If you have not followed the story from the beginning, I suppose you can read about it in many online sources (j.f.Google it); if you care for an advice, a probably incomplete and personal, yet insightful, account of it is provided in a long blog post I published here. In a nutshell, Strumia delivered a talk where he attempted to show, with a faulty analysis of bibliometric data, that women were not discriminated against in physics, and actually that the opposite was true. But Strumia's fault laid not so much in his biased and shallow interpretation of the data; rather, he allowed his presumptuousness to take over, and let go with sexist comments and even personal attacks on colleagues who had, in his view, discriminated against himself during a academic selection (where a female colleague had been preferred to him).
I must say I feel sorry at a human level for this outcome. In general, I am viscerally opposed to holding people accountable for expressing opinions, as flippant those are; also, I think Science loses if we do less of it, for whatever reason. But on the other hand, some strong reaction is required. We have to very seriously fight against attempts like Strumia's to justify or even deny the existence of a very nocuous situation, one which requires our attention and active measures. Gender bias in academia - especially in STEM - is not only a fact; it is a hateful situation, and ultimately a hindrance to our progress as a species. Let us fight the denial of gender discrimination, as we do with the one of human-made global warming skeptics.
If you think I am going to justify the above statements in the rest of this article, think better. I like to think that the vast majority of my readers are too intelligent to doubt about them. Rather, I will comment on the human factor of a very intelligent, accomplished person, and esteemed scientist who won a prestigious ERC advanced grant from the European Commission, who can't restrain himself: for Strumia, from his own admission, knew exceedingly well, with wide advance, that hell would break loose if he delivered that talk as he ultimately did. Why did he do so, then ? A narcissistic loss of control ? A self-destruction attempt ?
In a YouTube interview you can hear him explain that he did deliver the talk because he felt he had to speak the truth (his truth). I did not re-check the interview today, and I do not wish to go back to quote him verbatim; rather, I prefer to loosely report what I recall of his reason for that decision was. It does not matter much to me if I am reporting it imprecisely now, because I was not convinced by it anyway.
What I think did push Strumia to give that CERN talk was a mixture of two things. The obvious one, as I already mentioned, was a bout of presumptuousness. But there is another one, more interesting to me. It is a character trait very common in physicists: the absolute trust in the conclusions of one's own data analysis, when the latter is actually inconsciously forged such that it yields a result the individual ardently desires. I liken Strumia to one of the many experimentalists -many of them as intelligent as he undoubtedly is- who got enamoured with a feature of the data, which they oh so much wished was the first glimpse of a new discovery, and who fell in the trap of following all the leads that confirmed their wish, and discarding as inconclusive or suspicious all those that did not support it.
Anomalies are born that way. Most of the tentative signals of new particles, new phenomena, astonishing departures from known and accepted theory; most of the effects that, if confirmed, would have won a ticket to Stockholm and a Nobel prize, at their roots had a firm conviction of the analyzer. Of course, the conspiring initial oddity of a set of data is required: some fluctuation, or a feature that is overlooked or ill-modeled. Yet once the anomaly-inflating machinery is set in motion, there is no stopping it. I have observed (and I wrote a book about) this phenomenon in various instances, and I do believe Alessandro Strumia fell prey of his own biases in a similar fashion, putting together an analysis whose final resulsts were in such support of his beliefs that he simply could not bring himself to keep quiet about it.
I do hope Alessandro will not bear a grudge against me for speaking my mind about his story here - as I said, I do feel sorry about the damage he has taken. But I really disagree with his convictions, so the next time we meet at a conference we'll have to speak about something else.
- Alessandro Strumia, The Mansplainer
- Gender Ideology In Science: The New Dogma And The New Witch Hunt
- Stuff Worth Reading: Collider Asymmetries, Dark Photons, And Warp Drives
- Liberal Bias In Academia?
- Alessandro Strumia VS Brain Scan Data. Studies of Transgender Brains Incidentally Tested His Hypothesis This Year.