Once again, ideology distorts science: the editor-in-chief of Scientific American flubs big time, wrongly asserting that sparrows have four sexes.

May 18, 2023 • 8:39 am

This is a sad story: sad for biology, sad for science communication, and perhaps saddest for Laura Helmuth, editor-in-chief of Scientific American. Over the past few years, Helmuth has injected a hefty dose of authoritarian progressive ideology into her magazine (see here for some of my posts on the issue). It’s gotten worse and worse, even though the readers, and her followers on Twitter, have repeatedly urged her to back off the ideology and restore the magazine to its former glory as the nation’s premier venue for popular science.  But Helmuth is woke, and, being religious in that sense, simply can’t keep the ideology out of the science, just as an evangelist can’t help asking you if you’ve heard the good news about Jesus.

The tweet Helmuth put up this week (shown below) is a prime example, and it’s pretty dire because it distorts biology—in particular the work of scientists who spent years studying the genetics and mating behavior of white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis).  This is an interesting bird because both males and females show two forms (this is a “polymorphism”), with one form having a tan crown stripe and the other a white crown stripe.  Here is a picture of the two forms from a PNAS paper.

The forms also differ in their parental behavior and courtship.  I think you can get the differences by looking at the abstract of a paper by Elaina Tuttle, given below. Tuttle was an accomplished ornithological behaviorist who did part of her postdoc in Steve Pruett-Jones’s lab upstairs from me. It was her work that called attention to the involvement of inversions in the mating system of white-throated sparrows. Sadly, Tuttle died at only 52 of breast cancer.

Here’s a 2003 paper by Elaina on the species (found in North America) and its mating system (click to go to screenshot, and you can find the pdf here).

Her summary is below, showing that the two forms (“morphs’) mate disassortatively—that is, tan males prefer to mate with white females and vice versa.  There is also a difference in their behavior, with white males and females being more aggressive during the mating and breeding season:

Organisms exhibiting genetic polymorphism often also exhibit true alternative life-history strategies in which behavioral tactics are genetically fixed. Such systems are ideal for the study of the evolution of life histories because the consequences of selective episodes can be more easily identified. Here I report an interesting and classic example of a species exhibiting true alternative strategies. Due to a chromosomal inversion, male and female white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) occur as two distinct morphs, tan or white. Tan and white morphs mate disassortatively, and this mating pattern maintains the polymorphism in relatively equal proportions within the population. In comparison with tan males, white males are more aggressive, frequently intrude into neighboring territories, spend less time guarding their mates, occasionally attempt polygyny, and provide less parental care. White females are also more aggressive and solicit copulation from their mates twice as often as tan females.

Note that they mention just two sexes: males and females, each characterized by their color. Just two sexes!  The genetics of this system is complicated because, the genes causing the different colors and behaviors almost surely reside within a chromosomal inversion (a part of the chromosome that gets broken, turned around, and then reattached).  This makes it hard to do genetic analysis. Tuttle explains this:

. . . . . almost all white birds are heterozygous for the inversion (i.e., 2m/2, where 2m represents the inverted chromosome and 2 represents the noninverted form), whereas tan birds are homozygous noncarriers (i.e., 2/2). . .

The disassortative mating and different behavioral strategies have combined to make this variation remain fairly stable in the population, though I’m not sure there’s a population-genetic model showing how this actually. works. (That would be hard, as it would require knowing a number of parameters that are difficult to estimate but are required for a good model.)

Further, the tan and white morphs occasionally mate with their own color (about 4% of the time, probably an underestimate because of sneaky mating). This kind of mating is called assortative—like mates with like. Because of this, the two forms are not reproductively isolated. That’s why they’re not called different species.

Note that there are just two sexes here, as virtually all scientific papers describing this phenomenon realize: males make sperm; females make eggs. Here are two quotes from the Tuttle paper:

This species is polymorphic, and both sexes can be separated into tan and white morphs based on the color of the median crown stripe (Lowther, 1961).


White-throated sparrows may be an exception to this rule because, regardless of fitness effects, the genetic alternatives are present in both sexes, there is likely to be evolutionary mechanisms maintaining multiple strategies. . .

Just two sexes, and every ornithologist knows this. Even if each morph mated only with its own kind, so that there was total reproductive isolation between the forms and they would, in effect, be two species, there would still be just two species, with each having two sexes.

Now the popular press has mistaken this system for the phenomenon of “four sexes”, which is just flat wrong. The biological definition of sex involves what kind of gamete you make, and here there are only two.  Females make and lay eggs, males make sperm. For descriptions of this system showing “four sexes”, see here (Nature!), here, and here, among others.

That’s a distortion of the truth, and a misleading one that gender activists co-opt to say that “yes, animal sex is not binary”.  They are wrong. But in fact Laura Helmuth did just that in her tweet, citing a paper from Ken Kaufman’s Notebook in the Audubon News.  Kaufman says this (see more later):

It’s almost as if the White-throated Sparrow has four sexes. That may sound like a joke, but it’s actually a good description of what’s going on.

. . . Many different genes here are tightly linked to form a “supergene,” so that birds of one color morph also inherit a whole range of behaviors. The resulting effect is that the White-throat really does operate as a bird with four sexes. For anyone curious about the scientific background, you can read all the technical details here.

The Current Biology paper that the last link goes to does indeed say that the bird “operates as if it has four sexes”.  And I found a 2020 paper by Maney et al. in Hormones and Behavior called “Inside the supergene of the bird with four sexes.” But while the paper uses “four sexes” in the title, it also notes that that is merely a “nickname” for the species. Maney et al. then correctly refer to “both sexes” throughout.

