Just look at this headline in the Torygraph! Isn’t that guaranteed to get nearly everyone to look, woke or not? The short newpaper article may well be paywalled for you (see by clicking on the headline), but you can see it archived here on the Wayback Machine.
What appears to have happened is that Richard read the article below from a recent issue of Trends in Ecology & Evolution, an article I posted about on February 8. You can access that article below (for free, I think) by clicking on the screenshot.
As I noted, that article, like several others that have recently appeared, argued that we should purge scientific language of words that are “harmful.” There were two problems. First, the authors hardly gave any examples of harmful language: really just three: “superpredator”, “gypsy moth” and “invasive species”/”alien species”, though I’m sure more words will come pouring out when the Pecksniffs start combing our argot like a chimp looking for lice. Second, the authors give absolutely no evidence—save one person who said they were tired of hearing about “invasive species” as an undergraduate—that this language harms people, drives people out of ecology and evolution, or keeps people from going into ecology and evolution. Those claims are in fact risible. Yes, there may be some terminology that could do these things, but I haven’t seen any.
Oh, I forgot one potentially demonized term: “citizen science.” The article below says this about that:
Relatedly, the academic research community is also discussing the implications of using the term ‘citizen science’, a practice whereby members of the public collect or process data, because ‘citizen’ can frame science in terms of national belonging. While ‘community science’ has been adopted by some as a replacement, others have noted that this replacement co-opts an existing term, highlighting potential unintended consequences of language revision and the importance of engaged and reflective processes. These examples teach an important lesson: community-centered work provides critical insight and momentum for long-lasting, disciplinary reflection about scientific language that is too often considered neutral, normal, or fixed.
The only rational response to that is, “Give me a break!”
My summary of the new attempt at changing scientific terminology was this:
I doubt that this mass bowdlerization will make ecology and evolution more welcoming. Nor will there ever be a test of that: what we see are people making clams about what words are offensive, and I wonder why they should have the power to dictate what words we should or should not use. (This is similar to Hitchens’s question about who would you trust to decide what books you can and cannot read.) If there were palpable evidence of people running for the STEM egress because of ecological and evolutionary language, I’d change my tune, but that’s just not happening.
The authors beefed as well that English is the lingua franca of science, and presumably that’s not inclusive. My response was to jokingly suggest that we all write our papers in Esperanto. Otherwise, there’s no beef in that beef.
Back to Dr. Dawkins, who’s vowed to use every word singled out (remember, only three words or phrases were mentioned). This is what the Torygraph says:
Richard Dawkins has vowed to ‘use every one of the prohibited words’ that scientists have called to be phased out because they are no longer inclusive.
On Tuesday, academics working in ecology and evolutionary biology called for the avoidance of using words such as male, female, man, woman, mother, father, alien, invasive, exotic and race.
Instead, they encouraged the use of terms such as ‘sperm-producing’ or egg producing’ or ‘XY/XX individual’ to avoid ‘emphasising hetero-normative views’.
But Professor Dawkins, the eminent evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene and the God Delusion branded the suggestions ridiculous.
“The only possible response is contemptuous ridicule,” he told The Telegraph. “I shall continue to use every one of the prohibited words. I am a professional user of the English language. It is my native language.
“I am not going to be told by some teenage version of Mrs Grundy which words of my native language I may or may not use.”
That’s pretty funny, though I have no idea who Mrs. Grundy is.
Others weighed in:
Other experts also branded the alternatives ‘absurd’ and argued it could cause confusion in scientific fields.
They also pointed out that the terms ‘egg producing’ and ‘sperm producing’ were simply synonyms for male and female, and continued to confirm that sex is binary.
Cancer expert Professor Karol Sikora said: “I certainly do not agree and such language will not be appearing in any of my scientific work.”
Commenting on the research on GB News, Francis Foster the comedian said: “As always with these things it’s completely meaningless, it’s going to obfuscate what we are actually talking about and it’s laughable, it’s beyond parody.”
Now I can’t find the suggested substitutes for “male and female” in the TREE article; perhaps they were discussed elsewhere as words to be banned. But I agree with using “male” and “female” when you are talking about biological sex because, in virtually all animals and vascular plants, sex really is binary.
It’s clear that Richard is pushing back hard here. He’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take it any more. As for the words he mentions, or the ones in the TREE article above, I’m pretty much on his side. When I do see a word that genuinely offends someone who’s not looking to be offended, or if I find a word to be bigoted or stigmatizing a group, I won’t use it. But there are precious few of these, and I note that several of my colleagues are still saying “Gypsy moth.” (Some readers noted in the comments to my earlier article that the word “gypsy” is not offensive to some groups of Roma people.)
The Torygraph article mentions two more phrases that I will continue to use. It’s simply ludicrous to try to change these as they are not offensive except to a few people whose plaints deserve to be ignored. These terms aren’t mentioned in the TREE article (the Torygraph is a bit confused on this), but come from other places:
Even the phrase ‘double-blind’ which is often used to describe trials in which neither the participants nor scientists know if they are on a drug or placebo – has been deemed potentially offensive to those with disabilities, as has Darwin’s phrase ‘survival of the fittest’.”
Believe me, there will be more of these articles, and the list of demonized terms will grow ever longer. As ever, we might scan them to see if some are genuinely offensive to many people of good will, and, if so, stop using them. But such phrases, I’ve found, are precious few—almost nonexistent.