New Zealand government spends $2.7 million to test already-debunked indigenous theory about the effect of lunar phases on plants

July 30, 2023 • 9:45 am

We’ve already learned that, with respect to some indigenous “scientific” theories, the New Zealand government is willing to commit the “Concorde” or “sunk cost” fallacy, continuing to fund lines of inquiry even though those projects have already been proven wrong or unproductive. A particularly egregious example, which I’ve documented before (see here, here and here) is the NZ government’s handing out $660,000 (NZ) to Priscilla Wehi of the University of Otago to pursue claims that the Polynesians (ancestors of the Māori) had discovered Antarctica in the early seventh century.  That claim was debunked by Māori scholars themselves, who discovered it was based on a mistranslation of an oral legend. The real discoverers of Antarctica were members of a Russian expedition in 1820. But Wehi was still given a big chunk of money to pursue a palpably stupid idea—only because it was based on an faulty indigenous legend.

The same thing is about to happen again, but this time involving more money. Now $2.7 million (NZ) has been given out to Māori workers to test (not really a “test”, as there’s no control) their notion that the phases of the moon affect plants to the extent that you can improve crop yield by planting and harvesting during certain propitious lunar phases.

This idea had already been debunked decades ago, but once again the Kiwis who hand out grants don’t care; they just want to proffer money to Māori, presumably as some form of affirmation of indigenous “ways of knowing”.

But read on about the government’s funding of Māori “tests” of the effects of lunar phases on planting.  Is there a control that ignores Moon phases? Not that I see. Further, the data already exists in the literature to show that this endeavor is useless. It’s not a “test,” but a complete waste of taxpayers money.

This article is from a section of New Zealand’s most widely read newspaper, the New Zealand Herald.  Note that “maramataka” is the Māori lunar calendar

Note that throughout the article there are reference to “positive results” of relying on the Moon’s phases for planting and harvesting, but no data have been published, and none are given. This is an exercise in confirmation bias, in giving money based on what people want to be true. 

Using ancient Māori knowledge of moon phases has shown positive results on pasture growth and riparian planting resilience for Bay of Plenty farmers Miru Young and Mohi Beckham.

The farmers were among those who spent two days on historic Te Kūiti Pā being guided through the Māori lunar calendar at a first-of-its-kind workshop.

They were shown why moon phases can influence aspects of plant growth, seed-sowing effectiveness and the potency of healing properties in native plants that Māori farmers have used to counter illnesses in farm animals for decades.

“We’re not here to preach maramataka (lunar calendar) but encourage farmers to observe so they can utilise the tools around us,” said Erina Wehi-Barton.

“Using maramataka and traditional plant knowledge is about working smarter not harder.

. . .Erina is a mātauranga practitioner and project specialist/kairangahau Māori for the trial Rere ki uta rere ki tai.

Note the implication below that this is a controlled study: mātauranga, characterized as “Māori science” is to be tested alongside “Western science”. But that’s the only time you hear anything about a control, and I’m pretty sure there isn’t one. My bolding:

The Government-funded trial explores mātauranga — Māori science —alongside Western science and farmer knowledge to improve soil health.

It is one of three place-based projects awarded funding as part of the Revitalise Te Taiao research programme. Paeroa-based Rere ki uta rere ki tai has been allocated $2.7 million to test farming methods that aim to “enhance the mana and mauri of the soil” across 10 farms.

Mana” refers roughly to “spiritual power”, while “mauri” means “life principle/vital essence”.  Both are teleological words that have no place in science.  But there’s more:

Erina said farmers already spent their days observing differences in pasture and forest growth through the seasons and were uniquely placed to gain insights over a lunar cycle. [JAC: where are the data?]

. . . The workshop came about after Erina visited Miru’s 80ha dairy farm in Pukehina, and had a conversation about maramataka.

Miru’s father Patrick and late granddad Steve had shared what they knew about maramataka, but the workshop allowed Young to learn more about each individual moon phase and how it might influence his farm.

“I grew up with maramataka from Dad and Koro (grandad), and Dad used it for gardening, hunting, fishing and diving. Now I do it for all of those, but I never thought about doing it for farming,” he says.

“What I do with fishing and diving is I write down what I get when I go out and what the moon phase is, then I know where to go back at what time. I saw patterns, more seasonal than anything.

“But with farming, I didn’t know how it might work because we use a contractor for planting, and he comes down when he’s ready, not when I’m ready.

“After I’d spent two years writing down my planting and the moon phases, I’d built a better relationship with my contractor, and I picked a better time to plant on, and now he’ll come then.”

Miru has recorded his observations that pasture was slower to get going at certain moon phases.

During the workshop on the marae, he talked with Wehi-Barton’s “ngahere parents” — who have taught her their knowledge of the forest — and related this to his experience hunting by the moon phase.

“I could see the patterns with hunting and diving.”

What patterns? Where are the data?

Fellow Bay of Plenty farmer Mohi Beckham grew up in a big family and learned from his mother who incorporated traditional Māori knowledge into her garden that helped sustain the whānau [extended family].

He has employed contractors who use the lunar cycle to guide riparian planting times on his brother’s Scylla Farm in Pukehina, a 208ha mixed dairy farm and orchard that he manages in the Bay of Plenty.

“We’re already doing maramataka on our farm through our planting of riparian plants, and the results they’ve had are amazing,” he says.

“The contractors only work in the high energy days of the lunar cycle, which is anywhere between 12 and 20 days compared to five days a week for conventional planting contractors. But the productivity is higher in the maramataka boys.

“A lot of our stuff has been under water this year and there’s a 93 per cent survival rate for their [maramataka] plantings. Usually, you are lucky when the survival rate is at 80 per cent.”

That’s about all the data we get, and it’s not only anecdotal, but not precise.  They didn’t even record the observations! (my bolding)

Mohi says he hasn’t kept a diary to properly record observations, but had experimented with sowing pasture on different moon phases that are resting and dormant phases or high-energy phases for plant growth.

“Two years ago we planted some according to the best phase of maramataka and some a week before that high-energy period. The maramataka outgrew the first area sown, even though it was planted seven to 10 days later.”

Taranaki farmer Nick Collins, the farm engagement adviser for Rere ki uta rere ki tai, has used moon phases during his 18 years as an organic dairy farmer.

“With hay, we found it cures better on the new moon, or after the full moon, because there’s lower moisture levels in the pasture,” he says.

“Leading up to the full moon is the active phase, which was a good time for silage because we weren’t worried about drying the plant. But we found that with hay, it seemed to dry better when the plant has lower moisture levels, and that’s a waning moon.

Note: the hay “seems to dry better”.  When you hear stuff like that, remember Feynman’s remarks about  the nature of science:

“The first principle is not to fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

What we see above is simply an exercise in reinforcing self-foolery. And of course the newspaper doesn’t dare raise any questions about it.

But there’s really no need to waste this $2.7 million, because there are already many, many published studies examining whether the phases of the moon influence crop physiology or yield. They’re summarized in the paper below from journal Agronomy, published by MDPI.  And the answer is that the lunar phases have no palpable effect on crop growth or yield, mainly because the influence of the Moon’s phases is simply too miniscule to affect plants. In other words, we already know that the studies above won’t show a positive effect, because similar work has already been tried.

