Campus Free Speech

A Mathematician Says Activists Made His Paper Disappear Because Its Findings Offended Them

At behest of a feminist professor, an academic journal's board reportedly threatened to "harass the journal until it died."


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Theodore Hill, a retired professor of mathematics at Georgia Tech, claims that activists successfully pressured the New York Journal of Mathematics to delete an article he had written for the academic journal because it considered a politically incorrect subject: the achievement gap between men and women at very high levels of human intelligence.

The Greater Male Variability Hypothesis, first proposed by Charles Darwin, suggests that there are more men than women at both the bottom and the very top of the distribution for intelligence scores. More men than woman are Nobel Prize winners and chess grand champions, and more men than women are homeless, unemployed, and in prison. Men as a group express greater variability in aptitude and ability. This difference, of course, need not be innate—it could be the case that social custom and pressure has punished women for falling anywhere outside the norm.

Writing for Quillette, Hill says that he and a co-author came up with a theoretical model that would help explain the gap, then attempted to publish a paper about their work in Mathematical Intelligencer. The paper was accepted, though the topic is controversial: Larry Summers resigned as president of Harvard University in part due to criticism he received for broaching the subject of variability at an academic conference.

As might have been anticipated, the paper was poorly received by feminist scholars. Hill's co-author, Sergei Tabachnikov, faced strident opposition at Penn State, where he is employed as a professor of mathematics. According to Hill:

At a faculty meeting the week before, the Department Head had explained that sometimes values such as academic freedom and free speech come into conflict with other values to which Penn State was committed. A female colleague had then instructed Sergei that he needed to admit and fight bias, adding that the belief that "women have a lesser chance to succeed in mathematics at the very top end is bias." Sergei said he had spent "endless hours" talking to people who explained that the paper was "bad and harmful" and tried to convince him to "withdraw my name to restore peace at the department and to avoid losing whatever political capital I may still have."…

The National Science Foundation eventually wrote to Tabachnikov asking him remove from the paper any acknowledgment that the NSF had helped to fund the research. This was done, according to Hill, after two Penn State academics—the chair of the climate and diversity committee, and the associate head for diversity and equity—had warned the NSF that the paper promotes ideas "detrimental to the advancement of women in science, and at odds with the values of the NSF."

Mathematical Intelligencer rescinded its acceptance of the paper. According to its editor-in-chief, publishing Hill and Tabachnikov's work would create a "very real possibility that the right-wing media may pick this up and hype it internationally." In his Quillette piece, Hill claims that a University of Chicago mathematics professor, Amie Wilkinson, lobbied the journal to abandon its plans to publish the piece.

Some time later, an editor at another publication, the New York Journal of Mathematics, wrote to Hill and offered to publish the paper. Hill accepted, and the article was published. But then:

Three days later, however, the paper had vanished. And a few days after that, a completely different paper by different authors appeared at exactly the same page of the same volume (NYJM Volume 23, p 1641+) where mine had once been. As it turned out, Amie Wilkinson is married to Benson Farb, a member of the NYJM editorial board. Upon discovering that the journal had published my paper, Professor Farb had written a furious email to [NYJM Editor-in-Chief Mark Steinberger] demanding that it be deleted at once. …

Unaware of any of this, I wrote to Steinberger on November 14, to find out what had happened. I pointed out that if the deletion were permanent, it would leave me in an impossible position. I would not be able to republish anywhere else because I would be unable to sign a copyright form declaring that it had not already been published elsewhere. Steinberger replied later that day. Half his board, he explained unhappily, had told him that unless he pulled the article, they would all resign and "harass the journal" he had founded 25 years earlier "until it died." Faced with the loss of his own scientific legacy, he had capitulated. "A publication in a dead journal," he offered, "wouldn't help you."

Hill wrote to University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, a vocal defender of academic freedom and free speech, about Wilkinson's conduct. He received a response that in the administration's view, Wilkinson had merely been exercising her own academic freedom in urging the journals not to publish the paper:

A reasonable inference is that I was the one interfering in their academic freedom and not vice versa. My quarrel, the vice-provost concluded, was with the editors-in-chief who had spiked my papers, decisions for which the University of Chicago bore no responsibility. At the Free Speech University, it turns out, talk is cheap.

I can respect the University of Chicago's position, and I would not want the administration to punish a professor for denouncing research she finds problematic. I'm much more troubled by the actions of the journal editors, who seem to have acquiesced to activists' demands to kill a paper—not because its conclusions were faulty but because broaching the subject is forbidden. NYJM, in particular, did something rather cowardly: The journal should either stand by the material or retract it after an investigation. Opting to simply make it disappear is a terrible move.

The Intelligencer's editor was worried that publishing the paper could prompt "right-wing media" to hype it, but killing the paper in such a censorious fashion is far more likely to attract media attention—and not just from the right-wing. Neither Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker not Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis are members of the right, yet both criticized the academic left's attempts to bury this research. Indeed, Pinker fretted on Twitter that the left's behavior in this matter would vindicate right-wing paranoia about P.C. censorship.