WHATEVER MAY BE THE LIMITATIONS WHICH TRAMMEL INQUIRY ELSEWHERE, WE BELIEVE THAT THE GREAT STATE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN SHOULD EVER ENCOURAGE THAT CONTINUAL AND FEARLESS SIFTING AND WINNOWING BY WHICH ALONE THE TRUTH CAN BE FOUND.These days, though, the limitations are internal, and the trammelling is for fear of offending noisy people whose priors are tight. “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been committed for fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.” In the strange world of today's academy, though, the courage is in illustrating your trendy bona fides.
Today's excursion into strangeness starts with what appears to be straightforward enough: a mathematical model of greater variability in personality traits in one sex of a species compared to the other.
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.Then their troubles began. You'd think people who work in higher education would understand the distinction between a positive theory ... an explanation, subject to further investigation, of why a phenomenon is present ... and a normative conclusion, here the error would be interpreting the model as prescribing that this is the Way Things Ought To Be.
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.”
But perhaps people who work in the higher education disciplines that are short on intellectual rigor and long on polemic say more than they intend to about the students who choose those disciplines.
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…”In that story alone there's plenty to chew on. Consider that "other, presumably less sophisticated, readers." What is it about the Grievance Studies types that they have to condescend? And promising to be friendly? Come into my office, Joseph K., for a short chat.
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.”
Meanwhile, new evidence is being manufactured with a troubling result.
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.I wan't aware that Charles Darwin is now "pseudoscience" or that "right-wing media" had suddenly acquired a capacity for intellectual inquiry the usual suspects in higher education more commonly doubt even exists.
The ostensible reason for this request was that our paper was unrelated to Sergei’s funded proposal. However, a Freedom of Information request subsequently revealed that Penn State WIM administrator Diane Henderson (“Professor and Chair of the Climate and Diversity Committee”) and Nate Brown (“Professor and Associate Head for Diversity and Equity”) had secretly co-signed a letter to the NSF that same morning. “Our concern,” they explained, “is that [this] paper appears to promote pseudoscientific ideas that are detrimental to the advancement of women in science, and at odds with the values of the NSF.” Unaware of this at the time, and eager to err on the side of compromise, Sergei and I agreed to remove the acknowledgement as requested. At least, we thought, the paper was still on track to be published.
But, that same day, the Mathematical Intelligencer’s editor-in-chief Marjorie Senechal notified us that, with “deep regret,” she was rescinding her previous acceptance of our paper. “Several colleagues,” she wrote, had warned her that publication would provoke “extremely strong reactions” and there existed a “very real possibility that the right-wing media may pick this up and hype it internationally.” For the second time in a single day I was left flabbergasted. Working mathematicians are usually thrilled if even five people in the world read our latest article. Now some progressive faction was worried that a fairly straightforward logical argument about male variability might encourage the conservative press to actually read and cite a science paper?
It gets better. Lead author Ted Hill finds another outlet for the paper, at least until higher education's version of the creepy pornstar lawyers go to work.
Igor Rivin, an editor at the widely respected online research journal, the New York Journal of Mathematics, got in touch with me. He had learned about the article from my erstwhile co-author, read the archived version, and asked me if I’d like to submit a newly revised draft for publication. Rivin said that Mark Steinberger, the NYJM’s editor-in-chief, was also very positive and that they were confident the paper could be refereed fairly quickly. I duly submitted a new draft (this time as the sole author) and, after a very positive referee’s report and a handful of supervised revisions, Steinberger wrote to confirm publication on November 6, 2017. Relieved that the ordeal was finally over, I forwarded the link to interested colleagues.Let's see if I understand this. It's possible to harass a politician in a restaurant. How does one harass a journal? Does anybody outside higher education even know where the discussion boards are, or the academic affiliations of the editorial board (it looks good on the c.v., but in practice it simply means "field specialist we go to for a lot of refereeing.") And all because of family connections? If academicians knew how to use luparas could they give the Outfit a run for the numbers racket?
Three days later, however, the paper had vanished. And a few days after that, a completely different paper by different authors appeared at exactly the same page of the same volume (NYJM Volume 23, p 1641+) where mine had once been. As it turned out, Amie Wilkinson is married to Benson Farb, a member of the NYJM editorial board. Upon discovering that the journal had published my paper, Professor Farb had written a furious email to Steinberger demanding that it be deleted at once. “Rivin,” he complained, “is well-known as a person with extremist views who likes to pick fights with people via inflammatory statements.” Farb’s “father-in law…a famous statistician,” he went on, had “already poked many holes in the ridiculous paper.” My paper was “politically charged” and “pseudoscience” and “a piece of crap” and, by encouraging the NYJM to accept it, Rivin had “violat[ed] a scientific duty for purely political ends.”
Unaware of any of this, I wrote to Steinberger on November 14, to find out what had happened. I pointed out that if the deletion were permanent, it would leave me in an impossible position. I would not be able to republish anywhere else because I would be unable to sign a copyright form declaring that it had not already been published elsewhere. Steinberger replied later that day. 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. “A publication in a dead journal,” he offered, “wouldn’t help you.”
But even a recitation of Professor Hill's past service to the Cause doesn't save him.
I understand the importance of the causes that equal opportunity activists and progressive academics are ostensibly championing. But pursuit of greater fairness and equality cannot be allowed to interfere with dispassionate academic study. No matter how unwelcome the implications of a logical argument may be, it must be allowed to stand or fall on its merits not its desirability or political utility. First Harvard, then Google, and now the editors-in-chief of two esteemed scientific journals, the National Science Foundation, and the international publisher Springer have all surrendered to demands from the radical academic Left to suppress a controversial idea. Who will be the next, and for what perceived transgression? If bullying and censorship are now to be re-described as ‘advocacy’ and ‘academic freedom,’ as the Chicago administrators would have it, they will simply replace empiricism and rational discourse as the academic instruments of choice.Empiricism and rational discourse are coherent beliefs. Coherent beliefs are dead.
Educators must practice what we preach and lead by example. In this way, we can help to foster intellectual curiosity and the discovery of fresh reasoning so compelling that it causes even the most sceptical to change their minds. But this necessarily requires us to reject censorship and open ourselves to the civil discussion of sensitive topics such as gender differences, and the variability hypothesis in particular.
The paper is available here. Understanding of double-exponential (Laplace) distributions is helpful.
Volokh Conspirator David E. Bernstein notes, "It seems to me that an appropriate response of the bullying described in the story is to get the paper as wide a circulation as possible, and create a Streisand effect." I'm in!
Reason's Robby Soave summarizes.
I can respect the University of Chicago's position, and I would not want the administration to punish a professor for denouncing research she finds problematic. I'm much more troubled by the actions of the journal editors, who seem to have acquiesced to activists' demands to kill a paper—not because its conclusions were faulty but because broaching the subject is forbidden. NYJM, in particular, did something rather cowardly: The journal should either stand by the material or retract it after an investigation. Opting to simply make it disappear is a terrible move.It might be more accurate to recognize that the Censorious Style in academic discourse is real.
The Intelligencer's editor was worried that publishing the paper could prompt "right-wing media" to hype it, but killing the paper in such a censorious fashion is far more likely to attract media attention—and not just from the right-wing. Neither Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker not [c.q.] Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis are members of the right, yet both criticized the academic left's attempts to bury this research. Indeed, Pinker fretted on Twitter that the left's behavior in this matter would vindicate right-wing paranoia about P.C. censorship.