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Despite much ado about the #metoo movement in recent years, the crisis of sexual harassment in academia persists without an end in sight. The academic sexual misconduct database now lists 1,051 cases, each of them a tragedy of trauma, unspeakable violations of victims, and dreams destroyed. I’ve written previously about two cases listed in the database (Yuval Peres and Terry Speed). Now, I feel compelled to write about yet another sexual harassment case.

Adrian Dumitrescu is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. I have known of his work for many years, as we have a shared interest in extremal combinatorics, having both worked on the Erdös-Szekeres “Happy Ending Problem”. Last week a Facebook post was brought to my attention, in which a graduate student describes a horrible case of sexual harassment by Prof. Dumitrescu that occurred during a conference in Boston in 2016.

This student filed a Title IX complaint with the University of Wisconsin, and I have a copy of the report. The Office of Equity and Diversity (EDS) that investigated the case found that “Based on the totality of the circumstances, the information obtained pursuant to this investigation, and for all the reasons set forth above, EDS concludes that there is sufficient evidence to support a finding, by preponderance of the evidence, of sexual harassment against the Respondent [Prof. Dumitrescu].” Furthermore, the report states that “based on the seriousness of the Respondent’s conduct, EDS believes that disciplinary action is warranted in this matter, and recommends that the Provost refer this case for imposition of discipline”. As I write this post, Prof. Dumitrescu is still listed as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Notably, after being sexually harassed by the Respondent, and before filing a report with Title IX, the student consulted her Ph.D. advisor. The report describes his response as follows: “[he] told her that the Respondent had a ‘high reputation’ in the field and it was better to ‘avoid trouble’ and not to report her concerns.” And yet she had the courage to report the case, despite the attempt to silence her, and having being threatened by the Respondent, as he coerced her to sleep with him, that if she did not acquiesce to his demands he would not conduct research with her and he might prevent senior scholars at her university from working with her.

The report details how the sexual harassment impacted the complainant’s research progress and mental well-being. Yet again, a talented young scientist finds herself with debilitating trauma, a career in jeopardy, and powerless in the face of an establishment that excuses harassers.

The details of this case are of course different than every other sexual harassment case. Each is tragic in its own way. And yet elements of what happened here are to be found in all sexual harassment cases. Power imbalance. Coercion. Threats. Silencing of the victim. Inaction. Banal injustice. This will be case number 1,052 in the academic sexual misconduct database.

We must do better.

Update June 11, 2021: Adrian Dumitrescu left the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee in January 2021.

Yesterday I found out via a comment on this blog that Yuval Peres, a person who has been accused by numerous students, trainees, and colleagues of sexual harassment, will be delivering a lecture today in the UC Davis Mathematical Physics and Probability Seminar.

The facts

I am aware of at least 11 allegations by women of sexual harassment by Yuval Peres (trigger warning: descriptions of sexual harassment and sexual assault):

1. Allegation of sexual harassment of a Ph.D. student in 2007. Sourcedescription of the harassment by the victim.
2. Allegation of sexual harassment by a colleague that happened when she was younger. Source: description of the harassment by the victim.
3. Allegation of sexual harassment of a woman prior to 2007. Source: report on sexual harassment allegations against Yuval Peres by the University of Washington (received via a Freedom of Information Act Request).
4. Allegation of sexual harassment by one of Yuval Peres’ Ph.D. students several years ago. Source: report on sexual harassment allegations against Yuval Peres by the University of Washington (received via a Freedom of Information Act Request).
5. Allegation of sexual harassment of a colleague. Source: personal communication to me by the victim (who wishes to remain anonymous) via email after I wrote a post about Yuval Peres.
6. Allegation of sexual harassment of a graduate student. Source: personal communication to me by the victim (the former graduate student who wishes to remain anonymous) via email after I wrote a post about Yuval Peres.
7. Recent allegations of sexual harassment by 5 junior female scientists who reported unwanted advances by Yuval Peres to persons that leading figures in the CS community describe as “people we trust without a shred of doubt”. Source: a letter circulated by Irit Dinur, Ehud Friedgut and Oded Goldreich.

