The following essay tells a story as important as that of Valery Fabrikant. But the Gordon Freeman affair involves no dead bodies, not even any blood, so it wasn’t as easy to find a publisher. It concerns sexism in the world of the physical sciences. This article appears here for the first time.
IN JULY 1991, while flipping through the spring issue of McGill University’s alumni magazine, McGill News, I came across a letter to the editor by Gordon Freeman, a professor of chemistry at the University of Alberta. In its previous issue, McGill News had reprinted an editorial from the Kingston Whig-Standard, “In Praise of Feminism,” by Harvey Schacter. The editorial had been published shortly after Marc Lépine, a deeply-disturbed young man, had separated the men and women students in a classroom at Montréal’s École Polytechnique and proceeded to murder fourteen women engineering students. He’d then turned his gun on himself. Lépine left behind a suicide note, explaining why he’d killed only women. “I have decided,” he wrote, “to send Ad Patres … the feminists who have always ruined my life.”
Gordon Freeman, a McGill alumnus, was deeply offended by Schacter’s defence of feminism. “Marc Lépine’s desperate act,” wrote Freeman, “was an extreme example of the damage … feminists do to their children.” Lépine’s mother, he continued, “was a feminist, ambitious in her career, destructive of her children.” He invited McGill News to reprint an article of his own on the subject of feminism; it had been published in the Canadian Journal of Physics. In a footnote to Freeman’s letter, the editor of McGill News pointed out that Freeman’s article was too long to reprint; but readers might want to check it out for themselves.
At that point this reader’s crap detector went off. A critique of feminism in the Canadian Journal of Physics, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Research Council of Canada? Off I went to the library and there it was, pretentious title and all. At first I thought it had to be a joke. The five page article, “Kinetics of nonhomogeneous processes in human society: Unethical behaviour and societal chaos,” had been published in September 1990, in a special issue of CJP devoted to chaos theory. (The issue appeared in December 1990.) The guest editor of the special issue had been none other than Gordon Freeman.
In the introduction to his article, Freeman expressed concern about the growth of unethical behaviour in society. He was convinced, for example, that there had been an increase in cheating on tests among his own undergraduate chemistry students. (He’d been teaching since 1958.) So between 1983 and 1990 he’d conducted a study in which he’d informally discussed unethical behaviour with some 1300 of his students. Not only had he not attempted to collect his data ‘scientifically,’ but he was dismissive of researchers into human behaviour who made such attempts. “Information gained by ‘surveys and experiments with controls’,” he wrote, “is likely to be distorted by the artificiality of the gathering situation, so I do not use that method.” His controls, he declared, were his lifetime of experience with students. His control, as he modestly put it, was his acquired “wisdom.”
Based on his interviews with students, Freeman had concluded that “the tendency to cheat correlates strongly with the absence of a full-time mother in the home when the child was growing up.” He saw “evidence of psychological damage in about one out of two children of working mothers.” The damage manifested itself in “drug abuse, compulsive eating, cheating on exams, not telling the truth in controversial situations, and other behaviour that society finds destabilizing.” In short, working women were responsible for most of the ills of society. Freeman’s proof consisted of anecdotal evidence such as the following: “Two premedical students who have mothers with jobs outside the house unhesitatingly said that it is right for physicians to bill medicare … for patients who do not exist.”
Freeman dismissed out of hand the notion that these days it often takes two salaries to make ends meet, stating, “My study does not support that.” End of discussion. The majority of women, he went on, “were equipped by nature to be nurturers, and most men were not.” Day care nurtured children, he asserted, tend to become unethical adults. The birth control pill, which makes casual sex possible, is the cause of feminism. Feminism leads to socialism. Therefore, everything possible must be done to keep women at home. That can be accomplished in a number of ways: by elevating the status of mothers; discouraging day care; restoring the value of premarital virginity; making divorce a handicap for holding public office; and so on.
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.
In early February 1991, Bruce Dancik, editor-in-chief of all NRC journals and who had only just become aware of what had happened, sent Nicholls a sharply-worded letter, stating, “there was either incredibly poor editorial judgement or a lapse in the system that allowed this manuscript to appear. In addition to being on a topic that appears to have only the remotest connection to physics or…the topic of the symposium, there was not even the simplest scientific method used in the work — no methodology, no controls, no replication, etc.” Dancik wondered whether Freeman had cleared his work with the University of Alberta to ensure that it met the guidelines required for conducting human research. The Freeman article, said Dancik, “is an embarrassment to the Journal and to all NRC Journals. When I read it, it sounded like something from [the satirical] Journal of Irreproducible Results, but I wouldn’t want to insult that journal or its editors and readers.” Dancik’s letter asked what Nicholls proposed to do to correct things. In late February, Nicholls replied that no action was required.
