Pamela Paul of the NYT touts our merit paper

May 4, 2023 • 9:15 am

I’m going to put a link to our “In Defense of Merit” paper here again in case you missed it, but also because it’s the topic of Pamela Paul‘s column in today’s New York Times. I’ve written favorably several times about Paul’s pieces, as she’s an independent thinker, going her own heterodox way against the Progressive Authoritarianism of most NYT columnists. (She used to be head of the paper’s Sunday Book Review).  But imagine my surprise when I woke up this morning to find an email from her site (I subscribe) that was entirely about our merit paper. It’s the second screenshot below:

Click on the link below to see it, and if it’s paywalled I found it archived on another site (I didn’t do it!)

UPDATE: As of 11:30 Chicago time, Paul’s paper has a new title but the same link. Voilà:

I’ll give a few quotes from her piece, which is favorable, unlike many comments on social media (see below).

Note that her first sentence below actually expresses the viewpoint of many ideologues: that the gender/ethnicity of a scientist brings different, ethnic/gender-specific viewpoints to a field, and so “diversifying” science will make it better by incorporating these views. I’ve found little merit in that argument, which I also see as patronizing because it assumes that different identity groups are homogeneous in having ways of approaching science that, on average, differ on average from those of existing scientists. Of course if you expand the number of people having the opportunity to do science, which I favor, you’re going to get new and valuable views simply because of the increase in the pool of scientists. But to say, for example, that Hispanics will improve physics because of a particularly Hispanic way of approaching the field is not only patronizing, but unevidenced.

But I digress. Here’s Paul’s beginning:

Is a gay Republican Latino more capable of conducting a physics experiment than a white progressive heterosexual woman? Would they come to different conclusions based on the same data because of their different backgrounds?

For most people, the suggestion isn’t just ludicrous, it’s offensive.

Yet this belief — that science is somehow subjective and should be practiced and judged accordingly — has recently taken hold in academic, governmental and medical settings. A paper published last week, “In Defense of Merit in Science,” documents the disquieting ways in which research is increasingly informed by a politicized agenda, one that often characterizes science as fundamentally racist and in need of “decolonizing.” The authors argue that science should instead be independent, evidence-based and focused on advancing knowledge.

This sounds entirely reasonable.

Yet the paper was rejected by several prominent mainstream journals, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Another publication that passed on the paper, the authors report, described some of its conclusions as “downright hurtful.” The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences took issue with the word “merit” in the title, writing that “the problem is that this concept of merit, as the authors surely know, has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow as currently implemented.”

Instead, the paper has been published in a new journal called — you can’t make this up — The Journal of Controversial Ideas.

Below Paul echoes what I said above.

Though the goal of expanding opportunity for more diverse researchers in the sciences is laudable, the authors write, it should not be pursued at the expense of foundational scientific concepts like objective truth, merit and evidence, which they claim are being jeopardized by efforts to account for differing perspectives.

Consider the increasingly widespread practice of appending a “positionality statement” to one’s research. This is an explicit acknowledgment by the author of an academic paper of his or her identity (e.g., “nondisabled,” “continuing generation”). Positionality statements were first popular in the social sciences and are now spreading to the hard sciences and medicine. The idea is that one’s race, sex, relative privilege and “experiences of oppression” inherently inform one’s research, especially in ways that perpetuate or alleviate bias.

But whatever validity “alternative ways of knowing,” “multiple narratives” and “lived experience” may have in the humanities, they are of questionable utility when it comes to the sciences. Some defenders of positionality statements maintain that these acknowledgments promote objectivity by drawing attention to a researcher’s potential blind spots, but in practice they can have the opposite effect, implying that scientific research isn’t universally valid or applicable — that there are different kinds of knowledge for different groups of people.

Note that the ultimate in positionality statements is putting your “iwi” (tribe) in a paper touting indigenous Māori science, like this one I discussed the other day. The words in parentheses after each author’s name gives the iwi to which they belong.

This is like putting “(atheist Ashkenazi Jew)” after my name when I write a paper. Or perhaps it establishes the authors’ credibility as Māori because it gives their iwi. Regardless, this kind of stuff is embarrassing; it’s pure virtue flaunting. Do you really have to name your iwi when arguing for the compatibility of Māori ways of knowing and modern science? Shouldn’t the arguments be what’s important, rather than the position of the author. (Indeed, in this paper the authors argue that judging Māori “ways of knowing” cannot be done except for Māori themselves!)

Beyond positionality statements, Paul also finds worrying oft-required DEI statements for jobs as well as “citation justice” (the drive to cite more underrepresented people’s work as a form of scientific reparations).  And she does add our own caveat. Do look at the link in the second paragraph below:

It should go without saying — but in today’s polarized world, unfortunately, it doesn’t — that the authors of this paper do not deny the existence of historical racism or sexism or dispute that inequalities of opportunity persist. Nor do they deny that scientists have personal views, which are in turn informed by culture and society. They acknowledge biases and blind spots.

Where they depart from the prevailing ideological winds is in arguing that however imperfect, meritocracy is still the most effective way to ensure high quality science and greater equity. (A major study published last week shows that despite decades of sexism, claims of gender bias in academic science are now grossly overstated.) The focus, the authors write, should be on improving meritocratic systems rather than dismantling them.

At a time when faith in institutions is plummeting and scientific challenges such as climate change remain enduringly large, the last thing we want is to give the public reason to lose faith in science. A study published last month, “Even When Ideologies Align, People Distrust Politicized Institutions,” shows that what we need is more impartiality, not less.

Paul’s ending, which I’ll talk more about in a second:

If you believe bias is crucial to evaluating scientific work, you may object to the fact that several of the authors of the study are politically conservative, as are some of the researchers they cite. One author, Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago and a critic of some affirmative action and diversity programs, inspired outcry in 2021 when he was invited to speak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But to deny the validity of this paper on that basis would mean succumbing to the very fallacies the authors so persuasively dismantle.

One needn’t agree with every aspect of the authors’ politics or with all of their solutions. But to ignore or dismiss their research rather than impartially weigh the evidence would be a mistake. We need, in other words, to judge the paper on the merits. That, after all, is how science works.

As expected, objections to our paper, which you can find on the Internet (there are also plaudits!), often rest not on our arguments, but on the names of the authors. I’m sure that almost anyone can find in this list an author they’re not keen on, and of course all of us disagree on some things. But to dismiss our paper, as some have done, because there’s an author or two they don’t like is pure nonsense. It’s a deflection strategy: a way to attack the paper without having to attack its arguments. I’m getting plenty fed up with these “guilt by association” arguments, because they’re not really arguments but simply rhetorical strategies—even a form of defamation by smearing.

