A maths professor who wrote a paper on male-female variation found himself censored and shunned by the academic establishment
In March 2017, a retired 73-year-old maths professor called Theodore (“Ted”) Hill was delighted when a paper of his was accepted at the Mathematical Intelligencer, an academic journal. The subject of the article, which he co-authored with another mathematician at Pennsylvania State University, was the “Variability Hypothesis” (VH) which states that there is more variation among the male sex when it comes to some traits than the female sex. Dr Hill had constructed a mathematical model to show how this might have come about via a process of natural selection.
The greater variability of males than females is something that generally holds true across the animal kingdom and was first noted by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man (1871). But there’s one aspect of the hypothesis which has always made it controversial: it seems to apply to human intelligence. When you look at scores in intelligence tests, there are more men than women at either end of the statistical distribution curve, meaning more geniuses and more idiots. For instance, among those scoring in the top two per cent of America’s Armed Forces Qualification Test, men outnumber women by a ratio of almost 2:1. Men also outnumber women in America’s federal prisons — 13:1. It’s possible that this gender imbalance is entirely due to sociocultural factors, but when you put it alongside Darwin’s observations it begins to look at least partly hardwired.
Ted Hill must have known he was playing with fire by defending the VH, even if his model was intended to explain the greater variability phenomenon across a vast range of different species, not just homo sapiens. In 2005, Lawrence Summers, then the President of Harvard, got into trouble when he mentioned it as a possible explanation for why there aren’t more female professors in the maths and sciences at Ivy League colleges. This was at a conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce and it wasn’t received well. Didn’t Summers realise that it was entirely to do with straight white men discriminating against women to perpetuate their privilege? One of the female professors in the audience walked out in disgust and it snowballed from there. Distinguished alumni withheld donations, Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences passed a motion of no confidence in Summers and he was forced to apologise — over and over again — like a supplicant at a Chinese re-education camp. At one particularly fraught meeting, Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at MIT, said that if she had to listen to him say another word she would be physically sick. In the end he had to resign.
It didn’t take long for things to start going pear-shaped for Hill and his co-author. Between the Mathematical Intelligencer’s acceptance of his paper and its publication, a scandal erupted at Google when a software engineer called James Damore circulated a memo criticising the way the company goes about trying to eliminate gender disparities in its ranks. As in many large US corporations, the focus is on eliminating bias — both implicit and explicit — and male employees are expected to attend diversity-and-inclusion workshops. (Diversity training is now an $8 billion-a-year business in the US). Damore unwisely suggested that this might not solve the problem. He argued that the lack of gender parity in tech — only 25 per cent of Google tech workers are women — is not primarily due to sexism, although that might play a part. Rather, the main cause is biological differences between the sexes. He stressed that he wasn’t making any essentialist claims about all men and all women, just flagging up average differences within male and female populations, whereby statistical distributions for certain personality traits overlap but don’t entirely map on to each other. He cited a number of scientific studies to illustrate the point — like the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychology at Cambridge, who has amassed evidence that females are more interested in people and males more interested in things, a difference known as empathising vs. systemising. In one experiment, Baron-Cohen found that the gaze of female new-borns lingers longer on human faces than mechanical mobiles, while the opposite is true for males, meaning this discrepancy cannot be due to sociocultural factors. According to Damore, neurobiological differences like this help explain why women outnumber men in fields such as nursing and obstetrics while men outnumber women in tech.
Damore’s standing at Google, which prides itself on being a “woke” company, went into steep decline after he wrote the memo. It was as if a low-level functionary in the Ministry of Agricultural Machine Building of the USSR had written to Stalin pointing out that the reason for the over-supply of tractors was because no amount of central planning could replicate the efficiencies of the market. The fact that Jordan Peterson sprang up to attest to the scientific accuracy of Damore’s memo probably didn’t help. A few weeks later he was fired, with the CEO of Google explaining that Damore had crossed the line “by advancing harmful gender stereotypes”. He is currently suing the tech giant, claiming it discriminates against white conservative men.
The publicity the Damore case attracted — and the media coverage was almost universally hostile — meant that elite companies and institutions suddenly became hyper-vigilant about any white males in their midst peddling “junk science” to justify gender imbalances, which was bad news for Ted Hill. His collaborator was contacted by some female colleagues in the maths department at Penn State who had read a draft of his “offensive and upsetting” paper and were concerned that it “could be used to justify discrimination and support bias against women in mathematics” and “might discourage young women from choosing mathematics as their career”. Some even said the paper reminded them of “scientific racism”. The beleaguered co-author, who was more vulnerable than Hill because he was a university employee, was then contacted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), a powerful grant-funding body which was supporting his research, to ask that he not acknowledge the organisation in the published version of the paper. He later discovered via a freedom of information request that the NSF had done this after receiving a letter from two Penn State professors — the Chair of the Climate and Diversity Committee and the Associate Head for Diversity and Equity. “Our concern,” they wrote, “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.”
