An innocent joke about worms triggers a scientific firestorm on Twitter

August 3, 2020 • 9:00 am

I’d heard about this kerfuffle, and wrote it off as a tempest in a petri dish until I saw this article in the Daily Beast. Surprisingly, the Beast, which I thought was on the liberal side of the spectrum,  took sides against the Perpetually Offended, as it should have given the ridiculous nature of the fracas.

You can read about it at the website below or just peruse my short take her (click on screenshot):

The ignition: Michael Eisen, a well known professor of genetics at UC Berkeley, an advocate for “open” science publishing, and editor of the respected journal e-Life, answered a Twitter question about the most overhyped animal.  He was clearly joking, as you can see below (Eisen’s also known for his sense of humor). Eisen suggested Caenorhabditis elegans, a roundworm that has been immensely useful in unraveling the genetics of development. It’s a “model organism,” which means that it’s studied in the lab rather than the wild.

This kind of mock dissing is applied to other “model organisms”, like the Drosophila I work on. That species, too, has taught us an immense amount about genetics and development, but throughout my career I’ve had to endure jokes about it not being a “real” species. I always laughed these off because a). it is a real species found in nature (it’s now a human commensal) and b). starting with T. H. Morgan in the early 1900s, it’s been the insect species used to study classical genetics, molecular genetics, and now evolutionary developmental biology (“evo devo”). From that species we’ve learned, for instance, about sex chromosomes, about gene duplication, about the linkage of genes on chromosomes, and so on—and that’s just the classical-genetics stuff.

I don’t think Eisen knew what he was getting into with his humorous response. (The worm is also a self-fertilizing hermaphrodite, which is what he means by “occasionally they fuck themselves”.)

The pushback began immediately, as if Eisen somehow didn’t realize the importance of the worm. He quickly made it clear that he was joking:

But he had to clarify himself again, for one clarification only leads to another if you’re facing the Woke.  Although scientists have previously not been that immersed in Wokeness, they’re starting to become that way big time, buffeted by the winds of social change and perhaps a bit peevish and restive from the pandemic.

Eisen even got faulted for using the word “fuck,” for his “frat boy humor” and for having a bit of fun on the Internet:

Some people, like Coleen Murphy, took umbrage because they had “grants and paper rejected based on *exactly* this reason.” I seriously doubt that this is literally true. Perhaps the rejections were based on a perceived lack of generality from results in C. elegans to other metazoan species, but they could have been rejected for other reasons. At any rate, that’s no reason to dump on Eisen. What we see here is animus aimed at editors and reviewers directed instead at Eisen:

It wasn’t long before the specter of racism insinuated itself into the discussion. But even black scientists pushed back:

The Beast gives a bit more information. (Ahna Skop’s tweets are now hidden.) The invocation of marginalized people is the new version of an old rule—I can’t remember its name—which said something like “Any Internet argument will eventually devolve to comparisons with Hitler.” Now it’s “systemic racism” instead of Hitler.

By far the most prolific poster in this vein was Ahna Skop, associate professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and previous recipient of a Diversity, Equality and Inclusion-based award in 2018. Dr. Skop—who did not respond to a request for comment by The Daily Beast—argued extensively that making jokes about worms was merely the tip of the iceberg when it came to making jokes about marginalized identities, or an example of a ‘bystander effect’, a psychological theory arguing that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim in a crowd. (For is it not said: First they came for the worm people, and I said nothing, as I was not a worm person?)

In the resulting threads, Dr. Skop—who identifies as “part Eastern Band Cherokee” and “disabled with EDS”—and others consistently failed to publicly respond to Black scientists like herpetologist Chelsea Connor, who tried to point out that this was a ridiculous conflation.  In a private communication Connor shared with The Daily Beast, Skop doubled down, arguing that as she had previously been harmed by entrenched sexism, her concerns regarding the worm joke were justified.

Oy!  But sensible people like Dr. Berg tried to defuse the crisis with the correct claim “it was only a joke”. She included screenshots of Skop’s tweets:

Let us bring this ludicrous squabble to an end with a quote from the Beast (criticizing the Offended) and a cartoon encapsulating the gist of the battle:

In falsely equating the real oppression of people belonging to marginalized groups to a Twitter joke about a roundworm, Wormageddon 2020 offers a clear example of how white and white-passing women misuse the language of diversity, equality and inclusion, with little accountability and self-awareness, and without any interest in the hurt that such frivolous invocations cause the people they’re theoretically defending. Someone who took the struggles that marginalized people face in academia seriously, after all, would not invoke them to win a Twitter argument about whether a worm joke is rude. “That comparison should never have been the knee-jerk reaction for them,” Connor said. “And then the response [to criticism] should have been better… The harm done stays with us and they get to log out and forget that this ever happened and let it ‘blow over’ meanwhile we have to work to fix what they did.”

