New Scientist expunges references to humans having two sexes

January 11, 2023 • 11:30 am

UPDATE 2Ms. Sheepshanks has commented below and has verified that she is indeed a real person bearing the name she wields so proudly. Her remarks are in the thread after comment 11. And if she reads this, I urge her to keep writing in this vein and with that critical acumen. (She’s now made several comments.)

UPDATE 1: After doing a bit of sleuthing about Octavia Sheepshanks online, I wonder if that’s her real name (see here, for instance), though that may really be her name and she pretended while at Cambridge that it wasn’t.  Regardless, whatever real person wrote the article was serious, humorous, and should write more.

____________

Seriously, people, I get no pleasure from calling out wokeness (even using that word gets me excoriated), for along with that comes opprobrium from the ideologically pure. Even worse: I feel awful that academia, and especially biology, is being distorted and corrupted by ideologues.

One of the examples I used at the Stanford free-speech conference was the inability of people to recognize that, biologically, there are only two sexes in humans. Just two. In our species sex is effectively binary, with only a tiny handful of people who are “intersex” (these exceptions constitute about 0.018% of the species, or about one person in 5600).  Sex is not gender, for the latter is a true social construct because there are far more sex roles or sexual identities than two, although even gender is bimodal, with most people identifying as traditional male or female. A frequency plot of sex would look like two huge lines, each about 50% of the population, with one of the lines at “male” and the other at “female”, and a few almost invisible blips between those lines. A frequency distribution of gender would look more like a bactrian (the two-humped camel), with more intermediates. But the humps would be high.

Enough: I’ve written about this before. At least biologists recognize that humans have two sexes. Or so I thought, until I encountered this article in The Critic by Octavia Sheepshanks, a freelance writer).  It’s leavened with humor but makes a serious point: New Scientist, the British equivalent of Scientific American (that is not praise), is now removing the words “women” and “woman” from its articles about advances in science, even when the original papers did use the w-words. (For some reason the magazine is not cutting back so much on the words “boy,” “man” or “men”, and given the ideological underpinnings I find this disparity puzzling.)

In other words, New Scientist is bowdlerizing language, presumably in the interest of illiberal left-wing ideology. I trust by now that I don’t have to explain to readers why this ideology won’t use the word “woman” when referring to biological females. (Oh hell, I guess I’d better for new readers: it’s because of the trans-activist mantras that “trans women are women” and “trans men are men”.)

Click to read Sheepshanks’s piece:

Note that New Scientist has no problem with males and females in other species, like sheep. It’s humans where they bridle, and we all know why.

Anyway, Sheepshanks wrote a good piece, and it’s funny in places. I’ll give you a long excerpt, but her arguments for retaining the w-words are more extensive, and you should read those in the original piece. The bold headings are mine:

Sheepshanks’ awakening:

I assumed that New Scientist was doing what it had always done: synthesising and disseminating research findings in a way that was easy to understand, situating them in the context of the real world. It describes itself as “a trusted, impartial source of information about what is going on in the world, in a time where facts are in short supply”, and I had believed this without reservation. It was the voice of reason in my life. After reading one article in which miscarried male foetuses were given a sex (“boys”) but the women who had suffered miscarriages were not (“pregnant people”) I wrote a long and passionate letter to the editor about how it had made me feel (not good). I received no reply, and I began to wonder if my strong belief in the significance of sexual dimorphism in humans was inaccurate and hateful after all. This was the most popular weekly science publication in the world, and it was reporting science as it was. I must be the problem.

Then I encountered the most befuddling article yet. A new form of contraception “for people” had been discovered. After a minor brain adjustment, I established from the sentence “a gel that is applied inside the vagina has been shown to block sperm injected into female sheep”, that this was a new contraception for women. The article was so strange to read that I sought out the original journal article to witness this bizarre wording in situ. When I read the first sentence of the abstract, “Many women would prefer a nonhormonal, on-demand contraceptive that does not have the side effects of existing methods”, I was astonished. Science had not changed; New Scientist had. It had lied to me. (Gaslighting is an overused accusation but resonates here. I intend to avoid one-sided love affairs with magazines in future.)

Note that the “original article” she’s referring to is the Science article highlighted by New Scientist. Note that NS gladly admits that there can be female sheep, but the equivalent in H. sapiens is, well, “people.” People with vaginas. “Female” is mentioned only once in the article, referring to sheep with vaginas, and “women” not at all. Sheepshanks was onto something. As she dug deeper, she found more bodies.

Sheepshanks’ investigation:

I looked back at all the New Scientist articles that had confused me and found the original publications. They had been altered, too: every time only women or men (i.e., males or females) were being referenced, they said so, in stark contrast to New Scientist’s interpretation.

Essentially, New Scientist is blithely misreporting published research to remove any implication of two sexes in humans. Presumably the purpose of these scientifically inaccurate linguistic gymnastics is to include those with alternative gender identities without causing offence. New Scientist has yet to respond to a request for comment, so I can’t be sure.

Sheepshanks’ take on why it matters (I love the name “Octavia Sheepshanks”, and note that it was the reproduction of female sheep that got her going):

Why does it matter if New Scientist is doing this? Perhaps an alien happening across the publication would class humans not with other mammals but with snails and slugs, merrily churning out children all by themselves. Most readers are human and can work out for themselves which sex is being referred to, however. If certain language choices make some people feel happier and safer (again, I can only assume that this is the goal) why ignore this in the name of accuracy?

There is nothing trans-inclusive about pretending humans are a hermaphroditic species. If we were, trans people wouldn’t exist. Perhaps New Scientist, if it wants to include trans people in future(for example, trans men in a study on female contraception) could do so by writing about them? Just a suggestion! Accuracy does not have to mean using the words “women” and “men” — “males” and “females” would include those with all gender identities, including non-binary people.

The alteration of scientific studies to avoid naming the demographic previously known as “women” has serious consequences for anyone female. Returning to the example of the new form of contraception for women, New Scientist’s wilful misinterpretation ignores the positive consequences of the study for women globally, because it cannot name the group it is discussing. These consequences — social and economic liberation through reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies — are discussed in the original paper, which I found fascinating and enjoyed reading. Meanwhile, New Scientist contents itself with informing us that researchers “inserted the gel towards the backs of the vaginas of sheep, which are similar to those in humans”. New Scientist was founded in 1956 for “all those interested in scientific discovery and its social consequences”. Now, female readers interested in studies affecting themselves must read the original academic papers to gain a full picture.

When the same approach is used with studies concerning only men, women are still adversely affected. . .

Read the original to find out why. But I like the fact that Ms. Sheepshanks can write a piece that’s deadly serious while still keeping a sense of humor.  But of course she’ll still be labeled as a transphobe. I get the feeling that she doesn’t care.

Here’s her ending, which is great [note that “gonochorism” describes a biological system, as in humans, in which a species has only two sexes and every individual is a member of only one of those two sexes].

I look forward to a day when I have a place to read about the physical and social implications of research into women’s bodies and health, without limitation. In the meantime, I note that New Scientist remains happy to acknowledge gonochorism in other animals; it recently rejoiced over a study of female robins that discredited the sexist theory that only male robins sing. Maybe I’ll support the liberation of female songbirds until I can read about my own species. In fact, if there’s a rally for feminist robins, I’ll be there with a placard the size of my thumbnail, desperately seeking a new safe haven of sanity.