Click the screenshot to read.

The authors did an extensive survey of the influence of lunar phases on plant physiology and, looking at all published studies, found no effect. 

Here’s the abstract, which pulls no punches, noting that popular agricultural practices that are tied to lunar phases have “no scientific backing.” Did that stop the NZ government from handing out millions to farmers using indigenous “ways of knowing” based on those phases? Nope.

All bolding is mine.


This paper reviews the beliefs which drive some agricultural sectors to consider the lunar influence as either a stress or a beneficial factor when it comes to organizing their tasks. To address the link between lunar phases and agriculture from a scientific perspective, we conducted a review of textbooks and monographs used to teach agronomy, botany, horticulture and plant physiology; we also consider the physics that address the effects of the Moon on our planet. Finally, we review the scientific literature on plant development, specifically searching for any direct or indirect reference to the influence of the Moon on plant physiology. We found that there is no reliable, science-based evidence for any relationship between lunar phases and plant physiology in any plant–science related textbooks or peer-reviewed journal articles justifying agricultural practices conditioned by the Moon. Nor does evidence from the field of physics support a causal relationship between lunar forces and plant responses. Therefore, popular agricultural practices that are tied to lunar phases have no scientific backing. We strongly encourage teachers involved in plant sciences education to objectively address pseudo-scientific ideas and promote critical thinking.

And the conclusion:


Science has widely established different evidences: (i) the Moon’s gravity on the Earth cannot have any effect on the life cycle of plants due to the fact that it is 3.3 × 10−5 ms−2, almost 300,000 times lower that the Earth’s gravity; (ii) since all the oceans are communicated and we can consider their size being the size of the Earth, the Moon’s influence on the tides is 10−6 ms−2, but for a 2 m height plant such value is 3 × 10−13 ms−2 and, therefore, completely imperceptible; (iii) the Moon’s illuminance cannot have any effect on plant life since it is, at best, 128,000 times lower than the minimum of sunlight on an average day; (iv) the rest of possible effects of the Moon on the Earth (e.g., magnetic field, polarization of light) are non-existent.

The logical consequence of such evidence is that none of these effects appear in physics and biology reference handbooks. However, many of these beliefs are deeply ingrained in both agricultural traditions and collective imagery. This shows that more research should be undertaken on the possible effects observed on plants and assigned to the Moon by the popular belief, addressing their causes, if any. It would also be interesting to address these issues in both compulsory education and formal higher agricultural education in order to address pseudo-scientific ideas and promote critical thinking.

Well, the “research” being undertaken above is not scientific, as there’s no control—but perhaps “control studies” are an invidious artifact of “Western science”. Because of this, it doesn’t count as the “more research on possible” effects called for by Mayoral et al.

If this was a proposal submitted to the U.S.’s National Science Foundation, it would never be funded for two reasons: it flies in the face of what’s already established knowledge in agronomy, and preliminary studies haven’t been done to show that there’s a likely effect of lunar phases on crop yield.

Mayoral et al. also warn that studies like the one above border on “pseudoscience” and can pollute science teaching. I’d leave out the words “border on” and say “are pseudoscience.”  From the Agronomy paper:

We are concerned about the insidious spread of pseudo-scientific ideas, not only in the field of plant science (which determines many of the behaviours, habits and techniques of many farmers in rural areas) but into the broader population through both formal and informal education. As science educators, we are especially concerned about the widespread belief in pseudo-science throughout the general populace and especially in science teachers. Solbes et al. showed that 64.9% of a sample of 131 future science teachers agree or partially agree with the expression “The phase of the Moon can affect, to some extent, several factors such as health, the birth of children or certain agricultural tasks”. [If they surveyed the Māori, the proportion would be higher than 65%.]

Given this worrying scenario, teachers must promote critical thinking as an essential part of citizenship development. . .

Is that going to happen in New Zealand? Again, not a chance. It’s considered “racist” to denigrate Māori practices or Māori “ways of knowing”. Yes, there are some empirical trial and error bits of knowledge in MM, but none of them are based on the kind of hypothesis-testing used by modern science. This study is just another bit of unscientific work. Further, it has the potential to damage Kiwi agriculture, basing it on traditional lore rather than hard scientific tests. And, as the authors note, it has the potential to damage the scientific education of New Zealand’s youth as well, for the government under PM Chris Hipkins is determined to teach mātauranga Māori in science classes as equivalent to modern (“Western”) science. (Note that science isn’t “Western”; it’s the purview of workers throughout the world.)

I was sent the Herald article by three separate New Zealand scientists who found it wrongheaded and foolish. One of them sent me a thoughtful take on it, which I reproduce with permission:

“If the proponents of this lunar phase proposal had a commitment to using both science and mātauranga Māori they would have done some homework on the relevant scientific literature beforehand. Rather, it appears that either they were happy to ignore existing scientific data that challenges their claims, or they believed the scientific data didn’t count because it wasn’t done from a mātauranga Māori perspective. It is currently unclear in epistemological terms what would constitute a legitimate test in mātauranga Māori. Another important question is whether there is a commitment to publishing negative results of the proposed work

Framing this as “Western science” versus mātauranga Māori thus opens the door to ignoring previous work. This will lead in many cases to wasteful duplication of previous research, some of which should disqualify proposals based on discredited ideas. This is the point that Jonathan Rauch makes in “The Constitution of Knowledge” about the importance of societies having to agree on a common set of facts. Once we abandon that, as we must if we buy into postmodernist cultural relativism, we’re condemned to some form of process argument based on political power. This would inevitably involve direct comparisons between mātauranga Māori and science that would benefit no one. Much better to treat each as distinct and of value for different reasons. Many proponents of mātauranga Māori agree that it is distinct from science, but if that is the case why is it being taught and funded as science?

One obvious difference between the two is the epistemological commitment to testing hypotheses that is inherent in science. Both mātauranga Māori and science involve careful observation. Science generally also involves some form of test or experiment. Proponents of mātauranga Māori may argue that trial and error counts as this, at least to some extent. What science seeks that mātauranga Māori does not is an additional layer of understanding: causal explanations based on theories of mechanism. This is the difference between science and technology. The latter just needs to work. We don’t necessarily need to know why. However, distinguishing between cause and effect is a key component in science, and this involves distinguishing between causal factors and correlation. Maramataka is a very detailed body of knowledge based on seasonal and lunar correlations, but it doesn’t explain why things happen at certain times, only that certain events coincide. The flowering of the pohutukawa tree doesn’t cause the gonads of sea urchins to ripen and thus become good to eat: the two events are both driven independently by environmental temperature. Inductive reasoning can be effective at making predictions under constant conditions, but when things change, as they are under climate change, such patterns are likely to become increasingly unreliable.”