My take: Eisen and Connor 42, Offended Worm People 0.  In this case Eisen properly refused to be mobbed, and the attempts to demonize him backfired, so that people like Skop have come off looking ridiculous. I’m just wondering if this episode shows a pushback against cancel culture, as did Trader Joe’s refusal to eliminate the brand names of its ethnic foods.

It was just a worm joke!

h/t: John, Peter

102 thoughts on “An innocent joke about worms triggers a scientific firestorm on Twitter

  1. The invocation of marginalized people is the new version of an old rule—I can’t remember its name—which said something like “Any Internet argument will eventually devolve to comparisons with Hitler.” Now it’s “systemic racism” instead of Hitler.

    FYI it’s Godwin’s Law

    1. Yep, and the way I remember that, which may work for a few who remember him, is that Miles Godwin was Gov of VA – back when some of us were undergrads.

      And having noted that I can also note that Miles was from Chuckatuck., which sounds like a place name in the Hank Snow song, but isn’t – that would be Winnemucca.

  2. I think that the concept of humor is completely absent from people who operate within the postmodern thought tradition.

    1. It’s the controlling mindset, similar to fundamentalist religious folks.

      Humor is a great tool for pointing out the absurd. It therefore must be suppressed in worldviews that often traffic in the absurd.

      1. My son sent me a quote maybe by John Cleese, or maybe by someone else and he was sharing it, which was something like:

        “If people can’t control their own emotions then they have to start trying to control other people’s behavior.”

        Fitting, no matter who actually said it.

    2. I think that’s somewhat true of extremists of any stripe. Extreme dedication to a cause seems to leach most if not all the humor out of a person.

      Maybe because they see any activity which his not focused on their cause as detracting from it?

    3. Probably true except in the one field of intellectual endeavor where postmodernism has validity: Literature.

      There, among the primary themes and techniques of the postmodern are playfulness, black humor, and jouissance.

      1. Black humor… Would that be dark humor, as in gallows humor? Or would it be humor by comedians like Eddie Murphy? Or maybe gallows humor by comedians like Eddie Murphy!

        1. Yeah, literary critics today would likely hesitate to label what Vonnegut, Heller, et al. wrote as “black humor” — for fear of the fate that befell the professor in Philip Roth’s campus novel, The Human Stain, who used “spooks” as a synonym for ghosts.

  3. Paradoxically, while it would seem that this flame war suggests you can’t make jokes at all about anything anymore, the entire scene plays out like a Monty Python skit. We are living the absurd.

    1. Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.”

      “Then,” said Yossarian, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”

  4. One can see how twitter magnifies the opinions of the deranged. Eisen’s original joke got 3.4K likes and over 500 retweets. The tweets of the complainers received only a handful each, often single digits. We are simply paying to much attention to these sad souls.

  5. “ … all from a dude with HHMI funding and head of a journal.“

    I sense jealousy and grievance here – and I don’t understand “dude” here – is that brevity to represent His Dudeness, or El Duderino – or is this an invective against males who surf?

    But swear words – especially the F word “fuck” – say what you will, this unfortunately will lose and limit on part of an important audience. For instance, I do not see elementary school teachers choosing and finding this a productive tw33t to discuss in class.

      1. So would I, but I’d be less surprised if a teacher had their class follow tweets from a significant biologist such as Eisen for a class project or some such, and they all got an unexpected moment.

        Having said that, this is not Eisen’s problem. It’s not like he promised a family-friendly tweet stream, so the fact that he doesn’t deliver one is no issue. Caveat Emptor to any teacher who considers having their class engage with scientists over twitter, I guess.

  6. In her online presence, Prof. Skop makes sure to mention that she’s of Cherokee descent (specifically, Eastern Band of Cherokee), and she links this to her activism on D,E&I.

    However, we also have this:

    “During her undergrad years she researched and put together a genetic lineage with definite links to the Eastern Cherokee tribe of North Carolina. As one of only a few American Indian assistant professors in the country working at a top 50 research institution, Skop is committed to reaching out to young Native students.”

