University College London
On Monday evening (8th January 2018), I got an email from Ben van der Merwe, a UCL student who works as a reporter for the student newspaper, London Student. He said
“Our investigation has found a ring of academic psychologists associated with Richard Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly to be holding annual conferences at UCL. This includes the UCL psychologist professor James Thompson”.
He asked me for comment about the “London Conference on Intelligence”. His piece came out on Wednesday 10th January. It was a superb piece of investigative journalism. On the same day, Private Eye published a report on the same topic.
I had never heard about this conference, but it quickly became apparent that it was a forum for old-fashioned eugenicists of the worst kind. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that neither I, nor anyone else at UCL that I’ve spoken to had heard of these conferences because they were surrounded by secrecy. According to the Private Eye report:
“Attendees were only told the venue at the last minute and asked not to share the information"
The conference appears to have been held at least twice before. The programmes for the 2015 conference [download pdf] and the 2016 conference [download pdf] are now available, but weren’t public at the time. They have the official UCL logo across the top despite the fact that Thompson has been only an honorary lecturer since 2007.
A room was booked for the conference through UCL’s external room booking service. The abstracts are written in the style of a regular conference. It’s possible that someone with no knowledge of genetics (as is likely to be the case for room-booking staff) might have not spotted the problem.
The huge problems are illustrated by the London Student piece, which identifies many close connections between conference speakers and far-right, and neo-nazi hate groups.
"[James Thompson’s] political leanings are betrayed by his public Twitter account, where he follows prominent white supremacists including Richard Spencer (who follows him back), Virginia Dare, American Renaissance, Brett Stevens, the Traditional Britain Group, Charles Murray and Jared Taylor.”
“Thompson is a frequent contributor to the Unz Review, which has been described as “a mix of far-right and far-left anti-Semitic crackpottery,” and features articles such as ‘America’s Jews are Driving America’s Wars’ and ‘What to do with Latinos?’.
His own articles include frequent defences of the idea that women are innately less intelligent than men (1, 2, 3,and 4), and an analysis of the racial wage gap which concludes that “some ethnicities contribute relatively little,” namely “blacks.”
“By far the most disturbing of part of Kirkegaard’s internet presence, however, is a blog-post in which he justifies child rape. He states that a ‘compromise’ with paedophiles could be:
“having sex with a sleeping child without them knowing it (so, using sleeping medicine. If they don’t notice it is difficult to see how they cud be harmed, even if it is rape. One must distinguish between rape becus the other was disconsenting (wanting to not have sex), and rape becus the other is not consenting, but not disconsenting either.”
The UCL Students’ Union paper, Cheesegrater, lists some of James Thompson’s tweets,including some about brain size in women
It’s interesting that these came to light on the same day that I learned that the first person to show that there was NO correlation between brain size and intelligence was Dr Alice Lee, in 1901 [download pdf].
Alice Lee was the first woman to get a PhD in mathematics from UCL and she was working in the Galton laboratory, under Karl Pearson. Pearson was a great statistician but also a eugenicist. It was good to learn that he supported women in science at a time when that was almost unknown.
What’s been done so far?
After I’d warned UCL of the impending scandal, they had time to do some preliminary investigation. An official UCL announcement appeared on the same day (10 Jan, 2018) as the articles were published.
“Our records indicate the university was not informed in advance about the speakers and content of the conference series, as it should have been for the event to be allowed to go ahead”
“We are an institution that is committed to free speech but also to combatting racism and sexism in all forms.”
"We have suspended approval for any further conferences of this nature by the honorary lecturer and speakers pending our investigation into the case."
That is about as good as can be expected. It remains to be seen why the true nature of the conferences was not spotted, and it remains to be seen why someone like James Thompson was an honorary senior lecturer at UCL. Watch this space.
How did it happen
But both of these videos are about his views on disaster psychology (Chilean miners, and Japanese earthquake, respectively). Neither gives any hint of his extremist political views. To discover them you’d have to delve into his twitter account (@JamesPsychol) or his writings on the unz site. It’s not surprising that they were missed.
I hope we’ll know more soon about how these meetings slipped under the radar. Until recently, they were very secret. But then six videos of talks at the 2017 meeting were posted on the web, by the organisers themselves. Perhaps they were emboldened by the presence of an apologist for neo-nazis in the White House, and by the government’s support for Toby Young, who wrote in support of eugenics. The swing towards far-right views in the UK, in the USA and in Poland, Hungary and Turkey, has seen a return to public discussions of views that have been thought unspeakable since the 1930s. See, for example, this discussion of eugenics by Spectator editor Fraser Nelson with Toby Young, under the alarming heading "Eugenics is back".
The London Conference on Intelligence channel used the UCL logo, and it was still public on 10th January. It had only 49 subscribers. By 13th January it had been taken down (apparently by its authors). But it still has a private playlist with four videos which have been viewed only 36 times (some of which were me). Before it vanished, I made a copy of Emil Kirkegard’s talk, for the record.
Freedom of speech
Incidents like this pose difficult problems, especially given UCL’s past history. Galton and Pearson supported the idea of eugenics at the beginning of the 20th century, as did George Bernard Shaw. But modern geneticists at the Galton lab have been at the forefront in showing that these early ideas were simply wrong.
UCL has, in the past, rented rooms for conferences of homeopaths. Their ideas are deluded and sometimes dangerous, but not illegal. I don’t think they should be arrested, but I’d much prefer that their conferences were not at UCL.
A more serious case occurred on 26 February 2008. The student Islamic Society invited representatives of the radical Islamic creationist, Adnan Oktar, to speak at UCL. They were crowing that the talk would be held in the Darwin lecture theatre (built in the place formerly occupied by Charles Darwin’s house on Gower Street). In the end, the talk was allowed to go ahead, but it was moved by the then provost to the Gustave Tuck lecture theatre, which is much smaller, and which was built from a donation by the former president of the Jewish Historical Society. See more accounts here, here and here. It isn’t known what was said, so there is no way to tell whether it was illegal, or just batty.
It is very hard to draw the line between hate talk and freedom of speech. There was probably nothing illegal about what was said at the Intelligence Conferences. It was just bad science, used to promote deeply distasteful ideas..
Although, in principle, renting a room doesn’t imply any endorsement, in practice all crackpot organisations love to use the name of UCL to promote their cause. That alone is sufficient reason to tell these people to find somewhere else to promote their ideas.
Follow up in the media
The real story
Recently some peope have demanded that the names of Galton and Pearson should be expunged from UCL.
There would be a case for that if their 19th century ideas were still celebrated, just as there is a case for removing statues that celebrate confederate generals in the southern USA. Their ideas about measurement and statistics are justly celebrated. But their ideas about eugenics are not celebrated.
