Academic Cowardice Reaches a New Low

About ten days ago I reported on the academic study of “sudden onset gender dysphoria” that Brown University repudiated after it came under fire from the transgender community, but today I learn of a new suppression of academic expression that makes Brown’s cowardice look tame.

The good people at Quillette have the whole story (and if you’re not reading Quillette you should be). The story is long and detailed and hard to summarize, but these are the key elements:

• Prof. Ted Hill, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Georgia Tech, wrote an article, whose background research had been supported by the National Science Foundation, on the ‘Greater Male Variability Hypothesis’ (GMVH), which asserts that there are more idiots and more geniuses among men than among women. This hypothesis is well known in the data on sex differences, and has a long lineage in evolutionary biology. After working with some other scholars to review the data further and enlisting one (Sergei Tabachnikov of Penn State) as a co-author, Hill secured publication in the journal Mathematical Intelligencer, whose editor-in-chief is Marjorie Wikler Senechal, Professor Emerita of Mathematics and the History of Science at Smith College.

She liked our draft, and declared herself to be untroubled by the prospect of controversy. “In principle,” she told Sergei in an email, “I am happy to stir up controversy and few topics generate more than this one. After the Middlebury fracas, in which none of the protestors had read the book they were protesting, we could make a real contribution here by insisting that all views be heard, and providing links to them.”

Well you can guess where this story goes from here. When a pre-print version of the article appeared online, feminists took aim, and succeeded spinning up an inquisition against the authors:

On August 16, a representative of the Women In Mathematics (WIM) chapter in his department at Penn State contacted [Sergei Tabachnikov] to warn that the paper might be damaging to the aspirations of impressionable young women. . . 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.”

The the National Science Foundation ran for the tall grass:

The National Science Foundation wrote to Sergei requesting that acknowledgment of NSF funding be removed from our paper with immediate effect. I was astonished. I had never before heard of the NSF requesting removal of acknowledgement of funding for any reason. On the contrary, they are usually delighted to have public recognition of their support for science.

The ostensible reason for this request was that our paper was unrelated to Sergei’s funded proposal. However, a Freedom of Information request subsequently revealed that Penn State WIM administrator Diane Henderson (“Professor and Chair of the Climate and Diversity Committee”) and Nate Brown (“Professor and Associate Head for Diversity and Equity”) had secretly co-signed a letter to the NSF that same morning. “Our concern,” they explained, “is that [this] paper appears to promote pseudoscientific ideas that are detrimental to the advancement of women in science, and at odds with the values of the NSF.”


That same day, 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.” For the second time in a single day I was left flabbergasted. Working mathematicians are usually thrilled if even five people in the world read our latest article. Now some progressive faction was worried that a fairly straightforward logical argument about male variability might encourage the conservative press to actually read and cite a science paper?

It gets still worse from here. The authors placed the article online in a second journal, the New York Journal of Mathematics, only to see the article suddenly disappear after another campaign to suppress it. The entire article is stomach turning. But do read it: I’ve only samples a few highlights in this summary.

Time once again to cue Charles Peguy: “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been committed for fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.” Actually we can know it, because we see it now almost daily in academia and, increasingly, in corporate America, such as at Google.

Hill has posted the article online himself and you can read it here (PDF file).

Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.