But if there are four sexes, what are those sexes?  All you could say is “tan male”, :”white male”, “tan female,” and “white female.” But those are not sexes, as they don’t produce four different kinds of gametes. Nor is reproductive isolation between the tan and white morphs complete, so it’s not as if a “white male cannot mate with a white female”, which would be the case if these were four sexes. As I said, assortative (like-type) matings occur at least 4% of the time. Further, the offspring of some of those matings must, by virtue of the chromosomally-based system of mating, be fertile (i.e., if tan birds mate assortatively with tan birds, their offspring will be equivalent to the normal “tan” morph in behavior, appearance, and mating propensity).

If you’re a sane biologist and use the biological definition of sex, we have a species with two sexes, with each sex having two morphs. And the morphs mate disassortatively, but not completely so. It’s surely an interesting system, but deeply misleading to use it as an exception to the sex binary. It makes me angry when people like Helmuth do this, for on some level they must know they’re wrong.

Nevertheless, Helmuth wants to go with the popular press and with woke ideology rather than with science, and declares in the tweet below that the species has “four chromosomally distinct sexes.” (Even that isn’t true, as each morph has the same inversion type.) She underlines her ideology by adding her P.P.S.: “Sex is not binary,” as if this example disproves it.  My P.P.S. is “Yes, sex is binary and you know it.”

Two points here: Helmuth is dead wrong, as biologists working on this system realize. There are not four sexes.

Second, she is being deliberately obtuse because she wants to buttress her view, expressed elsewhere, that “sex is a spectrum.” This, of course, is a trope meant to go along with the view that gender is a spectrum, which gender activists somehow want to read into nature itself, seeing the same spectrum in nature that they see in society. But as Richard Feynman said, “Mother Nature can’t be fooled,” and all animals and vascular plants obstinately show just two sexes.

What is amusing about Helmuth’s tweet is that she was SO wrong that the deluge of critical comments eventually prompted Twitter’s “community notes” program to correct what she said (remember, this is the Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American), and append an “added context” note saying she’s wrong—with the “context” noting that there just two sexes, and each sex comes in two colors.

I don’t know about other scientists or science editors, but if I was publicly spanked on Twitter like Helmuth was below, I’d be hideously embarrassed, and either correct myself (she won’t), or delete the tweet, which conveys scientific misinformation. (Update: She’s cut off the comments on her post, clearly perturbed that there were so many, with the vast majority being critical._

This is what started the Twitter fracas. Note the “added context”, which readers can upvote.

And here’s what they call the “ratio” of comments to “likes” on her Tweet. This reflects the fact that the vast majority of people commenting on her tweet were critical. She has been, as the kids say, “ratioed”:

Scientists and informed laypeople immediately began going after this tweet, some polite and correcting it, others calling for Helmuth’s firing (I can understand that sentiment but I would never argue that anyone should be fired). One of the scientists, who had already debunked the sparrows as a violation of the sex binary, was Colin Wright, who wrote this on his website:

The second case study claims to investigate “the evolutionary consequences of more than two sexes.” Perhaps here we will finally be told what these new sexes are! But the first sentence moves the goalpost from “sexes” to “operative sexes,” which they never define.

The example they give of a species “with more than two sexes” is the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). This species has two color morphs, males and females with either white or tan stripes. The more aggressive white stripe morph has a large inversion on chromosome 2, and the species mates disassortatively by color morph, meaning that white stripe morphs tend to mate with tan striped morphs. This chromosome inversion coupled with the disassortative mating by morph has led to a situation where chromosome 2 “behaves like” another sex chromosome.

He adds to that that in a tweet below issued as a comment on Helmuth’s tweet:

What happened? Helmuth blocked Wright (that’s what it means in the red rectangle below):

Wright then clarifies the story and calls attention to his being blocked. He’s right: Helmuth couldn’t abide the truth:

Emma Hilton also replied to Helmuth:


And Emma got blocked, too:

However, Carole Hooven, another critic of the “non-binary” view of sex, doesn’t seem to have been blocked. Perhaps I’ll be too, but I haven’t been yet.

Finally, Agustín Fuentes, the cultural anthropologist from Princeton whom we’ve met before, retweeted Helmuth’s post, for he’s denied the sex binary too, and in Scientific American!). But being thin-skinned, he puts in an addendum saying that the quote he gives is not his own. But he still apparently embraces the idea that there is no sex binary in humans.


To sum up, Helmuth is tweeting wrong things about biology in the service of her ideology, an ideology that she doesn’t just embrace, but has infused into the magazine she runs. Perhaps Scientific American wants to become Ideological American, but I’m hoping things will turn around. They would if Helmuth could simply adopt the idea that she shouldn’t use the magazine as a mouthpiece for her politics, but she won’t do that. Also, she refuses to engage with scientific criticism, not a good look for an editor. This exchange exemplifies that:

And if I were friends with Helmuth, I’d tell her this.

h/t: Steve, Colin


A frog pollinating a flower? Not so fast!

May 10, 2023 • 11:30 am

A frog pollinating a flower? That would be remarkable, and a paper supposedly describing the phenomenon was recently published. It got a lot of attention, including a large piece in (guess where?) Scientific American.  I was prepared to write about it based on the publicity, but I needed to see the paper first. When I read it, I was sorely disappointed. The evidence for frog pollination, which would be the very first described case of an amphibian effecting pollination—was as thin as a piece of paper.

The relevant paper, from the journal Food Webs, is not widely available, even through the University of Chicago library. Fortunately, a kind reader somehow got hold of the pdf (you can too, through judicious inquiry), and just a bit of it is online, which you can see by clicking the link below.

I’ll be brief (well, I’ll try). This group of investigators from Brazil report that the tropical treefrog Xenohyla truncata was observed eating fruit, petals of flowers, and sipping nectar during one four-hour observation period.  This itself is unusual because frogs are mostly carnivorous and insectivorous. This species (and one congeneric relative) were reported earlier to be omnivorous, eating both fruits and invertebrates.