I don’t read New Scientist regularly, so I don’t know if it has a plethora of bad articles. But it has certainly been unscientific in the past. Here’s the most egregious example, which I wrote about in 2020:

But there have been quite a few other missteps in this journal, and I’ve called the venue out more than a few times (see here).  Imagine if Scientific American merged with New Scientist.  The result would be the scientific equivalent of The Onion!

h/t: Cora

Confirmation bias from the editor of Scientific American

January 9, 2023 • 9:15 am

I almost never engage in Twitter wars, or in slagging people off via tweets, but the laws of physics compel me to highlight these two from Scientific American’s editor, referring to the article I discussed yesterday. It’s a good example of the circular “fallacy of opposition.”

There was so much pushback against that article, and criticism of the journal’s direction, that Helmuth issued the second tweet, which is very odd for someone engaged in science journalism. No, Dr. Helmuth, pushback against wrongheaded editorials doesn’t prove anything except that readers didn’t agree with it. And if you follow the comments on the tweet, you’ll find, as I did, at least 98% of them take the article, the editor, or the journal to task.

This is, I think, a staple of the illiberal Left: the claim that criticism of an idea just “proves” that it was correct all along. Oy, my twisted kishkes!

Apparently Helmuth turned off replies to that comment except from those whom she follows on Twitter. I happen to be one of those blessed people, but chose to reply here rather that make a tweet.

This isn’t science, or even rationalism: it’s a form of religion.   Oh, one response came from a man with “lived experience”: Tony Dungy, a former football safety and then head coach of two NFL teams.

 

Oh, a reader wanted to know if this tweet was a parody or not.

It didn’t take long to find out that this was not a parody; see here.

Scientific American continues its departure from science and descent into illiberal politics

January 8, 2023 • 11:30 am

Somebody called my attention to three new articles and op-eds in Scientific American that have no science in them, but are pure ideology of the “progressive” sort.  I agree with some of the sentiments expressed in them, as in the first one. But my point is, as usual, to show how everything in science, including its most widely-read “popular” magazine, is being taken over by ideology. Not only that, but it’s ideology of only one stripe: Leftist “progressive” (or “woke,” if you will) ideology, so that the “opinion” section is not a panoply of divergent views, but gives only one view, like a Scientific Pravda.  Remember that the editor refused when I offered to write an op-ed expressing different (but of course not right-wing) views.

Click on the screenshot below to read the pieces.

The first article’s argument is in the subtext: anti-LGBTQ+ “hate speech” leads to violence against members of that community. It’s clear that anti-LGBTQ+ belief does in some (but not all) cases, but of course as a First Amendment hard-liner I wouldn’t ban such speech unless it was created to promote imminent and serious violence. Still, I oppose it, or any speech that calls out not beliefs, but demonizes believers. The question though, which the piece doesn’t answer, though it takes it as an article of faith, is whether rhetoric leads to violence down the line.

Read on:

The article indicts Republicans and white nationalists for their anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and actions (e.g., banning the teaching of CRT, for example—laws that I oppose).  Of course “hate speech” doesn’t always lead to action, even at a temporal or spatial remove from the speech, and the article doesn’t give solid evidence for the connection between speech and action. Of course some killers are motivated by “homophobia” or “transphobia”, but not as many as the media suggests. Omar Mateen’s 2016 mass shooting at the gay Pulse nightclub in Orlando, for example, a horrific act that killed 49 people and injured 53, was immediately touted by the press as a likely act of homophobia, but no evidence was ever found that Mateen was motivated by hatred of gays. Rather, his motive appears to have been revenge for American airstrikes in the Middle East, and Mateen appeared not to even know that the club was gay. (He died in the assault.) The media likes what fits a narrative, particularly the progressive media—but they’re not always right.

However, the DOJ says that 19.2% of single-incident hate crimes were classified as crimes related to gender identity and sexual orientation, while 64.8% were related to race/ethnicity/ancestry. So what is the evidence that anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is a major cause of this violence? There’s very little in the paper, which mostly cites (and properly damns) the rhetoric but can’t pin it down as a cause of violence the cause, although there’s evidence that anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric does increase animus toward that group.

Here’s the evidence, but it’s all “may cause” or “can motivate”:

The false claims and rhetoric used by right-wing extremists dehumanize and vilify the LGBTQ+ community and provoke stochastic terrorism, a phenomenon in which hate speech increases the likelihood that people will attack the targets of vicious claims. Research has also shown that this type of rhetoric can motivate people to express and possibly act on their prejudiced views.

and

The potential for any individual extremist message to push people toward violence is low, Ophir says. But continuous exposure to this hate speech from many different media platforms and politicians can contribute to radicalization.

Check the final link in each paragraph.

I’m not denying the hypothesis, of course, nor am I excusing LGBTQ+ hatred or violence, only that the connection is not as clear as Sci. Am.’s headline suggests. More important, this connection has been made a gazillion times before, and not just for LGBTQ+ hate crimes, but also for the triply-frequent crimes caused by hatred of people’s race and ethnicity. So we have a familiar but largely unevidenced message, but one appearing in a science magazine.

What is it doing there? It’s because the editor, Laura Helmuth, has decided to turn Scientific American into a mouthpiece for the illiberal Left. Other magazines do that much better, and more regularly, and don’t harp on Mendel and Darwin being racists. It’s as if you picked up an issue of an LGBTQ+ magazine and found op-eds and articles on how genes can be edited or how we found gravity waves.

Finally, note that this is not an op-ed piece, but an article. In contrast, the two pieces below are labeled “opinion”,

I immediately saw though the one below without even reading it, for why would black men experience disproportionate violence in football? Are they being deliberately targeted on the field? If not, then the violence they experience is the same violence that every football player experiences.

In fact, it turns out that there is no evidence that football injuries disproportionately accrue to black men in football, at least compared to other players on the field.  The author is trying to somehow find a racist slant to the fact that there are proportionately more black players in football than black people in the American population, thus turning football injuries (which I abhor) into signs of racism. Not the slippery use of the word “disproportionately” in the following:

This ordinary violence has always riddled the sport and it affects all players. But Black players are disproportionately affected. While Black men are severely underrepresented in positions of power across football organizations, such as coaching and management, they are overrepresented on the gridiron. Non-white players account for 70 percent of the NFLnearly half of all Division I college football players are Black. Further, through a process called racial stacking, coaches racially segregate athletes by playing position. These demographic discrepancies place Black athletes at a higher risk during play.

Higher risk than white players? What’s the comparison here?

Read on; the author is a sports anthropologist at Duke University.

Indeed, if bigotry is cause of an underrepresentation of black managers or owners, that needs to be investigated, for there are causes other than racism. And if it is bigotry, then by all means efface it.  But the “racial violence” clearly implied in the headline doesn’t seem to exist, and the author admits she doesn’t know:

While I am not aware of research that compares the rate of injury between Black and white football players, heatstrokes, ACL and labrum tears, ankle sprains, bone breaks, and concussions are just a few of the consequences of how these bodies are used.

Yes, but all that shows is that football is violent. So is hockey, and you could write the same headline, but using “the violence white men experience in hockey.”

