Why science and its journals should remain free of ideology: an example from Nature

March 22, 2023 • 10:30 am

It’s one thing for a newspaper to take political stands, but that’s okay only in the editorial section. So long as the “news” section—the reporting itself—remains untainted by political leanings or obvious bias, people can still trust the news, even if they use editorials to diss entire papers like the NYT as “authoritarian leftist” or the Wall Street Journal as “right wing”. The important thing is to keep the editorial section completely separate from the news.

But it’s another thing entirely for scientific journals to take political stands, and this post should show you why. For when you endorse a candidate that liberals like, like Joe Biden, you’re going to turn off the people who don’t like Joe Biden. That’s okay for newspapers, as their readership probably leans the same way as the paper itself. But writing off a scientific journal as “politically biased” has potentially worse effects than writing off a newspaper, for the former can cause people to distrust the science itself.

This is what happened to Scientific American, which, once free from politics, has under its new leadership decided to repeatedly take woke stands in their editorials, and that has made the whole magazine lose credibility. Can you trust their judgement about what science they choose to publish if their editorials accuse Mendel of racism? (They did that, but of course it’s a lie.) Best to keep political views out of science journals, whose purpose, after all, is not to render political opinions but to convey scientific truth.

But it’s even worse when it happens in a serious journal like Nature, for, unlike Scientific American, Nature publishes new scientific results. By steering clear of ideological stands in the rest of the journal, it can at least be free of the criticism that it’s publishing biased science.

And for years Nature pretty much refrained from politics, probably because it realized that its mission was the dissemination of science, not social engineering. The journal was first published in 1869, and remained fairly unpolitical until 2016, when the journal wrote an op-ed saying “HIllary Clinton will make a fine U.S. President.” It wasn’t exactly an official endorsement, but it came close to it. After that, the endorsements began.

That came in 2020, when, bucking tradition, Nature endorsed Joe Biden for President of the United States, publishing a piece on October 14 called, “Why Nature supports Joe Biden for U.S. President“. Of course I endorsed Joe Biden, too, but I think that scientific journals, like universities, should remain viewpoint neutral—except when their political views are related to the mission of finding scientific truth. Endorsements only hurt the brand, and also make it seem that the mission of science, like that of universities, might be more than just seeking the truth. (After all, do you think cereal brands should put political endorsements on Wheaties boxes?)

And loss of scientific credibility did in fact happen. Nature itself admits this in an article published two days ago, “Political endorsements can affect scientific credibility.” Here’s of the piece, whose supporting data are summarized in Nature’s tweet below:

How did Nature’s endorsement affect people who viewed it? Writing in Nature Human Behaviour, Zhang2 describes an experiment that asks this question, revealing that some who saw the endorsement lost confidence in the journal as a result. This topic is important because, if people believe that political forces might introduce bias or inaccuracy into research claims, they might also think it is riskier for them to trust that research.

There have been efforts to understand how public confidence in science is affected by such concerns (see go.nature.com/3zfcpxh), and to mitigate any negative effects of this type of politicization3. But there have been fewer studies of how political endorsements that specifically come from inside the scientific community affect science’s credibility. To my knowledge, the current study is the first to test this experimentally.

Zhang’s experiment involved a survey that was completed by more than 4,000 US citizens in the summer of 2021 — about 6 months after Biden took office as president. Early in the survey, participants were asked about their level of support for Joe Biden and Donald Trump, and how likely they thought it was that Nature would have endorsed a candidate in the election. Later, participants were randomly assigned to view either Nature’s endorsement of Biden or an announcement of new visual designs for its website and print articles. They were then asked for their views of Biden, Trump, Nature and US scientists in general, and whether they would choose to obtain scientific information about COVID-19 from Nature or from other sources.

Overall, the study provides little evidence that the endorsement changed participants’ views of the candidates. However, showing the endorsement to people who supported Trump did significantly change their opinion of Nature. When compared with Trump supporters who viewed Nature’s formatting announcement, Trump supporters who viewed the endorsement rated Nature as significantly less well informed when it comes to “providing advice on science-related issues facing the society” (Fig. 1). Those who viewed the endorsement also rated Nature significantly lower as an unbiased source of information on contentious or divisive issues. There was no comparable positive effect for Biden supporters.

So endorsing Biden made Republicans more distrustful of the journal. Is that surprising? The data are summarized in the tweet below, but here’s the full graph with caption. The length of the bars show the percentage of people (Trump and Biden supporters, divided by whether they had viewed or not viewed the endorsement) who rated the journal from “not informed at all” up to “extremely informed.” Note that the pink bars predominate at the lower ratings of credibility, and the blue at higher levels of credibility:

(From Nature): Figure 1 | Exposure to a political endorsement affects how some people view Nature. Zhang conducted a survey to examine how viewing Nature’s endorsement of Joe Biden for US president affected supporters of Donald Trump and Biden in the United States. Participants were asked a range of questions, one of which was ‘In your opinion, how informed are editors of the journal Nature, when it comes to providing advice on science-related issues facing the society?’. Trump supporters who viewed the political endorsement rated Nature as significantly less-well informed than did Trump supporters in a control group. By contrast, the endorsement had little effect on Biden supporters. (Figure adapted from Fig. 2 of ref. 2.)

Nature’s tweet:

The lesson? This (from the same article):

The current study provides evidence that, when a publication whose credibility comes from science decides to politicize its content, it can damage that credibility. If this decreased credibility, in turn, reduces the impact of scientific research published in the journal, people who would have benefited from the research are the worse for it. I read Zhang’s work as signalling that Nature should avoid the temptation to politicize its pages. In doing so, the journal can continue to inform and enlighten as many people as possible.

QED and duhhh. . .

So what does the journal do in light of this conclusion? They go against their own advice! Here’s a piece published two days ago:

Now of course they couch the whole thing in terms of promoting reason, which could be good for science, but you can always say that the candidate you like is more “reasonable” than the other candidate. After all, that’s why you endorse somebody: because you think they listen to reason more than the other candidate. From the new article:

We live in troubling times for research and for societies, and Nature’s endorsement for the November 2020 US election — and for Brazil’s similarly pivotal election last October — should be viewed in that context. Influential political voices are eschewing rigorous evidence and interfering with or undermining the functioning of independent judicial and regulatory bodies that rely on rigorous science and evidence. This has been noticeable in other countries, too, including Brazil, India, Hungary and the United Kingdom. It’s hard to know whether this is a long-term trend or global phenomenon, or something specific to certain places and circumstances. These are questions that researchers are investigating. Scientists are also testing strategies for ways to bridge the political divides, as Nature reported in a Feature earlier this month (Nature615, 26–28; 2023).

Nature doesn’t often make political endorsements, and we carefully weigh up the arguments when considering whether to do so. When individuals seeking office have a track record of causing harm, when they are transparently dismissive of facts and integrity, when they threaten scholarly autonomy, and when they are disdainful of cooperation and consensus, it becomes important to speak up. We use our voice sparingly and always offer evidence to back up what we say. And, when the occasion demands it, we will continue to do so.

You can bet your sweet bippy that Nature is now in the endorsements business, regardless of what they say. And you know that they’ll endorse “progressive” candidates, which will further turn centrists and right-wingers away from science.

Yes, they can justify what they did, but Nature’s endorsement almost surely didn’t have an effect on the election. They admit that above! After all, the majority of American scientists are Democrats and donate to Democrats. It’s likely, then, though not certain, that the journal’s endorsement had a net negative effect: hurting the credibility of the journal (and of science) while not helping the candidate. Despite that, they’re going to keep on endorsing political candidates. They can’t help themselves!

This brings to mind the old quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” (This is often attributed to Albert Einstein but really comes from other sources.)

And here’s a snarky but relevant tweet:

h/t: Luana

Readers’ wildlife photos

March 22, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today we have some insect and spider photos from Mark Sturtevant. His narrative and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

Here are more pictures from a couple summers ago.

All summer, there will be webs of orb weaving spiders in my yard, and these will reliably be owned by a couple species in the genus Araneus. There was an especially large web in the garden, and so I set out to see if the lady was still around (they often aren’t). The inspection involves looking for a “sincere” looking curled leaf, either at 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock. This would be where they will hide. Sure enough, at one of those positions was a curled leaf with a tell-tale foot sitting on a special strand of silk that ran to the hub of the web. She was home.

But what did she look like? I coaxed her out, and here she is. Identifying these things can be tricky. I lean toward the marbled orb weaver (A. marmoratus), based especially on markings on the underside, but it could also be the cross orb weaver (A. diadematus), which was introduced from Europe. Anyway, she was fat with eggs. A postscript to this story is the following spring I found a large mass of tiny orb weaver spiderlings in the same area, and pictures are in the queue.

