27 Jun 2019

A dive into the intellectual dark web: you don’t own science and facts

In our last analysis, we look into the making of yet another alt-right martyr: a supposed victim of a feminist conspiracy to destroy science and reason. Seems appropriate.

Tijana Cvjeticanin
Tijana Cvjeticanin Istinomjer, Bosnia and Herzegovina
A dive into the intellectual dark web: you don’t own science and facts - NewsMavens
Alessandro Strumia. Youtube


During the past eight months, we have published dozens of analyses and fact checks of various forms of sexist claims in the media and the public sphere in general. NewsMavens will soon stop publishing, which means Femfacts is coming to an end. So for our very last fact check, I will allow myself to step away from mere analysis. Here is my -- first and last -- about why I chose this particular topic as a conclusion for Femfacts.

Even with its flaws, science is the best system of building knowledge and understanding the world that we have as human beings. In my (perhaps somewhat romanticized) view, it is a noble and vigorous search for facts which should inform and guide our attitudes and decisions -- for the better. 

Of course, it hasn’t always lived up to that promise. I have seen legal textbooks telling students that rape happens more often in the summer because it’s triggered by “women’s bodily scent which is felt more strongly in hot weather”, and medical encyclopedias saying that homosexuality can and should be “eliminated” via psychiatric treatment. These were from decades ago and they are (hopefully) no longer considered scientific facts. But they have had real and detrimental consequences on people’s lives and well being.

Thus, there are few things I find more scary and infuriating than seeing science being weaponized and misinterpreted to serve as a pretext for violence and injustice, or to hamper progress rather than foster it. Claiming that a destructive political agenda is based on “scientific facts” makes it seem not just logical, but inevitable and definitive -- and therefore more persuasive and easier to spread. And that’s exactly what’s been happening within the new populist movements gaining ground in Europe, which share the goal of rolling back the rights of women and racial, ethnic and sexual minorities. This case is a textbook example of the twisted reality created by such movements.


From September 26-28, 2018, The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) hosted its first workshop on High Energy Theory and Gender. The format of the conference included talks on “recent developments in theoretical high-energy physics and cosmology” as well as discussion “of gender and equal opportunities in the field”.

One of the sessions discussing gender was a talk from Italian theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia, whose topic was “Bibliometrics data about gender issues in fundamental theory”, which he presented on 9.28.2018. His presentation announced that he would interpret “bibliometric data about ‘fundamental theory and gender’” to “answer the big question” of the gender asymmetry (the significantly higher number of men than women scientists) in high-energy Physics (HEP). 

Strumia offered two theoretical frames which he was about to test using his data: “mainstream theory”, where the disproportion is explained by gender-based bias and/or discrimination and “Conservative theory”, which holds that there is “no asymmetry” because the gender disbalance is just a product of men and women’s different interests and abilities, since physics careers are (and have always been) based on merit. 

Strumia’s presentation went on to support the “conservative theory” with data he collected from a CERN-hosted High-Energy Physics Literature Database (Inspire), including citations and data on hiring of male and female scientists, along with a mish-mash of data/excerpts from various research that he presented as indicators of male and female intellectual abilities and interests. 

Besides claiming to prove that women’s low representation in HEP “does not [reflect] discrimination”, Strumia did claim to find some gender discrimination in the data he interpreted -- discrimination targeting male physicists. It was found in “quotas in best jobs” which, according to him, unfairly favor women and undermine the merit-based scientific system. 

Strumia also offered something titled “Recent: Case Studies” where he used his own example of being passed up for a job at the Italian institute for nuclear physics (INFN). This slide included the name of one person from the INFN hiring commission (Silvia Penati), the name of the applicant who did get the job (Anna Ceresole, with the world “hired”), his own name with the words “not hired” and a mysterious quote “The oppressive ambient started to open”. 

Next to each of the names, Strumia wrote the number of citations from Inspire database, showing his to be much higher than those of the two women. Both of them were present in the audience and, according to one account, Strumia physically pointed a finger at them while presenting this (this can’t be verified, as the video recording is no longer available).

The first public reaction to his talk came from physicist Jessica Wade, who expressed anger and disbelief at Strumia’s talk, but also wrote about his confrontational exchange with her in the Q&A part of her presentation “On the road to equality”. 