Remember, though, that although Canada approvingly quotes someone saying that football fields “are never theoretically far from plantation fields,” the players play voluntarily, get huge salaries and public acclaim, and although I despise football for its violence, these men are making decisions to play an are aware of the possible consequences. For many, it’s a way out of poverty, and who’s to tell a talented black running back in high school that he shouldn’t try to make $2.7 million a year because there are disproportionately few white men in upper management?

What we have is just another propagandistic article that’s basically misleading the reader in its headline, admits that it misleads the reader, and, in the end, doesn’t belong in a science magazine. Even if you vetted propaganda like this on the basis not of ideology but on evidence for its claims, this article is a loser. But Laura Helmuth collects these risible pieces like Nabokov collected butterflies.

Finally, there’s this article (click to read):

I haven’t grappled with the issue of Universal Basic Income in the U.S., so I have no real opinion here, but do agree with the author that there should be a universal childcare allowance that’s higher than the tax deduction we get now.  The article adds this:

No country has yet introduced a universal basic income sufficient for essential needs. But in the U.S., Alaska has enacted its Permanent Fund Dividend, which is an annual cash payment, averaging around $1,600, that goes to every resident without means test or work requirement. It contributes to poverty reduction and has no negative effect on people’s willingness to work.

In the U.S., a universal child allowance and Social Security for seniors would mean that the two most vulnerable age groups in our population would have near-universal and unconditional income guaranteed.

This doesn’t seem like much of a solution to me, and we do have social security for older folk, though it’s based on your lifetime earnings. If there’s to be a universal basic income, it’s got to be much higher than that, and of course would involve huge tax increases. (I’m not necessarily opposed to those.)

The best “science” stories of the year from Scientific American

December 27, 2022 • 12:00 pm

Scientific American, once a respectable publication but now a woke joke of a rag, recently put out special edition highlighting the top science stories of 2022. (Click on cover to read.) I will make no comment except to say that the “epigenetics” article has none of the caveats about epigenetics in the nice piece by Razib Khan I highlighted recently.

Oy, my kishkes!

There are other and more science-y stories, too, but these constitute nearly half of the top science stories of the year:

And let’s not forget the “departments”:

I will leave it up to the readers to comment.

Spot the fake fact

November 10, 2022 • 9:00 am

This article from Linkiest (a real time-waster of a site) adduces, well, you can read the title. Click on the link to “blow your mind”:

As far as I know, all but one of these “facts” are correct, but there is one howler: a “fake fact”.  Can you spot it?  It’s arrantly, blatantly, mind-blowingly WRONG. Put the fact in the comments, but don’t explain why it’s wrong yet; I’ll add the correct answer this afternoon.  I would expect most science-friendly readers here to spot it.

(There’s also a typo in one fact, but that’s not what I’m talking about.)

New Scientist calls for curbs on “free speech” in America

September 19, 2022 • 9:30 am

One would think from the tenor of this piece in New Scientist that author Annalee Newitz was not an American and didn’t understand how free speech works in the U.S. But she is an American—born in California—and writes science fiction as well as science and tech journalism, including a regular column in New Scientist.  Now this isn’t my favorite publication—not since its famous and misguided “Darwin Was Wrong” cover and article—and this comment, which has nothing to do with science, is equally misguided. (See here and here on that execrable cover.)

You can read it for free, though you may have to sign up with your email and a password. Click on the screenshot:

Newitz does understand one thing: that the “freedom of speech” guaranteed by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees only that the government can neither censor nor compel speech. This applies to all arms of the government, including public schools and universities—but not to corporations or private groups.  Further, that speech isn’t “free” in the sense of being “unlimited”: the courts have, over the years, carved out exceptions in which the government can censor speech. These include (you should know these by now), false advertising, defamation, speech that is likely to and intended to instigate immediate violence, speech that creates harassment in the workplace, child pornography, threats, and so on.

Nevertheless, I and many others favor extending the First-Amendment type of speech (excepting the already-mentioned exceptions) to nearly all venues, including social media.  The rationale for this was, of course, most famously set out in Chapter 2 John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, an essay that you should read (it’s free here).  Mill’s most famous reason was the notion that from the clash of competing ideas would emerge the truth, and that free speech was the only principle that could offer that promise. A quote:

It still remains to speak of one of the principal causes which make diversity of opinion advantageous, and will continue to do so until mankind shall have entered a stage of intellectual advancement which at present seems at an incalculable distance. We have hitherto considered only two possibilities: that the received opinion may be false, and some other opinion, consequently, true; or that, the received opinion being true, a conflict with the opposite error is essential to a clear apprehension and deep feeling of its truth. But there is a commoner case than either of these; when the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them; and the nonconforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part.

Of course free speech doesn’t always lead to the truth, but show me a better system! It surely works in science, where the clash of competing ideas, without much restriction (you can’t call other scientists names in published papers), has led to the understanding of the Universe called “scientific truth”. That truth is not absolute, of course, but what we call the “scientific method” is the best way to approach it.

But there are other reasons for free speech.  It outs those who have odious ideas; enables you, even if you disagree, to sharpen your own arguments and examine your views; confers a certain freedom of thought as well, and so on. That is why, I think, social media should observe as far as it can the First Amendment’s freeoms and restrictions.  So should all universities, whose goal is (supposedly) seeking and promulgating the truth. That’s why 87 American colleges and universities, many of them private, have signed on to the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, our own speech “code” that is basically the First Amendment promulgated t a private university.

But I digress. What Newitz argues for in her piece is restrictions on the kind of speech can cause “chaos”, offense, and harm to society. American free speech is, she argues, the very antithesis of a way to arrive at the truth.

She begins by mocking Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter on the grounds that it would promote free speech. Now I don’t know if this was Musk’s real reason, and have no dog in the fight about his taking over the company, which in the end probably won’t happen. But she argues that the kind of free speech Musk calls for is a “myth”. It isn’t: it’s just that Newitz doesn’t like the consequences. And so she argues for “controlled” free speech (emphasis at the end of her quote below is mine):

When Musk and other Silicon Valley media entrepreneurs talk about free speech, then, they aren’t talking about the reality of US laws. They are talking about a myth – the myth that everyone in the US is a rugged individual, dependent on no one, and we should be allowed to say whatever we want to whomever we want.

Politicians should be allowed to say that fair elections were “rigged”. Racists should be allowed to blame Jewish people for chemtrails. If people in the US say something bad or hurtful, the myth goes, the solution is more speech, not moderation in what we say.

Ironically, this mythical form of “free speech” actually functions as a new form of social control. As media researcher and journalist Peter Pomerantsev points out in his book This Is Not Propaganda, the cold war generation fought for unfettered expression as a solution to censorship. More information was supposed to mean more freedom.

But then, in the 21st century, a new crop of anti-democratic politicians figured out that more information can actually work as a form of “mass persuasion run amok” on social media. Speech begets more speech, until the whole internet is an infinite doomscroll.

Instead of being set free, our minds are being contained by a flood of meaninglessly cruel poop emojis.

Ordinary citizens trying to understand the world on social media are overwhelmed with negative messages. We witness vicious, polarised debates and we watch helplessly as mobs of trolls descend on anyone who is deemed unsavoury.

When free speech metastasises into chaos speech, we no longer know what is true or false. We don’t trust each other. And productive debates in the public sphere become impossible.

It turns out that information overload is just as toxic to democracy as censorship is. We need to chuck out the US myth that bad speech can be “cured” with more speech. Without moderation, ground rules for debate and thoughtful regulation in our digital public squares, it is impossible for us to reach agreement on anything.

