Problematic positionality statements

July 13, 2023 • 12:45 pm

What is a positionality statement? I’ve highlighted them before: they are the (often long) statements about the politics, background, and goals of an author of an academic paper, written by that author and meant to locate him or her in a way relevant to the topic of a paper. Here are a few examples:

From this post:

I (first author) was raised as a Muslim immigrant-origin girl in a small Iowa town and constantly aware that my family was “different.” Having been an educator in PK-12 contexts, my goal in studying developmental psychology was to make the process easier for other youth who, like myself, were intersectionally minoritized and privileged because of religious, racial, ethnic, linguistic, and/or other identities or experiences. I was unprepared for the microaggressions embedded in developmental scholarship rooted in non-inclusive modes of knowledge production that resisted the nuances of the diverse individuals and groups I sought to better understand. . . . I seek to place myself in relationships and contexts to learn and engage in a co-conspiring, co-liberatory inquiry stance.

From another post, a statement about several authors:

Ash T. Zemenick is a nonbinary trans person who grew up with an economically and academically supportive household to which they attribute many of their opportunities. They are now the manager of the University of California Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station, in Truckee, California, and are a cofounder and lead director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States. Shaun Turney is a white heterosexual transgender Canadian man who was supported in both his transition and his education by his university-educated parents. He is currently on paternity leave from his work as a non–tenure-track course lecturer in biology. Alex J. Webster is a cis white queer woman who grew up in an economically stable household and is now raising a child in a nontraditional queer family structure. She is a research professor in the University of New Mexico’s Department of Biology, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is a director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States. Sarah C. Jones is a disabled (ADHD) cis white queer woman who grew up in a supportive and economically stable household with two university-educated parents. She is a director of Project Biodiversify, and serves as the education manager for Budburst, a project of the Chicago Botanic Garden, in Chicago, Illinois, in the United States. Marjorie G. Weber is a cis white woman who grew up in an economically stable household. She is an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Plant Biology Department and Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, in East Lansing, Michigan, and is a cofounder and director of Project Biodiversify, in the United States.

And one given by Sally Satel in her article below:

Consider the positionality statement by the authors of “Low-income Black mothers parenting adolescents in the mass incarceration era: The long reach of criminalization,” which appeared in the American Sociological Review in in 2019:

“Both authors are middle-to upper-middle-class white women—one is a mother, the other is not. A commitment to antiracist, intersectional, and feminist principles guides our research efforts, and we conducted this work with an awareness of the politics, dangers, and limitations of affluent white academics writing about the lives of low-income Black Americans.”

There are many examples, and you can just about make an argument that statements along these lines (but much shorter) might be justifable in papers to alert readers to potential biases.  But to me it’s more useful to see the “conflict of interest” statements that lay out who funded the research. I’d be much more suspicious, for examples, if a piece of research were funded by the John Templeton Foundation than by the National Institutes of Health, but I don’t care about any authors’ sexual proclivities or privilege.  In fact, I’ve never seen a positionality statement that hasn’t made me cringe, for they are either full of confessed privilege, confessed victimization, flaunting of virtue—or all three. As I’ve mentioned before (but found that someone else hit on the same obvious idea below), these are personal equivalents of “land acknowledgments”: both kinds of statements highlight victimization, guilt, and the virtue and privilege of the author.

In this piece from Persuasion (click to read), Sally Satel explains why positionality statements aren’t that helpful, and could be misleading.

Satel first makes the best case for having such statements (though not, I think, statements as extreme as those above):

Why include these personal details? According to proponents of positionality statements, the disclosures shed light on the biases that investigators bring to the design, execution, and interpretation of their research.

Implicit in this rationale is that these statements will help neutralize bias, encourage ethical research, promote “equity and social justice” in the peer review process, and ensure that research “benefits from diversity in editing, writing, and participation.”

Like so many developments that seem ill-suited to their current role, positionality statements do make more sense in some narrow contexts. According to Jukka Savolainen, a Professor of Sociology at Wayne State University, positionality statements probably originated in ethnographic research. When we spoke, he told me that “it makes sense to be concerned about the characteristics of individual scholars doing field work when they are the only instrument of data collection and interpretation.”  That is, when a researcher is working alone in a foreign culture, it may be worth illuminating possible sources of inadvertent bias.

But that’s only one narrow area of academia, whereas these kinds of statements are ubiquitous.  And here are two more, statements highlighting their big problem: they’re often irrelevant to judging the content of a paper:

But lately, Savolainen told me, they have begun to appear in medicinebiologyglobal health, and archeology [sic]. “From what I can tell, this movement is just a scholarly equivalent of DEI statements and land acknowledgments,” he said.

In this spirit, education specialists Ben Van Dusen and Jayson Nissen included the following details about themselves in their study on equity in physics education.

Dusen writes that he identifies as “a White, cisgender, heterosexual, continuing-generation (CG) man with a color vision deficiency … [who attempts] to use my position and privilege to dismantle oppressive power structures.”

Nissen, who is a “White, cisgendered, heterosexual, nondisabled man,” acknowledges that because “I am not a woman or a person of color and I now live in a higher income household, I brought a limited perspective to this work on racism, sexism, and classism.”

I’ll quote directly Satel’s (and Savolainen’s) problems with these statements, problems that go beyond their cringe-making nature:

In a recent issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Savolainen and his colleagues explain why these statements are of dubious value.

First, returning to Merton’s principle of universalism, positionality statements violate the norm of appraising new knowledge according to quality, independent of the person who produced that knowledge. The anonymity of the work is important—symbolically and pragmatically—because it trains readers’ attention to the substance of the project and the methods used to determine claims about how the world works. The identity and proclivities of those who conduct the project has little bearing on that.

Second, positionality statements are themselves biased. Authors choose what to disclose about themselves, and that judgment—like the research itself—is subject to blind spots and subconscious biases. As Savolainen and his team put it, “academic scholars cannot have it both ways. They cannot, on the one hand, claim to be burdened by their biography when conducting the research, yet, on the other hand, be emancipated from it while constructing a positionality statement.”

This, I think, is an especially serious problem. Such statements are often meant to say, “Here’s who I am, and this validates the work I’m presenting.”  For if they thought their persona made their work biased, they would say so explicitly and explain why.

The problems don’t end there. Revelations about the authors may distort the editorial process itself. Imagine, for example, that the author of a paper about rape trauma states that she was a rape victim herself. Knowing this, a reviewer might tone down or altogether omit warranted criticism out of concern for offending an author whose personal experience and research interest seem so intimately tied. Another parallel concern is that authors could tailor their positionality statements to serve their own needs, curating details about themselves in order to enhance the odds that their paper will be accepted and published. (Moreover, if a researcher’s personal details are especially unique, it could disrupt the “blindness” of the review process.)

That last sentence is related to my comment above: the statements are meant to validate the paper, to make the research seem more solid.

Surprisingly, one journal requires positionality statements, and it’s not surprising given the journal. Clearly, “standpoint theory” is rife there.

Currently, only one journal I could find—the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering—requires positionality statements. Others, like the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, “encourage” but don’t require them. Even so, instructions on how to craft such statements are all over the internet, suggesting that their inclusion may be becoming the de facto norm.

Below: two bits that journal’s requirements statement. It’s for social justice, Jake, and it prevents harm. 

At the end, Satel prefers to suggest ways to make the data better, urging researchers to pre-register their hypotheses and engage in normal scientific practices like blind peer review and rebuttals in the literature. As she says, “It is the research that should come under scrutiny, not the researcher.”

Should we cite the scientific work of colleagues who were sexual harassers?

June 25, 2023 • 12:00 pm

There’s a new movement afoot for “citation justice” a form of affirmative action in which we should cite scientists who are marginalized as a way of boosting their careers.  I’m referring to citations in scientific papers, and here’s one example: “maps of chromosomes can be constructed by the pattern of recombination shown by alleles producing visible mutations (Morgan and Bridges, 1919)”.

While I still think affirmative action should be practiced in some realms, like college admissions and hiring, I don’t favor practicing it in scientific papers as a form of reparations.  My philosophy (which I may not always have acted on!) is that when presenting other people’s ideas, facts, or results, you should give the most relevant citations: those that best demonstrate the phenomenon discussed. And you should be parsimonious: avoid overcitation and don’t put in too many different citations that show the same thing. In other words, I use citations based on their value to their paper—their merit, as you will.