One by one, other scientists from the HEP field followed; a group of them soon created a website titled “Particles for Justice”, with a statement denouncing Strumia’s claims as unethical, unprofessional and scientifically flawed. Other HEP colleagues were invited to join in and they did -- in thousands. The statement collected 4288 signatories, out of which at least 1556 from the HEP field, judging by the information they provided in the signatures (246 initial signatories and at least 1310 more after the website went “viral”).  

A reaction from CERN was also quick to follow, describing Strumia’s presentation as unethical, offensive, and a breach of CERN’s Code of conduct -- especially the personal attack on the two colleagues he called out by name. The video recording was removed from the website and Strumia (who was a visiting scientist at CERN) was suspended and his contract with CERN wasn’t renewed. His own institution, the University of Pisa, launched an ethical investigation which concluded that his presentation was a violation of the University’s ethical standards, issuing a “public reprimand” without any other sanctions. The INFN also issued a press release, stating that Strumia’s statements were in violation of its ethical code and “discriminatory and openly damaging to the reputation of researchers who are associated with the INFN”.  


What followed was a proper “blockbuster episode” in a series of culture wars showing, perhaps better than any other, how the intricacies of US political divisions have seeped into cultural and political context of Europe -- and beyond.  

Unsurprisingly, Strumia’s case was quickly picked up by prominent figures of the “intellectual dark web”, a movement (of sorts) of pundits and academics who use narratives of “freedom of speech” protection and “science based on facts and reason” to justify discriminatory politics. Some are openly linked to the “alt right”, others just present themselves as defenders of “science and reason”, but what they have in common is the attitude that feminism, (or cultural Marxism, gender ideology, identity politics - whatever they call it) is a dangerous ideology gunning for the scientific method, attempting to censor it, destroy it and go against the laws of nature in the name of social justice. 

If this sounds familiar, that’s because there is a significant overlap between the “free speech movement” and the movement to “restore the natural order” which actually wants to “restore” political order impervious to protection of human rights. Nowhere has this been seen clearer than in the reactions which came from a German right-wing anti-abortion group Agens and their affiliate website Cuncti -- both also prominent “men’s’ rights” platforms. 

These have jointly (and promptly) set up a website “Science censored / Cases of politically correct censorship” to campaign for Strumia and other “victims of politically correct persecution” (CERN: Return Prof. Strumia to office!). The website was later renamed Science Censored: Working for Scientific Research Free of Ideology and the identity of its creators subsequently hidden. Another website, Justice for Strumia, was also anonymously launched by one of “Agens” chairmen, Tom Todd, who revealed himself as the platform’s creator in the tweet sharing the petition to “reinstall” Strumia at CERN. Other similar figures also rushed to his defense: French right-wing Youtuber Virginie Vota published a vlog “PERSECUTED BY FEMINISTS FOR HIS FINDINGS” where she claims that Strumia has been subjected to “true persecution, a wave of slander aiming to break his reputation, his career, threatening a real professional and social ostracization to silence him”. The examples go on and are too numerous to mention. But the foundations for Strumia’s martyrdom were definitely laid quickly and firmly.

Strumia’s favorable view of this “crowd” is also apparent, not just from the many (many!) statements he made after the fact, but also by the language and the imagery he used in his presentation. To illustrate his points, for example, he used memes created by a Twitter account “AntiFem Comics” which was, apparently, too offensive even for Twitter, which got it suspended. But Strumia found their images appropriate for a science conference presentation, altering the first (p 23.) just enough to remove the “AntiFemComics” sign in the corner. The second (p 25.) however, he also cropped to omit the lower part of the image which mocks feminism by presenting it as harmful for rape victims (!).

The original image, cut in half for Strumia’s presentation at CERN conference


These circles mounted a quick and forceful response to Strumia’s “persecution”, screaming censorship and retaliation of the “social justice warriors” which, apparently, rule the academic world in a cult-like manner. 

Here we’ll just list the main theses:

  • Mainstream media, apparently also under the thumb of “social justice warriors” have purposely misrepresented the nature and content of Strumia’s talk to further spark the outrage campaign against him.
  • Strumia presented solid scientific data which none of his critics were able to subvert using facts and science. Instead, they went for moral outrage as a way to bring him down for telling the “politically incorrect truth”.
  • CERN and other institutions have spoken against Strumia not because he violated their ethics code, but because he exposed the “open secret” of a conspiracy favoring less capable women at disadvantage of capable men in science.