The popularized result? One (count it, one) frog was found with pollen on its back after sticking itself into a flower to eat. Was it observed pollinating another flower? No. We don’t even know if the plant is self-compatible, so that a frog could even effect cross-pollination on the same plant. Did the frog visit more than one plant, so that cross pollination was possible? No.

The upshot s that all the publicity given to this frog is comes from the observation of a single individual exiting a flower with pollen on its back. That says virtually nothing about whether it is a pollinator, and even less about whether it’s an important pollinator.

Here are the data described in the paper:

We conducted in situ observations of a breeding population of X. truncata on 15 December 2020, in a Restinga vegetation area in the municipality of Búzios, state of Rio de Janeiro, southeastern Brazil (224613.94”S, 41574.47” W; WGS84; 2 m a.s.l.), for approximately four hours (from 6:00 to 10:00 pm). Air temperature was 25.8 C. We observed five individuals of X. truncata in feeding activity on two plant species between 7:00 and 9:00 pm.

. . .Around 8:00 pm we observed other X. truncata individuals leaving bromeliads and climbing a Brazilian milk fruit tree [JAC: Cordia taguahyensis] full of fruits and flowers. Three individuals (sex undetermined) clustered around a ripe fruit and began a dispute to get close to the fruit, pushing each other away as they tried to bite the fruit (Fig. 1D; Video S2). After approximately five min, two individuals gave in and remained perched on branches close to the fruit, while the third began to nibble the fruit, increasing a pre-existing hole to gain access to the pulp (Fig. 1D). While this individual fed on the fruit, the others no longer disturbed it. The same individual remained nibbling and sucking the fruit pulp for about 10 min, the others eventually approaching to feed. x

. . . On the other side of the same tree, we observed a X. truncata individual that climbed a branch and entered an open flower (Fig. 1E), where it remained for approximately 5 min performing suction-like movements (Video S3). Upon leaving, pollen grains were adhered to its back (Fig. 1F).

This is the first report of a frog species actively feeding on nectar and flowers in nature and the first evidence that it may act as pollinator.

Here are the two pictures mentioned above, along with their captions from the paper:

X. truncata within a Cordia taguahyensis flower (E)


. . . and coming out of it with pollen grains (red arrow) on the back (F). Photographs by C. H. de-Oliveira-Nogueira.

The frog was also observed feeding on an “alien” (THEIR WORD) species, the beareded Iris, Iris x germanica (see video below; the “x” indicates the species is of hybrid origin).

So what’s the evidence that this frog actually effected any pollination? None that I can see.  What is the evidence that it’s a regular and important pollinator of the native milk fruit tree? None, nada, zippo.  Now it is possible that this frog could still pollinate other flowers on the same tree (if it’s self-compatible) or on other trees, but we don’t have that evidence. What we have is the authors’ speculation, eagerly and breathlessly snapped up and regurgitated by the press.  More from the paper (my emphasis)

As mentioned, the relationship between X. truncata and the native C. taguahyensis is remarkable. The flower structure of C. taguahyensis allows X. truncata to enter and exit the flower, and to carry pollen grains after the visit. In this case, X. truncata could act as a pollinator of this species, or even of other plant species with similar floral structure. However, to play the pollinator role of C. taguahyensis, this frog should visit another flower or another plant individual on the same night. We lack information about the breeding system of C. taguahyensis, but some Cordia species are self-compatible, whereas others are self-incompatible (Opler et al., 1975; Machado and Loiola, 2000; Mcmullen, 2011; Wang et al., 2020). As X. truncata wanders from one plant to another before it settles in a bromeliad for daytime shelter (our pers. obs.), it is likely that the above mentioned scenario about its pollinator role actually occurs. 

How likely is it? We don’t know.

Species in the genus Cordia are visited by a wide variety of invertebrates, such as bees, butterflies, beetles, wasps and flies (Opler et al., 1975; Machado and Loiola, 2000; Lopes et al., 2015), as well as vertebrates such as bats (Alvarez and Quintero, 1970) and birds (Opler et al., 1975; Dalsgaard, 2011; Wang et al., 2020). Thus, C. taguahyensis is likely pollinated by multiple animal species and the treefrog X. truncata is now a potential pollinator candidate.

“May”, “might”, “seems likely”, and so on it goes. To show pollination, you need to show pollination, not speculate that it’s likely. One way to do this is dust a flower with fluorescent pigment, like those used in making black-light posters, and then see if any fluorescent pollen makes its way to another flower (and, of course, that the flowers are reproductively compatible). This wasn’t done (we used this method to mark Drosophila in the wild.) Ergo, while we have new evidence that X. truncata is omnivorous and eats petals and nectar, and that pollen adheres to its back, that’s all we have.  It’s possible that a cross pollination occurs occasionally, but even that is speculation, and doesn’t show that the frog, as opposed to the many insects that visit the plant, is of any importance as a pollinator. As the authors say, “the treefrog X. truncata is now a potential pollinator candidate.”

Well, at least there’s a video of the cute little frog eating from a flower (but the “alien” plant, not the milkfruit flower); this comes from IFL Science. Cute little bugger, isn’t it?  The nectar and plant material may be a valuable supplement to the diet of this frog.

The journals that mentioned this paper as a possible case of amphibian pollination include Science, the New York Times, IFL Science, and other places. But the first place that comes up when you google “pollinating frog” is Scientific American.

Sofia Quaglia at the NYT gives the most critical take on this paper, saying this:

But more observations are needed to say the frogs really are pollinating plants.

“We cannot say that these frogs are actually pollinators,” said Felipe Amorim, a pollination ecologist at São Paulo State University who was not involved in the research. “They are flower visitors, they are flower-visitor frogs. We have a lot to learn about this novel interaction.”

