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 (https://www.iczn.org/) 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. https://doi.org/10.1093/zoolinnean/zlac107

 

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

National Institutes of Health violates academic freedom, restricts dissemination of taxpayer-funded research

October 21, 2022 • 9:20 am

This article just appeared in the (conservative) City Journal, and is written by James Lee, a behavioral geneticist at the University at Minnesota.  What Lee reports made steam issue from under my collar, for he claims that the National Institutes of Health, a U.S. government science institute, has a huge genetics and “trait” database of several million Americans. The genetic data appear to be thorough, based on genome scans, and the traits associated with each person’s genome include education, ethnicity (“race”), intelligence, income, and occupation. You can imagine how rich that dataset is for mining. And yet the NIH is restricting scientists’ access to the data to projects it apparently considers ideologically kosher.

Remember that the NIH is completely funded by the American taxpayers, so those data were accumulated with our money. To me, this means that any researcher with a valid project should have access to the data. But apparently some projects are more valid than others.

Click to read.

Here’s Lee’s description of the hard time geneticists have in getting the data when their project sounds “iffy”, and by that I mean any project that has to do with heredity and intelligence (presumably IQ or a similar measure). Note that none of the attempts to get the data have been to do projects on ethnicity and IQ, which of course are considered taboo by many (readers may want to either echo or refute that taboo). Check out the second paragraph of the excerpt below, which I’ve put in bold.

American geneticists now face an even more drastic form of censorship: exclusion from access to the data necessary to conduct analyses, let alone publish results. Case in point: the National Institutes of Health now withholds access to an important database if it thinks a scientist’s research may wander into forbidden territory. The source at issue, the Database of Genotypes and Phenotypes (dbGaP), is an exceptional tool, combining genome scans of several million individuals with extensive data about health, education, occupation, and income. It is indispensable for research on how genes and environments combine to affect human traits. No other widely accessible American database comes close in terms of scientific utility.

My colleagues at other universities and I have run into problems involving applications to study the relationships among intelligence, education, and health outcomes. Sometimes, NIH denies access to some of the attributes that I have just mentioned, on the grounds that studying their genetic basis is “stigmatizing.” Sometimes, it demands updates about ongoing research, with the implied threat that it could withdraw usage if it doesn’t receive satisfactory answers. In some cases, NIH has retroactively withdrawn access for research it had previously approved.

Note that none of the studies I am referring to include inquiries into race or sex differences. Apparently, NIH is clamping down on a broad range of attempts to explore the relationship between genetics and intelligence.

It’s hard to believe that the NIH is restricting data that might be used to show any relationship between genes and intelligence, even within one ethnic group.  We already have data on genes implicated in academic achievement (which is correlated with IQ); those data are a big part of Kathryn Paige Harden‘s book The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, a book I reviewed for the Washington Post and also discussed on this website. As I recall, Harden’s genome-wide association study found nearly 1300 genomic sites associated with variation in academic achievement among the American European (“white”) population. Intriguingly, many of those sites were active in the brain. That in itself is of considerable interest, though Harden’s claim that this variation would help us create “level playing fields” for secondary-school students seemed unjustified.  But even finding genes associated with intelligence would tell us a lot about the developmental genetics of an important human trait.

Lee also explains why the NIH should NOT be a censor of valid research projects:

What is NIH’s justification? Studies of intelligence do not pose any greater threat to the dignity of their participants than research based on non-genetic factors. With the customary safeguards in place, research activities such as genetically predicting an individual’s academic performance need be no more “stigmatizing” than predicting academic performance based on an individual’s family structure during childhood.

The cost of this censorship is profound. On a practical level, many of the original data-generating studies were set up with the explicit goal of understanding risk factors for various diseases. Since intelligence and education are also risk factors for many of these diseases, denying researchers usage of these data stymies progress on the problems the studies were funded to address. Scientific research should not have to justify itself on those grounds, anyway. Perhaps the most elemental principle of science is that the search for truth is worthwhile, regardless of its practical benefits.

