Particles for Justice: Statement on a Recent Talk at CERN


Statement on a Recent Talk at CERN

The statement here is based upon widely reported events, publicly available slides, and eyewitness accounts. All authors and signatories represent themselves and not their institutions.

On Friday, September 28th, 2018, a talk was given at CERN by Alessandro Strumia, a well-known particle theorist who is a Professor of Physics at the University of Pisa and a current associate of the theory department at CERN. In this talk he argued that the primary explanation for the discrepancies between men and women in theoretical physics is that women are inherently less capable. As particle physicists, we are appalled by Strumia’s actions and his stated views on women in high energy physics.

We write here first to state, in the strongest possible terms, that the humanity of any person, regardless of ascribed identities such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, disability, gender presentation, or sexual identity is not up for debate. Physics and science are part of the shared inheritance of all people, as much as art, music, and literature, and we should strive to ensure that everyone has a fair opportunity to become a scientist. The question of discrimination based on ascribed identity is a moral one, and we write to affirm that discrimination is not a welcome feature of our field, however pervasive it may be. It is clear that our social environment disparately affects the participation of people with ascribed identities that have been traditionally marginalized, and the fields of women’s and gender studies, science and society studies, physics education research, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and Black studies have had much to say over the years about how this marginalization operates. The thin veneer of scientific rigor with which Strumia’s talk began was followed by open discrimination and personal attacks, which we condemn unconditionally.

Secondly, we write to strongly express our view that the science case presented by Strumia was fundamentally unsound. It is clear to all of us that Strumia is not an expert on these topics and is misusing his physics credentials to put himself forward as one. Furthermore, those among us who are familiar with the relevant literature know that Strumia's conclusions are in stark disagreement with those of experts. He frequently made the basic error of conflating correlation with causation, and while Strumia claimed to be proving that there is no discrimination against women, his arguments were rooted in a circumscribed, biased reading of the data available, to the point of promoting a perspective that is biased against women. The origin and validity of the data he presented have not yet been corroborated, but even if we take it at face value in all cases there are obvious alternative explanations that have been developed in the aforementioned social science disciplines that were not controlled for, and that are directly in contradiction with his conclusions. Here are some examples, in the order they appear in the presentation:

Strumia argues that the larger fraction of women in the humanities compared to the sciences is evidence against discrimination in the sciences, purportedly because the distinction between right and wrong is “less clear” in the humanities, and thus it would be easier to discriminate there if people wanted to. In addition to the academic arrogance of this argument, it makes no attempt to control for the obvious alternative that there are fewer women in the sciences because of systemic discouragement and discrimination. And indeed the presence of such discouragement and discrimination has been well-documented in many places, for example see e.g. Hodari et al. (1), Johnson et al. (2), and the recent NASEM report (3) on sexual harassment in academic sciences, engineering and medicine.

Strumia argues that since women are more well-represented in theoretical physics in countries where discrimination is more brazenly institutionalized, this shows that their low representation in physics has nothing to do with discrimination. This claim ignores cultural differences, and also the possibility that women in such countries have fewer career options outside of academia. Without controlling for such effects, any attempt to draw conclusions is meaningless.

Strumia argues that since men and women more or less cite the same papers at the same rate, men are not discriminating against women. However, choice of references is subject to unconscious bias in addition to conscious discrimination. Such unconscious bias is often found at similar levels (4) in both men and women. Even without this possible effect, the equal citation rate at most only suggests that male and female scientists are equally capable of identifying the most cited papers in their field, and as we discuss below citation count is not a substitute for quality.

Strumia argues that since the most cited papers are disproportionately by men, this gives evidence that men are intrinsically better at physics. In between intrinsic ability and citation counting however, there is the huge and complicated process of how physicists are raised, trained, hired, and perceived. Even at the professorial level, discrimination can still play an important role (such as e.g. the imbalance in telescope time awarded to female researchers (5)). Without a thorough understanding of these processes, it is impossible to conclude anything about people’s innate abilities.

