Gender Mathematics

Human intelligence is one of the great mysteries that science has no quite managed to unravel. It’s not only about finding a satisfactory definition of intelligence, but how to grade it. We know we’re before someone intelligent but often cannot explain how we know, because intelligence is a set of traits which are not easy to categorize, quantify, or qualify.

What has been observed is that there is more variability among men than among women, i.e. there are more idiots and more geniuses. Scientists have named this phenomenon the Great Hypothesis of Male Variability. This is not new. Darwin already observed this more than a century ago in his study of the natural world. The father of evolutionary theory observed more variability in countless species as disparate as turkeys, salmon, wasps or primates.

Our species also has this peculiarity. Males are overrepresented at the extremes of the chart when categorizing variables such as intelligence, weight at birth, or aptitude tests like reading or mathematics. In the real world this means that there are more Nobel prize winners among men, and also more assassins.

The data is available for whoever is interested. Since the Nobel price began around 1901, it has been awarded a total of 896 times. Only 49 have been awarded to women, 5,4%. Of those 49, 31 belong to the categories of Literature, Peace, and Economics. These are the more political Nobel prices, whose merits are not so easily measurable as for specific objectives in chemistry, physics, or mathematics.

One could consider this large difference to be due to women not having the same access to higher education, but this is not entirely correct, especially since the 2nd half of the XX century in first world countries, who are the receivers of 98% of the awards since the establishment of the Nobel prize.

We find similar figures if we observe the prison population. In 2017 there were 58.814 inmates in Spain, of which 54.449 were men and 4.365 were women, i.e. 8%. There are similar percentages in United States, Germany or France.

Nothing unusual until now. We know there are more male inmates and Nobel prize winners. What scientists are wondering is why this is the case. Theodore Hill, a respected mathematician of the Georgia Institute of Technology began to investigate this subject some time ago together with Sergei Tabachnikov, Mathematics profesor at the State University of Pennsylvania. They produced a mathematical argument to explain this, based on biological and evolutionary principles.

Hill and Tabachnikov considered publishing their conclusions as a scientific paper in the magazine Mathematical Intelligencer, in a section called “Points of View”, often used for controversial topics open to debate. The paper was finally accepted for publication in April 2017, after going through several revisions.

This is a perfectly normal approach, and in fact typical for academic work and scientific publications. They were so sure about their approach that Tabachnikov even posted an extract on his web site to serve as a teaser, while they waited for the official publication at the end of the year.

That’s when the drama started. The association Women in Mathematics, of the University of Pennsylvania, took issue with Tabachnikov and accused him of supporting “a set of controversial and potentially sexist ideas”. Then the issue escalated, with emails and complaints flying around. And as the final drop, the National Science Foundation (NSF) asked the authors to have its name removed from the acknowledgements section in the scientific paper.

Apparently, the president of the association Women in Mathematics had written a letter to the NSF accusing the authors of “promoting pseudoscientific ideas”. That same day, the editor in chief of the Mathematical Intelligencer, Marjorie Wikler Senechal, informed the authors that she was pulling the article from publication despite having approved it, and after all necessary procedures had been completed one and a half years earlier. The reasoning behind her decision was that several colleagues had advised her that the publication would “provoke extremely strong reactions”.

The authors were initially offered a round table to debate the topic, but the witch hunt against Hill and Tabachnikov reached such a fever pitch within the mathematics community that it ended up as a campaign on Facebook against the authors. Something simply unbelievable in the aseptic and orderly world of mathematics.

Hill, already retired and without fear to loose his job, finally published the article on August 28th 2018. It is only signed by him. Tabachnikov is no longer listed as an author for obvious reasons. The article is stored as a PDF file in the Mathematics Archive which can be found here

A surreal story like this one deserves it’s own TV documentary, but instead has gone unnoticed. It is not the first time, and it won’t be the last time, it is simply one more time. American academia has to deal with this. Researchers keep their head down as they travel their path, hopping that the mob will not take notice of them.

Political correctness has already played havoc with journalism and the humanities. Now it’s reaching for areas where, rather than opinions, appropriately argumented scientific thesis are presented. Hill and Tabachnikov’s study, which I will not go into because I lack the mathematical knowledge to understand it, is not intended to be an absolute truth. It was merely a scientific hypothesis, presented according to the accepted methodology in science. There is nothing censurable, and if the conclusions are wrong, the mathematics community can disprove them using the same scientific approach.

But this is not what has happened. The topic was politicised by female professors because they disliked the extract they read before the paper was published. Instead of waiting and disproving it academically, they used pure agitprop and thug-like techniques such as threatening the NSF (who is very generous with research grants) and the magazine Mathematical Intelligencer.

Ultimately, they turned an academic topic into a political one. They have not prevented its publication because of the vastness of the Internet. In fact, it will reach many more this way than if would have in a journal for mathematicians, so the warning is there.

Those following in the footsteps of Hill now know what they are up to. They know that there are scientific “no-go zones”, areas that are banned and in which you tread at your own peril. Hill is a retired 75 year old emeritus professor. Tabachnikov is a younger Russian mathematician that emigrated to the United States, and who still depends on the University to pay his bills. This is the warning. Whoever questions established dogmas will first face problems, followed by professional and civil death.

They no longer try to minimize the debate, but to quash it completely. They have managed in the media, where dissidents pay a very steep price, and now they’re after academia. Something very important is perishing when intimidation and censorship come from the very institutions that should promote research and debate.

*Traducción de Alex Martínez

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