Our new paper in Skeptical Inquirer on the ideological subversion of biology

June 20, 2023 • 9:00 am

The free link to a new paper by Luana Maroja and me in Skeptical Inquirer has now appeared, and you can access it by clicking the screenshot below. It’s the cover story and is about 9300 words long (I am unable to furnish “reading times”!).  It’s also in the paper magazine, where they give the full references since you can’t use the hyperlinks on paper.

The opening photo is subtle, and I like it a lot.

Our purpose was to demonstrate how “progressive” ideology is worming its way into organismal and evolutionary biology, impeding research and promoting misconceptions about science to both the public and scientists themselves.  We do this by discussing six areas: the sex binary, evolutionary psychology, sex differences, individual differences, group differences, and the sacralization of indigenous knowledge. (I believe I’ve discussed all of these topics on this site). I won’t say any more about the piece, but if you read it I hope you enjoy it.

Here’s the summary from the beginning of the paper:

SUMMARY: Biology faces a grave threat from “progressive” politics that are changing the way our work is done, delimiting areas of biology that are taboo and will not be funded by the government or published in scientific journals, stipulating what words biologists must avoid in their writing, and decreeing how biology is taught to students and communicated to other scientists and the public through the technical and popular press. We wrote this article not to argue that biology is dead, but to show how ideology is poisoning it. The science that has brought us so much progress and understanding—from the structure of DNA to the green revolution and the design of COVID-19 vaccines—is endangered by political dogma strangling our essential tradition of open research and scientific communication. And because much of what we discuss occurs within academic science, where many scientists are too cowed to speak their minds, the public is largely unfamiliar with these issues. Sadly, by the time they become apparent to everyone, it might be too late.

By “too late,” of course, I don’t mean that science will be gone or swallowed by ideology. Rather, I mean that the character and practice of science may have changed permanently—and for the worse.

Our thanks go to the many people from whom we sought advice about our ideas (too many to list!) and especially to Robyn Blumner, who encouraged us to submit the paper to the magazine, and to interim editor Stuart Vyse and managing editor Julia Lavarnway for shepherding the paper to print and e-space while making really useful edits.

Oh, and as Steve Job would say, “There’s one more thing.” This paper grew out of the Stanford Academic Freedom conference panel on “Academic Freedom in STEM,” where both Luana and I talked (you can see our short presentations here). I presented these six topics, but Luana also talked about them in a very different piece she wrote for Bari Weiss’s Free Press. We decided to join forces and write a longer and more comprehensive paper.

Colin Wright dismantles Zemenick’s claim that sex isn’t binary

June 8, 2023 • 12:30 pm

A few days ago I criticized an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle by Ash Zemenick, a biologist who is self-described as “non-binary.” You can see an archived version of his piece by clicking on the screenshot below:

I later wrote a short letter to the editor, which was published, refuting Zemenick’s idea that sex is not a binary, and reproduced the letter on my site.

But I’m getting tired of trying to correct people about what biologists consider to be the definition of “the sexes,” and it’s a never-ending task because gender activists keep telling people that sex is a “spectrum”—that there are more than two sexes.  Since most people don’t know much biology, they simply buy what the activists say,  a false and ideologically-based claim designed to read the gender spectrum back into nature. If gender is a spectrum, they think (and it is, but a BIMODAL spectrum), then biological sex must be too. I call this the “reverse naturalistic fallacy”: an example of the idea that what is good to humans must be what you see in nature.

But there’s a man more tired than I of this incessant correction, for he’s devoted a lot of his career to questions of sex and gender: biologist Colin Wright, who has a Substack column called “Reality’s Last Stand“.  Like me, when Colin sees such an obviously misguided piece as Zemenick’s, he sighs deeply, thinks a bit, and then and gets to work refuting it.  It’s an onerous and never-ending job, but somebody has to do it! (Other major participants in these corrections are Carole Hooven at Harvard and Emma Hilton at Manchester.)

Wright’s own refutation of Zemenick’s piece, which is far more thorough than mine, was just published at Queer Majority, and you can read it by clicking on the screenshot below. I’m not going to reprise his biological arguments, some of which I’ve made, and I give two more links below to his writings on the sex binary. Rather, I’ll give a couple of excerpts about ideology. Colin’s words are indented:

Why is the binary nature of biological sex being questioned now? And why is emphasizing the truth important?