Strumia’s claims were misrepresented

One of the authors to stand in Strumia’s defense was science writer Peggy Sastre. In her text Quand des féministes harcèlent des scientifiques (When feminists harass scientists) published in Le Point and reprinted on April 1, 2019 in Quillette as “Activists Must Stop Harassing Scientists”, Sastre wonders if the era of “factual scientific investigation” is over, making way for “indignation campaigns” and “privileging the opinions and identities of scientists”. 

According to Quillette's translation, she also claims that the media have misrepresented Strumia’s presentation -- specifically the BBC:

“By the time the story reached the BBC, Strumia had become a dangerous misogynist who believes women are “not made” for physics. (...) Which he never said, obviously. But neither the mainstream media, nor the army of woke physicists—who set up a website to denounce Strumia called “Particles For Justice”—nor the terrified administrators at CERN and the University of Pisa who immediately launched “investigations,” would be deterred by such nuances.  (...) In its coverage of CERN’s decision, the BBC once again misrepresented Strumia’s comments, claiming that he said because physics was “invented by men” women have no place in the field. In fact, he acknowledged the contributions of women, including Marie Currie, in his presentation, as he explains on his blog”

These arguments echo Strumia’s own claims of being misrepresented by the Italian press, which he offered at the aforementioned blog The gender talk at CERN:

“Other media attributed to me, in quotation marks, sentences that I never said.  Correcting everything would be too long: I limit myself to some titles. According to Corriere della Sera (2/10/2018) I said: ‘physics is not for women’”

Accusations of uttering statements he never made were also heard in the Youtube video of Strumia and one of the prominent figures of the “reason defenders”, Canadian academic Gad Saad (December 10, 2018, My Chat with Physicist Alessandro Strumia). This time, it wasn’t about the media, but about the “Particles for justice” website:

“Strumia: “This ‘Particles for justice’ writes: “Strumia’s arguments are morally reprehensible. Belittling the ability and legitimacy of scientists of color”. Saad: You never mentioned color! Strumia: Anything about race! I only spoke about gender and I’m attacked as a racist. It’s total madness, total madness!”

So, has Strumia really been grossly misrepresented both by the scientific community and the media? Not quite. 

The claim that he never mentioned race is not entirely true. Granted, he didn’t include race or ethnicity in his data interpretation. But his portrayal of “mainstream theory” -- which he also labelled as “cultural Marxism”, includes quotes such as these:

“Mansplaning. Gaslighting. White Male Hetero Privilege. Sexual harassment at epidemic levels. Micro-aggressions”. “M theory is (cultural) Marxism / Some politicians survived to 1989 promoting a victimocracy of “minorities” and silence who disagrees with their ideology.”

On the other hand, the “reasonable conservative theory” is presented with:

“Physics is a community of interest, optimized to understand nature. 1. Physics does not depend on nation, race, sex ⇒ open to good people from any background.”

Then, the BBC has never claimed that Strumia said “physics is not for women”, as claimed in “Quillette”. They have published several reports on the case, none of which stated such a claim (1.10.2018, 1.10.2018, 6.10.2018, 2.10.2018, 7.3.2019).

On the other hand, this was, indeed, clickbait used by Corriere della Serra on 1.10.2018. While the article itself hasn’t attributed such a claim to Strumia, they did put it in a ghastly looking quote in the headline. 

However, while Strumia raved about this distortion in the media when it targeted him, he himself did the exact same thing in his scientific presentation. He offered a paraphrased interpretation of a part of the Istanbul Convention and presented it as a direct quote -- in the part where he ridicules “M theory”, Strumia writes:

“'Discriminations against men “shall not be considered discrimination' (Istanbul convention article 4). Click to check”.

Whether this was an attempt at humor, or his honest interpretation of the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, is hard to say, not least due to the chaotic style of the presentation. The fact remains that no such provision exists in it -- what Article 4 really says is “Special measures that are necessary to prevent and protect women from gender‐based violence shall not be considered discrimination under the terms of this Convention”. 

