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3 October 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:35pm

Defending the sexist Cern lecture? You’re endorsing bad science, not freedom of speech

A disgruntled professor has claimed that science is not sexist – but that “physics was invented by men and is not by invitation”.

By Jess Wade and Maryam Zaringhalam

During a recent workshop about Gender and High Energy Physics at Cern, the European nuclear research centre, a disgruntled professor delivered a 30 minute lecture outlining his opinions on equality. In that talk, and in the countless interviews after, he claims that science is not sexist – that “physics was invented by men and is not by invitation”.

Cherry-picking data to justify injustice is unacceptable in any venue, but to use pseudoscience to legitimise sexism at scientific meetings is an insult to the field. 

Not only did the presentation alienate the audience, mainly women at the start of their careers, by implying that they were the product of affirmative action – a policy which is by no means commonplace in the scientific research – he also undermined the integrity of an international collaboration that has benefited immensely from diversity. The meeting – which was supposed to provide an opportunity to discuss the challenges and opportunities that women might face throughout their academic career – has been overshadowed by his unsubstantiated opinions that the very same women in the room might not belong there.

Scientific meetings impart an air of legitimacy on those invited to present at them. But there was nothing legitimate about these remarks, which flew in the face of evidence and showed a disregard for social science research on factors contributing to women’s underrepresentation in the sciences.

The presentation used citations to evaluate men and women’s contributions to science, but it has recently been noted by Nature, IOP Publishing and eLife that citations are not a good metric to measure scientific success. Peer review in academic publishing is usually single-side blind, meaning that the reviewers know the name and institution of the authors, but not the other way round. More men than women are invited to peer review, while papers with women corresponding authors get accepted less (the corresponding author is generally held to be the more senior scientist involved). For these papers to be cited, scientists need to read them. Here, again, the process is biased in favour of men, who are not only more likely to cite other men but cite themselves 56 per cent more often than women do.

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Furthermore, scientists should know better than to draw convenient conclusions in a vacuum ignorant of broader social context. Women were only able to graduate from the majority of universities in the past century and are still underrepresented in the physical sciences due to lazy stereotypes that are based on no biological facts. In fact, a recent meta study of over 1.6 million different academic grades found that there was little difference in boys and girls’ ability in maths and science. Whilst there is more variability in men than women across all subjects (i.e. more variability among the highest and lowest performers), the distribution of grades in the sciences are very similar, with girls outperforming boys.

The professor went on to celebrate some of the men whose opinions have been thoroughly discredited: from Larry Summers, who was fired from Harvard for saying that biological differences between men and women resulted in women being worse at maths, to James Damore, whose ten-page manifesto against women in technology resulted in him being fired from Google. Their fall from grace was not the work of political correctness; it was out of respect for scientific rigour – an understanding of the limits of evidence and the responsibility of scientists to abstain from conclusions tainted with prejudice.

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It is unsettling that, according to Cern, the professor kept conference organisers in the dark about the contents of his presentation and made these remarks to a room full of early career researchers without fear of repercussion. But his actions are based on a disturbing fact pattern: men throughout the history of science have been allowed to make such assertions without suffering personal consequences. That lack of accountability must end, not only for the sake of the scientists in the room, but also for those who have been systematically excluded. These opinions are not only damaging for women working in science today, but for the generation of scientists that he trains and supervises. Scientific research is a privilege, and we all have a responsibility to make it a possibility for all who are interested. Cern responded quickly and have already suspended him pending an investigation; but a wave of conservative thinkers have rushed to his defence.

Shutting down discriminatory arguments rooted in bad science is not the equivalent of condemning free speech. Rather, conference organisers and scientific institutions should aspire to and fulfill a higher standard of rigour – one that serves science and those who hope to do it.

Dr Jess Wade is a prizewinning British physicist and a researcher at Imperial College London. Dr Maryam Zaringhalam is a biologist and a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who serves on the leadership team for 500 Women Scientists.