Saturday, May 31, 2008

Good science is a slightly macho subject

Sean Carroll wrote a new, somewhat frightening, politically correct attack on Richard Feynman in particular and old-fashioned scientists in general and about 1/3 of his readers have joined the mudslinging campaign:
Charming (Cosmic Variance)
He begins with a story showing that Feynman had a truly egalitarian approach to women - he treated cooks, engineers, and presidents of companies in the same way. ;-)

Later in Carroll's text, Richard Feynman and similar people are blamed for the fact that women tend to leave science, engineering, and technology. Needless to say, it is Nature, not man-made atmosphere ;-), that is responsible for a vast majority of the observed sex differences. The main "culprit" is not only the innate aptitude discussed below but also - obviously - the care that women thankfully decide to dedicate to their children and families.

And the presence of Richard Feynman was mostly a reason for women to stay. Feynman has brought his love and care to several special women, starting from Arlene Feynman (whom he married despite her tuberculosis; I doubt that one of the PC champions is able to love this much), and he has propagated the excitement about physics and his sharp explanations into many corners, including his friends among prostitutes. Do these achievements sound too remote to you, Sean? Well, you might have no prostitute friends and you have contributed nothing to the path integral either. These are two defects of yours, Sean, that can't be compensated against each other.

In fact, Sean and his source criticize Feynman for giving several women the honor to bring a bowl of soup to Feynman himself. That opportunity had to be the ultimate crime that dwarves all events that ever took place in Nazi concentration camps! (At least if you measure them by the contempt printed on Cosmic Variance.) You can see that it is Feynman's implicit disagreement with the ideology of feminism, not his acts that would actually hurt a woman, that lead Sean and others to defame Feynman's character.

And who feels irritated by Feynman's inability to stand pompous fools? The pompous fools surely do. Meanwhile, due to the favorable social atmosphere, these fools became not only pompous but literally aggressive - I talk about various pompous, politically correct pseudointellectuals and crackpots of the Lee Smolin type. Among other things, that's the true primary reason why Smolin attacks the atmosphere of particle physics and mixes it with silly debates about feminism in his dumb book addressed to other pompous fools.

Feynman enjoyed the traditional rules of the game. But he didn't excessively differ from many other typical men of his era because his era wasn't yet poisoned by political correctness. Men and women preferred (and were allowed to prefer) to do whatever they were passionate about and whatever made them happy over the things that look politically correct. Here I don't want to talk about Feynman's stories how he bought a drink to a girl - "Listen, before I buy you a drink, I want to know one thing: will you sleep with me tonight?" And she answered Yes. :-) This was just one of dozens of stories of this "sexist pig" that I always found hilarious.

Instead, I want to talk about a more serious subject - the true correlation between gender and science. The following title was chosen for this brief analysis:

Good science is a macho subject

During the years, I have met many scientists, including girls and women, and I remember very well that a vast majority of the women who were serious about science have agreed that science has certain rules and values that must be respected even if the distribution of the people who do science ends up being asymmetric.

In fact, the girls and women I have met have appreciated that certain principles of feminism - and not only the extreme feminism - are incompatible with the scientific method more than the men did. Perhaps, the reason behind this observation is that the women were not afraid to say what they think.

This "women in science" debate is not about the real life and interests of the female scientists who like science because most of them - the "silent majority" - agree with me, not with Sean Carroll. This is a purely ideological debate about a left-wing ideology that Sean Carroll and other feminists who put their ideology above the scientific method decided to aggressively advocate.

Why is it macho?

OK, why is science a macho subject? Could we think about a sentence that succintly summarizes the principle of the scientific method? Open this video and listen to Richard Feynman:
If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong.
That simple statement is a key to science. It doesn't make a difference how beautiful it is, how smart you are, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong. ;-)

Think about this comment for a while. It sounds cruel, doesn't it? In fact, it is cruel. And it is essential, too. There's no room for compassion or for the promotion of the "enhanced diversity of ideas". Theories that can't agree with experience must be abandoned. It's their death. It doesn't matter whether the author of the theory is male or female, whether he or she had a difficult life, or whether he or she is going to cry. Science doesn't look at these things.

Once again, my experience shows that the girls and women who like science and who are capable of doing it fully appreciate these basic facts. At the same moment, it is important to notice that in the whole society, it is significantly harder for women to accept these principles.

