Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

The Sexist Science of Gordon Freeman (continued)

Michael Thewalt, a professor of physics at Simon Fraser, informed the federal minister responsible for the status of women what had taken place. “Surely someone at the Journal or at the NRC must assume overall editorial responsibility,” he wrote. “I believe that they have an obligation to explain how this event occurred, to demonstrate that its repetition is impossible, and finally, to offer an apology to women physicists and students. It is hardly a secret that physics has perhaps the poorest record of gender equality of any academic discipline....This fact compounds the seriousness of publishing such a regressive tract in our official journal, implying as it does tacit agreement and approval at some level....I suspect that the characterization of this work as ‘sociology’ would be quite offensive to the majority of sociologists, given the total lack of any scientific rigour in the collection and analysis of the ‘data’.” Thewalt was contemptuous of Freeman’s rejection of control groups: “...why bother using control groups, etc. when you are already sure of the answer?” he asked. “For that matter, why bother resorting to experimental data at all?”

All of the above had taken place in the months following the appearance of the special issue of CJP. Bruce Dancik had decided that an apology was necessary. After consulting an expert in the area of ethics in publishing [who?], he drafted one. [original text?] The NRC’s National Advisory Board on Scientific and Engineering Publications reviewed the draft and amended it. Out of that meeting came a much shorter apology, the one that actually appeared in CJP in late July, 1991, almost nine months after the appearance of Freeman’s article. It read: “In the September 1990 special KNP issue of the Canadian Journal of Physics appeared an article, ‘Kinetics of nonhomogeneous processes in human society: Unethical behaviour and societal chaos’ by Gordon Freeman....This article does not comprise science and has no place in a scientific journal. The National Research Council Research Journals and the Editor of the Canadian Journal of Physics regret that this article was published.”

But the apology raised new questions. The fact that it appeared on an unnumbered page made it difficult, if not impossible, to tie the apology to the original article in electronic databases. And although the apology clearly stated that both the NRC and the editor of CJP regretted the publication, only Bruce Dancik’s name appeared.


Freeman denounced the apology, defending his article as “front line” science. “I’m a little surprised,” he said, “that the kind of political pressure Ottawa is feeling from feminist lobby groups is now interfering with the practice of science.” Asked about the scientific basis of his conclusions, he repeated what he had said in the article, “This is not something you can draw a table or graph about. You have to have wisdom.”

Nicholls told the Globe’s science reporter, Stephen Strauss, that yes, Freeman’s paper hadn’t been formally presented at the conference--a requirement for publication--and if he’d known that at the time the special issue was being put together, he would have excluded it. But that was the only concession he was prepared to make. He went on to defend Freeman’s article on the grounds of freedom of speech. Much of the fuss, he said, was motivated by political correctness. He denied that he’d been asked to step down as editor of CJP.

Throughout the fall of 1991, there was a flurry of activity in Canada’s scientific community. In September, Ronald Lees, who was then president of the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP)--the official voice of physicists in Canada--wrote Freeman, saying: “The Editor-in-Chief of the NRC Research Journals has published an editorial note in the Canadian Journal of Physics stating that your article has no place in a scientific journal and expressing regret that it was published. This clearly retracts any approval of the article by the CJP and, in effect, retroactively disavows its publication. A logical extension of that the article should be recognized to have been inappropriately published, and no further references should be made to it with the imprimatur of the CJP attached. I would ask you, therefore, in view of the harm engendered to the scientific reputation of the Canadian Journal of Physics and, by extension, to the whole physics community, to refrain from making any further references to this article in any public forum, and not to distribute reprints with the name of the journal attached. I believe that scientific ethics demand that this article effectively be struck from the public record....”

The Women in Physics Committee of the CAP went further. It passed a motion calling on the NRC to withdraw the September 1990 issue of CJP and have it reprinted, omitting Freeman’s article. The Women in Scholarship Committee of the Royal Society of Canada passed a similar motion. The Canadian Mathematical Society called on the NRC to apologize to women and offer its assurance that it was committed to women in science. It asked for a detailed explanation of how Freeman’s article had come to be published. Such an explanation, it said, should include making referees’ reports public, deleting the names of their authors.

The Sexist Science of Gordon Freeman, continued > 

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