For instance, the mucus secreted by the frog’s skin needs to be tested to confirm it doesn’t spoil the pollen before it gets to its destination. Scientists also need to work out whether the pollen is ever delivered to other flowers and if it does successfully fertilize and germinate them. It’s also still unclear why this frog species has developed a liking for flora over fauna in the first place.

And at least Sci. Am. mentions some of these problems. But really, the publicity given this observation, which has an interesting part (some frogs eat flowers and nectar) and a not-so-interesting part (one frog got pollen on its back) far exceeds its scientific novelty. This is what happen when either a university publicity machine goes into action or journalists copy each other’s content.  Two colleagues to whom I sent the paper both found the claims of possible pollination by the press (and by the authors, too) wildly exaggerated.

As Kurt Vonnegut said, “So it goes.”

Agustín Fuentes grossly misrepresents the sex binary in (guess where?) Scientific American; argues that those who accept a binary do so out of bigotry, transphobia, and racism

May 2, 2023 • 9:30 am

If you want a combination of an author and a venue guaranteed to produce ideologically-motivated nonsense, it’s Agustin Fuentes writing at Scientific American. The combination of a badly misguided author, distorting biology for political reasons, with a magazine devoted to promulgating “authoritarian progressive” ideology disguised as science, gives me the same feeling I’d have if my mother called me to dinner and announced that we’d be having liver and Brussels sprouts.

The article at hand, a Scientific American op-ed that you can access by clicking the screenshot below, further erodes the reputation of this once-absorbing journal, which under editor Laura Helmuth has taken the route of becoming explicitly political, and political in a woke way. To many the journal has become almost worthless. Fuentes’s article doesn’t help, and we’ve seen the Princeton anthropologist before arguing about the racism of Charles Darwin.

I’m not going to argue again why sex in humans (and all animals, as well as most vascular plants) is binary.  This is the “definition” (or “conception”, if you will) of sex: males have the reproductive apparatus to produce small, mobile gametes (sperm), while females have the reproductive apparatus to produce large, immobile gametes (eggs).  There are no other sexes.  If you want a justification and explanation of this, and why human hermaphrodites (vanishingly rare, and almost invariably sterile) or individuals with “disorders of sex development”(DSDs) are not members of distinct sexes, there are many sources. Emma Hilton, Colin Wright, and Carole Hooven have written a lot about this, and you can read their stuff here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, and here (last link also critiques earlier but similar arguments by Fuentes). Finally, I’ve reprised some of these arguments that in this assortment of my posts.

The gametic definition of sex isn’t just confected to create a socially constructed dichotomy out of a continuum. Sex, conceptualized in the way I’ve described, IS a binary. And from this binary, ultimately based on parental investment, flow all manner of biological phenomena, often based on sexual selection: differences between males and females in behavior, in ornamentation, on competitiveness, in parental care, in secondary sex characteristics, and so on.  True, the sexes in plants and animals have different cues for their development—chromosomes and genes in humans, haploidy vs. diploidy (based on a gene) in bees, temperature in some reptiles, social environment in some fish, and so on. Yet all these diverse pathways wind up at just two destinations: male and female.  There’s an evolutionary reason why there are two sexes, but it’s messy and I won’t go into it here.

The sex binary is simply a biological fact, obeyed in all animals and most vascular plants, though some microbes have more than two sexes: “mating types,” as they’re called. But again, in humans and other animals, we have to realize that sex is not a spectrum. People who make the “spectrum” claim are doing so on ideological grounds, and some people who argue, correctly, that sex is binary in animals have been demonized because of this. Ideologues like Fuentes say that insistence on a sex binary is a racist, transphobic act meant to “erase” people, and faculty like Hooven and Christy Hammer have suffered professionally because of this.  Yes, the truth can hurt your career, which shouldn’t come as news to scientists. But the sex binary is hardly a truth that should rile up the masses.

In an article full of elementary misstatements and mistakes, Fuentes makes two big mistakes:

a. Fuentes claims that those of us who argue for a sex binary are motivated to do so by a desire to erase trans people, nonbinary people, and those whose genders don’t conform to “male” or “female”.  He’s wrong. While perhaps some people (mostly right wingers, I suspect) do have an ideological motivation, biologists like me who emphasize the sex binary do so because it’s both true and is valuable in understanding a lot about biology.  In fact, as we’ll see from some of his quotes, it is Fuentes himself whose arguments are based on ideology. He’s hoist with his own petard.

b. Fuentes claims that those of us who regard biological sex as a binary also think that everything about sex, including gender presentation, behavior, physical characteristics, parental care, “homemaking”, and so on, are also binary. That’s a bogus argument and is certainly not true of us biologists who recognize and appreciate the diversity of nature.

Both of these points are made in a tweet by Carole Hooven (I’ve expanded her tweet so you can see the whole thing; the original is here):

On to the paper.  First, Fuentes argues that those who accept the sex binary are doing so out of base motives: to denigrate people and deny them their dignity and their rights:

There are those, politicianspundits and even a few scientists, who maintain that whether our bodies make ova or sperm are all we need to know about sex. They assert that men and women are defined by their production of these gamete cells, making them a distinct biological binary pair, and that our legal rights and social possibilities should flow from this divide. Men are men. Women are women. Simple.

Last year’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings played host to this contention when Republican Congressional representatives upset at the nominee’s refusal to define “woman” took it on themselves to define the term; they came up with “the weaker sex,” “a mother,” and “no tallywhacker.” That human sex rests on a biological binary of making either sperm or ova underlies all these claims.

This is bad science. The production of gametes does not sufficiently describe sex biology in animals, nor is it the definition of a woman or a man.

By the way, he’s wrong about the last sentence: while we all admit that “the production of gametes does not sufficiently describe sex biology in animals” (AND NONE OF US EVER SAID IT DID!), the dichotomy of gamete types is indeed the definition of “male” and “female” (men and women are simply adult versions of the sexes).