It’s time for New Zealand’s scientists, both Māori and non-Māori, to stop this nonsense. Indigenous knowledge has its place, but it’s not equivalent to modern science. And the taxpayers of New Zealand continue to throw millions of dollars away on worthless studies funded only to propitiate the indigenous culture. Is that worth destroying science in New Zealand? After all, this $2.7 million could have gone for real science or medical research instead of trying to prop up a confirmation bias based on spirituality and tradition.

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.

New Zealand authors: using complexity theory is the only way to achieve equity

June 12, 2023 • 12:45 pm

Here we have another article in a science journal (Nature Human Behavior, which has published stuff like this before), which says almost nothing, but uses a lot of words to do so. I recognize some of the writers as New Zealand activists, including Priscilla Wehi, first author of a dreadful article in Journal Roy. Soc. New Zealand (JRSNZ) arguing that Polynesians made it to Antarctica in 700 A.D. This is, of course, a Māori-centered article, and Wehi was trying to “empower” her people by making a palpably false claim, one that was later refuted even by Māori scholars. (Note that a couple of authors work in other countries.)

Click to read, or see the pdf here.

I really don’t want to analyze this paper in detail (you can imagine how wearing it is to deal with this stuff for several hours a day), so I’ll sum it up in a few points.

1.) Structural racism has operated in science (indeed, is promoted) by science to keep minorities down. Here’s one sentence:

Science has been described as promoting exclusion and oppression by rewarding those who practice entrenched norms, including individualism, hypercompetition and productivism, and penalizing those who challenge them.

2.) Attempts to solve this problem by creating new organizations and dispensing grant money haven’t been successful.

3.) Of course we still need to keep boosting the Māori through affirmative action and dispensing more money,but the real solution to the problem requires “embracing complexity theory“.

The idea of interconnectedness is an important part of Māori “ways of knowing” (Mātauranga Māori, or MM), and article’s point is that making more connections between people and organizations will, in the end, bring equity.

H0w does that work? The authors give a helpful diagram, starting with the fact that birds do better when they fly in flocks than singly (this is “complexity”).The bird point is made in a) below:

(From paper): a, The ordering of birds into a flock is an example of a complex system. Triangles represent actors (for example, individuals, communities or institutions). The actors on the left are homogenous, disconnected and unable to effectively respond to interventions. The actors on the right are connected to one another; their ability to receive and respond to feedback enables rapid transitions to an ordered and collective state, such as birds flying in a shared direction of travel. In the flock example, regular switches between leading and trailing positions also share and reduce the overall energetic cost of flight. Image courtesy of Jo Bailey. b, An adaptation of the six conditions of systems change, translated into Māori by M. Kirby (Ngāti Whakaue) for Healthy Families Rotorua. This heuristic identifies six conditions required for sustained and equitable change in complex systems. Adapted from ‘The Water of Systems Change’ FSG, by John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Peter Senge, 2018.

The diagram at the bottom, which isn’t all that enlightening (and is also given in Māori, a language not customary in Nature) , argues that poor health outcomes for Māori (“health inequities”) can be solved by the complexity-theory solution diagrammed in (b) above:

In Aotearoa–New Zealand, our health system has also been unsuccessfully grappling with how to address long-standing and increasing inequities. Although these emergent outcomes have been known for decades, and despite targeted policy and resources, our underlying health systems — and thus trajectories of community health and well-being — remain largely unchanged12.

The whole-of-community systems approach (Fig. 1b) taken by Healthy Families NZ has been described as a game changer in its most recent evaluation report. The initiative makes a strategic move away from fragmented, small-scale and time-limited programmes by supporting existing local action on health, while influencing local and national funding and policies to be more responsive to communities and their diverse contexts (Box 1). Sharing success and failures across the community teams has been key to the initiative’s success, along with fostering a responsive, timely and trusting contractual relationship with the central agency funder.

If you can understand how this works (the caption supposedly will help enlighten you), please explain it in the comments.

At any rate, I’ll close giving the five lessons from “complexity theory” that, say the authors, will help bring equity:

How we act.  This is their explanation of necessary change:

We encourage scientific communities and organizations to identify their shared values and uphold contextually responsive ethical and professional principles. For instance, our approach to research at Te Pūnaha Matatini (a Centre of Research Excellence in Aotearoa–New Zealand) is guided by four principles, which are expressed through a Māori lens. Pono, or a commitment to truth and genuineness, provides the foundation principle to guide both the purpose and practice of our research, and thereby frames the following: tika is to undertake research in ways that are just or right for a given context; and tapu is to do so in ways that recognize the intrinsic value, and rights, of every person and thing. Manaakitanga is to do so in ways that enhance reciprocal relationships of care.

These are taken from MM, and include both moral and technical principles that are often fuzzy (what does it mean to undertake research “in ways that are just or right for a given context”?).

How we lead.  They call for more mentorship and respectful collaboration and trust. That’s fine, but is it either novel or an outcome of complexity theory?

How we resource. What they mean is to incorporate principles of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion into giving money; in other words give more resources to Māori.

How we evaluate others.   The paragraph below suggests getting rid of traditional merit-based evaluation, replacing it with “community-driven approaches to research evaluation” and “narrative-style CVs”, which to me means obscuring traditional indices of scientific merit (scores, grants, publications) by telling a story. (Pardon me for being cynical):

Many institutions and funding schemes — even those designed to address complex intergenerational challenges — still rely on narrow market-based metrics such as publication productivity and journal impact factor to evaluate ‘excellence’. We support the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which promotes practical, robust and community-driven approaches to research evaluation. DORA’s recommendations have informed NSERC Canada’s recent guidelines and the widespread introduction of narrative-style CVs, including in Aotearoa–New Zealand. Initiatives such as these can be used to recognize and affirm diverse expertise, societal impact and care work (such as equity work, mentorship, teaching and peer support) in promotions, hiring and funding decisions.

How we evaluate ourselves. This seems to me to be a long-winded way of saying “adopt the principles of DEI”:

We encourage reflexivity when performing relational duties of care. We urge scientific communities, organizations and funding bodies to recognize diverse histories; to investigate how funding and authority are distributed; to attend to qualitative and quantitative data about why people enter, leave and remain in the science system; and to evaluate and adapt policies accordingly. In general, ongoing reflection on how we are situated in relation to others in the science community — including the purpose and consequences of our work — will help to navigate real-world complexity in ways that are consistent with our principles, and which support the messy work of ‘getting along’ in just ways.

When I got to this point I was getting burned out, for that paragraph (and the entire paper) looks to me like a lot of abstract language about justice and equity without any concrete proposals save “give more power to the indigenous people.”  And even if that were the solution to unequal representation, you don’t need “complexity theory” to implement it.  What the authors seem to have done is appropriate technical language as just a different way of indicting New Zealand for systemic racism, but beyond that add very little of substance. I’m again chagrined that a respectable journal would publish this stuff, but what editor would dare refuse it? What they would refuse to publish is a critique of the authors’ arguments. There is no social-justice paper about STEM so dreadful that a journal will refuse to publish it.

Oh, I forgot to put the authors’ closing challenge:

Our challenge:

Kia mau tau ki tēnā

Kia mau ki te kawau mārō

Whanake ake! Whanake ake!