Over the last decade, we have observed a striking shift in the politics of LGBT issues. There has been a move away from broadly supported principles based on equality toward the imposition of radical, pseudoscientific ideologies concerning biological sex. A growing genre of articles in high-profile news outletsmagazines, and scientific journals is signaling the end of a binary and immutable perspective on biological sex. The appeal of these pieces lies in the belief that rejecting the binary concept of sex provides society with a liberating opportunity for self-definition, unfettered by material constraints.

One might consider these debates too arcane to have any real significance. However, the pseudoscientific notion that biological sex is mutable and exists on a non-binary continuum serves as a key justification for allowing males who identify as women to compete in female sports and access female prisons, and for administering treatments such as puberty blockers and “gender-affirming” (i.e., body modifying) hormones and surgeries to adolescents and adults alike to fix a perceived misalignment between their sex and “gender identity.” The implications are serious, as these recommendations make women’s sex-based rights unenforceable and directly impact the healthy bodies and minds of children. It is of utmost importance that such actions are grounded in reliable science, not in fashionable political ideologies.

This is not, in other words, just an argument about biological facts. Those facts are known; they’ve become “conventional wisdom” among biologists. Instead, the real argument is about who has the power to dictate societal views on gender and gender rights. The ideologues hold the postmodern view that the truth is just what you think is the truth from your own standpoint, and there are not absolute truths. To these people, what’s important is who holds societal power.

Why do activists make huge overestimates of the number of “intersex” people? People keep quoting Anne Fausto-Sterling’s figure, published in 2000, that 1-2% of the population are intersex, even though Fausto-Sterling herself retracted that claim years ago.  This is a prime example of how people keep insisting on “facts” that they know are wrong simply because those “facts” buttress their ideology.  But here are the real data:

Zemenick’s claim that 1-2% of the population has intersex conditions vastly overstates the reality, exceeding the actual figure by nearly 100 times. This statistic originated from Anne Fausto-Sterling in Sexing The Body: Gender Politics And The Construction Of Sexuality (2000), and was reiterated in an American Journal of Human Biology article titled “How Sexually Dimorphic Are We?” Fausto-Sterling and her colleagues reached their 1-2% estimation by applying an arbitrary and excessively broad definition of “intersex” as “an individual who deviates from the Platonic ideal of physical dimorphism at the chromosomal, genital, gonadal, or hormonal levels.” To convey the absurdity of their strict criteria, females with unusually small clitorises and males with unusually large penises were classified as intersex.

Most critically, the vast majority of the people Fausto-Sterling categorized as intersex exhibited no sexual ambiguity whatsoever. When a clinically relevant definition of intersex is applied, such as when “chromosomal sex is inconsistent with phenotypic sex, or in which the phenotype is not classifiable as either male or female,” the incidence of intersex conditions dwindles to approximately 0.018%, or about 1 in 5500. Nevertheless, the prevalence of intersex conditions is immaterial to the binary nature of sex. The occurrence of sexual ambiguity, regardless of its frequency, does not constitute a third sex.

I’ve put the last two sentences in bold because they show that the frequency of intersex individuals has nothing to do with whether or not biological sex is a binary trait.  Somehow, though, the ideologues think it does, and on top of that they keep spouting Fausto-Sterling’s hundred-fold overestimate of the frequency of intersex individuals.

If you want a lucid description of why sex is binary, and about the falsity of using traits other than gametes to define sex, read the piece. I’ll add that Colin has written two other good takes on this problem, which I’ve put below with links:

“Sex Is Not a Spectrum” and

“Understanding the Sex Binary”

NYT: David French on disrupting speech and “the law of polarization”

March 26, 2023 • 9:30 am

This piece by David French, published in the New York Times on March 23, is another hopeful indication that the paper is becoming a little less woke. They’ve defended their publication of an objective article on gender transition and chastised their staffers who criticized the author, they’ve added John McWhorter to their list of regular columnists, and they’re starting to publish more articles like this, defending not only free speech but criticizing those who shout down speakers.

French is identified this way by Wikipedia:

David Austin French (born January 24, 1969) is an American political commentator and former attorney who has argued high-profile religious liberty cases. He is a columnist for The New York Times. Formerly a fellow at the National Review Institute and a staff writer for National Review from 2015 to 2019, French currently serves as senior editor of The Dispatch and a contributing writer for The Atlantic.

