The Thing Last Week With That Sexist Paper

Once again the mathematical world is rocked with scandal. Let me get you quickly up to speed. It started when a controversial paper on the variability hypothesis was accepted to the Mathematical Intelligencer. Shortly thereafter, University of Chicago mathematics professor Amie Wilkinson sent an email to the editor in which she “criticized the scientific merits of the paper and the decision to accept it for publication.” The paper never appeared in the Mathematical Intelligencer, but did eventually turn up (one author less) in the New York Journal of Mathematics.

Without going to deeply into the details, the paper proposes mathematical models to support the variability hypothesis, which essentially says that if one gender is more selective in mating, then the opposite gender will have greater genetic variability. For us humans, it’s thought that females are more choosy with their partner since they spend more time (for reasons biological, social, historical, etc) nurturing the offspring, and consequently the males end up with more variability. This is why — allegedly — there are more men with very high and very low intelligence, and women just tend to clump around the middle. You probably remember when Larry Summers suggested something along these lines a few years ago. That landed like a ton of bricks.

And so too has this recent paper. Beyond the weird publishing bait and switch, the disappearing coauthor, and the sort of dubious job of editing and refereeing, the paper seems to be just fraught with baggage of every possible sort. First, there’s the sexist baggage that comes promoting a controversial theory in what seems like a pretty unsubstantiated way. Terry Tao wrote a short post for What’s New about the whole affair, and if you’re not convinced of the existence full-blown gloves off misogyny, go spend five minutes in his comments section. Timothy Gowers also takes a deep dive into the whole mess on his blog. Again, check out the comments over there but take a deep cleansing breath before you start.

In the meantime, Hill has published a post on Quillette giving his own blow-by-blow of the events. Not only that, but Hill has set up a public dropbox full of documentation and correspondence relevant to the episode.

Oh, the intrigue!

And even later in the week an inspired rejoinder came from Lior Pachter, a computational biologist who writes the blog Bits of DNA. He starts by really taking the math community to task saying, “imagine the hubris of mathematicians spewing incoherent theories about sexual selection when they literally don’t know anything about human genetics or evolutionary biology, and haven’t read any of the relevant scientific literature about the subject they are rambling about.” Ouch!

But Pachter has a good point. Mathematicians and biologists don’t communicate enough, despite the fact that there are so many fundamental and interesting conversations we could be having. He also goes on to make many very thoughtful points about the dangers inherent in “hijacking” the publishing process to push a personal agenda. Specifically a sexist one. The post is great, and the comments section will have you either grimacing, fist pumping or high-pitched squealing, depending on your temperament.

So the conclusion I draw based on the posts I’ve seen is that it’s a confluence bad math, bad biology, an epic fail on the part of the publishing process, and some people just need to delete their account. You disagree? You can let me know @extremefriday.

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3 Responses to The Thing Last Week With That Sexist Paper

  1. Helen G. Grundman, AMS Director of Education and Diversity says:

    Hmm, it’s not the case that the paper “disappeared from the Mathematical Intelligencer.” It was never published there. Ted Hill explained in his post that the Editor-in-Chief rescinded the acceptance, explaining that rather than publishing the paper in the Intelligencer, she proposed holding a round table discussion on the topic and that the proceedings of the round table would appear in a special edition of the Intelligencer.

    I’m not saying that this is good or bad. I just think that saying that it “disappeared” from the Intelligencer is simply incorrect.

  2. Dan Asimov says:

    “This is why — allegedly — there are more men with very high and very low intelligence, and women just tend to clump around the middle. You probably remember when Larry Summers suggested something along these lines a few years ago. That landed like a ton of bricks.”

    I suggest quoting people exactly or not at all. I say that only because tremendous distortions can occur when care is not taken to get things just right.

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