Stick to that, the straight-flying cormorant!


The leading kawau (cormorant) extends its neck forward as it flies, knowing that when it tires another will move forward into its place. Maniapoto, ancestor of the people of Ngāti Maniapoto, translated this phenomenon into an effective military strategy based on coordinated, collective action: te kawau mārō.

To be responsive to the critical challenges of our time, the global science community needs to travel forward in a shared and purposeful direction — one that moves us closer to a better, more just society. We challenge the science community to harness the processes of complexity with intent and urgency to build a science system that is prepared to address the complex global challenges in which we all have a stake.

What is says to me is that “to progress we need to progress, but we should use complexity theory.”

Lee Jussim analyzes the criticism of our paper on science and merit

June 10, 2023 • 11:00 am

Lee Jussim is an antiwoke social psychologist at Rutgers and one of the 29 authors of our paper “In Defense of Merit in Science” (“Abbot et al.”).  As we expected, that paper was controversial, but it’s also been widely read, with more than 100,000 views on The Journal of Controversial Ideas.”

As I said in the WSJ op-ed I wrote with Anna Krylov (the guiding force of the paper), it’s a shame that a paper espousing the view that science and scientists should be judged on “merit” should be seen as “controversial,” but what do you expect these days.? The pushback was considerable. Many people simply rejected the idea of merit, with one of the editors who refused the paper saying that the idea of merit was both “hollow” and “hurtful”.  That, of course, is arrant nonsense.

Others tried to refute our argument by giving examples of science where merit was not recognized, or where bad science was lauded. These anecdotes are also a dumb way to go after our paper, especially because we were making a general argument, not saying that it’s always applied everywhere in science. Still others, like our  bête poilue, P. Z. Myers, dismissed the paper largely on ideological grounds, or used the common by worthless guilt-by-association argument.  PeeZus:

I had no idea that merit needed defending, or was at all controversial, but it has 29 authors, some of whom have significant prestige. Others are nothing but Intellectual Dark Web sort of cranks, and all of them would be not at all out of place on the fake University of Austin faculty. It’s an expansion of the Grievance Studies nonsense, and Boghossian is one of the authors, while Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay are cited, and if authors are not on the staff of the University of Austin, at least some of them are publishing opinion pieces in Quillette. Basically, it’s a collection of right-wing ideologues complaining about ideology, unaware that it’s ideology all the way down.

Well, if the idea that “science should be judged by its merit” is “ideology”, so is the idea that “airplanes should be flown by the most accomplished pilots,” or “a cancer operation should be judged by how well it was able to remove the malignant cells and prevent recurrence.”

But we’ll pass on, as Myers had no arguments against the substance of our thesis.  The quote above, by the way, is one of many collected by Jussim, who has produced a compendium of criticisms of our paper, most (but not all), being unedifying yet often unintentionally funny. I was particularly amused by the muddy and obtuse criticisms of Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of Science who took our paper as an attack on racial diversity which, he argued, was the real way to advance science, and that such diversity would in fact advance science better than judging research and scientists on merit. (I’d argue that intellectual  diversity would be more efficacious.) Here’s are two quotes from Thorp’s editorial:

. . . . the public has been taught that scientific insight occurs when old white guys with facial hair get hit on the head with an apple or go running out of bathtubs shouting “Eureka!”


It has somehow become a controversial idea to acknowledge that scientists are actual people.

But Jussim goes after him more thoroughly, as you can see by reading his essay.

You can read it, with the appropriate refutations of nonsense (and praise for thoughtful criticism) by clicking on his Substack headline below:

Lee can be quite snarky, and here’s an excerpt from his section called “Really stupid criticisms”. Here are two of them (all of Lee’s prose is indented, save for double-indented quotes):

One blogger went on a bizarre rant on the grounds that it was absurd for us to claim that a journal’s failure to publish our article violated our free speech rights.

It would have been absurd, had we claimed it. This delusional critique was by Scott Lemiux, who is described as a professor of political science. Presumably, that means he has a Ph.D. For further insight into why someone with so much education can write something so stupid, I highly recommend Taleb’s The Intellectual Yet Idiot.. . .

Another vein of stupidity is the “straw man” critique. Supposedly, when we argued that many prominent postmodern and critical theory perspectives reject merit and objectivity, that’s a straw man argument, an absurd caricature because, duh, no one is so stupid as to reject objectivity and merit right? This was in some of the PNAS reviews of our article that led to its rejection there, and it was all over academic twitter.

Richard Delgado was one of the most prominent critical race theorists of the last 30 years. Shall we see what he wrote? Fom Delgado & Stefanic’s 2001 book on Critical Race Theory:

“For the critical race theorist, objective truth, like merit, does not exist, at least in social science and politics. In these realms, truth is a social construct created to suit the purposes of the dominant group.”

Nothing quite says “some prominent critical race theorists reject merit and objectivity” as a prominent critical race theorist literally rejecting merit and objectivity.

Then Lee gives some “Faux sophisticated criticisms,” like this one from Holden Thorp:

This is the Editor in Chief at Science. Publishing this opinion piece in … Science. It is idiotic nonsense.

He then goes on to pull a subtle bait and switch. See if you can catch it:

 One view is that objective truth is absolute and therefore not subject to human influences. “The science speaks for itself” is usually the mantra in this camp.

But the history and philosophy of science argue strongly to the contrary. For example, Charles Darwin made major contributions to the most important idea in biology, but his book The Descent of Man contained many incorrect assertions about race and gender that reflected his adherence to prevalent social ideas of his time. Thankfully, evolution didn’t become knowledge the day Darwin proposed it, and it was refined over the decades by many points of view. More recently, pulse oximeters that measure blood oxygen levels were found to be ineffective for dark skin because they were initially developed for white patients.

Did you catch it? The fact that science has gotten some things wrong or that scientists’ biases have, sometimes, misled them to advance false conclusions, is presented as if it invalidates the reality of objective truths. It does nothing of the kind. Indeed, the way Darwin’s incorrect assertions about race and gender, and the fallibility of pulse oximeters were discovered, was by subsequent scientists debunking false claims and replacing them with true ones. The failures of pulse oximeters was discovered because it was objectively true that they were ineffective for people with darker skin.

The entire notion of scientific validity rests on the existence of objective truth, and without it, science is meaningless. Thorp baited you with the implication that there is no objective truth and switched in scientists’ biases and errors as if it refutes the existence of objective truth. Which it cannot possibly do because to know that an error was made or a conclusion is biased implies that one has access to objective truths that debunk those errors and biases.

Lee then cites a paper that disses Thorp but also gives us some thoughtful criticism:

An excellent essay on this controversy by a bio-ethicist at Merck (which includes some thoughtful criticisms of our paper) puts it this way:

Thorp adopts a questionable strategy known as the motte-and-bailey tactic, employing it fallaciously and deceptively. He presents the easily justifiable opinion encapsulated in “It matters who does science” (the [uncontroversial and easily defensible] “motte”), while conveniently avoiding any arguments that challenge Abbot et al.’s initial claim. Thorp’s unspoken and potentially harder-to-defend propositionthat “merit should (to some degree) be replaced by social engineering or identity-based policies” (the “bailey”) remains unsupported and unaddressed in his discourse.

