Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

The Sexist Science of Gordon Freeman (continued)

A petition signed by 547 faculty members at York University called on the NRC not only to investigate what had happened but to replace the issue containing Freeman’s article. (Faculty members at York felt particularly embarrassed, given that Nicholls was one of their number.) Some faculty at York, however--Michiel Horn for one--refused to sign the petition, arguing, quite rightly, that the call to withdraw the article was an attempt to rewrite history. “No matter what I may think about the article or the way in which it was published, the course of action proposed reminds me irresistibly of Orwell’s 1984,” he said. In a letter to the editor of the Globe, one correspondent reminded readers of “Stalinist attempts to rewrite history by substituting inoffensive pages in the Soviet encyclopedia whenever some unfortunate politician...had to be made to disappear....”

Freeman continued to delight in the furor his article had caused. He loved the spotlight and became a regular on radio and television programs across the country, defending his position, insisting that he’d done nothing wrong. Not once, to my knowledge, did he address the charge that he himself had cheated by publishing a paper that hadn’t been presented at the conference. (Could it be that his mother worked outside the home?) Freeman even had a letter published in Ann Landers’ column. A young woman had written Landers saying she had always been a high achiever; she was about to apply to medical school and was so terrified of being rejected that she’d even thought of killing herself. “Forget about being a super-achiever,” advised Freeman. “Pick another path. Plan to marry and keep your marriage vows ‘until death do us part.’ Then be a stay-at-home mom. Your children will not be, as you are, manic about superficial success and wishing to die for fear of failure.” (Freeman didn’t say what advice he’d offer a young man with similar fears.)

He sent copies of his article to every Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta on the grounds that keeping women at home was--or should be--a public policy issue. Freeman wrote Physics in Canada in response to Ronald Lees’s letter urging him to stop circulating his paper. He again defended his article, saying it represented a new approach to sociology. “New concepts,” he said, “frequently engender a charge of being nonscientific.” He responded to Lees’s request that he desist from citing the article by citing the article.

No one in the Canadian academic community seemed willing--or able--to act against the loose cannon in their midst. Ann McMillan, chair of the Canadian Association of Physicists’ Committee to Encourage Women in Physics, inquired about what the University of Alberta had done, if anything, about Freeman. The university’s vice-president academic, John McDonald, replied that senior administrators at the university had become aware of Freeman’s article in the spring of 1990. His chair had met with him and “directed him not to publish or speak about any work of his involving human research until such time as he had satisfied the Chair that he had a proper human ethics review....The University has a committee...that must approve all research proposals dealing with human subjects. This committee was not consulted by Professor Freeman, since he said he considered his observations to be ‘troubleshooting rather than research in the usual sense’, and that ‘there is no human experimentation; no interviews’.” By the time his chair spoke to him, Freeman had submitted his article to CJP and he refused to withdraw it. He was sent a letter signed by his chair and approved by the university’s senior administration, formally stating the university’s position. Freeman ignored the letter. After the article was published, the university took no action until January 1992, almost two years later, when in response to yet another inflammatory radio interview by Freeman, it issued a statement, disassociating itself from his comments and reaffirming its commitment to academic excellence and to women in science.

The National Research Council remained silent throughout the fall of 1991 and early winter of 1992, still hoping the fuss would die down. It didn’t even acknowledge some of the letters and petitions it was receiving--the petition from the faculty at York University, for example. Meanwhile, submissions to CJP were drying up; the journal’s reputation had been seriously damaged by the unfavourable publicity. The NRC briefly considered closing the journal down. In mid-January 1992, it issued a press release acknowledging that it had received a number of requests to withdraw the offending issue of CJP. It had been consulting widely on what action to take and would keep interested parties informed. Its press release ended with a now familiar refrain: “NRC is concerned that the continuing public discussion and publicity being given this article will have the unintended impact of encouraging its dissemination.” If people would only stop talking about the Freeman affair, it would go away.

The Sexist Science of Gordon Freeman, continued > 


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