Prof Strumia, who regularly works at Cern, was speaking at a workshop in Geneva on gender and high energy physics.
He told his audience of young, predominantly female physicists that his results “proved” that “physics is not sexist against women. However the truth does not matter, because it is part of a political battle coming from outside”.
When the BBC contacted Prof Strumia he said: “People say that physics is sexist, physics is racist. I made some simple checks and discovered that it wasn’t, that it was becoming sexist against men and said so.”
Last month, Prof Jocelyn Bell Burnell told the BBC she believed that unconscious bias against women prevented them from getting jobs in physics research.
And a major study published in 2012 in the US scientific journal PNAS showed that science faculty members rated identical job applications more highly when presented to them with a male name rather than a female name.
In 2015, Nobel laureate Prof Tim Hunt resigned from his position at University College London after telling an audience of young female scientists at a conference in South Korea that the “trouble with girls” in labs was that “when you criticise them, they cry”.
It is interesting how the idea that the world is now stacked against men, as expressed by Strumia saying that the world of physics is “sexist against men”, has spread so far and wide among a certain demographic. Any attempt to right a major and historic imbalance is seen by those who benefited from the status quo as an outrageous infringement on their rights. They are so steeped in the privileges that the existing system provides them that, like fish in the sea that cannot envisage what life on dry land might be like, they simply do not see any problem.
Strumia said that he had come to his conclusions after making some “simple checks” and this comment illustrates a deeper problem than that some physicist somewhere is oblivious to reality. The deeper problem is that some physicists (and more broadly people in the mathematical sciences) think that every other field other than their own is so simple that they can dive into it, do a quick analysis of some problem, and arrive at definitive conclusions. They never seem to get the message that other fields are as complicated as their own and require expert knowledge and careful analysis that their physics training may not have prepared them for.
When I started work in our university’s teaching center, I had to immerse myself in the educational literature to understand better how people learn and what constitutes good teaching practices. It was a different world, with very different techniques being used to try and disentangle many complicating and confounding factors. After I realized how difficult those problems were, I used to joke that we should replace the cliché “It is not rocket science” that is used to describe a problem that is seen as simple, with “It is not education” because the problems in rocket science are easy (in that they are well-defined and can be studied under carefully controlled conditions) compared to those in education.
Our center would organize programs to share this information with faculty but some of the biggest pushback I got was from faculty in the mathematical sciences and engineering areas who felt that that it was ‘obvious’ what good teaching practices were, which conveniently coincided with what they themselves already did. I remember one professor dismissing educational research findings that I presented that contradicted his beliefs, even though he was completely unaware of the research, by saying that he didn’t believe it because it contradicted what he felt was true. I responded by asking him what he would tell people who told him that they couldn’t be bothered to study the research on highway bridge construction because it was ‘obvious’ to them how to do it.
This kind of arrogance and contempt for areas of research that is not one’s own is unfortunately not uncommon.