Most female scientists surely realize very well that they significantly differ - and they have to differ - from the average women in many respects and that Sean is fundamentally wrong when he writes: "Providing equal encouragement to everyone entering into science … would make for better science." The female researchers appreciate the freedom of a modern society - including their freedom to join "mostly male" subjects - much like the other women usually appreciate the freedom from the equations (after a few annoying years with equations at school). :-)

Female scientists may still be attractive and do many great things like other women (and many of them do!) but they surely adopt a part of the "hard hat" (engineering) culture, "lab coat" (biology and chemistry) culture, or "geek" (maths, physics, and IT) culture simply because these characteristically "male" cultures are pre-requisites for these disciplines much like muscles are pre-requisites for wrestling. You can't compensate these essentials by "more encouragement" and even if you could, the price could be too high to be paid. Of course that there exist societies where the division of labor between sexes is absent. But all of these societies are primitive tribes that haven't developed much simply because their "feminist friendly" arrangement doesn't work too well.

One can be passionate but he or she can't really be compassionate about the theories (and their authors). I can tell you, it is a non-trivial requirement because I often feel compassionate myself. You may know these feelings. It is a bad feeling if you have been working on a project and you find out that it doesn't work and it cannot work.

It is an equally bad feeling if you obtain/learn evidence that proves that thousands of amateur scientists (and, indeed, it is frequently the professional scientists, too) have wasted decades of their lives by working on a wrong theory - luminiferous aether, loop quantum gravity, or any other wrong theory you may think of. But the cold facts must eventually win over emotions if you are a science-oriented person. And once you learn that the authors of provably wrong theories usually don't care that their theories are wrong - and many of them get away with it much more smoothly than you get away with saying the obvious truth - you lose your compassion, too. Once you see it, there is nothing to be compassionate about!

Average women are probably much less passionate but much more compassionate when it comes to theories. ;-) It is an approach that is valuable in other contexts but it usually hurts in science.

The origin of the differences

Where does the "male" character of the scientific method originate? Science was indisputably born as a male subject. Today, we live in a modern free society where disciplines are opened to anyone, not only the traditional groups, but the discrepancy hasn't disappeared. And it will actually never disappear. Wise female scientists realize that even if they are very good, they are still playing a traditionally male game.

People often talk about the natural selection during the most recent millenia. If you allow me to paraphrase Franziska Michor's attitude, men typically tended to be hunters and warriors while women were mothers and cooks. Consequently, women became better with emotions, empathy, organization of objects on a two-dimensional board, and memorization of frequently repeated procedures. Stronger three-dimensional graphics cards and computational units have evolved in men. They became better in visual perception, dynamics, confrontation, strategies, abstract reasoning, and quantitative analysis.

The female factor gives our society (and the families) the certainty and safety. The male factor gives it the trials and errors, unexpected twists and turns, and the true diversity in complex behavioral patterns. None of us is 100% male or 100% female in this sense but these idealized factors surely do exist.

Such a different evolution of the two sexes was possible because the effect of the sexual hormones on the brain development can be "trained" (and affected by natural selection) somewhat separately for men and women. Each of us has a DNA code that remembers what both the male and female hormones should do with the brain. These effects are surely not the most important processes underlying life but they equally certainly exist.

Most of these observations are probably kind of true but I find it obvious that many of the sex differences originated much earlier, in the era of primitive organisms. In fact, even a sperm is a small Christopher Columbus who tries to discover a new continent on an egg, or the Earth. There also exist exceptions to this rule but the signal supporting this correlation is far too strong to be neglected.

The three-dimensional visualization may be an interesting issue to discuss but I still think that a more elementary and typical male characteristic, namely the innate aptitude for confrontation and competition (and the correspondingly reduced talent for empathy), is the most important driver behind the different attitudes of men and women to sciences. Again, I feel it is necessary to repeat that all these observations are statistical propositions, not universal rules that are valid for every single person.

Also, honest men and women are comparably likely to agree with me. Most men and most women in science - the silent majority - do agree with me. However, almost everyone is being intimidated by the PC Gestapo these days.