NIH’s responsibility is to protect the safety and privacy of research participants, not to enforce a party line. Indeed, no apparent legal basis exists for these restrictions. NIH enforces hundreds of regulations, but you will search in vain for any grounds on which to ban “stigmatizing” research—whatever that even means.

This is a no brainer. The NIH has NO business vetting the “political correctness” of research, and since nobody is investigating The Taboo Question—racial (or “ethnic” differences in intelligence—that issue doesn’t even come up. The only reason to prohibit “genetics of IQ” studies is a strict (almost Marxist) anti-hereditarianism based on the fear that there may be a genetic basis to differences in IQ. But we already KNOW that from studies of adoptions and relatives, which show that about 50-60% of variation in IQ among people is due to variation in their genes. The NIH appears to be afraid of being canceled. That is a hell of a way to do scence!

And I can’t imagine why the NIH would even think of restricting the data for any other studies. It seems to be IQ that’s the sticking point here, and that’s unconscionable. The data belong to the American public, and to American scientists, because the American public paid for it.

I’ve always object to the demonization of research that gives results that are politically or ideologically unpalatable, but this goes beyond the pale.  The government cannot withhold data paid for by us on the grounds that it might yield results that could offend people.

If a researcher has a valid reason to request these data, and the NIH refuses because of possible “stigmatizatization,” then I would say that a lawsuit is in order.

Nature flagellates itself for creating “harms” and being “damaging” in its past publications

September 29, 2022 • 12:00 pm

It seems that science journals are in a race to see which can be the most penitential for apologizing for past publications that don’t comport with modern morality.  To use my Cultural Revolution analogy, they are competing to see who can hang the biggest “I was a bad and hurtful journal” sign around their necks.  Nature just entered the competition with the article below, which you can read for free.

It seems that the journal’s biggest no-no, and cause for apology, was publishing the work of Francis Galton (1822-1911), a Victorian polymath who made big contributions in statistics, anthropology, forensics (he invented a way of classifying fingerprints), and other areas. But he was also an advocate of eugenics, and his name has been removed from buildings and other venues in the last couple of years.  Although Galton’s views are abhorrent to modern sensibility, none of them, so far as I know, actually led to any eugenic actions that wouldn’t have been carried out without his writings (Hitler didn’t need Galton, and eugenics wasn’t practiced in England).

Though the word “damaging”, referring to Nature’s publications, is used 9 times, and they evoke the “harm” of their journal 6 times, it all seems to me a bit hyperbolic. Of course Galton was a racist, but is this an accurate statement?:

Galton’s scientifically inaccurate ideas about eugenics had a huge, damaging influence that the world is still grappling with. The idea that some groups — people of colour or poor people, for example — were inferior has fuelled irreparable discrimination and racism. Nature published several papers by Galton and other eugenicists, thus giving a platform to these views.

Irreparable discrimination and racism? I hope not! But let’s accept that Galton was a eugenicist, which he was, and that his views may have influenced other eugenicists, and move on to other mea culpas:

This is not just a problem in Nature’s deeper history. In more recent years, we have also, to our shame, published some articles that were offensive or destructive, or attracted criticism for being overly elitist. “The scientific journal, back in the day, was the mouthpiece to a very privileged and highly exclusive sector of society, and it is actually continuing to do the same thing today,” says Subhadra Das, a science historian and writer in London who has researched scientific racism and eugenics.

Since they cite none of these articles (“elitism”, really?), I can’t judge this statement.  Yes, Nature is considered one of the two most prestigious scientific journals in the world (Science is the other), but is that the kind of “privilege” and “exclusivity” they’re talking about? I don’t know, because they give no examples. (Save for Galton’s papers, citations of transgressing articles are scant—a common problem with this form of apology.)

There will be some redacting of the past, too:

We know that Nature’s archives contain numerous items that are harmful and can be upsetting. But, like other scholarly publishers, we think it is important to keep all of our content accessible, because it is part of the scientific and historical record. It is important for researchers today and in the future to study and learn from what happened in the past. That said, we are developing a way to alert readers that our archive contains articles that do not represent our current values and would be unacceptable to publish today.