But of course there are those who attack our thesis as well, denigrating “merit” as a criterion for judging science or scientists, and even, along with the two editors we quoted, saying that there’s really no such thing as merit. I wonder if those people care whether, when they get on a plane, whether their pilot has gone any evaluation of merit in the form of being able to fly a plane. For many—perhaps most—jobs in society, merit should be the primary characteristic for hiring. (I of course recognize that judging “merit” is often slippery, and, being in favor of some forms of affirmative action, realize that sometimes it’s salubrious to sacrifice a bit—but not a lot—of merit as a form of reparations to an oppressed group. Not all the authors agree on this, of course.)

Finally, let me note that articles on our paper have appeared in two non-English newspapers of repute: Le Figaro (French) and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (German). The screenshots of the articles are below, and I’ll be glad to send pdfs them to any reader who asks. (I also have an English translation of the German article.)


Mishigass at the Ontario Museum: claims of parity between modern science and indigenous “ways of knowing”

April 29, 2023 • 11:30 am

I’m back to viewing and reading about claims that indigenous knowledge is coequal to—or even better than—modern science (often characterized as “colonializing” or “Western” science). This is always a painful exercise for me, because although indigenous people have indeed produced empirical “observational knowledge” that can be important, they have not adopted (except as participants in) the rigorous methodology of modern science that involves doubt, testing, hypothesis-making, quantification, blind tests, and so on.

Thus practitioners of indigenous knowledge (or “other ways of knowing”) don’t have any methodology to advance knowledge of the universe except to simply make more observations. The most striking lacuna in these other ways of knowing is the absence of hypotheses, based on present (provisional) truths, that can be tested lead us to further truths. This lacuna is painfully evident in this video from the Royal Ontario Museum, a 1¼-hour discussion of science vs. “First Nations ways of knowing”, held on the occasion of an exhibition of painting around that theme.

Every speaker strives mightily to espouse a parity between First Nations “ways of knowing” and modern science’s genuine way of knowing.  The reader who sent it to me the video said this:

I find it nearly impossible to follow the speakers’ trains of thought.

If you listen, you’ll see what that reader meant.

In the end, this video—similar to what is claimed by those who espouse parity between Māori “ways of knowing” and modern science in New Zealand—merely demonstrates that the “parity” comes down to two anodyne assertions that fail to demonstrate any equivalence between science and local ways of knowing:

a.) Local ways of knowing (seen both in this video and in the works of Māori advocates) emphasize “connections between everything”.  This may be part of the ideology, superstition, or morality of local people (and is formally true in physics), but, as my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin once said,

“my gardening has no effect on the orbit of Neptune because the force of gravitation is extremely weak and falls off very rapidly with distance”

“Connectedness”, if important, will emerge as part of science itself, as in attempts to unify the fundamental forces of physics.  It is not any kind of “indigenous science”, but an emotion, a religious belief, or an assertion. And the idea itself does not profitably advance modern science.

b.) Insofar as the exponents of indigenous science do see connections with Western science, they are only weak and totally useless metaphors. Here is their typical form:, “Well, this aspect of our knowledge looks like quantum mechanics or the Big Bang.” But they never arrive at quantum mechanics or the Big Bang on their own: they simply look at the achievements of modern science and say, “see, we had stuff in our culture that looks like some assertions of modern science.” But it is modern science that has found these truths, and people like Elder Wilfred Buck in this discussion are always playing catch-up to that science. (Quantum mechanics is a particular victim of this kind of metaphorizing.)

Have a listen, for example to Elder Buck’s (15:30) comparison of the Cree myth of humans coming from a “hole in the sky” as energy beings that then become material beings to the “particle theory” of physics, “quantum physics” and “multiple realities” (presumably “multiverses”). This is about as weak and unenlightening as metaphor gets!

Here are the YouTube notes (I’ve added links)

This panel brings together some of the most brilliant minds in their fields for a conversation on how Indigenous and Western thinking on knowledge, being, and science intersect, with particular focus on themes explored in the exhibition Kent Monkman: Being Legendary, presented at ROM from October 8, 2022 to April 16, 2023.

Panelists include:

Dr. Leroy Little Bear – a Blackfoot scholar whose thinking compares western academic metaphysics to the Blackfoot cultural metaphysic that has developed from unique relationships to land, the ecosystem and the observable cosmos over a thousand generations in the northern plains.

Elder Wilfred Buck – Cree author, science educator, and Indigenous star lore expert – who posits that the depth of knowledge obtained through Indigenous Methodologies are on par with present day scientific theories put forward by leading scientists.

Dr. Kim Venn – astronomer, physicist and specialist at UVic in observational stellar spectroscopy – who analyzes stars to study the fossil record of the chemistry of the Universe at the time and place where they were born.

Kent Monkman – Cree visual artist and the artist-curator of Being Legendary.

The conversation is moderated by acclaimed Anishinaabe filmmaker and self-proclaimed “science geek,” Lisa Jackson, whose upcoming feature documentary Wilfred Buck weaves together Wilfred’s past and present life with his sky stories as it explores colonization’s impact on Indigenous ways of knowing.

This panel discussion with Kent Monkman, Dr. Leroy Little Bear, Elder Wilfred Buck, Dr. Kim Venn, moderated by Lisa Jackson was recorded Thursday, April 6, 2023 at the Royal Ontario Museum.

I listened to the entire thing. There is a lot of self-identification and touting of various First Nations cultures, self-congratulation about the wonderfulness of the panel, as well as weak analogies to science (“quantum mechanics” and “dark matter” are mentioned several times, and one expert in spectroscopy even apologizes for the colonialist nature of the periodic table!). But there is not a single instance in which a speaker shows any aspect of indigenous knowledge that advances, supplements or is even equivalent to a finding of modern science. Again, we find are only weak parallels and indigenous metaphors.

There is, however, plenty of the “authority of the sacred victim“: a touting of the view expressed in the eponymous book:

Suffering can make sacred, so it may partly be nature, and not culture alone, that leads us to apprehend a sacred aspect in victims of oppression. Those who recognize this sacredness show piety—a special form of respect—toward members of oppressed groups.

You can see this in the near-groveling of the one non-indigenous member of the panel, Dr. Venn, towards Elder Buck.  Yes, of course Canada’s indigenous people were horribly oppressed, with some of their their children removed from homes, put in schools, and forbidden to practice their culture or even speak their natal language.  That must be recognized, taught, and, where necessary, compensated for. But we also have to recognize that suffering does not give you special expertise in understanding the universe, or the ability to make valid comparisons between indigenous knowledge and modern science. As we wrote in our paper that I mentioned yesterday:

The scientific method is the core of liberal epistemology. In The Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch addresses the current epistemological crisis by reaffirming the central tenets of liberal epistemology (developed by Popper, Albert, Weber, and others). Namely, that provisional truth is attainable and that a truth claim can be made only if it is testable and withstands attempts to debunk it (the Fallibilist Rule). He also emphasizes that no one has personal authority over a truth claim, nor can one claim authority by virtue of a personally or tribally privileged perspective (the Empirical Rule).