Click below to read:


This is one of many articles that appeared after students at Stanford Law School (SLS) shut down a talk by conservative Appellate Court Judge Kyle Duncan—not because they didn’t like his talk (which was to be about the relationship between his court and the Supreme Court on issues like covid and guns), but because they didn’t like his conservative decision and judicial philosophy. I don’t like them, either, but neither would I try to prevent him from speaking. Indeed, I’d probably go to hear him, mainly because his topic is of interest—and should have been of greater interest to law students.

French first goes after the students for disrupting a talk that should have been important to them:

. . . How do lower courts decide cases on legal issues in which Supreme Court case law is unsettled or changing?

It’s a particularly important topic for aspiring litigators, many of whom will argue cases in front of judges like Duncan, one of the hundreds of Republican-appointed originalists who account for a high percentage of the federal judiciary. After all, a lawyer’s job is to try to win over judges, no matter who appointed them and no matter their ideology.

Insights into a judge’s thinking are especially valuable if the judge is coming from a different ideological perspective. We often instinctively know how to reach people who share our views. It can be a struggle to understand our philosophical opposites.

Indeed, to the extent that the SLS students are going to litigate cases, they have to be able to listen to the other side, think about the other side’s best arguments, and then counter them. They cannot be rude nor interrupt, and above all they cannot go after the judge! SLS has to teach its students to respect free speech and, at least in court, give their opponents a hearing. The school is indeed creating a unit to teach the law students what free speech really means, though I’m not sure it will temper their juvenile tendency to censor opponents. French throws in a good quote by Frederick Douglass

Robust protest should be welcome in the academy, and it is entirely appropriate to ask any judge difficult questions during the question and answer session after a speech. But protests that go so far as to shout down or disrupt speeches or events aren’t free speech but rather mob censorship.

This is an ancient principle of American liberty. My right to protest does not encompass a right to silence or drown out another person. As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in 1860 after an antislavery event was disrupted in Boston by a violent mob, “There can be no right of speech where any man, however lifted up, or however humble, however young, or however old, is overawed by force, and compelled to suppress his honest sentiments.”

Douglass of course was black, and I’d be curious to see how the SLS students counter his arguments. In fact, perhaps SLS should, as part of its new program, hold a debate between those students who think it was right to shut down speakers like Duncan, and those who don’t.

At any rate, the chastising of law students is widespread now (I haven’t seen any articles approving of what they did), but French adds something more: a theory (which is not his) about why the SLS fracas occurred. He first establishes that “America’s elite law schools are overwhelmingly progressive”, citing a study showing how lawyer’s political affiliation is skewed to the left compared to the general population.

Below a diagram from Sunstein’s paper; on the X axis is the “conservatism score” of lawyers, based largely on their campaign contributions. They linked the public record of contributions with the national directory of attorneys, producing this histogram. The X-axis scale going from liberal (left) to conservative (right), and the height of the bars representing the number of lawyers in each class. You can see that this histogram is based on hundreds of thousands of lawyers. And you can also see that it’s skewed to the left. If you looked at professors in general, I’m betting it would be far more skewed to the left.

(from paper): Figure 1 displays the ideological distribution of all American lawyers, oriented from most liberal (negative on the CFscore scale) to most conservative (positive on the CFscore scale).9 The histogram bars here—and in subsequent figures presented in the article—represent frequencies. Taller bars mean that more lawyers fall within a given ideology, and shorter bars mean that fewer lawyers fall within a given ideology.

Given this, French then presents an idea floated by Harvard professor Cass Sunstein that, says French, explains why when you have groups or “tribes,” their association tends to make them more extreme. (I haven’t read all of Sunstein’s paper, but you can see it at the link below (download pdf here).


One of the most helpful frameworks for understanding American division and polarization comes from Cass Sunstein at Harvard Law School. In a 1999 paper he identified and described a phenomenon he called the “law of group polarization.” The law is well stated by the first sentence of the abstract: “In a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgments.”

In other words, when like-minded people gather, they tend to become more extreme. If you’re opposed to gun control and gather with other gun-rights advocates, you’re likely to become more committed to gun rights. If you’re attempting to raise awareness of climate change and gather with other climate activists, you’re likely to become more committed to your cause.

