Discuss: gender-neutral acting awards

March 10, 2023 • 10:00 am

Reader Wayne called my attention to a Washington Times article about how the Oscars are “under pressure to replace actor, actress awards with gender-neutral honors”.  Indeed, the Los Angeles Times, published at the home of the Academy Awards, ran this op-ed (by the whole editorial board) last December (click to read):

The Times article gives the pros and cons in two paragraphs:

The Academy Awards face mounting pressure to follow the Grammys, the MTV Movie & TV Awards, the Gotham Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards by replacing the male and female acting awards with “best performer” or “best performance” as entertainers increasingly identify as nonbinary and transgender.

The trend has opened another front in the debate over fairness versus inclusion, raising concerns that actresses, much like female athletes, may wind up bearing the costs of the campaign to reconfigure sex and gender classifications.

One difference is that almost nobody wants a single category for athletic competitions, while a lot of actors favor eliminating sex-specific awards (see below).

Now if you create just two non-gender-specified awards for winners in categories that were previously “best male” and “best female,” that’s an explicit nod to the sex binary, something that may not fly in today’s woke Hollywood. But that’s what the L.A. Film Critics Association did.

Further, if you create just one award, a lack of gender equity in the industry will mean that it’s likely to go to a male, and that doesn’t look good either. Many people think that in the Oscars, like athletics, women should be given an equal chance to shine. But since there’s no reason that women can’t be as competitive as men in acting (though there may be barriers to success that men don’t face), this is not identical to the situation women face in athletics.

However, the L.A. Times feels that women don’t have equal acting opportunity: even though they make up between 45% and 47% of scripted leads, only 25% of Oscar-winning movies have female leads. The paper still recommends ditching the gender-based solution:

Dissolving gendered categories for Oscars or Emmys would not magically give women parity with men in accessing substantial acting roles and being celebrated for their work. Despite some notable recent gains for women, the entertainment industry is still weighted in favor of men. The last thing we would want to see are nongendered acting categories full of male nominees and winners.

. . .But as Josh Welsh, the president of Film Independent, which puts on the Spirit Awards, said, “Keeping gendered award categories is not a solution to the problem. The change needs to come with diversifying the gatekeepers who make decisions about what films and shows get financed and marketed.”

This assumes, of course, that the gatekeepers are more likely to recognize or nominate acting talent in their own gender or ethnic group. The article continues:

He’s right, but awards still play a part in the ecosystem of Hollywood. An acting award can raise the profile and influence of the winner. It would be unsettling if a new approach to award-bestowing makes it even more difficult for women to win an award and achieve that profile.

But it’s past time to get rid of these categories — and we believe that awards shows can smartly lay out a plan to do that.

In a survey of actors, the NY Times showed them to be split: all favored “inclusivity”, but women in particular expressed worries about being shut out of acting awards.

I don’t have a dog in this fight, so I don’t much care what they do so long as everyone is given equal opportunity to succeed in directing, acting, and so on, and awards are based on merit. There does seem to be something hypocritical in eliminating gendered awards but still retaining two categories. It would seem better that if you don’t want gender categories there should be just one winner.

One difference between acting and athletics, though, is that if you combine the sexes in sports, the winner is invariably going to be male, and the unfairness of that is much more evident than it would be for acting. Given their sterling performances to date (e.g., Cate Blanchett in Tár), surely many women could win a the single acting Oscar.

Another solution is just to eliminate awards altogether, but few would go for that (I wouldn’t care).

So if the Oscars can “smartly lay out a plan” for the Academy Awards that recognizes actors of any gender or sex, what is it to be? Readers?

The 2023 Golden Steve Award nominations

March 4, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Each year (see here) my nephew Steven, a movie buff and critic who proclaims himself a far better judge of cinema than is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, comes up with his equivalent of the Oscars: the renowned “Golden Steve Awards”.  There is no modesty here, but the proclamation of the best of last year’s cinema, bar none. (This dogmatism must run in the family!) He added this in his email:

Here’s this year’s crop. At age 96, Mel Brooks has become my all-time oldest nominee!