There’s also a section on “logically incoherent” criticisms, though I think Lee makes a misstep here:

To criticize our paper is to argue that it is bad or unjustified in some way. However, to make these sorts of arguments, the critics must have some standard for truth. If they do not, then they cannot possibly know our paper is wrong, biased, misguided, hurful, or anything else.

Implicitly, then, they believe that getting at the truth is possible because they are making a truth claim when arguing our paper is wrong, hurtful, etc. If we are wrong and they are right, then they themselves are promoting claims that are actually true! That is, their claims have merit, whereas our’s  [sic] don’t. Anyone who believes the critics [sic] claims have merit (including the critics themselves) implicitly accepts our central argument that science has to be judge [sic] on its merits, even if they pose as critiques of our paper.

I’m not sure that’s true, for a critic could claim that science should be judged on a combination of merit and its ability to promote ethnic diversity, and that the “truth” is that society would be better off if science were judged by some combination of the two factors. That is a truth claim that at the same time criticizes our paper.

Finally, here’s an Epilogue that gives you another site with information about the reaction to our paper.

Anna Krylov, the main force of nature behind the merit paper, has also created this website,, that curates a lot of the essays, blogs, and podcasts discussing our paper. [JAC: see especially the last two sections, giving links to reactions about the paper as well as some quotes about the paper.] Jerry Coyne, over at WhyEvolutionisTrue has a slew of entries on some of the critical responses to our paper (such as herehere, and here).

The critics reviewed herein are, by many measures, really smart, accomplished people. They are all academics with PhDs, and, often, long lists of scientific publications. Make of that what you will.

One addendum: A colleague and I have a related paper, on the dangers of infusing ideology into evolutionary biology, coming out in two weeks. While it doesn’t have a lot of prestigious authors or Nobel Laureates, it does make claims that I expect to be controversial. That’s because those desperately trying to turn our field into a branch of Social Justice Ideology get furious if you say that it’s a bad idea.

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

May 12, 2023 • 9:59 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The National Academies of Science, which issues reports on opioid use, took $31 million from the Sackler family, pharmaceutical gazillionaires who largely created the opioid crisis

April 24, 2023 • 11:30 am

The book below (click on the cover to go to it) is one of the best piecces of nonfiction I’ve read in a year. It details the story of the Sackler family, in which three Jewish brothers, the sons of immigrants, worked together to push opioids for pain relief, and not in an ethical way. They eventually devised Oxycontin and Oxycodone, marketing them (via the company Purdue Pharma) to doctors as a kind of safe cure-all for pain, in the meantime completely ignoring reports of widespread addiction and deaths. (They also covered their tracks but not going public about what they really did and by becoming philanthropists, always insisting that the name “Sackler” be prominently associated with their buildings and galleries.)

The lawsuits eventually began, detailed by Wikipedia;

By 2017, a series of articles linking the Sacklers to Oxycodone as well as a public campaign by photographer Nan Goldin to link the Sacklers to the opioid crisis, led to stigmatization of the Sackler name with many museums and universities refusing financial gifts from the Sacklers.

While the family was eventually sued, the Sacklers used their company to declare bankruptcy, link their personal finances to the fortunes of Purdue Frederick, and ultimately managed to escape any financial consequences at all. The family continued to maintain that they knew nothing about the abusive and deceptive marketing practices of the company and maintained the lie that their opioids were not addictive and that the few people who abused their drugs were already addicts to begin with.

Eventually, the Justice Department settled with Purdue Pharma for an $8 billion criminal and civil settlement and another $225 million from the Sacklers themselves.  Nobody in the family has faced criminal charges, and they’re still living like kings.

The book is a page turner, and well worth reading, but it doesn’t paint a flattering portrait of the Sacklers, who come across as an affable but nefarious family determined to get as rich as possible no matter how much damage they did to humans in pain.

Imagine my surprise, then, to see this long article in yesterday’s New York Times. It details how the National Academies of Science (NAS), a private organization (but partly funded by the government) took millions from the Sacklers at the same time it was producing reports on opioid policy in America. The NAS exists as a body of elite elected scientists and doctors whose job is to produce definitive reports to help steer U.S. government policy.  Even if the NAS said it wasn’t swayed by the donations to come up with favorable takes on opioids, this is one of the most arrant conflicts of interest I’ve seen in science. The NAS didn’t even divulge in its reports that there was a “potential conflict of interest.”  This has really made me depressed about the NAS, which is supposed to be free of commercial taint.

Click to read the article. And remember, even if the Sacklers didn’t influence policies recommended by the NAS, scientists are still required to disclose potential conflicts of interest no matter what. And why, I wonder, did the Sacklers give so much money to the NAS?

Some excerpts:

For the past decade, the White House and Congress have relied on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, a renowned advisory group, to help shape the federal response to the opioid crisis, whether by convening expert panels or delivering policy recommendations and reports.

Yet officials with the National Academies have kept quiet about one thing: their decision to accept roughly $19 million in donations from members of the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, the maker of the drug OxyContin that is notorious for fueling the opioid epidemic.

The opioid crisis has led to hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths, spawned lawsuits and forced other institutions to publicly distance themselves from Sackler money or to acknowledge potential conflicts of interest from ties to Purdue Pharma. The National Academies has largely avoided such scrutiny as it continues to advise the government on painkillers.

“I didn’t know they were taking private money,” Michael Von Korff, a prominent pain care researcher, said. “It sounds like insanity to take money from principals of drug companies and then do reports related to opioids. I am really shocked.”

Unlike the World Health Organization, which was accused of being manipulated by Purdue and later retracted two opioid policy reports, the National Academies has not conducted a public review to determine if the Sackler donations influenced its policymaking, despite issuing two major reports that influenced national opioid policy.

One of those reports, released in 2011 and now largely discredited, claimed that 100 million Americans suffered from chronic pain — an estimate that proved to be highly inflated. Still, it gave drugmakers another talking point for aggressive sales campaigns, primed doctors to prescribe opioids at an accelerating rate and influenced the Food and Drug Administration to approve at least one highly potent opioid.

Another problem arose in 2016, months after the National Academies received a $10 million Sackler family donation. The F.D.A. had tapped the institution to form a committee to issue new recommendations on opioids. But one senator took exception to some of the members selected by the Academies, complaining they had “substantial ties” to opioid makers, including Purdue. Before work began, four people were removed from the panel.

It’s a total disaster, and the NAS hasn’t even investigated whether there may have been a real conflict of interest, even though the organization took at least $31 million from the opioid-pushers and issued two reports about opioids, one of which has already been discredited.

A wee bit more from Lisa Bero, “chief scientist at the University of Colorado Center for Bioethics and Humanities”:

Accepting millions of dollars from the Sackler family while advising the federal government on pain policy “would be considered a conflict of interest under almost any conflict-of-interest policy I’ve ever seen,” Dr. Bero said.

