Discussion thread

April 19, 2022 • 8:15 am

Once again, because I’m low on both energy and topics to write about, I’ll turn a post over to the readers, and hope I get get some discussion going. I’ll start by suggesting two topics, both of which involve speculations, but why not? And, as usual, you can discuss whatever you want.

1.) What do you think will be the ultimate fate of Ukraine. Will they kick Russia out completely? (I think this unlikely). Or will Russia simply take over eastern Ukraine and just lay the rest to waste before abandoning it? Alternatively, will they take over the whole country, either making it part of Russia or turning it into a puppet state?

2.)  Will the Democrats lose big this November, lose small, or not lose at all?

I will, of course, be checking the comments, so I’m not ignoring you!

Re #2, here’s an excerpt (not paywalled) from a new blog post by Freddie deBoer, who favors a Leftist Democratic win):

Let me lay out two worldviews that are fervently believed by large groups of people who share the same party. Here’s worldview A:

Left-wing Democrats have pushed the party to the edge of an electoral cliff. They have hijacked the party’s debates and make extravagant policy demands, demands that cut against the preferences of huge swaths of the electorate. They refuse to compromise or meet the voters where they are. They engage in purity politics and seem to have no interest in the kind of horse-trading that is required to get what you want in Washington. Their inflammatory rhetoric and extremist ideas hamper the efforts of candidates in red and purple states, and slogans like “defund the police” are an albatross hanging around the neck of the party that will surely bring doom in November.

And here’s worldview B:

Centrist Democrats have a stranglehold on the party. They’re stodgy, uncompromising, and risk-averse. The party bends over backward to suit their needs, and yet they still constantly complain about a leftist takeover. Voters demand a bold agenda, but centrists are so afraid of risk and change that the Democrats effectively stand for nothing. The left brings a tremendous amount of energy and attention to the party and dominates among the youth, yet the party never delivers policy progress in return. By ignoring the left and the passionate young people within it in favor of obstructionist centrists, the Democrats have become a directionless, unprincipled party that can’t express to the American people what they stand for.

As you might have guessed, the gimmick here is that I think both perspectives are more or less correct.

. . . For now, we have a centrist party that appears to too many voters to scream radical slogans, and the near future seems bleak.


Some readings/discussion

February 26, 2022 • 1:30 pm

Here are three readings to occupy you in lieu of my usual posts. Remember, until about April 5 please don’t contact me very much as email on the ship is slow and I’m likely to lose stuff. On the other hand, if you have a particularly juicy item, send it along.

Some readings:

From Andrew Sullivan. The headline may be familiar, but his analysis of the situation in Ukraine is a bit hard to follow.

But as several people are now doing, Sullivan partly indicts the West and Europe for allow NATO to expand ever eastward, to the borders of Russia (the Baltic countries, thus scaring the hell out of Putin, who, they say, envisions a Russian empire the equivalent of the former Soviet Union:

And so when NATO, in the wake of our Cold War victory, decided to expand membership all the way to Russia’s borders, many Russian specialists feared triggering the worst kind of response. “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake,” George Kennan told Tom Friedman in 1998. “There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else … We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.” (We still don’t, as we have just witnessed.)

Kennan went on: “I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.” Then he went even further: “Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.” Similar misgivings over NATO expansion came from figures such as Kissinger, Gorbachev, YeltsinBrzezinski, Moynihan, Gaddis, and Burns.

This debate, of course, is unresolvable. We will never know what might have happened if NATO had displayed more magnanimity after our victory in the Cold War, and allowed Russia more dignity and space in the wake of its defeat and collapse. At the same time, it may be that a Putin-style tyrant was always bound to emerge in Russia and bully his neighbors once again — given the long sweep of Russian authoritarianism — and so my friend was also correct. Or it could just be dumb luck or fate that a KGB nationalist who witnessed up close the end of the Soviet Union in East Germany came to dominate the Russian kleptocracy. This debate will go on for a very long time, but it is increasingly academic. Because here we are. Kennan’s and the neocons’ fear have both been borne out. They could both have been right (and wrong) in some measure. And where we are now makes many of these debates moot.

