American scientists are mostly Democrats, with almost no Republicans. Is this lack of diversity a problem?

December 10, 2020 • 9:45 am

A letter to the editor appeared in the latest issue of Nature, decrying the political uniformity of scientists (click on screenshot below to access though I’ve put up the whole thing). And the link to the Nature poll described in the letter’s  first line is here, but the survey was not of Americans but of Nature readers from throughout the world.

However, there’s no doubt that, among American scientists, Democrats still greatly outnumber Republicans. The latest data I can find are in a 2009 Pew poll showing that not only are American scientists mostly liberal, but that there’s a huge disparity between the politics of scientists and of the American public in general. I suspect that, given what’s happened under Trump, this disparity has only increased. The data in 2009:

Most [American] scientists identify as Democrats (55%), while 32% identify as independents and just 6% say they are Republicans. When the leanings of independents are considered, fully 81% identify as Democrats or lean to the Democratic Party, compared with 12% who either identify as Republicans or lean toward the GOP. Among the public, there are far fewer self-described Democrats (35%) and far more Republicans (23%). Overall, 52% of the public identifies as Democratic or leans Democratic, while 35% identifies as Republican or leans Republican.

This disparity exercised Andrew Meso, a British computational neuroscientist (he’s also black), who wrote this letter:

Now Dr. Meso is mistaken that the Nature poll was of “US scientists”, but it doesn’t matter, for the “misalignment” he describes is still true. As an academic, I have long been aware of this, for the disparity exists not just in science, but in academia as a whole.

Meso’s implicit argument that we need to increase political diversity doesn’t carry near as much weight as an argument for greater gender and ethnic diversity, for there’s not a good argument that Republicans were oppressed in the past, nor that there is discrimination against Republican students being accepted to grad school or being hired as professors—at least in science. I’ve been on many hiring and student-acceptance committees, and not once have I ever heard of a candidate being touted or dissed because of their politics. Indeed, we never even know their politics! (This may not hold for faculty in areas like economics or sociology.) And I’ve never heard of a scientist being denied promotion or tenure on the grounds of their politics.

So it’s hard to make an argument that the dearth of Republicans in American science is due to bias or discrimination. Nor does the ideological slant seem likely to affect science: as I read somewhere (but can’t lay my hands on the reference), scientists’ politics don’t affect the nature or quality of their research.

Why the disparity between scientists and the public, then, if it’s not bigotry? Well, perhaps it’s preference.

For reasons we can speculate about, perhaps those with a conservative bent are less likely to go into science, or remain in science if they start studying this. Perhaps those with a liberal bent are more attracted to the empirical method and the techniques of science. I have no idea if this is right, but feel free to speculate.   But I’ll make one point: if people think that the differential representation is due to preference rather than bias, and it’s a preference based on political affiliation (which may be correlated with other traits), why are we so eager to assume that other differential representations, like those involving gender or ethnicity, are based solely on bias and bigotry rather than preference? As we know, this kind of representation is automatically assumed to be based on prejudice, but I’ve always said that we can’t assume that without the needed research.

Finally, is Meso right in raising the alarm that the Democratic “elitism” of American scientists could turn other Americans—many of whom are Republican—against science or against going into science? (He conflates “judging science” with “going into science” in his final paragraph.) If he were right, this in itself would be a form of preference, but could also involve bigotry if conservatives sense that scientists don’t like their politics.  And yes, Republicans are more anti-science than Democrats, though the difference has been exaggerated, but not to the extent that would explain the differential representation in science. To me, it seems more likely that the disparity is based on a preference connected to political affiliation, but that’s just a guess.

Finally, Meso’s conclusion—that liberalism in scientists turns others against science and against going into science, presumes that the public actually knows how liberal scientists are. But they don’t seem to, at least according to that Pew report:

Most Americans do not see scientists as a group as particularly liberal or conservative. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) say they think of scientists as “neither in particular”; 20% see them as politically liberal and 9% say they are politically conservative.

If there’s no evidence in science of bias against Republican scientists or students, then there is no need to engage in affirmative action to bring them on board—unless they somehow bring a scientific point of view absent among more liberal scientists. But I can’t see one. (It’s not that evident amongst ethnic or gender groups, either.) But the reason I’m in favor of affirmative action is not so much to bring a diversity of ideas as to act as a form of reparations for those who were denied equal opportunity. And the reparations view, while holding for women and people of color, doesn’t seem to hold for conservatives.