And yet both rules are violated over and over again in this video, in other places in Canada, and in New Zealand.

It’s a shame that this is put on by the Royal Ontario Museum, which, one would think, would value real scientific knowledge above superstition, origin stories, or even observational knowledge. Couldn’t it just have programs on First Nations people without dragging in modern science?

But Canada is now in the throes of touting the authority of the sacred victim, and, as the introducer—along with giving the obligatory land acknowledgement and noting the “colonialist roots of this Museum”—pledges to make the museum a place “where all indigenous peoples have a deep and full sense of belonging.” That can happen only if the Museum gives scientific credibility to the myths of indigenous people, and never, ever says anything that would put sacred myths and stories in doubt.

Well, here you go:

Our big paper on the importance of placing merit over ideology in science, and an op-ed in the WSJ

April 28, 2023 • 8:14 am

Here is the story of (and links to) our Big Paper on Merit, Ideology and Science. (One colleague and I have a paper in press on the intrusion of ideology into our own specific research areas; that will be out in late June.)  As for this behemoth of a paper, which, we think, says things that need to be aired, we managed (after a long haul) to get it published in a respectable, peer-reviewed journal: The Journal of Controversial Ideas, founded by Peter Singer and two other moral philosophers. If you click the screenshot of the title below, you’ll go to the Journal’s website where you can download the pdf. (If you can’t get a pdf, they’re free, so ask me.)

The point of “In Defense of Merit in Science” is simple: merit is now being downgraded by ideologues in favor of conformity of science to predetermined—usually “progressive”—political goals.  This is a disaster for science and the public understanding of science. (One example is the ideologically-based denial that there are only two sexes in animals.) The paper is in effect a defense of merit as the best and only way to judge science and scientists, and a warning that if prioritizing merit in science erodes (as is happening), we’re in for a bumpy ride, as Russia was in the time of Lysenko. (Russian biology still hasn’t recovered from the ideologically based and totally bogus science of the charlatan agronomist Trofim Lysenko. Stalin had Lysenko’s faulty ideas of agronomy made into official agricultural policy, and the result was that millions of people starved to death in the U.S.S.R. and China. Opponents of Lysenkoism were fired or sent to the gulag.) We’re not—and hopefully will never be—at that disastrous point in this century, but the inimical effects of downgrading merit in science and using ideological criteria instead are already pervasive and evident. I’ve written about them at length. (One is the valorization of “indigenous ways of knowing”, which is poised to destroy science in New Zealand.)

But I digress: here’s the paper’s abstract.


Merit is a central pillar of liberal epistemology, humanism, and democracy. The scientific enterprise, built on merit, has proven effective in generating scientific and technological advances, reducing suffering, narrowing social gaps, and improving the quality of life globally. This perspective documents the ongoing attempts to undermine the core principles of liberal epistemology and to replace merit with non-scientific, politically motivated criteria. We explain the philosophical origins of this conflict, document the intrusion of ideology into our scientific institutions, discuss the perils of abandoning merit, and offer an alternative, human-centered approach to address existing social inequalities.

There are 29 authors, men and women of diverse nationalities and ethnicities, ranging from junior researchers to Nobel Laureates (two of the latter). You will recognize some of the authors, like Loury and McWhorter, whose work I write about a lot.  All the authors are in alphabetical order, but I have to note that by far the largest share of the work on this paper was done by Anna Krylov, as well as her partner Jay Tanzman. Anna was generous enough to not take the first authorship, to which she was fully entitled. But the alphabetization does bespeak a certain unanimity among authors in the way we feel about this issue.

Click the screenshot to read the paper (or rather, to get to a place where you can download the pdf).

There’s also a lot of Supplemental Information, juicy stuff, crazy quotations from scientists, ancillary data, and, of course, the authors’ biographies, at this site

The paper is a long one—26 pages—but I’d urge you to have a look. We’re hoping that this represents the beginning of pushback by scientists against the ideological degradation of our field, and that by speaking out, we’ll inspire others to join us.

Now, a bit about our troubles in publishing it.  We sent the paper to several scientific journals, which will remain unnamed, and they all found reasons why they couldn’t publish it. One likely reason was  that merit in science (and everywhere else) is being displaced in favor of, well, “political correctness”, and defending merit is seen as an “antiprogressive” view.  In other words, any journal publishing this would be inundated with protest. (But I’m sure Peter Singer doesn’t care: he’s been the victim of opprobrium all his life, and I’m a huge fan.) We were at a loss of where to put this laborious piece of analysis, but then I remembered the new Journal of Controversial Ideas, and suggested sending it there.

They finally accepted it, but I tell you that it was a VERY stringent review process, requiring two complete revisions of the paper. That’s good, because the paper was vetted by several critical reviewers and I think it’s a lot better for having been criticized and rewritten. And nobody can argue that it wasn’t reviewed!

But it’s always struck me as VERY ODD that a paper defending merit should be so controversial that we had to place it in a journal devoted to heterodox thought. So I decided to write an op-ed about this irony, joined by Anna.  The op-ed, too, was rejected by a certain famous newspaper, but the Wall Street Journal snapped it up immediately. Yes, the WSJ’s commentary section (this piece is classified as a commentary) is largely conservative, but, as I always say, who else would publish a piece that’s offensive to The Elect?

You can read our Commentary by clicking on the screenshot below, but it’s paywalled and by agreement we can reproduce only a short part of the piece. Perhaps you know someone who subscribes and can fill you in on the rest. By the way, it was the editors, not us, who wrote the title and subtitle. I love the title, but the subtitle may strike some as a bit hyperbolic.

Here are the first three paragraphs of our Commentary (what they asked us to limit social-media publication to), but I hope the paper won’t mind if I add the last short paragraph, just because I like it.

Until a few months ago, we’d never heard of the Journal of Controversial Ideas, a peer-reviewed publication whose aim is to promote “free inquiry on controversial topics.” Our research typically didn’t fit that description. We finally learned of the journal’s existence, however, when we tried to publish a commentary about how modern science is being compromised by a de-emphasis on merit. Apparently, what was once anodyne and unobjectionable is now contentious and outré, even in the hard sciences.=

. . . . Yet as we shopped our work to various scientific publications, we found no takers—except one. Evidently our ideas were politically unpalatable. It turns out the only place you can publish once-standard conclusions these days is in a journal committed to heterodoxy. . .