The details offered by these women of the sexual harassment they experienced are horrific and corroborate each other. His former Ph.D. student (#4 above) describes, in a harrowing letter included in the University of Washington Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disclosed report, sexual harassment she experienced over the course of two years, and many of the details are similar to what is described by another victim here. The letter describes sexual harassment that had its origins when the student was an undergraduate (adding insult to injury the University of Washington did not redact her name with the FOIA disclosed report). I had extreme difficulty reading some of the descriptions, and believe the identity of the victim should be kept private despite the University of Washington FOIA report, but am including one excerpt here so that it’s clear what exactly these allegations entail (the letter is 4.5 pages long):

Trigger warning: description of sexual harassment and sexual assault

“While walking down a street he took my hand, I took it away with pressure but he grabbed it by force. I was pretty afraid of getting in a fight with my PhD advisor. He stroked my hand with his fingers. I said stop, but he ignored it. I started talking about math intending to make the situation less intimate. But he used me being distracted and put his arms around my waist touching my bud. I was in shock. We came by a bench. He asked me to sit down. I removed his hands and sat down far from him. He came closer and told me that I had a body like a barbie doll. I changed topic again to math, but he took my hand and kissed the back of my hand. I freed my hand with a sudden move, and saw him leaning towards me touching my hair and trying to kiss me. I felt danger and wanted to go home. Yuval was again holding my hand, but this time there was no resistance from me. I thought if I let him hold my hand it is less likely that he harms me. Arriving at my home he tried to give me a kiss. I was relieved when he drove away.”

The victim sent this letter to the chairs of the mathematics and computer science departments at the University of Washington and made a request:

“I am not the only female who was sexually harassed by Yuval Peres and I am convinced that I was not the last one. Therefore, I hope with this report that you take actions to prevent incidents like this from happening again.”

Instead of passing on the complaint to Title IX, and contrary to claims by some of Yuval Peres’ colleagues that appear in the University of Washington FOIA disclosure report that the case was investigated, the chairs of the University of Washington math and computer science departments (in a jointly signed letter) offered Yuval Peres a path to avoiding investigation:

“As you know from our e-mail to you [last week], your resignation as well as an agreement not to seek or accept another position at the University will eliminate the need for the University to investigate the allegations against you.”

Indeed, Yuval Peres resigned within two months of the complaint with no investigation ever taking place. This is the email the victim received afterwards from the chair of the mathematics department, in response to her request that “I hope with this report that you take actions to prevent incidents like this from happening again”:

“I believe this resolution [Yuval Peres’ resignation] has promptly and effectively addressed your concerns.”

At least 8 women have since claimed that they were sexually harassed.

Seminar and a dinner

As is customary with invited speakers, the organizer of the seminar today wrote to colleagues and student in the math department at UC Davis on Monday letting people know that “there will be a dinner afterward, so please let me know if you are interested in attending.”

Here is a description of a dinner Yuval Peres took his Ph.D. student to, and a summary of the events that led to him and his Ph.D. student walking down the street when he forcibly grabbed her hand:

Trigger warning: description of sexual harassment and sexual assault

“I tried to keep the dinner short, but suddenly he seemed to have a lot of time. He paid in cash in contrast to dinners with other students, and offered to take me home. In his car half way to my place he said he would only take me home if I show him my room (I was living in a shared apartment with other people). I thought it was a joke and said no. He laughed and grabbed my hand. Arriving at home I said goodbye. But when I got out of the car he said that I promised to show him my room. I said that I did not. However, he followed me to the backdoor of the house. Fortunately some of my roommates were at home. It bothered Yuval that we were not alone at my home, so he said we should take a walk outside. I felt uncomfortable but I still needed to talk about my PhD thesis work. While walking down the street he took my hand, I took it away with pressure but he grabbed it with force…”

I wonder how many graduate students at UC Davis will feel comfortable signing up for dinner with Yuval Peres tonight, or even be able to handle attending his seminar after reading of all the sexual harassment allegations against him?

The challenge is particularly acute for women. I know this from comments in the reports of sexual harassment that I’ve read, from the University of Washington FOIA disclosed report, and from personal communication with multiple women who have worked with him or had to deal with him. Isn’t holding seminars (which are an educational program) that women are afraid to attend, and are therefore de facto excluded from and being denied benefit of, in a department that depends heavily on federal funding, a Title IX violation? Title IX federal law states that

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

An opinion

It’s outrageous that UC Davis’ math department is hosting Yuval Peres for a seminar and dinner today.

[Update November 10th, 2019: after reading this post a former Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley wrote that “Another PhD student in Berkeley probability and I both experienced this as well. About time this is called out so no more new students are harassed.“]

The post concerns Yuval Peres, a principal researcher in the Microsoft Theory Group [update Dec. 26, 2018: YP is no longer employed at Microsoft] and a former colleague of mine at UC Berkeley. Below is a copy of an email sent yesterday to numerous theory of computer science professors worldwide, and published on the Stanford Theory Seminar List. It corroborates information I heard about Yuval Peres a number of years ago when I was a mathematics professor at UC Berkeley. At the time I was asked to keep the information I heard confidential, and I did so because the person who discussed it with me was, understandably, afraid of retaliation. Now I wonder to what extent my silence allowed his harassment of women to continue unabated. I also wonder when the leaders of the statistics department at UC Berkeley, where Peres used to work, and where Terry Speed was a professor emeritus before I reported him, will end their culture of silence.