Strumia complains that he personally was not hired for a position that a woman was hired for, despite having a larger number of citations than her. He even compares his citation number to that of a (female) member of the search committee for this job. This information is surely useful for understanding the psychology of why Strumia would give such a talk, but it is no indication of injustice in the hiring process. Indeed citations accrue for all kinds of reasons, some laudable and some not, and using them as a substitute for scientific quality is very problematic; any responsible hiring process will take much more into account than mere citations, especially for a management role, as in the case of the position in question. As an example of the inappropriateness of citations as a metric, almost 1/3 of Strumia's citations come from being one of thousands of authors on the CMS Higgs discovery paper, to which we can safely conclude that his contribution (as a theoretical associate in an experimental collaboration) was modest. Hundreds more citations come from papers about the statistically insignificant 750 GeV fluctuation at CERN, which disappeared with more data. As physicists, we are used to vigorous and often heated debate over ideas and theories, but the fact that Strumia took the opportunity to personally attack scientists who have been active in efforts to improve the situation for minorities and white women in physics, out of apparent jealousy that at some point they were offered jobs that he applied for, is deplorable and unacceptable.

Strumia uses as evidence for his case a claim that the number of citations for women increases more slowly than for men as their careers progress. His numbers however do not control for many factors, including social expectations that may result in women taking on more primary caregiver roles at home, or more departmental roles earlier in their careers. These in fact might fit his data better than assuming women are inferior since the decline he claims does not begin until after the postdoc level.

Strumia argues that Marie Curie's Nobel prize is evidence against discrimination. Lauding one outstanding individual does not exculpate anyone from oppressing thousands of others. Further, it should be noted that Marie Curie faced both xenophobic and sexist resistance to her work both during her research and during the process of receiving the Nobel Prize. Her success, in spite of this resistance, is heroic and admirable, and not an example of being welcomed with open arms by the community as Strumia suggests. Moreover there are at least four women whose work is relevant for particle physics who are widely viewed as having deserved the Nobel prize but who did not receive it, in some cases even though their male colleagues did: Chien-Shiung Wu, Vera Rubin, Lise Meitner, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell. While we are pleased to see Prof. Strickland's accomplishments recognized this year, a gap of 55 years since the last woman won the Nobel Prize in Physics does not suggest that women in our field face no external obstacles to success. Such well-known cases where accomplishments of women were not formally acknowledged suggest that similar omissions may be occurring at all levels, and raise another possible reason for the differential in citations discussed previously.

Strumia argues that it is actually men who experience discrimination, since they are more likely to serve in wars and be used as forced labor. While many talented people of all genders still face barriers due to war and conflict, these concerns are not part of the experience of the majority of white male physicists born and raised in Europe or North America in the current era. He also misquotes the Istanbul convention as saying that men cannot be discriminated against, when the actual text is that "special measures that are necessary to prevent and protect women from gender‐based violence shall not be considered discrimination under the terms of this Convention." (Istanbul Convention, Chapter 1, Article 4.4 (6))

Ultimately, answering questions of cause and effect is subtle and requires carefully designed studies. Mining data post facto to answer these questions is fraught with faulty conclusions based on misunderstood correlations in the data.

In addition to these scientific shortcomings, we reiterate that Strumia’s arguments are morally reprehensible. Belittling the ability and legitimacy of scientists of color and white women scientists using such flimsy pretexts is disgraceful, and it reveals a deep contempt for more than half of humanity that clearly comes from some source other than scientific logic. It will add to the obstacles that women and gender minorities, as well as men from traditionally underrepresented communities, struggle with on a daily basis. This applies especially to minoritized people over whom Strumia has a professional influence, for example through writing letters of recommendation and making hiring decisions.

Finally, we would also like to underline how grossly unethical it is to misrepresent the topic of one’s talk to workshop organizers to promote an agenda which is antithetical to the workshop itself. To personally attack one of the organizers during said talk is even worse. We hope that Strumia's professional colleagues and superiors will take all these points into careful consideration in all future decisions involving him. We also hope that the entire community has learned from this incident that speakers for workshops on gender -- or other ascribed identities -- in physics should include recognized experts, with a track record of speaking and publishing in an appropriate manner on the topic at hand, and moreover that organizers should seek guidance from such experts. In addition to other disciplines, physics and astronomy are home to many in-house experts on the sociology and philosophy of physics (e.g. (7), (8), (9), (10), (11), (12), (13), (14), (15), (16)). This moment reminds us to pay attention to their work.