The award season begins with his list of nominees, some of which I present here (there are other categories as well). As he notes in his introduction below, the winners will be announced on April 1.

Presenting…the 2022 Golden Steve Awards.

Far and away the most coveted of motion picture accolades, Golden Steves are frequently described as the Oscars without the politics. Impervious to bribery, immune to ballyhoo, unswayed by sentiment, and riddled with integrity, this committee of one might be termed in all accuracy “fair-mindedness incarnate.” Over 200 of the year’s most acclaimed features were screened prior to the compilation of this ballot. First, some caveats:

1) Owing to a lifelong suspicion of prime numbers, each category comprises six nominees, not five.

2) A film can be nominated in only one of the following categories: Best Animated Feature, Best Non-Fiction Film, Best Foreign Language Film. Placement is determined by the Board of Governors. Said film remains eligible in all other fields.

3) This list is in no way connected with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—a fact that should be apparent from its acumen. Please look elsewhere for Oscar analysis.

Winners will be announced on Saturday, April 1. And now, the worthy nominees (click the screenshot to read them all):

The nominees, by category:

Best Picture

The Fabelmans
Return to Seoul
Saint Omer

Best Director

Davy Chou, Return to Seoul
Terence Davies, Benediction
Alice Diop, Saint Omer
Jerzy Skolimowski, EO
Steven Spielberg, The Fabelmans
Charlotte Wells, Aftersun

Best Actor

Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin
Caleb Landry Jones, Nitram
Jack Lowden, Benediction
Paul Mescal, Aftersun
Bill Nighy, Living
Mark Rylance, The Outfit

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Tar
Danielle Deadwyler, Till
Rebecca Hall, Resurrection
Vicky Krieps, Corsage
Park Ji-min, Return to Seoul
Andrea Riseborough, To Leslie

Best Supporting Actor

Paul Dano, The Fabelmans
Brian Tyree Henry, Causeway
Anthony Hopkins, Armageddon Time
Alex Lutz, Vortex
Matthew Maher, Funny Pages
Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Best Supporting Actress

Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin
Judy Davis, Nitram
Dolly de Leon, Triangle of Sadness
Nina Hoss, Tar
Stephanie Hsu, Everything Everywhere All at Once
Guslagie Malanda, Saint Omer

Best Foreign Language Film

EO (Jerzy Skolimowski)
Fabian: Going to the Dogs (Dominik Graf)
No Bears (Jafar Panahi)
Return to Seoul (Davy Chou)
RRR (S.S. Rajamouli)
Saint Omer (Alice Diop)

There are five other categories, and Mel Brooks is nominated for “Best Original Song,” “At the Automat,” The Automat. Here’s the song:

As usual, I’ve seen almost none of the nominated movies or performances. Of all the Best Picture nominees, I’ve seen only “The Fabelmans”, and I thought it was so-so. And where is “Tár”? But Steven’s nominations are not to be sniffed at, for he’s introduced me to many good movies I wouldn’t have seen otherwise (“Tokyo Story” is one).

Of the other movies mentioned for performances, I have seen “Tár”, “The Banshees of Inisherin,”  “Till” (overlooked for Best Film) and “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which I thought was a stinkeroo and couldn’t finish watching. (I did love “Tár and “The Banshees of Inisherin”.) I want to watch “EO” badly, as it’s been on many best-movie lists, but I haven’t had time.

If you’ve seen any of the nominated films, or want to weigh in on the nominations, please do so below.  And, of course, come back on April 1 to see the winners, which according to Steven represent the genuine best in cinema.

Winners, 2022 underwater photography contest

February 5, 2023 • 1:10 pm

There are all kinds of photography contests, but this one, the Ocean Art Underwater Photo Contest, has produced some of the best images I’ve seen.  You can see the winners by going to the link in the previous sentence and scrolling down.