Others feel differently, and I’m not going to argue with them except to say that if you leave out citations that are more relevant or important in favor of citations by marginalized scientists, you’re lowering the bar for citation, which could result in a poorer paper.  (This of course implies that I think that science papers should function to build up the edifice of science, not effect social justice, which is better done other ways.)

However, the authors of this paper from the American Astronomical Society note that some groups are undercited:

. . . . it has also been found that when researchers cite others, they are less likely to cite women and scholars of color at rates that match their respective contributions to the field. Many reasons for these unequal citation practices have been suggested, ranging from implicit or unconscious bias to careless citation practices (such as not seeking out the original reference) to consciously choosing to exclude certain researchers and/or groups when citing others.

If it is indeed the case that women and scholars of color aren’t cited as frequently as they should be given the relevance of their work to the paper, then that should be rectified.  Remember, a citation is there to document a statement or fact, not to laud somebody’s accomplishments, so what’s important here is not “respective contributions to the field” but “relevance of their work to the statement requiring documentation.”  If there is under-citation in this sense, then scientists should indeed do something about it when they write papers.

But the topic of the article below is this question:

 This leads to the crux of many recent discussions: is it ever acceptable to intentionally choose not to cite someone(s)?

Their answer seems to be “yes, it could be acceptable to deliberately omit a relevant citation, though there’s no cut-and-dried rule”.

Click screenshot to read:

The authors first lay out, in a good summary, why scientists use citations:

Currently, the relevant portion of the AAS Code of Ethics is found in the Publications and Authorship section of the Ethics Statement:

Proper acknowledgment of the work of others should always be given. Deliberate, wanton omission of a pertinent author or reference is unacceptable. Authors have an obligation to their colleagues and the scientific community to include a set of references that communicates the precedents, sources, and context of the reported work. Data provided by others must be cited appropriately, even if obtained from a public database.

The statement reminds us that there are several reasons why we are expected to cite others in our publications.  These include citations as an acknowledgment of the contributions of others to the ideas in our work, as well as to avoid plagiarism, and we cite others to justify our methods, assumptions, and research practices. Citations are also important for maintaining the integrity of the academic record and tracing the development of ideas over time, both for the historical record as well as for a proper understanding of how a research field has evolved.

To me, this alone implies that you cite based on relevance, not as a way to effect social justice. And even if authors have done some bad things, if their research is solid and relevant to the point being made, you should cite them. Not doing so violates all the reasons given above.

But moral considerations then creep into the article of Hughes et al.:

In the case of unethical research practices, we can look to other fields outside of astronomy for some guidance. The AMA (American Medical Association) Code of Medical Ethics suggests that when researchers engage with results that were obtained in a clearly unethical way, such as Nazi experimentation on humans during WWII or the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, they should first seek to cite studies that used ethical methods and obtained the same results. If that is not possible, then the harm involved in obtaining the results should be disclosed and acknowledged, the reason for needing to cite the study justified, and the authors should pay respect to the victims of the behavior.

I’m not sure that there are any results of Nazi medical experiments that are even worth citing; I remember reading one scholar’s conclusion that these experiments were so slipshod that they never produced anything of value, even given their aims—to save German soldiers (or, in Mengele’s case, to satisfy a sadistic curiosity). And nearly everyone now knows of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and about its unethicality. I don’t know if it generated any useful data, but to have to stop in the middle of the paper and recite a screed in honor of the victims seems to me a bit much. I’d rather just say “see X”, where “X” is a discussion of the harms produced by that study. Moral genuflection (“I will now show that I realize this work was unethical”) is somewhat demeaning in a case like the Nazis and Tuskeegee. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of having to cite any study that requires that kind of qualification and explanation.

But the authors do find one case where citations may be properly left out without any qualification: when the scientist cited is a sexual harasser. As they say:

But the guidance becomes less clear when it comes to dealing with citations of documented sexual and serial harassers. While there have been several recent high-profile cases in astronomy, many other fields are currently struggling with this same issue. The arguments of whether we should cite these individuals boil down to two main positions:

Note that the links go to two sides of the argument, the “Yes” from my law-school colleague Brian Leiter.

This is the starting point from which the AAS Code of Ethics Committee, the AAS Publications Committee, and the Ethics Working Group are confronting the issue. There are several related questions to grapple with:

Here are the questions that, according to Hughes et al. must be answered before you can decide whether or not to cite a harasser:

  1. Is the research unethical, or is the person’s behavior unethical, and does it matter?
  2. Is sexual harassment a form of research misconduct? The American Geophysical Union says yes, and the NSF has instituted policies that require institutions to report sexual harassment findings which can lead to the revocation of grant funding. While the AAS code of ethics does not currently address this issue directly, the Astro2020 Decadal Report recommends that identity-based discrimination and harassment be recognized as causing the same level of harm to the integrity of research as is caused by research misconduct.
  3. How do we identify bad actors in our community? What is the threshold? By which temporal and cultural standards do we judge? Who ensures that the punishment fits the crime, and can there be a path to restoration?
  4. Who is harmed? What is the collateral damage? How do we limit future harm to the survivors of sexual harassment? Should we protect the junior colleagues and collaborators of bad actors from secondhand punishment, and if so, how? And when does the integrity of the scientific record take precedence?

The authors do admit that making a decision not to cite someone who’s a sexual harasser (and yes, the conclusion is that it may well be justified) is an “ethical gray area.”

But none of this stuff, to me, justifies not citing someone as a form of punishment because they engaged in documented sexual harassment.

Of course I abhor sexual harassment, and it should be dealt with promptly and properly.  But why is sexual harassment the only bad act that can be punished by canceling a citation? (And yes, canceling a citation means canceling the scientific community’s knowledge of relevant science.)  What about any felony: robbery, murder, or other bad acts like simple non-sexual harassment or bullying of students or colleagues? (It may be because the three authors, all women referred to as “she” or “her” on their professional webpages are more attuned to this form of bad behavior than are men.)

By all means punish those who engaged in misconduct—and apparently it doesn’t have to be “research misconduct” to make someone a “bad actor”. But remove their contributions from science? That’s a no-no to me.

I may be an outlier, but in my view there’s no good reason to not cite the scientific work of “bad actors” or harassers if the work itself is sound and relevant.  Even murderers should be cited if their work is relevant. There’s no “research misconduct” worse than killing one of your students, but to me even that’s not bad enough to expunge someone’s relevant work from science.

Punishment and ostracism  should be inflicted on people, not on science itself, for leaving out relevant citations because the person who did the work was bad is indeed hurting science, and scholarship in general.  Being fired or punished is enough; it’s not necessary (and is indeed harmful to science) to “punish” someone further by simply refusing to cite their work. If we did that, we wouldn’t cite great literature, for many famous authors were pretty bad people, including being sexual harassers.

In the end, I agree with Brian Leiter, whose “Yes” vote for not removing citations is explained in the 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education article linked to above: “Academic ethics: should scholars avoid citing the work of awful people?” (the three people cited in his first paragraph below were accused of sexual misconduct):

Certainly, scholars should condemn Frege, Searle, Ronell, and the like. But to excise from the canon of relevant knowledge those who are appalling people is simply a further betrayal of what justifies the existence of institutions devoted to scholarship.

. . . You should not — under any circumstances — adjust your citation practices to punish scholars for bad behavior. You betray both your discipline and the justification for your academic freedom by excising from your teaching and research the work of authors who have behaved unethically. Universities would, in principle, be justified in disciplining you for scholarly malfeasance, subject to appropriate peer assessment.

Such academic misconduct is unlikely to constitute a firing offense — unlike, say, serious plagiarism or fabrication of data. But researchers or teachers who let moral indignation interfere with scholarly judgment do betray the core purposes of the university and so open themselves to professional repercussions. The foundations of academic freedom demand nothing less.

h/t: Thanks to a scientist who does astronomy for alerting me to this piece.

Gender activists get a paper retracted for unjustified technical reasons—just to discredit its results

June 15, 2023 • 12:15 pm

Colin Wright, who’s turned out a number of clear and well written pieces on gender issues, has by so doing inserted himself into a maelstrom, for there are no activists so authoritarian and unforgiving as gender activists. In fact, their actions in getting a paper retracted is the subject of Wright’s latest piece in City Journal (click on first screenshot below)m which recounts a fracas that I think we should know about.