What are “our current values”, and what if they change? Can’t we count on the readers to know whether an article is acceptable or unacceptable to publish today? Does Nature really need a Pecksniff to trawl through its archives to single out offensive articles and highlight them? And who will be the Pecksniff, the person who enforces “our current values”?

They don’t neglect colonialism, either, though again no examples are given:

The journal matured as Britain became the biggest colonial power in history — by 1919, the British Empire spanned roughly one-quarter of the world’s land and population. In their contributions, many scientists editing and writing for Nature endorsed the views of white, European superiority that drove this empire building. An air of imperiousness, imperialism, sexism and racism permeates many articles in Nature’s historical archive.

As it does all of British literature from that era! Who will apologize for that? And is there a need to?

. . . Nature’s archives also include harmful contributions from the fields of ecology, evolution, anthropology and ethnography, which were inextricably linked with colonial expansion. Another 1921 editorial reflected imperialist and racist views, reporting on a session at a meeting of what was then the British Association for the Advancement of Science “devoted to the discussion of the ways and means by which the science of anthropology might be made of greater practical utility in the administration of the Empire, particularly in relation to the government of our subject and backward races”. There are numerous other examples in which Nature published offensive, injurious and destructive views, cloaked in the veil of science.

They do mention one book review that was pretty sexist, written by editor Richard Gregory (1919-1939), and two antisemitic articles by Johannes Stark, but eve back then Nature criticized the anti-Semitism:

In the 1930s, the journal printed two antisemitic articles by Johannes Stark, a physicist, who wrote of the “damaging influence of Jews in German science”. At the time, Nature had taken a strong position in opposition to the rise of Nazis in Germany, which eventually led to the journal being banned there. Nature implied in an accompanying article that it had invited one of Stark’s contributions to show readers how shocking his words were, but it nevertheless exposed a wider audience to antisemitic views.

So is that a net bad or a net good? Nature opposed the Nazis and highlighted one article that denigrated Jews, but only to show that it was “shocking”.  Is this something the journal needs to apologize for?

One more example, but the articles aren’t cited or linked, so we can’t judge for ourselves:

Nature has published hurtful articles even in the past few years. One was an inaccurate, naive editorial about memorials to historical figures who committed abhorrent acts in the name of science. The editorial was damaging to people of colour and minority groups, and the journal apologized for the article’s many faults. That experience exposed systemic problems at Nature that we are working to correct, including the lack of diversity among our editors and a failure to acknowledge the journal’s role in racism. The editorial you are reading is part of our attempt to acknowledge and learn from our troubled deep and recent past, understand the roots of injustice and work to address them as we aim to make the scientific enterprise open and welcoming to all.

So Nature has hung this big editorial sign around its neck, and promises to do better. But it’s already doing better, as are all science journals and science departments.  The question I am asking, I guess, is given that morality is improving over time, and has come a long way in the last hundred years, to what extent do we need to apologize for what was said by our predecessors? Yes, it’s fair to point out that bad things were done in the past, but how instructive is that since everyone now knows that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry are wrong? And if they don’t, Nature’s apology won’t fix them

In the end, I see the Nature piece not as wholly performative, but nearly performative, since they are already policing themselves.

Matthew has a different take, as given in these tweets. He’s concerned with the fact that Nature, in going to an open-access policy, is now charging authors huge amounts of money merely to publish their articles. In other words, the journal may not be sexist or racist, but they are still money-gouging capitalists who impoverish scientific investigators.

This is from Nature’s 2020 announcement that it was going “open access”:

Publisher Springer Nature has announced how scientists can make their papers in its most selective titles free to read as soon as they are published — part of a long-awaited move to offer open-access publishing in the Nature family of journals.

From 2021, the publisher will charge €9,500, US$11,390 or £8,290 to make a paper open access (OA) in Nature and 32 other journals that currently keep most of their articles behind paywalls and are financed by subscriptions. It is also trialling a scheme that would halve that price for some journals, under a common-review system that might guide papers to a number of titles.