There is a vast and pleasant country between total censorship and total information chaos, and that is where I hope to live one day. I’ll save you a seat.

Here she argues that First-Amendment style speech (and not just on social media) can cause chaos, harm, racism, “social control”, cruelty and “offense”. What she want is in bold above— moderators, also known as censors.

And there, of course, is the rub.  Newitz wants “moderation”, but who is to be the moderator? (This trenchant question is the subject of Hitchens’s famous debate argument for free speech.) Note that Newitz doesn’t single out social media, but indicts “anti-democratic politicians” (i.e., Trump and his like), and non-politicians who spread “negative messages”, as well as “trolls.”

And as for “free speech” being a “new form of social control”, I have no idea what she’s talking about. Control by Twitter? But think of all the people, previously silent, who are now speaking up. Control, my tuchas! People previously without a voice in America now have one—and it’s largely the result of social media. I don’t agree with a lot of what they say, of course, but that’s just the point.

So I ask this obvious question to Ms. Newitz:

“Who, do you propose, should censor the speech of “anti-democratic politicians,” trolls, promoters of offense and hate, confusing messages (presumably false information about Covid and the like), and others. Do you nominate yourself? Or would you prefer a Department of Censorship.  And how will you silence the likes of Trump?”

I’m looking forward to Newitz, in a future column, describing how she would arrange things to turn America into the “vast and pleasant country” she craves.  How, exactly, will she arrange the suppression of speech that she finds cruel, vicious, chaotic, and trollish?

Free speech isn’t a myth, but if censorious folk like Newitz get their way, it will become one.

 

h/t: Mark

On the inequity of sex representation in STEM, and extra review for papers that buck the current ideological climate

September 8, 2022 • 10:15 am

I have neither the time nor the space to sum up either of these two papers (the second is a short supplement to the first), but if you’re interested in gender parity in STEM fields, you should definitely read the longer Stewart-Williams and Halsey paper. It’s fairly new (2021) and is loaded with data and references about the widely-discussed deficit (“inequity”) of women in some STEM fields, what factors might cause it, and what, if anything, should be done to assure parity. It’s a big paper—26 pages of text—but also has nearly every reference up to 2021 that I know about on the topic (and many more), with over 11 pages of citations in addition to the text.

You can read the paper by clicking on the screenshot below, or downloading the pdf here (reference at the bottom of the page). Stewart-Williams is a professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, while Lewis Halsey is a Professor of Environmental Physiology at the University of Roehampton.

There are many aspects of the paper, but the overall message is that a lack of equity between men and women in some (not all) STEM fields cannot be wholly imputed to bias or “structural sexism” because there are many other factors causing such inequities. These factors include sex-differing preferences, interests, the greater overall variability in performance (and other traits) of men, evolution, and so on.  The authors do note that there is evidence for bias against women, describing a long list of studies, but also show that there’s also evidence that women are favored in entering and succeeding in STEM, giving an even longer list of studies. We all know—though few mention—that the proportion of women in STEM goes down as countries become more equal in opportunity afforded to males and females, which suggests that in more gender-equal countries women’s preferences and other non-biasing factors are more freely excercised, perhaps leading to a decline in participation in STEM (I’ve written about this before).

Stewart-Williams and Halsey attribute some of the sex differences in interests (and variability) to evolution, but freely admit that any hypotheses they have are just stories and are very hard to test.

The biological difference in STEM representation can, say the authors, be partly imputed to the claim that “Men are more interested in things than are women, who in turn are more interested in people.” (Remember, this is an average, and doesn’t imply anything about whether some women can be more interested than many men in STEM fields, nor does it buttress any discrimination.) There are many studies implying that such differences are not only cultural universals among many societies (of course, one could argue that this is forced onto women by sexism in all societies), but they are also seen in very young infants who haven’t yet had a chance to be “socialized in sexism”, as well as in our primate relatives. These two points make an explanation based wholly on socialization less likely.

Rather than go into more detail, I’ll just say that if you strive for equity in gender or sex in STEM because you think inequities result solely from bias or sexism, do read this paper first. I’ll give one figure, below, and reproduce conclusion of the article.

First, a simplified diagram from the paper showing the many sources of inequities in sex representation in STEM. Each is discussed in detail in the paper:

 

(From the paper): Figure 3. Occupational outcomes are a product of many different factors; workplace discrimination is only one among many.

. . . and the paper’s conclusion. I’ve put part of it in bold because I agree with the goal of maximizing opportunity rather than enforcing pure equity and making unevidenced claims of bigotry.

Conclusion: Many factors at play

In summary, any exhaustive discussion of the relative dearth of women in certain STEM fields must take into account the burgeoning science of human sex differences. If we assume that men and women are psychologically indistinguishable, then any disparities between the sexes in STEM will be seen as evidence of discrimination, leading to the perception that STEM is highly discriminatory. Similarly, if we assume that such psychological sex differences as we find are due largely or solely to non-biological causes, then any STEM gender disparities will be seen as evidence of arbitrary and sexist cultural conditioning. In both cases, though, the assumptions are almost certainly false. A large body of research points to the following conclusions:

  1. that men and women differ, on average, in their occupational preferences, aptitudes and levels of within-sex variability;
  2. that these differences are not due solely to sociocultural causes but have a substantial inherited component as well; and
  3. that the differences, coupled with the demands of bearing and rearing children, are the main source of the gender disparities we find today in STEM. Discrimination appears to play a smaller role, and in some cases may favour women, rather than disfavouring them.

These conclusions have important implications for the way academics and policy makers handle gender gaps in STEM. Based on the foregoing discussion, we suggest that the approach that would be most conducive to maximizing individual happiness and autonomy would be to strive for equality of opportunity, but then to respect men and women’s decisions regarding their own lives and careers, even if this does not result in gender parity across all fields. Approaches that focus instead on equality of outcomes – including quotas and financial inducements – may exact a toll in terms of individual happiness. To the extent that these policies override people’s preferences, they effectively place the goal of equalizing the statistical properties of groups above the happiness and autonomy of the individuals within those groups. Some might derive different conclusions from the emerging understanding of human sex differences. Either way, though, it seems hard to deny that this understanding should be factored into the discussion.

People will of course bridle at the claim that there’s a “substantial inherited component” to gender disparities, crying that “it’s evolutionary psychology—Nazism!”. But there’s ample evidence that men and women differ in morphological and behavioral ways that can be explained (though not “proved”) by evolution. This of course goes against the “progressive” conclusion that men and women are on average identical in every trait except perhaps in those morphological differences (size, build, genitalia) connected with the biological basis of sex.  But those who believe that men and women are identical in every aspect of thought, behavior, and mentation are fighting a wealth of data.  (I have to emphasize again that differences do not imply superiority or inferiority, but that’s so obvious that I shouldn’t have to say it for the umpteenth time.)

**************

The paper below is basically a short gloss on the paper above, and provides more data supporting the claim that while sex inequities in STEM can (and do) result partly from bias against women, that bias “cannot explain the corpus of findings related to gender differences in math-intensive disciplines. Click the screenshot to read it, and you can find the pdf here (reference at the bottom of the page).