From Heterodox STEM, we have the second part (first part here) of Ilya Reviakine recounting his defense of two papers by Krylov et al:, “Scientists Must Resist Cancel Culture” and Krylov’s article “The Peril of Politicizing Science”. Both of these articles were aimed at keeping STEM from adopting “woke” or ideological viewpoints, and the fact that they were published as op-ed pieces in regular scientific venues is remarkable. Unfortunately, the editors weren’t ready for the social-media opprobrium they received for publishing perfectly defensible viewpoints, and kept going back to the authors, asking them to support views that they already published.

One critical article that appeared just a single day after Krylov’s paper had the temerity to suggest that the German Chemical Society (who published those pieces) simply expel these woke-resisting members. Here’s a quote from Mathias Micheel who objects to Krylov et al.’s paper and maintains that there’s no cancel culture in STEM:

Micheel goes on to propose that the German Chemical Society should be purified from unsuitable members: “… it would be in the best interest of the organization to tell these members: We do not care about you. If we cannot even agree on the very basics of how to do science, then we have no basis for future cooperation” – except it’s not their way of doing science that he is concerned with, but their views and their age: “The Nachrichten tries to not alienate these old members”; “how often do active members have to … make themselves targetable to attacks from the right”. This is an ad hominem attack and a call for cancellation—quite the ironic thing to write in a piece whose thesis is “Cancel Culture in science is just a myth”.

Here’s Micheel’s original quote:

I know that this is probably not gonna happen, but how often do active members have to come out, make themselves targetable to attacks from the right? In particular, this is an inter-generation conflict, with conservative views mostly shared by older, retired members, whereas young scientists at an early career stage share more progressive views. However, their professional future often relies on the goodwill of the old members, e.g., in grant review or appointment committees.

The Nachrichten tries to not alienate these old members, but I’d wish it’d be taking a stronger stance against them. Such insultingly regressive views cannot be arranged with the open community which chemistry so desperately needs.

And yes, this is from an authoritarian who denies that cancel culture exists in science. Well, if he had his way, it certainly would!

A bipartite op-ed in the Chicago Tribune (click below, though it may be paywalled) not only describes the fate of Jason Kilborn, a University of Chicago at Illinois law professor who got into trouble for using the n-word (redacted) in a hypothetical court case on an exam (see post here), but also shows the slimy way the NYT has taken a stab at J. K. Rowling in a video advertisement, presumably dissing Rowling because of her “transphobic” comments. I’ll just quote the bit on Rowling

First, here’s the NYT as which it the Tribune’s Editorial Board op-ed criticizes, discussed in detail by ABC News; I also give the YouTube caption:

We believe that independent journalism has the power to make each reader’s life richer and more fulfilling. It can illuminate, uplift and entertain. Learn more about how our journalism inspires the lives of our subscribers at nytimes.com/life.

From the Tribune:

No less an institution than The New York Times might also do well to remember that, apropos of the rights of J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, to speak her own mind.

The Times invited potential subscribers to ponder how “independent journalism” could be a part of their “independent life.” In one slide, a presumably fictional woman named Lianna is happily “imagining Harry Potter without J.K. Rowling.”

“Lianna” can do whatever she wants in her own head, but The New York Times should be apologizing for this pandering, ad hominem attack, seemingly canceling Rowling as a human being

The Orwellian text dangles the word “without” in the most sinister and threatening fashion. The subway rider is left wondering whether the Times intends to disappear Rowling in the physical sense or merely through the mental doublethink of its subscribers. The paper has always railed against dangerous hate speech: How is this not a subtle example of precisely that?

In fact, how is this different from a Michigan basketball coach throwing a punch at a member of the coaching staff of an opposing team? It’s just a subtler kind of blow.

Moreover, how does a paper so crucial to the literary world justify divorcing one of the most successful female writers in history from her own hugely successful copyrighted works? Does it advocate that for authors with whom it disagrees?