On the contrary, it is modern genetics, done in part by people in the Galton lab, that has shown the wrongness of 19th century views on race. If you want to know the current views of the Galton lab, try these. They could not be further from Thompson’s secretive pseudoscience.
Steve Jones’ 2015 lecture “Nature, nurture or neither: the view from the genes”,
Or check the writing of UCL alumnus, Adam Rutherford: “Why race is not a thing, according to genetics”,
or, from Rutherford’s 2017 article
“We’ve known for many years that genetics has profoundly undermined the concept of race”
“more and more these days, racists and neo-Nazis are turning to consumer genetics to attempt to prove their racial purity and superiority. They fail, and will always fail, because no one is pure anything.”
“the science that Galton founded in order to demonstrate racial hierarchies had done precisely the opposite”
Or read this terrific account of current views by Jacob A Tennessen “Consider the armadillos".
These are accounts of what geneticists now think. Science has shown that views expressed at the London Intelligence Conference are those of a very small lunatic fringe of pseudo-scientists. But they are already being exploited by far-right politicians.
It would not be safe to ignore them.
15 January 2018. The involvement of Toby Young
The day after this was posted, my attention was drawn to a 2018 article by the notorious Toby Young. In it he confirms the secretiveness of the conference organisers.
“I discovered just how cautious scholars in this ﬁeld can be when I was invited to attend a two-day conference on intelligence at University College London by the academic and journalist James Thompson earlier this year. Attendees were only told the venue at the last minute – an anonymous antechamber at the end of a long corridor called ‘Lecture
Room 22’ – and asked not to share the information with anyone else.”
More importantly,it shows that Toby Young has failed utterly to grasp the science.
“You really have to be pretty stubborn to dispute that general cognitive ability is at least partly genetically based.”
There is nobody who denies this.
The point is that the interaction of nature and nurture is far more subtle than Young believes, and that makes attempts to separate them quantitatively futile. He really should educate himself by looking at the accounts listed above (The real story)
16 January 2018. How UCL has faced its history
Before the current row about the “London Intelligence Conference”, UCL has faced up frankly to its role in the development of eugenics. It started at the height of Empire, in the 19th century and continued into the early part of the 20th century. The word “eugenics” has not been used at UCL since it fell into the gravest disrepute in the 1930s, and has never been used since WW2. Not, that is, until Robert Thompson and Toby Young brought it back. The history has been related by curator and science historian, Subhadra Das. You can read about it, and listen to episodes of her podcast, at “Bricks + Mortals, A history of eugenics told through buildings“. Or you can listen to her whole podcast.
Although Subhadra Das describes Galton as the Victorian scientist that you’ve never heard of. I was certainly well aware of his ideas before I first came to UCL (in 1964). But at that time. I thought of Karl Pearson only as a statistician, and I doubt if I’d even heard of Flinders Petrie. Learning about their roles was a revelation.
17 January 2018.
Prof Semir Zeki has been pointed out to me that it’s not strictly to say “the word “eugenics” has not been used at UCL since it fell into the gravest disrepute in the 1930s”. It’s true to say that nobody advocated it but the chair of Eugenics was not renamed the chair of Human Genetics until 1963. This certainly didn’t imply approval. Zeki tells me that it’s holder “Lionel Penrose, when he mentioned his distaste for the title, saying that it was a hangover from the past, and should be changed”.
There can be no doubt that the situation for women has improved hugely since I started at UCL, 50 years ago. At that time women were not allowed in the senior common room. It’s improved even more since the 1930s (read about the attitude of the great statistician, Ronald Fisher, to Florence Nightinglale David).
Recently Williams & Ceci published data that suggest that young women no longer face barriers in job selection in the USA (though it will take 20 years before that feeds through to professor level). But no sooner than one was feeling optimistic, along comes Tim Hunt who caused a media storm by advocating male-only labs. I’ll say a bit about that case below.
First some very preliminary concrete proposals.
The job of emancipation is not yet completed. I’ve recently become a member of the Royal Society diversity committee, chaired by Uta Frith. That’s made me think more seriously about the evidence concerning the progress of women and of black and minority ethnic (BME) people in science, and what can be done about it. Here are some preliminary thoughts. They are my opinions, not those of the committee.
I suspect that much of the problem for women and BME results from over-competitiveness and perverse incentives that are imposed on researchers. That’s got progressively worse, and it affects men too. In fact it corrupts the entire scientific process.
One of the best writers on these topics is Peter Lawrence. He’s an eminent biologist who worked at the famous Lab for Molecular Biology in Cambridge, until he ‘retired’.
Here are three things by him that everyone should read.
From Lawrence (2003)
"Listen. All over the world scientists are fretting. It is night in London and Deborah Dormouse is unable to sleep. She can’t decide whether, after four weeks of anxious waiting, it would be counterproductive to call a Nature editor about her manuscript. In the sunlight in Sydney, Wayne Wombat is furious that his student’s article was rejected by Science and is taking revenge on similar work he is reviewing for Cell. In San Diego, Melissa Mariposa reads that her article submitted to Current Biology will be reconsidered, but only if it is cut in half. Against her better judgement, she steels herself to throw out some key data and oversimplify the conclusions— her postdoc needs this journal on his CV or he will lose a point in the Spanish league, and that job in Madrid will go instead to Mar Maradona."
"It is we older, well-established scientists who have to act to change things. We should make these points on committees for grants and jobs, and should not be so desperate to push our papers into the leading journals. We cannot expect younger scientists to endanger their future by making sacrifices for the common good, at least not before we do."
From Lawrence (2007)
“The struggle to survive in modern science, the open and public nature of that competition, and the advantages bestowed on those who are prepared to show off and to exploit others have acted against modest and gentle people of all kinds — yet there is no evidence, presumption or likelihood that less pushy people are less creative. As less aggressive people are predominantly women [14,15] it should be no surprise that, in spite of an increased proportion of women entering biomedical research as students, there has been little, if any, increase in the representation of women at the top . Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them . Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”
From Lawrence (2011).
"There’s a reward system for building up a large group, if you can, and it doesn’t really matter how many of your group fail, as long as one or two succeed. You can build your career on their success".
Part of this pressure comes from university rankings. They are statistically-illiterate and serve no useful purpose, apart from making money for their publishers and providing vice-chancellors with an excuse to bullying staff in the interests of institutional willy-waving.
And part of the pressure arises from the money that comes with the REF. A recent survey gave rise to the comment
"Early career researchers overwhelmingly feel that the research excellence framework has created “a huge amount of pressure and anxiety, which impacts particularly on those at the bottom rung of the career ladder"
In fact the last REF was conducted quite sensibly (e.g. use of silly metrics was banned). The problem was that universities didn’t believe that the rules would be followed.
For example, academics in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London were told (in 2007) they are expected to
“publish three papers per annum, at least one in a prestigious journal with an impact factor of at least five”.