This law of group polarization helps, as Sunstein writes, “to explain extremism, ‘radicalization,’ cultural shifts and the behavior of political parties and religious organizations; it is closely connected to current concerns about the consequences of the internet; it also helps account for feuds, ethnic antagonism and tribalism.”

The tie to the academy is obvious. A coalition of like-minded people who study together, often live together and learn from other like-minded people can often radicalize. And when they radicalize, they have trouble not just understanding opposing points of view but also seeing their opponents as decent human beings.

In a strange way, the culture of the legal academy is at war with the culture of the legal profession. While the profession is left leaning, it channels conflict into rules-based legal arguments that feature forced civility and grant each side the full opportunity to make its case. There is no such thing as shouting down opposing counsel in court. You certainly cannot heckle a federal judge into silence. There is no option but to fully understand your opponents’ legal arguments and grapple with them on their merits.’

Here’s how Sunstein explains it in his paper, and goes on to document this explanation and cite psychology experiments that support it:

Two principal mechanisms underlie group polarization. The first points to social influences on behavior; the second emphasizes limited “argument pools,” and the directions in which those limited pools lead group members. An understanding of these mechanisms provides many insights into legal and political issues; it illuminates a great deal, for example, about likely processes within multimember courts, juries, political parties, and legislatures – not to mention insulated ethnic groups, extremist organizations, student associations, faculties, workplaces, and families. At the same time, these mechanisms give little reason for confidence that deliberation is making things better than worse; in fact they raise some serious questions about deliberation from the normative point of view. If deliberation simply pushes a group toward a more extreme point in the direction of its original tendency, do we have any systematic reason to think that discussion is producing improvements?

Of course that argument militates against jury deliberation, as well as other things we take for granted.

What is French’s solution? How can we prevent debacles like the one at Stanford? He suggests a greater diversity of opinion in schools, and the teaching of a more “rational conservatism”:

There is no quick or easy fix for the problem of group polarization — in the academy or elsewhere. Law schools should make sure that they’re not discriminating against conservative applicants, either in admissions or in hiring, and as the Claremont McKenna College professor Jon A. Shields wrote eloquently today in The Times, progressive professors should intentionally start teaching the best of the conservative intellectual tradition.

Given the left lean of the entire legal profession, however, conservative students and scholars should expect to be in the minority. Yet no matter the ideological composition of the faculty or student body, students can still take the initiative to seek out the best expression of opposing points of view and listen respectfully even if they intend to challenge their opponents firmly.

It’s true that schools should strive for diversity of philosophy and thought, for, as Mill argued, you can’t really have faith in your own beliefs until they’re tested on the whetstone of opposing beliefs—and against the best arguments of your opponents. Debaters always prepare for debates by imagining what the other side is going to say.

There is a solid educational rationale for this kind of diversity, though ideological diversity isn’t the kind of “diversity” for which schools are striving. When a university says it’s “diverse” or “striving for greater diversity,” it  really mean either sex diversity (though now women predominate as students in higher education), and, importantly, ethnic diversity. But given the lack of evidence that different ethnic groups tend to have different (and within-group homogeneous) ways of looking at the world, the educational importance of ideological diversity would seem to be greater than that of ethnic diversity. (The latter, however, is important if you conceive as the mission of higher education to effect political and societal change.)

But what French’s solution doesn’t explaion—at least to me—is why things have become more polarized in recent years. After all, the titer of Republicans and Democrats in Congress (and voters on both sides), hasn’t changed much recently, so the tribes have pretty much existed in their present proportions. So why has everything become more polarized lately? (And surely it has!). And why would striking a greater ideological balance in colleges help alleviate the polarization? To me it would seem to increase it by creating larger tribes on the conservative side.

No, what French seems to be calling for is a more anodyne solution: students inculcated with the desire to hear their opponents—and do so respectfully. To me, at least, the “law of polarization” offers neither explanation of what happened at Stanford nor any kind of solution. But again, I haven’t read Sunstein’s paper, and perhaps reader can explain the fix that French suggests.

Enforced orthodoxy in Texas science departments

January 20, 2023 • 11:45 am

In case you’re thinking that requiring DEI statements for academic job applicants was a passing fad, well, you’re wrong. They’re only going to get more pervasive. This report from Texas, in particular Texas Tech University, shows that DEI statements are not only mandatory, but primary: they can be used (as they are at UC Berkeley) to weed out candidates who aren’t with the program—people who have Wrongthink about DEI, like saying that “they don’t discriminate at all on the basis of race.” (This is the worst thing you can say in a DEI statement, since they want to discriminate in favor of minority races.)