We welcome signatures and support from other high energy physics researchers, physicists and astronomers outside of high energy physics, as well as academics in other disciplines. Your name and affiliation will be listed on the site below. Please submit a request here. 

Additional signatures can now be seen here

Authors (in alphabetical order)


Matthew Buckley (Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey)

Sean Carroll (California Institute of Technology)

Kyle Cranmer (New York University)

Djuna Croon (TRIUMF)

Sonia El Hedri (Ecole Polytechnique)

Daniel Harlow (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Seyda Ipek (University of California, Irvine)

David J. E. Marsh (University of Göttingen)

Sam McDermott (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory)

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (University of Washington & University of New Hampshire)

Matthew Reece (Harvard University)

Pearl Sandick (University of Utah)

Nausheen R Shah (Wayne State University)

Brian Shuve (Harvey Mudd College)

Tracy Slatyer (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Tim M.P. Tait (University of California, Irvine)

Graham White (TRIUMF)

Tien-Tien Yu (University of Oregon)

Signatories From High Energy Physics


Peter Adshead (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

Prateek Agrawal (Harvard University)

Anthony Aguirre (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Sujay K. Ashok (Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai)

Peter Athron (Monash University)

Christopher Aubin (Fordham University)

Howie Baer (University of Oklahoma)

Ibrahima Bah (Johns Hopkins University)

Michael J. Baker (University of Zurich)

Csaba Balazs (Monash University)

Karen Barad (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Jacob Barandes (Harvard University)

Gabriela Barenboim (University of Valencia)

Brian Batell (University of Pittsburgh)

Daniel Baumann (University of Amsterdam)

Matthew Baumgart (Arizona State University)

James Beacham (Duke University)

Brian Beckford (University of Michigan)

Alexander Belyaev (University of Southampton)

Joshua Berger (University of Pittsburgh)

Per Berglund (University of New Hampshire)

Claude Bernard (Washington University)

Mary Bishai (Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Jolyon Bloomfield (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Celine Boehm (University of Sydney)

Daniel Bowring (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory)

Radja Boughezal (Argonne National Laboratory)

Joseph Bramante (Queen’s University)

Robert Brandenberger (McGill University)

Helen Brooks (Monash University)

Ethan Brown (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

Patricia Burchat (Stanford University)

Robert Caldwell (Dartmouth University)

Marcela Carena (University of Chicago)

Linda M. Carpenter (The Ohio State University)

Florencia Canelli (University of Zurich)

Mu-Chun Chen (University of California, Irvine)

Yangyang Cheng (Cornell University)

Sehkar Chivukula (University of California, San Diego)

David Cinabro (Wayne State University)

Tim Cohen (University of Oregon)

John Conway (University of California, Davis)

Nathaniel Craig (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Sera Cremonini (Lehigh University)

David Curtin (University of Toronto)

Priscilla Cushman (University of Minnesota)

Mirjam Cvetic (University of Pennsylvania)

Francis-Yan Cyr-Racine (Harvard University)

Anne-Christine Davis (University of Cambridge)

Antonio Delgado (University of Notre Dame)

Eleonora Dell’Aquila (Ph.D., currently unaffiliated)

Sarah Demers (Yale University)

Carleton DeTar (University of Utah)

Will Detmold (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Pasquale Di Bari (University of Southampton)

Michael Dine (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Peter Doe (University of Washington)

Caterina Doglioni (Lund University)

Patrick Draper (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

John Ellis (Kings College London)

Stephen Ellis (University of Washington) (Emeritus)

Aida X. El-Khadra (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

Gilly Elor (University of Washington)

Netta Engelhardt (Princeton University)

Kari Enqvist (University of Helsinki)

Robin Erbacher (University of California, Davis)

Rouven Essig (The State University of New York at Stony Brook)

Jared A. Evans (University of Cincinnati)

Malcolm Fairbairn (Kings College London)

JiJi Fan (Brown University)

Glennys Farrar (New York University)

Martin Fertl (University of Washington)