Alternatively, The Atlantic (click screenshot below) has a summary along with short narratives by the photographers.

I’ll show a few of my favorites; be sure to click on the photos to enlarge them.

Drifter. Honorable Mention, Nudibranchs. © Talia Greis / Ocean Art

Greis: “Almost every year, the coastal shores of Sydney, Australia, receive an influx of blue drifters (also referred to as the ‘Blue Fleet’), which consist of bluebottles, blue buttons, and the infamous Blue Dragon (more commonly referred to as the Glaucus). This magnificent critter is an organism that relies on the wind and ocean currents to carry it around, which sometimes results in heavy storms casting it ashore. The Glaucus is considered to be a type of pelagic nudibranch that devours bluebottles and stores their stinging agents as defense against predators.”

JAC: This is a nudibranch, a shell-less mollusc, Glaucus atlanticus.

Mobula Munkiana. Honorable Mention, Wide Angle. © Adam Martin / Ocean Art

Martin: ” aggregate in large schools off the coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico, each spring, during a period thought to be mating and pupping season. While motoring offshore for a week, our search was guided by breaching rays on the horizon. After many attempts to locate the rays and quietly enter the water, I was able to capture a clean image of this large school.”

JAC: The correct binomial is Mobula munkiana without a capital letter in the second word. It’s also know as the Munk’s devil ray.

Wunderpus. 2nd Place, Compact Macro. © Regie Casia / Ocean Art

Casia: “During a blackwater dive, shot at 25 meters deep over about 1,000 meters of water, we waited for the vertical migration of deep-water creatures.” Photographed in Janao Bay near Anilao, Philippines.

JAC: This appears to be Wunderpus photogenicus (what a great name!), a mimetic octopus.

The Eye. Honorable Mention, Macro. © Kat Zhou / Ocean Art

Zhou: “This photo depicts a close-up look at the eye of a nurse shark and was taken on a night dive off the coast of Bimini in the Bahamas.”

The Hunt. 2nd Place, Wide Angle. © Daniel Nicholson / Ocean Art

Nicholson: “A grey reef shark parts the tide of bait fish. In a very rare occurrence, a large shiver of sharks had herded this school of bait fish into the shallow passageways of the Ningaloo Reef in Australia. With the fish trapped here, nearly a hundred sharks spent hours in a feeding frenzy.”

h/t: Barry

Geological Society of America adds one item to their “rubric” for the Young Scientist Award

February 5, 2023 • 11:30 am

Like many scientific societies, the Geological Society of America (GSA) gives out prizes for scientific achievement. Their awards page lists ten, including the Young Scientist Award, also called the “Donath Medal” after the family that endowed the prize. Here is what the prize is for—contributing to geologic knowledge through your research:

As you see, the criteria are that you have to be 35 or younger and have shown “outstanding achievement in contributing to geologic knowledge through original research that marks a major advance in the earth sciences.”

Apparently, though, this year they added one item to the judging “rubric” (I hate that word) used previously.  Can you guess what that item might be? Stop and think for a second before reading on.

Okay, read on:

Here are the current criteria and evaluation form for the Donath Medal from the GSA’s page. Note that scientific achievement as well a young age are the SOLE criteria for judging the award. But they tweaked “scientific achievement” a bit (bolding is mine):

Overview: Ranking of candidates will consider scientific achievement in contributing to geologic (interpreted to include all Earth science disciplines of GSA) knowledge through original research that marks a major advance in the earth sciences. Significance of scientific achievement and age (<36 yrs) shall be the sole criteria (age evaluated by GSA staff). Appropriate contributions to DEI related to scientific achievement should be considered as an essential part of advancing Earth science disciplines of GSA.