It got worse. The editor of the Mathematical Intelligencer contacted Hill and his co-author to inform them that with “deep regret” she had changed her mind about publishing the paper. “I have received concerned messages from several colleagues, warning of extremely strong reactions,” she wrote. “Their concerns include the very real possibility that the right-wing media may pick this up and hype it internationally.” It turned out she’d been contacted by Amie Wilkinson, a professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago, as well as other academics, complaining about the article. They proclaimed their allegiance to the principles of academic freedom and free speech, but gave various reasons as to why this paper was beyond the pale. Hill’s co-author reluctantly concluded that being listed as the co-author of the article would be career suicide and he asked him to remove his name.
On the Left, it is a commonplace that scientific denialism is a problem for people on the other side of the political divide, not them. Whether it’s Christian evangelicals urging schools to teach Creationism, climate change sceptics refusing to recycle or anti-vaxxers putting their neighbours’ children at risk, hostility to science and data is supposed to be an exclusively right-wing vice. Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution is George W. Bush’s refusal to fund embryonic stem-cell research. His one-time aide Karl Rove is often singled out as a typical Republican denialist, with his famous dismissal of people in the “reality-based community”. As the American talk-show host Steven Colbert said at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2006: “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
But the rough treatment meted out to Ted Hill, not to mention Lawrence Summers and James Damore, suggests that Margaret Thatcher may have been closer to the mark when she said, “The facts of life are conservative.” Why would left-wing academics and their outriders in the media go to such lengths to quash research into the causes of gender differences if they didn’t think it might reveal something that threatens their progressive agenda? It was the same story when Alessandro Strumia, a professor of physics who worked at Cern, presented some research findings at a workshop on gender equality last year. Like Damore, he appealed to scientific facts to explain why women, on average, were less interested in physics than men. He was immediately turned on by more than 1,600 “woke” academics, who signed a petition condemning his remarks and, in March of this year, Cern cut all ties with him.
There cannot be much doubt that some broad-brush gender differences are innate. Not only are they cross-species, as Darwin pointed out with respect to trait variability, but they’re cross-cultural as well. Richard Lippa, a psychology professor at California State University, wrote a paper in 2000 showing that sex differences in interests — such as women being more people-oriented and less thing-oriented than men — hold true across cultures and over time. Some diehard feminists accept this data, but refuse to abandon their social constructionist dogma, claiming it still has something to do with “the patriarchy”. The problem is, if that was true, you’d expect these gender differences to be least visible in those parts of the world that have the most gender equality, like Scandinavia. In fact, the opposite is true. In Sweden, for instance, the percentage of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields is lower than it is in Algeria, suggesting that the more opportunities women have, the less likely they are to pursue careers as, say, software engineers at Google. That finding, which has been replicated numerous times, is known in social psychology as the “gender-equality paradox”, but it’s only a paradox if you think all sexual disparities are socially constructed. If you accept that some differences are hardwired, like empathising vs. systemising, it makes perfect sense.
All this is Kryptonite to feminist intellectuals. Cordelia Fine, a history and philosophy of science professor at Melbourne University, devoted a section of her book Delusions of Gender (2010) to debunking Simon Baron-Cohen’s research — the new-borns in his experiment were influenced by the researchers’ unconscious bias, apparently. In a review of the book, Baron-Cohen pointed out that couldn’t be true because he assembled a panel of independent judges who were only able to see the eye-region of the babies’ faces and it was impossible to tell what sex they were.
In Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong — and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story (2017), the science journalist Angela Saini does her best to shoot down the VH. She argues that the reason there are more men than women on the far right-hand side of the IQ bell curve is because intellectually gifted boys receive more encouragement from their parents than their female equivalents. She quotes Melissa Hines, a Cambridge psychologist, who came up with this explanation. “I think in some social environments they don’t get encouraged at all, but I think in affluent, educated social environments, there is still a tendency to expect more from boys, to invest more in boys,” says Hines.
But if that’s true, you would expect to see more variability in this trait among males from rich backgrounds than from poor backgrounds and, to date, that anomaly has never been detected. Even putting that to one side, there’s the problem of how to account for the fact that there are more males in the left-hand tail, too. Do boys with learning difficulties receive less encouragement than girls? How does Hines square that with her claim that in patriarchal societies parents have higher expectations of boys? There are only so many intellectual somersaults you can do before you have to accept that sociocultural explanations just aren’t going to work.