Subsequent to Nicholls’ reply, Dancik learned two things: that Freeman had in fact warned Nicholls that the paper might be contentious, and that the University of Alberta had told Nicholls the material reported in Freeman’s article did not meet the University’s guidelines for research on human subjects. In May 1991, Dancik wrote Nicholls a second letter, informing him that it was time for his successor to be chosen so “a new editor can be in place by the end of the year.”
In the early winter of 1991, shortly after his CJP article appeared, Gordon Freeman visited Simon Fraser University as an external examiner for a doctoral student in the department of chemistry. While there, he circulated an unpublished paper entitled “More Women in Science?” which argued that women shouldn’t be encouraged to go into science. What they should be encouraged to do, he said, is to stay at home. “An advanced society requires the partition of labour. The most important labour in any society is the production of a stable next generation. In our society, mothers-at-home perform this vital function with a high degree of success; mothers who have jobs outside the home are much less successful at producing a stable next generation.” (At this point in his paper, a footnote referred readers to his CJP article.) “Full-time mothers,” he continued, “have the most difficult and most valuable job in our society. The average intelligence and wit of the full-time mothers of my acquaintance exceeds that of the women professors and administrators of my acquaintance. Full-time mothers deserve the highest respect of any category of people.” He urged those who agreed with him to lobby the government to fund only those “women’s groups that are pro-family (two parent, single income). By strengthening families, the vast majority of women will lose the causes that attracted them to feminism. Feminist groups will shrink back to a harmless, small minority. The economy and society in general will become stronger…. Labour should be partitioned as far as possible according to natural abilities and desires.”
Hilda Ching, who held an endowed chair in women’s studies at Simon Fraser, wrote Freeman in response to the paper he’d circulated. She questioned his “capacity as an objective scientist” and sent copies of her letter both to the NRC and to Ralph Nicholls. Freeman’s views, she said, were an insult to women scientists “who responsibly care for their families in a full time capacity and work at the same time on their careers. Most of us have served two roles and we do not need an old crock advising young women to [feel] guilty [about] choosing [just] one.” Ching attached to her letter a critique written by one of her students. “One must hold Mr. Freeman responsible for [his article’s] content,” the student wrote, “but the University of Alberta is accountable for the apparent freedom with which he circulates this type of literature without fear of dismissal or reprimand, or at least of professional censure.”
In response to inquiries from Ching, Margaret-Ann Armour, one of Freeman’s colleagues in the department of chemistry at the University of Alberta, wrote to say that “Freeman’s outbursts, especially on this subject, have become so extreme, that most people here are not taking him seriously. The choice that the Department and the Faculty are having to make is whether to pursue the matter. Lawsuits have been threatened and the decision has currently been made that since he will retire in 1995, such action would not be useful. I agree with that decision; however, I also recognize that this makes it look as if the University is not opposed to his viewpoint.”
Ralph Nicholls, in his capacity as editor of CJP, informed Ching that Freeman’s paper had been reviewed both in Ontario and in Alberta. “My principal dilemma,” he said, “was that as editor of the journal I did not want to ‘censor’ a paper which had been treated by due process, but with the contents of which I do not agree at all.” Ching wasn’t satisfied with Nicholls’ response. She wondered whether due process had really been served. Had Freeman’s paper formally been presented at the conference? If it hadn’t been, it had no place in a special issue of CJP devoted to its proceedings. She told Nicholls he didn’t seem to understand the distinction between editing and censorship. An editor’s job is to accept or reject papers on the basis of their scientific merit, she wrote.”… to reject papers because of unscientific, offensive, [or] sexist remarks … is not censorship.”
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, he drafted one. 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 this … is 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.
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.