Soon you won’t have the option of paying: you will have to pay to have your articles published. This money will soon be coming out of the pockets of investigators—either out of their grants (funded by taxpayers) or out of their own pockets. And, as Matthew said, this policy is against the policy of diversity and openness favored by the journal, as it penalizes scientists with the least funding, more likely to be people of color or peoople from lower socioeconomic classes that could use their grants to do research instead of pay a journal exorbitant fees to publish their work.

In comment #3 below, Lysander calls our attention to the financial results of open-access publishing, embodied in this video:

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

September 8, 2022 • 10:15 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Conclusion: Many factors at play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceci et al.’s conclusion:

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

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

________________

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

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

 

Nature: Manuscripts that are ideologically impure and “harmful” will be rejected

August 26, 2022 • 10:45 am

UPDATE:  Two tweets in agreement with each other and my sentiments:

________________________________________________

This new article in Nature Human Behavior Is well-intentioned, aiming to purge bigotry from science, but goes way over the top in three ways. First, it claims that science is complicit in structural racism at present.  That’s not true, though in the past some scientists and institutions were guilty of this. Second, it assumes that papers submitted to the journal are going to be rife with racism, bigotry, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQ+ bias that will cause “harm”, and therefore authors must be warned in a long document about their biases and how to avoid expressing them. The piece thus gives a long set of rules that actually conform to woke practice. Third, it explicitly states that even papers with publishable scientific results can be rejected if the facts presented are deemed liable to cause harm. And “harm” is often in the gut of the beholder. The article is thus a threat that unless articles conform to a specific ideological stance, they can be rejected even if the data themselves are worth publishing.

It is a patronizing piece full of Pecksniffery, but doesn’t differ in in substance from many similar articles appearing in scientific journals. The most dangerous thing is the implication that “harm” is grounds for rejection—and we know how many statements or results can be construed as “harmful”, including the claim that there are two sexes in humans, or any number of facts about human groups.  These days people are so eager to take offense that the guidelines have the potential to turn into pure censorship of any science that could offend anyone.

I of course have no quarrel with the title of the article. Who could? What bothers me is the implicit threat that one’s submitted manuscripts must be ideologically correct, purged of all potentially harmful stuff, or else be rejected.

Click to read (free pdf here):

A few quotes from the piece to give its tenor:

Well-established ethics frameworks govern the conduct of studies with human participants. Research ethics bodies use these frameworks to examine prospectively whether research projects involving human participants align with ethical principles.

However, these frameworks apply to research involving the participation of humans and do not generally consider the potential benefits and harms of research about humans who do not participate directly in the research. Such research is typically exempt from ethics review.

Yet, people can be harmed indirectly. For example, research may — inadvertently — stigmatize individuals or human groups. It may be discriminatory, racist, sexist, ableist or homophobic. It may provide justification for undermining the human rights of specific groups, simply because of their social characteristics.

This is the problem: who gets to decide what is “stigmatizing” or “harmful”? Clearly such statements can be inadvertent or unconscious. Presumably the editors could decide, but they of course will be very responsive to objections from other scientists, from the public—indeed, from anybody. But it’s already too late to ask for rational consideration.

Another:

Science has for too long been complicit in perpetuating structural inequalities and discrimination in society. With this guidance, we take a step towards countering this. The guidance is printed in full below and we encourage our readers to contact us with their comments and feedback.

Science now or science then? Right now science is busy trying to ensure equity and avoid stigmatizing any minorities. There are DEI statements, preferential hiring, and a drive to diversify students and professors. Much of this I approve of. But if there has been a problem with racist, sexist, or homophobic manuscripts, I am not aware of it. I’ve reviewed hundreds of manuscripts in my career, and I can’t remember even one that smacked of bigotry. The problem is certainly not rife in my field, and I seriously doubt that it’s widespread in the sciences.

Then comes the implicit threat (I’ve put it in bold):

We also highlight the importance of respectful, non-stigmatizing language to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and causing harm to individuals and groups.

Advancing knowledge and understanding is a fundamental public good. In some cases, however, potential harms to the populations studied may outweigh the benefit of publication. Academic content that undermines the dignity or rights of specific groups; assumes that a human group is superior or inferior over another simply because of a social characteristic; includes hate speech or denigrating images; or promotes privileged, exclusionary perspectives raises ethics concerns that may require revisions or supersede the value of publication.