. . . But [our paper] was too much, even “downright hurtful,” as one editor wrote to us. Another informed us that “the concept of merit . . . has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow.” Legitimately?

In the end, we’re grateful that our paper will be published. But how sad it is that the simple and fundamental principle undergirding all of science—that the best ideas and technologies should be the ones we adopt—is seen these days as “controversial.”

Well known German and French newspapers have also agreed to publish pieces on the JCI paper; these will be coming out in a week or so and I’ll link to them as they appear. I notice that Bari Weiss has also mentioned the paper in the TGIF column in The Free Press today. (Nellie Bowles, the regular TGIF author, is on a reporting trip to Texas.)

Finally, there’s a press release that you can see by clicking on the link below. It describes what the paper is about, what our goals were, why it was published in The Journal of Controversial Ideas, and a few quotes about the paper from authors. If you can’t read such a long paper (shame on you if you don’t!), at least read this:

A juicy comment by an author:

Commenting on publishing in the Journal of Controversial Ideas, co-author and professor of mathematics, Svetlana Jitomirskaya, says: “To me it feels quite absurd that we even had to write this paper, not to mention that it had to be published in the Journal of Controversial Ideas. Isn’t it self-evident that science should be based on merit? I thought that no scientist took arguments to the contrary seriously. I was shocked by the reasons PNAS rejected our paper. The reviewers, all presumably distinguished scientists, were clearly in favor of the opposing arguments.”

How science cements the power of oppressors, contributing to systemic equities and racism

April 4, 2023 • 1:30 pm

Here’s another paper (this one from Nature Communications Chemistry) accusing science of structural racism at present and calling not for equal opportunity, but for equity now.  And we’re clearly all complicit in a system of oppression that, somehow, not only stems from racism, but also contributes to racism:

The boilerplate beginning, which could have been written by Chat-GPT:

The last two years have shaken the consciousness of human societies because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, extreme weather events, fatal incidences of racial injustices, discoveries of mass graves of Indigenous children in Canada, refugee crises, and ongoing armed conflicts. Also, the last two years have shown the world how scientists work collaboratively and in real time to develop new vaccines, design new tools and technologies to detect and analyze airborne pathogens, purify indoor air, and quantify improvements to outdoor air quality because of lockdowns. We also witnessed unprecedented levels of openness to talk publicly about uncomfortable truths pertaining to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the sciences, including chemistry. The ongoing practice and culture of science has failed marginalized communities and mostly being used to cement the power of oppressors partly leading to systematic social and economic inequities and racism2. Leaders in academic institutions, scientific societies, funding agencies, and publishers have finally acknowledged the need to shift the root causes of inequities facing marginalized groups from individuals to institutional cultures and policies that historically enabled the exclusion of the ‘other’.

I reject the claim that science is “mostly being used to cement the power of oppressors”, which is wildly hyperbolic. The way to increase the diversity of science is to start at the beginning of life (seriously) and try to give everyone equal opportunity. Yes, I know that’s near impossible, but that’s where the money and effort should go. Efforts applied at the graduate student and faculty hiring level can create equity as an appearance, but not a permanent equity that supposedly (but need not necessarily) reflects equality of opportunity. I’m amazed that scientists can read this stuff and just accept it wholesale.

Below is an instructional figure, explained this way:

Figure 1 shows an illustration of the ongoing practice and culture of science. EDI efforts bridge the gap between the higher objective of doing science, which is to be in the service of society, and the composition/diversity/power structure and dynamics within the scientistic community. The composition of the scientific community should -ideally- reflect the society being served and its changing demographics. However, composition alone is not enough as it does not equal power. Even in “diverse” settings, scientists from under-represented groups continue to be marginalized in scientific fields3. The ingredients for doing science are: (a) humans, who include mentors and students4. The pool from which scientists come from is the general population of a given country or community, (b) soft assets, which include time, freedom of thought, persistence, ability to prioritize, hard work, ability to bounce back, good daily habits, and (c) hard assets, which include money, space, tools, instruments, and computers. The combination of these ingredients enables knowledge generation through original research, i.e., scientific scholarly output, which comes in the form of peer-reviewed papers, new products, new policies, or changes to existing ones. Some of that scholarly output has short- and/or long-term benefits to the wider communities locally and globally.

The peers in each scientific field are also humans, who use the scientific evidence presented in the scholarly output to judge and rank the merit of ideas and competency of other scientists. Peers also judge and rank the quality of the scholarly output and stature of other scientists to justify recommendations for more, or less, assets needed to do the science. Recognitions of this scholarly output come in the forms of invitations to speak at conferences, invitations to join expert panels, awards, promotions and more titles, and coverage by science journalists in the media (TV, radio, newspapers, etc.). Therefore, the practice of science is labeled as self-correcting, selective, and reinforced by feedback from peers leading to the illusion among scientists that doing science is the most objective human endeavor for the pursuit of knowledge with little room for subjectivity. However, as detailed in the next section, while scientists aspire to be as objective as they can, they are not immune to historical and ongoing social struggles that manifest in the form of racism, sexism, ableism, and phobias of all kind leading to propagating an image about the scientific community as an exclusive club for elites.

Here you go.  Do you understand now why we’re all oppressors?


I have nothing more to say about this, because every journal is publishing this paper in just a slightly different form. The only thing new here is the highly informative figure.

Canada resembling New Zealand in equating science with indigenous “ways of knowing”

March 29, 2023 • 10:15 am

New Zealand is a lost cause insofar as science education is concerned, for the government and educational establishment is doing all it can to make local indigenous “ways of knowing” (mātauranga Māori, or MM) coequal with modern science, and taught as coequal. This will, in the end, severely damage science education in New Zealand, and drive local science teachers (and graduate students) to other countries. It won’t help the indigenous Māori people, either, as it will not only give them misconceptions about what is empirically “true” versus what is fable, legend, or religion, but also make them less competitive in world science—both in jobs and publishing.

Now, I would be the first to admit that indigenous knowledge is not completely devoid of empirical knowledge.  Indigenous people have a stock of knowledge acquired by observation as well as trial and error. This includes, of course, a knowledge of the indigenous plants and their medical and nutritional uses, when the best time is to catch fish or pick berries, and, in perhaps its most sophisticated version, the ability the Polynesians to navigate huge expanses of water. (That, of course, was also done by trial and error, and must have involved the demise of those who didn’t do it right—something that’s never mentioned.)

Is observational knowledge like this “science”?  In one sense, yes, for you can construe “science” as simply “verified empirical knowledge”.  But modern science is more than that: it’s also its own “way of knowing”—a toolkit of methods, itself assembled by trial and error, for obtaining provisional truth. This toolkit, as I explain in Faith Versus Fact, includes the practices of modern science, including hypothesis-making and -testing, experiments, replication, pervasive doubt and criticality, construction models, concepts of falsifiability, and so on.