Below he manages to tar sex-binary empiricists with a whole panoply of brushes:

So when someone states that “An organism’s sex is defined by the type of gamete (sperm or ova) it has the function of producing” and argues that legal and social policy should be “rooted in properties of bodies,” they are not really talking about gametes and sex biology. They are arguing for a specific political, and discriminatory, definition of what is “natural” and “right” for humans based on a false representation of biology. Over the past few centuries this process of misrepresentation of biology was, and still is, used to deny women rights and to justify legal and societal misogyny and inequity, to justify slaveryracialization, racism and to enforce multiple forms of discrimination and bias. Today dishonest ascriptions of what biology is are being deployed to restrict women’s bodily autonomy, target LGBTQIA+ individuals broadly and, most recently, attack the rights of transexual and transgender people.

Given what we know about biology across animals and in humans, efforts to represent human sex as binary based solely on what gametes one produces are not about biology but are about trying to restrict who counts as a full human in society.

No, I’m not arguing for that, and I doubt you’d find most biologists touting the sex binary as a way to deny women and transsexual/transgender people rights, much less existence.  And for crying out loud, Fuentes even drags in slavery and racism! The fact that he begins and ends his piece with these slurs show, more than anything, that it is Fuentes who is motivated by ideology.

I won’t try to psychologize him in particular, but those who make these kinds of stupid arguments usually do so because they want nature to conform to their own ideological views (i.e., gender is a spectrum, so sex must be too). But sex can’t be forced into the Procrustean bed of being “a spectrum”.  If you want to see why, read this very bad paper in bioRΧiv taking that viewpoint, and then read the total scientific demolition of that paper by Colin Wright. That paper, by the way, is cited by Fuentes as an example of a spectrum of sex biology. It has not, so far as I can see, been accepted for publication, nor does Fuentes mention Wright’s critique of the paper he cites.

On to Fuentes’s false claim that those who promote a binary of sex also promote a binary of all sex-related traits, including morphology and behavior—or at least fail to recognize their variation.  Of course, as Carole says above, all of us recognize the diversity of sex-related traits, so to imply that we don’t know about them is simply wrong. It’s really defamation, an attack on Fuentes’s critics that he knows is factually wrong.  But first, he actually affirms the sex binary while trying to efface it:

The animal kingdom does not limit itself to only one biological binary regarding how a species makes gametes. Scientifically speaking, animals with the capacity to produce ova are generally called “female” and sperm producers “male.” While most animal species fall into the “two types of gametes produced by two versions of the reproductive tract” model, many don’t. Some worms produce both. Some fish start producing one kind and then switch to the other, and some switch back and forth throughout their lives. There are even lizards that have done away with one type all together. Among our fellow mammals, which are less freewheeling because of the twin constraints of lactation and live birth, there are varied connections between gametes and body fatbody sizemuscles, metabolismbrain function and much more.

Fuentes apparently doesn’t realize that sex-switching fish still come in two sexes, that hermaphrodites do not violate the sex binary, and that parthenogenetic lizards ARE FEMALE. Here’s what Wright says in response to the bioRΧiv paper, about hermaphrodites.

The authors then go on to present supposed challenges to the “common assumption” of two sexes. The first challenge they posit is the existence of hermaphroditic species, which they believe violates the binary sex model because individuals produce both sperm and ova and “do not have separate sexes.”

However, the binary classification of gametic sex breaks down when we consider the broader diversity of gametic phenotypes. For instance, hermaphroditic species possess both gamete types required for reproduction, and do not have separate sexes (Jarne and Auld 2006).

The sex binary, however, does not require that the two sexes exist in separate bodies. The authors are simply conflating the sex binary with a phenomenon called gonochorism or dioecy, which is “the condition of individual organisms within a species existing as one of two possible sexes, specifically male or female.” The existence of hermaphroditic and gonochoric species just represent different ways a species can utilize male and female reproductive strategies. Regardless of whether an organism is only male, only female, or both male and female, there are still only two fundamental functions—the production of sperm and/or ova.

Fish like Nemo that switch sexes switch SEXES, changing from male to female when the alpha female of a group dies. They are first male, producing sperm, and then female, producing eggs. They do not violate the sex binary, which remains. And look at the paper linked to Fuentes’s statement, “There are even lizards that have done away with one type all together.”  Here’s the paper from Scientific American:

They’re FEMALES, for crying out loud! How does that do away with the sex binary?  These are female lizards who produce eggs that are diploid and don’t need fertilization to develop. You can’t even talk about parthenogenesis, sex-switching in fish, or hermaphroditism without referring to the sex binary.

Then Fuentes, as in the last sentence in his quote above, goes on to limn the wonderful diversity of sex-related traits:

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that differences in sex biology do not matter. They do. Nor am I asserting that reproductive physiology is not an important aspect of all animal lives. For example, humans are mammals, and the specifics of gestation and lactation require bodily differences that shape human physiologies, societies and experiences. But even so, most bodily systems overlap extensively across large (ova) and small (sperm) gamete producers, and the patterns of physiology and behavior in relation to birth and care of offspring are not universal across species. For example, in many mammal species, ova producers do most of the infant care. But in some species, sperm producers do, and in a very few species they even lactate. In others, there is substantial investment by both sexes.

The bottom line is that while animal gametes can be described as binary (of two distinct kinds), the physiological systems, behaviors and individuals that produce them are not. This reality of sex biology is well summarized by a group of biologists who recently wrote: “Reliance on strict binary categories of sex fails to accurately capture the diverse and nuanced nature of sex.”