The authors did their own three-year analysis of gender bias in six areas (letters of recommendation, tt [tenure track] hiring, journal acceptances, grant funding, salary, and teaching ratings). The fields surveyed aren’t listed, as the study isn’t yet published, but they found one area in which there was gender bias: “students of both genders rate women instructors’ teaching skills lower than men” [sic].  This is an average and shows heterogeneity among areas.

They found possible gender bias in “the academic salary gap”, but qualify it a bit:

In the second domain in which there is a possible gender bias—the academic salary gap—the presence or absence of bias is less clear. Although we tilted toward a bias explanation, we were unable to make an airtight case for it. The average gender salary gap in academia writ large is around 18%, but much of this is explained by the type of institution (e.g., two-year and four-year colleges, large research-oriented universities), discipline (more women are employed in lower-paying humanities fields than in higher-paying engineering and business fields), and years of experience. With these as controls, the gender difference among those on tt is less than 4%. And that difference might be even smaller if studies are able to control for productivity (publications), which no study of the salary gap has done. The evidence on publications, which we also summarized in our paper, points to gender differences in publishing, so this could account for the remaining 4% salary gap. So we are agnostic. We concluded that the evidence might point to some bias in salaries—although it is much smaller than averages suggest—and might not be the result of gender bias.

Finally, they report “no systematic gender bias” in the other areas over a long period of time:

In the other four domains (letters of recommendation, tt hiring, grant funding, and journal success) we came to the conclusion that there was no systematic gender bias in the last 15–20 years. Looking at studies that directly measured tt outcomes such as the likelihood of grant application success, acceptance of journal submissions, etc., the vast majority of studies, including the largest ones and the cleanest ones that really compared apples with apples (e.g. actual experiments or matching methods) found no gender bias in either direction.

Theynote that their overall finding contravenes the dominant narrative. which may explain how the paper was handled by the journal (see below):

Note how divergent these conclusions are from the dominant narrative that pervades the scientific media. Figure 2 appeared in Nature (Shen, 2013) and captures what many regard as the ground truth, namely that women in science earn 18% less than men and are far less likely to get funding.

The funding claim isn’t supported, and while there may be a bias-induced difference in salary, it’s more likely to be closer to 4% than 18%. That still needs examination, though, and then fixing if it’s due to bias.  Note as well that this paper isn’t yet published.

One reason it may not yet be published is in fact that the findings of Ceci et al. are politically unpalatable: every inequity must, says the dominant narrative, be due to bias.  This is not just sour grapes, as the authors argue. This excerpt, though long, is worth reading:

Our study was submitted for review at a top journal but declined by the editor, based on seven reviews, four of which recommended publication. It is interesting that, unlike our analyses of less controversial topics, whenever we have attempted to publish work on the underrepresentation of women in science that argued against a dominant role for bias, journal editors have felt the need to solicit many more reviews than is customary. We have seen this phenomenon often.

For example, in 2014 when two of us (WMW and SJC) submitted a manuscript on hiring bias to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the editor solicited seven reviews, whereas the typical number of reviews for that journal was at that time only two. Many other articles that we have written individually or together have gotten this kind of extra scrutiny when we find no gender differences, and this can be compared to the relative [sic] lower scrutiny we get when we find gender differences. A similar situation may very well have been the case for this Stewart-Williams and Halsey paper. While we do not know how many reviews this article had, we know that it was submitted to several other journals because we or people we know were reviewers.

Perhaps an uncommonly large number of reviewers is appropriate when a manuscript challenges the dominant narrative that sex differences in academic outcomes is a consequence of gender bias rather than non-bias factors. Such a position goes against some reviewers’ “priors,” and therefore one could argue it is in need of stronger evidence than a claim that is congruent with the dominant narrative. Certainly, we would want a larger than usual number of reviews if a manuscript purported to provide evidence that validated ESP or voodoo, because such claims go against our deeply held beliefs that are based on decades of empirical and theoretical evidence.

However, what body of evidence leads to such deeply held beliefs that would require an alternative argument to findings such as ours showing no bias in tt hiring or Stewart-Williams and Halsey’s evidence of preference-based and perhaps biologically based career choices? What body of evidence would render such findings so aberrant as to require extraordinary evidentiary vetting? Note that we are not arguing that informed scholars cannot criticize these arguments. They indeed can, and should. Rather, we are arguing that in view of the scientific evidence they bring, why would Stewart-Williams and Halsey’s paper, or ours on lack of hiring bias, be so unbelievable? In light of the evidence on equal success rates for grant applications (both NIH R01s and NSFs in all of its directorates) for so many years, why do so many researchers continue to cite a 1997 article on gender bias at the Swedish Medical Council that—if ever there were gender differences—had disappeared by 2004 as demonstrated in a less cited but methodologically superior paper (Sandström & Hallsten, 2007)?

What would it take to get critics’ priors into sync with the published empirical data, when that data indicates no bias?. . .

By the way, I have no idea whether the Stewart-Williams and Halsey paper was given a harder review than normal given its conclusions; the authors say nothing about that.

Ceci et al.’s conclusion:

We believe that we can come to a deeper understanding of the causes of the differences in women’s representation in STEM if people drop their priors when evaluating evidence.

Dropping priors—that is, sitting down before the facts, as Huxley said, like little children—and remaining objective instead of trying to find data supporting your preconceptions—these are sine qua nons in scientific behavior. It is odd that scientists in this case are so clearly critical of data that go against their preconceptions and yet so willing to accept data that support them. We’re human of course, but we’re supposed to be fighting against our confirmation bias. That means giving all papers equal scrutiny, not extra scrutiny to papers whose results you don’t like. In fact, if anything, we should be giving more scrutiny to papers whose results we do like, or which support our biases.

________________

Stewart-Williams, S. and L. G. Halsey.  Men, women and STEM: Why the differences and what should be done? Eur. J. Personality 35:3-39.

Ceci, S. J., S. Kahn, and W. M. Williams. 2021. Stewart-Williams and Halsey argue persuasively that gender bias is just one of many causes of women’s underrepresentation in science.  Eur. J. Personality 35:40-44.

 

Scientific American dedicates itself to politics, not science; refuses to publish rebuttals of their false or misleading claims

August 21, 2022 • 10:30 am

On August 14, I received a conciliatory email from Laura Helmuth, editor of Scientific American. As you know if you’re a regular here, I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing their woke coverage and editorials, which make all kinds of accusations that don’t hold water (see emails below for some examples, or you can access all my posts here).

My critiques of the magazine have been similar to those of Michael Shermer, who wrote a regular column for Scientific American for eighteen years. After he turned out a couple of columns that weren’t woke enough for the journal, and were rejected, he was given his walking papers. Michael documented the decline and fall of the journal in two Substack pieces, “Scientific American goes woke” and “What is woke, anyway? A coda to my column on ‘Scientific American goes woke’.” His columns, particularly the first, cite and link to a number of ludicrous pieces published in the journal. I’ll give some of those links below.

At any rate, since I told Laura in my response that I’d keep her initial email confidential. I’ll just characterize what she said in a few words. She was kind enough to be conciliatory, though she noted that I was unhappy with some of her coverage. She praised my criticisms of theocracy and emphasized that, politically, she and I were on the same side with respect to matters of reason and social justice. Finally she urged me to contact her to discuss any ideas I had for stories or my own pieces for the magazine.

