Sexism in Philosophy and Mathematics

In a note on Nick Haverkamp’s Intuitionism vs. Classicism. A Mathematical Attack on Classical Logic, the reviewer Fred Richman, Professor for Mathematics in Florida, shows several bad judgements rolled into one. In the middle of his comments on the philosophical contents of the book, one finds the following sudden outburst:

“The author constantly uses the pronouns ‘her’ and ‘she’ in a gender-neutral setting. This juvenile affectation seems now to be de rigueur among male academic writers. I wonder if it helps them attract women or if it just makes them feel like cool dudes. Maybe they simply enjoy offending people, pour épater les bourgeois.”

So much comes to mind that one wonders what to say at all. Perhaps only two things:

1. It is bad judgement to think that a critical review of a young academic’s work is a good place for an old man’s rant about the youth gone astray. While this holds independently of the specific content of the rant, such an outburst is just obviously a wrong if that content doesn’t have anything to do with the substance of the work reviewed. But some old men apparently won’t learn that any more.

2. While I think that using the pronoun ‘she’ in a gender-neutral setting is an appropriate way of drawing attention to the curiosity of the habit of using ‘he’ in such a context, it can of course be discussed whether it is the best way, and also whether there are reasons to avoid this particular way. But note that the rant by Richman does nothing of that sort. Instead, it is a mere combination of sexist (surely, that is how to make women fall for you …) and outright stupid elements.

3. I do not think that editors should censor the work they publish, except in exceptional circumstances. How to define such circumstances, I do not know. But independently of that, the present case is a brilliant opportunity for the editors of Philosophia Mathematica to position themselves and publish an editorial notice in which they point out some advice on what should, and what shouldn’t, be part of a good review. That wouldn’t be censoring; it would just be the right thing to do.

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2 comments

  1. “I do not think that editors should censor the work they publish, except in exceptional circumstances.”

    How do you define censorship, though? Editing or screening the work they publish seems as though it is part of the editor’s job, indeed part of the job title. So I think the editors would have been perfectly within their rights to tell Prof. Richman that those comments were inappropriate and that they would not publish them.

  2. Hi Matt, as I said, I don’t know how to define censorship in such cases. I may add that personally, I would have liked the editors to tell Richman that his comments are inappropriate. But I know that not everybody would agree on this, and that editors have different views regarding their responsibilities.

    Since the review has already been accepted for publication, I wanted to focus on what the editors could now do. Also, since it may seem that their policy is rather non-interventional when they decide what to publish, I wanted to point out that they can indeed still do *something* helpful here without giving up that policy (if they don’t want to do that). Now that the review is published, it would in any case be a good thing for them to comment on the case and to explain what they regard as the standards that a good review should satisfy.

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