Hello all,

This is an email composed by Irit Dinur, Oded Goldreich and me. The purpose of this email is to share with you concerns that we had regarding the unethical behavior of Yuval Peres. The behavior we are referring to includes several recent incidents from the past few years, on top of the two “big” cases of sexual harassment that led to severe sanctions against him by his employer, Microsoft, and to the termination of his connections with the University of Washington. Together with two colleagues who are highly regarded and trusted by us, we have first and second-hand testimonies (by people we trust without a shed of doubt) of at least five additional cases of him approaching junior female scientists, some of them students, with offers of intimate nature, behavior that has caused its victims quite a bit of distress since these offers were “insistent”. While the examples that we encountered from the last few years do not fall under the category of sexual harassment from a legal point of view, they certainly caused great discomfort to the victims, who were young female scientists, putting them in a highly awkward situation, and creating an atmosphere that they’d rather avoid (i.e., they would rather miss a conference or a lecture than risk being subjected to repeated intimate offers by him). We wish to stress that his aggressive advances toward young women, usually with no previous friendly connections with him, puts them in a vulnerable position of fearing to cross a senior scientist who might have an impact on their career, which is at a fragile stage. We believe that the questions of whether or not Yuval Peres intended to make them uncomfortable, and whether or not he would or could actually harm their scientific status are irrelevant; the fact is that the victims felt very stressed to a point that they’d rather miss professional events than risk encountering the same situation again. Needless to say, it is the responsibility of senior members of our community to avoid putting less senior members in such a position.

Our current involvement with this issue was triggered by an invitation Yuval Peres received to give a plenary talk at an international conference next year. We felt that this invitation sends a highly undesirable message to our community in general, and to the women he harassed in particular, as if his transgressions are considered unimportant.

We sent an email conveying our concern to the organizers of the conference, suggesting that they disinvite him. With our permission, they forwarded a version of our letter (in which we made changes in order to protect the identity of the women involved) to Yuval Peres. They did not reveal our identity, rather they told him that this is a letter from “senior members of the community”. In our letter we included a paragraph describing a general principle that should be followed. The principle is:

A senior researcher should not approach a junior researcher with an invitation that may be viewed as intimate or personal unless such an invitation was issued in the past by this specific junior to that specific senior. The point being that even if the senior researcher has no intimate/personal intentions, such intentions may be read by the junior researcher, placing the junior in an awkward situation and possibly causing them great distress. Examples for such an invitation include any invitation to a personal event in which only the senior and the junior will be present (e.g., a two-person dinner, a meeting in a private home, etc).

Yuval’s reply was rather laconic, in particular, he did not address the issue of his behavior in the past couple of years. However, he did write:

“I certainly embrace the principle described in boldface in the letter. This seems to be the right approach for any senior scientist these days.”

The reason we are copying this to all of you (as opposed, for example, to using bcc) is related to the islanders’ paradox: we believe that the fact that everyone knows that everyone knows is a significant boost to holding Yuval Peres accountable for his future actions. We’re also bcc’ing several young women who already aware of Yuval Peres’s actions, in order to keep them in the know too.

We understand that sending this out to a large number of people without offering Yuval Peres the chance to respond may be considered unfair. However, after weighing the pros and cons carefully we believe this is a good course of action. First of all, because it is clear that the victims did not invent his offers and their ensuing feelings of anxiety and stress. Secondly, we know that Yuval Peres has been confronted in a face to face conversation by a senior colleague, and it did not end his behavior, so we think it’s important to stay vigilant in protecting the younger members of our community. Thirdly, the information in this letter will reach (or has already reached) almost all of you in any case, so the main effect of the letter is making what everyone knows into public knowledge. Finally, although his response to the organizers did include the minimum of declaring he accepts the guiding principle that we stated, it did not include any reference to the ongoing behavior we described- neither regret nor concern nor denial. So it’s not easy to assume that he truly intends to mend his ways.

We hope that our actions will contribute to the future of our community as an environment that offers all a pleasant and non-threatening atmosphere.

Sincerely,
Irit Dinur, Ehud Friedgut, Oded Goldreich

Last year I wrote a blog post on being wrong. I also wrote a blog post about being wrong three years ago. It’s not fun to admit being wrong, but sometimes it’s necessary. I have to admit to being wrong again.

To place this admission in context I need to start with Mordell’s finite basis theorem, which has been on my mind this past week. The theorem, proved in 1922, states the rational points on an elliptic curve defined over the rational numbers form a finitely generated abelian group. There is quite a bit of math jargon in this statement that makes it seem somewhat esoteric, but it’s actually a beautiful, fundamental, and accessible result at the crossroads of number theory and algebraic geometry.