Indeed. So what does the NAS say when caught with its pants down? They simply equivocate. This is NOT the NAS I know of:

Megan Lowry, a spokeswoman for the National Academies, said in a statement that the Sackler donations “were never used to support any advisory activities on the use of opioids or on efforts to counter the opioid crisis.” Ms. Lowry added that the organization had been prevented from returning the Sackler money because of legal restrictions and “donor unwillingness to accept returned funds.” The Academies declined to make senior officials available for interviews.

And there’s more:

Soon after the National Academies report was issued, Dr. Andrew Kolodny, president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, emailed the institution and asked whether it would disclose that Ms. Christopher’s organization [Myra Christopher was an NAS panelist whose own group took Purdue money] had received funds from Purdue.

This is another conflict of interest, for panelists have to disclose their own conflicts.

“No, sorry, can’t do that,” Clyde Behney, an official with the Academies, replied in an email in August 2011 reviewed by The New York Times. “Keep in mind that the report is done and released, so the future is more important than the past.”

Seriously?? What kind of bullshit answer is that?

In its reports, some involving panelists who took money from Purdue, the NAS never disclosed any potential conflicts of interest.

In the end, the NAS now has millions of Pharma/Sackler money that it can’t use. As the paper suggests, perhaps the NAS should emulate Brown and Tufts, who used their Sackler money to help alleviate drug addiction:

Given the devastation of the opioid crisis, Michael West, senior vice president of the New York Council of Nonprofits, said that it would be worth the effort for the Academies to follow their lead.

“This would be a way,” he said, “of trying to make it right.”

Never in my life would I have expected the august NAS to be so sleazy. It’s not just that they took the money and didn’t disclose it, but also that they’re now pretending they didn’t do anything wrong.

Scientific American continues to push ideology alongside science

November 2, 2022 • 12:15 pm

There’s no longer any doubt that one of the main missions of Scientific American involves not the dissemination of science, but pushing a “progressive” Democratic ideology on its readers. What this has to do with science is beyond me. In fact, it has nothing to do with science; it has to do with the editor, Laura Helmuth, publishing op-ed after op-ed that agrees with her own political views, as evidenced by her tweet below.  My own offer to write an op-ed arguing against the infusion of ideology into science was rejected by Helmuth, so there’s no pretense that the magazine welcomes a diversity of opinion.

Here’s one tweet, which points to the op-ed below it:

This is the article, which you can read by clicking on it (you may have to sign in, but it’s free). While I agree that we need some form of affirmative action (but dither in my mind about the nature of that action), I disagree that venues like Scientific American should be taking stands like this, as well as refusing to consider arguments at odds with their own op-eds. After all, many who push against affirmative action (John McWhorter is one example) do NOT use “race science” (aka “scientific racism”) to justify their stand:

This article immediately brings up white supremacy as a prime mover of opposition to affirmative action, despite the fact that a majority of all ethnic groups asked (white, black, Hispanic, and Asian) say that race should not be a factor in college admissions. Are these minority opponents also white supremacists? A quote from the piece:

Scientists play a crucial role in assuring equitable access to colleges and universities. Education is fundamentally an issue of human rights, and affirmative action in admissions is one tool in a larger strategy to address social injustices and shape the future of scientific research. Yet white supremacy, whether systemic or interpersonal, is still deeply ingrained in society, leading to financial and social disadvantages for nonwhite students. As scientists, we must fiercely defend affirmative action, if we wish for equity in science and in U.S. society.

The piece also makes the dubious argument that “systemic racism” is baked into science itself. Anyone actually in science knows that this is untrue. Scientists are desperate to hire minority faculty and accept minority graduate students.

As scientists, we need to improve the public’s understanding of systemic racism as an unjust social, political and legal power structure, as well as that there are no innate “deficiencies” in nonwhite people. Clearly, we will need more than 25 years to achieve such a goal.

The piece goes on to rehash arguments about why scientists like E. O. Wilson were racists because they associated with racists, and winds up calling for “centering Black and Brown students in educational law and policy.”

Affirmative action is rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, and its advocates intended to rectify overt and systemic injustices toward Black and brown students. However, leaders of primarily white institutions have altered race-conscious admissions to emphasize the importance of maintaining “critical masses” to promote “diversity” within a primarily white student population. Campus and admissions policies tailored to white students reinforce racial hierarchies and maintain the supremacist ideology that initially prevented Black and brown students from participating in higher education programs in significant numbers. We must center Black and brown students in educational law and policy to maintain and strengthen the original tenets of affirmative action, in addition to upholding it as status quo.

There is no discussion, of course, of course, of lack of equal opportunity as a cause of “inequity”. At the end, the authors (quoting geneticist Joseph Graves) suggest massive reparations in education if affirmative action is overturned. I don’t disagree entirely with their solution below, but, as some readers have suggested, the solution involves far more than throwing money at education, which hasn’t proven that efficacious:

“Should the SCOTUS overturn Grutter v. Bollinger, thus essentially ending affirmative action at historically white institutions of higher education, they must simultaneously order that all states who violated the 1879 Plessy v. Ferguson decision by siphoning funds away from black education to support white education must immediately pay those pilfered funds into black public-school districts and HBCUs. Furthermore, they must order that going forward, a moon-shot level investment in the infrastructure of HBCU/HSI/MSI and Tribal Colleges must be put in place to meet the need for equitable education for non-whites in the United States.”


In this new article below, the author argues that the Court’s ruling in the Dobbs case upholds white supremacy because people of color suffer more from restrictions on abortion than do whites. I disagree with the Dobbs decision, of course, and am more “pro-choice” than most Americans:  don’t think that 6 months of gestation should be the upper limit for allowing abortion. What I disagree with is that that opinion belongs in a science magazine, which also refuses to publish contrary opinions. (Shouldn’t a science magazine, if it does intend to engage in politics, entertain diverse and conflicting points of view?)

Black and Latinx communities proportionally have higher rates of abortion than white people, a consequence of structural and systemic barriers in health care and society more broadly. People of color are making decisions about the future of their families without equitable access to living wages, jobs, and reliable food and housing. Their families face the living legacy of redlining and housing segregation, along with inequities in education access, all of which limit their movement and upward mobility. Mass incarceration and our flawed justice system disrupt families, their participation in the workforce and their contributions to society and voting. Widespread police violence destroys families, and Black parents fear police brutality before their children are even born.

Communities of color deal with barriers to health care and insurance and face racism and discrimination when they seek care, including narratives that blame people for social conditions that were created by the system. Worse yet, Black pregnant people face alarmingly high rates of pregnancy-related deaths in the hands of our health care system. Voter suppression and widespread attempts to disenfranchise communities prevent them from having a voice in transforming these structures that unjustly constrain them. This will beget further laws and restrictions that limit their rights and freedom—a modern manifestation of the separate-but-not-equal ideology of the Jim Crow era.

With these structures in mind—structures that primarily work to perpetuate barriers and poor outcomes for people of color—one thing about the Dobbs decision and the antiabortion movement becomes quite clear: this orchestrated attack on abortion rights sits within the grand plan that this country was built upon—the violent and oppressive maintenance of white supremacy.