Because modern science comprises not just facts but a method codified via experience, indigenous knowledge generally fails the second part, for it lacks a method for advancing knowledge beyond experience and verification. Indeed, I know of no indigenous science that has a standard methodology for ascertaining truth. Yes, various plants can be tested for their efficacy in relieving ailments, but this is done by trial and error—in contrast to the double-blind tests used to assess the effects of new drugs and medicines.

Still, indigenous knowledge can contribute to modern science. This can involve bringing attention to phenomena that, when tested scientifically, can be folded into the domain of empirical fact.  Quinine and aspirin were developed in this way. And, of course, local ecological knowledge of indigenous people can be valuable in helping guide modern science and calling attention to phenomena that might have otherwise been overlooked. Nevertheless, what we have is experiential knowledge on one hand—a species of knowledge that rarely leads to testable hypotheses—and modern science on the other, which is designed to lead to progress by raising new testable hypotheses.

The concept of “indigenous science”, then, baffles me, especially if, as in New Zealand, it’s seen as coequal to science. It’s not, though, for it lacks a methodology beyond trial and error for determining what’s true. But because of what philosopher Molly McGrath called “the authority of the sacred victim.”, indigenous “ways of knowing” are given special authority because they’re held by people regarded as oppressed. This leads their “ways of knowing” to be overrated as competitors to modern science. Indeed, MM is a pastiche of real empirical knowledge, but also of religion, theology, ideology, morality, rules for living, authority, and tradition. This kind of mixture characterizes many indigenous “ways of knowing”, making it necessary, when teaching them as science, to not only distinguish “fact” from “method,” but to winnow the empirical wheat from the ideological and spiritual chaff.

As I said, it’s too late for those in New Zealand, with real science being diluted by MM, but only now am I realizing that Canada, which of course harbors indigenous people with substantial power, is starting a movement to teach “indigenous science”, too. And the way it’s going it doesn’t bode well. For example, here’s a job ad for a high-paying “Director of Indigenous Science” on a Canadian government website (click screenshot to see the whole thing):

The position is, first, to “bridge” Indigenous and Western science (of course although modern science started flowering in sixteenth-century Europe, it is no longer “Western” and should not be called as such, which insults all the working scientists not in the West):

The Indigenous Science Division is seeking a Director who will bridge the gap between Indigenous and Western sciences! Do you want to participate in establishing partnerships with Indigenous knowledge holders? Do you possess strong communication skills and have a desire to engage with this community?

But the implicit assumption is that there is indeed indigenous science comparable to modern science. How can they be bridged? By supplementing modern science with things like medicinal plants that haven’t been tested using a proper method? Or by bringing the methods of modern science into indigenous science, which I don’t think is the goal here/ Indeed, the position assumes there already is an indigenous “science” that seems to go beyond experiential knowledge. Here are some of the criteria you must meet to be considered for the job:

– Experience working with Indigenous knowledge systems or science.

– Experience developing and implementing policies and programs related to Indigenous science, Indigenous knowledge, or science programs.

– Experience in building and maintaining relationships with Indigenous communities, organizations, or multiple stakeholders, including different levels of government.

– Experience providing leadership and guidance to staff in incorporating Indigenous science, Indigenous knowledge or science into their work.

And what you must know:

– Knowledge of Indigenous Science, including traditional ecological knowledge, Indigenous research methods and methodologies, and perspectives on environment and natural sciences.

– Knowledge of Indigenous Science frameworks, such as Two-Eyed Seeing, which integrate Indigenous and Western knowledge systems.

Yes, of course traditional ecological knowledge, if it’s established as true, would count, but I’m curious about what constitutes “indigenous research methods and methodologies.” If they do exist, I’d be pleased to learn about them.

But the stuff about “Two-Eyed Seeing” is misleading, for, if you read the article in the British Columbia Medical Journal below, you find that seeing nature through a modern science lens (one eye) as well as an indigenous science lens (the other eye), you are basically valorizing the oppressed rather than invigorating science. Click to read:

The definition of “Two-eyed seeing” from the paper’s background material:

Two-Eyed Seeing developed from the teachings of Chief Charles Labrador of Acadia First Nation, but Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall of the Eskasoni First Nation was the first to apply the concept of Two-Eyed Seeing in a Western setting. Specifically, Two-Eyed Seeing “refers to learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and to use both of these eyes together for the benefit of all.”

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t show what the “indigenous eye” can contribute to vision, for the piece is mostly about gaining the trust of indigenous communities if they are to be involved in your research. And that’s necessary, of course: you just don’t go barging into an indigenous community to use them as research subjects or helpers without their complete cooperation, including discussion of how they’d benefit from the research and exactly what is being studied. But the article is NOT about empirical truths gained from indigenous “ways of knowing.”

Finally, if you were thinking that you can’t “decolonize” mathematics, you’re wrong. Here’s a link to a “professional learning session” sent me by a Canadian teacher who saw it and was upset by it. (By the way, I get quite a few emails from Canadian educators who are upset by the “decolonization” of scientific/medical knowledge via “indigenous knowledge”, but, like people in New Zealand, they dare not object for fear of professional damage.)

The session is on April 29, and you can register to see it online by clicking on the article—at least I think you can. You might have to be a Canadian teacher.

Click to read:

What’s on tap in this session (my bolding):

In this session Dr. [Lisa] Borden will share stories from her research and teaching life that have been influenced by the knowledge learned from time spent alongside Elders and knowledge keepers within the Mi’kmaw community in Mi’kma’ki or what we now call Nova Scotia. Through a series of moments, she will share how her philosophy for decolonizing mathematics education has been shaped and how this in turn shapes her mathematics teaching. Key ideas that will be shared include ideas about ethnomathematics, the role of community-based inquiry and social justice, the importance of a culturally enabling pedagogy informed by language, and the importance of a holistic approach to advancing students’ mathematical understandings.

Lisa Lunney Borden is a Professor in the faculty of education who holds the John Jerome Paul Chair for Equity in Mathematics Education striving to improve outcomes in mathematics for Mi’kmaw and African Nova Scotian youth. Prior to coming to StFX, she had a teaching career in We’koqma’q First Nation where she spent ten years as a secondary mathematics teacher, a vice-principal and principal, as well as the provincial mathematics leader for all Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey schools in Nova Scotia. Lisa credits her students and the Mi’kmaw community for inspiring her to think differently about mathematics education which continues to shape her work today. She is committed to research and outreach that focuses on decolonizing mathematics education through culturally based practices and experiences that are rooted in Indigenous languages and knowledge systems. She is a sought-after speaker nationally and internationally and has a passion for working with teachers and their students. Lisa has helped to create the Show Me Your Math program that inspired thousands of Mi’kmaw youth to share the mathematical reasoning inherent in their own community contexts, and an outreach program called Connecting Math to Our Lives and Communities that brings similar ideas to Mi’kmaw and African Nova Scotian youth as an afterschool program. She currently serves as the President of the Canadian Mathematics Education Study Group, and sits on the Canadian Mathematical Society’s reconciliation committee.