It was a polite email, but the last bit—the invitation—prompted me to respond in this way, by suggesting that I write my own op-ed:

From: Jerry Coyne To:Subject: Re: Greetings from Scientific American

Hi Laura,

Thanks for your conciliatory message, which I appreciate. I’m sorry that I have had to go after some of your stories sometimes, but I’m truly puzzled at the direction the magazine is taking. One blatant example was that editorial by McLemore that accused not only Darwin of racism, but also Mendel!  Seriously, how did that get through the editorial process? Is there no fact-checking? Likewise, nobody bothered to look up what SETI is really doing when it tries to find life on other planets. One look at the photos that Carl Sagan included on the Voyager record shows that he was emphasizing the diversity of life on earth, both human and nonhuman.  What bothers me, and you surely know this, is the magazine’s Pecksniffian tendency to call out racism in everything, most recently the SETI program.

Yes, we are indeed both liberals and against the theocratic strain that’s taking over American life.  But if you must be political (I don’t think science magazines should be, of course), why not commission pieces about the stuff you mention below and leave out the authoritarian progressivism and pervasive accusations of racism? In my view, that not only doesn’t do anything to ameliorate racism (how does falsely accusing Mendel of racism do anything for minorities?), but also dims the patina of class that the magazine had.

Of course I had to say this, but you know this already because I’ve written about this stuff a fair amount.

I do appreciate your reaching out, and of course will keep your email confidential, but would you consider an op-ed about how extreme Leftist progressivism is besmirching science itself by distorting the truth? (Example: arguments that sex is not bimodal in humans, but forms a continuum.) I could make a number of arguments like that about biology that, contra McLemore, have truth behind them.

If you’re really interested in presenting a diversity of views on science and politics in your op-eds, I’d be glad to write something like that (and no, it would not be shrill).

Thanks for writing.

Best,Jerry

The correspondence continued, with Laura emailing me to explain the political leanings of the journal, which in my view were not concerned in science but with social justice. And of course she rejected my offer to contribute an article to the magazine because it didn’t comport with those leanings. Such a letter would be “kicking down” (i.e., “punching down”).  I won’t reproduce her second letter even though, in my response, I didn’t say I would keep it confidential. But I will characterize her words in my response—and quote a few of them—in the email I wrote her this morning. Here it is. I’ve added links to the Sci. Am. articles that I mention or to my discussion of them (each of my posts links to the orginal Sci. Am. piece). I’ve corrected a few of my  errors of spelling and punctuation.

Sun 8/21/2022 6:14 AM

Dear Laura,

I of course expected that you would accept editorials only from the “progressive left” point of view, even though, as you noted, we’re both on the Left. That is your editorial call, but I disagree with it.  When “progressives” are engaged in attacking science with lies or distortions (i.e., claiming there’s a spectrum of sex, not gender, in humans, or that Mendel was a racist), I would think that Scientific American would publish, indeed, want, some kind of corrective. Seriously, you let one your writers accuse Mendel, Darwin, and E. O. Wilson of being racist, and SETI of being likewise and that denial of evolution is white supremacy; and yet you refuse to publish rebuttals of that calumny because to oppose those ridiculous accusations would “feel like kicking down.”  Do you really think that someone not as famous as Mendel is allowed to call him a racist because to deny that would be “kicking down.”

Frankly, I find that response disingenuous. Sticking up for correct science in the face of ideological distortion is not “kicking down”: that phrase—or its alternative “punching down”—is used by every ideologue to immunize their ideas from criticism. Science is supposed to be a debate in search of truth, with nobody barred from criticizing anyone, but yet you are placing much of that debate out of bounds because it’s “kicking down”!

The telling part of your email is at the end when you assert that science isn’t really a target of your editorials, but politics is, and the “targets” you say the magazine has chosen include “the Supreme Court endorsed forced pregnancy, Florida is denying care to trans people, white nationalists are infiltrating every branch of government, and anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists are causing people to die. . . . . But with limited resources, those are the sorts of issues we’re focused on in our opinion coverage.” But when is it the editorial policy of Scientific American to address those issues at all? Given its title, I thought your magazine was about science, even in its opinions, and not a program for enacting a brand of social justice that has either little or nothing to do with science. There are literally hundreds of magazines, websites, blogs, podcasts, and other media sources that cover those issues endlessly 24/7 from left, right, and center.

SciAm readers go to your site to get straight science, not political commentary, and deciding that the “progressive” (i.e., extreme) Left has the correct positions on these issues is to essentially alienate over half the country, including moderate liberals like me being turned off by this risible political posturing.

Let me speak frankly: some of the editorials I’ve criticized involve lying or distorting the truth for politics. It’s simply not true, for example, that mathematics and other STEM fields are irredeemably racist and misogynistic [see also here], that Darwin and Mendel were racists, that the Jedi in Star Wars are toxically masculine white saviors, that SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is implicitly racist and colonialist, and that denial of evolution is an expression of white supremacy. These assertions are ridiculous, and yet you not only give them space in your magazine, but refuse to publish any opposing opinions. Thus others like Michael Shermer and I have to rebut them on our websites (as you know, Shermer wrote a column for Scientific American for eighteen years, but then was fired because he failed to hew to the ideology you’re promoting).

It is your magazine, of course, but I am not alone in being appalled at the direction it’s taken. I can assume only that you have given it that direction. This is a great pity: Americans can get their politics in a million places, but there are few where they can get straight science untainted by ideology.  Scientific American used to be that way, but it isn’t any more.

cheers,Jerry

I’ll note one more thing: Thirty-one biologists, including some very notable ones, wrote a letter to Scientific American pushing back on their article that E. O. Wilson (along with Darwin and Mendel) was a racist. Of course the magazine refused to publish our critique. You can see that letter, the signers, and my take on it here.

What is crystal clear is that Scientific American has decided to take on a social-justice program of a particular stripe—that of the “progressive” or “woke” Left—even if the politics the journal espouses have nothing to do with science. Not only that, but they refuse to publish any pushback or criticism of some of their crazier assertions. (Show me where Mendel was a racist, for instance!) It’s very odd that what was once America’s premier science magazine not only has taken up woke cudgels, but is stifling criticism of what they publish. In this way Scientific American can act as if there’s no opposition to the politics they cram down the throats of curious people who just want to read about science. They are censorious, and certain they’re right. Such views have repeatedly stifled and misguided science over the years, right up to the time of Lysenko.

And that is why I’m writing this post.

_________________

About Sci Am’s refusal to let me write; sent by a friend:

It would be so easy to just let you have your say in the magazine and then whenever so accused of bias they could say “we published Jerry Coyne’s rebuttal!” And could hold their heads high for at least offering some balance, but they obviously can’t even bring themselves to do that! It’s all so unnecessary, but if they feel it is necessary (to do their share of social justice) then at least let the other side speak.

 

Scientific American finds the search for extraterrestrial intelligence racist and colonialist

August 12, 2022 • 9:30 am

UPDATE:  Michael Shermer emailed me with his response to this quote below, taken from the Sci. Am. Piece.

We may not be able to recognize intelligence when we see it, and we may not respect or honor things we don’t perceive to be intelligent. That is what we did in many colonial interactions. Certain countries in Europe made “first contact” with Indigenous peoples, perceived them to be nonintelligent and therefore not worthy of life, not worthy of respect or dignity. And that is troubling to me. What’s going to be different next time?

