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.

Dawkins begins writing on Substack

June 7, 2023 • 10:45 am

There are only a few biologists on Substack that I know of (Colin Wright is another), so I welcome the addition of Richard Dawkins’s new site, “The Poetry of Reality,” which you can find at the link below:

You can subscribe for $70 per year, but can also subscribe for free to get the occasional public post.

So far there are two posts up. First, an introduction in which Richard poses a series of discussion questions (I’ll give just a couple of the many):

Rather than write a manifesto in the form of an essay, I have chosen to cast it as a series of propositions or questions, invariably followed by the word “Discuss”. It is not my intention to pose these discussion points to my guests. Rather I intend, by this repetition of “Discuss”,  to convey the atmosphere that I hope will pervade both forums, podcast and Substack. It should be an atmosphere of continual questioning, recurrent uncertainty, and I hope stimulating dialogue. “Discuss” really means discuss.

“There is a real world out there, and the only way to learn about it is objective evidence gathered by the scientific method.” Discuss.

“There is no such thing as your truth as distinct from my truth. “There is just the truth, and that means evidence-based scientific truth.” Discuss.

“Truth is not obtained by tradition, authority, holy books, faith or revelation. Truth is obtained by evidence and only evidence.” Discuss.

. . .What the hell is postmodernism? Have you ever met a self-styled postmodernist who could give you a coherent answer? Discuss.

What is a woman? Discuss.

You can already see that his site is going to attract attention!

Second, there’s a free post called “Evidence-based life,” a nice essay in which Richard argues that we should base our lives, as far as possible, on empirical evidence, avoiding “faith” or superstition. Here’s one paragraph from that, which I like because it’s related to something I wrote ten years ago (and in fact quoted Dawkins at the end):

Even expert scientists haven’t the time or the expertise to evaluate sciences other than their own. Most biologists are ill-equipped to understand modern physics. And vice versa although, I have to admit, to a lesser extent. In any case, nobody has the time to do full justice to all the detailed research papers in a journal such as Nature or Science, even if we could understand them. If we read a report that gravitational waves have been reliably detected as emanating from a collision between two distant galaxies, most of us take it on trust. It almost sounds like taking it on faith.  But it’s a faith that’s more securely grounded than, say, religious faith. That’s an understatement. When biologists like me express “faith” in the findings of physics, we know that physicists’ predictions have been verified by experimental measurements to find accuracy. Very different from “faith” in, for example, the doctrine of transubstantiation which makes no predictions at all, let alone testable and tested ones.

h/t: Daniel

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


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:


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

August 8, 2022 • 11:15 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here’s Matthew’s email to the Guardian:

From: Matthew Cobb

Subject: Crab spiders

Date: 7 August 2022 at 22:11:22 BST

To:” <>

Over the weekend The Guardian website followed the rest of the UK press by printing a story about ‘venomous spider crabs’ moving into shallow waters off Cornwall to moult [].

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

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

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

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

Matthew Cobb

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

The Guardian has photo issues as well as evolution issues

June 30, 2022 • 1:45 pm

I just had to put up as a standalone this posted comment from reader Mike on yesterday’s Guardian article on why evolutionary theory is supposedly obsolete. There was a rather substantial boo-boo in one image, which was wonky in three ways: the species identification was wrong, and two parts were photoshopped in. This manipulation was not indicated.  It’s just one more sign that the Guardian needs some kind of science editor.

From Mike:

In case anyone is still checking in on this post and that crazy Grauniad article, turns out one of the feature images of the “spadefoot toad” was a photoshop nightmare: not a spadefoot toad; has a chameleon’s tongue; catching a dragonfly that’s photoshopped into the image; and perched on a toadstool.

Now that’s phenotypic plasticity!

The kicker is that the Guardian has stealth edited the image out of the version that’s up today on the website. The wayback machine shows the original article with that frankenimage.

The “frankenimage” from the wayback machine.

It’s gone now; no toad photo to be seen and no indication it was ever there.  And whoever Buddy Mays is, he should be roundly trounced (I think that this is him.)

Below: the tweet that corrects the species ID and the photoshopped tongue and dragonfly.

I have a big stupid grin on my face!

Bad academic writing of the year award

February 16, 2022 • 3:30 pm

Well, it’s only February, but I have a contender for the Worst Academic Writing Award already.  It’s not of Judith-Butler-level opacity, but it’s pretty convoluted, and in fact I have a hard time figuring out what the authors are trying to say.