Now I’m not sure what’s included in “ethnomathematics”. If it’s just approaching teaching math but using examples familiar to indigenous folk, then it’s not an alternative form of mathematics but a method of teaching. If it really adds stuff to the knowledge of mathematics, I’d like to know what. (Be always wary when you see the term “holistic approach” applied to education. And the notion that ethnomathematics has something to do with “social justice” scares the bejeezus out of me.) Perhaps ethnomathematics is mathematics + ideology, in which case it’s not an eye that sees, but a hand that propagandizes.

h/t: Luana

The New Zealand Herald does a hit job on Dawkins

March 4, 2023 • 11:00 am

Richard Dawkins made a short visit to New Zealand last week, during which he went after the concept of Mātauranga Māori (MM)—the indigenous “way of knowing”—as a supposed replacement for science. (The government has decreed that MM be taught as coequal to science in secondary-school classrooms, although this “way of knowing is a melange of practical knowledge, religion, traditional stories, morality, and superstition.) I posted about Dawkins’s visit here, noting that he’d written a “diary piece” in the Spectator that was critical of MM as science (though not as anthropology or sociology).

I knew this would cause a kerfuffle, and, sure enough, the New Zealand Herald, the country’s biggest newspaper, put out a hit piece on Dawkins. Click below to read it; if it’s paywalled you can read it archived here.

The piece first describes what Dawkins said in his Spectator piece, not neglecting to mention that Elon Musk issued a brief tweet seconding Richard’s thoughts. When you read the piece, notice the dry, almost sarcastic way that Dawkins’s views are reported—in a manner guaranteed to irritate the woke. He even mentioned the giant flightless moas which were, of course, hunted to extinction by the Māori. That’s almost taboo to say, though it’s true. (Richard didn’t mention that they also destroyed much of the North and South Island’s forest by burning and agriculture. Some “stewards of the environment”!)

Where the knife goes into Dawkins is when the paper calls for comment only on one person: Dr. Tara McAllister, a Kiwi (and Māori) freshwater ecologist whose research career  has largely morphed into a series of papers attacking the racism and white supremacy of Kiwi science and trying to gain scientific equity for MM. In fact, McAllister won a research award from New Zealand’s Royal Society largely for an incendiary paper called “50 reasons why there are no Māori in your science department.” Although she says the article was “somewhat cheeky”, it is in fact dead serious, basically accusing the whole New Zealand academic establishment—and the seven Auckland Uni professors who, in the infamous Listener letter, said that MM was not equivalent to science—of being riddled with racism.  Here are the first eight reasons (the people named in #1 are the signers of the Listener letter):


UPDATE:  McAllister actually won the award for a paper that’s just as misguided, “Why isn’t my professor Māori?“, which details the “inequities” in universities and blames them on racism. Here’s a table from that paper (and remember, it got a prize for being a research paper):


I’m sorry, but the Māori are not victims: the government is turning education inside out trying to give indigenous people more research money , positions, and power, and people like McAllister are furthering this enterprise by claiming that, contrary to facts, they are all victims. (Yes, they were once discriminated against by “colonists”, but now they’re the most lauded group in the country.) It’s not wrong to say that McAllister is making her career by playing the “racist” card to gain more power for MM.  And shame once again on New Zealand’s Royal Society for giving her an award for such a vile, divisive, and inaccurate paper.

At any rate, McAllister is the only Kiwi scientist quoted about what Dawkins said in the Spectator piece, and everything she says is negative. So much for getting different points of view! (And yes, they exist, though most Kiwis who oppose the government’s police censor themselves lest they lose their jobs.)

McAllister criticizes Dawkins for his lack of expertise in MM and, of course, for being a racist. Her quotes take up half the article, and remember, this paper represents New Zealand’s most mainstream media. Here’s the article’s second half:

Dr Tara McAllister, whose research has sought to address the under-representation of indigenous scholars in academia, responded to Dawkins’ column.

“It is boring, embarrassing, inaccurate and full of racist tropes,” she told the Herald.

“It is clear Richard Dawkins has no expertise on mātauranga.”

She said Dawkins’ comments were damaging and – like the public letter from the University of Auckland professors – “function to embolden other racist scientists in Aotearoa”.

“Dawkins’ comments are, however, a great example of how clearly white supremacy is ingrained in Western sciences globally, and how colonising scientists continue to attempt to undermine the global resurgence of indigenous knowledge, which I will incorporate into my teaching and research,” she said.


Advertise with NZME.

“It is abundantly clear that Dawkins knows nothing about mātauranga Māori.

“We have plenty of experts in mātauranga, like Rereata Makiha, Rangi Matamua and Ocean Mercier. Richard Dawkins is clearly not one of them. He has no relevancy here in Aotearoa.”

McAllister said there was “a very long history” of mātauranga Māori being excluded and marginalised in Aotearoa since colonisation.

“I believe that its incorporation into the curriculum, in principle, is an important step in the right direction,” she said.

Notice her claim that Dawkins and the signers of the Listener letter were racists and colonizers, that Dawkins can’t criticize MM as science because he knows nothing about it (believe me, you don’t have to be an expert to see that it’s by no means coequal to science), that all criticism of MM is “racist” (it isn’t; read Dawkins’s piece, for he says nothing racist), and that MM should be incorporated into the curriculum, certainly as science. If the last bit is what she truly feels, then she knows LESS about MM than Dawkins does. Part of MM involves empirical knowledge, but most of it has nothing to do with what we think of as modern science.

Four things are clear to me from reading this article and from following the government’s woke path in New Zealand

1.) Scientists there are fighting a losing battle, largely because they are prevented from speaking out by fear of losing their jobs (see Richard’s Spectator piece). Yet despite this, I get at least one or two emails a day from Kiwi scientists objecting to the takeover of academia and science by MM.

2.) The indigenization of Kiwi academics is being helped along and promoted by the mainstream media who crank out biased pieces like this.

3.) The fear of Kiwi scientists and other academics to speak out on this issue—and a frank discussion really is needed—is driven by their fear of being called “racists”.. And nobody is better at wielding the “racist” and “white supremacist” trope than the prize-winning Dr. McAllister.

4.) New Zealand’s Royal Society remains a joke. Imagine giving a “research prize” to McAllister for her promotion of MM as science, especially the victimization narrative in her “50 reasons” paper.

Is academia really disintegrating?