First, the phrase elliptic curve is just a fancy name for a polynomial equation of the form y² = x³ + ax + b (subject to some technical conditions). “Defined over the rationals” just means that and b are rational numbers. For example a=-36, b=0 or a=0, b=-26 would each produce an elliptic curve. A “rational point on the curve” refers to a solution to the equation whose coordinates are rational numbers. For example, if we’re looking at the case where a=0 and b=-26 then the elliptic curve is y² = x³ – 26 and one rational solution would be the point (35,-207). This solution also happens to be an integer solution; try to find some others! Elliptic curves are pretty and one can easily explore them in WolframAlpha. For example, the curve y² = x³ – 36x looks like this:

WolframAlpha does more than just provide a picture. It finds integer solutions to the equation. In this case just typing the equation for the elliptic curve into the WolframAlpha box produces:

One of the cool things about elliptic curves is that the points on them form the structure of an abelian group. That is to say, there is a way to “add” points on the curves. I’m not going to go through how this works here but there is a very good introduction to this connection between elliptic curves and groups in an exposition by Tanuj Nayak, an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University.

Interestingly, even just the rational points on an elliptic curve form a group, and Mordell’s theorem says that for an elliptic curve defined over the rational numbers this group is finitely generated. That means that for such an elliptic curve one can describe all rational points on the curve as finite combinations of some finite set of points. In other words, we (humankind) has been interested in studying Diophantine equations since the time of Diophantus (3rd century). Trying to solve arbitrary polynomial equations is very difficult, so we restrict our attention to easier problems (elliptic curves). Working with integers is difficult, so we relax that requirement a bit and work with rational numbers. And here is a theorem that gives us hope, namely the hope that we can find all solutions to such problems because at least the description of the solutions can be finite.

The idea of looking for all solutions to a problem, and not just one solution, is fundamental to mathematics. I recently had the pleasure of attending a lesson for 1st and 2nd graders by Oleg Gleizer, an exceptional mathematician who takes time not only to teach children mathematics, but to develop mathematics (not arithmetic!) curriculum that is accessible to them. The first thing Oleg asks young children is what they see when looking at this picture:

Children are quick to find the answer and reply either “rabbit” or “duck”. But the lesson they learn is that the answer to his question is that there is no single answer! Saying “rabbit” or “duck” is not a complete answer. In mathematics we seek all solutions to a problem. From this point of view, WolframAlpha’s “integer solutions” section is not satisfactory (it omits x=6, y=0), but while in principle one might worry that one would have to search forever, Mordell’s finite basis theorem provides some peace of mind for an important class of questions in number theory. It also guides mathematicians: if interested in a specific elliptic curve, think about how to find the (finite) generators for the associated group. Now the proof of Mordell’s theorem, or its natural generalization, the Mordell-Weil theorem, is not simple and requires some knowledge of algebraic geometry, but the statement of Mordell’s theorem and its meaning can be explained to kids via simple examples.

I don’t recall exactly when I learned Mordell’s theorem but I think it was while preparing for my qualifying exam in graduate school, when I studied Silverman’s book on elliptic curves for the cryptography section on my qualifying exam- yes, this math is even related to some very powerful schemes for cryptography! But I do remember when a few years later a (mathematician) friend mentioned to me “the coolest paper ever”, a paper related to generalizations of Mordell’s theorem, the very theorem that I had studied for my exam. The paper was by two mathematicians, Steven Zucker and David Cox, and it was titled Intersection Number of Sections of Elliptic Surfaces. The paper described an algorithm for determining whether some sections form a basis for the Mordell-Weil group for certain elliptic surfaces. The content was not why my friend thought this paper was cool, and in fact I don’t think he ever read it. The excitement was because of the juxtaposition of author names. Apparently David Cox had realized that if he could coauthor a paper with his colleague Steven Zucker, they could publish a theorem, which when named after the authors, would produce a misogynistic and homophobic slur. Cox sought out Zucker for this purpose, and their mission was a “success”. Another mathematician, Charles Schwartz, wrote a paper in which he built on this “joke”. From his paper:

So now, in the mathematics literature, in an interesting part of number theory, you have the Cox-Zucker machine. Many mathematicians think this is hilarious. I thought this was hilarious. In fact, when I was younger I frequently boasted about this “joke”, and how cool mathematicians are for coming up with clever stuff like this.

I was wrong.

I first started to wonder about the Zucker and Cox stunt when a friend pointed out to me, after I had used the term C-S to demean someone, that I had just spouted a misogynistic and homophobic slur. I started to notice the use of the C-S phrase all around me and it made me increasingly uncomfortable. I stopped using it. I stopped thinking that the Zucker-Cox stunt was funny (while noticing the irony that the sexual innuendo they constructed was much more cited than their math), and I started to think about the implications of this sort of thing for my profession. How would one explain the Zucker-Cox result to kids? How would undergraduates write a term paper about it without sexual innuendo distracting from the math? How would one discuss the result, the actual math, with colleagues? What kind of environment emerges when misogynistic and homophobic language is not only tolerated in a field, but is a source of pride by the men who dominate it?