Why? Because it shows very clearly how ideology can distort science, and how activists can get a paper retracted for no good reasons, just to discredit the contents of that paper. Much of the science around gender issues is currently unsettled, including the notion of a syndrome called Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD), its possible influence by social pressure, and, of course, whether puberty blockers can cause permanent damage or are completely reversible.

Instead of allowing open discourse on these issues, activists try to shut down all discourse, including scientific publication, in favor of their own views: that ROGD doesn’t exist, that children “know” instinctively if they’re in the wrong body, and that any child or adolescent who’s confused about their gender must immediately receive “affirmative therapy”, which appears to involve enthusiastic rather than objective support by therapists coupled with a nearly instantaneous prescription for puberty blockers.

Any deviation from this scenario produces a storm of opprobrium.  You already know about the demonization of Abigail Shrier’s 2020 book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters, which proposed that ROGD might be real and might be promoted by social-media pressures. Shrier’s book was briefly canceled and taken out of bookstores, and an ACLU lawyer called for its banning.  But the concept of ROGD itself came from Lisa Littman earlier (passages from Wright’s article are indented):

Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD), a newly proposed pathway to gender dysphoria, was first described by the researcher Lisa Littman in 2018; the theory may help explain the documented surge in cases of gender dysphoria among adolescents and young adults who had previously exhibited no gender-related issues. Littman proposed and provided supporting evidence that social factors have at least partly caused the surge, especially among girls.

. . . Littman’s 2018 paper generated intense backlash from activists, who successfully pressured the journal that published her findings (PLoS One) to take the unusual step of initiating a second round of post-publication peer review. The paper was republished with a “correction” that offered a more detailed explanation of its methodology, specifically focusing on its dependency on parental reports, and a clarification that ROGD is not a clinical diagnosis. Importantly, however, the paper’s central conclusions concerning the probable role of social influences remained unchanged. Activists repeatedly disrupted further attempts by Littman to explore ROGD using online surveys.

Littman’s paper is here, and the journal’s “correction” is here.

Now there’s a new paper by two authors on ROGD, and that one (click on second screenshot below) has generated all the scandal:

I’ll try to be brief and give a numbered sequence of events.

1.) First, the paper below was submitted to Springer Nature’s journal Archives of Sexual Behavior (ASB). It was accepted and published. (Diaz is a pseudonym for a parent who helped collect data, Bailey is on the faculty at Northwestern:

2.) As Wright notes, the paper, as you can see by its title, didn’t conform to the preferred gender ideology, describing as it did a whole pile of possible cases of ROGD. Wright describes its contents:

The paper in question, “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria: Parent Reports on 1655 Possible Cases,” was authored by researchers Suzanna Diaz (a pseudonym) and Michael Bailey and published in ASB on March 29. Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD), a newly proposed pathway to gender dysphoria, was first described by the researcher Lisa Littman in 2018.

. . . . . Such a hypothesis might appear plausible, or at least a straightforward empirical matter to be decided through evidence-based examination. But it violates the dominant narrative favored by medicalization activists that the rise in trans identities stems from an increase in societal acceptance of “gender diversity.” Evidence supporting ROGD would call into question the “gender-affirming” model of care, an approach premised on the notion that kids can know their “gender identity” from very early on and will rarely, if ever, change their minds about it. This philosophical belief system, which flies in the face of centuries of accumulated wisdom on human development, has been pithily summarized with the phrase: “trans kids know who they are.” The affirmative model guides health-care providers to “affirm” (i.e., agree with) a child’s self-declared identity and facilitate access to hormones and surgeries, all in order to align the child’s body with his or her felt gender identity. Consequently, activists have exerted intense efforts to undermine ROGD research at every opportunity.

Littman’s 2018 paper generated intense backlash from activists, who successfully pressured the journal that published her findings (PLoS One) to take the unusual step of initiating a second round of post-publication peer review. The paper was republished with a “correction” that offered a more detailed explanation of its methodology, specifically focusing on its dependency on parental reports, and a clarification that ROGD is not a clinical diagnosis. Importantly, however, the paper’s central conclusions concerning the probable role of social influences remained unchanged. Activists repeatedly disrupted further attempts by Littman to explore ROGD using online surveys.

But Diaz and Bailey’s new paper lent further credence to the ROGD hypothesis. They examined parental reports of 1,655 potential ROGD cases through an online survey. The sample size dwarfed that of Littman’s original study, which was based on 256 parental reports. This data bolstered Littman’s findings about the onset of gender dysphoria after puberty, predominantly in girls, in conjunction with preexisting mental-health conditions, heavy social-media usage, and peer influence. They also corroborated Littman’s 2018 finding that an overwhelming majority (90 percent) of concerned parents are politically progressive, undermining the common narrative that criticisms and concerns about gender affirmation originate in conservatism.

What else did the paper find? In the sample, gender dysphoria manifests approximately two years earlier in females compared with males. Females are more than twice as likely to pursue social transition. However, among those who experienced gender dysphoria for at least one year, males were more likely to undergo hormonal interventions. Moreover, a majority of parents reported feeling coerced by gender specialists to affirm their child’s new identity and endorse his or her transition. Parents who facilitated their child’s social transition reported that the child’s mental health “deteriorated considerably after social transition,” and that their relationship with their child suffered.

These findings are crucial. They provide further corroboration to a growing body of evidence supporting the ROGD theory, indicating the need for a new, specialized treatment approach for youth with gender-related distress.

3.) Gender activists started besieging the journal because the results violated the dominant gender-activist narrative.  Not attacking the paper’s thesis, they went after a technical matter: the data supposedly did not pass approval of Northwestern’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), a university body that must approve all human research before it’s done.  However, the authors had written approval from the subjects to publish the results of the study. (The journal replied, in effect, “but not in this scholarly journal.”  However, as we’ll see, the authors effectively did have IRB approval, and the journal had also published at least six papers by other people without such approval. In other words, the journal was inconsistent in its standards.

4.) With pressure from individuals and the International Academy of Sex Research, as well as a petition, the journal began querying the authors. The authors replied that they had written approval for publication, though the first author didn’t answer to an IRB since he/she is a private individual not affiliated with a university.

5.) The authors pointed out the approval for publication was given though the study wasn’t vetted by the IRB, for it couldn’t have been. HOWEVER, as Wright reports, there’s a very important exception:

 Northwestern’s IRB representative informed Bailey that, though the IRB could not retrospectively approve the pre-collected data, it would permit him to coauthor a paper on those data provided they were expunged of all personal identifiable information. Significantly, Springer’s own policy explicitly states that in situations where “a study has not been granted ethics committee approval prior to commencing. . . . The decision on whether to proceed to peer review in such cases is at the Editor’s discretion.” Thus, all efforts to undermine the study or discredit Zucker’s decision to review and publish it on the grounds of IRB considerations appeared futile.

6.) On top of that, author Bailey responded that he found at least six papers in the journal using human data without IRB approval.  Given this and the material in #5, there seemed to be no good reason to retract the paper.

7.) Nevertheless, the paper (as you can see above) was retracted, on the grounds that Bailey didn’t get IRB approval and the subjects didn’t agree to have their data published in a scholarly journal..  The editor of the journal, however, did have the discretion to publish the paper anyway, and Northwestern’s IRB had no overt objections to Bailey and “Diaz” publishing the paper. This is a matter of censorship on the grounds of the paper’s content.

The paper appears to have been retracted not because of the IRB issues, but because its survey didn’t give the results that activists wanted. As you see, it is still online, which is normal for retracted papers, but has a big RETRACTED ARTICLE warning at the top.  As Wright explains, this makes a difference to activists:

Such retractions, regardless of their reasoning, are routinely exploited by activists to tarnish the reputation of the involved researchers. Lisa Littman’s original paper on ROGD was merely “corrected,” and no results or conclusions changed; nonetheless, she has been smeared relentlessly online and in the press. Brown University, Littman’s employer at the time, felt compelled to affirm its “long-standing support for members of the trans community” in response to the paper’s publication. One science writer critiqued Littman’s study as “scientifically specious” and claimed that “ROGD provides political cover for those who wish to rollback trans rights and healthcare.” The controversy even led to Littman losing her consulting job following demands for her dismissal by local clinicians.