As one Rowling supporter noted on Twitter, the paper surely wouldn’t suggest imagining “Sunday in the Park With George” without Stephen Sondheim. (We’d add: Or one of its own columns without the columnist).

This is all absurd, of course. Works don’t exist without their creator, whatever your powers of imagination. You can use your critical thinking skills and decide that the egregious opinions of the author mean you will no longer consume the work. Fine. Or you can put the author’s freely expressed words in context, decide you disagree with them, respect her right to say what she thinks and still read her fiction.

That is your choice in a country that values free speech, understands the importance of intent and tolerates dissent.

This may be a bit long of a rant against one sentence in a NYT video, but believe me, the NYT knows what it’s doing and to whom it’s pandering.

I’m off for today after a final duck feeding, but feel free to discuss everything in the above, or anything you want.

Discussion thread: War in Europe

February 24, 2022 • 7:00 am

I’m off to do trip preparations, and so am putting up a discussion thread—a thread about what’s going on on in Europe, as summarized in the terse NYT headline below (click on screenshot for details).

A short video of what’s happening:

Nobody knows what will happen; the only certainty is that thousands of Ukrainian refugees will flee to surrounding countries and thousands of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers will die. If you’re like me, you’re completely discombobulated now. Who thought that we’d have war in Europe in our lifetime? Will the war stop here? Will Putin seek other regions as well? Parts of eastern Poland have substantial populations of Ukrainian descent, and many people speak Ukrainian.

World leaders are uniformly condemning the invasion, with the exception of China, which is ambivalent. You can read here about the world reaction. The U.S. is poised to unleash a stiff package of sanctions. Will they be of any use?

There are many questions, and it would be foolish to try to answer them now. But feel free to give your questions and prognostications below, mourn if you wish, vent about Russia and Putin, and so on.  In other words, feel free to react however you want.


“The Shape of Dialogue”: a discussion about ‘ways of knowing’

February 5, 2022 • 11:45 am

Here’s a long interview I had about a week ago with Michael Goldwater, a Kiwi who lives in Auckland.  His podcast, “The Shape of Dialogue” is just starting and has nine episodes so far, the most recent one with Steve Pinker.

The topic of our discussion was “Science versus ‘other ways of knowing’,” which of course is relevant to what’s going on in New Zealand at present. We covered Mātauranga Māori (Māori ‘way of knowing’), of course, but also many other issues.  I can’t even remember much of the discussion, but can’t go back to watch it because I’m constitutionally unable to watch myself on camera. (I doubt that Pinker has that problem!)

Although Michael isn’t a scientist, he has a keen interest in science and that’s the theme of his podcast so far. I wish him luck!

If you want to watch it (it was supposed to be an hour long, but time flew. . . ), here it is. I’ll take a pass. You can find the audio version on Apple here.

Discussion thread

February 3, 2022 • 12:15 pm

I haz a malaise today, and so will take a pas until tomorrow on what I was going to write about today: new accusations of racism against E. O. Wilson.  It’s taking me longer than I thought to process the accusations, and in fact I don’t know what I think. I think I’ll know what I think by tomorrow—at least so I hope.

Every day I get a lot of emails with the accusations against him from one article, and I guess people are demanding to know what I think, especially since I poo-pooed earlier accusations in Scientific American that Wilson (along with Gregor Mendel!) was a racist. I still reject that article since the writer’s claims since were based on no evidence, but now there’s new evidence from Wilson’s correspondence, and so we must reconsider.

Until tomorrow, then, I’m taking a break, working on my talks for Antarctica, and asking readers to fill in by having a discussion thread on this post. I’d ask you to leave the Wilson issues aside for the moment, as I don’t want to be influenced by anybody else, but there are a number of things to talk about. Here are a few suggestions:

1.) The Spotify vs. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and every other music artist issue. Were people like Young, who said “take me or Rogan, but not both” exercising censorship as opposed to the people who just bailed? Should Spotify let Rogan continue giving unsound medical advice?

