Social Justice Extremism Comes To Mathematics

Math Isn't Immune To Ideological Censorship

Even after reading the counterarguments it seems clear that part of the mathematical community suppressed a mathematical [article] (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1703.04184.pdf) because it was ideologically inconvenient. As detailed in the quillette piece a paper accepted for publication (and actually published online) at the Mathematical Intelligencer was yanked from publication because some mathematicians felt it’s mathematical modeling of the greater male variability hypothesis might be discouraging to prospective female mathematicians and/or be picked up by conservative media.

Obviously (if the account is close to accurate) this is a horrific violation of academic norms. If there is anything that academic freedom means it’s that ideas can’t be suppressed because they might support politically inconvenient conclusions and it appears that is exactly what happened. What makes the whole situation truly absurd is that the people complaining about the paper were the ones doing the real damage to gender equality. Obviously, one unheralded paper entertaining a greater male variability hypothesis will have a lot less of a harmful effect than even the chance of a controversy over pulling it and the subsequent attention and overreactions1. Not to mention that explaining the gender imbalance via bias and harassment is far more discouraging to potential female mathematicians than invoking a biological difference in male/female variability2.

Some mathematical blogs critisize the argument in the paper (see back and forth in comments) but don’t allege it’s absurd or incoherent. A more substantial counterargument is made in the comments at ycombinator where it is suggested that a rogue editor deliberately pushed the piece through and directed changes to make it an overtly political piece supporting his own views. However, looking at the actual [article] (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1703.04184.pdf) reveals a piece perfectly appropriate to the Intelligencer or indeed many peer reviewed journals (perhaps excepting the relatively unspecialized nature of the content)3:. Moreover, if the editor had truly gone rogue rather than just having made a decision the board disagreed with she would have been summarily fired.

Of course, at this point it’s just one isolated incident (and new facts could always emerge to change the narrative) but it’s critical to express our disapproval now so this doesn’t become acceptable behavior. Ideally, I’d like to see some kind of resolution or statement of principles at an AMA meeting so hopefully we don’t need to move to a boycott or anything. Of course, political and ideological considerations do affect what gets published all the time but it’s critical to reinforce the norm that such considerations shouldn’t matter which makes our response in the few clear cut cases like this all the more important.

What to do about the original paper is more of a puzzle. I’m tempted to say that some other periodical should publish it merely to avoid giving even an apparent victory to the forces of censorship. However, there aren’t many equivalents to the Intelligencier and maybe it really isn’t a great model (though hopefully peer review could tell us). Also, at this point publishing the paper really would send a very different politicized message that other periodicals would be understandably reluctant to send. So other than moving quickly to the end of the journal format I don’t really know what should be done about the paper.


  1. I do not expect many women inclined to fight through group theory and differential geometry (as well as any gender specific barriers) to be deterred because some mathematicians aired an idea about gender differences in a journal. 
  2. Moreover, prospective female mathematicians have no reason to believe that conditional on being the sort of woman even considering going into math they are any less likely to be good than their male colleagues. Indeed, after conditioning they might expect to be better if it is true boys are more encouraged to enter these fields as well. 
  3. Indeed, the inclusion of the appendix citing support for the greater male variability hypothesis seems necessary to insulate against criticisms that it’s perpetuating an unacademic, unsupported talking point.