The authors, though, haven’t given up:

In the wake of the retraction, Bailey and Diaz are re-submitting the manuscript to the Journal of Open Inquiry in Behavioral Science (JOIBS), a fledgling publication founded by scholars devoted to the principles of “free inquiry and truth seeking” and the belief that ideas ought to be scrutinized rather than suppressed. Regrettably, among medical journals this commitment appears to be increasingly the exception, not the rule.

The retraction, though it has nothing to do with the scientific results of the paper, is being used to discredit those results. Such are the sleazy tactics of activists. At least allow the issues to be argued out in the scientific literature!

We need to know if ROGD is a real syndrome.

We need to know if social pressure promotes the frequency of gender transition.

We need to know the long-term effects of puberty blockers, and whether they are reversible.

We need to know if “non affirming” therapies, involving empathic listening but no agenda by the therapist beyond listening to the patient, will lead to resolution of gender dysphoria without having to change genders (e.g., getting children to accept that they’re gay).

We need to know the frequency of transgender people who desist, or decide to change their minds. This is part of getting informed consent for medical procedures.

The entire medical establishment of the U.S., and nearly all gender advocates, are trying to prevent the resolution of these issues, for they pretend to already know the truth. And that’s not the way we progress in understanding the world.

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


Holden Thorp, editor of Science, goes after our merit paper

May 12, 2023 • 9:59 am

I’m acquainted with Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of Science, because my colleague Luana Maroja debated him and then wrote about it afterwards (you can see the debate video here and Luana’s post-debate interview with a National Association of Scholars person here). Thorp, like every other big-time journal editor, is woke. You can see that in the magazine, but also in the debate with Luana. Writing about the debate at the Heterodox STEM site, Luana said this:

What Thorp does not seem to realize is how offensive it is when it is argued that inclusiveness requires special accommodations, such as lowering the expectations for people who “look like me.”  I described my experience of participating in a training session for a hiring committee at the college where I now teach.  During this session, we were told that “we cannot expect as much from Latina women [as from white men], because they have more obligations towards family,” something I found incredibly insulting, as if I don’t have the agency to decide how to balance my own time just like anyone else.  Other initiatives in the name of inclusiveness, such as chasing microaggressions, are even more negative and damaging to the individuals who internalize this concept – imagine that you adopt the microaggression mindset and live your life thinking that the world is turned against you. Consider this not-that-hypothetical scenario: you walk and wave to a student and the student does not wave back to you.  You have two choices: you might decide that this was a personal microaggression due to who you are, or alternatively, you might conclude that the student simply did not see you.  Only one of these two views can lead to a good life and mental health.

In many instances during the conversation and in his writings, it is clear that Thorp subscribes to a Woke worldview.  He believes in the value of diversity, but assumes that the diversity can be attained only by lowering the bar for women and minorities, and that “inclusion” can be achieved by excluding white males.  Ironically, at least twice during the conversation his comments revealed that he does not consistently apply this logic. Prior to the conversation, when we all showed up on time, he commented that we did so “because we are all scientists” – this ignores the fact that my culture (Latina Brazilian) does not respect punctuality, and that I had to learn to do so for my own benefit.  He then pointed out that, “as scientists we were the first to run with our complete AP calculus tests to our teachers in high school.” Well, in Brazil I had a third-world education… I did not have the opportunity to take calculus until I was in a PhD program at Cornell.  I certainly did not study AP calculus in school, and if I had dared run waving a completed exam to the teacher, I would be sure to never to have friends again… It is a pity that the topic of culture was not discussed more in this conversation – I imagine Thorp’s view would be that “all cultures are equal in their outcomes”, when they clearly are not.

In the end, I was unsure if Thorp is a true believer in the need to lower standards in the name of inclusion, or if he plays a game, where he is a white savior.  It is hard for me to understand why some people, with all good intentions, fail to see the obviously damaging effects of their ideologies and actions.  Lowering standards and expectations hurts the most vulnerable of us; it does not help science or the people that such actions are intended to help — and I hope we can start pushing back hard against this damaging ideology.

Well, Thorp is still riding this horse, as we can see in his “editor’s blog” that went up at Science yesterday. There he created a special post to go after our paper “In defense of merit in science“, as well as after Pamela Paul’s NYT column describing the paper. In fact, these are the only two links he gives in his piece. Click to read:

His point, which could be expressed much more succinctly, is the claim that a more diverse group of people can do better science than a less diverse group. In fact, it’s more than that: he argues implicitly that a more diverse group of people can do better science without having to lower the bar for judging science or scientists.

It’s clear that by “diversity” Thorp means “racial diversity”—as that’s the one example he gives—but he may mean gender diversity as well. He gives a nod to “viewpoint diversity,” but it’s clear that he doesn’t mean, “let’s get more conservatives and poor ‘first generation’ students into science.”

But first, for reasons best known to Thorp, he makes The Argument from Humanity”: he thinks that people like the 29 of us who wrote the merit paper don’t recognize that scientists are human beings, and that this somehow blinds us to the virtues of diversity:

It has somehow become a controversial idea to acknowledge that scientists are actual people. For some, the notion that scientists are subject to human error and frailty weakens science in the public eye. But scientists shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge their humanity. Individual scientists are always going to make a mistake eventually, and the objective truth that they claim to be espousing is always going to be revised. When this happens, the public understandably loses trust. The solution to this problem is doing the hard work of explaining how scientific consensus is reached—and that this process corrects for the human errors in the long run.

The relevance of this to his point is obscure, but it gives him a chance to diss our paper and also drag Charles Darwin in as a racist and sexist, even though an accomplished one. Note that the link he gives below is to our merit paper, which he mischaracterizes as making the claim that science is “not subject to human influences”. He appears to be making an argument that judging science and scientists on merit is at odds with the view that scientists are human and flawed.  This is a false dichotomy that makes no sense.  Then he goes after Darwin and brings in race:

A raging debate has set in over whether the backgrounds and identities of scientists change the outcomes of research. One view is that objective truth is absolute and therefore not subject to human influences. “The science speaks for itself” is usually the mantra in this camp. But the history and philosophy of science argue strongly to the contrary. For example, Charles Darwin made major contributions to the most important idea in biology, but his book The Descent of Man contained many incorrect assertions about race and gender that reflected his adherence to prevalent social ideas of his time. [JAC: I’m curious about the “gender misconceptions”.] Thankfully, evolution didn’t become knowledge the day Darwin proposed it, and it was refined over the decades by many points of view. More recently, pulse oximeters that measure blood oxygen levels were found to be ineffective for dark skin because they were initially developed for white patients. These examples—and countless more in between—reveal how much work needs to be done to strengthen the scientific community and the public understanding of the process.

Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species also contains many errors not based on race and gender misconceptions. Of course Darwin was flawed, a man of his time who, by the way, happened to be more liberal on issues of race than most of his peers (he was an abolitionist). But that’s not even relevant to our claim that science should be judged on merit. We surely do not subscribe to the view that everything Darwin said was right because he was a good scientist: we judge what he accomplished on its merits. For a counterexample, he got genetics wrong, though it didn’t matter for most of his views. Only the last sentence above gives Thorp’s real claim: that better science can be done by diversifying the scientific community.

He expands on that in the next paragraph by ignoring a question that’s bloody obvious: if we are to diversify science by lowering the bar to entry (as Thorp apparently admitted during the debate), and downgrading merit to bring in more “diverse” people, then it’s obvious that our conventional ideas of “merit” must be given lower priority. Luana notes this above.  Thorp’s question, “How is diversity a threat to scientific rigor and the merit of discoveries? is in fact discussed in our paper. Our argument is not that diversity per se is a threat to merit, but that the drastic lowering of standards needed to attain full equity in science is a threat to merit. And we all recognize this. That is why, for example, grad schools are abandoning SATs as requirements for application, and why med schools do the same thing with MCAT tests.

What is likely is that diversity is promoted in science by people like Thorp primarily not primarily to improve science itself, but to make up for past wrongs done to members of minority communities (a form of reparations), to create better role models for underrepresented groups, to make scientists “look more like America,” or because diversity itself will create better science. In fact, the last point is what he maintains in the next paragraph:

A monolithic group of scientists will bring many of the same preconceived notions to their work. But a group of many backgrounds will bring different points of view that decrease the chance that one prevailing set of views will bias the outcome. This means that scientific consensus can be reached faster and with greater reliability. It also means that the applications and implications will be more just for all. How is this a threat to scientific rigor and the merit of discoveries? Unfortunately, we’re nowhere close to achieving these goals. Science has had enormous trouble building a workforce that reflects the public it serves. And now, numerous state governments are trying to make it more difficult, if not impossible, at the public universities in their states, and even within the scientific community, there are efforts to derail the idea that it matters who does science.