    This suggests that Prof. Skop’s claim of Cherokee identity is a little disingenuous. She did not grow up identifying as a Cherokee nor sharing in their marginalization. Moreover, my understanding (i.e., Google search) is that tribal membership of the Eastern Band of Cherokee is based not on genetics, but on a direct lineal ancestor appearing on the 1924 Baker Roll of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Presumably, then, she is not a tribal member.

    Cultural appropriation — problematic for thee, but not for me?

    1. I wonder if Skop and Elizabeth Warren are cousins? Used to be, to impress, people would claim an ancestor came over on the Mayflower. Now they claim they have a Cherokee ancestor.

      1. Per the left, race is nothing but a social construct…there aren’t even any subpopulations of humans. To the extent there is genetic diversity our species, it exists only within these artificially constructed racial or ethnic groups, and not between them.

        Therefore, you shouldn’t be able to determine with any accuracy a person’s identified race through genetic testing. It won’t map on to our artificial racial constructs.

        The particular genetic profile that I have as a “white person”, an artificial social construct, could just as easily be the profile of a “black person”.

        Oh, and also, Liz Warren can prove her Cherokee bona fides through genetic testing!

      2. Has anyone heard of Jamake Highwater? He was a “Cherokee” writer and filmmaker who made a PBS documentary in 1984 called The Primal Mind: Vision and Reality in Indian America. He became a minor celebrity and befriended Joseph Campbell and other luminaries. However, a Native American activist named Henry Lyle Adams became suspicious of Highwater’s lineage and did a bit of investigating. Adams found that Highwater was really . . . Jackie Marks, born in Los Angeles, the son of a Jewish father from New York and a mother from Philadelphia!

        1. “Jackie Marks” would be a good name for a tummler at a Catskills summer resort back in the 1950s.

          Seems short on Native-American cred.

          1. Wikipedia informs me that a Native-American novelist named Gerald Vizenor created a fictional character based on Jamake Highwater. He called him “Homer Yellow Snow.” Very appropriate!

    2. Skop’s web site lists one of her professional appointments at UW Madison as “Affiliate Faculty, Life Sciences Communication.” The implication is that she teaches this mode of “communication” to students. Awful.

    3. It reminds me of Ward Churchill, the Professor who made the infamous “Little Eichman” comment after the September 11 attacks. He claimed to be partially Cherokee, but it amounted to something like 1/16 Cherokee blood. Claiming Native American ancestry must be prestigious in that particular far-left subculture. I’d be curious to hear what an actual Cherokee would say about that.

      1. That was the dude the Right tried to “cancel,” avant la lettre, until the investigation into his scholarly misconduct overtook the controversy concerning his “Little Eichmanns” 9/11 essay.

    4. Skop may claim that she’s an Eastern Band of Cherokee tribal member, but if she is not on the tribal roster it’s meaningless. She has no vote or benefits if she’s not on the roster.

  7. Behold the hermaphrodite,
    A part-male, part-female sight;
    Who are we to say
    If (s)he’s straight or gay?
    We might be half-wrong and half-right!

      1. Thanks for the compliment.

        Limericks are my hobby,
        In home, office, or lobby.
        They keep me sane
        And not too vain,
        Or snobby!

  8. I’m seeing this as a psychological/sociological phenomenon that must be a glitch in our brain. People become saturated with the issue of cancel culture and it’s vocabulary, and as soon as anyone says anything with any kind of suggestive term or phrase, the brain jumps into threat mode and quickly the vocabulary of condemnation comes into short term memory. Once having jumped that shark, they are trapped into defending their position, no matter how absurd, just to save face. It’s a feature of the brain that can simply get pumped up beyond need. It will die only when enough pushback begins to make the cost too high to continue.

    1. I have to think that these are people who have low self-esteem that is weaponized by the availability and safety of social media. By “safety”, I mean that they can do their slamming without much fear of retribution. Any negative tweet will get support from fellow bullies and I expect no one gets cancelled (fired from their job, etc.) for lashing out at someone else’s tweet by pretending to take the moral high ground. There’s protection in not being the first in.

      1. If all I had was a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning; I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land.

    2. It’s like a Rorschach test in which people look at texts and scan them for signs of micro-aggressions — racism, sexism, transphobia, or whatever. It’s just total free-association with no rules whatsoever.