During the same time period, I found two new species of orb weavers in the yard. First was this neat little green one with beautiful lichen-like camouflage. This is the humpbacked orb weaverEustala anastera. Here I photographed her on a background of lichens.

And then there was this other new one that had this lovely woven basket retreat. Here is the retreat, and you can see the spider inside. I did not know that orb weavers could do that!

Here is the spider. It’s the lattice orb weaverAraneus thaddeus. She really wanted to be back in her retreat, so of course that is where she went afterwards.

One day when out in a local park, this mating pair of bumblebees sort of plopped down on the boardwalk in front of me. They appear to be the common Eastern bumblebeeBombus impatiens, which is by far the most common of our bumblebees here. Can you spot the stinger?

While we are going at it, here is a mating pair of locust borer beetles (Megacyllene robiniae) on goldenrod— their most common host flower. These two gave me quite a work-out, chasing them around the plant while I tried to get pictures of their stripey undersides. Locust borers are thought to be mimics of yellowjacket wasps.

One day while deep in the woods (slightly lost, but what else is new), I came across this lovely fly diligently feeding on bird poo. This is a member of a small and obscure family called flutterflies, after their long wings. The species is Toxonerva superba.

Returning to the yard, one evening there was this loudly singing insect in the back yard. It turned out to be this conehead katydidNeoconocephalis sp. As a kid, I used to be rather afraid of these things since they can give a nasty bite and they do have a taste for meat. But here, a piece of lettuce was sufficient bribery for this one to settle down for pictures.

The last pictures are two of my favorites from the summer, as it does sort of capture how I look at times.

Wednesday: Hili dialogue

March 22, 2023 • 6:45 am

It’s a Hump Day (“კეხის დღე” in Georgian), Wednesday, March 22, 2023, and World Water Day  Don’t forget to have your eight glasses today, or suckle on your personal water bottle (not really, as that’s bunk: doctors now say just drink when you’re thirsty unless you have a condition that requires you to drink often.

It’s also National Bavarian Crêpes Day, National Red Cross Giving Day, and International Day of the Seal. Here is a tweet from Dom and then two seal photos I took, the first at a market in the Galápagos and the second in Antarctica. The first is actually a sea lion because it has external ear flaps.

And there’s an animated mime in honor of the 100th birthday of Marcel Marceau. Sadly, I dislike mimes, and he was the model for them all. But to his credit, Marceau worked closely with the French Resistance during WWII and saved many Jewish children from the hands of the Nazis.

Click on gif to go to page:

Readers are welcome to mark notable events, births, or deaths on this by consulting the March 22 Wikipedia page.

Da Nooz:

*As I write this at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Trump has not yet been indicted, but there are two articles to read about this. The first is at the NYT: “How an indictment and arrest of Donal Trump could unfold,” Now it says that an indictment could come as early as Wednesday (Trump himself said Tuesday). The unknowns include whether the grand jury will vote on a charge, how security will work if Trump is arrested (the Secret Service has to be there at all times), and how Republicans will react (DeSantis has already condemned the Manhattan D.A.)

The other piece is at PoliticoStop overthinking it: an indictment would be bad for Trump.” I would have thought that was self-evident, but apparently lots of people think it would energize his base. Not Alexander Burns.

My colleagues David Siders and Adam Wren reported that Republicans expect Trump to get a short-term boost from the indictment because it will energize his core supporters. That is probably true.

But those supporters are a minority of the country, as Republicans have learned the hard way several times over. Stimulating Trump’s personal following was not enough to save the House for his party in 2018 or to defend the White House and the Senate in 2020, or to summon a red wave in 2022.

Trump needs to grow his support, not merely rev up people who already care deeply about his every utterance and obsession. It is not likely that many Americans who are not already part of Trump’s base will be inspired to join it because they feel he is being mistreated by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

It is hard for a candidate to tell voters “I’m with you” when he is mainly consumed with narrow, personal complaints and crackpot conspiracy theories. Plenty of Americans can see themselves in an older white man scorned by liberals and the media for his crude manner and bigoted ideas. Fewer are likely to see themselves in a wealthy husband paying hush money to conceal his debauched sex life and whining about the unfairness of his circumstances in every public outing.

One can hope!

*The Presidents of China and Russia, Putin and Xi, had a meeting about Ukraine, but apparently not much happened. As the Washington Post reports, the two countries confirmed their mutual economic and political alliance, but there was no progress on China’s plan for peace in Ukraine, a plan that Zelensky has rejected:

Putin and Xi, in comments to reporters in Moscow, suggested no forward motion on China’s peace plan. That was expected, given that it did not address Russia’s continuing occupation of Ukrainian territory. The authoritarian leaders, positioned to rule for life, did not take questions.

Putin said much of China’s 12-point plan corresponds with Russia’s view and could form the basis of a future peace agreement, but only when Kyiv and the West were ready. “However, we are seeing no such readiness on their part,” he said.

In a joint statement, the leaders said Russia was willing to resume peace talks, as the Kremlin has been saying for months. Russian officials have said repeatedly that Ukraine must accept new political “realities,” suggesting they would stop the war only if Kyiv surrendered large swaths of sovereign territory and gave up on reclaiming Crimea, which Russia invaded in 2014 and has occupied since.

Xi said China has taken an unbiased position on the conflict based stands for peace and dialogue. “We are steadily guided by the goals and principles of the U.N. Charter,” the Chinese leader said. “We adhere to an objective and impartial position.”

Look at that euphemism: “new political realities” is code talk for “Putin’s decided he wants at least the eastern half of Ukraine.” As for being guided by the goals and principles of the U.N. Charter, well,

“the U.N. General Assembly voted 141-7 last month to demand Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine and adherence to the charter. China was among 32 nations that abstained.”

There’s no reason for Zelensky to accept this “new political reality”,  so any preace that involves the Ukraine giving up land appears, at least for now, untenable.

*Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is being given an honorary doctorate by the University of Helsinki. She may, at age 20, be the youngest person ever to get an honorary doctorate, but what I find amusing is that the doctorate is in theology. WHY IS THAT?

The Conferment Jubilee of the University of Helsinki commences on 20 March 2023 with the announcement of the University’s new honorary doctors. In the spring, the Faculty of Philosophy, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, the Faculty of Theology and the Faculty of Law will celebrate the conferral of degrees.

As per tradition, the title of doctor honoris causa, the University’s highest recognition, will be awarded, in connection with the conferment ceremonies, to several individuals. This year, a total of 30 distinguished individuals from around the world will be conferred as honorary doctors.

Faculty of Theology to confer eight honorary doctorates on 9 June 2023

Riho Altnurme, Professor of Church History, Vice-Dean for Research, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Tartu

Maria Immonen, MA, Director of the Department of World Service, Lutheran World Federation (LWF)

Mia Lövheim, Professor of the Sociology of Religion, Uppsala University

Greta Thunberg, activist

Munib Younan, Bishop Emeritus, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, Former President of The Lutheran World Federation

Annabel Brett, Professor, Co-director of Cambridge Centre for Political Thought, University of Cambridge

Grace Davie, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of Exeter

Philip Esler, Professor, Portland Chair in New Testament Studies, University of Gloucestershire

All of these have something to do with religion (Grace Davie is a sociologist of religion) except for La Thunberg. Is she religious? I don’t find that on the Internet. They could have given her a degree in philosophy instead.  On the other hand, maybe theology is a broader subject in a country where most people are atheists.

*On his own Substack site, Stephen Knight reports that “Richard Dawkins refuses to give an inch to the mob.” Is Richard the new J. K. Rowling? Knight first refers to this tweet that got Dawkins demonized for no good reason:

Knight adds:

This resulted in the usual chorus of online screeching from the Anime Avatar Army and the Pronoun Mafia. But what was especially disappointing was witnessing several American atheist and humanist organisations completely beclown themselves too. You would hope organisations that exist to defend open inquiry and critical thinking in the face of religious dogma would possess greater immunity to new-born faith-based movements. Sadly not it seems.

But Dawkins will not be silent!

Anyhow, fast forward a couple of years later and it’s wonderful to see this experience hasn’t weakened the professor’s grip on reality. He can be seen reiterating some basic scientific facts about sex and advocating for the crime of ‘discussion’ in this clip from Piers Morgan’s show:

Of course, this has once again triggered the very online gender ‘activists’. Which is fine. However it also appears one of the most vocal critics of Dawkins from within American atheist circles, Hemant Mehta has doubled down on his own unreason:


It’s not so great for Hemant to say that the assertion that there are two sexes in humans, which happens to be true, is the “wrong hill to die on.” But Hemant has chosen to die on the hill of political correctness, which he’s calculated brings him more followers, though I’m not one. Knight goes on:

To recap, the ‘hill’ that Richard Dawkins is choosing to ‘die on’ here is scientific fact and the unhinged idea that we should be able to discuss things. Richard Dawkins is 100% correct in his statements. His reasonable utterances annoy people like Hemant because Hemant has been captured by a new religion. Dawkins is guilty of heresy because nothing but unquestioning affirmation of the ‘correct thoughts’ (decided by Hemant) is acceptable. Hemant has become the sort of irrational zealot he has spent much of his time pushing back against. He seems perfectly capable of noticing the anti-scientific claims and intolerance of conservative Christians, but doesn’t have the self-awareness to recognise it in himself.

The continued demonisation of anyone that dares to espouse gender critical views (or simply just ask questions) wouldn’t be so bad were this issue purely an academic one. But it isn’t. This ideology is responsible for great harm in the real world. Right here, right now. Past, present and future.

Read the rest at Knight’s site.

*And there’s GOOD news tonight. Neuty the hand-raised Louisiana nutria can stay with his rescuers, despite there being a law against keeping neutrias as pets.

After much public outcry, state officials now say they will let a Louisiana couple keep a 22-pound nutria — a beady-eyed, orange-toothed, rat-tailed rodent commonly considered a wetlands-damaging pest — as a pet that frolics with their dog, snuggles in their arms and swims in the family pool.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, in a statement Friday, said Myra and Denny Lacoste are being allowed to apply for a permit so they can legally keep Neuty the Nutria in their New Orleans home, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported. Montoucet said details of the permit are being finalized.

The announcement came after more than 17,000 people signed an online petition demanding that the state leave Neuty and his family alone.

“I think this is a good conclusion for all sides,” Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Jack Montoucet said.

The rodent has been living with the Lacostes for more than two years. The wildlife department initially said Thursday that it had arranged for the animal to be transported to the Baton Rouge Zoo, citing state law banning the ownership of a nutria, which is considered an invasive species. But after the response, the agency provided special conditions allowing the family to keep the nutria as a pet within the law, according to the newspaper.

I would have been ticked off had Louisiana not had a heart about this. In case you don’t know what neutrias (Myocastor coypus) are, they’re semi-aquatic rodents native to South America that have become (I have to use the word) invasive in the U.S. (they were introduced for fur farming but escaped) and are infamous for destroying wetlands and chewing human stuff. But Neuty wouldn’t do that!

Here’s Neuty with his human staff:

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, it’s unusually warm today (15° C):

A: What are you looking at?
Hili: I’m looking at global climate change.
In Polish:
Ja: Na co tak patrzysz?
Hili: Na globalne zmiany klimatyczne.

Meanwhile, Baby Kulka is getting juiced for warmer weather.

Caption: Kulka is feeling spring. (In Polish: “Kulka poczuła wiosnę.”)


From Cats, Beavers, and Ducks via Merilee. Can you spot the spotter? The caption is, “He sees you.”

A B. Kliban cartoon from Stash Krod:

From Richard. I find this hilarious, especially when you remember how you licked the frosting beater when you were a kid. It’s right on the money!

A tweet from Masih:

From Barry: A fish gets its revenge!

From Simon, who says, “I could have lived without the visual, but now I have to share this”:

From Malcolm; don’t ask me about the genetics (I think the blue eye might have been color enhanced):

From the Auschwitz Memorial, a girl gassed at 14:

Tweets from Matthew. First, a small carnivorous marsupial:

Here’s a photo of the beast above (source here):

Me too!

Crikey! And it was Nature that published the best scientifically based refutation of astrology (here).

Evolutionary psychology for the tyro

March 21, 2023 • 1:15 pm

UPDATE:  I found an old post from 2012 in which I singled out areas in which evolutionary psychology was making progress.


I’m presenting this post as a public service for those who have, by lurking in certain dark and nescient corners of the Internet, heard incessant dissing of evolutionary psychology.  Those are the toxic places where you hear stuff like this: “The fundamental premises of evo psych are false.” Along with that goes a mantra born of ignorance: “Evolutionary psychology simply makes up post facto adaptive explanations for all human behaviors. It’s just a game.”  Then they’ll mention something like girls being dressed in pink because in our ancestors, women collected red berries.

People like this haven’t kept up with evolutionary psychology, which is reaching maturity as a discipline. Sure, there’s been bad evolutionary psychology, and an all-too-easy reliance on just-so stories. But every aspect of evolution has been plagued by adaptationism.

But now Laith Al-Shawaf, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, has written four distinct but related essays on why we have to take evolutionary psychology seriously.  One of the main points of these pieces is to show that evolutionary psychology is no longer mainly concerned with confecting explanations for human behavior, but now is engaged in predicting what we expect to find about human behavior before those observations are made.  And, sure enough, he cites a lot of cases where evo psych has enlightened us about the source of our behaviors. Further, it’s raised new questions that themselves can be tested—the mark of a progressing science.

This is a resource, so I won’t summarize what each essay says: I’ll just give a link and a few excerpts. The point is to give you enough ammunition to counter those who have written off the whole area as useless—as a swingset for playful minds.

The first essay dispels misconceptions about the field; the short second essay reprises Mayr’s distinction between proximate explanations for behaviors (i.e., the mechanism that produces them, like a surge of hormones) versus ultimate explanations (the evolutionary explanation; why those behaviors came to be); the third (and meatiest of the pieces) gives a boatload of examples where evo psych made a priori predictions that were verified and thus produced new insights; and the last essay, in Psychology Today, summarizes a few examples of behaviors that don’t make sense except (as Dobzhansky said) “in the light of evolution.

As Al-Shawaf says, the essays need not be read in order. Were I to pick the most important two, it would be #1 and #3, especially #3, which is full of references to studies.

Essay 1: Misconceptions about Ev Psych:(all except the last are in Areo)

The point of this essay is not to suggest that evolutionary approaches to psychology are perfect. They are not, and there is certainly room for improvement. However, the widespread misconceptions discussed in this essay have impeded the field’s acceptance among both academics and the general public. And given that these concerns are largely unfounded, many people’s rejection of evolutionary psychology has little to do with its actual merits and limitations, and is predicated instead on a foundation of misconceptions.

Perhaps more importantly, these misconceptions impede the progress of psychology as a whole, because the science of mind and behavior cannot reach its full potential if it ignores evolution. There is simply no escaping the fact that our brains are a product of evolution, and that this has important consequences for how our minds work.

Essay 2: Proximate & Ultimate Levels of Analysis

This point refutes the quotation in the first paragraph:

Why would the explanatory partitioning of phenomena into different levels of analysis apply only to biology, and not to psychology? Just like the heart and the liver, aspects of the mind are subject to the same four questions: how they develop during the organism’s life (ontogeny or development); how they work in the present moment (mechanism); how they evolved over time (phylogeny); and why they evolved (function).

Scientists have long known that they cannot skip either the proximate or ultimate level of analysis if they want a complete understanding of our bodily organs. The same goes for our mental organs—if we want a complete understanding of, say, attention, memory and emotion—we will need to address these aspects of the mind at both the proximate and ultimate levels of analysis.

This does not imply that every aspect of our minds has an evolved function. As evolutionary psychologists will tell you, our minds contain plenty of byproducts (side effects) that have no evolved function. But even these functionless byproducts require the ultimate level of analysis: they have evolved over time (so they require the phylogenetic level of analysis) and are byproducts of adaptations that have a biological function (so they require the functional level of analysis). There is simply no way around the conclusion that the ultimate level of analysis applies to the mind and how it works.

Note that Al-Shawaf freely admits that there are byproducts in the mind and in behavior: side effects of evolved traits that weren’t directly favored by natural selection. Evolutionary psychologists no longer spend their time finding random human behaviors and making up reasons why they could have been favored by selection, and then dusting themselves off and saying “job well done!”

Essay 3: Predicting New Findings

A common refrain in the social sciences is that evolutionary psychological hypotheses are “just-so stories.” Amazingly, no evidence is typically adduced for the claim—the assertion is usually just made tout court. The crux of the just-so charge is that evolutionary hypotheses are convenient narratives that researchers spin after the fact to accord with existing observations. Is this true?

Do Evolutionary Approaches Lead to New Predictions? What About New Discoveries?

In reality, the evidence suggests that evolutionary approaches generate large numbers of new predictions and new discoveries about the human mind. To substantiate this claim, the findings in this essay were predicted a priori by evolutionary reasoning—in other words, the predictions were made before the studies took place. They therefore cannot be post-hoc stories concocted to fit already-existing data.

There are tons. Here’s just a sample for one of several behaviors or emotions:


It isn’t just anger, of course—evolutionary theories offer similar predictive power in other areas of psychology.

Consider the following evolutionary predictions about disgust, all of which were made a priori: 1) people’s disgust will be more strongly triggered by objects that pose a greater risk of infection, 2) women will be more disgusted during the first trimester of pregnancy compared to the second and third trimesters, 3) people who grow up in regions of the world with higher levels of infectious disease will be less extraverted, less open to new experiences, and less interested in short-term mating than their counterparts who grow up relatively pathogen-free, 4) cross-cultural differences in pathogen prevalence will predict cross-cultural differences in individualism-collectivism, 5) those with a stronger proclivity for short-term mating will be less easily disgusted, 6) experimentally triggering disgust will reduce interest in short-term mating, 7) people will feel less disgust toward their own offspring and their offspring’s bodily waste compared to the offspring of others, and 8) presenting people with the threat of disease will cause a host of psychological and physiological changes that reduce the likelihood of infection, including a) releasing pro-inflammatory cytokines, b) behaviorally withdrawing, c) temporarily becoming less open to new experiences, and d) reducing one’s desire to affiliate with people. All of these predictions were generated before the fact on the basis of evolutionary reasoning, and all were subsequently supported by the data.

Note that some of these findings could probably have been predicted without evolutionary reasoning. For others, it would have been harder. And for others still, it would have been nearly impossible.

The crucial thing, though, is that at no point in any of these examples is an evolutionary explanation being concocted post hoc to accord with existing data. In each case, evolutionary reasoning is being used to generate a novel hypothesis—and this hypothesis is then tested, leading to new findings. In other words, we are not moving from known observations → convenient post-hoc explanations—we are moving from evolutionary reasoning → new a priori predictions that get tested, leading to → new discoveries about previously unknown phenomena.

Notice how starkly the above evidence conflicts with the just-so allegation. The crux of the “just-so” charge is the idea that evolutionary hypotheses are plausible-sounding stories that researchers concoct after the fact to accord with known observations. But the examples in this essay—which are quite standard —show the charge to be woefully misinformed. Evolutionary hypotheses in psychology stick their necks out on the line, making clear a priori predictions that are then tested and either rejected or supported by the evidence.

Essay 4: Explaining Known-But-Puzzling Findings:

As it turns out, a great many findings in the social and cognitive sciences don’t really make sense except in the light of evolution. For example, evolutionary thinking helps explain why our dreams include specific sensory modalities and why our bodies are vulnerable to disease. Without evolutionary theory, it would be difficult to make sense of the Coolidge Effect in male animals. Specific mate preferences, such as for facial symmetry or deep voices, would seem arbitrary and inexplicable. Evolution yields insights about topics in psychology and behavior as wide-ranging as maternal-fetal conflict in the womb, conflict between children and parents over the children’s mating decisions, why personality differences are heritable, why psychopathy hasn’t been filtered out of human populations, why we crave foods that are bad for us, why suppressing fever can be harmful, why ostracizing someone is one of the most agonizing things you can do to them, why Taiwanese “minor marriages” are plagued with sexual and romantic difficulties, why male aggression peaks during the teen and young adult years, why humans have an “auditory looming bias” that applies to harmonic tones but not to broadband noise, why indirect speech has the characteristics that it does, why mental disorders have the features they do, why coalitional psychology works the way it does, and why non-infectious objects sometimes trigger disgust.

Crucially, the claim that evolution helps explain these phenomena does not imply that they are all adaptations. Many of the explanations linked above are distinctly non-adaptive in nature.

Equally crucially, please don’t fall into the common trap of thinking that evolutionary reasoning can only be used to explain known facts, but not predict new ones. There are hundreds of examples of new predictions (and discoveries) generated by evolutionary approaches to the mind. A few dozen are described here.

So there’s your evolutionary psychology primer. The articles are short; I’d recommend reading one at bedtime each night. They will serve as your Pasteur-ian inoculation against the nipping of rabid dogs who know nothing about modern evolutionary psychology but oppose it on ideological grounds. And those grounds must surely involve the “progressive” idea that humans are infinitely malleable in behavior. Unfortunately, as the Communist experiment revealed, that’s not true.

Rabbi’s NYT op-ed misleadingly claims that Jews recognized six genders

March 21, 2023 • 10:15 am

Here we have another example of what I call the “reverse appeal to nature”, except that it’s a “reverse appeal to Judaism”. The former trope goes like this, “What my ideology says is good is what I must find in nature.” That is, if you’re a gender activist, you must argue that since there is no sexual binary in humans (a false assertion, of course), then there is no sexual binary in animals in general (another false assertion).

Here we have a subspecies of that bias evinced by a Jewish rabbi and gender activist, who claims that Judaism has long recognized a whole range of genders—six, to be exact.  This is also false, for the “genders” adduced by rabbi Elliot Kukla, a transgender man, are not socially enacted sex roles but what doctors call “disorders of sex development”( DSDs): very rare conditions when the development of sexual characteristics goes wrong (DSDs, despite Anne Fausto-Sterling’s claim, are not “new sexes”). These ancient Jewish categories do not correspond to the kind of genders people recognize today—and Rabbi Kukla admits it.  The fallacy here is imposing onto one’s historical religion what what sees as good today: the recognition and approbation of different genders. (Unlike biological sex, which comes in only two forms in humans, genders can be multifarious, as they are social roles or identities assumed by biological males or females.) Somehow the Rabbi thinks it gives succor to the social justice movement to show that Jews recognized people who were victims of sex-trait development gone awry.

The article identifies Kukla as “a rabbi who provides spiritual care to those who are grieving, dying, ill or disabled. He is working on a book about grief in a time of planetary crisis.” Wikipedia also notes that he’s “the first openly transgender person to be ordained by the Reform Jewish seminary Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.”

Read his op-ed by clicking on the screenshot below, or you can find an archived copy here for free.

There are two issues with Kukla’s article, both involving misleading data. The first one involves transgender people have higher rates of suicide due to oppression or misgendering. But none of the data he adduces shows that “oppression” of transgender people, or calling them by the wrong pronoun, actually causes their suicide.  Here are a couple of his statements:

Over the past few years there have been countless stories in the news of trans and nonbinary young people’s deaths by suicide. In San Diego, a 14-year-old, Kyler Prescott, died after being repeatedly misgendered by hospital staff members in the psychiatric unit that was supposed to be helping him. Leelah Alcorn, a 16-year-old transgender girl from Ohio, was rejected by her parents after coming out. In her online suicide note she wrote, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was.”

More than half of young people in the United States who are transgender and nonbinary seriously considered suicide in the past year, according to a survey conducted by the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for L.G.B.T.Q. youth. This figure is staggering, but the Trevor Project’s data also points to what can help. The same 2022 survey found that trans and nonbinary youth who report having their pronouns respected by all or most of the people in their life attempted suicide at half the rate of those who didn’t. And a 2019 Trevor Project survey found that transgender and nonbinary young people who live with even one accepting adult were 40 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the previous year.

A 2021 study published by The Journal of Adolescent Health found that for people younger than 18, receiving gender-affirming hormone therapy was associated with nearly 40 percent lower odds of having had a suicide attempt in the previous year. It’s not being transgender or nonbinary that kills young people; it’s the shunning, lack of acceptance and transphobia they encounter in the struggle to be who they truly are.

Now it’s certainly true that some transgender people are driven to suicide by ill-treatment from others, but we have to realize that the incidence of mental illness and suicidality among transgender people is sky-high to begin with, and the desire to change genders may be one solution people see to their mental problems. If they’re told they’re in the wrong body, or that’s in the air, then they may feel that a mental illness that precedes transition can actually drive people to transition. It’s important to recognize that changing gender is often deeply associated with mental illness; it’s not the same kind of thing as changing jobs.

As one paper reports, “Data indicate that 82% of transgender individuals have considered killing themselves and 40% have attempted suicide, with suicidality highest among transgender youth.”  I am not claiming that being transgender is a form of mental illness, but that it may be a way that people resolve their mental illness. And in some cases it works: in general, transgender people report themselves happy that they transitioned. But note that in none of the cases above do they separate confounding variables of desire to transition from mental illness.

People who kill themselves after being misgendered, for example, may be those with more severe mental illness, and thus are more sensitive and more likely to take an extreme action after being misgendered.  As far as I know, the relationship between gender-affirming hormone therapy and suicide is controversial, as the most severely ill adolescents may not be given puberty blockers because they’re not deemed stable enough to medically transition yet. (Jesse Singal has bored in on the weakness of studies connecting well being and lowered suicide with “affirmative care”; you can see one of his discussions here.)

And as for the “people who live with even one accepting adult” committing suicide less often, the paper really show that the condition tested was NOT “living with one accepting adult”, but having one adult to whom you disclosed your trans status accepting it. From the cited paper:

Youth were first asked whether they had disclosed their sexual orientation to any of the following adults: parent, family member other than a parent or sibling, teacher or guidance counselor, and doctor or other healthcare provider. As a follow-up, youth were asked to what extent they were accepted by the adult(s) to whom they disclosed their sexual orientation. A variable was created that indicated whether youth felt accepted by one or more of the adults to whom they disclosed or did not feel accepted by any adult(s) to whom they disclosed. Past year suicide attempt was assessed with the question “During the past 12 months, did you actually attempt suicide?,” which was asked of youth who reported having seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months. A logistic regression model was utilized to predict past year suicide attempt based on the presence of an accepting adult while controlling for the impact of youth age, gender identity, and race/ethnicity.

Note that all of these are self-reports, so the data are based on whether the trans adolescent “felt accepted”, not “was accepted”. Nor is there anything about living with the accepting adult. The confounding variable here is the self report: even if trans youth are accepted, more severe mental illness may make them feel unaccepted and more severe mental illness may make them more suicidal. Alternatively, those youth who are stable enough to seek and get help might be less likely to attempt suicide because they have less severe mental illness.

I am not dismissing all this research out of hand, but pointing out three things. First, there are confounding variables when it comes to transgender youth that could make certain factors look like they cause suicide when they don’t (or are not as responsible for suicide as proper data would show). Second, the behaviors said to cause suicide may hide the real causes of suicide: mental illness, or may be correlated with the degree of such illness (like sensitivity to being misgendered).

Since the risk of suicidality is a big reason why gender-affirming activists urge parents and therapists to transition children as quickly as possible, it’s very important to figure out the reasons why transgender youth have such high suicide rates—especially the connection with mental illness independent of “affirming” medical care or misgendering.

Third, the rabbi ignores these confounding factors, though I’m not even sure why half of his article, which is pitched as about “six genders of Jews”, is really about suicide

On to the real topic. Did Judaism historically recognize six genders? The answer is, well, not really, for the “genders” were actually disorders of sexual development (DSDs): conditions wheb external genitalia or other secondary sex characteristic did not align with a person’s biological sex. (As always, I construe biological sex as whether someone has the equipment to produce large, immobile gametes [females] or small, mobile gametes [males)].) These ancient Jewish genders don’t at all correspond to the hundreds of genders that people use in modern society.

Rabbi Kukla tells us what those genders were:

In my own tradition, Judaism, our most sacred texts reflect a multiplicity of gender. This part of Judaism has mostly been obscured by the modern binary world until very recently.

There are four genders beyond male or female that appear in ancient Jewish holy texts hundreds of times. They are considered during discussions about childbirth, marriage, inheritance, holidays, ritual leadership and much more. We were always hiding in plain sight, but recently the research of Jewish studies scholars like Max Strassfeld has demonstrated how nonbinary gender is central to understanding Jewish law and literature as a whole.

When a child was born in the ancient Jewish world it could be designated as a boy, a girl, a “tumtum” (who is neither clearly male nor female), or an “androgynos” (who has both male and female characteristics) based on physical features. There are two more gender designations that form later in life. The “aylonit” is considered female at birth, but develops in an atypical direction. The “saris” is designated male at birth, but later becomes a eunuch.

There is not an exact equivalence between these ancient categories and modern gender identities. Some of these designations are based on biology, some on a person’s role in society. But they show us that people who are more than binary have always been recognized by my religion. We are not a fad.

When you look up these four other “genders,” you find that they’re disorders of sex development, and, contrary to the rabbis’s claim, are indeed all based on biology. You can, for example, see a list here that gives the same genders described by the rabbi:

  • “Zachar”, This term is derived from the word for memory and refers to the belief that the man carried the name and identity of the family. It is usually translated as “male” in English.
  • “Nekeivah”, This term is derived from the word for a crevice and probably refers to a vaginal opening. It is usually translated as “female” in English
  • “Ay’lonit”, is a female who does not develop at puberty and is infertile.
  • Saris“, is a male who does not develop at puberty and/or subsequently has their sexual organs removed. A saris can be “naturally” a saris (saris hamah), or become one through human intervention (saris adam).
  • Androgynos“, someone who has both male and female sexual characteristics. This would refer to certain intersex conditions, but in terms of gender in the modern day it is closest to androgyne or bigender.
  • Tumtum” A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured.

The first two are “genders” that correspond to behaving according to your biological sex: man and woman. The other individuals, except for true hermaphrodites for gametic tissue, (perhaps “androgynos” would be one of those), are indeed male or female in the biological sense (e.g. “saris” is male, and “ay’lonit” is female). These may have been “genders” among Jews in the sense that if your sex was indeterminate, you would have to decide which, if any, sex role to play: male, female, or something else. But they are not genders in the modern sense, nor do they have anything to say about adopting sex roles when you don’t have a DSD.

But these conditions are rare: as I say in an upcoming co-authored paper:

Developmental variants are very rare, constituting only about one in 5600 people (0.018%), and also don’t represent “other sexes”. (We know of only two cases of true human hermaphrodites that were fertile, but one individual was fertile only as a male, and the other only as a female.)

There are certainly more than 1 in 5600 people today who claim they’re of a “non-male or non-female gender”: a Pew study shows that 5% of young American adults say their gender does not correspond to their biological sex. These individuals are nearly 300 times more common than the Jewish “genders” noted by Rabbi Kukla.

That’s pretty much all I have to say. These kinds of disorders would probably have been about as rare in ancient Jews as they are today, and so we can say with some confidence that the four DSD “genders” of Judaism do not at all correspond to modern genders that people assume. Even the good Rabbi himself admits that when he says:

There is not an exact equivalence between these ancient categories and modern gender identities.

And he misrepresents the genders, which are all based on biology, that is, on development going awry.

I needn’t say more except that some orthodox Jews have refuted Rabbi Kukla’s contention in a piece at the Jewish News Syndicate, but since they include Ben Shapiro, whose very name is often used to reject an argument, I’ll let you read them for yourself.

This crazy article is a prime esxample of a someone exaggerating or misrepresenting nearly all the data he adduces with the aim of showing people that the ancients accepted a diversity of genders.  He fails to show that those genders aren’t the same as modern genders, though that’s really his aim: to validate the latter by citing the former. He also fails to fairly assess the meaning of high suicidality in transgender youth.

I’ll add one more bit of confirmation bias from the rabbi:

In fact, Judaism sees us as so ancient that according to one fifth-century interpretation of the Bible, the very first human being, Adam, was actually an androgynos. This explains why Genesis says, “And God created humankind in the divine image, creating it in the image of God,” referring to Adam, the first person, with a singular pronoun. But then, the very same verse says: “creating them male and female.” (1:27). “Them,” in this ancient interpretation, also refers to Adam: a single person who is both male and female. In other words, in this reading of the creation story, the first human being is described with a singular “they” pronoun to express the multiplicity of their gender.

All I’ll say here that this is “according to one fifth-century representation of the Bible.”  Way to cherry-pick, Rabbi Kukla! What about all those other theologians who see Adam and Eve as separate people in the story: a man and a woman created by God?

h/t: Luana


Readers’ wildlife photos

March 21, 2023 • 8:15 am

I’m back in Chicago, so end along your good wildlife photos. Note that there are guidelines for sending photos on the left sidebar. Thanks!

Reader, classical music recorder, and Jesus debunker Peter Nothnagle contributes some photos of ice on this first full day of Spring. His captions are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

Water Behaving Strangely

I have made a small collection of pictures of snow and ice doing odd things.

A coating of ice sliding off a street sign:

Wet snow sliding off a car, looking just like folds in cloth:

A coating of ice sliding off another car – you can see the manufacturer’s name, Saturn, embossed in ice:

On warm-ish days snow and ice melt on the city streets, and the meltwater runs down a sewer into a creek. But it’s still cold under the bridge where it comes out – hence a big, horizontal icicle forms (the pipe is about a meter in diameter).

Our house has a steel roof, and sometimes on the south-facing side, snow thaws and re-freezes and forms a sort of glacier that flows v-e-r-y slowly downhill. I didn’t know ice could bend like this! Note in the second photo that the icicles have rotated more than ninety degrees.

Tuesday: Hili dialogue

March 21, 2023 • 6:45 am

Welcome to Tuesday, the Cruelest Day, March 21, 2023, and National Crunchy Taco Day (I prefer mine soft). It’s SPRING!!!!

It’s also National French Bread Day, National California Strawberry Day, International Day of Forests, World Down Syndrome Day, National Flower Day, National Healthy Fats Day, World Social Work Day, World Poetry Day, World Tattoo DayRosie the Riveter Day, celebrating the women workers of WWII (see below), and the Vernal equinox and related observances.

Reader Dom sent a tweet in honor of World Poetry Day:

Here’s the original “Rosie the Riveter” poster from 1942 by J. Howard Miller, whose model was long a subject of contention:

And a 1943 song about Rose the Smoothie. There’s an article in yesterday’s Washington Post about the identify of the real Rosie the Riveter—if there was one.

Now it’s most likely that the woman was modeled on Naomi Fern Parker Fraley (1921-2018), who worked assembling aircraft at the Naval Air Station Alameda. Here’s the photo of her at work that’s thought to have inspired Miller. The photo actually wasn’t popular or widespread during the war, but became an icon of the feminist movement in the early 1980s:

Readers are welcome to mark notable events, births, or deaths on this by consulting the March 21 Wikipedia page.

Da Nooz:

*Will Donald Trump get indicted for the Stormy Daniels affair today? He thinks so, everybody else is mum. You might read the NYT’s op-ed, “Why charging Trump is required by law” (authors are NYU Law School professors Ryan Goodman and 

This case is just one of a few ongoing criminal investigations into Mr. Trump’s conduct — including potentially a much larger financial investigation by the Manhattan district attorney — and the hush money scheme is no doubt the least serious of the crimes. It does not involve insurrection and undermining the peaceful transfer of power fundamental to our democracy, nor the retention of highly classified documents and obstruction of a national security investigation.

But does that mean the Manhattan criminal case is an example of selective prosecution — in other words, going after a political enemy for a crime that no one else would be charged with? Not by a long shot. To begin with, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, who was instrumental in the scheme, has already pleaded guilty to a federal crime emanating from this conduct and served time for it and other crimes. Federal prosecutors told the court that Mr. Cohen “acted in coordination with and at the direction of” Mr. Trump (identified as “Individual 1”). It would be anathema to the rule of law not to prosecute the principal for the crime when a lower-level conspirator has been prosecuted.

*This surprised me. As you know, the French, who are more sensible about work vs. life than Americans, have had a mandatory retirement age of 62. Macron and his government wanted to raise that to 64 because of the sums of money involved in pensions for those in their early 60s, and that caused a fracas. You just can’t tell the French that they have to keep on working when they planned to take it easy at 62. There were demonstrations all over the country and a no-confidence vote looming in the National Assembly. This is Macron’s last term, but I predicted he wouldn’t survive the vote. He did, but it was a squeaker:

The French National Assembly rejected a no-confidence motion against the government of President Emmanuel Macron, ensuring that a fiercely contested bill raising the retirement age to 64 from 62 becomes the law of the land.

The motion received 278 votes, nine short of the 287 needed to pass. The close result reflected widespread anger at the overhaul to the pension law, at Mr. Macron for his apparent aloofness and at the way the measure was rammed through Parliament last week without a full vote on the bill itself. France’s upper house of Parliament, the Senate, passed the pension bill this month.

A second no-confidence motion, filed by the far-right National Rally, failed on Monday as well, with only 94 lawmakers voting in favor.

The change, which Mr. Macron has sought since the beginning of his first term in 2017, has provoked two months of demonstrations, intermittent strikes and occasional violence. It has split France, with polls consistently showing two-thirds of the population opposing the overhaul.

In the end, there were just enough votes from the center-right Republicans, who last year proposed raising the retirement age even higher, to 65, to salvage the law and the government led by Élisabeth Borne, the prime minister. The government would have fallen had the censure motion been upheld, obliging Mr. Macron either to name a new government or dissolve the National Assembly, or lower house, and call elections.

I don’t blame the French people for beefing, as they know how to enjoy life, looking upon workaholic Americans like me with disdain (when I did my two sabbaticals in France, I had to get building keys so I could go to the lab on weekends, where I was totally alone). To be told, when you’ve set your heart on moving to that vacation home at 62, that you have to work two more years, simply makes you think that you’re losing two years of relatively good and healthy life. But I don’t know whether the French budget can continue to sustain such luxury.

*If you think you can tell AI-generated prose, imagery, and photos from the human-crated products, take this quiz at the Washington Post. You see eight items, some of each class, and have to decide whether it was AI-generated or not. I did MISERABLY.  Here’s my score:

*I’m still following the case of Elizabeth Holmes, now 39, who was convicted of wire fraud in the Theranos start-up case and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. She was supposed to report to prison on April 27, with that grace period accommodating birth of her second child. Normally, if you are convicted and then appeal, as she’s doing, you have to wait out the appeals from prison. But Holme’s lawyers have asked that she remain free on appeal—appeals that could take years.

On Friday’s hearing in federal court in San Jose, Calif., Holmes and her lawyers asked Judge Edward Davila to delay that deadline until her appeal is concluded, a process that could take months.

Davila said he expected to issue a ruling in early April. The judge will also consider whether Holmes should pay restitution.

. . .Typically, once a person has been convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison, they must pursue any appeals from prison. In order to be released on bail as an appeal is ongoing, a defendant has a high bar to clear.

In general, they must convince the court they are not a flight risk and that their appeal is serious — meaning that it will raise legitimate concerns with the previous trial that could substantially change the outcome.

As far as I’ve heard from lawyers, she doesn’t really have any “legitamite concerns” that could overturn the case, so she hasn’t cleared that bar. But as far as being a flight risk, yes, I think she is one, simply for the reason that she’s such an entitled person that I don’t think she can ever envision herself spending 11 years in jail (she won’t get much less than that even for good behavior). And there’s this:

[Prosecutors] pointed to a one-way plane ticket to Mexico booked by Holmes last year that was set to depart days after a jury found her guilty.

In response, Holmes’ lawyers explained that her partner had booked that ticket — “before the verdict and full of hope” that she would not be found guilty — in order to attend the wedding of close friends. The ticket was canceled after government lawyers objected, they said, adding that “Ms. Holmes has never attempted to flee.”

Well they sure had plans to go to Mexico, ON A ONE WAY TICKET! Can yu believe her lawyers on that point.  I still find it hard to believer that Ms. Holmes will ever spend a day in stir.

*Joe Biden has finally issued his first veto, but of course he really didn’t need to before the midterms since both houses of Congress were Democratic, Now the House is Republican, and he refused to rubber-stamp a bill:

 President Joe Biden issued the first veto of his presidency Monday in an early sign of shifting White House relations with the new Congress since Republicans took control in January. He’s seeking to kill a Republican measure that bans the government from considering environmental impacts or potential lawsuits when making investment decisions for Americans’ retirement plans.

It’s just the latest manifestation of the new relationship, and Biden is gearing up for even bigger fights with Republicans on government spending and raising the nation’s debt limit in the next few months.

. . .The measure vetoed by Biden ended a Trump-era ban on federal managers of retirement plans considering factors such as climate change, social impacts or pending lawsuits when making investment choices. Because suits and climate change have financial repercussions, administration officials argue that the investment limits are courting possible disaster.

Critics say environmental, social and governance (ESG) investments allocate money based on political agendas, such as a drive against climate change, rather than on earning the best returns for savers. Republicans in Congress who pushed the measure to overturn the Labor Department’s action argue ESG is just the latest example of the world trying to get “woke.”

But for Biden to veto a bill, it has to pass both the House and Senate. And it apparently did:

Only two Democrats in the Senate voted for the investment limits, making it unlikely that backers of a potential veto-override effort in Congress could reach the two-thirds majority required in each chamber.

If two Democrats joined the 49 Senate Republicans in voting for the bill, that would have made it pass by 51-49, hence the advance of the bill to Biden’s desk. But for sure the Senate won’t vote to override the veto.

*And for the local gossip, we have Rupert Murdoch’s announcement that he’s getting married again—for the fifth time—at age 92. If you want dough, it’s a good move to marry someone that old who’s filthy rich (he’s worth about $17 billion).

Rupert Murdoch, four times married and divorced at 92, isn’t letting age or previous marital experience stand in the way of a fresh start. The billionaire media baron said he plans to marry a fifth time.

Murdoch announced he is engaged once again, this time to Ann Lesley Smith, 66, a former model, singer-songwriter, radio talk-show host, and police chaplain in San Francisco. The couple met last year.

Murdoch is fresh off his divorce from Jerry Hall, the model and actress he married in 2016. Murdoch divorced Hall, the mother of four of Mick Jagger’s children, last year.

Murdoch broke the news of his engagement in the New York Post, the tabloid that helped launch his foray into the American and global media market when the Australian immigrant bought it in 1976. Murdoch-led companies have since founded or acquired the Fox broadcast network, Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal and HarperCollins book publishers, among dozens of other properties.

“I was very nervous,” Murdoch told Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams (herself 92 years old) of his budding relationship with Smith. “I dreaded falling in love — but I knew this would be my last. It better be. I’m happy.”

