Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

The Sexist Science of Gordon Freeman (continued)

Freeman’s article contained two footnotes. One quoted the definition of ethics from Funk & Wagnall’s Standard College Dictionary (1963). The other referred to a chapter in a book on chaos theory edited by Freeman himself. There were no references to the literature of the social sciences and no suggestion that Freeman was either aware--or cared--that such literature existed.

At the time I tripped across Freeman’s article, I was writing a column about magazines for the Toronto Globe and Mail. I devoted one of my columns to a description of Freeman’s article in CJP and concluded by saying that, as an individual, Gordon Freeman was entitled to his opinion, however dumb it might be. But when Gordon Freeman, in his capacity as a professor of chemistry, “passes off his prejudices and ignorance as science, and his academic peers review his work and approve it for publication in a scholarly journal supported by public funds, one has to wonder what the hell is going on. If this is what peer review means at the Canadian Journal of Physics, can one trust any of the articles that appear in this journal?”

I received more letters, phone calls and faxes in response to that column than to anything I’d written in some time. A few were congratulatory. “Freeman likes to discuss ethics,” wrote Lee Lorch, an emeritus professor of mathematics at York University. “He could be asked about his own ethics in using the pages of a respected scientific periodical to publish what is clearly anti-science.” Lorch wrote me again a few days later to say that he’d been doing some checking and had been informed by members of CJP’s editorial board that Ralph Nicholls, the editor of the journal, had not consulted any of them about Freeman’s article. They were as astonished--and embarrassed--by its appearance as anyone.

A surprising number of my correspondents were sympathetic to Freeman. One said the possibility that Freeman himself had cheated in getting his views into a peer reviewed journal didn’t bother him at all; so far as he was concerned, all was fair in the war between the sexes. A professor at Brock University criticized me for getting all worked up about something so trivial. “Within the academic community,” he wrote patronizingly, “crackpots are recognized and tolerated but not taken seriously. Perhaps the lay community needs to acquire this same perspective.” A man in Vancouver sent me a long poem entitled “Marc Lépine: Martyr.” He wrote, in part, “Marc Lépine proved with his life/Feminism has gone too far.” He attached a note that said, “You suffer from the curse of the British Empire. Because you have submitted, you think everyone must submit. Well, great numbers of us have reservations about Feminism. You may redeem yourself if you do your best to ensure this letter and poem are published.” (I wonder if this counts?)

Stephen Prud’homme of the National Research Council, which publishes CJP, also wrote me in reply to my column, stating that an apology would appear in the next issue of the journal. (The decision to publish an apology had apparently been made before my column appeared.) Prud’homme’s letter went on to say that what had happened was clearly an “aberration,” and that because of that, the NRC was trying to play it down. What we were dealing with, he suggested, wasn’t a systemic failure but rather the failure of an individual or individuals. The NRC, it was clear, was hoping the Freeman matter would go away.

The Globe and Mail published a number of letters it received in response to my column. Among them was a letter written by Stan Jeffers, a physicist at York University and one of Nicholl’s colleagues. “I am confident,” wrote Jeffers, “that this piece of pretentious drivel could not possibly have been peer reviewed....If it was reviewed for publication, it seems likely that Prof. Freeman was the only reviewer.” But Freeman was unrepentant. In a letter to the Globe, he wrote, “You can check the validity of some of the correlations I have found because they allow me to make the following prediction: Morris Wolfe’s pro-feminist, somewhat shrill comments indicate to me that he has (or had) a wife with a job outside the home and one or more children.” He himself, he said, was “strongly pro-women and pro-children, and therefore anti-feminist.”


I was unaware when I wrote my column, that Freeman’s article had already stirred up something of a fuss within the scientific community itself. Subsequent to the appearance of my column, I learned that in January 1991, shortly after the special issue of CJP had appeared, Mary White, an associate professor of chemistry and physics at Dalhousie University, had written Ralph Nicholls, asking three simple questions: “What was the physics content of [Freeman’s] paper? How was [it] refereed? How can the Canadian physics community expect to attract more women to the discipline...when the national journal publishes papers like this?” White didn’t get a reply.

The Sexist Science of Gordon Freeman, continued > 

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