Hooray! There is no sexism and racism in physics!

This is according to Prof Alessandro Strumia of Pisa University.

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.


  1. markdowd says

    I’m pretty sure that other areas of study are even more complicated than physics. You can’t solve a hurricane by writing an equation for each particle of air and water in the storm (which itself doesn’t even have a discrete boundary from the rest of the atmosphere). The meteorologists need to discover abstract heuristics to guide them, like low/high pressure zones, air masses with different kinds of fronts bordering them, types of clouds, and many other things that I’m not going to know by just remembering my middle school education about this subject. Then they still need to know the innumerable special cases where those heuristics don’t work properly and need to be modified in special ways. And then discover the special cases that aren’t really special cases, or are even more special cases than was thought.

    The only reason physics can have its prided rigor is because they deal with spherical cows in a vacuum. That’s all well and good for discovering the base rules of reality, and I’m not trying to poo-pah that. There’s a time and a place for that. The problem is when a rogue physicist uses their experience analyzing spherical cows to try and analyze a real cow. Rigor crumbles in the face of a real system with 10 million confounding variables. An intellectually honest person will realize that they are not in their neck of the woods anymore. An arrogant fool will just insist on shoving their perfectly circular peg through reality’s Koch snowflake-shaped hole.

    I dont know if this conceit is unique to physicist. I suspect it’s something that people in all the layers of abstraction in science have to put up with from the layers below them. Biologists have to put up with chemists thinking they can disprove evolution. Psychologists have to put up with biologists thinking they understand human minds because of some other animal they know that might act a bit similar to humans maybe (like…lobsters for example). Physics is unique because it is the lowest layer of abstract, the “bare metal” to borrow a computing term. There’s nothing below them to give them the same treatment, so they never really experience it. So while I don’t think it is uniquely a conceit of physicists, they’re probably the worst about it because they can never be the victim of it. It takes self-discipline to be able to honestly reflect on yourself and admit your own ignorance. But that doesn’t get you the spotlight. Being confident, even AND ESPECIALLY when being wrong, is how you get attention.

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