And last year a 51-year-old academic with a good publication record was told that unless he raised £200,000 in grants in the next year, he’d be fired. There can be little doubt that this “performance management” contributed to his decision to commit suicide. And Imperial did nothing to remedy the policy after an internal investigation.
Crude financial targets for grant income should be condemned as defrauding the taxpayer (you are compelled to make your work as expensive as possible) As usual, women and BME suffer disproportionately from such bullying.
What can be done about this in practice?
I feel that some firm recommendations will be useful.
The Royal Society has already signed DORA, but, shockingly, only three universities in the UK have done so (Sussex, UCL and Manchester).
Another well-meaning initiative is The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. It’s written very much from the HR point of view and I’d argue that that’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.
For example it says
“3. Research managers should be required to participate in active performance management, including career development guidance”
That statement is meaningless without any definition of how performance management should be done. It’s quite clear that “performance management”, in the form of crude targets, was a large contributor to Stefan Grimm’s suicide.
The Concordat places great emphasis in training programmes, but ignores the fact that it’s doubtful whether diversity training works, and it may even have bad effects.
The Concordat is essentially meaningless in its present form.
I propose that all fellowships and grants should be awarded only to universities who have signed DORA and Athena Swan.
I have little faith that signing DORA, or the Concordat, will have much effect on the shop floor, but they do set a standard, and eventually, as with changes in the law, improvements in behaviour are effected.
But, as a check, It should be announced at the start that fellows and employees paid by grants will be asked directly whether or not these agreements have been honoured in practice.
Crude financial targets are imposed at one in six universities. Those who do that should be excluded from getting fellowships or grants, on the grounds that the process gives bad value to the funders (and taxpayer) and that it endangers objectivity.
Some thoughts in the Hunt affair
It’s now 46 years since I and Brian Woledge managed to get UCL’s senior common room, the Housman room, opened to women. That was 1969, and since then, I don’t think that I’ve heard any public statement that was so openly sexist as Tim Hunt’s now notorious speech in Korea.
On the Today Programme, Hunt himself said "What I said was quite accurately reported" and "I just wanted to be honest", so there’s no doubt that those are his views. He confirmed that the account that was first tweeted by Connie St Louis was accurate
Inevitably, there was a backlash from libertarians and conservatives. That was fuelled by a piece in today’s Observer, in which Hunt seems to regard himself as being victimised. My comment on the Observer piece sums up my views.
I was pretty shaken when I heard what Tim Hunt had said, all the more because I have recently become a member of the Royal Society’s diversity committee. When he talked about the incident on the Today programme on 10 June, it certainly didn’t sound like a joke to me. It seems that he carried on for more than 5 minutes in they same vein.
Everyone appreciates Hunt’s scientific work, but the views that he expressed about women are from the dark ages. It seemed to me, and to Dorothy Bishop, and to many others, that with views like that. Hunt should not play any part in selection or policy matters. The Royal Society moved with admirable speed to do that.
The views that were expressed are so totally incompatible with UCL’s values, so it was right that UCL too acted quickly. His job at UCL was an honorary one: he is retired and he was not deprived of his lab and his living, as some people suggested.
Although the initial reaction, from men as well as from women, was predictably angry, it very soon turned to humour, with the flood of #distractinglysexy tweets.
It would be a mistake to think that these actions were the work of PR people. They were thought to be just by everyone, female or male, who wants to improve diversity in science.
The episode is sad and disappointing. But the right things were done quickly.
Now Hunt can be left in peace to enjoy his retirement.
Look at it this way. If you were a young woman, applying for a fellowship in competition with men. what would you think if Tim Hunt were on the selection panel?
After all this fuss, we need to laugh.
Here is a clip from the BBC News Quiz, in which actor, Rebecca Front, gives her take on the affair.
Some great videos soon followed Hunt’s comments. Try these.
Nobel Scientist Tim Hunt Sparks a #Distractinglysexy Campaign
(via Jennifer Raff)
This video has some clips from an earlier one, from Suzi Gage “Science it’s a girl thing”.
15 June 2015
An update on what happened from UCL. From my knowledge of what happened, this is not PR spin. It’s true.
16 June 2015
There is an interview with Tim Hunt in Lab Times that’s rather revealing. This interview was published in April 2014, more than a year before the Korean speech. Right up to the penultimate paragraph we agree on just about everything, from the virtue of small groups to the iniquity of impact factors. But then right at the end we read this.
In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?
Hunt: I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.
This suggests to me that the outburst on 8th June reflected opinions that Hunt has had for a while.
There has been quite a lot of discussion of Hunt’s track record. These tweets suggest it may not be blameless.
— Dr*T (@Dr_star_T) June 16, 2015
— Dr*T (@Dr_star_T) June 16, 2015
That's v interestting. It's been alleged tht nobody has grumbled. It seems thay have, but they daren't come forward https://t.co/AlUz0mAJbt
— David Colquhoun (@david_colquhoun) June 16, 2015
19 June 2015
Yesterday I was asked by the letters editor of the Times, Andrew Riley, to write a letter in response to a half-witted, anonymous, Times leading article. I dropped everything, and sent it. It was neither acknowledged nor published. Here it is [download pdf].
One of the few good outcomes of the sad affair of Tim Hunt is that it has brought to light the backwoodsmen who are eager to defend his actions, and to condemn UCL. The anonymous Times leader of 16 June was as good an example as any.
Some quotations from this letter were used by Tom Whipple in an article about Richard Dawkins surprising (to me) emergence as an unreconstructed backwoodsman.
18 June 2015
Adam Rutherford’s excellent Radio 4 programme, Inside Science, had an episode “Women Scientists on Sexism in Science". The last speaker was Uta Frith (who is chair of the Royal Society’s diversity committee). Her contribution started at about 23 min.
Listen to Uta Frith’s contribution.
" . . this over-competitiveness, and this incredible rush to publish fast, and publish in quantity rather than in quality, has been extremely detrimental for science, and it has been disproportionately bad, I think, for under-represented groups who don’t quite fit in to this over-competitive climate. So I am proposing something I like to call slow science . . . why is this necessary, to do this extreme measurement-driven, quantitative judgement of output, rather than looking at the actual quality"
That, I need hardly say, is music to my ears. Why not, for example, restrict the number of papers that an be submitted with fellowship applications to four (just as the REF did)?
21 June 2015
I’ve received a handful of letters, some worded in a quite extreme way, telling me I’m wrong. It’s no surprise that 100% of them are from men. Most are from more-or-less elderly men. A few are from senior men who run large groups. I have no way to tell whether their motive is a genuine wish to have freedom of speech at any price. Or whether their motives are less worthy: perhaps some of them are against anything that prevents postdocs working for 16 hours a day, for the glory of the boss. I just don’t know.
