Who built Physics?

Who built physics? The answer to this question given by theoretical physicist Prof. Alessandro Strumia in a recent presentation at CERN is men. Men built physics. 

In a sense Strumia is correct, but not for the reasons he presented. Strumia tried to suggest the dominance of men in the discipline is due to innate differences which make them better equipped to meet the intellectual demands of the subject. His argument depended on cherry-picking the data and ignoring the historical or sociological contexts in which physics has developed and which have conferred long-standing advantages on male physicists. 

Fortunately others have been quick to point out the deficiencies of Strumia’s case. In a short twitter thread Prof David Smith (University of York) has provided a handy summary of the evidence that counters Strumia’s polemic:

Our own Dr Jess Wade, who presented a more rigorous take on gender imbalances in physics at the same CERN meeting, has responded in typically robust fashion. A large swathe of the particle physics community has also weighed in both to express their anger at Strumia’s ill-conceived remarks and to bat away his claims with yet more evidence. The funniest skewering of Strumia came from physicist Jon Butterworth who cast the incident as CERN’s latest particle discovery:

“The Strumion. A very small particle which interacts by misleading conference organisers and insulting its audience based on shabby analysis of cherry-picked data?”

Perhaps Strumia is an outlier – one of those temporary blips that appears in the noise of atom-smashing experiments (that he himself is so keen on analysing) but vanishes once sufficient data have been gathered to generate a decent signal-to-noise ratio? Perhaps. But the episode is a reminder that the case for gender equality in STEM, however well grounded, keeps needing to be remade – by men and women.

If you’re interested in equipping yourself to make that case – should an Alessandrio Strumia one day cross your path – you could do worse that start with Angela Saini’s book, Inferior, a cool and balanced look at how scientists like Strumia have been getting women wrong all these years.



4 comments for “Who built Physics?

  1. From the information referenced in your blog post, including the twitter feed of Professor Smith (a chemist), the slides of Dr. Wade (a physicist), and the book by Angela Saini (a journalist), are we to conclude that the lack of women in STEM, and in particular physics, has no biological basis whatsoever, neither in terms of differences in distributions of ability/intelligence (IQ, exam scores etc.), nor in terms of differences in distributions of interest/preference (STEM vs. non-STEM) between the sexes? From your blog post it appears that the scientific community have reached clear consensus about this, hence the title of slide 5 of Dr. Wade’s presentation: “this has NO biological origin” (which I may have misunderstood). As you are a biologist and Provost for Equality at a world-leading science university you appear to be uniquely positioned to interpret the science (the biology of equality so to speak), and i’m sure there are many non-experts like myself who would be grateful to know definitively what the position of the scientific community is.

    Assuming the scientific community has reached consensus that sex differences in STEM have nothing to do with biology, are we to conclude that the lack of women in in STEM is purely down to historical discrimination and ongoing bias (conscious or unconscious) against women and girls at universities and in schools? In the particular case of physics, when compared to say medicine or biology (which I assume are less imbalanced), is the imbalance simply because the entire field of physics has “an institutionally sexist, macho, competitive culture” as stated by Professor Smith in his twitter feed? Clearly this is deeply concerning if this is true.

    Regarding the public mockery and belittling of Professor Strumia (including the paragraph in your blog beginning “The funniest skewering of Strumia”), do you think it is appropriate for an online group of angry (as you point out) scientists, including eminent scientists and institutional leaders such as yourself, to publicly mock and belittle (one could say bully?) people, including fellow scientists and academics like Professor Strumia, just because because they disagree with their ideas? Regardless of the way Professor Strumia has behaved, is belittling him setting the right example to other scientists, students, and the general public?

    Wouldn’t it be better not to attack Professor Strumia personally (regardless of his personal attacks on others) but to comprehensively dismantle every single one of his ideas with concrete scientific argument and overwhelming scientific evidence? As a scientist, surely Professor Strumia could be convinced of the invalidity of his ideas given sufficient scientific arguments and evidence? Just because his ideas may be wrong does this mean he should be discounted as a scientist, as a physicist, or as a human being?

    Rather than angry online groups of scientists weighing in “to express their anger” by mocking, belittling and thereby isolating Professor Strumia, should the scientific community not be inviting him to give his talk to large groups of scientists, such as those at Imperial College, in order that his arguments might be dismantled just as publicly as he chose to make them in the first place? I believe a lot of people would be interested to attend a talk by Professor Strumia on gender equality in physics with an audience of experts in the field (i.e. professional scientists who study sex differences in STEM) and an extensive Q&A.

    I think it would be incredibly beneficial for expert scientific leaders like yourself to explain to the public why what Professor Strumia has said is wrong from a purely scientific perspective, as opposed to a moral one, and to refute the science behind such ideas as publicly as possible. This would equip everyone, including scientists, students and the public, with the scientific facts they need to rapidly dismantle arguments such as those of Professor Strumia should they come across them in the scientific workplace or anywhere else in STEM.

    1. Thanks for your comment Simone but you are incorrect in characterising the response to Prof Strumia being primarily concerned with belittling or mocking him. Yes, Prof Butterworth might have had a little satirical fun at his expense (which is called free speech, by the way), but he did also point to deficiencies in his argument. His post, this one, Prof Smith’s Twitter thread and all other responses that I have seen have in fact been dominated by reference to the very large body of evidence that counter Strumia’s selective and superficial argument. All of this information is in the public domain so your request for a scientific explanation has already been met.

      1. Thanks Stephen. I did not characterize the response as being *primarily* concerned with mocking or belittling Prof. Strumia, I merely pointed out that your response, along with that of a large group of other angry (as you said) scientists, did, in fact, mock and belittle Prof. Strumia.

        Equally I did not ask whether or not this was legal (obviously it is “free speech”, as are many things that spew from, e.g., Donald Trump) but I asked whether or not you thought it was *appropriate*.

        To you, and many others in the angry group, it may seem like “a little satirical fun at his expense” but I wonder if this is how Prof. Strumia views the reaction of the scientific community? My point is that Prof. Strumia may know nothing about biology, but I believe he is still a particle physicist and an academic. My suggestion is that mocking him achieves nothing except perhaps some short-term self-satisfaction on the part of those doing the mocking, but that destroying his ideas with scientific reason *might actually get him to change his mind*. Wouldn’t it be better to have even a slim chance of getting the Prof. Strumias of this world to reconsider their ideas, as opposed to leaving them in isolation to continue to emit their bad science to anyone who will listen?

        I think if you revisit my initial reply you’ll see my first and main question was related to your comments and the information that you referenced from several non-biologists (a physicist, a chemist and a journalist), which gives the impression that biological differences in distributions of ability and interest can be entirely ruled out as contributing to imbalances in participation in STEM (in line with Dr. Wade’s slide entitled “this has NO biological origin”). Hence why I am asking you, as a biologist, for a clear answer.

        So, just to reiterate my two main questions for you:

        1 – Can biological causes, i.e. differences in distributions of ability and interest, be entirely ruled out as contributing to imbalances in participation of women in STEM?

        2 – Do you think it is appropriate for an angry group of scientists, including institutional leaders such as yourself, to publicly mock and belittle fellow scientists and academics like Prof. Strumia, simply because because they disagree with their ideas?

        Again, thank you for taking the time to discuss topics like this. If you are short on time please feel free to answer the two questions above with either “yes” or “no” : ) .

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