        1. And under the rules of intersectionalism, once you find one -ism or -phobia, all the others get dragged in as well.

    3. A big part of it looks to me like an addiction to being offended / indignant. I’m not the first one to suggest such a thing, but it sure as heck seems to fit to me.

      This also seems to me to account for the lack of humor in such people. Too busy looking for an indignation fix and a joke is a premium fix.

      It’s also a competition for social status thing. Humans in general do this, though for the typical person it isn’t often about how awesomely and visibly they can express offense.

      1. “This also seems to me to account for the lack of humor in such people. Too busy looking for an indignation fix and a joke is a premium fix.”

        Kind of like the people who took offense at Trader Joe’s attempts at humorous naming of some of the store’s products. There’s a lot more to be righteously offended at that needs significantly more attention and a great deal of hard work immediately.

  9. Not sure if the Beast was pushing back against Wokeness or trying to out-Woke the would-be-Woke-ees (also, can I just say that “white-passing women” seems like an extremely questionable term for people so obsessed with being politically correct. “White-passing?” Really? Anyways.)

    As for the people egregiously offended over worms – I kinda wonder if these are people with personality disorders or some such thing who would be wreaking havoc wherever they went. If Wokeness wasn’t available, perhaps they’d be starting an office war over proper use of the coffee machine or some such thing. But maybe not – as I always say, I’m agnostic on the role of ideology. If that alone is enough to turn people into perpetually offended conflict junkies, then that really is a sad thing.

  10. Eisen even got faulted for using the word “fuck” …

    You ask me, anybody would fault another for using “fuck” can go screw themself.

  11. From now on I’m calling “woke” culture The New Lysenkoism. The “graft” here isn’t biological grafting but the pile-ons which distract from legitimate researchers getting anything done because of this nonsense.

  12. This seems like an example of the sort of thing for which I often say, “Just because you inferred something doesn’t mean it was implied.” Or, as Radiohead said, “Just ’cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.”

  13. Fun lesson in intersectionality. Eisen gently pokes a bit of fun at worm biologists. Skop self-identifies as worm biologist and as female and Cherokee. Because she identifies as one, she goes nuclear in defence of the others.

  14. I really like the worm cartoon. I think it captures many of the social media kerfuffles. And it reinforces my decision to abstain from Twitter. Also, I generally find the threads difficult to follow, which is another good reason for me to leave Twitter to others.

      1. My sincere apologies to all for that pathetic attempt at humour. On reflection, it falls below even my own low standard (which coincidentally is set at the level of the belly of C. elegans …)

  15. I never understand why people get upset by the use of the word fuck, or shit for that matter.

    Fuck has the versatility to be a noun, adjective, verb and adverb. It can be used to insult and it can be used in praise of someone. At least in the vernacular anyway.

    People never complain about fornicate or sexual intercourse. But they have the same meaning as fuck, so why the difference. Isn’t it the same as Water and Dihydrogen Monoxide

    1. And that’s before you even get into the nonsense of the context in which the word is uttered; for example, saying a word like “Jesus” is sacred inside a church but profane outside it…!

      1. An interesting thing about taboo words is that the thing referred to is not itself taboo; there are words for it that can be used in polite company, and words that cannot.

        It’s like that probably apocryphal story about Harry Truman showing a bunch of old ladies from the Daughters of the American Revolution around the White House Rose Gardens. One asked “Mr. President, what is the secret to getting these lush rose bushes?” He said “Oh, it’s no secret; you just have to use a lot of manure.” Later, one of the ladies took Bess Truman aside and said “Really Mrs. Truman, the President of the United States should speak with more refinement. You should remind him to call it ‘fertilizer.'” Bess answered “I was happy he remembered to call it ‘manure.'”

  16. I have a suggestion for anyone with a masochistic streak who wants to play a Sokol-Affair joke. Just create a false academic credential in Twitter and introduce into a science Twitter feed some sort of value statement about, oh I don’t know, hermaphrodite plants, or sterile female workers in social insects.
    Then sit back and watch the drama.

    1. It could be a Godfrey Elfwick / Titania McGrath satire thing. I bet it would get traction if it were done well enough. Maybe even a book deal!

  17. The twitter over nothing war proved one thing. There are some people on twitter who are lead smaller lives than roundworms.

  18. Maybe this kind of bullshit would become less frequent if sane people and targets of this kind of offense-sniffing would automatically respond with “Fuck off, Jamie” followed by this link

    to Tracy Ullman’s brilliant “Overly Woke Support Group” video.

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