Talk about monoliths: the huge majority of scientists already share one viewpoint: the liberal democratic one.  In academia as a whole, surveys show that the ratio of Democrats to Republicans varies between five to one and fourteen to one! This is, of course, makes academia completely unrepresentative of America as a whole politically. Should Thorp be calling for this kind of diversity, too? No, because it’s not the right kind of diversity.

But the main flaw of this paper is threefold. First, Thorp gives no evidence that more diverse groups produce better science. My brief review of the data shows that there is some evidence that diverse groups can produce better results, but also that there is evidence in the other direction as well. (I am ignoring the very real possibility of ideologically-based publication bias here).  But Thorp’s claim above is not that, it is that you can have the same criteria of merit and also increase diversity. It’s the “you can have your cake and eat it too” argument. And this would hold if the increase in scientific progress accompanying a more diverse group of scientists more than compensates for the decrease in standards necessary to attain that diversity. And there is simply no evidence at all to support this. It’s telling that Thorp cites our paper and Paul’s column, but simply asserts that “different backgrounds. . . increase “scientific consensus”. If we really had good confidence that diversity actually increased the quality of science being done, then nobody would have a problem with boosting diversity!

Further, Thorp’s near-explicit claim that racial diversity will boost scientific quality is somewhat patronizing, as it assumes that Hispanics as a group, or blacks as a group, have an outlook on the world that will improve science more than other kinds of diversity: political diversity, viewpoint diversity, diversity in upbringing, whether one’s parents went to college or not, and so on. Looking at individual viewpoints and merit seems to me a better way than simply diversifying science to “look more like America.” If you want diverse viewpoints, find people with out-of-the-box viewpoints and hire them, but don’t assume that pigmentation or ethnicity automatically confers diverse scientific views that will push the field forward. The best way to push science forward is to give everyone equal opportunity and judge science and scientists on their merit. We haven’t yet accomplished the former, which is Task #1, but we can hold onto our standards of merit.

There is an empirically-based argument to be had about whether more diverse scientific groups produce better science. But we have no data to support that, and Thorp cites none. I can cite data on both sides, which means that there is no real consensus (some of the “pro-diversity” results, for instance, are based on mathematical simulations rather than real humans, while others are based on short-term problem-solving tasks in psychology laboratories). If the first claim proves to be true, then there’s another discussion to be had:  what types of diversity produce the best science? Do we need more Republicans? More people on the autism spectrum? Is it not possible that conservatives or people who are slightly autistic could ask questions just as different from mainstream scientists as, say, scientists of color? Why is ethnicity or gender the form of diversity claimed to best improve science? The answer, of course, is that we don’t know that, and the question itself is a diversion. Diversity is really being promoted for the same reasons it’s promoted in every field: as a form of reparations or to increase equality or equity.

Finally, even if diversity of one type or another advances science, we need to show that the erosion of the meritocracy required to make the field more diverse is more than compensated for by the net increase of scientific progress produced by having more diverse scientists. We aren’t even close to knowing that, and I doubt, given the kind of data we’d need to show it, that we ever will.

So Thorp is just blowing smoke, and also bringing in an irrelevant claim that somehow our failure to see scientists as humans has drastically hurt science. That, in fact, is how he ends his post:

Scientists should embrace their humanity rather than pretending that they are a bunch of automatons who instantly reach perfectly objective conclusions. That will be more work both in terms of ensuring that science represents that humanity and in explaining how it all works to the public. But in return, society will get better and more just science, and it will allow scientists to immerse themselves in the glorious, messy process of always striving for a greater understanding of the truth.

Here he’s arguing against something that no scientist maintains. Maybe the layperson thinks that scientists are a bunch of automatons, but we scientists know better. But most important, Thorp never explains how our recognizing that we are fallible humans (which we already know!) will suddenly boost the progress of science.

What bothers me most is that the editor who controls what may be the most powerful and important science journal in the world is incapable of making a coherent argument, or laying out what data would be needed to support his claims. He is very big on assertions and very short on facts. Is that the kind of science editor we want?

Updated reactions, pro and con, to our “merit” paper

May 11, 2023 • 9:15 am

I’m still surprised that the paper we published in The Journal of Controversial Ideas, “In defense of merit in science,” got so much attention. Not that it was all good attention: given today’s climate in which “merit” is almost a dirty word, a fair amount of the reaction was negative. But there was enough positive comment that I’m pretty heartened, especially because those who agreed with our thesis—that the quality of science and of scientists should be judged on merit rather than ideology—may well be afraid to offer public support (see below).

At any rate, I’ll post a brief summary of the reactions so far.  First, the press release of the paper has been updated, and you can see it by clicking on the screenshot below.

This site includes a summary of the paper, why it was written, who the 29 authors were, and why it appeared in the Journal of Controversial Ideas.  What’s new are the two sections “Reactions” and “What they are saying about the paper.” The reactions include Twitter threads, newspaper articles (notably Pamela Paul’s recent piece in the NYT (below), which has of this writing an erroneous link in the press release), YouTube videos, and blog posts. The “what they are saying” bit includes quotes taken from various sites. You’ll notice that all the material in both sections is positive; that’s because this is a press release, not a summary of all the reactions on the Internet.  I’ll give some of the negative reactions in a second.

Below is Pamela Paul’s op-ed in case you haven’t read it. What I wanted to point out is that the number of readers’ comments (1785) is HUGE: as far as I can see, it exceeds by several hundred the maximum number of comments that Paul got in any of her previous columns.

Second, it seems to me that there is a big disparity in the nature of the “all” comments (every comment posted by a reader) and the “reader picks” comments—those upvoted by the readers. My quick take is that while the total comments tend to be positive, there is quite a large proportion that criticizes our paper. In contrast, a higher proportion of the “reader picks” comments (again, those that were upvoted) seem to be positive. I haven’t done a count, so I may be wrong. But if my impression is correct, it means that there are many people who liked our thesis but expressed their approbation not by commenting but by upvoting other people’s comments. This would suggest something that I already think: that there are many who agree with us but are afraid to say so publicly for fear of being criticized, ostracized or branded a bigot (or other words).

Click to read:

On to some of the criticism, which I got by asking Anna Krylov, the driving force behind the paper.

First, I want to dispel one criticism that was common: that our paper was rejected from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (as it was) because it wasn’t a paper about science, so it was dumb of us to even submit it there. In fact, it was submitted to PNAS as a Commentary, and they do publish these. To submit a commentary, you have to clear your piece with the editors in advance, showing that it fits the definition of a Commentary, including length. We did do that, and the editors said, in effect, “Okay, submit.” We submitted it and got one positive and two critical reviews, so it was rejected.

That is what we expected, but we wanted to try, for PNAS had already published least three commentaries on similar issues, but all pro-ideology or pro-diversity. The “antiwoke” flavor of advocating merit, we realized, would make our paper hard to publish. But I wanted to quash the claim that we were crazy to send the paper to PNAS because it wasn’t suitable for a scientific journal. Perhaps it wasn’t suitable ideologically, but it was certainly the type of “Perspective” that the journal publishes.

Oh, and none of us ever said that rejection of our paper constituted a violation of our “free speech,” although some of the critics, like Scott Lemieux below, make that claim.  We are not stupid, and know that we don’t have a right to publish our views anywhere.  So I don’t think you’ll see any of us claiming that our free speech was violated by the paper’s rejection. But many of us will argue that our paper got disapprobation largely because it contravenes the quotidian ideology.

That said, here are four website posts that are very critical of our paper: those of Scott Lemieux, Dave KarpfJoseph Shieber at 3 Quarks Daily and William Briggs. I’m not going to summarize or take issue with them; you can read and judge for yourself. Do note, though, that Briggs tends to agree with our thesis, but simply thinks that “the paper won’t change anybody’s mind.”

