Pitfalls of being a white male mathematician

It is a treacherous time to be a white male mathematician. You have, until recently, lived a life surrounded by peers that admire you. You have enjoyed the company of men like you, who have invited you to their conferences and edited and published your scientific articles. You beleived that your place in the ivory towers of academia was earned, not grabbed. The men you shared your world with thought that they were able to judge their peers fairly on the set of ‘rational’ values they have set up and agreed upon together. And now, all of a sudden, these values have been challenged and those on the outside of your world are forming another view of your existence. A view where you have guarded your privelage to the exclusion of others, and where you have ignored the talents of others.

The worst thing is that these outsiders are destroying your world with the very tools you held so dear. They are destroying your world with Science. They are doing controlled trials that show that you are sexist when you read and evaluate CVs. They are showing that there are no differences between girls and boys in school maths, and thus no excuses why you fail to engage female students at universities. They are showing that groups with diverse backgrounds solve problems better. They are carefully constucting theories that explain the intricacies of how gender, sex and social systems interact.

A typical mental rotational task, reproduced from the review of Halpern et al (2007). Researchers have (of course) found differences between males and females in these tasks and others, and across cultures. But interpretting these differences requires an understanding of biology, culture and society.

But you have one trick left up your sleeve. One trick that you believe will reassert your superiority: the trick of mathematical modelling…

Maths does not rely on empirical fact. Instead, it is a way of providing logical precision to any argument, based on data or not. So if you want to argue a point — like, maybe, that the reason maths departments are made up mostly of men is that male biology is more variable with respect to intelligence than female biology and thus men’s extreme genius is found in these departments — then all you need to do is construct the logical framework. Here is a quick ‘how-to’ guide:

  • Name drop Darwin, while treating more recent biological literature as a listing exercise rather than facts to be engaged with. (✅)
  • Invent your own mathematical framework and forget 50 years of work in mathematical biology. (✅)
  • Interchangeably use the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ without reflecting over the reasons scientists use two distinct terms. (✅)
  • Fail to separate cultural and biological explanations, thus leaving an impression that differences are purely biological. (✅)
  • Derive logically self-consistent results that support your argument without seriously attempting to link your assumptions to data. (✅)
  • Submit your paper to a general/popular maths journal, instead of a journal in the field you are trying to work in. (✅)

These are all properties of the article An Evolutionary Theory for the Variability Hypothesis published by emeritus mathematics professor Ted Hill in an online archive.

Ted is now angry. His article was initially accepted by Mathematical Intelligencer, but when ‘far-left academics’ found out about it and informed the journal, they decided not to publish. Ted has detailed all his complaints here.

I have no inside information in to the story behind the paper’s retraction, but I can say with reasonable confidence that the article in question would not be acceptable for publication in a respectable journal, for the reasons I have ticked off above. The article states that it seeks to “propose a theory based on biological/evolutionary mechanisms that might help explain how one gender of a species might tend to evolve with greater variability than the other gender.” This is a worthy goal, but in practice the paper shifts the basis for discussion from the complexity of empirical facts to the simplicity of the author’s own model. In quality papers in mathematical biology data and models are interwoven so that we can provide a holistic understanding of the system in question.

Ted Hill shows very little holistic understanding in his rant about his article’s rejection. The story he tells is long, rambling and implicitly sexist. Woman are portrayed as weak willed and unable to understand complexities and Hill ultimately turns (in vain) to a strong man, in the form University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer, as a moderator.

From his website we can see that Ted prides himself in challenging conventions. He sees himself as the outsider. But you are not an outsider, Ted. You (and I) are the system. We are the white male professors who have the power and authority, and when things don’t go our way we should remember this. The mathematical models we wield can be used in a variety of ways, and we should be very careful, especially when dealing with areas that reinforce our positions, that we carefully research the background to our models. Just because it is maths, doesn’t mean it is right.

And more than this, Ted. When we get it wrong, we should think deeply about why our paper was rejected (just like we tell our students to do), instead of blaming the process. Because when you accuse the system so publiclly and make a scandal, you provide fuel for those who doubt the value of Science. You should use your energy instead to engage, to investigate and to understand. That is what Science is all about and ultimately, I believe, it is what you want to preserve.