“They just ignored his data.”

 Next, Strumia’s defenders claimed that he’s being attacked using emotion rather than reason, because the facts were “on his side” and it was more convenient to ignore them. Sastre writes:

Janice Fiamengo, Professor of English Literature at the University of Ottawa and an expert on feminist attacks on freedom of speech, has been following the Strumia affair from the beginning. And she finds it depressing. By email, she told me she believes CERN’s decision “sends an unmistakable signal to the entire scientific community that the era of fact-based scientific investigation (perhaps always imperfectly pursued, and waning lately) has come to a decisive end.”

From this point forward, every scientist will know that he or she must ensure that all statements, practices, and research are feminist-approved. Any research touching on social issues, particularly related to the status of women (though including race, religion, and other hot-button issues), must now affirm the ideological orthodoxies of our day: that there is no difference in interest and ability between peoples or groups, and that any inequalities in achievement must be a result of pervasive injustices and discrimination against under-represented groups. Even where hard data exists to show that the injustices and discrimination do not exist (even where it can be shown that the “oppressed group” is actually advantaged, as in Strumia’s presentation), such data must be ignored, denied, and preferably denounced.

CERN has just announced that it pays obeisance to a fanatical group of ideologues rather than to the imperatives of truth-based investigation. This is a witch-hunt, pure and simple, and it shows how thoroughly entrenched the new Puritans have become in the once-impregnable physical sciences.

Thousands of comments on blogs and social networks have voiced a similar opinion, asking “politically correct scientists” to check Strumia’s data rather than blindly attack him on ideological basis. 

Strumia said so himself in a statement given to “Physics World” on 8.10.2018 and his “Quilette” article:

 “He adds that the authors of the letter “don’t mention the alternative theory which I summarized because it can fit the data, which is what matters in science [rather than] claiming that deplorables should be fired.” 

Please check the slides and the data, don’t trust the media.  Next, if you like, criticise what I said. Not what I never said.  I thank the many people who already understood the real state-of-affairs and wrote me to express their support.

And in another article in “Quillette” (Cathy Young, Alessandro Strumia: Another Politically-Correct Witch-Hunt, or a More Complicated Story?, 22.4.2019) we read:

Virtually none of Strumia’s critics made a genuine effort to engage with the data he presented. Hossenfelder—who believes women in science are still held back by sexist cultural biases but also opposes preferential treatment as a shortcut to equality—is a welcome exception.

But they did check and engage with his data (and their interpretation) -- and not just Sabine Hossenfelder. So have many other scientists who looked into Strumia’s presentation and punched numerous holes in it. Here are just a few of the authors and the arguments they published:

On 5.10.2018. German theoretical physicist and science writer Sabine Hossenfelder wrote Gender-bias in Academia: The Case Strumia where she presented her bibliometric data, albeit from a different database. She pointed out the “bias blind spot” expressed in Strumia’s claim that “smarter people are less affected by implicit  bias”; the fact that he didn’t take into account that most physicists publish 1-2 papers and drop out of academic careers ( the “leaky pipeline”, which is more leaky for women), and performed the same analysis on her data only for active researchers - which gave completely different results than Strumia’s. She did additional analysis presented here and came to the conclusion that citations can’t either prove or disprove the existence of gender bias as postulated by Strumia.

On 2.10.2018. Sylvie Coyad published "Donna" & debunking Strumia, analyzing the presentation slide by slide and finding it to be “amateur statistics” in assuming that the authors present in the InsPire database regularly update their profile (which they don’t), that women more often cite other women’s articles (also false) and that “difference in quotations and in the career shows a difference in IQ, ie that in high-energy physics the IQ of women is lower than that of men” for which no evidence was provided. 

The fact that research on general population IQ was applied without any testing or factual basis to a specific group of high energy physics scientists and just correlated with their citations out of the blue, was also pointed out by Eluned Smith, in her 4.10.2018. text “Particle physicist proves that YOU are cleverer than 20% of people at CERN (or how to spot dodgy data analysis when its staring you in the face)”:

As can be seen from Fig. 2, this means that people with individual citations of 10^{-1} correspond to having an average IQ and those with an individual citation less than this have a less than average IQ.  That corresponds to, I don’t know, 20% of high energy physicists [**] with a less than average IQ. Just think about that for a second. I am the first one to say there are some right incompetent idiots among us in physics, but I don’t think I ever met anyone who has a significantly lower than average IQ. Let alone 20% of us.