We know that humans exhibit a range of biological and behavioral patterns related to sex biology that overlap and diverge. Producing ova or sperm does not tell us everything (or even most things) biologically or socially, about an individual’s childcare capacity, homemaking tendencies, sexual attractions, interest in literature, engineering and math capabilities or tendencies towards gossip, violence, compassion, sense of identity, or love of, and competence for, sports. Gametes and gamete production physiology, by themselves, are only a part of the entirety of human lives. Plentiful data and analyses support the assertions that sex is very complex in humans and that binary and simplistic explanations for human sex biology are either wholly incorrect or substantially incomplete.

For humans, sex is dynamic, biological, cultural and enmeshed in feedback cycles with our environments, ecologies and multiple physiological and social processes.

First, the “group of biologists” is the group who wrote the unpublished bioRΧiv paper. Second, Fuentes makes a number of assertions that are true (but trivial): there is variation in behavior, morphology, and physiology both between and within sexes. Some people have messy houses, others neat ones. But this is irrelevant to the claim that sex is binary.

Further, he’s preaching to the choir: biologists and, generally, any layperson with eyes to see knows these things.  Who has ever said that the sex binary predicts binary behaviors, sexual attraction, abilities, and so on?  The sentence, “Gametes and gamete production physiology, by themselves, are only a part of the entirety of human lives. prompts only a “DUH!”  It’s as if we didn’t know that!

Likewise, the view that “sex is very complex in humans” is really a non sequitur: it’s true, but the sex binary itself is not complex: there are just males designed to make sperm and females designed to make eggs.  (Of course, the developmental basis of this binary is complex, but it’s still a binary.) Again, Fuentes, who appears to have a pedantic streak, is lecturing us about things we already know.  But we do not accept that sex is a spectrum, and we accept the binary nature of sex not because we’re determined to commit genocide on gays, transsexuals, and people of non-standard gender. We accept the binary because it’s true.

As for Scientific American, well, you know that I think it’s become a repository for ideology and hack pieces. Yes, there are still good articles in it, but it’s way too full of stuff like this, especially in the op-ed section. But I’ve called out the magazine and its editor many times before. This is just one more reason to read something else. I would have offered to write a post like this and submit it to the magazine as an op-ed in rebuttal to Fuentes, but editor Laura Helmuth has made it clear to me that she doesn’t want me writing antiwoke stuff in her journal, even though I think this post is merely a biological corrective and not “antiwoke”.

Below are a few relevant tweets. First, Fuentes’s announcement of his article. Read the comments after the tweet; it’s clear that he hasn’t fooled many people. In the tweet thread, he characterizes criticism of his views as people “yelling at him” (he seems to have a thin skin).  But I do NOT look forward to a 50,000-word version. I’d rather eat Brussels sprouts.

The two latest responses to Fuentes’s tweet

And a response from “El Marqués de Vichón” after Emma retweeted my own post (below as well):

Yes, that’s the gist. The good Marqués has it down.

From Colin Wright:

Finally, Emma Hilton’s long response on Twitter:

Emma’s piece, which is also funny, comes in the form of a number of statements by Fuentes, each followed by her translation and then her correction. Emma’s ending:

Mind. Blown.
It’s strawmen right to the very end.
I was expecting something of higher quality, to be honest.
Emma’s more charitable than I. I wasn’t expecting more than what we got given the ideologically-infused author and journal.

An article in Science takes implicit bias (and its measurement) for granted despite the problems, and suggests interventions that haven’t been shown to work

March 25, 2023 • 11:30 am

Nearly all psychologists have lost their enthusiasm for the idea of implicit bias because of its manifold problems; and the most common test for implicit bias, the IAT (implicit association test) has largely been abandoned by its users. In light of this you’d think the idea and its IAT metric would have dropped out of sight in academics. But that’s not the way it works these days. If an idea like implicit bias fits into the academic Zeitgeist, and we can actually (pretend to) measure how biased people are when they don’t even know it, then it’s full steam ahead with the idea. Ferret out everybody’s bias, because we all have it! And ignore those niggling doubts about the IAT!

This, along with the often problematic notion of “systemic racism”, which persists in all of academia, are two examples of how the authoritarian Left will cling to a concept when it’s been found empirically useless, simply because the idea comports with their ideology.  And this article in Science—one of the world’s two most prestigious science journals—buys straight into the idea of implicit bias and IAT, hardly mentioning that they’re deeply controversial and have not been found to improve race relations. The article also assumes that inequities are due to racism (another dubious conclusion), and that the racism within science is a structural racism, not maniftested by biased individuals but baked into the system. Finally, the article raises the possibility of Big Brother-like monitoring of people to catch the implicit bias that we all know they harbor. (We discussed this suggestion the other day.)

There is no science journal I know of that has not gone in this direction if it’s weighed in at all on that ideology. Science is one and Nature is another.  It’s embarrassing how the two most prestigious journals concerned with understanding nature play so fast and loose with the facts.

Click to read:

The article’s largely about bias in medicine. I’ll give a few quotes showing how embedded the idea of implicit bias is in the article, how little the author and the IAT-users recognize the weaknesses, and describe new methods of measuring implicit bias in light of the IAT’s failure (which they don’t admit). The article is long, but is so similar to others of its ilk that I’ll be brief.

Note the immediate buy-in of the concept of implicit bias below. The article begins with the story of Chastine, a patient with autoimmune disease whose steroids made her gain weight, and then, she claims, doctors would assume that her extra weight was her primary medical condition. (This could, of course, be dispelled by the patient simply telling the doctor this at the outset).:

Stories like Chastine’s are unfortunately common, say researchers who examine how implicit biases—unconscious assumptions based on skin color, gender, sexual preference, or appearance—in health care providers affect patient care. Chastine, who is Black and queer, is now channeling her troubled experience with the medical establishment to aid studies of implicit bias and identify ways to counter it. She is part of a 5-year collaboration between various departments at both the University of Washington (UW) and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), in which a team is developing a tool to give physicians feedback in real time during patient visits—or shortly after—on what they can do to mitigate their unconscious prejudices.

