Top CERN Scientist Suspended for Presentation That Argued There Is No Sexism in Physics

CERN suspended theorist Alessandro Strumia on Monday after he gave a presentation at a conference about gender in high energy physics that argued "physics is not sexist against women."

Oct 1 2018, 4:23pm

CERN. Image: Motherboard

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), one of the leading physics research institutions in the world, suspended one of its physicists on Monday after he gave a sexist talk at the organization’s first ever “High Energy Theory and Gender” conference last weekend.

Last Friday, Alessandro Strumia, a research associate at CERN, gave a talk at the conference that was later described as a “Damore-esque manifesto against women in STEM” by Jessica Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London widely known for her efforts to increase diversity in scientific fields. The reference is to James Damore, a senior software engineer who was fired from Google last year after he circulated a memo that argued men were biologically better suited to software development.

In a copy of Strumia’s presentation seen by Motherboard, Strumia frames his presentation as an effort to get to the bottom of the “mainstream” and “conservative” positions about gender equality in physics and science more generally. Strumia framed his presentation as an attempt to “use data to see what is right.”

A number of slides show what Strumia described as data about the percentage of women in different fields, sexism in citations, sexism at conferences, and gender asymmetry in hirings. These data items conflict with a number of other studies that point to rampant discrimination in STEM, however. For example, a study published earlier this year by Pew Research found that nearly half of women in STEM say sexual harassment is a problem and that they have experienced some form of discrimination.

Strumia’s presentation also claimed sexism against men, on the grounds that scientists were killed in wars and that universities have made hiring decisions based on equal gender representation “irrespective of merit.”

According to Wade, who wrote an op-ed for New Scientist about Strumia’s talk, his presentation “claimed that women weren’t as good at physics, were promoted too early, and received disproportionate funding given their ability.”

Strumia’s slides have since been removed from the conference website, a decision justified by CERN on the grounds that “the presentation, with its attacks on individuals, was unacceptable in any professional context and was contrary to the CERN code of conduct.”

In a statement posted Monday morning, CERN said that Strumia had been suspended from “any activity” pending an investigation into the presentation.

When I reached out to Strumia, he characterized the critiques of his presentation as “libel.”

“I summarized the ideas of others that they did not want to hear at previous editions of the conference,” Strumia told me in an email. “ The problem is that the objective results of the analysis (good news: women are not discriminated in physics) was not appreciated. Please tell me what is offensive.”

Slide 22 from Strumia's presentation at CERN. Screengrab: Motherboard

“These people are so worried about problems that don’t exist,” Strumia told the Guardian. “What I actually said has good purpose. We are not discriminating, women have been helped for years.”

Strumia characterizes the mainstream position by quoting presentations from a number of gender conferences that describe science as “not only sexist but also racist.” The implications of this position, according to Strumia, is that there is “discrimination against women in citations, conferences, and hirings.”

Slide 25 from Strumia's presentation at CERN. Screengrab: Motherboard

The conservative theory as described by Strumia characterizes physics as a “community of interest optimized to understand nature” that “does not depend on nation, race, [or] sex.” This theory argues that in physics, “some groups are over-represented because they are over-performing.”

Strumia argued that many men were fired for publicly speaking about representation in STEM, pointing to Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard who resigned in 2006 after making statements about how “women might lack an intrinsic aptitude for math and science”; the NSF’s revocation of support for a paper published this year that showed there is “greater variability” among male intelligence than female intelligence; and Damore’s ousting from Google.

Read More: Google Employee’s Anti-Diversity Memo Goes Internally Viral

After characterizing the mainstream theory of gender in science “(cultural) Marxism,” Strumia concluded that “physics is not sexist against women. However, truth does not matter because it’s part of a political battle coming from outside. Not clear who will win.”

In a postscript to the conclusion, Strumia acknowledged his opinion is unpopular, writing that “many told me, ‘don’t speak, it’s dangerous.’ As a student I wrote that weak-scale supersymmetry is not right and I survived. Hope to see you again.”

According to Wade, Strumia’s positions were well known among high-energy physicists. Motherboard reached out to CERN to inquire whether the organization had knowledge of the contents of the presentation before the conference and will update this post if we hear back.

“I don’t understand how such a forward thinking organization like CERN, which does so much to promote diversity in research, could have invited him to speak to young people just starting off in their research careers when his ideas are so well known,” Wade told the BBC.

Following the online pushback against Strumia’s talk, CERN published a statement on Sunday and said “it is unfortunate that one of the 38 presentations by an invited scientists from one of the collaborating universities risks to overshadow the important messages and achievements of this event.”