[**] and implies that women in this low IQ region are over represented, which immediately goes against his assumption that IQ = ability = citations, where both gender IQs are gaussianly distributed 

Of course what has really happened here is that he has picked a mapping between IQ level and citation level that suits his narrative, as well as picking a relationship between male and female IQ to suit his narrative.

Smith also pointed to the fact that experimental and theoretical physicists don’t produce the same kind of work, where the former “tend to have more absolute citations,  being part of large collaborations. Dividing through by number of authors  however (there are often around 3000 authors on a paper) drastically reduces the number of citations for experimentalists. This means that if there were proportionally more males than females in theory compared to experiment, this would favour males, or vice versa. Thus, checking gender variation across theory and experiment (which I suspect there is from my experience, and which is very easy to do with the information in this data base) would be a paramount check before ever using this metric. The fact that he hasn’t checked this should ring alarm bells.

Many have also emphasized that a physicist trying to deliver a social science paper and failing is really not that much of a surprise, so the negative responses were hardly the result of a “conspiracy to hide the truth”. Eleanor Hook in Physics Has an Obvious Gender Problem—So How Does Someone End Up Thinking the Field is Biased Against Men? writes that Strumia disregards actual research done in this field, which found that 44% in the astronomy field reported being explicitly harassed by male colleagues and 35% women of color also reported harassment based on race. She and others also addressed the 2012 experiment documenting clear bias in rating competency and hiring when the same job applications were submitted under a male and female name. She also stressed that the proven preference of both genders for men can influence choices of citations and the fact that citations tend to go “viral” (everytime one is cited it raises their visibility and leads to more likely citations) so the bias can therefore also spread virally. Moreover, men cite themselves 56% more than women -- an incredible fact to omit from “research” on gender which uses citations as a variable. 

Finally, Strumia overlooks the recorded history of shunning women’s contributions in science, including Maria Curie which Strumia offers as an example that when women “do a good job” and show the same “ability” as men, they get recognized without facing gender bias. However, Curie was initially passed over for a Nobel prize nomination and it was only after the intervention of her husband that the initial letter of nomination was edited - so she wasn’t exactly as “welcomed” as he claims.

There are more scientists who have done similar analyses of Strumia’s “bulletproof” data. Some, like Philip Moriarty (Beauty and the biased, 12.12.2018.) and Andrea Giammanco (Una nuova simmetria discreta (mente sbagliata) 4.10.2018) did it calmly and by engaging in a discussion with Strumia. 

Others, like  HEP professor Jon Butterworth, were far less patient and hit him with both a scientific analysis and heavy sarcasm (The Strumion. And on. 1.10.2018.). Which is really not that hard to understand, given what Strumia did, especially with regard to “naming and shaming” of colleagues.

“There were no ethics violations” 

When CERN and INFN published statements condemning Strumia’s actions, his apologists tried to downplay the fact that he personally attacked and accused two women of nepotism and gender favoritism. Here’s a quote of Gad Saad during his talk with Strumia, attaching his own grievances over a supposed discrimination prompted by “left-wing lunacy”:

Saad: Now, one of the things when some of the people did not agree that your analysis was flawed and therefore they couldn’t hang their hat on that, they shifted the goal post and argued along a different line to try to attack you. They said “No no no no, we don’t mind that he analyzed the data on sex differences. What really upset us is that he behaved inappropriately by drawing a personal comparison between himself and other female scientists who have gone up for a job and he named them”. What do you think about that particular criticism?

(...) Just for you to know, I recently... I had a chair professorship - maybe this will now get me into trouble, let’s see - I had a chair professorship for ten years, this was a university-wide chair. And I was going up now for the next chair last year and the person who beat me probably had one third of my dossier, but she had one criterion on which I couldn’t compete. So there you go. So, believe me, you’re not the only one to be facing these realities. As a matter of fact in Canada, and I’m sure now in Italy it’s probably going to be the same, the Canadian government gives out endowed chairs as a function of what they now call equity and inclusiveness. So it doesn’t matter what your merit is, if you have the right personal metrics - you’re indigenous, you have a skin of a certain color, you are transgender, you’re a woman, it gives you higher scores. I mean, it is insane, right?"