Note: “potential” harms. Someone has to decide what harms are “potential.”

As we all know, “hate speech” has such wide interpretation that it’s almost useless.  Yes, there is true hateful speech, like “Jews are innately acquisitive”, and it’s possible that some manuscripts could be overtly racist or bigoted. But how often do journals get such things? The problem is that “hate speech” is more often a synonym for “speech that offends at least one person in the world.” And that includes all speech.

The paper goes on to give a long list of no-nos, most of which are superfluous.  And the ones that aren’t superfluous are subject to such variable interpretation that it would scare me away from submitting anything relevant to human society to the journal, which after all is Nature Human Behavior. 

I have four responses from colleagues who read this article.

One tendered this quote from Enrico Fermi:

“Whatever Nature has in store for mankind, unpleasant as it may be, men must accept, for ignorance is never better than knowledge.”

Of course “men” itself is admittedly sexist, so let’s substitute “people” for that.

Another from a colleague after I beefed that I would be called an alt-righter for highlighting this paper:

Naturally, because any academic taking issue with these guidelines must be someone who wants to “undermine dignity” and “stigmatize groups”, right?  Because WHY ELSE WOULD YOU PROTEST? That’s the childish logic that people are already using on Twitter.

From another one who read the editorial:

Did you see that new editorial by Nature Human Behavior already, containing “ethical guidelines” for publication about differences between human groups? The termites have apparently dined well and deep. The journal basically reserves the right to amend/refuse/retract any publication that causes “potential harms” to any human groups (including religious and cultural groups), that “undermines the human dignity” of said groups, or that “promotes privileged/exclusionary perspectives” (all suitably vague terms to be defined at editorial discretion according to reigning ideological orthodoxy).
This is sure to have a chilling effect on academic free speech. Ironically, some of the statements about biological sex in the editorial (they still concede it exists!) could undoubtedly be construed as “harmful” and “exclusionary” by the Woke, thus hoisting the journal by its own petard.

And from a colleague who happens to be a woman:

Knowledge per se isn’t what causes “harm”.  It is politics that does.  So if research finds out that women are more passive than men and not as ambitious, would that “harm” women?  Not unless they pass laws that women should thus not be CEOs due to their inherent lack of ambition.  (This is just a silly example – but there is nothing about groups that should determine how you treat individuals; after all groups have standard deviations and are all largely overlapping.)

Once again: did the Maori discover Antarctica?

August 11, 2022 • 9:30 am

Nothing better shows the kind of “knowledge” that promoters of New Zealand’s indigenous “ways of knowing” (mātauranga Māori ) want taught in science class than the claim that the Māori—or rather, their ancestral Polynesians—discovered Antarctica in the 7th century A.D. (The Māori could not have done it at that time since their East Polynesian ancestors didn’t colonize New Zealand until the fourteenth century.) Nevertheless, as I described in two posts in January—here and here—the controversy was hashed out in three articles in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand (JRSNZ) and Nature Ecology & Evolution. These aren’t free online, but judicious inquiry can yield copies.

(By the way, the generally accepted date for the discovery of Antarctica, and by that I mean seeing the continent, is January 27, 1820, when a Russian expedition saw an ice shelf connected to Antarctica.)

The first paper, by advocates Wehi et al., described “evidence” that Polynesians were the first to see Antarctica in the seventh century, AD—over a thousand years before the discovery by the Russians.  They supported their claims by relying on oral legends, the “gray literature” (semi-scholarly but tendentious analyses of oral legends), and dubious interpretations of those legends. For example, the East Polynesians weren’t sailing then; the supposed boat that saw Antarctica was said to be built of human bones (and even a wooden one could not survive Antarctic waters), and the scenario relies heavily on a word almost surely translated as “the frozen sea” by the authors of the first paper below:

The first claim:

This claim was uncritically accepted by many in the press, including the credulous Guardian (click screenshot below to read):

A rebuttal (a “short communication”), written by a group including Māori scholars, was then published in the same journal. It pointed out all the problems noted above: the use of orally transmitted legends (not written down until the mid-19th century), the improbability of Polynesian sailing vessels (especially ones made of human bones) making it to Antarctic waters; the fact that East Polynesians weren’t sailing in the seventh century; that there is no archaeological evidence of their voyages, much less incursion into Antarctic waters; and the likelihood that the crucial phrase translated as “the frozen sea” probably meant “sea foam” instead. Here’s the rebuttal paper by Anderson et al.

