Meritocracy is not Sexism

robert-borkCanadian Donna Strickland has one the Noble prize for physics. Instead of celebrating, the CBC’s Emily Chung laments that the Rare Nobel Prize win by a woman is a ‘stark reminder’ of sexism in physics. Is she implying that Strickland didn’t deserve to win and the physicists are sexist toward more deserving men?

A woman won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the first time in 55 years. But while Tuesday’s announcement is good news that could inspire young girls and women who aspire to be physicists, it highlights the sexism that endures in physics.

OK, so its good news. How then does it highlight sexism, considering that a woman, not a man, won? If Strickland was passed over for a man who made a lesser discovery, I could understand such a statement.

Canadian Donna Strickland, an associate professor in physics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, became the third woman ever to win what is widely considered the top honour in her field. She and her former mentor, Gé​rard Mourou, split half of the $1.29-million award for an important discovery in the field of laser physics that led to the development of laser eye surgery to correct myopia.

Sounds like a worthy discovery.

American Arthur Ashkin took the other half of the award for a separate discovery in the same field. He invented “optical tweezers” that can grab tiny particles such as viruses without damaging them.

This also sounds pretty awesome.

I have a hard time imagining there haven’t been women worthy of the prize in those 55 years.– Christin   Wiedemann , past president of  the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology

Well, Christin, discoveries are a matter of record in all sorts of publications (the journal of Physics for example). Why don’t you find some examples of more deserving women who lost in their back issues before smearing the men who won?

In response to criticism about the predominance of white male prizewinners, the Nobel Foundation is asking nominators for 2019 prizes to consider their own biases when putting forth nominations.

Good for them. Every discovery should be considered on its merit.

On Monday, Alessandro Strumia, a high-energy physicist at Italy’s University of Pisa, was suspended by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, after giving a seminar last week at a workshop on “High Energy Theory and Gender” that the organization deemed “highly offensive” and “unacceptable in any professional context.”

I’d comment about what he had to say, but all I could find were articles attacking him. What follows is commentary from a BBC article, Cern scientist: ‘Physics built by men – not by invitation’.

At a workshop organised by Cern, Prof Alessandro Strumia of Pisa University said that “physics was invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation”.

Well, it was certainly built by men. And, being that it is science, it is not by invitation. You need to show that you are truly able to contribute. If you can’t, you don’t deserve credit.

He said male scientists were being discriminated against because of ideology rather than merit.

Feminists have been attacking the gender imbalance in the STEM fields for years. I believe him.

Prof Strumia has since defended his comments, saying he was only presenting the facts. Cern, the European nuclear research centre, described Prof Strumia’s presentation as “highly offensive”.

That is not an argument. Are they saying he was incorrect?

He produced a series of graphs which, he claimed, showed that women were hired over men whose research was cited more by other scientists in their publications, which is an indication of higher quality.

This would seem to back up his claim that men are being discriminated against. Were these graphs incorrect?

He also presented data that he claimed showed that male and female researchers were equally cited at the start of their careers but men scored progressively better as their careers progressed.

Scientific papers are cited based on their merit as the basis for new work. If his data is correct, this means that men are producing more valuable science than women. Is the accuracy of his data being disputed?

Prof Strumia pointed to behavioural research which he suggested may account for the disparity.

Men and women do behave differently.

One study, he told his audience, indicated that “men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people” and another, he claimed, suggested that there was a “difference even in children before any social influence”.

This seems reasonable.

Prof Strumia said that these conclusions may “not be fully right… (but) the opposite assumption of identical brains is ideology”.

The brains of men and women are not identical.

As evidence of discrimination against male researchers, Prof Strumia claimed that “Oxford University extends exam times for women’s benefit” and “Italy offers free or cheaper university for female (research) students”.

I heard about the extension of exam times for women at Oxford. Is his claim that tuition is lower for women in Italy in dispute?

Dr Jessica Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London who was at the meeting, told BBC News that Prof Strumia’s analysis was simplistic, drawing on ideas that had “long been discredited”.

How so? The news from Oxford is only a year old. If Wade wants to dismiss Strumias claims as “long discredited”, she should be specific.

“It was really upsetting to those at the workshop,” she said.

Facts don’t care about your feelings.

Here are some more claims presented by Strumia:

  • There are scholarships for women only
  • Melbourne University has STEM positions for women only
  • In many places, administrations want 50% women regardless of merit.
  • Women are preferred 2:1 for STEM faculty tenures
  • The European Research Council (ERC) has a 40% gender quota

When the BBC contacted Prof Strumia he said: “People say that physics is sexist, physics is racist. I made some simple checks and discovered that it wasn’t, that it was becoming sexist against men and said so.”

If his claims are in dispute, why not refute them?

Last month, Prof Jocelyn Bell Burnell told the BBC she believed that unconscious bias against women prevented them from getting jobs in physics research.

Based on what evidence? It seems that the opposite is true if Strumia’s claims are correct.

“Physics has not at all been built by men,” Wiedemann said, “but men have gotten all the glory in the past, and that’s what we need to change.”

Bullshit. The vast bulk of physics was built by men. If you want credit, you have to do the science.

Ivie coauthored a study five years ago looking at the fact that all 57 winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics between 1990 and 2013 were men. Given the rate of physics PhDs being awarded to women, they calculated that the chance of having only male winners during that period was less than two per cent.

Presumably this assumes that men and women who get PhDs in physics are equally likely to make discoveries worthy of the prize. Since discoveries are published, if the dominance of males is due to bias, she should be able to point to the women whose discoveries were passed over.

“This is not a problem that can be fixed by women,” Ghose said. “It’s more of a structural, systemic problem, and unless we get everybody involved we’re not going to be able to deal with it.”​

If you want more women to win the Nobel, setting quotas will not help. If the Nobel prize ceases to be awarded based on merit (as has happened to the peace prize), it will suffer the same fate as the Oscars. Only things that truly have merit will stand the test of time.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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