I’ve had far more letters saying that UCL did the right thing when it accepted Tim Hunt’s offer to resign from his non job at UCL. These letters are predominantly from young people, men as well as women. Almost all of them ask not to be identified in public. They are, unsurprisingly, scared to argue with the eight Nobel prizewinners who have deplored UCL’s action (without bothering to ascertain the facts). The fact that they are scared to speak out is hardly surprising. It’s part of the problem.
What you can do, if you don’t want to put your head above the public parapet. is simply to email the top people at UCL, in private. to express your support. All these email addresses are open to the public in UCL’s admirably open email directory.
Michael Arthur (provost): email@example.com
David Price (vice-provost research): firstname.lastname@example.org
Geraint Rees (Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences): email@example.com
All these people have an excellent record on women in science, as illustrated by the response to Daily Mail’s appalling behaviour towards UCL astrophysicist, Hiranya Pereis.
26 June 2015
The sad matter of Tim Hunt is over, at last. The provost of UCL, Michael Arthur has now made a statement himself. Provost’s View: Women in Science is an excellent reiteration of UCL’s principles.
By way of celebration, here is the picture of the quad, taken on 23 March, 2003. It was the start of the second great march to try to stop the war in Iraq. I use it to introduce talks, as a reminder that there are more serious consequences of believing things that aren’t true than a handful of people taking sugar pills.
11 October 2015
In which I agree with Mary Collins
Long after this unpleasant row died down, it was brought back to life yesterday when I heard that Colin Blakemore had resigned as honorary president of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), on the grounds that that organisation had not been sufficiently hard on Connie St Louis, whose tweet initiated the whole affair. I’m not a member of the ABSW and I have never met St Louis, but I know Blakemore well and like him. Nevertheless it seems to me to be quite disproportionate for a famous elderly white man to take such dramatic headline-grabbing action because a young black women had exaggerated bits of her CV. Of course she shouldn’t have done that, but it everyone were punished so severely for "burnishing" their CV there would be a large number of people in trouble.
Blakemore’s own statement also suggested that her reporting was inaccurate (though it appears that he didn’t submitted a complaint to ABSW). As I have said above, I don’t think that this is true to any important extent. The gist of it was said was verified by others, and, most importantly, Hunt himself said "What I said was quite accurately reported" and "I just wanted to be honest". As far as I know, he hasn’t said anything since that has contradicted that view, which he gave straight after the event. The only change that I know of is that the words that were quoted turned out to have been followed by "Now, seriously", which can be interpreted as meaning that the sexist comments were intended as a joke. If it were not for earlier comments along the same lines, that might have been an excuse.
Yesterday, on twitter, I was asked by Mary Collins, Hunt’s wife, whether I thought he was misogynist. I said no and I don’t believe that it is. It’s true that I had used that word in a single tweet, long since deleted, and that was wrong. I suspect that I felt at the time that it sounded like a less harsh word than sexist, but it was the wrong word and I apologised for using it.
So do I believe that Tim Hunt is sexist? No I don’t. But his remarks both in Korea and earlier were undoubtedly sexist. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that, as a person, he suffers from ingrained sexism. He’s too nice for that. My interpretation is that (a) he’s so obsessive about his work that he has little time to think about political matters, and (b) he’s naive about the public image that he presents, and about how people will react to them. That’s a combination that I’ve seen before among some very eminent scientists.
In fact I find myself in almost complete agreement with Mary Collins, Hunt’s wife, when she said (I quote the Observer)
“And he is certainly not an old dinosaur. He just says silly things now and again.” “Collins clutches her head as Hunt talks. “It was an unbelievably stupid thing to say,” she says. “You can see why it could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim. But really it was just part of his upbringing. He went to a single-sex school in the 1960s.”
Nevertheless, I think it’s unreasonable to think that comments such as those made in Korea (and earlier) would not have consequences, "naive" or not, "joke" or not, "upbringing" or not,
It’s really not hard to see why there were consequences. All you have to do is to imagine yourself as a woman, applying for a grant or fellowship, and realising that you’d be judged by Hunt. And if you think that the reaction was too harsh, imagine the same words being spoken with "blacks", or "Jews" substituted for "women". Of course I’m not suggesting for a moment that he’d have done this, but if anybody did, I doubt whether many people would have thought it was a good joke.
9 November 2015
An impressively detailed account of the Hunt affair has appeared. The gist can be inferred from the title: "Saving Tim Hunt
The campaign to exonerate Tim Hunt for his sexist remarks in Seoul is built on myths, misinformation, and spin". It was written by Dan Waddell (@danwaddell) and Paula Higgins (@justamusicprof). It is long and it’s impressively researched. it’s revealing to see the bits that Louise Mensch omitted from her quotations. I can’t disagree with its conclusion.
"In the end, the parable of Tim Hunt is indeed a simple one. He said something casually sexist, stupid and inappropriate which offended many of his audience. He then confirmed he said what he was reported to have said and apologised twice. The matter should have stopped there. Instead a concerted effort to save his name — which was not disgraced, nor his reputation as a scientist jeopardized — has rewritten history. Science is about truth. As this article has shown, we have seen very little of it from Hunt’s apologists — merely evasions, half-truths, distortions, errors and outright falsehoods.
8 April 2017
This late addition is to draw attention to a paper, wriiten by Edwin Boring in 1951, about the problems for the advancement of women in psychology. It’s remarkable reading and many of the roots of the problems have hardly changed today. (I chanced on the paper while looking for a paper that Boring wrote about P values in 1919.)
Here is a quotation from the conclusions.
“Here then is the Woman Problem as I see it. For the ICWP or anyone else to think that the problem.can be advanced toward solution by proving that professional women undergo more frustration and disappointment than professional men, and by calling then on the conscience of the profession to right a wrong, is to fail to see the problem clearly in all its psychosocial complexities. The problem turns on the mechanisms for prestige, and that prestige, which leads to honor and greatness and often to the large salaries, is not with any regularity proportional to professional merit or the social value of professional achievement. Nor is there any presumption that the possessor of prestige knows how to lead the good life. You may have to choose. Success is never whole, and, if you have it for this, you mayhave to give it up for that.”
There is a widespread belief that science is going through a crisis of reproducibility. A meeting was held to discuss the problem. It was organised by Academy of Medical Sciences, the Wellcome Trust, MRC and BBSRC, and It was chaired by Dorothy Bishop (of whose blog I’m a huge fan). It’s good to see that scientific establishment is beginning to take notice. Up to now it’s been bloggers who’ve been making the running. I hadn’t intended to write a whole post about it, but some sufficiently interesting points arose that I’ll have a go.