These questions have been on my mind this past week as I’ve considered the result of the NIPS conference naming deliberation. This conference was named in 1987 by founders who, as far as I understand, did not consider the sexual connotations (they dismissed the fact that the abbreviation is a racial slur since they considered it all but extinct). Regardless of original intentions I write this post to lend my voice to those who are insisting that the conference change its name. I do so for many reasons. I hear from many of my colleagues that they are deeply offended by the name. That is already reason enough. I do so because the phrase NIPS has been weaponized and is being used to demean and degrade women at one of the main annual machine learning conferences. I don’t make this claim lightly. Consider, for example, TITS 2017 (the (un)official sister event to NIPS). I’ve thought about this specific aggression a lot because in mathematics there is a mathematician by the name of Tits who has many important objects named after him (e.g. Tits buildings). So I have worked through the thought experiment of trying to understand why I think it’s wrong to name a conference NIPS but I’m fine talking about the mathematician Tits. I remember when I first learned of Tits buildings I was taken aback for a moment. But I learned to understand the name Tits as French and I pronounce it as such in my mind and with my voice when I use it. There is no problem there, nor is there a problem with many names that clash across cultures and languages. TITS 2017 is something completely different. It is a deliberate use of NIPS and TITS in a way that can and will make many women uncomfortable. As for NIPS itself perhaps there is a “solution” to interpreting the name that doesn’t involve a racial slur or sexual innuendo (Neural Information Processing Systems). Maybe some people see a rabbit. But others see a duck. All the “solutions” matter. The fact is many women are uncomfortable because instead of being respected as scientists, their bodies and looks have become a subtext for the science that is being discussed. This is a longstanding problem at NIPS (see e.g., Lenna). Furthermore, it’s not only women who are uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable with the NIPS name for the reasons I gave above, and I know many other men are as well. I’m not at ease at conferences where racial slurs and sexual innuendo are featured prominently, and if there are men who are (cf. NIPS poll data) then they should be ignored.

I think this is an extremely important issue not only for computer science, but for all of science. It’s about much more than a name of some conference. This is about recognizing centuries of discriminatory and exclusionary practices against women and minorities, and about eliminating such practices when they occur now rather than encouraging them. The NIPS conference must change their name. #protestNIPS

Six years ago I received an email from a colleague in the mathematics department at UC Berkeley asking me whether he should participate in a study that involved “collecting DNA from the brightest minds in the fields of theoretical physics and mathematics.”  I later learned that the codename for the study was “Project Einstein“, an initiative of entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg with the goal of finding the genetic basis for “math genius”. After replying to my colleague I received an inquiry from another professor in the department, and then another and another… All were clearly flattered that they were selected for their “brightest mind”, and curious to understand the genetic secret of their brilliance.

I counseled my colleagues not to participate in this ill-advised genome-wide association study. The phenotype was ill-defined and in any case the study would be underpowered (only 400 “geniuses” were solicited), but I believe many of them sent in their samples. As far as I know their DNA now languishes in one of Jonathan Rothberg’s freezers. No result has ever emerged from “Project Einstein”, and I’d pretty much forgotten about the ego-driven inquiries I had received years ago. Then, last week, I remembered them when reading a series of blog posts and associated commentary on evolutionary biology by some of the most distinguished mathematicians in the world.

1. Sir Timothy Gowers is blogging about evolutionary biology?

It turns out that mathematicians such as Timothy Gowers and Terence Tao are hosting discussions about evolutionary biology (see On the recently removed paper from the New York Journal of Mathematics, Has an uncomfortable truth been suppressed, Additional thoughts on the Ted Hill paper) because some mathematician wrote a paper titled “An Evolutionary Theory for the Variability Hypothesis“, and an ensuing publication kerfuffle has the mathematics community up in arms. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first I want to focus on the scientific discourse in these elite math blogs. If you scroll to the bottom of the blog posts you’ll see hundreds of comments, many written by eminent mathematicians who are engaged in pseudoscientific speculation littered with sexist tropes. The number of inane comments is astonishing. For example, in a comment on Timothy Gowers’ blog, Gabriel Nivasch, a lecturer at Ariel University writes

“It’s also ironic that what causes so much controversy is not humans having descended from apes, which since Darwin people sort-of managed to swallow, but rather the relatively minor issue of differences between the sexes.”

This person’s understanding of the theory of evolution is where the Victorian public was at in England ca. 1871:

In mathematics, just a year later in 1872, Karl Weierstrass published what at the time was considered another monstrosity, one that threw the entire mathematics community into disarray. The result was just as counterintuitive for mathematics as Darwin’s theory of evolution was for biology. Weierstrass had constructed a function that is uniformly continuous on the real line, but not differentiable on any interval:

$f(x) = \sum_{n=0}^{\infty} \left( \frac{1}{2} \right)^ncos({11}^n\pi x)$.

