Strumia On Gender At Cern – Anathematising Heretics Is Religion, Not Science


An Italian professor, Alessandro Strumia, has upset large numbers of people by attempting to put forward a scientific explanation for gender outcomes in physics. Or, if you prefer, attempting to deny that there is gender discrimination against women in the field of physics. That latter perhaps, being what has caused the furore. For we all do know that there is gender discirmination in every field, don’t we?

That science is supposed to be about the examination of generally held beliefs is what has gone missing here. Strumia could well be wrong – he’s most definitely right in a couple of data points at least even as it’s entirely possible that his conclusion is wrong – but this is indeed what science is supposed to be about. He puts forward a couple of hypotheses, attempts to marshal the evidence so as to be able to decide between them. This is actually the scientific method. For this it looks like he’s been fired – at least from any further cooperation with Cern:

CERN suspends Italian physicist over remarks seen as sexist
The University of Pisa and the European Research Council also said that they are opening investigations into Alessandro Strumia’s conduct.

His remarks were sexist? Well, what are we to do if it’s the universe which is? No, that’s not a statement that the universe is sexist – it’s an insistence that science is the way that we attempt to find out these things. And if we’re not allowed to use the scientific method to examine such things then we’re never going to know, are we?

At a workshop organized by CERN, Prof Alessandro Strumia of Pisa University said that “physics was invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation”,

Well, that’s true enough. Whether it should have been true – whether that historic discrimination against women should have happened – is a very different question. What we’d really like to know about physics – about any- and every- thing in fact – is whether it was solely that direct discrimination against women. Only then can we start to think through whether the lack of equal representation in the field is a result of continuing discrimination or down to some other cause. This is, you know, scientific logic.

An Italian scientist has been suspended by one of the world’s leading leading nuclear research centres after he gave a presentation saying “physics was invented and built by men”.

CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, said on Monday it was shocked by the “highly offensive” comments made by Professor Alessandro Strumia from Pisa University at a conference.

Again, you can look at what he actually said to see what was so offensive. It does rather read to us like this:

In a copy of Strumia’s presentation seen by Motherboard, Strumia frames his presentation as an effort to get to the bottom of the “mainstream” and “conservative” positions about gender equality in physics and science more generally. Strumia framed his presentation as an attempt to “use data to see what is right.”

What else is a scientist supposed to be doing?

Strumia is definitively correct on a couple of data points. Greater male variability is simply true. As is the vastly greater injury and death rate among men at work. Whether he’s right in his conclusion, well, evidence, hypothesis and all that, scientific method, no?

And do note how that science part is supposed to work. It is not true, not at all, that you must come up with the right answer. Rather, you’ve got to use the right methods to get to whatever answer you do reach. If your answer is consistent with the evidence available then it’s fine, right by these standards even. If your answer is inconsistent with even a part of the evidence then it’s wrong. It is the method which is science, not the result.

About which Cern itself says:

Updated on 1 October 2018

From 26 to 28 September, CERN hosted the first workshop on High Energy Theory and Gender focusing on recent developments in theoretical high-energy physics and cosmology, and discussed issues of gender and equal opportunities in the field.

It is unfortunate that one of the 38 presentations, by a scientist from one of the collaborating universities, risks overshadowing the important message and achievements of the event.

CERN, like many members of the community, considers that the presentation, with its attacks on individuals, was unacceptable in any professional context and was contrary to the CERN Code of Conduct. It, therefore, decided to remove the slides from the online repository.

On Monday, 1 October, CERN suspended the scientist from any activity at CERN with immediate effect, pending investigation into last week’s event.

CERN is a culturally diverse organisation bringing together people of many different nationalities. It is a place where everyone is welcome, and all have the same opportunities, regardless of ethnicity, beliefs, gender or sexual orientation. Indeed, diversity is one of the core values underpinning our Code of Conduct and the Organization is fully committed to promoting diversity and equality at all levels.

CERN always strives to carry out its scientific mission in a peaceful and inclusive environment.

Strumia might be wrong, he might be right. But note what is being said there. He’s being inconvenient in what he says therefore out with him. And an important note about what has gone wrong with the world so often in the past. Anathematising the heretic is religion, not science.

A final note. One particular complaint is that these remarks, this presentation, were given to an audience which included many young women either thinking of or starting careers in high energy physics. To deny gender discrimination to such is – well, it’s that heresy apparently. At which point another heretical thought. Are we really certain that today’s strong and independent young women looking for careers in science cannot use the scientific method to evaluate claims being made in front of them? For if we are then we’ve something of a problem, don’t we?