The whole article is as badly written as the passage I quote below.  And pity me, as I had to read the whole article. Click on screenshot if you want the mental equivalent of a root canal:

This is just the opening passage, and is just a single paragraph:

It has been argued many times over the course of decades and across diverse paradigms that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education practices-as-usual (re)produce systems of dominance: be it patriarchy, heteronormativity, white supremacy, Eurocentrism, (neo-)colonialism, able-ism, classism, labor inequity, anthropocentrism, and/or others. Thankfully, there are many who are doing the critical and creative work of (re)opening STEM education to the possibility of eco-social justice to-come through a plurality of productive approaches, orientations, and stances: anti-oppressive, anti-racist and critical race-based, decolonizing and de/colonizing, queer, Indigenous, gender-equitable, post-colonial, community-based and participatory, critical place-based, inter-species, and many more. Further, there are many examples taking richly critical and complicit stances to work within and against logics of exclusion. Yet, in doing so, many of these engagements are oft depoliticized and atheoretical practices of inclusion in ways that continue othering those formerly excluded, albeit differently. As readers of the field, we note the ways in which efforts often center around questions of curriculum and pedagogy; as they should, these are central and major nodes within STEM education. How coming-to-know-nature, coming-to-know-number, and coming-to-know-technology are conceptualized and enacted matters deeply: in terms of the curricular destinations and the pedagogical pathways that might allow such learning, as well as for whom. For example, as Megan Bang and Ananda Marin (2015) remind, the curricular inclusion of Indigenous perspectives is differentially problematic if we cannot also attend to the taken-for-granted and naturalized epistemological, ontological, and axiological commitments and enactments of what we are including perspectives into. As Bang and Marin (2015) state, if science education continues to “focus on ‘settled’ phenomena as well as ‘settled’ perspectives and relations to phenomena” (p. 531), which rely on and reinforce recursive whiteness and settler privilege while simultaneously dismissing, diminishing, and denying Indigenous ways-of-living-with-nature, presence, and futurities, it will remain but a tokenistic inclusion which serves to distract from the more unsettling demands of this work and is often primarily an effort to reconceptualize and recenter the subject of dominance. Again, how curriculum, pedagogy, and its central nodes are conceptualized matters.

You could have a drinking game with this: a shot of tequila for every woke buzzword you read. The thing is, though, you’d be a goner before line ten.

Want more? Here’s the second paragraph:

Similarly, methodology is alsoFootnote1 an important site in which the movements of power occur, differentially (re)producing articulations of dominance. While these often manifest in much more subtle ways, we argue that it remains important to ask ourselves how the diverse methodologies we employ in and through our research practices as scholars of STEM education contribute or work to maintain and privilege the prevailing trajectory of STEM education. To this end, highlighting the ways in which the disciplines discipline what counts as knowledge and, more to the point, knowledge production processes, Linda Tuhiwei Smith and colleagues (2016) ask, “are methodologies simply new technologies of cultural assimilation?” (p. 133). For Smith and colleagues (2016), attending to methodology is to address lingering colonial referents which lurk within our methodological constellation of concepts (e.g., voice, identity, data, and reflexivity). To engage in critical goals yet engage in “conventional” methodologies, whose taken-for-grantedness does not and cannot identify which conventions inform them, sends a subtle yet insidious message: that alternative perspectives need to be validated in and through the norms of dominance in order to “count.”Footnote2 There is a need to actively de-center these taken-for-granted notions and to pull through alternative and multiple ways of assembling theory, practice, and ethics. However, disrupting and displacing methodologies is not strictly a call for methodological pluralism, a means of “losing the way — as losing any sense that just one ‘way’ could ever be prefixed and privileged by the definite article” (Gough 2006, p. 640, emphasis ours). It is also a call for “disrupting the hegemonic ways of seeing and how this relates to subjects making themselves dominant” (McKinley 2001, p. 76). We do not suggest that the critical and creative reworking of methodology is (wholly) a panacea to this poison. Nonetheless, there is purpose in critically engaging with the work of disrupting and displacing methodology: it is to at least dare to fail in new ways.

Do these people think they can write? This is the worst kind of obscurantist postmodernism in town, and Orwell would have a field day with it.  What are the sweating professors trying to say? (See p. 271 here, in one of the funniest and most scathing book reviews every published.)

I thought this kind of execrable and impenetrable postmodern prose went out of fashion two decades ago.

Jesse Singal fact-checks Science-Based Medicine again

July 18, 2021 • 9:30 am

The battle between Jesse Singal and the site Science-Based Medicine (SBM) continues. SBM originally hosted a positive review of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage written by one of their editors, Harriet Hall, and then two other editors, David Gorski and Steven Novella (G&N), removed Hall’s review and replaced it with three pieces critical of Shrier’s thesis about the possible social origins of rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD) and the possible dangers of treating the syndrome with hormones and surgery when it starts in adolescence. (See the whole story in these posts.)

Although G&N claimed that they removed Hall’s review because it contained scientific errors and also glossed over Shrier’s own errors, I suspect it was also pushback from those who deemed Shrier’s book “transphobic” (it’s not).  Jesse Singal, who’s read a lot about gender dysphoria has published a critique of G&N’s stated reasons for the censorship, arguing that G&N played fast and loose with the literature themselves, mis-citing papers, engaging in confirmation bias, and so on.