And here are two critical tweets from “big noises” in the science community. Jake Yeston is an editor at Science. Curiously, he objected to the paper because Anna Krylov had a peer-reviewed paper on science and ideology several years ago, “The Peril of Politicizing Science.” It has a similar theme but is much shorter than the JCI paper. Apparently you’re allowed to write only one paper on a given non-scientific topic in your life.  Your “platform”, I guess, is limited to one speech per lifetime!

And here’s a NYT comment (and two followups by readers) from geophysicist Marcia McNutt, commenting using her professional affiliation: she is in fact President of the National Academy of Sciences). This was a comment on Pamela Paul’s paper, and although not a “readers selection” comment, it did appear very soon after Paul’s piece was published.

McNutt maintains that we are wrong in implying that ethnicity isn’t an important characteristic of advancing science, citing a single instance of an idea adumbrated by a black woman that raised a question that, perhaps, a women of another race might not have raised. In response, two readers pointed out that this is but one example and doesn’t support the general thesis that more equity in science would advance it faster or that the question wouldn’t have been raised by a woman who wasn’t black; in fact, McNutt notes that the question likely would have been raised by someone else. (Indeed, many assertions and research projects involving underprivileged groups are made and promoted by those of other races.)

For less anecdotal and more critical takes, see the four website posts above. Despite the criticism, I stand by the thesis advanced in the paper, though of course many of the authors disagree to various extents about sub-assertions in the paper (I, for one, still favor a form of affirmative action in judging grants and hires in the sciences.)  But one thing is for sure: there are many people who take issue with the idea that merit should be the main— if not the only—criterion in judging science and scientists, and it is to the good to discuss in the open this view and its opposition.  Our paper. and Anna’s earlier one. were intended to begin this discussion.

Readers’ wildlife photos: Humorous titles of science papers

January 30, 2023 • 8:15 am

Well, there aren’t any photos today (I have about a week’s worth, but am conserving them), but we do have science—in the form of weird titles of scientific papers. Athayde Tonhasca Júnior sent this collection with a brief intro:

Perhaps your readers would be amused by scientists being witty or mischievous (sometimes unintentionally), with varied degrees of success.

Any notes are mine. Click titles to enlarge them.

Oy, the citation!

More citation humor:

I presume this acronym was deliberate:


ICZN: we won’t change animals’ Latin (“scientific”) names, even if they’re considered offensive

January 25, 2023 • 9:50 am

As you know, all officially recognized species have both a common name and a Latin binomial. I, for example, am a human (common name), but also a member of the species Homo sapiens (official binomial), and I used to work on the fruit fly or vinegar fly (common name), known officially as Drosophila melanogaster (meaning “black-bellied dew lover” in Latin). The Latin binomials are governed by a large set of rules in a big green book issued by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ISZN). This body is in charge of recognizing genus and species names in animals (the first and second parts of the Latin binomial, respectively), but also of one other taxonomic level, the names of families (Drosophilidae for the fly, Hominidae for living humans).

You can change the common names of species, and of course they do vary from country to country, but the Latin or scientific names, once assigned and approved, cannot be changed except under certain circumstances. Suppose, for example, that the frog named after me, Atelopus coynei, was found to have been described previously under a different name. The earliest name gets precedence, and poor A. coynei becomes what’s known as a nomen nudum, or “nude name”, a name that should no longer be used for this species. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened, so my one scientific legacy seems secure.

There are other circumstances that mandate changing the Latin binomial of an animal species under Da Roolz, some of which you can see here. But under no circumstances can finding anything new about the biology of an animal, or about the history of its Latin name, mandate a name change. That’s because the Latin binomial is the permanent name of a species that can be recognized and used by all scientists worldwide, and willy-nilly name changes would mess up all kinds of science, including taxonomy itself as well as conservation.

Now the common names of species are being changed right and left—mostly these days on moral or political grounds. For example, the “gypsy moth”, Lymantria dispar, was considered offensive since “gypsy” is a slur (they’re now called “Roma”). Ergo the Entomological Society of America, which creates and maintains the Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List, declared that the moth will now be called, in common parlance, the “spongy moth.” (Most people still call it the “gypsy moth,” and that’s how you’d best look it up on Google.

And a lot of proposed common name-changing is going on, mostly for creatures named after people seen as immoral, bad, or harmful. I’ve written about some examples (here, here, and here), and not always approvingly because, as with many name changes like this, some people’s overall contributions are contentious (“Audubon’s Oriole,” for example, is up for a common-name change because John James Audubon decapitated corpses for scientific study). (It’s still known as Audubon’s Oriole for the time being.) What will NEVER change, however, is its Latin name, Icterus graduacauda.

Other bird species are also up for renaming, but in some cases the offensive person used in the common name is also used in the Latin name. Examples: Audubon’s warbler (Setophaga auduboni), Townsend’s warbler (Setophaga townsendi), Hammond’s flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii) , and McCown’s longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii). You can change the common name, but people are calling for changes in the Latin name as well. After all, if one name is seen as harmful, why wouldn’t the Latin name be too?

But the ICZN, recognizing the taxonomic confusion that changing a Latin binomial name would cause, has issued a no-nonsense statement saying, in effect, “No changes in Latin names for political or ideological reasons.” And I think that policy is correct given the mess such changes would cause.

This policy is outlined in the three-page statement below (pdf here, reference at bottom) and published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. The many authors are all members of the ICZN; indeed, this may be the entirety of the organization’s leadership. Click to read:

The ICZN notes that they do include in the Code of Nomenclature a recommendation against giving new animal species names that “would be likely to give offense on any grounds,” but that is not a binding rule, and, as you see, some of the Latin names given above, names now seen as offensive, were not seen as offensive when they were given. So there’s nothing that can be done about them. I’ll give a few quotes from the article, for it’s written clearly and forcefully:

Here’s the pressure they’ve been under:

The ethical appropriateness of some scientific names has recently been questioned. This is the result, in part, of ongoing societal re-evaluations of past attitudes, particularly in the context of sexism, racism and colonialism. Part of the botanical community has put forward proposals to replace ‘culturally offensive and inappropriate names’ (Hammer & Thiele, 2021); to ‘permanently and retroactively eliminate epithets’ containing perceived racial slurs (Smith & Figueiredo, 2021a) or honouring colonial actors (Smith & Figueiredo, 2021b); or to replace established and accepted scientific names with new scientific names based on indigenous ones (Gillman & Wright, 2020). These proposals have received both support (Knapp et al., 2020Thiele et al., 2022) and criticism (Palma & Heath, 2021Mosyakin, 20212022ab). Besides reactions published in the scientific literature, debates have also erupted on social media platforms, such as ResearchGate.

Similar proposals are now being put forward in zoology. Recently, a suggestion was made to replace the scientific names of several North American freshwater fishes ‘named after people who advocated racist and sexist views, used derogatory names in their writings, or did reprehensible things during their careers’ (Tracy, 2022). Likewise, in the field of hominid taxonomy, a proposal to replace a long-established scientific name that carries ‘social-political baggage’ with a new and putatively neutral one has been debated (Roksandic et al., 20212022Delson & Stringer, 2022Sarmiento & Pickford, 2022).

As members of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), we feel compelled to present our official position regarding this topic and to clarify the role, mission and powers entrusted to the Commission.

And their decision (there’s more at the site):

Replacing accepted scientific names because of perceived offensiveness is not, and should not be, regulated by the Code. Although the Commission recognizes that some scientific names might cause discomfort or offence to parts of the community (such as eponyms of dictators or historical figures considered by some as racists, or because a word currently has negative connotations), the commitment to a stable and universal nomenclature remains the priority. It is well outside the scope of the Commission to assess the morality of persons honoured in eponyms or the potential offensiveness or inappropriateness of certain names. Owing to the inherently subjective nature of making such assessments, it would be inappropriate for the Commission to assert judgments on such matters of morality, because there are no specific parameters to determine thresholds for offensiveness of a scientific name to a given community or individual, either in the present day or in the future (but see Smith et al., 2022). There is also a possibility that neutral and non-offensive names proposed as replacements could themselves be considered offensive as attitudes change in the future, prompting further new replacement names. Moreover, any names replaced for ethical reasons would not simply disappear but would remain in the literature in perpetuity as part of taxonomic and nomenclatural synonymies.