The first point to make is that, as far as I know, the “crisis” is limited to, or at least concentrated in, quite restricted areas of science. In particular, it doesn’t apply to the harder end of sciences. Nobody in physics, maths or chemistry talks about a crisis of reproducibility. I’ve heard very little about irreproducibility in electrophysiology (unless you include EEG work). I’ve spent most of my life working on single-molecule biophysics and I’ve never encountered serious problems with irreproducibility. It’s a small and specialist field so I think if I would have noticed if it were there. I’ve always posted on the web our analysis programs, and if anyone wants to spend a year re-analysing it they are very welcome to do so (though I have been asked only once).
The areas that seem to have suffered most from irreproducibility are experimental psychology, some areas of cell biology, imaging studies (fMRI) and genome studies. Clinical medicine and epidemiology have been bad too. Imaging and genome studies seem to be in a slightly different category from the others. They are largely statistical problems that arise from the huge number of comparisons that need to be done. Epidemiology problems stem largely from a casual approach to causality. The rest have no such excuses.
The meeting was biased towards psychology, perhaps because that’s an area that has had many problems. The solutions that were suggested were also biased towards that area. It’s hard to see some of them could be applied to electrophysiology for example.
There was, it has to be said, a lot more good intentions than hard suggestions. Pre-registration of experiments might help a bit in a few areas. I’m all for open access and open data, but doubt they will solve the problem either, though I hope they’ll become the norm (they always have been for me).
All the tweets from the meeting hve been collected as a Storify. The most retweeted comment was from Liz Wager
This, I think, cuts to the heart if the problem. Perverse incentives, if sufficiently harsh, will inevitably lead to bad behaviour. Occasionally it will lead to fraud. It’s even led to (at least) two suicides. If you threaten people in their forties and fifties with being fired, and losing their house, because they don’t meet some silly metric, then of course people will cut corners. Curing that is very much more important than pre-registration, data-sharing and concordats, though the latter occupied far more of the time at the meeting.
The primary source of the problem is that there is not enough money for the number of people who want to do research (a matter that was barely mentioned). That leads to the unpalatable conclusion that the only way to cure the problem is to have fewer people competing for the money. That’s part of the reason that I suggested recently a two-stage university system. That’s unlikely to happen soon. So what else can be done in the meantime?
The responsibility for perverse incentives has to rest squarely on the shoulders of the senior academics and administrators who impose them. It is at this level that the solutions must be found. That was said, but not firmly enough. The problems are mostly created by the older generation It’s our fault.
IncidentalIy, I was not impressed by the fact that the Academy of Medical Sciences listed attendees with initials after peoples’ names. There were eight FRSs but I find it a bit embarrassing to be identified as one, as though it made any difference to the value of what I said.
It was suggested that courses in research ethics for young scientists would help. I disagree. In my experience, young scientists are honest and idealistic. The problems arise when their idealism is shattered by the bad example set by their elders. I’ve had a stream of young people in my office who want advice and support because they feel they are being pressured by their elders into behaviour which worries them. More than one of them have burst into tears because they feel that they have been bullied by PIs.
One talk that I found impressive was Ottloline Leyser who chaired the recent report on The Culture of Scientific Research in the UK, from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. But I found that report to be bland and its recommendations, though well-meaning, unlikely to result in much change. The report was based on a relatively small, self-selected sample of 970 responses to a web survey, and on 15 discussion events. Relatively few people seem to have spent time filling in the text boxes, For example
“Of the survey respondents who provided a negative comment on the effects of competition in science, 24 out of 179 respondents (13 per cent) believe that high levels of competition between individuals discourage research collaboration and the sharing of data and methodologies.&rdquo:
Such numbers are too small to reach many conclusions, especially since the respondents were self-selected rather than selected at random (poor experimental design!). Nevertheless, the main concerns were all voiced. I was struck by
“Almost twice as many female survey respondents as male respondents raise issues related to career progression and the short term culture within UK research when asked which features of the research environment are having the most negative effect on scientists”
But no conclusions or remedies were put forward to remedy this problem. It was all put rather better, and much more frankly, some time ago by Peter Lawrence. I do have the impression that bloggers (including Dorothy Bishop) get to the heart of the problems much more directly than any official reports.
The Nuffield report seemed to me to put excessive trust in paper exercises, such as the “Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers”. The word “bullying” does not occur anywhere in the Nuffield document, despite the fact that it’s problem that’s been very widely discussed and a problem that’s critical for the problems of reproducibility. The Concordat (unlike the Nuffield report) does mention bullying.
"All managers of research should ensure that measures exist at every institution through which discrimination, bullying or harassment can be reported and addressed without adversely affecting the careers of innocent parties. "
That sounds good, but it’s very obvious that there are many places simply ignore it. All universities subscribe to the Concordat. But signing is as far as it goes in too many places. It was signed by Imperial College London, the institution with perhaps the worst record for pressurising its employees, but official reports would not dream of naming names or looking at publicly available documentation concerning bullying tactics. For that, you need bloggers.
On the first day, the (soon-to-depart) Dean of Medicine at Imperial, Dermot Kelleher, was there. He seemed a genial man, but he would say nothing about the death of Stefan Grimm. I find that attitude incomprehensible. He didn’t reappear on the second day of the meeting.
The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) is a stronger statement than the Concordat, but its aims are more limited. DORA states that the impact factor is not to be used as a substitute “measure of the quality of individual research articles, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions”. That’s something that I wrote about in 2003, in Nature. In 2007 it was still rampant, including at Imperial College. It still is in many places. The Nuffield Council report says that DORA has been signed by “over 12,000 individuals and 500 organisations”, but fails to mention the fact that only three UK universities have signed up to DORA (oneof them, I’m happy to say, is UCL). That’s a pretty miserable record. And, of course, it remains to be seen whether the signatories really abide by the agreement. Most such worthy agreements are ignored on the shop floor.
The recommendations of the Nuffield Council report are all worthy, but they are bland and we’ll be lucky if they have much effect. For example
“Ensure that the track record of researchers is assessed broadly, without undue reliance on journal impact factors”
What on earth is “undue reliance”? That’s a far weaker statement than DORA. Why?
“Ensure researchers, particularly early career researchers, have a thorough grounding in research ethics”
In my opinion, what we should say to early career researchers is “avoid the bad example that’s set by your elders (but not always betters)”. It’s the older generation which has produced the problems and it’s unbecoming to put the blame on the young. It’s the late career researchers who are far more in need of a thorough grounding in research ethics than early-career researchers.
Although every talk was more or less interesting, the one I enjoyed most was the first one, by Marcus Munafo. It assessed the scale of the problem (though with a strong emphasis on psychology, plus some genetics and epidemiology), and he had good data on under-powered studies. It also made a fleeting mention of the problem of the false discovery rate. Since the meeting was essentially about the publication of results that aren’t true, I would have expected the statistical problem of the false discovery rate to have been given much more prominence than it was. Although Ioannidis’ now-famous paper “Why most published research is wrong” got the occasional mention, very little attention (apart from Munafo and Button) was given to the problems which he pointed out.