Here comes the IAW as used by Janice Sabin, a researcher at the University of Washington:

Sabin used the well-known Implicit Association Test (IAT), which determines how strongly an individual associates a trait—such as race or sexual orientation—with a subjective value, such as “good” or “bad.” The quicker you match each concept to a subjective value, the greater the association and the higher your score, which broadly indicates a stronger implicit association between the trait and value.

Sabin found the doctors she tested—a few of them nonwhite—held the unconscious bias that white patients took their medication as prescribed more so than Black patients. It was one of the first studies showing health care providers had unintentional racial prejudices. “It was kind of scary because this was a concept completely foreign to [many] people at the time,” Sabin says.

As I said, the article does mention issues with the IAT, but doesn’t state that its problems (lack of replication, evidence against the unconscious nature of the bias, and the failure of the tests results to lead to effective antiracist programs) are so severe that serious psychologists have abandoned the test:

The IAT remains a standard tool for measuring implicit bias, although some have criticized it because it has to be taken several times to reveal a reliable result, as people’s scores could change every time they take it. Even when people come out neutral on race, most studies will reveal some kind of unconscious prejudice, such as an unrecognized preference of certain sexual orientations or religions.

. . . Scientists have long studied several kinds of interventions that attempt to “erase” implicit bias, but few of them have shown lasting effects. “There is a robust science around implicit bias,” Hardeman says. But, “There is no gold standard for how to intervene right now. It’s imprinted in our brains in ways that make it really hard.”

Simple interventions can dampen biases, as measured by successive IATs, but the changes are usually modest and don’t persist.

. . .Simply asking health care providers to take the IAT without providing context or tools can be counterproductive. A study in 2015 indicated that when medical students are told about their unconscious bias without direction on overcoming it, they tend to get anxious, confused, and nervous interacting with patients who belong to social groups different from their own. That’s why even a quick training on skills to mitigate implicit bias can go a long way, according to Hardeman.

But as the article says (and other articles agree) why measure bias in a way that’s counterproductive if there is no “gold standard about how to intervene” to mitigate bias? Is this all just performative action with no effect on what it hopes to change? And so researchers move on to the Big Brother tests:

That made him [Brian Wood, an infectious disease specialist] eager to take part in UnBIASED’s first experiments, which rely on cameras installed in exam rooms. The cameras in Wood’s Seattle clinic captured interactions between him and his patients, including close-ups of his and their facial features and body language. “I found quite quickly that the patient and I both forgot the cameras were there and just fell into our usual routine and conversation,” he says.

The UnBIASED team then used a type of artificial intelligence (AI) known as machine learning to analyze patterns in the recordings and identify nonverbal cues that could indicate implicit bias. In one of the clips Wood was later shown, he was talking with a patient while leaning forward with his arms crossed on the desk, body language he worries may have made him seem closed and unapproachable. “I reflected on my own as to how that body language might be felt and perceived by the patient,” he says. Wood, who hopes to improve his demeanor, says he welcomed such feedback and is eager for more.

“Reflecting on possible negative moments during a visit was not easy, but felt important and valuable,” Wood says.

The team is now working on translating the experiment’s results into feedback like “digital nudges”—such as an icon that pops onto the computer screen, a wearable device, or other mechanism telling physicians to interrupt patients less or look them in the eye more often. But the UnBIASED team still has challenges interpreting the data in the recordings. For instance, nonverbal signals are nuanced, Hartzler says. “It’s not always as simple as ‘more interruptions means bad.’”

Translation: this method doesn’t seem to work. But nevertheless, the article persists, describing other methods of measuring hidden bias, including clinical simulations of biases and “microaggressions”, constructing training exercises for physicians and nurses, and calling out people on the spot. The problem is that while the article describes a panoply of methods, with at least one “increasing their recognition of bias” in a way that lasted a year (but their own biases or other people’s?), none of the methods seem to have an effect on mitigating bias, conscious or unconscious.  Despite the failure of developing an efficacious program so far, they will persist—forever:

Getting buy-in from whole health care systems could accelerate the process. Recently, California, Michigan, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington state passed legislation mandating implicit bias training for the medical professionals they license. And since June 2022, Massachusetts physicians are required to take implicit bias training to get a new license or get recertified to practice.

Although researchers see this as a good step, they worry mandated training will become a one-off box-checking exercise. Sustained implicit bias training for physicians should instead be the norm, some emphasize. Hospitals also need to monitor and collect data on health care outcomes for different groups in order to monitor equity, Sabin says. “You have to know where the disparities lie and then begin to work backwards from that.”

It won’t be easy, Hardeman says, noting that, at least in the United States, centuries of white supremacy and other forms of bigotry have resulted in deep-rooted stereotypes and other implicit biases. “Every single person should be thinking about doing this work,” she says. “But if they’re doing it within a system that hasn’t addressed its own biases and racism, then it’s not going to be fully effective.”

Clearly, we’re going to have mandated training for the rest of our lives (much of it involving a form of compelled speech), and all of us who aren’t people of color will be told that we harbor implicit biases and participate in white supremacy, which is now structurally built into medicine.

And yes, of course some people are biased! I can’t help but assume that these people really do mean well instead of just trying to enact an ideology that they know won’t help the situation. But perhaps they should be using methods that work, and if they can’t show they work, they shouldn’t be part of mandated training. It’s not going to make people more “inclusive” to tell them all that they’re ridden with biases they don’t even know about the invisible Klan robes we all wear.

When this kind of palaver invades all of the prestige science journals—in article after article that all say exactly the same thing—you know that we’re in for a long haul.