2.) Was Whoopi Goldberg’s apology that the Holocaust was not about racism, but two groups of white people fighting each other, a sufficient apology? Does she deserve being suspended from “The View” for two weeks. Are Jews a “race” or not?

3.) Will Russia invade Ukraine? The build-up of troops is getting serious, and I’m worried.

4.) Is Wokeism on the way out? There are some signs, but not many.

Or talk about anything you want. I won’t be happy if there aren’t many comments, for I’ll have failed.

As Andrew Sullivan says, “See you Friday.” Till then, here are some winter ducks, braving the cold in Botany Pond:

John McWhorter talks with Bill Kristol

January 11, 2022 • 1:15 pm

Here we have conservative writer Bill Kristol speaking with Columbia Univesity linguist and writer John McWhorter. This is part of the “Conversations with Bill Kristol” website, and there the video is divided into two non-overlapping moieties. But just watch this one 71-minute video starting at the beginning.

McWhorter, always eloquent (does he ever say “uh” fluff a sentence?), is especially eloquent here in parsing the current meaning of “wokeism” and analyzing how it plays out in society—as a nefarious phenomenon. In fact, he pretty much gives up on academia as a venue for those seeking the life of the mind.

Kristol is a good interlocutor, not dominating the conversation but raising questions that draw out McWhorter.  I find it heartening in that we have such honest people on our side. What’s depressing is McWhorter’s claim that only black people like him are capable of overthrowing wokeness. That makes me feel impotent, but surely white people can push back—at least by rejecting the claims and epiphets of the Woke. And he does have a message for non-blacks on how to counter Wokeness—starting about 49 minutes in.

People call McWhorter “white adjacent”, “useful idiot” or any of the names that the Woke hurl at their opponents to demonize them.(At about 39 minutes in, listen to how abysmally McWhorter has been treated by his black Columbia University colleagues.)

I call him thoughtful and honest. Let’s put it this way: if he was seriously setting back equality, would the New York Times give him a biweekly column?

I don’t recommend many longish videos, but I think this one will hearten you at least a bit.

A new “Heterodox STEM” group

January 1, 2022 • 11:00 am

The Heterodox Academy (HA) is a loosely-affiliated group of academics whose purpose is stated on its website:

Heterodox Academy is a nonpartisan collaborative of 5,000+ professors, educators, administrators, staff, and students who are committed to enhancing the quality of research and education by promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.

What this means, I gather, is that the Academy is a place where virtually no speech is taboo; and we all know that academia is ridden with societies and journals, as well as departments and professors, that consider some subjects as “undiscussable.”  At the Heterodox Academy you can voice your opinions relatively free from worries that you’ll be cancelled.

I haven’t been following the HA’s doings as a whole, but I see that they have a number of “communities”: subgroups where people can discuss issues in their particular academic field or geographic area (e.g., sociology, humanities, philosophy, classics psychology, California, Canada, Australia, and so on). Readers may be interested in participating in their field or geographic region, and the field that most interests me is Heterodox STEM (“Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math”).  It’s at the link in the first line of this paragraph, one of the whole list of subgroups. Here’s a summary of what it’s about:


They have a Substack site here, which is a place to share writings, and if you subscribe by giving your email (I think), you can read the first article at the link below. You may have to join the group first, but try clicking on the site and subscribing.

The article written anonymously, and given the disapprobation falling upon those who criticizes DEI initiatives (you’ll know the story of Dorian Abbot), you’ll see why. I don’t know who wrote it, and it isn’t me. But if you want to see how those swimming against the tide of wokeness in STEM are thinking, do have a read (it’s short).

The beginning:

Over the past several years, there has been an increasing push within the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for what has been dubbed diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).  After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, which was filmed for all to watch in horror, DEI became the main focus of nearly all aspects of STEM communication.  You would be hard pressed to find a single university STEM department, professional organization, or publication that did not loudly signal their commitment to DEI, with their action plans to “do better.”  While the goals of this movement certainly sound admirable, the actions taken to achieve them are doomed to fail and have harmful consequences.  Whether this is due to the shortsightedness of well-intentioned people or a cynical and intentional attempt to destroy academia is less apparent.