I used a Globe column to make a modest proposal. “I’m not a scientist,” I wrote. “The high school teacher who failed me in physics would do physically improbable things in his grave if he knew I was nosing about in his old domain. Nonetheless, I think the NRC should appoint a special committee made up of respected scientists to determine what happened at CJP and to make recommendations for dealing with the Freeman article (and Freeman) and for restoring confidence in the journal. Too much time has probably gone by for reprinting the issue. (Many libraries have already had it bound. Tying an appropriate erratum to the numerous secondary sources that now include abstracts of the article in their data bases may be difficult.) Perhaps a sticker could be placed on the offending article — a Good Physicists’ Seal of Disapproval.”
It was only when a brief article on the Freeman affair appeared in the February 28, 1992 issue of Science, the official organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that the NRC realized that no amount of wishing was going to make the Freeman affair go away. It had now become an international story. The author of the article, Robert Crease, quoted Selma Zimmerman, who was then Advisor On the Status of Women at York University, saying that the Freeman piece represented “a backlash against gains women have made in recent years. The fact that the article was in CJP, an eminent peer reviewed journal, appears to give that backlash some credibility.” Crease pointed out that although the NRC’s apology had clearly stated that Freeman’s article wasn’t science, it had stopped there. It hadn’t gone on to repudiate the contents of the article. It didn’t help that no adequate explanation had yet been given as to how the article “sneaked into” CJP in the first place.” Freeman and Nicholls, Crease reported, continued to insist they’d done nothing wrong. He quoted Nicholls saying that the fuss represented an “interesting and complex mixture of scientific publishing, political correctness, [the] vulgar politics of protest, poor journalism, media manipulation, and government agency [i.e. NRC] damage control.”
The Science article made it obvious to the NRC that it had to act. In late March 1992, Selma Zimmerman of York University, and Rose Sheinin, chair of the Women in Science Committee of the Royal Society of Canada (and then, vice-rector academic at Concordia University), were invited by Clive Willis, the NRC’s Vice-President, Science, to meet with Bruce Dancik and himself in Ottawa. Zimmerman and Sheinin were not only both distinguished scientists themselves — Zimmerman in cell biology and Sheinin in microbiology — but both had been tireless promoters of women in science.
Willis’s letter informed the two women that the NRC had decided not to reprint the offending issue of CJP. It “was published and is in the public domain; this fact cannot be undone,” he said. “Therefore, while a serious error in judgement was made in approving it for publication and other errors occurred in the publication process to allow it to be printed, withdrawal and replacement of this issue does not appear to be the solution.” Instead, the NRC had decided to publish a special commentary issue on the Freeman affair. It “would include a review of the responsibilities of editors, authors and reviewers, a complete overview of the process involved in the publication of this article, commentaries solicited from experts in the social sciences, as well as a number of other unsolicited but eloquent comments. The issue would be widely disseminated to all subscribers of the NRC Research Journals, to the Canadian scientific and social science societies, and to all who have written to express their concerns.” The NRC had already begun the process of consulting leading social scientists, Willis said. “A series of mistakes in judgement occurred to allow the publication of this article,” he wrote in conclusion. “I think the proposed action would answer everyone’s concerns and would provide an opportunity for a scholarly rebuttal of Dr. Freeman’s views.” He made no mention of errors in judgement that had been made following the publication of the article — the assumption of the NRC, for example, that the issue would just go away.
Shortly after the NRC’s meeting with the two women in mid-April, Willis wrote them, summarizing their discussion, and for the first time, acknowledging that what had occurred wasn’t merely an aberration. “Women scientists such as yourself,” he wrote, “recognize immediately how the publication of this article came about and how it reflects entrenched attitudes and outdated networks that perpetuate impediments against women in science and engineering.” In short, systemic discrimination. “I think that this episode has shaken us from our complacency as Canada’s preeminent scientific publisher.” In his summary of their meeting, Willis stated that CJP had now republished its apology on a numbered page; that the NRC would publish a special supplement to CJP; that, as Sheinin and Zimmerman had suggested, the NRC was considering hosting a symposium on ethics in scholarly publishing; that the editor-in-chief of the NRC’s journals, Bruce Dancik, would make greater efforts to ensure that women scientists were well represented on the editorial boards of the NRC’s thirteen journals; and that the NRC would review and formalize its editorial policies. (Meanwhile, the new editor of CJP, Donald Betts, had published a statement of editorial policy. Among other things, he said that henceforth CJP would follow the example of most other journals and employ two referees. And the journal would no longer publish articles that dealt with human or animal subjects.)