What they’ve apparently done is lumped DEI contributions with real science as a part of “scientific achievement”. You can see that in the numerical evaluation form below. I suspect that a candidate, no matter how impressive their scientific accomplishments, has no chance at the award if they don’t have a decent record of fostering DEI.  This, of course, like the many universities who require DEI statements for hiring or promotion, is a way of turning science into social engineering. Not only that, but a particular and debatable form of social engineering: the creation of equity in all fields of endeavor. And because you must express one point of view to get these prizes, you are the victim of compelled speech.

Characterizing this criterion as part of scientific achievement seems to me clearly duplicitous.  If you’re under 35 and the sole criterion for the award, besides being young, is “scientific achievement”, then you can’t just go tacking Social Justice onto that. DEI efforts, regardless of how much you value them, are not scientific achievements but sociopolitical activities meant to advance an ideological goal.

As Anna commented below (I missed this bit somehow), you can get extra DEI points by “increasing representation of underrepresented groups through their own participation as a member of a URM group. . . “. This means that if you’re a member of an underrepresented minority group, you get extra points just for being who you are. This means it’s easier to win the prize if you’re of a “minoritized” group, making it a somewhat race-based prize.

And this is now the big problem with science. Not only is it being infiltrated by woke ideology to an extent I would have thought impossible, but now that ideology is considered as an essential part of science itself. This is why activists feel empowered to tweak and change scientific truth if it doesn’t comport with their beliefs. One example of this is the pervasive insistence that animals have more than two sexes. (They don’t.) If you can’t see your ideology instantiated in nature, you must find a way to force nature into the Procrustean bed of your ideology.

And you make ideological criteria piggyback on scientific merit. I wonder if the Donath family is down with the new rules. (They’ve also added DEI statements as requirements for other GSA awards.)

Annie Ernaux nabs Nobel for Literature; nobody won our contest

October 6, 2022 • 7:36 am

The 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to French writer (and literature professor) Annie Ernaux, already laden with awards. I’d never heard of her, and those who informed me of this award hadn’t, either. I wondered if her books haven’t been translated into English, but it turns out that many of them have been, including The Yearsmentioned by the NYT below.

Nobody guessed her in our October 4 contest, so the losing streak there continues, despite people being asked to guess just one winner. Many guessed Salman Rushdie, and I agree that he deserves a Nobel, but the  Committee surely knows what would happen if he was given that prize. But if that’s the reason he hasn’t won, they are cowards.

At any rate, it’s time for you  literature mavens to give Ernaux a try.

Here’s the announcement from the Swedish Academy (click to read):

The citation and press releases are very short, saying just this:

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2022 is awarded to the French author Annie Ernaux “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory”.

In her writing, Ernaux consistently and from different angles, examines a life marked by strong disparities regarding gender, language and class. Her path to authorship was long and arduous.

I presume the video below will tell you more as does this NYT article (click to read):

The announcement was made with her having heard of it! From the NYT:

The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded on Thursday to Annie Ernaux, the French novelist whose intensely personal books have spoken to generations of women by highlighting incidents from her own life, including a back-street abortion in the 1960s and a passionate extramarital affair.

Mats Malm, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which that decides the prize, announced the decision at a news conference in Stockholm, lauding the “courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”

The committee had not been able to reach Ernaux by telephone, Malm said, but he expected her to “soon be aware of the news.” They intended to present her with the prize on Dec. 10.

Ernaux, 82, becomes only the 17th female writer to have won the prize, widely considered the most prestigious award in world literature, since it was formed in 1901. She is the second woman to be given the prize in three years after Louise Glück, who was awarded the 2020 prize for writing “that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

. . . Outside France, she is perhaps best known for “The Years,” which weaves together events from over 70 years of Ernaux’s life with French history. In 2019, “The Years” was shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, a major British award for fiction translated into English.