Click on this piece from City Journal by John Sailer to read it (it’s short, but I refuse to specify a “reading time”). The part that bothers me most is that it applies largely to science departments.

Statements from Saller’s piece are indented.

In 2020, the Department of Biological Sciences at Texas Tech University adopted a motion on “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” (DEI), promising to “require and strongly weight a diversity statement from all candidates” during the hiring process. This amounts to a striking statement of priorities.

Many would be surprised to learn that cell biologists and immunologists might be passed up for a job because they were not sufficiently enthusiastic about DEI. But the policy illustrates a trend across Texas universities. Increasingly, a commitment to a vague and often ideologically charged notion of diversity, equity, and inclusion has become an effective job requirement for professors in Texas.

Have a look at his first link above: it goes to a Department of Biological Sciences statement, saying that the department. .

REQUIRES DBS faculty search committees to: i) require and strongly weight a diversity statement from all candidates and provide an evaluation rubric; ii) provide questions to all candidates prior to off‐campus interviews; iii) provide a report to the DBS faculty that includes diversity metrics and a report on the evaluation of the required diversity statements and strategies implemented.

Not only is your fealty required, but it is STRONGLY WEIGHTED.  Further, you have to answer questions from the department, and you better answer them in an ideologically approved way!

One more except from Saller’s piece before I pass on:

In September 2021, the Department of Biological Sciences at Texas Tech announced that it was hiring four assistant professors. Faculty members in the department took to Twitter to advertise the new position, emphasizing a unique feature of the application: per its new resolution, the department makes DEI an explicit priority in hiring. The resolution commits to “recognizing, acknowledging, and rectifying individual conscious and unconscious biases.” To that end, it promises to weigh heavily every job candidates’ contributions to the cause, as laid out in mandatory diversity statements.

The department even released a rubric for evaluating diversity statements, which demonstrates the danger of the requirement. Biologists applying to work in Texas Tech must have a specific, well-delineated understanding of DEI, receiving a low score for “[conflating] diversity, equity, and inclusion without distinguishing among them.” They must also espouse an understanding of diversity that focuses on race, gender, and granular intersectionality. The rubric mandates a low score if a candidate shows little “expressed knowledge of, or experience with, dimensions of diversity that result from different identities (for example, intersections between experiences of women scientists and Black scientists).”

Have a look at Texas Tech’s rubric, which evaluates candidates on a 1-5 point scale in three areas: Knowledge about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Track Record in Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and Plans for Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. (This is similar to Berkeley’s system.)

Your maximum possible score is 15 and your minimum is 3. And by god, you’d better have an extensive record of diversity-advancing records to get the higher score you need to get a job offer. I surely wouldn’t have gotten a job had this system been in place when I was hired. While I was active in political and anti-racist movements as an undergraduate, I had no record of DEI activities in academia.

Sailer continues:

A DEI evaluation for hiring almost inevitably weeds out candidates on the basis of their political and social views. Someone who opposes, say, racial preferences in admissions or hiring would likely run afoul of the Texas Tech rubric. This is one reason why the Academic Freedom Alliance recently announced its opposition to diversity statements.

But an even more fundamental problem remains. Prioritizing DEI in hiring means downplaying other, more important criteria—most obviously, basic academic prowess. UT–Austin recently released its “Strategic Plan for Faculty Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity,” which charges each college within the university to develop mechanisms for rewarding DEI contributions. How many highly qualified professors will ultimately lose out on promotions or tenure because they chose not to embrace the fad?

The purpose of higher education is to facilitate the pursuit of truth. By prioritizing social goals as a key feature of a professor’s job, diversity statements and evaluations detract from that mission. Alas, the policy is alive and well in Texas.

There is absolutely no doubt that such initiatives turn the traditional system of academic success on its head. You no longer have to be a great scientist to get a job; you have to have a great track record in DEI. And absent that track record, your chance of getting a job, whatever your scientific accomplishments, is nil. Those who say that DEI and merit are not in conflict at all—and those who label initiatives as “inclusive excellence”—are fooling nobody.