Not only does this construction remain valid today as it was back then, but lots of mathematics has been developed in its wake. What is certain is that if one doesn’t understand the first thing about Weierstrass’ construction, e.g. one doesn’t know what a derivative is, one won’t be able to contribute meaningfully to modern research in analysis. With that in mind consider the level of ignorance of someone who does not even understand the notion of common ancestor in evolutionary biology, and who presumes that biologists have been idle and have learned nothing during the last 150 years. Imagine the hubris of mathematicians spewing incoherent theories about sexual selection when they literally don’t know anything about human genetics or evolutionary biology, and haven’t read any of the relevant scientific literature about the subject they are rambling about. You don’t have to imagine. Just go and read the Tao and Gowers blogs and the hundreds of comments they have accrued over the past few days.

2. Hijacking a journal

To understand what is going on requires an introduction to Igor Rivin, a professor of mathematics at Temple University and, of relevance in this mathematics matter, an editor of  the New York Journal of Mathematics (NYJM) [Update November 21, 2018: Igor Rivin is no longer an editor of NYJM]. Last year Rivin invited the author of a paper on the variability hypothesis to submit his work to NYJM. He solicited two reviews and published it in the journal. For a mathematics paper such a process is standard practice at NYJM,  but in this case the facts point to Igor Rivin hijacking the editorial process to advance a sexist agenda. To wit:

• The paper in question, “An Evolutionary Theory for the Variability Hypothesis” is not a mathematics or biology paper but rather a sexist opinion piece. As such it was not suitable for publication in any mathematics or biology journal, let alone in the NYJM which is a venue for publication of pure mathematics.
• Editor Igor Rivin did not understand the topic and therefore had no business soliciting or handling review of the paper.
• The “reviewers” of the paper were not experts in the relevant mathematics or biology.

To elaborate on these points I begin with a brief history of the variability hypothesis. Its origin is Darwin’s 1875 book on “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” which was ostensibly the beginning of the study of sexual selection. However as explained in Stephanie Shields’ excellent review, while the variability hypothesis started out as a hypothesis about variance in physical and intellectual traits, at the turn of 20th century it morphed to a specific statement about sex differences in intelligence. I will not, in this blog post, attempt to review the entire field of sexual selection nor will I discuss in detail the breadth of work on the variability hypothesis. But there are three important points to glean from the Shields review: 1. The variability hypothesis is about intellectual differences between men and women and in fact this is what “An evolutionary theory for the variability hypothesis” tries really hard to get across. Specifically, that the best mathematicians are males because of biology. 2. There has been dispute for over a century about the extent of differences, should they even exist, and 3. Naïve attempts at modeling sexual selection are seriously flawed and completely unrealistic. For example naïve models that assume the same genetic mechanism produces both high IQ and mental deficits are ignoring ample evidence to the contrary.

Insofar as modeling of sexual selection is concerned, there was already statistical work in the area by Karl Pearson in 1895 (see “Note on regression and inheritance in the case of two parents“). In the paper Pearson explicitly considers the sex-specific variance of traits and the relationship of said variance to heritability. However as with much of population genetics, it was Ronald Fisher, first in the 1930s (Fisher’s principle) and then later in important work from 1958 what is now referred to as Darwin-Fisher theory (see, e.g. Kirkpatrick, Price and Arnold 1990) who significantly advanced the theory of sexual selection. Amazingly, despite including 51 citations in the final arXiv version of “An Evolutionary Theory for the Variability Hypothesis”, there isn’t a single reference to prior work in the area. I believe the author was completely unaware of the 150 years of work by biologists, statisticians, and mathematical biologists in the field.

What is cited in “An Evolutionary Theory for the Variability Hypothesis”? There is an inordinate amount of cherry picking of quotes from papers to bolster the message the author is intent on getting across: that there are sex-differences in variance of intelligence (whatever that means), specifically males are more variable. The arXiv posting has undergone eight revisions, and somewhere among these revisions there is even a brief cameo by Lawrence Summers and a regurgitation of his infamous sexist remarks. One of the thorough papers reviewing evidence for such claims is “The science of sex differences in science and mathematics” by Halpern et al. 2007. The author cherry picks a quote from the abstract of that paper, namely that “the reasons why males are often more variable remain elusive.” and follows it with a question posed by statistician Howard Wainer that implicitly makes a claim: “Why was our genetic structure built to yield greater variation among males than females?” An actual reading of the Halpern et al. paper reveals that the excess of males in the top tail of the distribution of quantitative reasoning has dramatically decreased during the last few decades, an observation that cannot be explained by genetics. Furthermore, females have a greater variability in reading and writing than males. They point out that these findings “run counter to the usual conclusion that males are more variable in all cognitive ability domains”. The author of “An Evolutionary Theory for the Variability Hypothesis” conveniently omits this from a very short section titled “Primary Analyses Inconsistent with the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis.” This is serious amateur time.