Why put all that effort into denying the science of gender differences? On the face of it, the behind-the-scenes attempt to suppress Ted Hill’s paper seems completely over the top. The VH doesn’t posit that women are less intelligent than men on average — it is a claim about variability, not means — or that there are no women in the upper and lower tails. So defending the hypothesis is not tantamount to arguing that women shouldn’t study STEM subjects at university or be hired as software engineers. After all, it would be irrational to assess an applicant for a university place or a job by looking at the statistical properties of the group they belong to. Why, then, the hysterical opposition?
To understand this — and the phenomenon of progressive denialism in general — it’s worth looking at another scientific hypotheses that provoked a similar reaction. I’m thinking of the meltdown among left-wing academics when E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology in 1975. Wilson is a mild-mannered entomologist famous for his work on ants, yet his attempt to bring evolutionary biology to bear on the understanding of human societies was greeted as if it were Mein Kampf by a group of liberal scientists who had assembled under the banner of “Science for the People”. The biologists in that organisation, several of whom Wilson had counted as friends until that point, formed the “Sociobology Study Group” and started firing off venomous letters to newspapers. For instance, a letter in the New York Review of Books signed by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin — both colleagues of Wilson’s in the Harvard Biology Department — accused him of peddling the same junk science that had led to the murder of six million Jews:
The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community . . . these theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.
Wilson was dubbed the “right-wing prophet of patriarchy” and subjected to vicious barracking whenever he crossed Harvard Yard or attempted to speak in public. The most famous protest occurred in 1978 at a symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. that had been convened to bring Wilson and his critics together. The sociologist Ulicia Segerstrale takes up the story in Defenders of the Truth (2000), her account of the sociobiology controversy:
The session has already featured Gould, among others, and Wilson is one of the later speakers. Just as Wilson is about to begin, about ten people rush up on the speaker podium shouting various epithets and chanting: “Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” While some take over the microphone and denounce sociobiology, a couple of them rush up behind Wilson (who is sitting in place) and pour a pitcher of ice-water over his head, shouting “Wilson, you are all wet!”
Why such a visceral, aggressive reaction to a work of scientific scholarship? One reason is that Wilson’s critics thought he was a Social Darwinist, attempting to justify “existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex” by offering an evolutionary explanation for them. But as Wilson himself pointed out, that would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy — inferring an ought from an is — and he wasn’t guilty of that. “The ‘what is’ in human nature is to a large extent the heritage of a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer existence,” he wrote. “When any genetic bias is demonstrated, it cannot be used to justify a continuing practice in present and future societies.”
Perhaps Wilson’s antagonists accused him of faulty reasoning because they were prone to it themselves. Like the feminists who went after Summers, Damore and Hill, they often seemed to be under the misapprehension that the moral case for equal rights, equal treatment and equal opportunity is contingent on human beings all being born with the same interests and capacities, and the moment you allow that some of our psychological differences are linked to genetic differences you jeopardise those rights. It’s as if they’ve misunderstood the Declaration of Independence and interpreted the phrase “All men are created equal” to be saying we are all born as tabula rasa, rather than equal in the sense of being entitled to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of wealth, power or status, which is surely what the founders had in mind.
Is this at the root of the Left’s fanatical attachment to the idea that all BIP traits (behaviour, intelligence and personality) are determined by the environment? I don’t think it can be — it’s just too incredible to think that all that intellectual energy could spring from such a schoolboy error. More likely, the progressive denialists are worried that less sophisticated minds than theirs — like those belonging to the great unwashed in red-state America — would make this mistake. Even though the civil rights gains of the past 100 years aren’t logically contingent on thinking we all start out as blank slates, perhaps they are politically dependent on it. The claim that we’re all genetically identical, save for a few trivial characteristics, is the Noble Lie that the hoi polloi must be told if we’re to retain those hard-won progressive victories and push on further. God forbid that the “right-wing media” should find out it isn’t true and whip up uneducated voters into a populist frenzy.
If that is their thinking, it would explain the constant references to “eugenics,” “race science” and the “gas chambers”. Maybe they fear a revival of those horrors if the discredited hereditarianism of the early 20th century is given any hint of credibility by scholars with the imprimatur of institutional authority. And to be fair to them, it’s true that some of the most toxic political movements of the last century were linked to genetics — there’s an historical connection between those movements and the idea that human nature has been shaped by evolutionary biology, even if there isn’t a logical one.
But as the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has pointed out, the ongoing attempt by well-intentioned liberals to suppress science and data that poses a challenge to “blank slate” orthodoxy is self-defeating. People who aren’t already aligned with progressive causes will inevitably conclude, wrongly, that moral equality is incompatible with a scientifically-informed understanding of human nature. “The often highly literate, highly-intelligent people who gravitate to the alt-Right, when they are exposed for the first time to true statements that have never been voiced in college campuses or in the New York Times or in respectable media, act almost like a bacillus to which they have no immunity,” he told a panel organised by Spiked magazine last year, “and they are immediately infected, with both a feeling of outrage that these truths are unsayable, and no defence against taking them to what we might consider rather repellent conclusions.”