I wouldn’t doubt that minorities suffer more from restricted abortion than do white people, but I question whether the Dobbs decision itself, and the people who support, it are motivated largely by white supremacy.  There is, after all, the view, motivated largely by religion, that abortion is murder. I disagree with that line of argument, but how can the author psychologize the motivations for abortion opponents and argue for a conspiracy against people of color—a “grand plan based on maintaining white supremacy”—when antiabortion bills prohibit abortion for everyone?


Finally, should you be in doubt about how to vote next week, Scientific American is here to help you! Click on the screenshot to read:

Their message, in short, is “Vote Democratic”! Again, I agree with many of the authors’ stands, save this claim:

The science on transgender care in youth shows such care is safe and affirming, and that withholding it can seriously harm trans children’s mental health—including increasing their risk of depression and suicide.

The science on transgender health care shows no such thing. We don’t know if puberty blockers are safe (they’ve been relegated to clinical-trial status in some European countries), the science says nothing about the value of “affirmative” rather than more empathic and objective care, and there is no convincing data showing withholding affirmative care (as opposed to giving other inds of care) harms the mental health of children with gender dysphoria (the data that do exist are full of flaws).

Here’s Lee Jussim’s response to editor Helmuth’s tweet about this article.

In my view, Scientific American has become pretty much of a joke. Yes, it still publishes science pieces, and some of them are even decent, but it’s taken upon itself the job of pushing “progressive” Democratic politics. Give me a good reason why magazines that are supposed to popularize modern science shouldn’t remain viewpoint neutral on issues of politics, morals, and ideology.  They are not, after all, newspapers.

How do readers let it get away with that? Truly, if you still subscribe to this magazine, shame on you.

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

October 21, 2022 • 9:20 am

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

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

Click to read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once again science is used as a tool for enacting ideological programs

October 16, 2022 • 9:30 am

The Department of Energy (DoE) hands out a substantial number of grants for research (mostly in physics), as well as for science meetings. Here is their latest announcement about what you have to do if you want the DoE to help fund your conference.

You know what’s coming: when applying for funds, you have to submit a statement that you will increase the “equity” of speakers above that represented in the scientific community involved in the meeting, and have a plan in place, announced to attendees, that will “address discrimination and harassment.”

Here’s the announcement (indented), which you can see by clicking on the link.  I’ve put some parts in bold.

Conference Proposals

Beginning in FY 2023, applications submitted to the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science (SC) requesting funding support for conferences will have additional requirements that must be included with the application.

The following language included in the FY 2023 Continuation of Solicitation for the Office of Science Financial Assistance Program Funding Opportunity Announcement defines the new requirement:


Consistent with SC’s Statement of Commitment, SC does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind, including sexual or non-sexual harassment, bullying, intimidation, violence, threats of violence, retaliation, or other disruptive behavior at institutions receiving SC funding or other locations where activities funded by SC are carried out. Further, SC is committed to advancing belonging, accessibility, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion across the portfolio of activities it sponsors. For applications requesting SC funds for the purpose of supporting (hosting) a conference, symposium, or workshop, the meeting must have a policy or code of conduct in place that addresses discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment, other forms of harassment, and sexual assault, and that includes processes for reporting complaints and addressing complaints. The policy or code-of-conduct must be shared with all participants prior to the conference, symposium, or workshop (hereinafter the ‘meeting’) and made easily available.

Applications must include:

  • An online link to the current code of conduct of the host organization for the meeting, or the link to where the code of conduct will be posted. If a code of conduct has not yet been established by the meeting organizers, the application must describe the process and timeline by which a code of conduct will be written, approved, and endorsed.
  • A recruitment and accessibility plan for speakers and attendees that includes discussion of recruitment of individuals from groups underrepresented in the research/professional community associated with the technical focus of the meeting, and discussion on plans to address possible barriers for attendees, including but not limited to physical barriers.

This is not as invidious as the platform Jon Haidt recently reported for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, which requires every speaker to include a rationale of how their individual talk would advance DEI. As Haidt wrote then:

. . . all social psychologists are now required to submit a statement explaining “whether and how this submission advances the equity, inclusion, and anti-racism goals of SPSP.” Our research proposal would be evaluated on older criteria of scientific merit, along with this new criterion.

Informed that the SPSP would not back down on this requirement, Haidt announced he would resign.

Now I’m not adamantly opposed to amplifying the voices of those who are underrepresented in science, but I would suggest that all talks be judged on merit and suitability alone, with the diversity issues perhaps addressed in a separate symposium representing different viewpoints.  And if two proposed talks are equally qualified, I have no issue with choosing ones from women, Hispanics, blacks, and so on. This does constitute a form of affirmative action, but it is not one that lowers the bar for scientific quality. (Another method is to leave the names of proposed speakers and their affiliations off proposals, which ensures equality if not equity.)

Rather, I’m concerned with the last sentence requiring “discussion on plans to address possible barriers for attendees, including but not limited to physical barriers.”  What does this mean? My first thought was to assure the grant-givers that there would be facilities for the handicapped (i.e., elimination of physical barriers), but that doesn’t appear to be the case. If you amplify the voices of minorities by deliberately choosing some minority speakers who are as well qualified as non-minority speakers, then you have eliminated one barrier—discrimination on the grounds of sex or race.  What else can the meeting do beyond this? What is the sweating DoE trying to say?

But in some ways I’m more concerned with the paternalistic “codes of conduct” that are becoming increasingly elaborate at meetings, to the point where they may have reduced possible collaborations between men and women scientists. My view is that a simple statement like this would suffice in a conference announcement:

“If anyone witnesses or feels they are a victim of harassment or sexual misconduct, please report this to X.”

But it has gotten to the point where meetings spend a lot of money hiring professional “conduct consultants” to monitor behavior. If you want to see how elaborate they can get, have a look at the “Safe Evolution” page of last June’s joint meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the Society of Systematic Biologists, which includes four sub-pages on inappropriate conduct, reporting procedures, and so on. These elaborate procedures wind up infantilizing scientists, all seen as potential predators. It’s especially galling that almost no objectionable conduct actually occurs at such meetings, and societies already have procedures in place to deal with it.

The worst part of this joint meeting is the presence of “Evo Allies”. This is a synonym for “conduct spies”, society members with tags who roam about the conference halls and poster presentations, overhearing conversations and looking for inappropriate behavior. They are empowered to report such behavior even if no participants do:

Started in 2019, Evo Allies are members of our community who have been vetted by a safety officer and trained to help support individuals who have experienced or witnessed potentially inappropriate behavior during the conference, including informing them of their options. They commit to creating safe spaces at the meeting by serving as active bystanders. The inspiration for this program came from the program.

Anyone, whether an Evo Ally or not, can make a report directly to the meeting safety officer for investigation; Evo Allies are not involved in investigation nor sanctioning, but instead serve as peer supports and help to make the meeting a more welcoming place.

Evo Allies are chosen through a nomination and vetting process; we anticipate that the next call will be for the 2023 meeting. Any vetting process is imperfect; if you have concerns about any Evo Ally, please reach out to the meeting safety officer.