Like the NRC, The Royal Society of Canada had remained silent on the subject of Freeman despite the urging of its Women in Science committee. The executive of its Academy of Science had concluded that no action was the preferred action. In April, Lee Lorch wrote Chris Barnes, president of the Academy of Science. “I trust,” he said, “that you have seen the report in Science … concerning the scandalous situation [at CJP]…. It would be equally scandalous for the Academy of Science [of] the Royal Society of Canada to remain silent about this matter. For the Royal Society of Canada … to look the other way when a scientific journal is prostituted in the fashion it has been in this case, would render the credibility of The Royal Society’s claim to be a National Academy into nothing.” Since the subject wasn’t on the agenda, Rose Sheinin, among others, planned to raise the issue from the floor at the Royal Society’s forthcoming AGM.
As a result of the lobbying of Lorch, Sheinin and others, The Royal Society finally added its voice to those censuring CJP. The motion read: “The Royal Society of Canada, which is strongly committed to the advancement of women in scholarship, hereby expresses its censure [of CJP]. In publishing [Freeman’s article], it displayed a lapse of editorial and scientific responsibility. The article is devoid of scientific content and the title is inappropriate and misleading. The Canadian Journal of Physics failed to provide a rigorous review of the article and failed to publish a timely and adequate retraction. The Royal Society of Canada deplores both the insult to working mothers and the denigration of their children implicit in the published article.”
The special issue of CJP, which was to have been published in the summer of 1992, didn’t appear. Translation problems, I was told when I called Ottawa. It would appear in late fall. It didn’t. During the fall, the NRC and the Royal Society of Canada announced that they would jointly sponsor a symposium on ethics in scholarly publishing to be held in Toronto in early February 1993. The special issue of CJP would be made available at the symposium.
The delays allowed the media, which had earlier merely reported on the planned special issue, to begin poking fun at the idea of a special issue. In a page one story, The Ottawa Citizen’s science writer, Shelley Page, commented, “It sounds like using a shotgun to kill a fly, but the country’s biggest research body is determined to subdue one annoying little guy named Gordon Freeman,” whom she described as a “respected” scientist. She quoted a pleased Freeman, telling her, “I’ve touched a nerve haven’t I.” Page’s article was picked up by the Canadian Press and reprinted in dozens of papers across North America. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran the CP story under the headline: “’Mommy Wars’ Flare in Canada.” (The report that troubled me the most appeared in my own paper, the Globe and Mail; not only did it reprint the CP story but its headline declared, “Council publishes motherhood issue.” Although the Globe had broken the story and had devoted some considerable space to it, its editors were now content to run wire copy that trivialized the issue.)
The ever-nervous NRC began to circulate the negative press clippings, almost all of which were rewrites of the CP story. In a letter to Rose Sheinin dated January 21, 1993, two weeks before the symposium was to be held, Clive Willis explained that it was “now much too late to publish a special edition of the Research Journals.” The decision to publish, he wrote, “has unintentionally contributed to further dissemination and public discussion of [Freeman’s] theories, contrary to your desires, mine, and all others concerned with the inappropriate publication of his article…. The media inquiries we have lately received would indicate that the publication of a special edition will once again fuel media interest. It is our fear that not only will Dr. Freeman receive more free publicity, but we may also be criticized for continuing to enable that publicity…. While it appeared to be an appropriate remedy at the time, a special edition may be stronger medicine than is warranted. A number of articles have appeared in newspapers across Canada recently … which have characterized NRC’s actions as an over-reaction. We would expect an even stronger reaction once the publication was actually issued…. The Freeman affair will be discussed, among other important issues in scholarly publishing, at the Ethics in Scholarly Publishing Symposium…. I think this will be a more appropriate forum to discuss the Freeman affair….”
The idea that there were principles involved that deserved defending and that the NRC could have chosen to take a pro-active stand in response to the negative and uninformed press it was getting by, say, holding a press conference attended by leading scientists, didn’t appear to have been considered. It was as if the NRC believed the principles involved were too subtle for the general public to grasp. We, the élite, Willis seemed to be saying, understand what this is all about. And it’s best that we deal with it in the way that élites always do — quietly and privately.
