Science As We Know It Is Dying — And So Is Academic Freedom

  • Date: 08/09/18
  • Theodore P. Hill, Quilette

Half his board, he explained unhappily, had told him that unless he pulled the article, they would all resign and “harass the journal” he had founded 25 years earlier “until it died.” Faced with the loss of his own scientific legacy, he had capitulated.

 

 

In the highly controversial area of human intelligence, the ‘Greater Male Variability Hypothesis’ (GMVH) asserts that there are more idiots and more geniuses among men than among women. Darwin’s research on evolution in the nineteenth century found that, although there are many exceptions for specific traits and species, there is generally more variability in males than in females of the same species throughout the animal kingdom.

Evidence for this hypothesis is fairly robust and has been reported in species ranging from adders and sockeye salmon to wasps and orangutans, as well as humans. Multiple studies have found that boys and men are over-represented at both the high and low ends of the distributions in categories ranging from birth weight and brain structures and 60-meter dash times to reading and mathematics test scores. There are significantly more men than women, for example, among Nobel laureates, music composers, and chess champions—and also among homeless people, suicide victims, and federal prison inmates.

Darwin had also raised the question of why males in many species might have evolved to be more variable than females, and when I learned that the answer to his question remained elusive, I set out to look for a scientific explanation. My aim was not to prove or disprove that the hypothesis applies to human intelligence or to any other specific traits or species, but simply to discover a logical reason that could help explain how gender differences in variability might naturally arise in the same species.

I came up with a simple intuitive mathematical argument based on biological and evolutionary principles and enlisted Sergei Tabachnikov, a Professor of Mathematics at Pennsylvania State University, to help me flesh out the model. When I posted a preprint on the open-access mathematics archives in May of last year, a variability researcher at Durham University in the UK got in touch by email. He described our joint paper as “an excellent summary of the research to date in this field,” adding that “it certainly underpins my earlier work on impulsivity, aggression and general evolutionary theory and it is nice to see an actual theoretical model that can be drawn upon in discussion (which I think the literature, particularly in education, has lacked to date). I think this is a welcome addition to the field.”

So far, so good.

Once we had written up our findings, Sergei and I decided to try for publication in the Mathematical Intelligencer, the ‘Viewpoint’ section of which specifically welcomes articles on contentious topics. The Intelligencer’s editor-in-chief is Marjorie Wikler Senechal, Professor Emerita of Mathematics and the History of Science at Smith College. She liked our draft, and declared herself to be untroubled by the prospect of controversy. “In principle,” she told Sergei in an email, “I am happy to stir up controversy and few topics generate more than this one. After the Middlebury fracas, in which none of the protestors had read the book they were protesting, we could make a real contribution here by insisting that all views be heard, and providing links to them.”

Professor Senechal suggested that we might enliven our paper by mentioning Harvard President Larry Summers, who was swiftly defenestrated in 2005 for saying that the GMVH might be a contributing factor to the dearth of women in physics and mathematics departments at top universities. With her editorial guidance, our paper underwent several further revisions until, on April 3, 2017, our manuscript was officially accepted for publication. The paper was typeset in India, and proofread by an assistant editor who is also a mathematics professor in Kansas. It was scheduled to appear in the international journal’s first issue of 2018, with an acknowledgement of funding support to my co-author from the National Science Foundation. All normal academic procedure.

*     *     *

Coincidentally, at about the same time, anxiety about gender-parity erupted in Silicon Valley. The same anti-variability argument used to justify the sacking of President Summers resurfaced when Google engineer James Damore suggested that several innate biological factors, including gender differences in variability, might help explain gender disparities in Silicon Valley hi-tech jobs. For sending out an internal memo to that effect, he too was summarily fired.

No sooner had Sergei posted a preprint of our accepted article on his website than we began to encounter problems. On August 16, a representative of the Women In Mathematics (WIM) chapter in his department at Penn State contacted him to warn that the paper might be damaging to the aspirations of impressionable young women. “As a matter of principle,” she wrote, “I support people discussing controversial matters openly … At the same time, I think it’s good to be aware of the effects.” While she was obviously able to debate the merits of our paper, she worried that other, presumably less sophisticated, readers “will just see someone wielding the authority of mathematics to support a very controversial, and potentially sexist, set of ideas…”

A few days later, she again contacted Sergei on behalf of WIM and invited him to attend a lunch that had been organized for a “frank and open discussion” about our paper. He would be allowed 15 minutes to describe and explain our results, and this short presentation would be followed by readings of prepared statements by WIM members and then an open discussion. “We promise to be friendly,” she announced, “but you should know in advance that many (most?) of us have strong disagreements with what you did.”

On September 4, Sergei sent me a weary email. “The scandal at our department,” he wrote, “shows no signs of receding.” At a faculty meeting the week before, the Department Head had explained that sometimes values such as academic freedom and free speech come into conflict with other values to which Penn State was committed. A female colleague had then instructed Sergei that he needed to admit and fight bias, adding that the belief that “women have a lesser chance to succeed in mathematics at the very top end is bias.” Sergei said he had spent “endless hours” talking to people who explained that the paper was “bad and harmful” and tried to convince him to “withdraw my name to restore peace at the department and to avoid losing whatever political capital I may still have.” Ominously, “analogies with scientific racism were made by some; I am afraid, we are likely to hear more of it in the future.”

The following day, I wrote to the three organisers of the WIM lunch and offered to address any concrete concerns they might have with our logic or conclusions or any other content. I explained that, since I was the paper’s lead author, it was not fair that my colleague should be expected to take all the heat for our findings. I added that it would still be possible to revise our article before publication. I never received a response.

Instead, on September 8, Sergei and I were ambushed by two unexpected developments.

First, the National Science Foundation wrote to Sergei requesting that acknowledgment of NSF funding be removed from our paper with immediate effect. I was astonished. I had never before heard of the NSF requesting removal of acknowledgement of funding for any reason. On the contrary, they are usually delighted to have public recognition of their support for science.

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