Melissa Franklin (Harvard University)

Elizabeth Freeland (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago)

Katherine Freese (University of Michigan and Stockholm University)

Ayres Freitas (University of Pittsburgh)

Elina Fuchs (The Weizmann Institute of Science)

Mary K Gaillard (University of California, Berkeley)

Carlos Peña Garay (Laboratorio Subterráneo de Canfranc)

Belen Gavela (Madrid, IFT)

Howard Georgi (Harvard University)

Shohini Ghose (Wilfrid Laurier University)

Joel Giedt (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth University)

Concha Gonzalez-Garcia (The State University of New York at Stony Brook & ICREA, University of Barcelona)

Sowjanya Gollapinni (University of Tennessee, Knoxville)

Anna Goussiou (University of Washington)

Heather Gray (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

David Gross (Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics)

Howie Haber (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Tao Han (University of Pittsburgh)

Robb Harr (Wayne State University)

Roni Harnik (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory)

Anna Hasenfratz (University of Colorado)

Andrew Hearin (Argonne National Laboratory)

Blayne Heckel (University of Washington)

Beate Heinemann (Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron)

Ulrich Heintz (Brown University)

Simeon Hellerman (Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe)

Pilar Hernandez (University of Valencia)

David Hertzog (University of Washington)

Christopher Hirata (The Ohio State University)

Renée Hložek (University of Toronto)

Dan Hooper (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory)

Shih-Chieh Hsu (University of Washington)

Ciaran Hughes (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory)

Ahmed Ismail (University of Pittsburgh)

Robert L. Jaffe (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Tesla Jeltema (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Clifford V. Johnson (University of Southern California)

Chulwoo Jung (Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Shamit Kachru (Stanford University)

David Kaiser (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Peter Kammel (University of Washington)

David B. Kaplan (University of Washington)

Andreas Karch (University of Washington)

Bradley J. Kavanagh (GRAPPA, University of Amsterdam)

Cindy Keeler (Arizona State University)

Chris Kelso (University of North Florida)

Can Kilic (University of Texas at Austin)

Joachim Kopp (CERN)

Felicia Krauss (University of Amsterdam)

Graham Kribs (University of Oregon)

Andreas Kronfeld (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory)

Ursula Laa (Monash University)

Andrew Larkoski (Reed College)

Adam Keith Leibovich (University of Pittsburgh)

W. Hugh Lippincott (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory)

Tongyan Lin (University of California, San Diego)

Mariangela Lisanti (Princeton University)

Heather Logan (Carleton University)

Elena Long (University of New Hampshire)

Marilena Loverde (The State University of New York at Stony Brook)

Henry Lubatti (University of Washington)

Katherine J. Mack (North Carolina State University)

Natália Tenório Maia (University of Pittsburgh)

John March-Russell (University of Oxford)

Sera Markoff (University of Amsterdam)

David Marsh (University of Cambridge)

David Mattingly (University of New Hampshire)

Mike McCracken (Washington & Jefferson College)

Clark McGrew (State University of New York, Stony Brook)

David McKeen (TRIUMF)

Patrick Meade (The State University of New York at Stony Brook)

Samuel Meehan (University of Washington)

Olga Mena (University of Valencia)

Benjamin Monreal (Case Western Reserve University)

Michael Morgan (Monash University)

David Morrissey (TRIUMF)

Edward Moyse (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

Julián B. Munoz (Harvard University)

Simona Murgia (University of California, Irvine)

Meenakshi Narain (Brown University)

Rajamani Narayanan (Florida International University)

Priya Natarajan (Yale University)

John Negele (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Ann Nelson (University of Washington)

Samaya Nissanke (GRAPPA, University of Amsterdam)

Brian Nord (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory & University of Chicago)

Elise Novitski (University of Washington)

Peter Onyisi (University of Texas at Austin)

Hirosi Ooguri (California Institute of Technology & Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe)

Sonia Paban (University of Texas at Austin)

Diana Parno (Carnegie Mellon University)

A.W. Peet (University of Toronto)

Annika Peter (The Ohio State University)

Alexey Petrov (Wayne State University)

Hiranya Peiris (University College London)