This “rebuttal” was handled very oddly by the Royal Society of New Zealand (more on that below). The original authors then responded, but in Nature Ecology and Evolution, which also included the dubious claim of Polynesian discovery of Antarctica in its timeline below (click to read):

From Figure One of the Nature E&E paper (my emphasis, click to enlarge). Doesn’t anybody review papers any more, or are standards simply more lax when indigenous “ways of knowing” are involved? The box encloses a statement that is surely false. Come on, Nature!

Now The Listener (site of the original fight about whether mātauranga Māori should be taught in NZ science classes alongside real science) has just reprised the whole controversy and added some new comments by the authors as well as some material about how the “rebuttal” got published. That article is below, and there’s no free link.

The authors of the original paper appear to have backed off their claim about Polynesians discovering Antarctica in the seventh century, but the critics are saying that the fight is useless anyway because much of mātauranga Māori isn’t really evidence-based science, though part of it could be. (Yes, it’s confusing.)

Click to read, or make a judicious inquiry for a copy, as I can’t copy excerpts from this Listener article:

A few quotes:. In the first, one of the original authors backs off:

Dr. Priscilla Wehi said it wasn’t about which humans were in Antarctica first, but about “linkages that have gone on for many hundreds of years and will go on into the future.”

She’s not telling the truth. If you read the original paper, there’s a large section supporting the claim that Polynesians saw Antarctica first, tendered as a tribute to their endeavors and to the equality of Western and Polynesian “science”. And certainly the world press interpreted the article as meaning that!

The Listener notes that “the two papers” (original and rebuttal) “used totally different research methodologies.”  That of Wehi et al “looked at oral histories as well as ‘grey literature,’ described as ‘research, reports, technical documents, and other material published by organisations outside common academic and commercial publishing channels.” In other words, Wehi et al. used transcribed oral legends spread as a kind of conspiracy theory.

There’s also this:

When you fail to produce convincing evidence, you just assert that you weren’t really making a truth claim, but simply showing how legends work their way into modern practice. One thing the advocates of mātauranga Māori love to argue is that its superiority to Western science lies in mātauranga Māori’s ability to show that everything in the Universe is connected. Well, physics shows that, too, but as Dick Lewontin once said, the troubling of a star doesn’t mean he has to take that into account when digging in his garden.

In the section below, the first author of the rebuttal makes a crucial admission (matauranga Maori isn’t the same thing as science), but also claims that sometimes we should accept historical claims from legend—presumably only when these are supported by empirical investigation—i.e., science writ large!

I’m not sure what Anderson means by saying that mātauranga Māori is a “different form of knowledge and understanding than science.” The understanding of legends may differ from how we understand science, but Anderson needs to realize that “knowledge” means the general acceptance of truth ascertained by empirical methods”—i.e., by science.

And yes, some legends may be true—but not this one. In the first paragraph above the authors show why mātauranga Māori should not be taught alongside science in New Zealand schools as an equally valid form of knowledge. Nevertheless, this is going to happen some day, all because the Woke, fearful of looking like racists, are afraid of rejecting indigenous ways of knowing as science.

The new Listener article gives more reasons why Anderson et al. find the legend of Antarctic-discovering Polynesians in conflict with empirical evidence.

Finally, there’s a bit about how the Royal Society of New Zealand treated the Wehi et al. claim and the Anderson et al. rebuttal differently. If you’ve followed my reporting on this, you’ll know that the Royal Society of New Zealand is a pack of slippery eels, trying to pretend they’re a scientific organization while at the same time trying not to offend the Māori and their claims of having “other ways of knowing.” I’m sorry, but those other ways of knowing are sometimes wrong, and the Antarctic claim is one example.