And the 42-minute live announcement:

Three awarded Nobel Prize in Physics (and a contest)

October 4, 2022 • 8:00 am

Three physicists working independently, from France, the U.S., and Austria, have nabbed this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for work on quantum entanglement. (Note the international character of the awardees.) All three share equally in the prize, a total of ten million Swedish kroner (about $1.3 million US. It’s not a munificent amount, but the value to one’s career an esteem in inestimable. The winners will henceforth always be designated as “Nobel Laureate [name here].”

What did they win for? Well, you can read about it at either the Nobel press-release site (below) or the NYT article below that; click on either to read. Trigger warning: quantum physics! The award has to do with quantum entanglement, a phenomenon that I can barely understand but that Einstein dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” Beyond that, even the physicists who wrote me about this don’t fully understand the accomplishment that was honored, for which entanglement is just the starting point.

From the NYT:

A summary from the NYT with a good explanation of entanglement (I’ve put it in bold below):

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger on Tuesday for work that has “laid the foundation for a new era of quantum technology,” the Nobel Committee for Physics said.

The scientists have each conducted “groundbreaking experiments using entangled quantum states, where two particles behave like a single unit even when they are separated,” the committee said in a briefing. Their results, it said, cleared the way for “new technology based upon quantum information.”

The laureates’ research builds on the work of John Stewart Bell, a physicist who strove in the 1960s to understand whether particles, having flown too far apart for there to be normal communication between them, can still function in concert, also known as quantum entanglement.

According to quantum mechanics, particles can exist simultaneously in two or more places. They do not take on formal properties until they are measured or observed in some way. By taking measurements of one particle, like its position or “spin,” a change is observed in its partner, no matter how far away it has traveled from its pair.

Working independently, the three laureates did experiments that helped clarify a fundamental claim about quantum entanglement, which concerns the behavior of tiny particles, like electrons, that interacted in the past and then moved apart.

And the accomplishments of the three, also from the NYT:

Dr. Clauser, an American, was the first in 1972. Using duct tape and spare parts at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., he endeavored to measure quantum entanglement by firing thousands of photons in opposite directions to investigate a property known as polarization. When he measured the polarizations of photon pairs, they showed a correlation, proving that a principle called Bell’s inequality had been violated and that the photon pairs were entangled, or acting in concert.

Clauser looks as if he won it for demonstrating the phenomenon of entanglement fifty years ago, but, according to Wikipedia, entanglement of photons was experimentally demonstrated in the year I was born.

The first experiment that verified Einstein’s spooky action at a distance or entanglement was successfully corroborated in a lab by Chien-Shiung Wu and a colleague named I. Shaknov in 1949, and was published on new year’s day in 1950. The result specifically proved the quantum correlations of a pair of photons.

Wu won the Nobel Prize for that, but what was entangled was “parity,” not “polarization” (several aspect of photons’ properties are entangled). But Wu and her colleague’s experiments seem to have demonstrated the violation of Bell’s inequality in 1949.

More from the NYT:

The research was taken up 10 years later by Dr. Aspect, a French scientist, and his team at the University of Paris. And in 1998, Dr. Zeilinger, an Austrian physicist, led another experiment that considered entanglement among three or more particles.

Eva Olsson, a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics, noted that quantum information science had broad implications in areas like secure information transfer and quantum computing.

Quantum information science is a “vibrant and rapidly developing field,” she said. “Its predictions have opened doors to another world, and it has also shaken the very foundation of how we interpret measurements.

The Nobel committee said the three scientists were being honored for their experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science.

“Being able to manipulate and manage quantum states and all their layers of properties gives us access to tools with unexpected potential,” the committee said in a statement on Twitter.

Two physics mavens who wrote me about this admitted they didn’t fully grasp what the Laureates had shown.

One said this:

Hell. I don’t even understand the title of the physics area of this year’s award. My days are over!

And the other said this:

Whoooosh … right over my head !  I have absolutely no idea what they are talking about!

Readers are welcome to clarify.  But it’s quantum mechanics, Jake, and if you think you understand its physical interpretation, as Feynman said, you don’t. That’s what’s so fascinating about the area. The math seems to absolutely predict what you see, but to translate the mathematical results into language that corresponds to our everyday experience is nearly impossible.