Ordinary human relationships

Finally, I want to say a few words about the regulation of dating and other traditional relationships between men and women in the Academia. I have always found these regulations absolutely incredible and outrageous. In 2008, many people want to actively support homosexual marriages but they also want to actively ban some of the most natural heterosexual relationships you can imagine. Here I talk about the policies justified by the propaganda that a "senior" person cannot date a "junior" person because it would be a case of exploitation, discrimination, a clash of interest, or one of many PC buzzwords like that. Give me a break.

I think that in the private sector, the relationships between directors and their secretaries have become kind of "classical" and there is nothing universally wrong about them. Quite on the contrary, these relationships are frequently supported by deep feelings and they often work well, too. Similar comments apply to professors and students or other combinations. My uncle married his former student and it's been a nearly perfect marriage for many decades until it was brutally terminated by my auntie's serious disease.

But even if you thought that these relationships are bad in average, you have no right to impose this opinion of yours upon others - as a universal ban - because such a regulation is a flagrant violation of the freedom of both groups of people. Let me emphasize that I am talking about both groups because senior(ish) scientists are surely not universal scum that the rest of the society should be protected against ;-) - even though this is exactly the impression that the policymakers probably had in mind. Quite on the contrary: scientists, especially the achieved ones, have something that should give their owners a certain new degree of respect and legitimate attractivity (that is still unlikely to compensate the repulsive force that the word "scientist" exerts upon most ordinary people).

The regulation of the relationships in the Academia is a policy that contradicts the presumption of innocence, too.

It is absurd when e.g. a senior(ish) scientist cannot date a person that everyone else - every janitor, for example - can. It is also very insulting - and false - if an institution automatically expects that a senior(ish) scientist has to be a nasty jerk who is going to mix professional and personal issues into unwelcome combinations. I wonder why the universities keep on hiring new people if they assume that all of the new hires are jerks, rapists, or criminals. ;-)

It is also very bad if an institution - or a policymaker - expects that it is always one side that benefits from a relationship while the other side always loses. Relationships usually have two (or more) sides. The statements that it is always one side that loses is Marxist in character. Just like the working class was "exploited" by the evil capitalists, the nice female people were (or even are?) apparently being "exploited" and "discriminated against" by their male counterparts. Sorry but I think that Marxism and feminism are two comparably false and dangerous ideologies. The workers have always been paid for their work and the women get a lot from the relationships, too. I would say that they usually get too much but some women are more modest and they would surely feel happy if they could fetch a bowl of soup to Richard Feynman! Who is protecting the rights of these women? I do - while Sean is a sexist pig who finds all women too undignified to do the job!

Does political correctness hurt someone?

Some left-wing people have argued that the political correctness doesn't hurt anyone. They must live in a different Universe. For example, the good name of one of the best scientists of the 20th century would be at risk unless the people realized that Sean Carroll is just an extreme feminist brown shirt who should be ignored. (Not even the communists have tried to pollute the name of the great "non-socialist" scientists and engineers from the history textbooks - even though not all classical scientists were early communists! Feminists are obviously much nastier in this respect.)

But this controversy is not just about the internet activities of Sean Carroll and about the good name of scientists who have been gone for 20 years. It affects the real life, too.

Real people are being intimidated, threatened, and unjustly accused all the time. Every teacher whose female students have a lower score than the male ones - and it is about 50% of teachers or more - is at risk that the inequality will cause problems to him or her (especially if some people have other reasons for her or usually him to be attacked). Instructors and managers, especially the male ones, are being routinely blamed for the laws of Nature. They are often forced - or effectively forced - to leave. You don't have to go too far to find many obvious examples.

Everyone who says that the excessively politically correct Academia of 2008 is still discriminating against the women is a dangerous lunatic because he or she clearly plans to make the atmosphere even more suffocating and hypocritical than it is today.

And that's the memo.

Hat tip: Rod


  1. OK, as a WOMAN who happens to have a degree in that there science thingy (OK, so it is Physics), all I have to say is:


    Oh, and I am taking time off from my professional career (sold my company, in fact, to do so), in order to raise my kids RIGHT - which, of course, means...myself! I see this as a prudent investment in my retirement fund...

    Yeah, I know...I am not very good at helping them 'sociologists' (and they are NOT scientists, even if they do wear labcoats) make up neat little boxes to stick people into....

    But, of course, that IS part of the fun!

  2. Lubos, have you seen this EU campaign?