One of the commenters on Terence Tao’s blog explained that the mathematical theory in “An Evolutionary Theory for the Variability Hypothesis” is “obviously true”, and explained its premise for the layman:

It’s assumed that women only pick the “best” – according to some quantity X percent of men as partners where X is (much) smaller than 50, let’s assume. On the contrary, men are OK to date women from the best Y percent where Y is above 50 or at least greater than X.

Let’s go with this for a second, but think about how this premise would have to change to be consistent with results for reading and writing (where variance is higher in females). Then we must go with the following premise for everything to work out:

It’s assumed that men only pick the “best” – according to some quantity X percent of women as partners where X is (much) smaller than 50, let’s assume. On the contrary, women are OK to date men from the best Y percent where Y is above 50 or at least greater than X.

Perhaps I should write up this up (citing only studies on reading and writing) and send it to Igor Rivin, editor at the New York Journal of Mathematics as my explanation for my greater variability hypothesis?

Actually, I hope that will not be possible. Igor Rivin should be immediately removed from the editorial board of the New York Journal of Mathematics. I looked up Rivin’s credentials in terms of handling a paper in mathematical biology. Rivin has an impressive publication list, mostly in geometry but also a handful of publications in other areas. He, and separately Mary Rees, are known for showing that the number of simple closed geodesics of length at most L grows polynomially in L (this result was the beginning of some of the impressive results of Maryam Mirzakhani who went much further and subsequently won the Fields Medal for her work). Nowhere among Rivin’s publications, or in many of his talks which are online, or in his extensive online writings (on Twitter, Facebook etc.) is there any evidence that he has a shred of knowledge about evolutionary biology. The fact that he accepted a paper that is completely untethered from the field in which it purports to make an advance is further evidence of his ignorance.

Ignorance is one thing but hijacking a journal for a sexist agenda is another. Last year I encountered a Facebook thread on which Rivin had commented in response to a BuzzFeed article titled A Former Student Says UC Berkeley’s Star Philosophy Professor Groped Her and Watched Porn at Work. It discussed a lawsuit alleging that John Searle had sexually harassed, assaulted and retaliated against a former student and employee. While working for Searle the student was paid $1,000 a month with an additional$3,000 for being his assistant. On the Facebook thread Igor Rivin wrote

Here is an editor of the NYJM suggesting that a student should have effectively known that if she was paid \$36K/year for work as an assistant of a professor (not a high salary for such work), she ought to expect sexual harassment and sexual assault as part of her job. Her LinkedIn profile (which he linked to) showed her to have worked a summer in litigation. So he was essentially saying that this victim prostituted herself with the intent of benefiting financially via suing John Searle. Below is, thankfully, a quick and stern rebuke from a professor of mathematics at Indiana University:

I mention this because it shows that Igor Rivin has a documented history of misogyny. Thus his acceptance of a paper providing a “theory” for “higher general intelligence” in males, a paper in an area he knows nothing about to a journal in pure mathematics is nothing other than hijacking the editorial process of the journal to further a sexist agenda.

How did he actually do it? He solicited a paper that had been rejected elsewhere, and sent it out for review to two reviewers who turned it around in 3 weeks. I mentioned above that the “reviewers” of the paper were not experts in the relevant mathematics or biology. This is clear from an examination of the version of the paper that the NYJM accepted. The 51 references were reduced to 11 (one of them is to the author’s preprint). None of the remaining 10 references cite any relevant prior work in evolutionary biology on sexual selection. The fundamental flaws of the paper remain unaddressed. The entire content of the reviews was presumably something along the lines of “please tone down some of the blatant sexism in the paper by removing 40 gratuitous references”. In defending the three week turnaround Rivin wrote (on Gowers’ blog) “Three weeks: I assume you have read the paper, if so, you will have found that it is quite short and does not require a huge amount of background.” Since when does a mathematician judge the complexity of reviewing a paper by its length? I took a look at Rivin’s publications; many of them are very short. Consider for example “On geometry of convex ideal polyhedra in hyperbolic 3-space”. The paper is 5 pages with 3 references. It was received 15 October 1990 and in revised form 27 January 1992. Also excuse me, but if one thinks that a mathematical biology paper “does not require a huge amount of background” then one simply doesn’t know any mathematical biology.