Here’s the one-hour live announcement:

And our contest, based on the failure of readers to guess who would win all the Prizes in a given year. I’m thus restricting the contest to one prize only. To wit:

The Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded early Thursday morning (US time). Who will win it?

The first person who guesses the correct answer and puts it below in a post gets an autographed copy of either WEIT or Faith versus Fact, personalized to their liking and with a cat or other animal of their choosing drawn in it by me, PCC(E).

Put your choices below. The contest closes at 8 pm Eastern US time on Wednesday (tomorrow).

Svante Pääbo nabs Medicine and Physiology Nobel

October 3, 2022 • 7:30 am

I had totally forgotten that it’s Nobel Prize season, and the first one, the Medicine or Physiology Prize, was awarded today—to the human evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo, a Swede. The reader who sent me the news had these immediate reactions:

  • Highly unusual that there is a single winner nowadays
  • How often has the prize gone to an evolutionary scientist (of any shape or form) ?
  • Probably being Swedish helped a bit!

Yes, the last “solo” prize was given in this field in 2016 to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work on lysosomes and autophagy. As for the evolutionary biology, I’m not aware of anybody working largely on evolution who has won a Nobel Prize. The geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan won one, but it was his students who became evolutionary geneticists.  I also remember that when I entered grad school, my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin was helping prepare a joint Nobel Prize nomination for Theodosius Dobzhansky and Sewall Wright, but Dobzhansky died in 1975 before it could be submitted, and posthumous Prizes aren’t given.)

Of course, Pääbo has worked on the evolution of the genus Homo, and a human orientation helps with the Prize, but his substantial contributions fully qualify him for the Big Gold Medal.  As for him being Swedish, I don’t know if there’s some national nepotism in awarding prizes, but again, Pääbo’s work is iconic and no matter what nationality he was, he deserves one. And of course I’m chuffed that an evolutionary geneticist—one of my own tribe—won the Big One.

Click on the Nobel Committee’s press release or the NYT article below to read about Pääbo or go to his Wikipedia page.


Pääbo is the leader of a large team, and has had many collaborators, but it’s clear that, if fewer than four people were to get the prize for work on human evolution, Pääbo would stand out as the main motive force, ergo his solo award.  Sequencing the Neanderthal genome and estimating the time of divergence from “modern” H. sapiens (about 800,000 years)? That was Pääbo and his team. Finding the Denisovans, a separately-evolved group from Neanderthals? Pääbo and his team.  Discovering that both of these groups interbred with our own ancestors, and we still carry an aliquot of their genes? Pääbo and his team. Learning that some of the introgressed genes from Denisovans have conferred high-altitude adaptations to Tibetans? Pääbo and his team. And that some Neanderthal genes confer modern resistance to infections? Pääbo and his team.

The man can truly be seen as the father of human paleogenetics—and he’s five years younger than I? Oy!

Although born in Sweden. Pääbo works mostly in Germany. Here’s his bio from the Nobel Prize Committee:

Svante Pääbo was born 1955 in Stockholm, Sweden. He defended his PhD thesis in 1986 at Uppsala University and was a postdoctoral fellow at University of Zürich, Switzerland and later at University of California, Berkeley, USA. He became Professor at the University of Munich, Germany in 1990. In 1999 he founded the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany where he is still active. He also holds a position as adjunct Professor at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan.

A prize for work in evolutionary genetics! Well done, Dr. Pääbo!

Svante Pääbo

And a bit of biography from the NYT article:

Dr. Pääbo has a bit of Nobel Prize history in his own family: In a 2014 memoir, “Neanderthal Man,” he wrote that he was “the secret extramarital son of Sune Bergstrom, a well-known biochemist who had shared the Nobel Prize in 1982.”