Legislative changes accommodating the replacement of scientific names based on ethical considerations would affect the work of thousands of researchers, conservationists and other users of zoological names worldwide. Such disruptions would be particularly serious today, when the biodiversity of the world is increasingly under threat (Ceballos et al., 2017) and when conservation efforts will be particularly dependent on a universal naming and classification system that minimizes changes in names (Schuh, 2003). The establishment of a ‘Committee on Culturally Offensive or Inappropriate Names’, as suggested by Hammer & Thiele (2021) and Thiele et al. (2022), is outside the Commission’s purview and would be against the core principles of the Code, difficult to implement and unlikely to be recognized by the whole biological community.

. . . In conclusion, the stability of scientific names is essential for all activities under the umbrella of the biological sciences, including biodiversity conservation. The Commission acknowledges and understands ongoing debates about the appropriateness of certain names based on a variety of ethical arguments and is aware of the various proposed approaches on how to tackle these situations. However, the aim of the Commission is to promote nomenclatural stability without constraining taxonomic judgement. The ICZN’s current Constitution ( and its duties and powers as defined in the Code (ICZN, 1999), both of which have been ratified by the International Union for Biological Sciences (IUBS), preclude the Commission from adjudicating on the ethical merits of names or from establishing a skilled body dedicated to such a task. The Commission stands behind this and recommends the continued usage of scientific names as prescribed and regulated by the Code, thus promoting clear and unambiguous communication and essential linkages across the scientific literature as a top priority.

As you see, this is a purely practical decision, one that prioritizes the stability of biology and the ability of biologists to communicate internationally and accurately, above potential offense. But what people do with common names is out of their hands, and is often arguable.  Changing names like Homo sapiens, Drosophila melanogaster, and Atelopus coynei is not arguable!

Plant Latin names are recognized by a different organization, and I don’t think they’ve yet issued a statement about changing them.


Ceríaco,L. M. et al. 2023. Renaming taxa on ethical grounds threatens nomenclatural stability and scientific communication: Communication from the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature 
International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.  Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.


The moralization of science

December 19, 2022 • 11:30 am

Peter Singer and his colleagues Jeff McMahan and Francesca Minerva have founded a new journal, The Journal of Controversial Ideas, which, according to its website:

. . . offers a forum for careful, rigorous, unpolemical discussion of issues that are widely considered controversial, in the sense that certain views about them might be regarded by many people as morally, socially, or ideologically objectionable or offensive. The journal offers authors the option to publish their articles under a pseudonym, in order to protect themselves from threats to their careers or physical safety.  We hope that this will also encourage readers to attend to the arguments and evidence in an essay rather than to who wrote it. Pseudonymous authors may choose to claim the authorship of their work at a later time, or to reveal it only to selected people (such as employers or prospective employers), or to keep their identity undisclosed indefinitely. Standard submissions using the authors’ actual names are also encouraged.

So far they’ve published three issues over two years, and I wish them well. Papers are peer-reviewed, and I think you’ll find some of them interesting. This post is about a recent paper that you can read by clicking on the screenshot below.

The author, Yves Gingras, is “a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) since 1986. He was initially appointed to the Department of Sociology, then to the Department of History, where he has been teaching since 1989.”  And the answer to the title question, by the way, is “probably not.”


Gingras’s claim is that all the moralizing directed by the woke towards science and scientists—in particular the demonization of dead scientists and their work if they transgressed present-day morality when they lived—is an add-on that, while it may speak to the character of the scientist, does not say anything about their science, which must be judged on its merits. He notes that both the NSF and NIH have new policies about differently treating those accused of or found guilty of harassment:

No one can seriously object to the idea of sanctioning socially reprehensible behavior. However, it is certainly a legitimate question to ask whether these new NSF and the NIH policies, particularly those of NSF, which directly link the practice of science to the moral behavior of scientists, do not initiate a profound transformation in the relations between science and society by adding to the usually implicit norms governing the scientific community a new form of moralization of the scientists themselves. As mentioned, NSF and NIH policies have different consequences on science. Withdrawing a grant directly affects the production of valid science. In the case of reviewing, the policy simply excludes a person from a task that can be performed by someone else, as is the case when a conflict of interests is detected. In both cases, however, we have the use of socially arbitrary criterion of “good social behavior” applied to an activity whose specific norms, as we will see, are different from those admitted in the general social sphere.

He then gives three examples of scientists who were either attacked in their own day or have transgressed present-day norms, and yet their science itself is still regarded as both interesting and publishable.

A.  Marie Curie. Curie was found by the tabloids to be having an affair with a married man, physicist Paul Langevin. This was just when she’d been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911. The Nobel Committee asked her not to show up at the ceremony for form’s sake. She refused, and, as Gingras notes:

. . the chemist Svante Arrhenius wrote Marie Curie a letter (dated December 1) asking her not to come to the official ceremony to accept that prestigious award until the accusations against her had been proven unfounded. Surprised, not to say stunned by such a demand, Marie Curie immediately replied (on December 5) that she would indeed be present at the ceremony since “the prize was awarded for [her] discovery of polonium and radium.” Above all, she recalled that “there is no relationship between [her] scientific work and the facts of [her] private life.” She also spontaneously reaffirmed a fundamental standard of science—universalism—by declaring that she “cannot accept the principle that the appreciation of the scientific value of [her] work could be influenced by libel and slander concerning [her] private life.” She concluded by saying that she was convinced that many colleagues agreed with her attitude and confirmed her attendance at the ceremony to receive her medal.

Note that at that time the woke thought adultery was a heinous character flaw, but of course time (and morality) has changed.

B. Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for synthesizing ammonia: a great boon for the fertilizer industry. And yet the Nobel Committee ignored Haber’s well known participation in creating chlorine and mustard gas that killed many Allied soldiers during WWI.  There was some public outcry about this. Gingras notes:

The New York Times suggested, ironically, that in its wisdom, the Nobel Committee should have given its literature prize “to the man who wrote General Ludendorff’s daily communiqués.” Some scientists even withdrew from attending the ceremony. But the Committee considered that science had to be evaluated only on its own merit and not on the basis of the personal qualities of the scientists who were honored. To recall that principle, the president of the Nobel Foundation opened the ceremony by insisting on the internationality of science.

C. Valery Fabrikant. I din’t know of this man, but apparently in 1992 he killed four colleagues and injured a secretary at his school, Concordia University in Montreal.  He has a Wikipedia page, which notes that at Concordia he was an associate professor of mechanical engineering. He is now serving life in prison, but is still submitting scientific papers (with his prison address and prisoner number!), and the journals are publishing them. There were complaints to editors, but also support that if the science was sound, it should be published.  And it’s still being published. As Gingras notes:

. . . the journal that had refused an article by Fabrikant for reasons external to the “republic” of the scientific field, finally published another paper by him in 2004. Since then, Fabrikant, while still living out a life sentence, has continued to write scientific papers and, according to bibliometric data from the Web of Science, published nearly sixty articles between 1996 and 2021, scattered across nearly twenty different peer-reviewed journals. And though, from 2003 to 2020 the address of the author identifies him as “Prisoner 167932 D,” this has not precluded these papers from being cited over time. His career thus illustrates in a rather extreme manner how norms of conduct within science differ from the usual moral standards of the larger society.
I have to say that I agree that the character of the scientist must be kept strictly separate from the quality of the scientist’s work, so you can demonize someone on one hand, but should forget about that person’s morals or character when evaluating their science. Imagine all the immoral things that we don’t know about that famous scientists did! Impeding science if the character of the scientist is deemed unworthy serves only to impede the advance of human knowledge. Moral policing certainly does not improve the science itself, though of course a scientist can be fired or punished for behaving badly—to that I have no objection. But even someone who has been publicly punished for transgressions retains the right to have their science evaluated on its merits—independent of their acts or characters. I’ll close with a few quotes by Gingras:


While it is certainly legitimate to question, on an ethical or ideological basis, the declarations and acts of scientists, the weight which tends to be given to these kinds of denunciations could go against the inherent logic of the production of knowledge.