Here’s how the Listener describes the preferential treatment given to papers on mātauranga Māori as opposed to refutations of those papers:

I’m not aware of any scientific organizations that sends critiques of a paper out to the authors of that paper for review. Yes, if the critique is accepted, then the original authors may be given it and afforded a chance to respond. But that’s not how the RSNZ rolls. What they did is certainly not “a best practice” for reviewing papers. As usual, the spokesperson for the RSNZ lies, saying that they just followed what is normal. They didn’t.

The slippery behavior of the Royal Society is one reason why two of its Fellows resigned after they were “investigated” for arguing that mātauranga Māori was not the same thing as science.

Pinker: The “evolution war” is also a culture war

June 30, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Yesterday I posted a long critique of a misguided article from the Guardian arguing that the modern theory of evolution is obsolete and needs to be replaced.  One of my comments is that the article seemed say that the claim that evolution needs to be expanded by incorporating phenomena like epigenetics, niche construction, and plasticity has created a “culture war”. They quote Massimo Pigliucci to this effect, and let me reprise my denial of that:

e.) The scientific debate about the ambit of evolutionary biology is a “culture war.”  This bit really got my knickers in a twist:

To release biology from the legacy of the modern synthesis, explains Massimo Pigliucci, a former professor of evolution at Stony Brook University in New York, you need a range of tactics to spark a reckoning: “Persuasion, students taking up these ideas, funding, professorial positions.” You need hearts as well as minds. During a Q&A with Pigliucci at a conference in 2017, one audience member commented that the disagreement between EES proponents and more conservative biologists sometimes looked more like a culture war than a scientific disagreement. According to one attender, “Pigliucci basically said: ‘Sure, it’s a culture war, and we’re going to win it,’ and half the room burst out cheering.”

Bad call, Massimo! No, it’s not a culture war, even if sometimes scientists get heated and use terms like “evolution by jerks” to characterize advocates of punctuated equilibrium. The debate was conducted, and largely settled, by scientific argument that didn’t include that kind of acrimony. It is simply a debate about what mechanisms are important in evolution. My own view is that yes, the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis includes stuff that we didn’t even dream of 80 years ago (the “neutral theory” is one), but there is simply no reason to pronounce neo-Darwinism obsolete. “Expansion” is an okay word, but saying that “we need a new theory of evolution” is both ignorant and hyperbolic.

Steve Pinker read my piece and seemed to like it, but he did disagree with me on the “culture war” issue. In fact, he thinks the “expansionists” versus “we-don’t-need-to-trash-evolution” conflict is indeed a culture war. He gave me permission to quote his take on this. I’ve bolded his disagreement with me, and I have to say, the guy can think! And he has a great memory; I didn’t even remember that Lewin piece, much less where and when it was published!

Pinker (bolding is mine, and I’ve added links):

Fascinating that this [the Guardian article] is almost an exact Groundhog Day of Roger Lewin’s 1980 Science article inspired by Gould’s punctuated equilibrium (which he disingenuously associated with macromutations), species selection, and spandrelism.

I suspect that this is a culture war. Left-wing intellectual elites can’t stand the aroma of Darwinism, with its apparent glorification of competition, functional utility, and inheritance. They’re too respectful of science to go the creationist or ID route, so they probe for loopholes that seem to allow for more agency and creativity. It’s all what Richard [Dawkins] called “poetic science” and what I call “science schmaltz.” That’s why this spectacle of twisting codicils and asterisks into “scientific revolutions” periodically gets played out in NYRB, the Guardian, and other right-thinking publications.

The role of plasticity and genetic assimilation goes back more than a century to the “Baldwin effect,” interestingly simulated a while back by Geoff Hinton of deep learning fame, noted in a Nature commentary by Maynard Smith.

I responded to Steve by saying that yes, it may well be a culture war, but a scientist like Pigliucci shouldn’t couch a scientific dispute in such terms, as it devalues the empirical issues at stake. But Steve’s probably right, as usual!