February 10, 2023 • 11:15 am

This article, from Quillette, caught my attention because of the title. Is academia really disintegrating? It’s one thing to say it’s being infested by Critical Theory, or infused with postmodernism, but what is the “disintegration”? It turns out that author Mark Goldblatt really does think that academia, which to him means higher education, is going to fall apart—to experience a schism that will make much of it worthless. Goldblatt’s background, as limned in the article is this:

Mark Goldblatt teaches at SUNY’s Fashion Institute of Technology. His latest book is I Feel, Therefore I Am: The Triumph of Woke Subjectivism.

But I think his overall thesis is wrong. He maintains that much of academia, infested with postmodern ideas, holds there is no such thing as objective truth. This view is said to be pervasive in the humanities and social sciences which will, eventually, “cease to be higher education in the Enlightenment sense”. And there he may well be right. But he sees STEM fields as holding fast to the ideas that there is objective truth, and that will preserve them and their value in education—and cause a fatal schism in academia. It’s this last bit I disagree with.

Goldblatt is right that most science is still predicated on the idea of there being an objective reality that we can approach through our endeavors. But what he gets wrong is the idea that science is immune to attack because its endeavors are nearly free from ideological taint.  There’s no way, he implies, that it could become postmodernist, or shirk its mission to find objective truth. .

That view is exaggerated. As amply documented, even on this site, many aspects of science (especially in biology) are being attacked because they contradict what people want to believe based on their adherence to a tribal ieology.  Science is getting very woke very fast, and that, combined with the denigration of merit and elevation of identity and identity politics, and the scrutiny of all projects to see if they can cause “harm” or even violence, is curbing academic freedom in science, just as it is in non-science fields. Increasingly, grants are given for ideological reasons rather than scientific merit, and scientists can be fired, canceled, or denigrated for seeking truth.  So I see academia as a whole eroding in quality and purpose—a trend that I fervently hope will reverse itself—but I don’t see it disintegrating through a schism of humanities and social sciences vs. the natural sciences, all involved in their willingness to embrace.

Click on the screenshot to read

I guess this idea started when Goldblatt, while approving a SUNY course on sociology from an LGBT perspective, nevertheless objected to the idea that students were expected in the course to develop a “greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ perspectives and rights.”  He’s sympathetic to those perspectives and rights, but said that a course should not have the aim of ideologically indoctrinating its students. If they change their minds by learning the material, that’s fine, but accepting a certain perspective should not be required. This led to a fracas in a faculty meeting:

After expressing my general admiration for the course, I raised my misgiving in the following way (and this is nearly an exact quote): “We need to keep in mind that we’re a state university. Our mission is to pursue, ascertain, and disseminate objective truth, and to equip our students to do the same. Given that mission, I don’t think we can list a learning outcome that requires students’ assent on a matter of personal morality. The other learning outcomes are fine. You don’t need that one, so I’d just cut it.” My colleague was fresh out of graduate school and not yet tenured, which (theoretically) put her in a vulnerable position. Nevertheless, she became apoplectic; so angry, in fact, that she had difficulty getting out her first sentence. “I can’t believe people still think that way!” she spluttered. “Queer Theory has deconstructed objectivity!”

And that got Goldblatt thinking about how the jettisoning of “objectivity” is permeating all of humanities and social sciences, thanks largely to postmodernist philosophers like Jacques Derrida (shown above). He also sees the rejection of objectivity as self-nullifying, for saying that “there is no such thing as objective truth” is itself an objective statement about the impossibility of objectivity.

But Goldblatt was heartened by seeing that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) retains its belief in objective truth and reject postmodern views:

My sense, based on hundreds of informal conversations I’ve had with STEM faculty, is that people working in the hard sciences tend to roll their eyes at the alleged insights of postmodernism. They inhabit a world in which truth is still gauged by correspondence between belief and reality, and in which reality exists independently of our beliefs about it. Generally speaking, they don’t give a rat’s ass about discourse communities and meta-narratives. They want to know if the equations balance, if the instruments work, and if their hypotheses match empirical outcomes. In other words, they are interested in discovering if what they believe to be true is objectively true. They are certainly not interested in the ethnicity, sexuality, or gender identity of the people making truth claims.

Ergo the schism:

Put all of that together, and you’ve got the makings of a schism. The humanities and social sciences are undergoing a mission reversion—they’re returning to a pre-Enlightenment view of the purpose of higher education. Prior to the Enlightenment, universities were sites of religious instruction that trained clergy. Harvard was founded in 1636, a mere six years after the settlement of Massachusetts Bay, to ensure that future generations of New England Puritans would be served by learned ministers. That goal is found among Harvard’s original “Rules and Precepts”:

Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome [i.e., at the base of the boat, to keep it steady in the water], as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.

That’s a version of what we’re seeing with the rise of the subjectivist movement in the humanities and social sciences. It is a new secular faith, a version of The Way. Instruction in radical progressive curricula is baptism by accreditation. It’s witness and testing. You gather for three hours a week to dwell in the spirit, commit yourself to individual rituals and collective causes, despair the fallen state of humanity, call out and cast out demons, immerse yourself in sacred texts and memorize venerable chants, then venture forth to spread the gospel. The end is performative, sacramental. Let me tell you the many ways you’re oppressed so that you may be a river to the masses.

Increasingly, that is the state of the humanities and social sciences at public universities in the US. Whatever you think of that development, it signals an existential crisis for higher education because instruction in the STEM fields at American universities remains traditional, objectively focused, and globally competitive. The reversion of the humanities and social sciences to religious preparation cannot coexist indefinitely with the Enlightenment mission of STEM instruction. Something has to give.

And so, as science clings to objectivity while other departments happily deny it, the university will fracture (I’m not sure what form this fracture is supposed to take). And no, nothing has to give, for science itself is eroding away—granted, not as fast as are the humanities.  As I said, scientific merit is rather quickly being placed below below ideology and identitarian politics, so that the quality of research and researchers now often rests largely on political criteria (yes, deriving from postmodernism) rather than scientific merit. Because the whole of scientific progress depends on valuing science by its importance and innovative quality, and valuing researchers by how well they can do science, this will erode the field.

Increasingly, we see scientific journals like Nature and Science, as well as popular science journalism (Scientific American comes to mind) devoting their pages to “Social Justice” (capitalized à la Pluckrose and Lindsay to mean the authoritarian rather than the liberal and empathic brand), to word policing, and to promoting “progressive” ideology.  Scientific ideas themselves are being attacked on ideological grounds. We’ve pretty much squelched the creationists and antivaxers, but even scientists themselves are making ideological arguments about there being more than two sexes in humans, about men and women being biologically identical in behavior and preference, that evolutionary psychology is bunk, that there are no genetic differences between human populations, that it’s unacceptable to dig up human remains because they belong to whatever indigenous people inhabit the land now, and so on. The NIH withholds data on ethnic groups from researchers because its use could cause harm. All of this, by chilling scientific practice, impedes science itself as well as the public’s knowledge about it.