Well, Jerry Hall, his previous wife (and former wife of Mick Jagger) did love him, as she said she was “heartbroken” after Murdoch dumped her—by email. Here’s the old happy couple (Murdoch + Hall) from the WaPo (their caption):

Rupert Murdoch and then-wife Jerry Hall in 2019; the media baron, 92, is engaged to Ann Lesley Smith, 66. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

Love at 92! There’s hope for me yet.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili gets a physics lesson:

Hili: My shadow is bigger than I am.
A: That’s because the sun is still low.
In Polish:
Hili: Mój cień jest większy ode mnie.
Ja: Bo słońce jest jeszcze nisko.

And a photo of Baby Kulka with some new flowers:


I found this on Facebook from the Meriden Humane Society; it’s a Lucas Turnbloom cartoon:

From America’s Cultural Decline into Idiocy:

From Jesus of the Day:

From Masih; here’s the Google Farsi translation:

This is Mashhad. When I boarded the bus, this lady started disrespecting me and hitting on me…” It is interesting that these women with open mouths talk about the killed women of the Iranian revolution in such a shameless manner. The bitter irony of these times is that these lampoons claim to defend values and morals and accuse other women of indecency and indecency because of a few hairs.

Apparently the video was taken by a woman who wasn’t wearing her hijab, or wasn’t wearing it properly. Sound up.

From Frits, who says, ”

Fascinating tweet here, in case you didn’t see it yet. Firstly, the way the goat tries to save its life from the eagle (?) by tumbling down the precipice.  But perhaps even more amazing: what is that second goat doing? Ready to help the  victim? Parent instinct? No bystander effect as someone (me actually) says in the comments. Or is it  a sadist who wants to watch? 

From Simon: a sneaky cat!

From Barry, a human tiger. I think I’ve showed this before, and know that the artist does similar things with other animals, but I can’t remember who he is. Regardless, it’s amazing:

From the Auschwitz Memorial, the death of a 32 year old man:

Tweets from Matthew. I don’t know this species of duck, but look at the little ones scrambling to keep up:

Apparently the language areas of the brain of humans and chimps are similar. When I asked Matthew what the chimp area was used for, he said “Ooh ooh ooh aah ahh ahh ooh.”

Clouds on Mars!

Big Brother is coming: machines to catch implicit bias in the workplace

March 20, 2023 • 1:15 pm

What if you had an Alexa-like device around to monitor your behavior, especially your “implicit biases”? Would that bother you?  And if you knew you were being monitored, would it affect your behavior? And if it did affect your behavior, would it do so permanently, or only so long as you knew you were being monitored?

Well, first we have to know if the concept of “implicit bias” is meaningful. People may be biased, but it may be something that they recognize: explicit bias that’s kept largely private. In fact, that’s what seems to be the case: data show that not only is there no commonly accepted definition of “implicit bias”, but ways to measure it, most notably the “implicit association test” (IAT) are dubious and give widely varying results for single individuals. Further, ways to rectify it don’t seem to work.

In a post from earlier this month, I reprise psychologist Lee Jussim’s many criticisms of implicit bias. Even if you take the most generous view of the topic, you have to admit that we know little about it, very little about how to measure it if it’s real, and nothing about how to rectify what the tests say is “implicit bias.”. In other word, it’s way too early to start ferreting it out, much less asserting that it’s ubiquitous. Implicit bias (henceforth “IB”) is one of those concepts that we can’t get a handle on, has been largely rejected by psychologists and sociologists, but is nevertheless taken for granted by the woke. Who needs stinking data when a concept meets your needs? The first paragraph of the piece below shows that a highly controversial topic is just accepted as true when it’s ideologically convenient.

The piece below, from Northeastern University in Boston, outlines the proposals of two researchers to measure “implicit bias” remotely, with the aim of eliminating it. Click to read:

The article assumes from the outset, without any justification, that the bias is there and is also ubiquitous. It further claims that implicit bias is costly because (again assuming again that it’s real), it demoralizes workers who are its targets—and that costs money:

Studies have shown that implicit bias—the automatic, and often unintentional, associations people have in their minds about groups of people—is ubiquitous in the workplace, and can hurt not just employees, but also a company’s bottom line.

For example, employees who perceive bias are nearly three times as likely to be disengaged at work, and the cost of disengagement to employers isn’t cheap—to the tune of $450 billion to $550 billion a year. Despite the growing adoption of implicit bias training, some in the field of human resources have raised doubts about its effectiveness in improving diversity and inclusion within organizations.

I reject the assertion of the first paragraph entirely, for the data (while sometimes conflicting) do not show that this kind of bias is ubiquitous—or even exists.  Note as well that in the second paragraph “implicit bias” has now become “bias”, yet they are two different things.  One is a subconscious form of bias, the other more explicit and recognized by its proponent. And, of course, the paragraph assumes that employees who perceive bias are actually receiving bias rather than acting out a victim mentality, and we just don’t know that.  (I’m not denying that racism and sexism exist; just that it’s subconscious, ubiquitous, and has the financial effects noted above.) This being America, of course, the goal is not a more moral business, but a more lucrative one.

But technology is here to fix the problem! All we have to do is eavesdrop on people interacting, analyze what you find, and then use it to “rectify” the behavior of the transgressors. Problem solved!

But what if a smart device, similar to the Amazon Alexa, could tell when your boss inadvertently left a female colleague out of an important decision, or made her feel that her perspective wasn’t valued?

. . .This device doesn’t yet exist, but Northeastern associate professors Christoph Riedl and Brooke Foucault Welles are preparing to embark on a three-year project that could yield such a gadget. The researchers will be studying from a social science perspective how teams communicate with each other as well as with smart devices while solving problems together.

“The vision that we have [for this project] is that you would have a device, maybe something like Amazon Alexa, that sits on the table and observes the human team members while they are working on a problem, and supports them in various ways,” says Riedl, an associate professor who studies crowdsourcing, open innovation, and network science. “One of the ways in which we think we can support that team is by ensuring equal inclusion of all team members.”

The pair have received a $1.5 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to study teams using a combination of social science theories, machine learning, and audio-visual and physiological sensors.

Welles says the grant—which she and Riedl will undertake in collaboration with research colleagues from Columbia University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the Army Research Lab—will allow her and her colleagues to program a sensor-equipped, smart device to pick up on both verbal and nonverbal cues, and eventually physiological signals, shared between members of a team. The device would keep track of their interactions over time, and then based on those interactions, make recommendations for improving the team’s productivity.

. . .As a woman, Welles says she knows all too well how it feels to be excluded in a professional setting.

“When you’re having this experience, it’s really hard as the woman in the room to intervene and be like, ‘you’re not listening to me,’ or ‘I said that and he repeated it and now suddenly we believe it,’” she says. “I really love the idea of building a system that both empowers women with evidence that this is happening so that we can feel validated and also helps us point out opportunities for intervention.”

Addressing these issues as soon as they occur could help cultivate a culture where all employees feel included, suggests Riedl.

A device on the table watching and filming everyone! Now THAT will lead to a freewheeling discussion, right?

But the problem Welles addresses is real. As I’ve said before, when I started teaching graduate seminars, one of the first things I noticed, since these were mostly discussion of readings, was that the men tended not only to talk more than the women, but tended to talk over the women. Not only that, but many times I’ve seen a woman student make a good comment, followed up by a comment from a man, only to have the good comment attributed to the man. Since then, discussions with other women have convinced me that this problem is widespread. It doesn’t make for a good learning environment, and it saps the confidence of women.

Now I’m not sure if the male behavior I saw reflects bias, much less implicit bias: it could just be the tendency of men, especially young ones, to be more aggressive and domineering. But it still needed fixing.

The way I fixed this was simple. At the beginning of the quarter I laid out discussion rules including these: everybody gets to finish what they’re saying, and every comment must either address the previous comment or say something like, “I’d like to switch gears now.” If a woman wasn’t participating enough, I would call on her more often to summarize papers, and myself follow up on her comments.

In my mind, at least, this solved the problem, so that by seminar’s end both men and women students were pretty much equal in participation. I did NOT have to take the most vociferous men aside and tell them that they were being domineering and bossy.  That might have solved the problem, but at the expense of hurt feelings and divisiveness, as well as resentment.

So would it improve matters to have an Alexa and a camera on the table, some kind of “implicit bias” or “body language” analyst to go through the data, and then rectify the problem: presumably by calling out the offender? This not only smacks of Big Brotherhood, but is confrontational, divisive, likely to breed resentment, and, most of all, not a fix of the problem. I’m not saying that my own rules fixed the problem permanently, either, but I am not a machine but a human being who could act on the spot, and my job was to promote learning for everyone by giving everyone equal opportunity to participate.  In contrast, the goal of an Alexa Bias Controller seems to be not the promotion of learning, but social engineering based on post facto analysis.

Just sayin’.

“Convergent” evolution in New World and Old World leaf-cutter ants.