I’ve recently convinced myself that, if you declare that you’ve made a discovery when you observe P = 0.047 (as is almost universal in the biomedical literature) you’ll be wrong 30 – 70% of the time (see full paper, "An investigation of the false discovery rate and the misinterpretation of p-values".and simplified versions on Youtube and on this blog). If that’s right, then surely an important way to reduce the publication of false results is for journal editors to give better advice about statistics. This is a topic that was almost absent from the meeting. It’s also absent from the Nuffield Council report (the word “statistics” does not occur anywhere).
In summary, the meeting was very timely, and it was fun. But I ended up thinking it had a bit too much of preaching good intentions to the converted. It failed to grasp some of the nettles firmly enough. There was no mention of what’s happening at Imperial, or Warwick, or Queen Mary, or at Kings College London. Let’s hope that when it’s written up, the conclusion will be a bit less bland than those of most official reports.
"Modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying -to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity.
Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis"
"Careerism also encourages exaggeration and the cherrypicking of results."
This is what the public think of us. It’s time that vice-chancellors did something about it, rather than willy-waving about rankings.
After criticism of the conclusions of official reports, I guess that I have to make an attempt at recommendations myself. Here’s a first attempt.
- The heart of the problem is money. Since the total amount of money is not likely to increase in the short term, the only solution is to decrease the number of applicants. This is a real political hot-potato, but unless it’s tackled the problem will persist. The most gentle way that I can think of doing this is to restrict research to a subset of universities. My proposal for a two stage university system might go some way to achieving this. It would result in better postgraduate education, and it would be more egalitarian for students. But of course universities that became “teaching only” would see (wrongly) as demotion, and it seems that UUK is unlikely to support any change to the status quo (except, of course, for increasing fees).
- Smaller grants, smaller groups and fewer papers would benefit science.
- Ban completely the use of impact factors and discourage use of all metrics. None has been shown to measure future quality. All increase the temptation to “game the system” (that’s the usual academic euphemism for what’s called cheating if an undergraduate does it).
- “Performance management” is the method of choice for bullying academics. Don’t allow people to be fired because they don’t achieve arbitrary targets for publications or grant income. The criteria used at Queen Mary London, and Imperial, and Warwick and at Kings, are public knowledge. They are a recipe for employing spivs and firing Nobel Prize winners: the 1991 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine would have failed Imperial’s criteria in 6 years out of 10 years when he was doing the work which led to the prize.
- Universities must learn that if you want innovation and creativity you have also to tolerate a lot of failure.
- The ranking of universities by ranking businesses or by the REF encourages bad behaviour by encouraging vice-chancellors to improve their ranking, by whatever means they can. This is one reason for bullying behaviour. The rankings are totally arbitrary and a huge waste of money. I’m not saying that universities should be unaccountable to taxpayers. But all you have to do is to produce a list of publications to show that very few academics are not trying. It’s absurd to try to summarise a whole university in a single number. It’s simply statistical illiteracy
- Don’t waste money on training courses in research ethics. Everyone already knows what’s honest and what’s dodgy (though a bit more statistics training might help with that). Most people want to do the honest thing, but few have the nerve to stick to their principles if the alternative is to lose your job and your home. Senior university people must stop behaving in that way.
- University procedures for protecting the young are totally inadequate. A young student who reports bad behaviour of his seniors is still more likely to end up being fired than being congratulated (see, for example, a particularly bad case at the University of Sheffield). All big organisations close ranks to defend themselves when criticised. Even extreme cases, as when an employee commits suicide after being bullied, universities issue internal reports which blame nobody.
- Universities must stop papering over the cracks when misbehaviour is discovered. It seems to be beyond the wit of PR people to realise that often it’s best (and always the cheapest) to put your hands up and say “sorry, we got that wrong”
- There an urgent need to get rid of the sort of statistical illiteracy that allows P = 0.06 to be treated as failure and P = 0.04 as success. This is almost universal in biomedical papers, and given the hazards posed by the false discovery rate, could well be a major contribution to false claims. Journal editors need to offer much better statistical advice than is the case at the moment.
After an interchange on Twitter about how blogs get noticed, I commented that the best thing for me was being thrown off the UCL web site by Malcolm Grant, and the subsequent support that I got from Ben Goldacre. I am a big fan of just about everything that Goldacre has done. So are a lot of other people and his support was crucial.
When I looked up his 2007 post, I found a lot of links were now broken, and some characters didn’t render properly. So, as a matter of historical record, I’m reproducing the whole post with updated links where possible.
Goldacre’s comments, of course, greatly exaggerated my virtues. But they were very useful at the time, they quadrupled my readership overnight, and I’m eternally grateful to him.
[Update: Letter from Provost below]
Saturday June 9, 2007
I’ve always said you’d get a lot more kids interested in science if you told them it involves fighting – which of course it does. This week, for example, Professor David Colquhoun FRS – one of the most eminent scientists in the UK – has been forced to remove his quackbusting blog from the UCL servers where it has lived for many years, after complaints from disgruntled alternative therapists.
They objected, for example, to his use of the word “gobbledygook” to describe Red Clover as a “blood cleanser” or a “cleanser of the lymphatic system”. Somebody from the “European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association” complained that he’d slightly misrepresented one aspect of herbalists’ practice. One even complained about Colquhoun infringing copyright, simply for quoting the part of their website that he was examining. They felt, above all, that this was an inappropriate use of UCL facilities.
Now I don’t want to get into the to and fro here, but it is striking that none of them engaged the Prof himself on the issue of the ideas. In fact, they all ran behind his back to the Provost, or rather, to teacher; and the Provost, after serving up a sterling defense of academic freedom in responses to them, quietly asked Colquhoun to take his blog elsewhere, on the grounds that it was bringing the university too much flak. Rousing defenses of Colquhoun have already been written by Professors from Stanford, and senior academics from the UK. [Some are linked here, I’ve got the rest archived. The provost’s initial letter was actually rather stirring]
This episode reveals some unfortunate contrasts. Firstly, in a world where most orthodox "public engagement with science" activity consists of smug, faux radical "science meets art" projects where ballet dancers watch each other prance about in brain scanners (and I am hardly caricaturing here) Colquhoun was showing the world what science really does.
He took dodgy scientific claims, or “hypotheses” as we call them in the trade, and examined the experimental evidence for them, in everyday language, with humour and verve. For all that being a world expert on single ion channels might make Colquhoun glamorous to me, I would say his blog is a bit more of a treat for the wider public, and arguably a rather good use of the time and resources of a public servant who has devoted his entire life to academia, on its relatively low wages, never once working for industry. Sharing ideas is an employment perk in academia.