Now, in four further tweets, Singal has accused A. J. Eckert (AJE), one of the people whose posts replaced Hall’s on SBM (Eckert wrote two of them), of fabricating quotes from Shrier’s book that don’t appear in it. Here are the four tweets. While these made-up quotes aren’t as potentially damaging to SBM’s reputation as is Singal’s long critique, it still shows a lack of care in SBM’s methods—something one doesn’t expect on the site, which has been careful and a valuable asset. Now, however, it may well be slanted by wokeness.

The first one deals with a phrase that, says Eckert, is used repeatedly by Shrier to characterize the social environment that, she says, pushes adolescent girls towards ROGD. Eckert says, among other things, “These [factors] are characterized as a ‘woke gender ideology,’ an oft-recited phrase that is never really defined.” In fact, Singal found that Shrier doesn’t use the phrase even once.

Singal’s second tweet notes that it was supposedly only one quote that was fabricated, but that AJE said it was “oft-recited.”

Then Singal discovers two things. First, Eckert attributes to Shrier the phrase “radical trans ideology” as characterizing what the Internet instills in some adolescent girls that get ROGD (third tweet). That phrase doesn’t appear in Shrier’s book, though AJE puts it in quotes.

Second, AJE apparently grossly mischaracterized the treatment of Lisa Littman’s study of the etiology and manifestation of ROGD published in PLoS ONe (underlined bit below).

No, Littman’s study wasn’t pulled; in fact, it’s still up at the PLoS ONE website. What happened was that the editors required some tweaks in the original version, which were made. What was pulled was a Brown University press release promoting Littman’s study. (Littman works at Brown.) And that retraction, as well as perhaps some of the changes suggested by PLoS’s editors, may have come from social-media pressure.

This last claim about pulling the study, combined with the fabricated quotations, show a lack of care of AJE and SBM, and perhaps the editors, in describing the work. I won’t call these lies or deliberate fabrications, but they do show a disturbing lack of care from a site that has spent much of its time debunking others for carelessness and duplicity.  And I’m not sure if it’s “potentially libelous”, though Eckert/G&N really should issue a couple of corrections for the site.

Judge it as you will; your mileage may vary. There will, of course, be more to come. In the meantime, Shrier’s book, now a year old, is still selling rapidly on Amazon because of all the attention that the ACLU and people like G&N give it. It’s the Streisand Effect.

h/t: cesar

A new podcast: Dawkins on how to write popular science

July 4, 2021 • 12:30 pm

This morning I was interviewed by Iona Italia on her “Two for Tea” podcast, designed to enlighten listeners as well as to support Areo Magazine, of which Iona is Editor-in-Chief. The podcast has featured guests with expertise on science, religion, humanism, philosophy, freedom of speech, and so on—much like the contents of Areo—and has been running for three years.

My interview should be out in a few weeks, but the last half of it will be for subscribers only. You can become a patron here; the $1/month memberships are sold out, so your minimum contribution is $5 a month, though I’m told that if you’re poor you can get a one-time $1 link. And, at any rate, the first half is free. I’ll post a link when it’s up.

While looking at who’s been interviewed, I saw that the latest episode (second link below), features Richard Dawkins, talking mostly about the themes of his new book on science writing (first link below). It’s Richard’s version of Pinker’s A Sense of Style, I guess, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say on his philosophy of writing popular science. Some of his books, like The Blind Watchmaker, represent, to me, a near-perfect fusion of lyricism and science. And although I can’t aspire to write anywhere near as well as he, he’s been a role model of both clear and moving science exposition. You can order the book from Amazon by clicking on the link below.

I listened to the free 24 minutes of the podcast, and if you’re already very familiar with Dawkins you may not learn much that is new, but it’s a good way to spend an hour (or half hour) on a lazy Fourth of July. Here are the timestamps for Dawkins podcast, which unfortunately (if you don’t pay) stops right before the “literature and poetry” bit, which I’d much want to hear. I’d also like to know what his favorite book is.

At any rate, if you click on the screenshot below, you’ll go to the page where you can hear the first 24 minutes.


4:24 Why more non-scientists should take pleasure in science writing
6:15 Why it is important for scientists to write clearly
14:43 Continuously updated virtual reality
16:41 The genetic book of the dead
20:17 The extended phenotype
25:12 Literature and poetry
28:06 Misconceptions of the gene’s eye view
33:21 Misinterpretations of evolutionary biology and of Dawkins’ own work in particular
35:56 Defying our genes
36:16 Anti-Darwinian ethics
37:28 Threats to the understanding of science
39:20 Dawkins’ gift for satire
44:37 Dawkins’ own favourite work

While we’re at it, do note your favorite Dawkins book. If you’re into pure science, you might like The Selfish Gene or The Extended Phenotype, while if you favor popular science that’s a bit easier to read, you might like The Blind Watchmaker or Climbing Mount Improbable.