I arrived at the symposium, as did others, unaware that the special issue had been cancelled. No formal announcement to the contrary was made. It was only in response to my question from the floor that the NRC reluctantly admitted that no special issue of CJP would be forthcoming. During the course of the symposium, at least three different reasons were given for the cancellation. First we were told that production problems had got in the way and it was now too late to proceed. Then we were told that there was no longer a need for a special issue since the symposium would deal with any outstanding questions. (Surely the purpose of a publication is the wider dissemination of the ideas contained therein.) Finally, we were told that there were potential legal problems — the NRC didn’t want to go to court and lose should Freeman decide to sue. “Therefore,” said Clive Willis, in explaining the latter reason, “we have to be extremely cautious.”
Given the way in which the NRC had dealt with the Freeman affair until this point and the way in which its decision to abandon the special issue was taken, it’s not surprising that many of those at the symposium were skeptical and suggested yet a fourth reason for the cancellation. Libel chill wasn’t the issue; political chill was. The NRC is a federal agency. The Conservatives, then in power, were in serious trouble at the polls; a federal election was looming. Pierre Perron, the president of the NRC, had been appointed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. For a federal agency to take on a critic of feminism from a conservative province like Alberta at this particular time could cost the Conservatives votes. Freeman, after all, was a hero in conservative circles. It was in the interests of the Conservatives (and the NRC, if the Conservatives were re-elected) for the NRC to play things down. Research funds were drying up. Canada’s scientists needed all the friends in high places they could muster.
That might help explain why the NRC chose not to inform many of its critics that the symposium was even taking place. “I did this intentionally,” Joan Hill of the NRC subsequently admitted in a letter to Rose Sheinin, “because I wanted to use the Freeman issue as one example of the larger problem. Perhaps this was a mistake….” One of those the NRC chose not to inform was Robert Crease, who had written the Science report on the Freeman affair. Crease had to piece together a follow-up report from audiotapes and interviews with some of those who had attended.
Many of those who attended the symposium were surprised and disappointed by the NRC’s decision to cancel the special issue. After the symposium, Alan Andrews, the then president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, wrote Clive Willis to express his disappointment. The NRC, he reminded him, had promised a complete dossier on the subject. “It was therefore a great surprise to me to discover as the symposium progressed that the dossier was not being published and that the clear desire of the NRC was that it not be published…. This seems to me … a profound error. It is not only that the NRC appears to be breaking a promise…. It is also a question of the way in which the academic community at large deals with matters of this kind. … Unless the communities of scientists and scholars in this country, and the academic community at large … deal with such matters forthrightly and openly … we only have ourselves to blame if journalists misrepresent what we are thinking and doing…. I therefore urge you again to reconsider the decision that was apparently made just before the symposium that publication of the supplement is not a good idea.”
The angry reaction of Andrews, and others, to the decision not to publish a special issue forced the NRC to backtrack yet again. The Council seemed to have no convictions that couldn’t be affected by the prevailing winds. On February 22, three weeks after the symposium, Clive Willis wrote Rose Sheinin that “there were many factors to consider, not the least of which was trying to do justice to those offended by our grievous error without, at the same time, fuelling public interest in Dr. Freeman’s irrational theories…. While we felt it best to cancel the special edition, we have not tried to avoid publication.” The NRC was exploring other possibilities. The proceedings of the symposium, he reported, would appear in Scholarly Publishing. The sociological critiques of Freeman’s article that the NRC had commissioned “might” be published as an addendum to the proceedings in Scholarly Publishing or as a special section of a forthcoming regular issue of CJP. Willis didn’t say why returning to the original plan of publishing a special issue of CJP was still out of the question. But it wasn’t hard to guess. The special issue was to have been given wide distribution in the scientific community. Scholarly Publishing, on the other hand, has a circulation of 500; few of its readers, I suspect, are to be found in the scientific community.
Selma Zimmerman wrote Willis to complain about his latest announcement, “I cannot accept the reasons you gave for [the decision not to publish the special issue] i.e., the Supplement was not ready in time for the Symposium or that law suits and bad press would follow its publication. In my view these reasons seem illogical and inappropriate for a national science agency. In any case, it is almost a certainty that far fewer scientists will access Scholarly Publishing than a Special Supplement issue of CJP. This means a lack of visibility of the NRC response to the Freeman Affair which would be a great disservice to all women and children…. [I] urge NRC to finish the job of ‘cleaning up’ the Freeman Affair mess … in a proper fashion.”