Secondly, giving special attention to a blog shows that we may not have got to grips with new forms of social media yet. His blog is the problem in hand, but I’ve heard Prof Colquhoun speak about quackery in UCL lecture theatres. Was the electricity, the publicity material, the room rent, a misuse of public funds and resources? I’ve done talks myself, in universities and schools: are they all guilty of wasting public money on robust, challenging, childish and sarcastic discussion of ideas?
But lastly, if you’re worrying about the appropriate use of a science department’s resources, Prof Colquhoun is the bloke who made the fuss in Nature -the biggest academic journal in the world – about British universities giving away science degrees in quackery. The people who run the BSc "science" degrees in these pseudoscientific alternative therapies have still refused to answer questions from David, and from me, about what "science" they teach in their science degrees.
I notice that nobody is making the jokers behind these Quackery BSc’s take their gobbledygook -a word that sounds best being snorted through Colquhoun’s impressive nasal hair – off university webservers. Although courses in gobbledygook make money. And they are flattered by the Prince. And nobody can criticise them, because they actually refuse to tell us what they’e teaching. Now you tell me who should be booted out of a seat of learning.
Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org
Prof Colquhoun doesn’t really have impressive nasal hair, I just didn’t want the column to come across as too gushing. His quack page is definitely worth rooting about on:
And as you can see, he needs WordPress advice even more than I do. Also his politics feed is quite jolly and if I could work out, for example, how to link directly to the Greenhalgh story, I would. Rummage away.
[DC edit: one of the best side effects of the move was getting a proper blog, rather than a bloated web page. The old politics page is archived and the Greenhalgh story link now works]
Letter from Provost:
This is an email from the Provost to someone who emailed him this morning, which he has allowed me to post, I understand he will be sending something similar to those who email him. It’s very much worth reading. I believe – as you can imagine – that an emeritus professor of pharmacology in his seventies making the link between science and real world claims for free in everyday language is a treat, but of course I have absolutely no doubt that Colquhoun’s public engagement with science activity did pose difficulties for UCL.
These difficulties were thrown into sharp relief by the fact that those who disagreed with Colquhoun enacted their grievances through the Freedom of Information Act, UK libel law, copyright law, complaints about the use of academic resources, and efforts to lean on senior figures from the university, rather than engaging on the science, or contacting Colquhoun.
There is a balance to be struck on whether Colquhoun’s public engagement with science activities were valued enough to be worth defending (through the miracle ofinstant context you can decide for yourself) and that is of course a decision for UCL to make.
If you are going to write to the Provost I hope I can rely on you to be polite and understanding about this balance, and understand that he’s a busy man who has already been leant on over what ideally should never have been a Provost’s concerns at such an early stage.
If UCL had behaved in the way you seem to believe then your comments would be wholly justified, but of course it hasn’t.
Allow me to supply the missing facts. I;m copying this message also to Ben Goldacre and David Colquhoun.
Academic freedom is a fundamental precept of any institution fit to style itself a university. Like all freedoms, it comes with conditions, largely those that are necessary to underpin the freedoms of other people under the law, including criminal law, human rights, copyright, the laws of tort and contract, and statutory regulation.
When a university hosts a website it is taken to be the publisher of the material on it. That means that it is liable in law for any breaches of copyright, data protection and defamation. It is possible of course to engage in robust academic debate without infringing any of these rules.
But breaches of all of them have now been claimed in legal claims against UCL regarding David Colquhoun’s website, and with good reason.
A university can of course safeguard its position by moderating the content of the website. That is what I assume the Guardian does with its various blogs, and certainly is what it does with all its editorial content. Nobody sees that as a major assault on the freedom of expression of the press. To do this in a university would of course raise concerns that it constituted an incursion into academic freedom, and I also think it would be completely impractical.
Yet not to take appropriate action to protect UCL would be to expose us to potentially expensive legal action in respect of activity over which we have absolutely no control.
For the most part, academic websites don’t infringe the law. Indeed, in over 35 years as an academic this is the first such instance that I have any detailed knowledge of. If it has unlawful material that the author believes is essential for conveying his/her message, then there is no reason why they shouldn’t host it themselves and assume the consequences.
UCL has taken legal advice, which is to the effect that the website does contain material which breaks the law in several respects. Some of them have now been fixed: alleged breaches of copyright and data protection. But libel proceedings are now also in play, and Professor Colquhoun and I have a meeting on Monday with a senior defamation QC to explore the potential extent of UCL’s vicarious liability for certain statements on the website, and our possible options. There is also the question of Professor Colquhoun’s own personal liability, but of course a plaintiff will always prefer to go against a major institution because of our deep pockets.
On the basis of the advice that I receive then I shall have to determine UCL’s future course of action, and Professor Colquhoun likewise.
Just to be absolutely clear:
The item that has caused the fuss and complaint is this one. It has not been changed since the complaint, so you can decide for yourself how awful it is.
If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Scienceand Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
I have always been insanely proud to work at UCL. My first job was as an assistant lecturer. The famous pharmacologist, Heinz Otto Schild gave me that job in 1964, and apart from nine years, I have been there ever since. That’s 50 years. I love its godless tradition. I love its multi-faculty nature. And I love its relatively democratic ways (with rare exceptions).
From the start, the intellectual heart of UCL has been the staff Common Room. As I so often say, failing to waste time drinking coffee with people who are cleverer than yourself can seriously damage your career (and your happiness). And there’s no better place for that than the Housman room.
It is there that I met the great statistician Alan Hawkes, without whom much of my research would never have happened. It was there that Hyman Kestelman (among others) gave me informal tutorials on matrix algebra over lunch. It was there where I have met John Sutherland (English), Mary Fulbrook (German), many historians and people from the Slade school of Art. And it was there where, yesterday, I had an illuminating conversation with Steve Jones about the problems of twin studies for measuring heritability.
I was astonished when I arrived at UCL to discover that the Housman room was male only. I’d just come from Edinburgh which still had separate men’s and women’s student unions and some men-only bars. But Edinburgh also had a wonderful staff club, open to all. It’s true that UCL had also a women-only common room and a mixed common room, the Haldane room (which is where I went usually). But the biggest and most impressive room, the Housman room, was for men only. I found this very odd in the 1960s, the age of sexual liberation. Reform was in the air in the 1960s.
A lot of other people, not all female, thought it odd too. Direct action was called for (I was in CND at the time). So we’d go into the Housman room with a woman and join the queue for coffee. It never took long before some pompous prat would tap the woman on the shoulder and eject her. I can’t remember now the names of any of the feisty women who braved the lions’ den (perhaps this blog will remind someone).