If you want to measure your own implicit bias for race using Harvard’s IAT, try it here.

h/t: Steve

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

March 22, 2023 • 10:30 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature’s tweet:

The lesson? This (from the same article):

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

QED and duhhh. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s a snarky but relevant tweet:

h/t: Luana

American Scientist goes “progressive” with a truly bizarre article

January 28, 2023 • 1:15 pm

American Scientist is a bimonthly science publication put out by Sigma Xi, the honorary fraternity for scientists and engineers. ( I think I’m a member but can’t recall.) At any rate, it specializes in popular articles about science but is now including articles like the one below, which could well be described with the “w word.”  Does this hijacking of a science magazine by “progressive” ideology remind you of any similar incidents?

At any rate, the article below, which purports to be about science and music, and has a very clickbait-y title, turns out to be a bunch of unevidenced assertions that add up to this claim: when people rank music, very often men come in at the top, and women lower.  That’s because, they say, of bigotry against women musicians. Further, just like in music, women don’t rise to their proper level in science. That, too, is because of present-day structural misogyny in science.

I’m not sure why they make this comparison, since the claim about misogyny has been made widely, and they could just write about women and STEM. But that has been done to death, so I suppose that’s why they dragged music into it. But they don’t substantiate the claims they make, blithely assuming that the ranking of women in both science and music reflects misogyny that, while abating in modern times, is still practiced by guys. It’s also very poorly written, with the connection between the two areas not made well at all. It’s just a comparison without data, presumably made to show the science magazine’s virtue.

Click to read

Again I’ll argue that yes, of course there used to be misogyny in science, and it was widespread. Women of enormous talent were forced into other areas, or, if allowed into science, weren’t often given regular academic jobs, and were discriminated against in many other ways. The predominance of men in science was palpably obvious, and the discrimination against women in the past is made clear from the fact that since prejudice has fallen, women are now pouring into the field.  Things aren’t yet adhering to “equity” (50% of each sex), but I doubt that once can make a convincing for present structural sexism in science. (Of course, there are male scientists who are sexists and act on it; I’m talking about the mores and practices of science in general.)

We have to remember, too, that there are data showing that some of the sex inequity in STEM reflects different choices of the sexes as well. This is the famous “gender equality paradox”, showing that the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields actually increases in countries that have more gender-equality. The explanation is that women aren’t as interested in STEM fields as men, and in gender-equal countries they are freer to exercise their preference, while in poorer and more gender-biased countries (the two factors are correlated), women gravitate more towards STEM because it’s professional, lucrative, and offers a step up in remuneration and quality of life. I wrote about this result at length, and showed the data, in a post from 2018.

A short summary of the American Scientist’s argument:

a.) In December, the Philadelphia public radio station asked its listners to vote on the 2021 greatest albums of all time.

b.) They the played selections from those albums for a week.

c.) During one nine-hour period of this week, apparently by chance, all the music played was by male groups or vocalists, even though music by women was on the greatest-albums list.

d.) Ergo, there shows bias against women’s music. So does the fact, says the article, that over 80% of Rolling Stone‘s Top 50 albums of all time are by exclusively male groups or singers (many of those asked to vote were women).

e.) The bias towards male music is said to result from brain development, in which younger people develop their taste for music when their brains are forming—between ages 13 and 25.  For older people who voted, their musical tastes were thus formed when male music predominated, and those tastes are reflected in votes throughout their life, ergo the results above.

Have a gander at their theory:

The gender gap, both in STEM education and employment, has been shrinking over time. Is that shrinkage simply a matter of a gradual rise toward better equality from the ground up? I was somewhat surprised when Kurtis pointed me to arguments that the long persistence of inequality in musical tastes may be due to radio listeners’ brains. In a separate Twitter thread, she pointed to neuroscience research that Daniel Levitin wrote about in his 2006 book This Is Your Brain on Music, which suggests that individual music preferences are solidified between the ages of 13 and 25 because of the brain development that typically occurs around that age. Although WXPN did not ask for age or gender information from its listeners when collecting votes, Kurtis told me that this result from cognitive science may explain a generational preference toward certain bands and genres. “While I’m mainly talking about music that was NEW while you were 13–25, really, it’s any music you fell in love with during that time which leaves an indelible mark on your brain, so younger people are still apt to emotionally connect with music older than they are, but older music fans are not as likely to become attached to music released after they turn 25,” Kurtis told me in our email exchange.

I’d say that doesn’t constitute evidence at all. It may be true, and it seems likely that music preferences are indeed formed when you’re younger and are hard or impossible to change. And yes, twenty years ago there were more men than women producing music. (But ask: does this absolutely mean discrimination against women, or could it partly reflect preference for making music?)  But what that has to do with brain development eludes me.

And then the kicker: a sly but duplicitous transition into inequities in STEM:

Does something similar happen in the sciences? Is there a particular age when our brains are most impressionable and open to embracing a STEM-focused career path? If so, do we have to wait to outlive the generation of Baby Boomers reliving the greatest hits from their own teenage wasteland?

The article goes on, and I don’t want to waste my time correcting or highlighting all the conceptual errors that author Shapiro makes.  I will leave you to read it for yourself, but want to make three points:

1). Inequities between groups can have causes other than bias or bigotry. Thus you can’t assert that inequities are prima facie evidence for bigotry. (This is the most pervasive error in social-justice activism these days, and yet it’s almost taboo to discuss it.)

2). Still, women have had a hard time making it in science. This is now being rectified by a gazillion initiatives on many levels, and I see no present evidence of “structural misogyny” in science. Inequities don’t constitute evidence for misogyny going on now, but they likely reflect biases in the past: the invidious signs of history.

3). The piece above does not belong in a science magazine, particularly because of the dearth of evidence supporting their hypothesis (which is theirs).

h/t: Williams

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.


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.