However, Strumia’s lament over the position he lost to a supposedly less qualified female applicant wasn’t just real and very unethical (CERN Code of conduct explicitly states that respect for colleagues' privacy is a high priority). It was a leitmotif and most probably the true reason for his whole presentation -- and he kept talking about it, despite the fact that he removed that slide from the presentation he uploaded on his blog. 

In quotes Strumia offered both in his presentation and the article he later wrote for Quillette, he actually misrepresented statements made by the two women in question as being presented at the CERN conference:

"The following phrases appeared in the presentations:  (...) 'practically all women share the same kind of sad and unfair experiences since the beginning of their scientific career,' and physics is an 'oppressive ambient.'"

These links go to a presentation from 2016 Gender Summit Brussels, not the one in CERN. And the quote is about the sharing of experiences by women during the course of COST Action, a project by Anna Ceresole, whom he accuses of "taking his position" and Silvia Penati, one of the five commission members who didn’t choose him for a INFN post. Penati is also mentioned in other parts of the presentation (“Sexism in conferences? Silvia Penati et al. complain when key speakers at a conference are men.”), as is Gina Rippon, who participated in 2016 summit along with Ceresole and Penati (“Interest / Past gender-string conferences: talks by Gina Rippon (1,858 citations), a neurobiologist critical of ‘neurotrash’ like Simon Baron-Cohen (157,000 citations) who claims from observation that men/women have different average interests”).

The (mis)quote given here on “oppressive ambient”, that Strumia repeatedly uses in his obsessing over “gender conferences” and citations, has also been taken from their presentation. Looking at these and numerous other “jabs” throughout his presentation, there is hardly any doubt that a personal vendetta was the greatest motivator for its content and tone -- which was anything but ethical and professional. 

Moreover, Strumia seemed eager to “take on” not just these specific women, but the whole idea of the workshop organized by CERN. As reported by Jessica Wade, although he wasn’t present for most of her presentation, he returned in the end and started asking pointed and nonsensical questions which can be heard in the recording at about 1:00:00:

I read that students in the UK have problems with debts because all these programs have a huge cost. I come from Italy and we produce as many physicists as in the UK. We have nothing of this and the result is the same. (Wade: You have no financial debt?) We have the same number of physicists as in the UK. (Wade: Living costs in the UK are extraordinarily high. Living somewhere like London is ridiculously expensive and then you’re expected to pay for your college degree (...) There are challenges to student life beyond just your academic career.) Even in Italy students need to eat in their house, so... (murmur - what is the question?) So, my question. To me it looks like you treat students like children. Why, they are adults. Few years ago they were going to do the military. And now... “sensitivity training”... all of this has a huge cost... So, there are people now who talk about snowflake generation. I am not sure that all this is... committees, agencies... that they are good for students. They are adults and all of this has a huge cost. You are treated very well but in the end you have 50,000 pounds of debt. I am not sure you’re happy.

The “interrogation” was finally interrupted by a man from the audience who called Strumia’s comments outrageous and described them as “making no sense at all”. And indeed, they were merely the continuation of a tantrum that was soon to become known as “groundbreaking truth telling censored by the crazy left”.


Perhaps the saddest -- or maybe funniest -- thing in this parade of spin, disinformation, conspiracy theories and manipulation of facts that presented itself as a “defense of science” was the fact that no less than two of Strumia’s apologists have compared him to Galileo Galilei:

Gad Saad: Well, we thank you for having been that voice. I’m not sure that you’ll become the Galileo Galilei of Italy (sic!), but you’re on that path. You’re amongst famous Italians who decided to fight against the orthodoxy, so thank you.  

Peggy Sastre: One last irony of this story: Galileo was once a professor at the University of Pisa.

It is patently absurb to present the ideology that fueled the persecution of Galileo as similar or identical to gender equality -- a clear example of the current antifeminist backlash. The thin veneer of “free speech” used to attack feminism is easy to see through. Its proponents can continue to try to appropriate facts and spin them to their advantage, but it is a losing battle.

And with that, we bid you farewell.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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