In other words, the Big Brothers have to be Big Brotherized as well!

This Big Brotherism will result in chilling speech and behavior that can be inimical to scientific discourse. If you doubt that, read Luana Maroja‘s piece at the Heterodox STEM forum, “Extreme emphasis on sexual harassment stifles productive scientific discourse between men and women.”  She went to the 2019 meetings of the three societies named above and reports this:

In 2019 my professional society (The Society for the Study of Evolution – SSE) hired a consultant to help “prevent sexual harassment at the [annual] conference.”  The initiative consisted of training volunteers to be “allies” (they got buttons and walked among us signaling their role as meeting police), projecting messages (powerpoint slides) on the walls of the poster session saying “stop harassment now,” and putting posters in all bathrooms along with anonymous boxes for depositing complaints about harassment.  This came at a cost: about $10 dollars increase in registration fees per participant, resulting in tens of thousands in the consultant’s pocket.  But aside from cost, are these initiatives a net positive or a net negative for scientific interactions?

I have been attending the SSE meetings since 2003.  Compared to conferences in my home country, Brazil, SSE conferences were a paradise – nobody ever grabbed my rear end, said nasty things in my ear or followed me around.  Yes, there was the normal degree of flirting, but it was polite, with people backing off when they were rebuffed.   Perhaps I have thick skin, but I don’t think anyone would say that serious harassment or sexual violence were commonplace at the American meetings, and there were already procedures in place—involving both the local police and the conference administrators—to deal with serious offences.  Many people think it’s a good thing to raise awareness about even minor actions that might be perceived as unwanted attention.  But is it?

When I saw what the organizers were doing, I was immediately concerned about the chilling effect it would have on interactions between the sexes.  In my life I have benefited from great relationships with my male advisor and other senior male researchers.  I would not want men to be afraid of talking, interacting and collaborating with me merely because their actions might be misinterpreted.  Wondering if men were actually more cautious about interacting with women and in particular junior women (in general, not only at conferences), I started asking around.  As I expected, many men secretly confided to me that yes, they do not volunteer to mentor junior women and are circumspect when talking to junior women PhD students out of fear of misinterpretation.  I could swear I even saw people taking a step back as the “police allies” walked past them!  However, my sample is not only small, but biased – I could ask only men I already knew well and was friendly with, not a random sample of the research population.  But now we have data – the first study looking at the effects of the #MeToo movement on female research collaborations in economics:  Gertsberg, Marina, The Unintended Consequences of #MeToo: Evidence from Research Collaborations (May 10, 2022). Available at SRN: or

Maroja then presents evidence (not dispositive but correlative) that the #MeToo movement was significantly associated with a reduction of new collaborations between male and female scientists, particularly (as would be expected) for scientists within rather than between institutions. If this is an effect of fear of accusations, then it’s inimical to scientific collaboration, especially to women. As Maroja notes,

The data shows clearly that new collaborations are strongly and significantly reduced inside institutions (where the fear of harassment accusations will be highest). The paper also shows that, where the fear is highest (in institutions where harassment accusations are common and policies are vague), the reduction in collaborations is also higher.

This represents a huge loss to both men and women, but it especially harms women.  Indeed, the academic output of females fell significantly after #MeToo (a decrease of between 0.7-1.7 projects per year, with the loss in male collaborators explaining 60% of this decline), while the output of males did not (they were apparently able to find other male collaborators).  This decrease in collaboration is apparently also happening in other fields, such as fundamental physics [she then gives more data]. . . .

Now nobody here, including Maroja and me, is saying that men shouldn’t be punished for sexual harassment of women (and vice versa), nor that people should not be aware of the consequences of such behavior. The point is that this kind of policing has gone too far at scientific meetings, to the point where roving spies are empowered to report suspicious incidents.  Scientists should not be treated like potential criminals or harassers. As Maroja notes,

It’s clear that well-intentioned actions (protecting women from harassment) can be taken too far.  I hope that our scientific professional societies will absorb these data and start taking steps to bring people together rather than separate them.  Good starts would be clarifying harassment policies and keeping “harassment consultants”, who profit from promoting the idea that harassment is everywhere, out of conferences.  Another important step would be to eliminate anonymous complaints, which set the bar for a complaint too low and can be used for revenge and to bring down competitors and enemies. Both of these effects lead men to worry about what they might be accused of and to thus limit interactions with women. Finally, any sexual harassment judgements should only be made after a pre-defined, fair process where the accused can challenge the accuser– a person should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

I’ll finish by saying that while it’s the government’s responsibility to help the disadvantaged of society, regardless of race or sex, that help must be more than performative or superficial. It must involve expensive, long-term interventions by the government, like Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” program. I approve of these, as it’s really the only way to open the “intake valve” of the pipeline to success. Requiring talks or meetings to have a specific ideological bent is far less helpful, and in some ways can be counterproductive. The purpose of scientific societies is to advance science and its communication, not to further the goals of progressive politics.


UPDATE: I just found an op-ed piece on the DoE policies by Lawrence Krauss at the Wall Street Journal (where else could it be published?): “Now even science grants must bow to ‘equity and inclusion”.  He mentions the meeting policies noted above, but also says that the DoE now requires “equity and inclusion plans” in every grant proposal:

Starting in fiscal 2023, which began Oct. 1, every proposal responding to a solicitation from the Office of Science is required to include a PIER plan, which stands for Promoting Inclusive and Equitable Research, to “describe the activities and strategies of the applicant to promote equity and inclusion as an intrinsic element to advancing scientific excellence.” In the words of the announcement, “The complexity and detail of a PIER Plan is expected to increase with the size of the research team and the number of personnel to be supported.”

He adds that none of his own past work funded by the DoE had anything to do with diversity and inclusion, but were concerned with scientific questions involving gravity waves, dark matter, and other intriguing issues. Now he, like everyone else who wants a DoE grant, will have to dissimulate to get money:

Scientists will respond to these new demands with boilerplate to the effect that they will make every effort to seek graduate and postdoctoral students from minority communities and encourage new outreach programs. This is lip service at best; it doesn’t address true societal issues of inequity. People qualified to work in these esoteric areas have all gone to good graduate schools and carried out credible research projects. They may be minorities, but they haven’t been marginalized. They are thus not appropriate targets for what should be useful societal diversity initiatives.

It is the job of government agencies, and not ones concerned with advancing science, to carry out such political policies. If we’re going to turn scientists and their societies into arms for achieving approved societal aims, why do they always involve racial or gender “equity and inclusion”? Why not deal with socioeconomic issues, which include marginalized racial and gender groups, or with the disadvantaged in other countries—something that our government already has as a primary goal?

Better yet, why don’t we let scientists and scientific societies do what they do best—find out stuff about the universe and report it—and let government policies be carried out by the appropriate agencies?  Diverting the efforts of scientists to fixing societal issues turns us into arms of public policy, detracting from what we are trained to do best: science.

h/t: Anna

Once again: did the Maori discover Antarctica?

August 11, 2022 • 9:30 am

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

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

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

The first claim:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s also this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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