Michael’s response:

The difference is 500 years of moral progress! There are exactly zero people in SETI who think Intelligence is restricted to what we think and do and that any ETIs who show intelligence different from ours should be thought of as inferior and therefore subject to genocide and enslavement. Literally 0!

And there have been debates and discussions on the nature of intelligence for over half a century in SETI communities, with everyone breaking their skulls trying to think of ways that ETIs might communicate, think, act, etc. (From Sagan’s Jupiter cloud creatures to Fred Hoyle’s interstellar dust cloud computing beings, absolutely no one in this community thinks that intelligence is defined by what we do.) This article is so ignorant of the SETI community and the vast literate it has produced. In any case, at this point, SETI scientists would be happy to find ANYTHING that was not random noise, much less tapping out prime numbers (oops, those are the culturally constructed Western colonial mathematics, right?)

And he added a tweet with an antiracist take on extraterrestrial life by—of all people—Carl Sagan:

Note that Shermer himself wrote a piece called “Scientific American goes woke” that I highlighted here.

***********************************************

I claim that there is no practice, institution, or object that can’t be “wokeified” these days. If pumpkin lattes, yogurt, glaciology, and Pilates can be turned into a subject for Woke beefing, then anything can.

This time it’s the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), popularized and brought to life by Carl Sagan, whose eponymous institute at Cornell, along with the SETI Institute, have, using a variety of instruments, scoured the skies looking for evidence of life on other worlds.

As you know, we haven’t found evidence of such life, but of course there are gazillions of planets that could support life, most of them light years away.  The lack of any signal of life could reflect any number of causes: we’re truly alone in the Universe (I consider that unlikely), other planets with life may not be sending out signals, or it’s nearly impossible to detect any signals. But according to this new article in Scientific American, our failure is partly our own fault: we’re doing the search wrong. And we’re doing it wrong because we’re colonialists and racists.

In this piece, Scientific American author Camilio Garzón (it’s an article, not an op-ed) interviews Rebecca Charbonneau, identified as “a historian in residence at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, as well as a Jansky Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.”

Charbonneau’s thesis:

. . . .increasingly, SETI scientists are grappling with the disquieting notion that, much like their intellectual forebears, their search may somehow be undermined by biases they only dimly perceive—biases that could, for instance, be related to the misunderstanding and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups that occurred during the development of modern astronomy and many other scientific fields.

Yep, Scientific American is rapidly descending to the status of a risible, woke, and useless publication. I used to read it avidly when I was a kid, but back then it was full of science. Now, like Teen Vogue, it’s a disguised way to propagandize its readers.

Yes, I could hear your kishkes tighten up when you read Charbonneau’s thesis above, but there’s a lot more. Click below to read for free—and that’s all it’s worth.

Charbonneau sees space exploration not just as a manifestation of scientific and intellectual curiosity, but largely as “an extension of our imperialist and colonial histories.” That manifests itself in several ways: not just in plans to colonize other planets (where there’s no life to dominate!), but mainly in the very way we go about detecting life in the Universe—through SETI.  She adds: “And SETI in particular carries a lot of intellectual, colonial baggage as well, especially in its use of abstract concepts like ‘civilization’ and ‘intelligence,’ concepts that have been used to enact real, physical harm on Earth.”

Her thesis, then, is SETI is not propping up the harms of colonialism on Earth using racist and colonialist methods involving things like “civilization” and “intelligence”.  Since “intelligence and “civilization” are colonialist ways to assess intelligence, what are we to do in our search for extraterrestrial life.

Garzón’s questions are in bold, Charbonneau’s answers in indented Roman type.

If decolonization isn’t just a metaphor but rather a process, that implies it’s about reckoning with history and striving to fix past mistakes. That’s something easy to say but much harder to actually define, let alone to do. In the context of SETI, what might decolonization’s “reckoning” look like?

It’s a great question. Ultimately, in Tuck and Yang’s interpretation of decolonization, this would look like prioritizing the sovereignty of Indigenous cultures and respecting their wishes regarding settled scientific infrastructure. And while that is critically important, we shouldn’t entirely discount the symbolic, dare I say metaphorical, nature of colonialism at play in SETI. Fundamentally, SETI concerns listening to alien civilizations, ideally, but we also have to get better at listening to Earthlings! We’re not very good at that right now, but we’re starting to move in that direction. There are members of the SETI community, myself included, who are very interested in listening to marginalized and historically excluded perspectives.

A lot of SETI scientists start their research from the technical search perspective, without deeply considering the implications and impact of their listening. They are simply interested in finding evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations, which is valuable. I think that to do that, however, without thinking critically about how we conceptualize big abstract ideas, such as “intelligence” and “civilization,” and without considering the ethics of the search and its cultural implications, would be a huge mistake. These ideas are tightly bound with the histories of racism, genocide and imperialism, and to use them haphazardly can be harmful. How we use these symbols of the past when thinking about alien civilizations also says a lot about how we view Earth’s civilizations, and this is where Indigenous Studies scholars, such as those who contributed to the special SETI issue of the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, can make great contributions. They have a unique perspective on the impact of contact, and how concepts like “intelligence” can be weaponized.

The last paragraph of Charbonneau’s answer is blather, just another attempt at self-flagellation for our treatment (admittedly very bad in the past) of remote cultures. So she manages to drag in genocide, imperialism, racism, and indigenous studies, which really have nothing to do with the way SETI scholars go about finding life on other planets. And she totally ignores the years and years that SETI scientists have pondered ways to communicate with extraterrestrial life, and how they might communicate with us (see below).

Charbonneau does not explain clearly how listening to “marginalized and historically excluded perspectives,” listening that, by the way. is going on all the time these days, is going to help us communicate with other planets. Is it not sufficient to say that “we’re all human and share certain characteristics”? That, after all was the subject of Sagan’s “golden record” sent on Voyager spacecaft.  As the Planetary Society describes it:

On board each Voyager spacecraft is a time capsule: a 12-inch, gold-plated copper disk carrying spoken greetings in 55 languages from Earth’s peoples, along with 115 images and myriad sounds representing our home planet. Selected for NASA by Carl Sagan and others, and produced by science writer Timothy Ferris, the disks are essentially a “greatest hits” package portraying the biodiversity of Earth and the diversity of human cultures. From the Golden Gate to the Great Wall, Beethoven to Chuck Berry, from mountain breezes to crashing surf, a dog’s howl and a baby’s cry, the disks may someday serve as “letters of introduction” to a passing extraterrestrial civilization that may stop and inspect the robots and become inquisitive about their place of origin.

Is this colonialist? Greetings in 55 languages, showing the diversity of speech, and 115 images, which are a combination of scientific stuff and pictures of people from all over the planet.  After all, the images are not meant just to show what life on Earth looks like and how we live, but how far we’ve advanced technically—useful information for an extraterrestrial civilization.

Here’s the record:

But wait! There’s more!

It does feel ironic. SETI is built around listening for something out there but perhaps at the cost of ignoring much of what is right here on this planet. For instance, you’ve repeatedly mentioned the cultural implications of terms such as “intelligence” and “civilization,” but how about the word “alien,” too? All of these terms have very different connotations—even destructive ones—as historically applied to Indigenous peoples or, for that matter, as applied to all the other sentient beings that live on Earth. Even now some people don’t consider nonhuman animals to be sentient, let alone possessing any real intelligence. And throughout history, building empires has come at the cost of discounting and dehumanizing Indigenous peoples as lesser beings, incapable of sophisticated thought and societal organization. Yet “intelligence” is right there in SETI’s name. Should we reconsider that framing?