3. Time for mathematicians to wet their paws

The irony of mathematicians who believe they are in the high end tail of some ill-specified distribution of intelligence demonstrating en masse that they are idiots is not lost on those of us who actually work in mathematics and biology. Gian-Carlo Rota’s ghost can be heard screaming from Vigevano “The lack of real contact between mathematics and biology is either a tragedy, a scandal, or a challenge, it is hard to decide which!!” I’ve spent the past 15 years of my career focusing on Rota’s call to address the challenge of making more contacts between mathematics and biology. The two cultures are sometimes far apart but the potential for both fields, if there is real contact, is tremendous. Not only can mathematics lead to breakthroughs in biology, biology can also lead to new theorems in mathematics. In response to incoherent rambling about genetics on Gowers’ blog, Noah Snyder, a math professor at Indiana University gave sage advice:

I really wish you wouldn’t do this. A bunch of mathematicians speculating about stuff they know nothing about is not a good way to get to the truth. If you really want to do some modeling of evolutionary biology, then find some experts to collaborate or at least spend a year learning some background.

What he is saying is  די קאַץ האָט ליב פֿיש אָבער זי װיל ניט די פֿיס אײַננעצן (the cat likes fish but she doesn’t want to wet her paws). If you’re a mathematician who is interested in questions of evolutionary biology, great! But first you must get your paws wet. If you refuse to do so then you can do real harm. It might be tempting to imagine that mathematics is divorced from reality and has no impact or influence on the world, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Mathematics matters. In the case discussed in this blog post, the underlying subtext is pervasive sexism and misogyny in the mathematics profession, and if this sham paper on the variance hypothesis had gotten the stamp of approval of a journal as respected as NYJM, real harm to women in mathematics and women who in the future may have chosen to study mathematics could have been done. It’s no different than the case of Andrew Wakefield‘s paper in The Lancet implying a link between vaccinations and autism. By the time of the retraction (twelve years after publication of the article, in 2010), the paper had significantly damaged public health, and even today its effects, namely death as a result of reduced vaccination, continue to be felt. It’s not good enough to say:

“Once the rockets are up,
who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,”
says Wernher von Braun.

On April 11th 2016, I contacted the Office for Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination at UC Berkeley to report that Professor Terry Speed had sexually harassed a postdoctoral researcher in the UC Berkeley statistics department in the period 2000–2002. Two specific allegations were subsequently investigated:

Allegation One: Respondent, a professor in the Statistics Department, sexually harassed Complainant One, a post-doctoral student in the same department, from 2000-2002 by making sexual advances toward her, asking her for dates, telling her he had a “crush” on her, giving her hugs, and communicating with her, including by email, in an intimate or romantic manner, when such behavior was not welcome.

Allegation Two: Respondent, a professor in the Statistics Department, created a hostile work environment for Complainant Two, an Assistant Professor in the Mathematics Department, in 2002, through Respondent’s persistent discussions and emails regarding his romantic interest in Complainant One and by pressuring Complainant Two to persuade Complainant One to interact with Respondent.

The investigation took 14 months to complete, and the result was a 47 page report along with 89 pages of supporting evidence based on interviews, hundreds of pages of emails that I disclosed at the outset of the investigation, and letters and emails provided by Respondent. The report concludes as follows:

CONCLUSION
For the reasons stated above, I conclude that the preponderance of the evidence substantiates that Respondent violated the 1992 Sexual Harassment Policy in that he engaged in unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that created a hostile environment for Complainant One and Complainant Two, and conditioned an academic or personnel decision on Complainant One’s submission to his conduct. This report is being submitted to the Vice Provost for Faculty for review under the Faculty Code of Conduct.

I have waited since June of last year to hear from the Vice Provost for Faculty at UC Berkeley what action the university will take in light of the findings, however despite multiple requests for information the university has yet to respond as to whether it will enact any sanctions on Respondent.

My close-up encounter with sexual harassment was devastating. I never expected, when I arrived in Berkeley in 1999, that Terry Speed, a senior professor in my field who I admired and thought of as a mentor would end up as Respondent and myself as Complainant Two. However much more serious and significant than my ordeal were the devastating consequences his sexual harassment had on the life and well being of Complainant One. The sexual harassment that took place was not an isolated event. Despite repeated verbal and written requests by Complainant One that Speed stop, his sexual harassment continued unabated for months. The case was not reported at the time the sexual harassment happened because of the structure of Title IX. Complainant One knew that Speed would be informed if a complaint was made, and Complainant One was terrified of reprisal. Her fear was not hypothetical; after months of asking Speed to stop sexually harassing her, he communicated to her that, unless she was willing to reconcile with him as he wished, she could not count on his recommendation.

Speed has been an advocate for women in academia in recent years. However no amount of advocacy on behalf of women can cancel out the physical and mental harm caused by prolonged sexual harassment. Speed’s self-proclamation that he is a “male feminist” rings hollow.

Update on June 6, 2018: Terry Speed is no longer listed as Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley.

Update on June 22, 2018: This is the “notice of outcome” I received from UC Berkeley regarding the case: