Quillette published a fascinating story yesterday about the publication and eventual disappearance of a scientific paper. Author Ted Hill is “Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Georgia Tech.” A couple years ago, Hill decided to write a paper about a topic called the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis, which asserts that there is generally more variability in various traits among males than females. This theory applies to all sorts of species including humans:
Evidence for this hypothesis is fairly robust and has been reported in species ranging from adders and sockeye salmon to wasps and orangutans, as well as humans. Multiple studies have found that boys and men are over-represented at both the high and low ends of the distributions in categories ranging from birth weight and brain structures and 60-meter dash times to reading and mathematics test scores. There are significantly more men than women, for example, among Nobel laureates, music composers, and chess champions—and also among homeless people, suicide victims, and federal prison inmates.
What Hill specifically wanted to do was offer a mathematical argument for why this happens. He reached out to another mathematics professor, Sergei Tabachnikov, from Pennsylvania State University for help. After some work fleshing out the idea and revisions, the paper was accepted for publication in April 2017 at the Mathematical Intelligencer, a journal which has a section devoted to controversial topics. The paper would be published in the first 2018 issue of the journal.
And then something happened. An engineer named James Damore was fired by Google for writing a memo which touched on the topic of the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis. So when Hill’s co-author Sergei put a pre-publication version of the paper online, their problems began:
On August 16, a representative of the Women In Mathematics (WIM) chapter in his department at Penn State contacted him to warn that the paper might be damaging to the aspirations of impressionable young women. “As a matter of principle,” she wrote, “I support people discussing controversial matters openly … At the same time, I think it’s good to be aware of the effects.” While she was obviously able to debate the merits of our paper, she worried that other, presumably less sophisticated, readers “will just see someone wielding the authority of mathematics to support a very controversial, and potentially sexist, set of ideas…”…
On September 4, Sergei sent me a weary email. “The scandal at our department,” he wrote, “shows no signs of receding.” At a faculty meeting the week before, the Department Head had explained that sometimes values such as academic freedom and free speech come into conflict with other values to which Penn State was committed. A female colleague had then instructed Sergei that he needed to admit and fight bias, adding that the belief that “women have a lesser chance to succeed in mathematics at the very top end is bias.” Sergei said he had spent “endless hours” talking to people who explained that the paper was “bad and harmful” and tried to convince him to “withdraw my name to restore peace at the department and to avoid losing whatever political capital I may still have.” Ominously, “analogies with scientific racism were made by some; I am afraid, we are likely to hear more of it in the future.”
While the authors attempted to defend their paper at Penn State, the controversy caused the journal which had accepted the paper to backtrack, citing the possibility that the wrong people might pick up on the paper:
The Mathematical Intelligencer’s editor-in-chief Marjorie Senechal notified us that, with “deep regret,” she was rescinding her previous acceptance of our paper. “Several colleagues,” she wrote, had warned her that publication would provoke “extremely strong reactions” and there existed a “very real possibility that the right-wing media may pick this up and hype it internationally.”…
So what in the world had happened at the Intelligencer? Unbeknownst to us, Amie Wilkinson, a senior professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago, had become aware of our paper and written to the journal to complain. A back-and-forth had ensued. Wilkinson then enlisted the support of her father—a psychometrician and statistician—who wrote to the Intelligencer at his daughter’s request to express his own misgivings, including his belief that “[t]his article oversimplifies the issues to the point of embarrassment.”
Hill wrote to Wilkinson and her father but never received any reply to them. They didn’t want to discuss his work, they just wanted to bury it. Under the pressure, Hill’s co-author Sergei removed his name from the paper. But Hill decided not to give up.
Last October the editor of a second journal contacted Hill, offering to publish his paper. The publication was confirmed on November 6, 2017, and Hill began sending the link to his colleagues. But three days later, the paper had vanished. A few days after that the paper was replaced by a completely different paper. Hill would later learn that a member of the journal’s editorial board had written an angry email demanding the already published paper be pulled down. Why? Because this board member was married to Amie Wilkinson, the same U of Chicago math professor who scuttled the previous publication.
Hill wrote to the publisher, unaware of the family connection to Amie Wilkinson, asking what had happened. He was told members of the board had threatened to quit and hound the publication “until it died” unless he pulled the article.
Science is supposed to stand above partisan controversies like this but this is an example where that clearly didn’t happen. Of course, Amie Wilkinson and others have academic freedom to trash whatever paper they feel deserves to be trashed, but working behind the scenes to have the paper disappeared isn’t a sound mathematical argument, it’s an exercise of political power intended to silence another point of view.