish; but this is besides the point. His slide shows he is still sore about that failure, and probably thinks he was turned down because of getting at the receiving end of some equal opportunity practice; it is always hard to have to admit to yourself you were just the worse candidate instead.
Slide 15 is also probably the actual reason why CERN decided to remove the set from the web site of the workshop, which still features all other talks. For in that slide Strumia put the name of a selection committee member and of the female candidate who won the position: privacy issues were alone a reason for CERN to take down the material. But admittedly, while I stand with Voltaire on the matter of freedom of speech, I do not subscribe to the extreme view that you should be allowed to troll for free the attendants at an event where people want to discuss ways to promote gender neutrality. They did not deserve to receive such a provocative, insulting message. So CERN was fully right in deleting that talk from their site. You can find it in many other places anyway, so it is by no means a question of freedom of speech, but just a matter of keeping CERN reputation where it is.
I will not comment further Strumia's discussion, other than noting that he heavily relies for his "inference" on the IQ: starting from a debatable observation (different RMS of men and women on that quantity) he tries to show that there is no discrimination, as if IQ could be used as _the_ indicator to hire brilliant scientists. I bet Strumia has taken several IQ tests in his life, and is quite happy about his results. As Hawking used to say, people who brag about their IQ are losers; I would add that people who use IQ measures as indicators of anything but ability to solve IQ tests should be advised to not embark in quantitative research. Concocting new whatchamacallitinos is still okay, though.
The writing is on the wall: during their education female students are as good as or better than males in STEM disciplines; however, society is geared up to convince them since their birth (and us with them) that they are less good than males, and that they should seek different paths in their careers. The outcome is in front of us all. I have a 15 year old daughter who excels both in humanity studies and in scientific disciplines, and I know she needs a strong will in order to not be driven away from what she truly would like to do after high school (no, it's not Physics).
In the end I think Strumia, with his high IQ and all the citations, was quite naive - he should have known better and avoid provoking what could not be anything but a very strong, outraged reaction. He now faces retaliation in various forms, which he called it upon himself. For instance, he is the recipient of an ERC grant, and the European Commission will not like to know they funded somebody who actively goes against their code of conduct and ethics: maybe those funds are going into hirings.
As with human-made global warming, woman discrimination in STEM is an established fact that will continue to have deniers: human beings will always have motives to deny evidence. The burden is on society to find ways to draw the line at some point. We cannot silence minoritarian views - that would be horribly bad. But we can certainly disallow them from mudding waters and prevent us from taking rational actions.
Tommaso Dorigo is an experimental particle physicist who works for the INFN at the University of Padova, and collaborates with the CMS experiment at the CERN LHC. He coordinates the European network AMVA4NewPhysics as well as research in accelerator-based physics for INFN-Padova, and is an editor of the journal Reviews in Physics. In 2016 Dorigo published the book “Anomaly! Collider physics and the quest for new phenomena at Fermilab”. You can get a copy of the book on Amazon.
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