March 20, 2023 • 11:15 am

Convergent evolution” refers to the phenomenon of two relatively unrelated species or groups of organisms evolving similar traits independently.  The classic example involves the various species of marsupial vs. placental mammals that independently evolved very similar forms and habits. So, for example, we have marsupial moles who look and behave like placental moles, but the underground habit and morphology evolved separately, for the species aren’t closely related. There are many marsupials with traits and morphologies similar to those of placentals: see p. 93 of Why Evolution is True for several striking examples. New World cacti and Old World euphorbs, which are often virtually indistinguishable, is another.

A new paper appeared in the journal Ecology and Evolution that describes “convergent” evolution between leaf-cutter ants in the New World vs. those in the Old World. I put “convergence” in quotes in the title because the convergence goes only so far: it involves collecting bits of leaves and flowers and bringing them to the nest. But what the ants do with those collected leaves—using them to grow fungi—has a very different “purpose” in the two areas.  What’s new here is that leaf-gathering associated with fungi wasn’t known in Old World ants before this, so the “convergence” involves simply the behavior of collecting leaves and plant material in the two groups, as well as the presence of fungi that grow on the collected leaves.

Heretofore, leaf-cutting was thought to be restricted to New World ants, and it’s been pretty well studied. It is an amazing phenomenon.  New World ants in the tribe Attini spend their time climbing up trees and other plants, biting off chunks of leaves or other vegetation and bringing them back to the nest. There they masticate the plant material into a kind of green humus that’s used to grow fungus. It is the fungus itself that’s important to these attine ants, for it is their main foodstuff and the food given to larvae to nurture them.

The fungi used by New World leaf-cutters are in the fungal group basidiomycetes, and are unknown outside of ant nests. They are obligate associates. This mutualism must have started out as a wild fungus that somehow found its way into food collected by ants, and then, over evolutionary time, became an obligate mutualist with the leaf-cutters, with the leaf cutters evolving behaviors to cultivate the fungus, which is very nutritious. The fungi are adapted to live solely inside ant nests, and the ants themselves are adapted to eat the fungus, so this is a true mutualism. Both species benefit from the association: the fungus gets protection and a place to grow, while the ants get an endless supply of food. The evolution of this mutualism involves behavior, morphology, and physiology. Here are some photos of New World leaf-cutters taken from Wikipedia:

Atta columbica cutting the bits of leaves. A colony can denude an entire tropical tree in just a day or so:

A gif of an ant carrying a leaf fragment back to the nest:

A line of ants carrying the leaf bits back to the nest. They can wield huge fragments, often weighing more than the ants themselves. The carriers are all workers: sterile females produced by the queen.

Sometimes smaller ants hitchhike on the leaves being carried back. These are not “free riders”, but doing an essential job (see below).

And a National Geographic video showing what happens afterwards:

Leaf-cutter ants are endlessly fascinating, and I want to point out two unique aspects of their lifestyle before we move on to the new paper. The first involves those “hitchhiker” ants shown above. The ones riding on the leaves have an essential function: they’re there to drive off parasitic flies that can lay eggs on the heads of the carrier ants, leading to their death. (Army ants don’t suffer the same parasitism because they move mostly at night when flies aren’t active).

Second, since the fungus is essential to the flourishing of an attine colony, and isn’t found outside of the colonies, how does it get to a new colony when it’s founded? (Colonies often fragment after the ants “swarm”: the queen grows wings, mates with males in the air, and then drops to the ground, shedding her wings and starting a new colony by herself, laying the first eggs that become workers.)  It turns out that before the female takes off to start a new colony, she tucks a bit of the fungus in her buccal pocket, a special receptacle in her oral cavity.

When she lands, she digs a hole in the ground that will become the future colony, removes the fungus, and then excretes some substance (perhaps metabolites from her no-longer-needed flight muscles) on the pellet of fungus. Then, for the next couple of months, she’s the only worker in the nest, cultivating the fungus (but not collecting leaves), feeding some of her own eggs to larvae that hatch from other eggs, and thus producing the workers of the new colony. Eventually the whole system goes into operation with leaf-cutting workers, fungus, eggs, larvae, and pupae, and of course the long-lived queen.

Oh, and note that all this complex behavior—in both workers and queen—is encoded in a brain smaller than a grain of sand. Evolution is indeed a marvel!

Okay, back to the paper, describing leaf-cutting in Old World ants (in Africa), and what they do with the leaves and flowers they harvest. Click on the screenshot to read, or see the pdf here. 

What the authors show is that a completely different group of African ants in the genus Crematogaster have evolved plant-cutting behavior, and, like the New World ants, carry the plant pieces back to their nest. In this case, though, the nests aren’t underground, but are “carton nests”: nests made of dried, heavily masticated plant material that are built up in the trees and have a cardboard-like appearance. Here’s a carton nest of Crematogaster peringueyi:

The authors observed the species C. clariventris in Cameroon cutting leaves and flowers and carrying the material back to the carton nests, where it’s masticated along with other stuff (not described in the paper) and used to build the carton nests. When the authors removed bits of the carton nests, there was a noticeable increase in leaf foraging to get materials to repair the damage.  Note that the Attines and Crematogaster groups are separated by 70 million years, with related groups not showing the behavior, so in this case leaf-cutting and carrying to the nest have evolved independently.

Here’s a figure from the paper (and its caption) showing the African ants cutting leaves:

(from paper) Crematogaster clariventris cutting (a) or retrieving (b) pieces of young nitrogen-rich leaves. The characteristic yellow gaster [abdomen] of the workers is not always as striking as in this figure (Photos Piotr Naskrecki).
When the author dissected the nests and looked at them under regular and electron microscopy, they found the walls of the carton nest were pemeated with fungal hyphae: the tubular bits of fungi that they use to digest and absorb food.  The hyphal filaments, many of which were simply dead bits of fungi, were interwoven among the nest and, according to the authors, strengthened the nest walls, making the whole nest harder to destroy and more resistant to rain. (They didn’t show that, though.)

Here’s a photo of the whole mishigass: ants cutting flowers, a carton nest, and the inside of the carton nest, showing its porous structure.

(from figure: Crematogaster clariventris in the process of cutting pieces of a nitrogen-rich Hibiscus rosa-sinensis (Malvaceae) flower (a). They also defoliate Albizia spp. (Fabaceae), Alchornea cordifolia (Euphorbiaceae), Cassia spp. (Fabaceae), Mangifera indica (Anacardiaceae) and Theobroma cacao (Malvaceae). A Crematogaster clariventris carton nest (b) and details of the carton inside the nest (c) (photos Alain Dejean).

Here’s a figure showing the hyphae forming what looks like a scaffold for the nest:

(from paper): Scanning electron microscope images of the carton of the walls of Crematogaster clariventris nests showing the fungal hyphae/mycelium that penetrate the nest carton through pores (arrows).

Using DNA analysis, the authors also identified the group to which this structural fungus belongs: it’s a Capnodiales fungus, very distantly related to the Agaracaceae basidiomycete fungus used by New World ants: they’re separated by about 640 million years! What the authors could NOT determine was whether the carton-nest fungus came into the next with the queen (as in New World leaf-cutters), or whether it was found in the outside world rather than being obligately confined to the ant nests. Perhaps it just landed on the plant material before it was carried back to the nest.

So, as I said, we have a convergent behavior: collecting leaves and bringing them back to the nest to serve as substrate for fungal growth.  But there are many, many questions unresolved in this system, beyond the origin and nature of the fungus described above.

1.) Do the Old World ants eat the fungus?

2.) Does the fungus really strengthen the nest? It appears to, but no experiments were done to determine this. (Granted, this would be hard to determine.)

3.) Are nests not strengthened by the fungus more susceptible to destruction? (This would be hard to determine, too.)

4.) Do the ants have any behaviors specifically designed to put fungus into the nest, or do the fungi simply come in as hitchhikers with the masticated “soft material” used to build the nest? Remember, carton nests are not limited to the Old World; they’re found, especially in warmer regions, in the New World, too, and fungi are also found in the walls of the New World carton nests. Dejean et al. claim that the Old World ants somehow encourage one particular fungus to grow in the nest walls, but they haven’t shown that. Perhaps one fungus just grows better in the nest material.

The behavior of leaf collecting is certainly convergent here, but it would be a lot more interesting if the convergence also included deliberate collection of a specific species fungus to help the colony. (We can’t say that the Old World Crematogaster ants are “cultivating” the fungus, as they don’t appear to do anything to facilitate the fungus’s growth.)

As always, one can end this paper with “There is more work to be done.” But the nature of that work is very clear!

h/t: Phil Ward for educating me about leafcutters.


Dejean, A., P. Naskrecki, C. Faucher, F. Azémar, M. Tindo, S. Manzi, and H. Gryta. 2023. An Old World leaf-cutting, fungus-growing ant: A case of convergent evolution. Ecology and Evolution. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.9904open_in_new