SETI is designed to listen outward, but as you said, it’s not always so great at listening inward. And I should preface this by saying that there are members of the SETI community who are very interested in doing this work. And oftentimes these missteps are not made consciously—we’re all operating within our own cultural frameworks. And so, of course, when we are thinking about the “other,” the imagined alien, we’re going to project our own understanding of what that looks like onto this blank slate. In fact, some people even call SETI a mirror. Jill Tarter, an eminent SETI scientist, famously referred to SETI as holding up a cosmic mirror, where we’re looking for the “other,” but in the process of doing that, we are really learning about ourselves.

As for “intelligence,” that’s certainly a dangerous word, and it has been used in very harmful ways. Eugenics, for example, used the limited concept of “intelligence” to justify genocide. I’m therefore sometimes troubled by the word intelligence in SETI. For one thing, we might not even be able to identify what intelligence is. And because of this, maybe we [will] someday make contact and [won’t] even recognize that we’ve done so. But it’s also important to think very critically about why we search for intelligence. Is there something special about intelligence? Does intelligence deserve more respect than whatever we might perceive to be nonintelligence? We might perceive microbes as nonintelligent life, for example. Does that life have a right to exist without us bothering it? Or is it just germs—just bugs that we are going to just bring back and study and pick apart?

Oh for crying out loud, OF COURSE there’s something special about intelligence! Are there forms of it that far surpass ours? What forms can it take? We are also interested in animal intelligence for the same reason.

I’ve put Charbonneaus’s money quote in italics below:

We may not be able to recognize intelligence when we see it, and we may not respect or honor things we don’t perceive to be intelligent. That is what we did in many colonial interactions. Certain countries in Europe made “first contact” with Indigenous peoples, perceived them to be nonintelligent and therefore not worthy of life, not worthy of respect or dignity. And that is troubling to me. What’s going to be different next time?

I don’t think Charbonneau knows how SETI works. They are of course looking for signs of technological development, like radio signals or deliberate attempts to communicate, but is that colonialist? Further, SETI also uses astronomy, telescopes, and so on. Those don’t really depend on intelligence: they could, in principle, detect signs of life produced by organisms that don’t have “intelligence” in the human sense. The fact is that SETI scientists have spent decades thinking about how extraterrestrial civilizations might communicate, and designing their endeavors around these ways.

If there’s another way to detect extraterrestrial life beyond these, I’d like to know. Charbonneau certainly doesn’t tell us, nor does she seem to care. She cares more about chastising us for bad acts of the past and showing how virtuous she is.

Let me push back on one aspect here, though. Might there be a degree of incompatibility between openness to other ways of being and SETI’s core tenets? After all, SETI—all of astronomy, really—is built on the assumption of universality, that the laws of physics are the same throughout the observable universe regardless of one’s social constructs. A radio telescope, for instance, will work the same way whether it’s here on Earth or somewhere on the other side of the cosmos. Regardless of context, certain shared fundamentals exist to allow common, predictable, understandable outcomes. SETI takes this conceit even further by elevating mathematics as a universal language that can be understood and translated anywhere and by anyone. What are your thoughts on this?

So let me preface this by saying I am not a mathematician. But I do write about math. And there are many anthropologists who study mathematical systems in different cultures. They see that, even on Earth, among human cultures, there are different ways of thinking about math. And while mathematics is the language we use on Earth in our hegemonic culture to describe what we are seeing, we don’t know that another species will use that same language to describe what they are seeing. So while I don’t want to discount universality, I do think any assumptions about this are perhaps optimistic, to put it kindly. The core of what I’m trying to say is that we must critically interrogate our assumptions about life and universality, because we will all too often find that they say more about us than aliens.

So, Dr. Charbonneau, given that other creatures won’t understand the kind of math used by Earthlings, what about just regular pulses of radio waves that can’t have a purely physical origin? And once again, Charbonneau, ignoring those mathematicians that think that math is an “objective truth” (I have no dog in that fight), fails to tell us how our colonialist fixation with Earth math will impede us from finding other cultures. “Interrogating our assumptions” won’t help us one whit.

I don’t know what’s happened to Scientific American, but it’s full of stuff like this; I’ve written about it often (see here). Actually, I do know: under the aegis of editor Laura Helmuth, the magazine has gone woke—big time.

h/t: John

Guardian retracts claim that Cornwall is infested with “venomous crabs”

August 8, 2022 • 11:15 am

Yesterday morning, thanks to Matthew, I pointed out that the Guardian had screwed up one of its biology stories, the one noted in this headline:

What apparently had happened is that somebody at a news service (see below) googled “crab spider” instead of “spider crab”, and concluded that spider crabs were venomous. Then the Guardian simply cut and pasted the false assertions about the spider crab—no crabs are venomous though some are toxic to eat—to create a clickbait story.

Pity, pity, because since the crabs aren’t venomous, the story loses a lot of its click-y allure.  A number of people pointed out to the Guardian that this story wasn’t exactly true (the swarming part was). Matthew also informed one of his friends who works at the Guardian (see below). Regardless, the complaints worked, and now there’s a new story sans venomous crabs. Click below to see the latest story, lacking the word “venomous”.

And kudos to the Guardian for noting that they changed the story. At the bottom of the new page you can read this:

 This article was amended on 8 August 2022. An earlier version incorrectly stated in the headline and text that the spider crabs massing at Cornish beaches were “venomous”; no species of crab is venomous. Also, their Latin species name is Maja brachydactyla, not “Hyas araneus” as we said.

Someone else must have corrected the species name. I took the paper at its word, for Hyas araneus is the “great spider crab”. Now we learn that these un-venomous crabs are actually Maja brachydactyla, in a completely different family. Now how did they screw that one up?  By copying from another source?

Well, all’s well that ends well, except, perhaps, for the would-be bathers who avoided the waters off Cornwall.

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Here’s Matthew’s email to the Guardian:

From: Matthew Cobb

Subject: Crab spiders

Date: 7 August 2022 at 22:11:22 BST

To: guardian.letters@guardian.co.uk” <guardian.letters@guardian.co.uk>

Over the weekend The Guardian website followed the rest of the UK press by printing a story about ‘venomous spider crabs’ moving into shallow waters off Cornwall to moult [https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/aug/06/spider-crabs-swarm-in-shallow-waters-on-cornish-beach].

Virtually all of these stories – including that in the Guardian –  claimed the crabs ‘have a venomous bite that is poisonous to their prey but harmless to humans’.

This is not true. No crab is venomous. Indeed, out of over 7.000 species of crustacean, only one is known to be venomous, and it is not a crab.

This error – which the Guardian has still not uncorrected, despite repeated alerts on social media – appears to have originated in some journalist googling ‘spider crab’  and not noticing that the pages they got back referred to ‘crab spider’. It was then simply copied by other journalists, including your own.

It is hard to know which is more disheartening: the original error, or your thoughtless repeating of it. This example does not particularly matter, but confidence in the press is a fragile thing.

Matthew Cobb

The Guardian responded by saying that the false claims about venom and species name were provided by a news agency based in south-west England, and noted that they’d changed the text and added a footnote.