There are many examples one can choose from to illustrate this fact, however in the interest of space, I will stick to several of the most prominent in recent news.  Dalhousie University in Canada recently advertised a tenure-track position in biological chemistry that is “restricted to candidates who self-identify in one or more of the following groups: Indigenous persons, persons with a disability, racially visible persons, women, and persons of a minority sexual orientation and/or gender identity.”  This ostensibly is an effort to increase the diversity of the faculty at Dalhousie University, which is an admirable goal, but the unintended consequences should be obvious.  To begin, a common complaint from non-white and female students or faculty is that at some point they have heard something along the lines of, “you were only accepted/hired here because you’re (identity group).”  This minimizes or flat out ignores the hard work and effort that people put in to reach their positions.  It should be clear as day that the discriminatory hiring at Dalhousie will further reinforce this sentiment among the hired professor’s peers.  It is also insulting.  The underlying assumption made by this policy is that if straight white men (the only group not mentioned in the allowable group) are allowed to apply, it will unfairly hurt the chances of those mentioned because they cannot compete.  I find it odd for a vocally “progressive” institution to echo the sentiments of right-wing twitter trolls, but here we are.

. . and it continues with other examples, ending with a list of ways we can fight the encroachment of wokeness in science.

I endorse a lot of what’s in this article, but not everything. My post is here is simply to call the program and its site to your attention in case you want to participate. I don’t how if it’s a “safe space” for dissent, and of course if you use your real name, you’re leaving yourself open for “cancellation.” I have joined, and post under my own name, but I find that my own website serves me better for expressing my own views than posting on the newsgroup. But I do make occasional contributions (sometimes just calling attention to posts here), and am really interested in hearing what other people have had to say.

Again, if you want to join, email one of the three directors (I haven’t listed them here because I’m loath to put email addresses on my site, but you can find them at the link above.)

I give these caveats for the same reason that the Heterodox Academy exists: you can get in big trouble these days for merely saying what you think, even in a rational discussion. And it’s simply not on to bring up certain ideas, even if they’re true.  That’s of course terribly inimical to free expression, but the HA is a place where such expression is encouraged.

Discussion thread

September 12, 2021 • 12:15 pm

It’s going to be a busy week as I prepare to go to Boston, contemplate a book proposal (mine), read over the near-final version of Matthew’s new book (it’s very, very good), and try to keep up business here. As for the latter, there’s simply not much to write about that intrigues me, and I have nothing to say that you can’t read elsewhere. Yes, everyone is going through tough times, what with a worldwide pandemic, the mess in Afghanistan and its effect on the Afghan people, racial unrest in America, Biden catching flak from even the Democrats, Wokeness burrowing in everywhere, American states enacting unconstitutional abortion laws to be enforced by vigilantes, schools on the verge of virtual learning again, and so on.

Given that many of us have become relatively isolated during the pandemic, and the fact that humans are social creatures, that creates yet another anxiety that compounds this bad time.

Let’s talk, though we don’t have to beef or kvetch about any of the above.  I’ll throw out a few questions, but you can bring up whatever’s on your mind. Remember, be civil, even if you disagree vehemently with someone.

Nearly everyone agrees that Biden is a damn sight better than Trump as President. But is he performing as you expected? (He promised “bipartisanship”, but that’s not on, and probably not his fault.) Did he take a bad hit with the chaotic exit from Afghanistan? Is he even trying to be bipartisan, and is that a worthwhile goal?

Will Biden run again in 2024? He seems to me to be getting a bit wobbly (he’s 78 now, and would be 80 if he runs again).