If we want these “highly literate, highly intelligent people” to develop antibodies to toxic ideologies, wouldn’t it be better to allow free rein to all scholars, encouraging them to air their ideas out in the open where they can be challenged and debated, and then let these engaged listeners make up their own minds about what their political implications might be? This distrust of lay people — the conviction that they cannot handle the truth — is of a piece with the disdain left-wing intellectuals often express for democracy, such as their contemptuous dismissal of Donald Trump’s victory and the EU referendum result. As a Brexiteer in the public policy world in 2016, I was taken aback by the fury of my Remainer friends when the vote didn’t go their way, but I think I understand it now. It was their instinctive sense, as Michael Gove put it, “that the people of this country have had enough of experts” — of them, in other words.
That is another, perhaps more important reason why the liberal intelligentsia are such staunch defenders of environmental determinism: vested interest. In Two Cheers For Capitalism (1978), the late Irving Kristol identified a group of people who were essentially hostile to capitalism even though they were among its greatest beneficiaries — an educated elite he labelled “the New Class”. According to Kristol, they were “scientists, teachers and educational administrators, journalists and others in communication industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of the government bureaucracy, and so on”. To this motley crew, we can now add most of the officer class in the private sector — the editorial boards and senior employees of the most influential mainstream media platforms, such as the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Yorker, CNN, the BBC, etc.; the boards and managers of social media companies such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; the executives of large publishing houses, such as Penguin Random House, as well as a majority of the authors they publish; the leaders of the tech giants — Apple, Amazon and Google — and the Brahmin class in Silicon Valley more widely; the managers of the entertainment industry, including the Hollywood studios; the vast majority of the “talent” that makes its living in entertainment, including those employed in the performing arts, particularly the state-subsidised or charitably-funded performing arts; most artists and art dealers; the leaders of the fashion business, including the editors of fashion magazines and websites, such as Teen Vogue; and the executives of many if not most large corporations, including some global financial services companies like Goldman Sachs.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that nearly all these people are intensely hostile to the idea that BIP traits are genetically influenced. Why? Because if human society isn’t underpinned by biology, but is shaped entirely by sociocultural forces, it gives a vitally important role to “experts” and “thought leaders” like them. They believe, with Nietzsche, that around the creators of new values revolves the world, and they have appointed themselves the Übermenschen. This is the quasi-religious faith underlying the progressive ideas to which the New Class subscribes — the idea that society can constantly be improved and made ever more perfect. Mankind is not a fallen creature, permanently constrained by his flawed nature, as heretical “pseudoscientists” like E.O. Wilson maintain. He is essentially innocent and capable of returning to his prelapsarian state. To quote their patron saint Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
Just when Ted Hill had resigned himself to his paper never seeing print — though he has made it available online — he was thrown a lifeline in the form of an email from an editor at the New York Journal of Mathematics, another academic journal. This man had heard about what happened at the Mathematical Intelligencer — he was appalled — and offered to help Hill get the article published. He was confident his editor-in-chief, a devoted man of science, would look favourably on it.
So Hill duly submitted his paper, this time listing himself as the sole author, and, after positive feedback from a number of peer reviewers, it was published online on November 6, 2017. Then something odd happened. It vanished from the journal’s website — pouf, it was gone. When Hill contacted his guardian angel to find out what had happened he was told that Amie Wilkinson’s husband was on the editorial board of the Journal of Mathematics and had written a furious email to the editor-in-chief demanding the article be expunged. He denounced it as “a politically charged paper filled with pseudoscience” that was “a piece of crap” and urged him to sack the underling responsible for its publication who was “a person with extremist views”.The editor-in-chief immediately deleted the paper.
All of this was highly irregular, to put it mildly. It is not unheard of for academic papers to be retracted, but only after a formal complaint has been submitted alleging serious misconduct and a lengthy investigation has taken place. Typically, the author or authors are given an opportunity to defend themselves. In Hill’s case, though, the paper had been sent down the memory hole after just four days and not because someone had raised questions about his data or his methodology, but because the complainant disapproved of the article’s political implications. Hill’s sin was to challenge one of the most sacred beliefs of the New Class, the holiest of holies — that gender is a social construct — and he couldn’t be allowed to get away with it, any more than Larry Summers, James Damore or Alessandro Strumia could. The fact that his paper had been published then un-published meant it would never now enjoy the kudos of academic respectability. He couldn’t submit that article to another academic journal because he wouldn’t be able to attest that it hadn’t appeared anywhere else. It had, albeit for a nanosecond. Hill has now revised his article, thereby freeing him of that constraint, and submitted it to a different journal. He is awaiting the verdict.