By deciding that the social behavior of scientists will now affect their chances of continuing to do science—by obtaining research grants or evaluating projects and, one day perhaps, even publishing papers—the NSF and the NIH, as well as other government granting bodies, are extending their mission well beyond their traditional role of gatekeeper, that is to say, guardians of the quality of scientific production. By explicitly opening the frontiers of the scientific field to give legitimacy to claims of various pressure groups putting forward their own conception of moral purity, these institutions maybe entering slippery terrain. While being funded by the NSF or the NIH is seen as a sign of scientific excellence, it seems that one now also has to be perceived as a good moral agent to even get a grant. The obligation to write a DEI statement in grant application testifies to the emergence of a new form of loyalty oath, reminiscent and analogous—despite its different content and aims—to the one the House Committee on Un-American Activities and its president Senator Joseph McCarthy tried to impose on American university professors in 1950. By using their monetary power, these organizations are thus imposing on universities and academic researchers the conception of their (temporary) managers of what is supposed to be a “good life.” More importantly, one may even consider these new rules as extending well beyond their explicit mandate to promote the production of valid scientific results.

Why is moralization working, then, in impeding scientific work and scientific teaching (something documented amply in these pages by Anna Krylov and Luana Maroja)? Remember, the first thing that goes down the drain when a scientist is demonized is teaching that scientist’s work. 

Here’s Gingras’s answer:

According to psychologist Paul Rozin, “One factor that seems to encourage “success” [of a moralization campaign] is the association of a stigmatized or marginal group with the activity in question.” This assumption is consistent with the current situation, as the focus on harassment (sexual or psychological) as well as on the ill-defined notion of DEI more often affects women and stigmatized and discriminated groups than dominant ones. This situation probably facilitates the acceptance by many scientists of these new moral standards imposed on scientific organizations by self-proclaimed moral entrepreneurs. Many researchers may, indeed, feel guilty of being “privileged” and be tempted to give in to the demands of groups who claim to speak on behalf of all minorities. They can thus easily clear their conscience and continue their work.

If you think that associating modern science with oppression of a stigmatized group has no effect on the science itself, just remember what’s happening in New Zealand!  The fealty to the indigenous people—the Māori—is in the process of killing off modern science by conflating it with “local ways of knowing”, as well as with tradition, superstition, legend, and religion. Scientists in the U.S., too, are impeded, though not as strongly. If you dig up human remains on lands claimed by indigenous people, federal law dictates that you have to give those remains back for reburial, even if there’s no clear genealogical connection between the remains and the group who claims them. Professors have had their research curtailed because of this.  If you teach that there are only two sexes, you are liable to be fired or at least have your classes taken away from you. It goes on and on, but I’m writing a longer paper on this now, so I’ll stop here, giving one more quote from Gingras:

The activity of moral entrepreneurs who try to impose their particular conception of the “good life” on all social activities, constitute in our opinion a form of ideological regression that goes against the relative—and always precarious—autonomy of all cultural fields, an autonomy hardly won over time against all forms of censorship.

As the road to hell is paved with good intentions, only time will tell whether the current tendency to impose the values of self-proclaimed moral entrepreneurs on all scientists and other creators (artists, writers, etc.) will really contribute to the production of “better” science, better novels, and better movies through the formation of “better” persons. The history of the relationships between the arts, the sciences, and changing moral values and ideologies unfortunately suggests that this is unlikely.

A scientist says that peer review is obsolete

December 16, 2022 • 10:30 am

If you’re a scientist you’ll know this, and if you’re not, you should.  The key to success as a research scientist is publishing papers in good journals, and the more papers the better. Ideally, as a biologist you’d publish in top-flight journals like Cell, Science, or Nature.  Submitted papers are given to two or three anonymous reviewers who pass judgment on the paper, often deciding that it’s not good enough to be published (REJECTION), or might be published if some errors were fixed, new data analyses done, discussion modified, or additional experiments performed.  On the basis of the reviewers’ takes, the editor decides whether to publish the paper as is (rare), reject it outright, or reconsider it if the referees’ objections were met. All of us have to surmount these hurdles.

The peer-review system is supposed to guarantee the quality of a paper, but we all know it’s fallible. For one thing, reviewers rarely have access to the original data, and even when they do they rarely redo the statistical analyses of the paper’s authors.  We may spend a few hours reading a paper, but we have other things to do (like RESEARCH), and a few hours is rarely enough. According to Adam Mastroianni, a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School, the reviewer system, despite involving 15,000 years of effort per year by reviewers, has failed. He describes its failure in this article on his website Experimental History (free read, but subscribe if you read often). Click to read the paper:

Here’s why he thinks the review system hasn’t improved science:

Huge interventions should have huge effects. If you drop $100 million on a school system, for instance, hopefully it will be clear in the end that you made students better off. If you show up a few years later and you’re like, “hey so how did my $100 million help this school system” and everybody’s like “uhh well we’re not sure it actually did anything and also we’re all really mad at you now,” you’d be really upset and embarrassed. Similarly, if peer review improved science, that should be pretty obvious, and we should be pretty upset and embarrassed if it didn’t.

It didn’t. In all sorts of different fields, research productivity has been flat or declining for decades, and peer review doesn’t seem to have changed that trend. New ideas are failing to displace older ones. Many peer-reviewed findings don’t replicate, and most of them may be straight-up false. When you ask scientists to rate 20th century discoveries in physics, medicine, and chemistry that won Nobel Prizes, they say the ones that came out before peer review are just as good or even better than the ones that came out afterward. In fact, you can’t even ask them to rate the Nobel Prize-winning physics discoveries from the 1990s and 2000s because there aren’t enough of them.

Well, the flatness or decline of research productivity doesn’t say to me that review isn’t working, for there may be other social or economic factors affecting productivity. His link to new ideas “failing” to displace older ones goes to an article about how the incursion of novel ideas has slowed, and we’re “trapped in existing canons”. Again, that may have little to do with the reviewers of papers, and more to do with our gradually homing in on the truth. And of course new ideas have displaced older ones: the “neutral theory” in evolutionary biology is one of them.

But Mastroianni does have a point: reviewing is often hasty, sloppy, and unable to catch errors in papers. (He also cites the failure of much work to be replicated as a sign of the impotence of reviewers to stop bad science, but failures of replication can have many causes, including different populations or sample sizes, that have nothing to do with the prowess of reviewers.)

Where he makes his strongest point is citing studies where scientists run “hoax” studies in which they submit papers with deliberately added error. Those errors are caught only 25%-30% of the time. Also, if a paper is rejected or needs substantial revision, authors will often just send it to another journal (usually one that’s less selective), and eventually nearly everything can be published somewhere (there are 30,000 scientific journals!). But scientists are promoted and lauded not for publishing in low-quality journals.

So yes, the reviewer system is imperfect, often very imperfect, but what do we replace it with? We can’t just allow scientists to submit papers that aren’t even vetted, for then the journals, especially the very good ones, would be flooded with crap. So what is Mastroianni’s solution.

He doesn’t have one.

Here’s what he says:

What should we do now? Well, last month I published a paper, by which I mean I uploaded a PDF to the internet. I wrote it in normal language so anyone could understand it. I held nothing back—I even admitted that I forgot why I ran one of the studies. I put jokes in it because nobody could tell me not to. I uploaded all the materials, data, and code where everybody could see them. I figured I’d look like a total dummy and nobody would pay any attention, but at least I was having fun and doing what I thought was right.

Then, before I even told anyone about the paper, thousands of people found it, commented on it, and retweeted it.

. . .Total strangers emailed me thoughtful reviews. Tenured professors sent me ideas. NPR asked for an interview. The paper now has more views than the last peer-reviewed paper I published, which was in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And I have a hunch far more people read this new paper all the way to the end, because the final few paragraphs got a lot of comments in particular. So I dunno, I guess that seems like a good way of doing it?

I don’t know what the future of science looks like. Maybe we’ll make interactive papers in the metaverse or we’ll download datasets into our heads or whisper our findings to each other on the dance floor of techno-raves. Whatever it is, it’ll be a lot better than what we’ve been doing for the past sixty years. And to get there, all we have to do is what we do best: experiment.

That’s not a good solution, as how do you find papers if they’re scattered all over the Internet? One way is to put your papers on the ArΧiv site, which doesn’t cover all fields, and let people have at them.  Scott Aaronson agrees in part with Mastroianni, but in further FB comments he argues that a system of reviewers (and appeals) really does improve papers.

Although Mastroianni makes a good case for flaws in the current reviewing system, I don’t think he makes a persuasive case to get rid of it entirely. There must be a way to exercise some quality control over papers, or otherwise we’ll have to wade through gazillions of papers by loons and creationists to find what we want.

Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”  I think we can say the same thing about the scientific review system..

h/t: Ann