I could go on and on about how science has been and is being held back by ideology, but I’ve just helped write two huge papers on that and can’t say more. Suffice it to say that science and the social sciences/humanities are not diverging, but converging, though science will never be as intellectually depauperate as aspects of those other fields known as “Studies”.

So although Goldblatt has a point about the decline of academia caused by infiltration of ideology, I don’t see the schism he foresees:

The disintegration of academia is coming. Whichever side precipitates the break, it will be a necessary development. Higher education is a serious intellectual endeavor, and nothing is less intellectually serious in contemporary academia than the suggestion that the pursuit of objectivity has been discredited. Empirical observation, mathematical inquiry, inductive and deductive reasoning, and falsifiability are the sine qua nons of higher education. As courses of study in the humanities and social sciences depart from such things, they cease to be higher education in the Enlightenment sense.

There will be a decline, but there will be no break, for ideology is pushing STEM closer to Studies.  As I said, I hope that this tilting ship will eventually right itself, and if you’re an optimist you can find reasons to hope that it will.

But I tend to take the position of the Jewish optimist in the following classic definitions:

Jewish pessimist: “Things can’t get any worse.”

Jewish optimist: “Sure they can!!”

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

January 25, 2023 • 9:50 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the pressure they’ve been under:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The perils of politicized science

January 21, 2023 • 12:30 pm

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. held a panel last Thursday on “The Perils of Politicized Science”. (You can go to the website by clicking on the screenshot below, but I’ll put the entire video at bottom (1 hour, 41 minutes). No beefing about AEI: who else but a conservative organization would even host a discussion like this? It’s the ideas, not the venues, that are important.

I haven’t watched all of it yet, but will. Of the first two I’ve watched, Jussim is particularly energetic and engaging, as he tends to be. But I haven’t seen Satel, Krylov, or Mills.

The panelists certainly have street cred.

Sally Satel, senior fellow at AEI, former psychiatrist and teacher
Wilfred Reilly of Kentucky State University, who participated via Zoom. He’s a political scientist.
Lee Jussim of Rutgers University psychologist
Anna Krylov, University of Southern California, theoretical chemistry
M. Anthony Mills, Senior Fellow, AEI.

The topic, according to Anna, was the different ways that politics interacts with science and how politics and supposedly science-based policies are damaging science.  This differs a bit from the YouTube description, and because her summary was made after the panel, I take it to be more accurate.

So here you go:

I answer an ambiguous question: “Can scientists believe in God?

January 21, 2023 • 10:45 am

Sciglam is an online polymathic site that describes itself this way:

SciGlam is a science communication magazine intended to be a space for dialogue between three major spheres of knowledge and culture: art, science and society.

We believe that normalizing scientific conversation is essential in the pursuit of a healthier and more skeptical society.

Our mission is to inspire scientific curiosity and involvement. For this reason, we end each interview with one last question for the interviewee: if you could ask a scientist of any background a question, what would it be? The answers to these questions can be found in SciGlam Answers

I believe the site is run by young women scientists and journalists, and they wrote me last fall asking me to give a short answer to the question, “Can scientists believe in God?”  The question came from their earlier interview with bookseller S. W. Welch, in which the Q&A ended like this:

If you could ask a scientist of any background a question, what would it be?

Do scientists believe in God?

And Sciglam gives those questions to appropriate people, ergo me. I was eager to answer, not only to help out some aspiring young folks, but also because the question, being a bit ambiguous, gave me the chance to clarify a common misconception about science and religion.

That misconception is that science and religion must be compatible because there are religious scientists (and science-friendly believers). If you construe the question literally, then of course the answer is “Yes: lots of scientists are religious.” But that, to me, fails to demonstrate that science and religion are compatible—only that someone can believe in two incompatible “ways of knowing” at the same time.

And so I took the opportunity to give both the literal answer (yes) with statistics, and then go on to argue that the more meaningful answer involves the second way of construing the question—are there fundamental incompatibilities between the practice of religion and science? As you know if you’ve read my book Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, you’ll know that any scientist who believes in God is embracing two incompatible practices at once, adhering to two divergent ways of apprehending what is true. (Yes, I know that religion is about more than accepting “facts” that haven’t been demonstrated, but all the Abrahamic religions are, at bottom, grounded on factual claims that could in principle be tested.)

To answer the second question I’d have to summarize the thesis of my book, and I had only a few hundred words to do that. So, if you’ll click on the screenshot below, you’ll see my answer.

There are two corrections that I asked for which haven’t been made as of this writing. The body of scientists I mention is the “National Academies of Sciences“, not the uncapitalized “national academies of science.” And the statement “Science is an atheistic enterprise: we don’t invoke gods or the supernatural to explain the world, nor do we need to” should read “Science is an a-theistic enterprise in the sense that we don’t invoke gods or the supernatural to explain the world, nor do we need to.”  I didn’t want to imply that science demands that its practitioners to adhere to atheism (creationists always claim I say that), but to say that the practice of science doesn’t involve invoking divine or supernatural explanations. I add that naturalism is not something that began as an inseparable part of science, but has been added over time because we’ve learned that invoking gods doesn’t help us understand the universe. Creationism, for example, was once a “scientific” explanation—until Darwin found a better and naturalistic explanation—and one that could be empirically teste.

But I run on; I’ve already written more here than in the short piece itself. Click below to read it, and be aware of the two small corrections.

One quote from me:

The fact that science can find truth but religion can’t is shown by the remarkable progress made by science in 300 years, while no progress has been made in theology. If there is a God, we know no more about Him than did St. Augustine.

Furthermore, there are hundreds of different religions, all making claims about what’s true, and yet many of the claims are incompatible (eg, “Was Jesus the son of God, or only a prophet?”). There’s no way to decide among these claims, since religion has no way to test them.

Actually, Augustine lived in the fifth century, so I should have said “no progress has been made in theology in 1500 years”.  But the important point is that theology is pretty much a useless enterprise, as its sweating practitioners, who actually get paid to make stuff up, have brought us no closer to understanding God or His ways—or even, of course, if God exists. Their job is simply to continuously re-interpret religious scripture and dogma so it adheres with the going morality. Theology is different from straight Biblical scholarship, which can tell us stuff about how the Bible or other scriptures came to be written and what their antecedents were. Biblical scholarship is useful as a form of historical inquiry and literary exegesis, while theology is a remnant of our childhood as a species, a vestigial belief that’s the mental equivalent of adults holding blankets and sucking their thumbs.