I had any ally in Brian Woledge. He was Fielden Professor of French at UCL from 1939 (when I was 3) to 1971 so he was on the brink of retirement. I was a young lecturer, but our thinking on segregation was much the same. His obituary in the Guardian says “Of robustly secular beliefs and Fabian views, in important respects he was an heir to the ideals of the Enlightenment”. It’s no wonder we got on well.
In 1967 we proposed a motion at the Housman AGM to desegregate all common rooms. It was defeated. The next year we did it again, and were defeated again.. But at the third attempt, in 1969, we succeeded. I was very happy to have had a small role in upholding UCL’s liberal traditions.
It is now quite impossible to imagine that UCL was segregated. After all, UCL was the first English university to admit women on equal terms to men, in 1878 (the Scots were a bit ahead) And UCL was home to Kathleen Lonsdale (1903 -1971), one of the first two female fellows of the Royal Society, and the first female professor at UCL.
Nevertheless, in the mid-1960s, women were very far from being regarded as equal, even at UCL. At the time, segregation was more common than people now remember.
I was spurred to write this post when Melissa Terras, UCL’s professor of digital humanities, retweeted a reminder that it was in 1967 that a woman first ran in a an official marathon, and suffered physical attack from a male organiser for her temerity.
I was urged to record this history by both Terras and by Lisa Jardine, Director of UCL’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in the Humanities. So I have done it.
I was very aware of Kathy Switzer at the time, and I’ve no doubt she is part of the reason why I felt strongly about segregation. You can read about the 1967 Boston marathon in her own words. I thought it was a wonderful story, though I wasn’t yet into distance running myself (I was still sailing and boxing).
One of the great thing about marathons is that women and men run in the same race. That means that almost all men have had to get used to being overtaken by very many women. That has been wonderfully good for deflating male egos. When I was training for marathons in the 1980s, my training partner, Annie Briggs was on the elite start -a good hour faster than I could manage.
Now we are accustomed to watching Paula Radcliffe run marathons faster than any but the very best men. She’s the world record holder with the spectacular time of 2 hours 15 min in the 2003 London Marathon (my best is 3 hr 57 min). That’s only a bit over 26 consecutive 5 minute miles. And that’s faster than I could run a single mile at my peak.[Picture from Wikipedia: NYC marathon 2008 2:23:56]
It’s now utterly beyond belief that in the 1960s men were saying that women were too feeble to run 26 miles. It was sheer blind arrogance. After Switzer, progress was fast. In 1972 women were allowed to run in Boston, and within 10 years, the women’s record time had fallen by a full hour. Physiology hadn’t changed, but confidence had.
Of course it wasn’t until the 2012 Olympics that women gained total equality in sport. Everyone who said that women were incapable of competing in combat sports should see Rosi Sexton in action.
She’s the ultimate high-achiever. She’s an accomplished musician (grade 7 cello, ALCM piano) and she played at the Albert Hall with the Reading Youth Orchestra. She went on to get a first in maths (Cambridge, Trinity College), where her tutor was Tim Gowers. Then she did a PhD in theoretical computer science from Manchester (read her thesis). And she’s had a distinguished career as professional athlete, competing at the highest level in MMA. Why? “The other things I did, the music, the maths, just weren’t quite hard enough“.
Not many athletes have a paper in the Journal of Pure and Applied Algebra. I’d be very happy if I could do any one of these things as well as she does.
It could not be more appropriate than to be writng this in the week when the Fields medal was won by a woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, for the first time since it started, in 1936. Genetics hasn’t changed since 1936. Confidence has.
UCL mathematician, Helen Wilson, points out the encouragement this will give to female mathematicians.
On 15 July 2017, Maryam Mirzakhani died, at a mere 40 years old. It’s tragic that having achieved so much, against all the odds, the dice rolled the wrong way for her, and cancer destroyed her. Her life will inspire generations to come.
As in marathons, confidence, role models and zeitgeist matter as much as genetics.
It’s examples like these that have made me profoundly suspicious of generalisations about what particular groups of people can and cannot do. Whether it is working class boys. black boys, or women, such generalisations can be shattered over a decade or two, once the zeitgeist changes.
That’s one reason that I am so unsympathetic to the IQ enthusiasts. Great harm has stemmed from the belief that it’s possible to sum up human achievements in a single number. What’s more, it’s a number that measures your resemblance to white male psychologists. It is because politicians believed the over-hyped claims of psychologists in the 1930s, that three-quarters of the population was written off. Much the same thing has happened with women, and with skin colour.
Don’t believe it.
And the job of desegregation may not be entirely finished. In fact now it is harder to combat, since it’s unspoken. Once again, I’m reminded of Peter Lawrence’s essay, The Mismeasurement of Science. Speaking of the perverse incentives and over-competitiveness that has invaded academia, he says
“Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them . Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”
The perverse incentives that make academic life hard for women (and for many men too) are administered by HR departments (with the collusion of mostly elderly male academics). They are the very same people who write fine-sounding diversity documents and lecture you about work-life balance.
It’s time they woke up.
Note. The minutes of Housman AGMs from the 1960s are missing at the moment. If they come to light, this post will be modified accordingly.
29 August 2014
As I’d hoped, this post elicited the name of one of the women who braved the rules and went into the Housman room when it was still men-only. I had an email from Lynn Bindman, and she told me that one of them was Gertrude Falk (1925 – 2008), who had worked in Bernard Katz’s Biophysics Department since 1961.
Gertrude Falk at 76
(Camden New Journal)
"Her indifference to conventions is well illustrated by the occasion when, drinking coffee in the men’s staff common room, at that time still segregated, she responded calmly to the Beadle summoned to escort her out, “well, I am certainly going to finish my coffee first”, and did so at her leisure."
I have another story about Gertrude’s feistiness. Every year the Royal Society has a soirée for fellows and guests. It’s a sort of private view for the Summer Science exhibition. Men are required to dress like penguins despite the heat, and the invitation says "decorations will be worn". The food is good though it’s all a bit pompous for my taste. Some years ago I met Gertrude at a soirée and I saw she was wearing a medal round her neck. I said "have they made you a Dame of the British Empire?". She held up the medal and I saw it said "Erasmus High School Economics Prize". She is why I usually go to the soirée wearing my London Marathon medal.
12 May 2015
Surprising as it seems now that the Housman room excluded women until 1969, there are other UCL institutions that were almost as slow as Oxford and Camridge to join the modern age.
One of these is the Professors’ Dining Club (it isn’t actually restricted to professors). I recall going to one of their dinners in the 1960s, as a guest of Heinz Otto Schild, the then head of Pharmacology, who gave me my first job. He was a lovely man, but I was horrified that it didn’t allow women to join. I recently discovered that its records reveal that it didn’t see the light until 1981. It wasn’t until after that happened that I joined the club. It seems now to be a shameful record.