It took some three decades of research for Dr. Pääbo to describe the Neanderthal genome that won him his own prize. He first went looking for DNA in mummies and older animals, like extinct cave bears and ground sloths, before he turned his attention to ancient humans.

“I longed to bring a new rigor to the study of human history by investigating DNA sequence variation in ancient humans,” he wrote in the memoir.

It would be no easy feat. Ancient genetic material was so degraded and difficult to untangle that the science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, in her book “The Sixth Extinction,” likened the process to reassembling a “Manhattan telephone book from pages that have been put through a shredder, mixed with yesterday’s trash, and left to rot in a landfill.”

Audubon’s cancellation proceeds as Seattle chapter ditches his name

July 26, 2022 • 11:30 am

From KOMO News (h/t Williams), we have this headline on a short article (click to read):

. . . and that tells it all.  An excerpt:

The Seattle chapter of the Audubon Society says it is dropping “Audubon” from its name because the man the organization is named after was a slave owner and opposed abolition.

KNKX reports that Seattle Audubon is one the largest chapters of the National Audubon Society, the nonprofit dedicated to protecting birds and their habitats, but Seattle Audubon is one of the largest in the country.

Earlier this month, the board voted to change the chapter’s name because the man the organization is named after – illustrator, painter and bird lover John James Audubon, author of the seminal work “The Birds of America” – owned enslaved people.

J. Drew Lanham, a former board member of the National Audubon Society and a wildlife ecology professor at Clemson University, called the move courageous.

Lanham, who has written about Audubon and left the national chapter over concerns the nonprofit was not doing enough about racial equity, says organizations need to grapple with what to do about problematic monuments.

(Let me remark that I don’t see the move as “courageous”, except in the sense that it may cost the Society members. It takes no moral courage these days to remove someone’s name from a Society because he enslaved people.)

There is no doubt that Audubon owned slaves; the Audubon Society itself admitted it in an article on the Society’s website. And that is an unmixed bad thing to do. Short of killing someone, making them into a slave is about the worst thing you can do: you’re taking away their freedom and treating them as property, for no reason (in the antebellum US) other than their race.

The question at hand, though, is whether effacing Audubon’s name from the Society and branches of the Society is something that is worth doing. I’ve pondered this at length, and for a while I could have gone either way.

My criteria for deciding whether someone should be “erased” for having done immoral stuff has alway been twofold. If both criteria aren’t met, there’s no reason to keep a name.

1.)  The name or honorific is there for the good things people did. (That rules out, by the way, Confederate statues, though I think it might be better if they were “contexualized”; see below).

2.) The person’s life constituted a net good for the world. This is hard to determine, since “well being” is measured in many currencies.

It’s clear that Audubon passes the test for #1. The problematic part is #2. Is slave-holding so bad that it can’t ever be compensated for by the good someone does? Most people seem to think that George Washington and Thomas Jeffrerson, who were also enslavers, did sufficient good to warrant keeping their names on things like the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument (not to mention the $1 bill or Washington, D.C.

Does Audubon fall in their class? I don’t think so, but he certainly did good things, awakening naturalism and conservation impulses that resulted in the Society that bears his name.

It’s a tough call, but I decided that the name “Audubon” should stay because of two considerations:

a.) You can and should contextualize his name, letting people know that Audubon did things that were seen as immoral even in his time. (There were plenty of abolitionists.) If you can contextualize history rather than erasing it, I’d prefer the former.

b.) Taking Audubon’s name off societies and the like is a performative, symbolic act that doesn’t do anything to achieve racial equality. If you want people to know about the bad stuff in history, contextualize it and condemn it rather than erase it. I would feel more strongly about removing the name if doing so was more than a symbolic act.

So my overall take—an I pondered this a lot vis-à-vis Audubon—is to keep his name on the Society and on Awards (see the list of distinguished awardees of the Audubon Medal, given for conservation efforts); but be sure that people know his history.

Readers may disagree, and feel free to do so in the comments.