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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.