The social science critiques of Freeman’s article were published in the March/April 1993 issue of CJP, which appeared in July 1993. The critiques stated the obvious but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the obvious needs reiterating. Pat Armstrong, then Chair of the Department of Sociology at York University, pointed out that the practice in the social sciences (as in the physical sciences) is to relate new research to existing literature in the field. Not only had Freeman not done so, she said, there “is no indication that he is aware of the relevant social science research….” Margrit Eichler, a sociologist at Mount Saint Vincent University, wrote that not only was Freeman ignorant of the literature, “he seems equally ignorant of … acceptable methods for the collection of data,” to say nothing of the fact that he is talking to students in the context of a power relationship.
Connie Stark-Adamec, then chair of the Canadian Psychological Association, reminded her readers that “Academic freedom and freedom of expression like all freedoms, carry with them certain responsibilities … responsibilities that have not been met in the publication of Freeman’s manuscript.” If Freeman’s aim “was to produce a scholarly study with potentially valid conclusions and helpful recommendations, having eschewed quantitative methods, it was incumbent on him to acquire the necessary skills in qualitative research design and methodology.” If, however, Freeman’s intent was “to parody social science, to illustrate how lack of rigour … can lead to inappropriate inferences … he [has] done an excellent job.”
The proceedings of the symposium were published in the July 1993 issue of Scholarly Publishing. Included was the new research publications policy that had been adopted by the NRC following the symposium. It made explicit what it had previously assumed didn’t need to be spelled out. After all, scientists and scholars were men and women of integrity. In part, the new policy stated that: authors of papers must relate their work to that of others and provide complete and accurate citations so readers can objectively evaluate a paper; authors are expected to describe the safeguards used to meet formal and informal standards of ethical conduct; editors are responsible for ensuring that proper review procedures are followed in making the final decision on the acceptance or rejection of a manuscript; referees advise the editor but they do not make decisions on the acceptance or rejection of manuscripts; referees should serve only in their area of expertise; if subsequent to publication, an editor is notified of errors in facts or conclusions in a paper, it is his or her responsibility, after notifying the author, to initiate publication of a report or erratum pointing out the errors; the editor-in-chief has the right of access to all files maintained by the editors of NRC journals.
For me, the most moving and important paper at the symposium (and printed in Scholarly Publishing) was delivered by Mary Guinan of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She reminded her listeners that the popular notion that science is a “value free discipline” is a myth. She described the now infamous Tuskegee Study of syphilis in the negro male begun by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1932 among Alabama sharecroppers. When the study began, it was assumed that participants would be treated by whatever methods were then available, although none of the existing treatments was particularly effective. But the men involved in the study weren’t treated at all, even after penicillin, the treatment of choice for syphilis, had become available. Organizers of the study had decided that the men would not be treated at all, “that studying the natural history of untreated syphilis…was too important.” The men had become human guinea pigs. The study wasn’t stopped until 1972 — forty years after it began. As one critic later put it, “The Tuskegee Study revealed more about the pathology of racism than the pathology of syphilis.”
“In the Freeman affair,” Guinan concluded, “what is important is not so much that the article was published, but the response to it by the author, the editor, the publisher, and the entire scientific community. The Tuskegee Study should be a warning to us all. Twenty years after the whistle was blown on that calamity, the United States government is still dealing with fall-out from the lack of acknowledgement that harm was done. These issues do not go away. Unless they are addressed, they will continue to fester and disrupt the credibility of the scientific community. We will be judged not for the error of the publication of non-science as science, but for our response to this error. Have we tried to right the wrong done, or have we tried to use legal and damage-control [means] to avoid addressing the complex and troublesome problem of what is right?”
One of the most serious charges that can be leveled against a scientist is that of unscientific conduct. It’s the equivalent of a doctor or lawyer being guilty of unprofessional conduct. Many of us believe that doctors and lawyers who are guilty of unprofessional conduct are dealt with too leniently. But the medical and legal professions seem Draconian in their treatment of malfeasance compared with the way in which the Canadian scientific community dealt with Gordon Freeman.
- In June 1997, sixty-five years after The Tuskegee Study began, Bill Clinton formally apologized for the wrong the American government had done. A handful of aged black men who survived the study sat in the audience and wept.
- Gordon Freeman retired from the University of Alberta in June 1995.
- Ralph Nichols was awarded the Order of Canada in 1998.