And what about Kamala Harris? The VP is traditionally the next candidate after the incumbent President is out, but we haven’t heard much from her. She’s always there standing behind Biden during his announcements, but what has she done? She was given a big job—handling the situation at the southern border with Mexico—but I don’t think she’s done squat. Will she even be a valid candidate if Biden bows out in the next election? If not, who’s a good choice?

Do you think Trump will run again?

What will our relationship be with the Taliban, now that they’re in charge in Afghanistan? Will they foment terror against the U.S., or will they, hoping for economic perks, be “nicer”. (As you know I think that they, being Islamists, won’t change a bit, for they’re wedded to their religious dictates.)

Will they approve booster shots for Pfizer and Moderna? If so, will you get one?  What about the idea that we should sacrifice our third shots for people in poorer countries where very few people have been vaccinated?

Finally, are we going to see more school closures this fall and winter?

That’s just off the top of my head, and th- th- that’s all, folks!

Discussion: Afghanistan

August 17, 2021 • 10:45 am

It’s a busy day today, though I have one piece of science to post. Right now, though, why don’t you talk about the focus of the news: Afghanistan?

If you go to Bari Weiss’s site, you’ll find seven diverse people, including ex-UN ambassador Nikki Haley (a Republican), discussing “Why we failed: the American exit from Afghanistan.” You don’t have to discuss the views in that piece, which range from “getting out was great” to “we should have stayed”, but there are a number of questions to discuss. For instance?

a.) Should we have stayed, even if that might mean an indefinite commitment?

b.) If “yes,” in what capacity should we have stayed?”

c.) Or should we have left Afghanistan earlier? If so, how much earlier?

d.) Was the Afghan army primarily to blame for the defeat by the Taliban? Or was it the corruptness of the Afghan government? Or both.

e.) Was the U.S. there, as many maintain, just to keep the money flowing into the pockets of defense contractors?

f.)  Why didn’t the U.S. military speak up earlier if they saw the war was unwinnable?

g.) What mistakes did the U.S. make in fostering this premature and hasty exit?

h.) Is this a serious blow to U.S. credibility, as a NYT op-ed maintained?

i.)  Is this a serious blow to Joe Biden’s credibility? Did his hunkering down at Camp David present a bad look for the U.S.?

j.) How did other Presidents, starting with W., screw up and contribute to this?

k.) Here’s the human cost of our incursion from the Associated Press:


American service members killed in Afghanistan through April: 2,448.
U.S. contractors: 3,846.
Afghan national military and police: 66,000.
Other allied service members, including from other NATO member states: 1,144.
Afghan civilians: 47,245.
Taliban and other opposition fighters: 51,191.
Aid workers: 444.
Journalists: 72.

Not to mention the $2 trillion the U.S. spent prosecuting the war. Given that, as in Vietnam, we lost this war, was this a waste of life and of effort? In retrospect, was there any value in invading Afghanistan and propping up the country and it military?

And so on. Weigh in below, and, with luck, I’ll be back escorting Milady Science.


Discussion thread

August 1, 2021 • 9:15 am

Once again there’s nothing I see that stimulates me to write; am I running dry, is there no news of note, or is everything happening just a reprisal of what I’ve commented on before? At any rate, there’s no need for me to write when I am not compelled to say something, so perhaps we can have a discussion instead. (I’ll put up a photo-and-video post of Botany Pond’s ducks and turtles later.) But there are things we can discuss.

Here are a few subjects, but you needn’t limit yourself to these.

A lot of people, and not just right-wingers, are complaining about the rapid changes in recommendations by the CDC about how to behave during the pandemic. While the vaccination recommendation remains strong and in place, lockdown and especially mask recommendations seem to change daily. Is this just what happens when what we know about the new variants and about science changes over time, or is the CDC itself conflicted about what to do and say, perhaps because there’s a conflict between their medical opinions and how Americans would react against more restrictions? On the NBC Evening News yesterday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky was asked if she thought there should be the “government should mandate the vaccine on a federal level”.  They were asking her opinion, but she punted, saying that the administration was looking into it, and later issued the following “clarification”:

Even so, I don’t know what she’s talking about. My own view is to act like I did last year and earlier this year: wear masks indoors, stay 6 feet away from people who I don’t know are vaccinated, and wash my hands a lot. And I’ll get a booster. I am less fearful than I was last year, as we know the vaccine strongly protects you against death or hospitalization. But all over America, people are resistant to new lockdowns. Given the data on the delta variant, and the claim that it can accumulate in the nasal passages of those who have been fully vaccinated, and that those people can infect other people—even other vaccinated people—is the federal government acting properly? (I assume people will agree that some state governments have their heads in the sand.)