But my dislike of affirmative action for Republicans in science doesn’t hold for college students, for I think ideological and political diversity is an innate good among undergraduates, as it stimulates discussion and exposes students to other ways of thinking. So while I can’t support a case for “affirmative action” for more Republicans in science, I can do so for college students. As for professors outside of science, I’m not so sure. It’s useful for students to be exposed to various political views, or lines of thought, from their professors as well. I can’t see hiring professors because they’re Republicans, but I can see making an effort to incorporate conservative points of view into academic departments.  Since we scientists are supposed to keep our politics out of the classroom, though, we don’t need to make this effort.

Should scientific journals strive for “diversity” of reviewers and authors?

November 17, 2020 • 12:00 pm

The New York Times recently had a piece by their new and woke science reporter, Katherine J. Wu, which is basically an indictment of science journals for not keeping track of the “diversity” of authors and reviewers of the papers they publish or reject. The implicit message is that science journals are racist, discriminating against papers by minoritized authors.

Click on the screenshot to read the article:

Wu’s implicit assumption is twofold. First, that a paucity of diversity—which of course means ethnic diversity, but minus Asians since they are surely overrepresented among authors—reflects racism on the part of scientific journals and reviewers.  There is no consideration of whether a lack of diversity may represent simply a paucity of minority authors and reviewers. That itself may reflect racism, past or present, that narrows the opportunities of would-be scientists, but the article implies that it’s racism acting on Ph.D. authors trying to submit papers.

The second assumption is that more ethnic diversity in journals means better science. Well, that’s true in the sense that the more people who get the opportunities to become scientists, the higher the average quality of the science that is published. But I’m not at all convinced that members of any group, be they groups involving genders, religions, incomes, or ethnicity, have a special “point of view” based on their group identity that makes them do science differently. Science is science, and I don’t feel that Hispanics, say, have a different “way of knowing.” (There may be one exception here, that I’ve mentioned before: I think women scientists are responsible for shifting the focus in sexual selection from male traits alone to female preferences as well. But many men were also involved in this shift). In the end, the best science comes from giving everybody equal opportunities, not practicing remediation based on race at the publication level.

But the question is whether journals should be publishing more papers by members of minority groups. That is, is there a bias against, say, black or Hispanic authors that needs to be rectified by that form of “affirmative action” on the publication level—taking steps to accept more papers by minority authors?

It’s my opinion that the answer is “no”. This presumes that a paucity of papers by such authors is prima facie evidence for bias, when it may reflect only a paucity of minority-group members in the field, or of minority scientists submitting papers, or submitting fewer papers,—rather than reviewers deliberately discriminating against papers by minority authors.

It may be worth investigating this issue, but I consider it hardly worthwhile for two reasons.  First, figuring out whether a paucity of papers from minority group members is due to racism at the reviewing level is very hard to do, though not impossible (see below). More important, it’s certainly true that the disparity between the proportion of minority-group members in the population and the number of papers published by members of that group is due largely not to racism but to an underrepresentation of Blacks and Hispanics in science. Figuring out why that disparity exists is the best way to achieve more proportionality in science, if that is your goal. And that’s really where our efforts should be going.

Here are the data given in the NYT piece from two scientific organizations showing disparities between population proportions and publication/reviewer proportions. The article makes the point that most journals, though, do not keep records of the ethnicity of authors and reviewers. (To clarify for non-scientists, when scientists submit papers to a journal, those papers are sent to several reviewers—usually two or three—who are experts in the area of research. Based on the reviewers’ assessment of the paper, the editor then decides whether or not to publish it. If the decision is “yes,” there is often some revision of the paper required, either in the discussion or the scientific analysis.)

I’m going to discuss authors here, not reviewers, because it is the quality of authors‘ work that, by and large, constructs the quality of the journal. How do we know if a journal is discriminating against minority authors? You can’t simply use a difference between the proportion of people in the field, or the proportion of people submitting papers on the one hand, and the proportion of papers published on the other, as a criterion for bias. That’s because members of different groups may submit papers less often, or of lesser quality, and that this would lead to differential representation that would not reflect racism. Bias must be proven, not assumed.

There are two ways to solve this problem. The first is the equivalent of doing “blind” auditions for orchestras—auditions in which those seeking an orchestral chair perform behind a curtain. That “blind” system removes all bias against sex or race. To do this with a paper, you simply remove the names of the authors, their institution, and the acknowledgments from the manuscript, so the reviewers don’t know who wrote the paper. (There are, of course, ways to guess, like if an author cites herself repeatedly, but in many cases this will indeed lead to quality appraisal ignorant of the author’s race or gender.)