Malcolm Perry (University of Cambridge)

Tilman Plehn (Heidelberg University)

Tomislav Prokopec (Utrecht University)

Brian Quinn (Carnegie Mellon University)

Stuart Raby (The Ohio State University)

Krishna Rajagopal (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Pierre Ramond (University of Florida)

Michael Ramsey-Musolf (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

Lisa Randall (Harvard University)

Sanjay Reddy (University of Washington)

Mary Hall Reno (University of Iowa)

Tom Rizzo (SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Martin Rocek (The State University of New York at Stony Brook)

Vincent Rodgers (University of Iowa)

Maria Rodriguez (Utah State University and Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics)

Leslie Rosenberg (University of Washington)

Carlo Rovelli (Centre de Physique Théorique de Luminy)

Tuhin S. Roy (Tata Institute)

Benjamin Safdi (University of Michigan)

Veronica Sanz (Sussex University)

Jana Schaarschmidt (University of Washington)

David Schaich (University of Bern)

Kate Scholberg (Duke University)

Pedro Schwaller (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz)

Neelima Sehgal (The State University of New York at Stony Brook)

Yael Shadmi (Technion)

Phiala Shanahan (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Jessie Shelton (University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign)

Marc Sher (The College of William and Mary)

Eva Silverstein (Stanford University)

David Simmons-Duffin (California Institute of Technology)

Peter Skands (Monash University)

E. H. Simmons (University of California, San Diego)

Kuver Sinha (University of Oklahoma)

Davison Soper (University of Oregon)

Iain Stewart (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Jim Stewart (Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Shufang Su (University of Arizona)

Yuji Tachikawa (Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe)

Flip Tanedo (University of California, Riverside)

Washington Taylor (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Jesse Thaler (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Brooks Thomas (Lafayette College)

Arbin Timilsina (Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Lauren Tompkins (Stanford University)

Doug Toussaint (University of Arizona)

Daniel Trewartha (Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility)

Yuhsin Tsai (University of Maryland)

David Tucker-Smith (Williams College)

Alexander Tuna (Harvard University)

James Unwin (University of Illinois, Chicago)

German Valencia (Monash University)

Oscar Varela (Utah State University and IFT Madrid)

Aaron Vincent (Queen’s University)

Carlos Wagner (University of Chicago & Argonne National Lab)

Scott Watson (Syracuse University)

Risa Wechsler (Stanford University)

Cedric Weiland (University of Pittsburgh)

David Weir (University of Helsinki)

Christoph Weniger (University of Amsterdam)

Amanda Weltman (University of Cape Town)

Mark Wise (California Institute of Technology)

Kevin Wood (The State University of New York at Stony Brook)

Elizabeth Worcester (Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Laurence G. Yaffe (University of Washington)

Masahito Yamazaki (Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe)

Guang Yang (The State University of New York at Stony Brook)

Hai-Bo Yu (University of California, Riverside)

Gabrijela Zaharijas (University of Nova Gorica)

Seth Zenz (Queen Mary University of London)

Yue Zhao (University of Utah)

Kathryn Zurek (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

José Zurita (Karlsruher Institut für Technologie)

Signatories From Affiliated Fields
Joshua Bloom (University of California, Berkeley)

James Botte (Carleton University)

James Bullock (University of California, Irvine)

Alison Coil (University of California, San Diego)

Douglas Finkbeiner (Harvard University)

Bryan Gaensler (University of Toronto)

Alson J. Gonsalves (McGill University)

Daryl Haggard (McGill University)

Daniel Mortlock (Imperial College London, Stockholm University)

Henry Ngo (NRC Herzberg Astronomy & Astrophysics)

John O’Meara (Saint Michael’s College)

J. Xavier Prochaska (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Laurie Rousseau-Nepton (Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation)

Kristine Spekkens (Royal Military College of Canada)

Michael Steinitz (St Francis Xavier University) (Emeritus)

Michael Strauss (Princeton University)

Chaokang Tai (University of Amsterdam & Utrecht University)

Vivian U (University of California, Irvine)

Lucianne Walkowicz (The Adler Planetarium)

Andrew White (University of Queensland)

For Additional Signatures, See This Page