Steve added this in a subsequent email, and I will forward the papers to anyone who asks for them (but you gotta read ’em if you ask):

BTW the Hinton-Nowlan simulation of the Baldwin effect is, I think, a beautiful little evolutionary model. (I’ve attached it, together with Maynard Smith’s commentary). Needless to say it falls squarely within the modern synthesis—no revolution needed, thanks.

Science journal punishes Russian authors by refusing to review their papers

March 1, 2022 • 10:15 am

The other day I heard from Anna Krylov, a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California who specializes in quantum chemistry. Lately she’s also written or collaborated on several articles decrying the politicization and “woke-izing” of science (see here, for example). Anna was born in Donetsk, Ukraine, and got a master’s degree in Moscow. which makes her particularly well situated to comment on how one scientific journal (and likely others) is responding to Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Anna told me she got an email from one of her collaborators, who was reviewing for a journal a paper written by Russian scientists. (“Reviewing,” as you probably know, is when anonymous scientists determines whether a submitted manuscript in their field merits publication in the journal. Here’s the email that Anna’s collaborator got from the journal named below.

“Thank you for reviewing this manuscript. I have to inform you that the editors of the Journal of Molecular Structure made a decision to ban the manuscripts submitted from Russian institutions. You must know that it is a ban on Russian institutions and not a judgment on scientists. Therefore I cannot accept the manuscript.

Therefore, the reviewer had to send the Russian authors this rejection letter:

I regret to inform you that your manuscript cannot be considered for publication in the Journal of Molecular Structure. The editors of this journal, in the full assumption of their responsibilities as scientists and academics, decided not to consider any manuscript authored by scientists working at Russian Federation institutions as a result of the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. Such invasion violates international law, jeopardizes world peace as well as the human rights of innocent citizens, and does not conform to the civilizational ideals of the 21st century. This decision will be in force until international legality is restored, and is extended to the institutions of the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia.”

Anna was incensed, and sent me the following comments which I quote with her permission:

This is a full-blown academic boycott — chemistry journals refusing to publish papers authored by Russian scientists.

I am in favor of the strictest sanctions against Russia, up to the boots on the ground in Ukraine, but terminating scientific interactions and boycotting the scientists is the wrong thing to do. Having lived on both sides of the Iron Curtain, I consider such acts to be meaningless for the cause (Putin cannot care less about chemistry publishing), deeply unfair to the scientists who happened to live under the regime many of them do not support, and damaging to science and humanity.

She later sent me added this, since the journal is run by Elsevier:

The person who got this email posted the update today that [he/she] was contacted by Elsevier and they said it was not an official decision of Elsevier but of the editor or editorial board of JMS. The representative [of Elsevier] said they do not support this decision.

So the question is — do we allow individual editorial boards to make decisions about imposing sanctions? Definitely not!

This decision will certainly accomplish nothing towards changing the minds of Putin and his thugs for making war on Ukraine. It is the scientific equivalent of a boycott—the kind of boycott that is promoted by BDS, by many organizations during South Africa’s apartheid regime, and is also now being put into place in sports, with many competitions and federations refusing to include Russian athletes.

The question is, as Anna put it, do we punish individuals merely because they live under a regime that did something other countries don’t like, even if they didn’t take part in those actions and often even oppose them? This seems unfair. I do understand the rationale for boycotts: after all, what is our intervention in Russia’s finances but a big step that will badly affect the well being of many normal, non-wealthy Russians? The only way to stop this war without actually shooting at Russians ourselves is to impose some kind of sanctions, which perforce can hurt the innocent.

But are all sanctions equal? Should Russian scientists be forbidden from publishing what they’ve found because their country invaded Ukraine? That hurts them, too, but in a different way from hurting a Russian whose life savings have just been drastically slashed?  One could, I suppose, argue that the dissemination of scientific information is more important than hurting innocent people in other ways, but that sounds self-serving   I just had these thoughts when reporting what happened above, and now I don’t have such strong feelings about this journal’s actions, though I see scientific boycotts as less likely to be effective than economic ones.

Weigh in below, please. Do you favor boycotts? If so, which ones? And can there even be effective boycotts that don’t hurt innocent people?