I hit upon that system in the late 1970s when I was a postdoc, full of piss and vinegar and concerned that papers were getting preferentially published not because of race, but because of reputation. My idea was that famous people had an easier time publishing their papers than small fish (like me!). I wrote letters—real letters—to the editors of about 30 journals in my field, proposing that manuscripts be reviewed blind this way. I got only one response, and that was from an editor who said that he preferred knowing the authors, because famous authors were more likely to submit better papers! That may be true on average, but it’s not the best way to ensure the quality of papers in a journal! In fact, famous authors may get by more easily with shoddier work because of their reputations.

At any rate, some journals have now wisely decided to adopt the blind-author technique, and more power to them! It seems to me a step in the right direction to eliminate animus not just against groups of people, but against your scientific “enemies” or in favor of your scientific “friends”. (Believe me, this kind of bias is rife in science.) While you can get around this system by guessing, I think it does help ensure objective reviewing and thus higher-quality papers. (I should add that the NYT music critic opposed blind auditions because he said that while it increased the proportion of women in orchestras, it didn’t eliminate racial inequities; his view was clearly that equity trumped orchestral quality.)

The other way would be to do an experiment submitting identical sets of manuscripts with fake names that give clues to the gender or ethnicity of the authors. If manuscripts with women or minority authors are rejected more often than the same manuscripts with “white” or “male” names, that surely indicates bias. This was what was done in a laborious study of grant reviewing, using made-up “black”, “white”, “male” and “female” names on identical proposals. The study showed no evidence of racial or gender bias in grant evaluation. Needless to say, you don’t hear much about this study, even though it was a good one, as the results went against people’s certainty that there must be sex and gender bias in reviewing.

That experiment could be done with paper reviewing too, and really must be done before you can start making implicit accusations of bias.  But I favor the blind-reviewing technique. You don’t have to do any experiments to see if that one makes things more equitable because, by eliminating a source of bias from the outset, it almost has to. It is my feeling that a “fake name” study wouldn’t show evidence of bias in pubication, but that’s my feeling alone. Better just to practice blind reviewing rather than speculate or do experiments.

In the end, my feeling is that affirmative action should not be applied to reviewing papers by people who already have doctorates, and, while I believe in affirmative action, I think it has to stop at some point in the hierarchy. My point comes after faculty hired hiring. I think it’s okay and useful to take race and gender into account when hiring junior faculty, as well as in college and grad-school admissions, but that’s where it stops. Ethnicity and gender should not be a consideration in getting tenure, full professorships, or in getting papers published—areas where merit alone should be the only criterion. Again, this is my view, and others may disagree.

Some of those who disagree think the whole system of a scientific meritocracy is flawed—that there isn’t even a scientific meritocracy. The NYT article says that:

Publishing papers in top-tier journals is crucial scholastic currency. But the process is deeply insular, often hinging on personal connections between journal editors and the researchers from whom they solicit and receive manuscripts.

“Science is publicized as a meritocracy: a larger, data-driven enterprise in which the best work and the best people float to the top,” Dr. Extavour said. In truth, she added, universal, objective standards are lacking, and “the access that authors have to editors is variable.”

To democratize this process, editors and reviewers need to level the playing field, in part by reflecting the diversity that journals claim they seek, Dr. Kamath said. “People think this is a cosmetic or surface issue,” she said. “But in reality, the very nature of your scholarship would change if you took diversity, equity and inclusion seriously.”

This whole section is to imply that there is little correlation between the merit of a paper and the chance of its being published. I think that’s a foolish conclusion, with the caaveats that Wu gives meant to imply a weak correlation at best. This is not my experience in reviewing papers or assessing published papers. Yes, sometimes a terrible paper gets published in a good journal, and a great paper gets rejected by a good journal, but there is surely a correlation between the quality of a paper and the chance that a. it will get published, and b. that it will get published in a prestigious journal.

No, to democratize the process, just do blind reviewing. That will go a ways toward eliminating bias. But even in the absence of that procedure, journals would be hard pressed to construct a system that would give preferential publication to papers by ethnic minorities. Regardless of what Katherine Wu thinks, science largely is a meritocracy, at least when it comes to publication, and I don’t think it would be good for science as a whole to bump papers up or down based on the race of their authors.


NIH gets into the game of requiring job candidates to show track records of promoting diversity

February 2, 2020 • 10:30 am

At the end of last year, I pointed out that the University of California system was implementing a new procedure for hiring faculty. It involved candidates submitting “diversity statements” that recounted their knowledge about diversity, their past efforts to increase diversity in their institutions, and their plans for promoting diversity if they were hired.

While I favor a form of affirmative action to increase diversity in hiring, I objected to the diversity-statement procedure because it not only demands adherence to a specific ideology (candidates’ diversity statements were scored on a point system, with higher points given to those whose statements matched the philosophy of the evaluators), but also gives the diversity statement priority over all other qualifications: if a candidate’s diversity score didn’t meet or exceed the cutoff threshold of 11 points, the application was discarded without further review.