After missing a vault and falling on her back in practice, gymnast Simone Biles has apparently pulled out of all team and individual events. This is surely wise, as she seems to have lost either her confidence or sense of where she was in the air. She said she had the “twisties”. Apparently this is not uncommon among gymnasts. As Time Magazine reports:

And every gymnast can relate. Biles has since said that the combination of mental stress and pressure leading up to the Olympics have affected her confidence. But, more importantly, she felt a disconnect between her mind and body; her body was no longer doing what she wanted it to. Whatever the trigger, gymnasts call this the “twisties.”

“If you say ‘twisties’ every gymnast knows what you’re talking about,” says Jordyn Wieber, member of the 2012 Olympics gold medal team and now head women’s gymnastics coach at the University of Arkansas. “It’s something all gymnasts experience at one time or another.”

. . .What causes the twisties varies from gymnast to gymnast—sometimes, they can be triggered if the gymnast is training different twisting skills at the same time, for instance going back and forth between double twisting elements, one-and-a-half twists, and triples. Stress could contribute to them. Or they can just descend out of the blue for no reason.

For Biles, they occurred on the world’s biggest stage, and the look of concern everyone saw on her face makes sense. “She is doing some of the most difficult skills in the entire world, and if you’re not mentally in a great place, or have the twisties, then that can be a matter or life or death,” says Wieber. “One wrong landing, or landing on your neck, could be really, really dangerous.” Biles has four skills named after her on the vault, floor and beam, including the daring triple-twisting double back flip on floor exercise.

Biles has been answering questions on Instagram about the twisties, and it’s clear she is experiencing the classic signs. “Literally cannot tell up from down. It’s the craziest feeling ever, not having an inch of control over your body,” she wrote. “what’s even scarier is since I have no idea where I am in the air, I also have NO idea how I’m going to land. or what I’m going to land on. Head/hands/feet/back…”

It’s clearly laudable that Biles pulled out of competition, as gymnasts with the “twisties” who haven’t done so have wound up as quadraplegics. And her personal behavior has been exemplary, supporting her teammates down the line. Likewise with her coaches and teammates, who fully support her decision and have shown her a lot of affection.

What worries me is not Biles’s or her teammates’ behavior, but the reporting that has analogized the “twisties” with serious mental illness: the kind of depression, for example, that still affects swimmer Michael Phelps and perhaps Naomi Ozaka. Biles in fact seems to be receiving support for going public with being mentally ill, something that she hasn’t done!

What’s good about the Phelps/Ozaka cases is that they’ve led to the de-stigmatization of mental illness and the recognition that it’s more frequent than people think. But is there a downside with conflating nerves, “twisties”, or a loss or proficiency with mental illness? I think so, but want to hear from readers.

Finally, speaking of the Olympics, is there too much jingoism evinced in the coverage? Every night on the reports, nearly all the coverage is about Americans, with the inevitable chart showing how the countries rank in terms of medals, like this one:

I know you can’t get rid of patriotism completely, but it seems that this concentration on countries is inimical to the spirit of the Olympics, where politics isn’t supposed to matter. And I suspect there are a lot of fantastic athletes from other countries with stories as compelling as, or more so, than those of athletes like Katie Ledecky and Sunisa Lee. Where are their stories?

Well, those are three suggestions, but any topic is open. As always, I regard such discussions as failures if we get fewer than fifty comments (it’s a peccadillo of mine), so weigh in.