This procedure is unfair because of its use of an ideological test, because it doesn’t count other “outreach” activities that are valuable but don’t promote diversity (e.g., giving talks to high school children, writing popular articles on science), and because it bars minority candidates who haven’t engaged in diversity-promoting activities before they apply for jobs.

Imagine, for example, an African-American scholar who has spent her time with her nose to the grindstone, accumulating an admirable academic and teaching record without having had the time or the will to promote diversity. As valuable as she would be to a department—and believe me, universities are desperately looking for good minority candidates—she wouldn’t have a chance of being hired under this “threshold” process. (Such scholars exist, for I know of some.) I find this process ludicrous and counterproductive, as I find the use of all mandatory diversity statements.

Now, however, according to this report in Science magazine, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is giving a ton of money to 12 universities for “cluster hires” (groups of people hired at once to beef up programs)—and that hiring process, even if not designed to increase diversity, will require every candidate not just to submit a diversity statement, but to show a “track record” of working to promote diversity. (“Diversity”, as always, means racial and gender diversity, not any kind of intellectual, class, geographic, or economic diversity.)

Click on the screenshot to read the news item:

The article reports that the NIH is appropriating $241 million to create a program called Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST). This will provide roughly $20 million to each of a dozen schools, each aliquot supporting a “cluster hire” of ten new faculty members.  Cluster hires have been used to increase diversity, but also for non-diversity initiatives, like “[accelerating] their capacity to do research in an emerging area, such as computational biology or nanofabrication.”

And the NIH initiative, despite having both diversity goals and “emerging area” goals, is requiring every candidate to prove that they have already promoted diversity. Note that this statement is required because restricting hires to individuals from underrepresented groups is illegal for the NIH. Here’s the crucial statement from the article (my emphasis):

Not all of the 120 new hires would need to belong to groups now underrepresented in academic medicine, which include women, black people, Hispanics, Native Americans, and those with disabilities, says Hannah Valantine, NIH’s chief diversity officer. In fact, she told the Council of Councils at its 24 January meeting, any such restriction would be illegal and also run counter to the program’s goal of attracting world-class talent. But Valantine says every person hired must have a track record of working to change a culture that too often makes scientists from underrepresented groups feel unwelcome on campus and isolated in the laboratory.

This is pretty explicit in imposing a diversity-promoting test on the cluster hires. Every person hired must have a track record. That again leaves out minority candidates who have been doing things other than “changing the culture”. (And it presumes that there is a culture that makes underrepresented scientists feel unwelcome, something for which there is no evidence save anecdotal statements.) Without that record, black or white, male or female, you don’t stand a chance of getting hired under the NIH program. And that in itself is “counter to the program’s goal of attracting world-class talent.”

Fortunately, there are organizations, like that run by Chad Topaz of Williams College, that will, for a donation, help candidates write a diversity statement. All you need is to hand over $100 or more to Topaz’s organization, and they’ll help you look like a great promoter of diversity. (I can only imagine how this works.)

Well, regardless of whether such bigotry exists (this is nearly always the default explanation for underrepresentation of some groups), there’s independent evidence of how valuable minority candidates already are in academia. As the article notes:

New faculty hires don’t come cheap. At Emory, a standard startup package for a new professor in the natural sciences or engineering exceeds $1 million, Freeman says. And Valantine says startup costs for a basic scientist with a wet lab at a medical school could run as high as $3 million. Minority scientists usually command a premium salary because they are in such high demand, Freeman notes. [JAC: Carla Freeman is Emory’s senior associate dean of the faculty.]

Yes, it’s true that minority faculty are in high demand: Chicago is always trying to hire them, but the pool of candidates is small. The failure to land such candidates surely doesn’t reflect bigotry on the part of departments, but, in my view, a paucity of candidates because of poorer educational opportunities available for minorities, including worse schools.

Factors like those make a mockery of the notion of “equal opportunity.” And yes, this lack of opportunity goes way back to bigotry that, in the case of African-Americans, started with slavery. It must be rectified, but one has to diagnose how to fix it—and the fix may not involve assuming that hiring committees are racist or sexist. My own view is that it’s going to require a lot of effort and money to equalize opportunity for all Americans from the outset of their lives, and we all know how hard that is. But it’s something we must do.

As I said, I favor affirmative action in such hires if one wants to increase diversity. But that affirmative action should have nothing to do with “diversity statements” or a track record of changing a culture that may not even exist. You just weight the underrepresented but desired characteristics during the hiring process.

The implicit assumption that bigotry accounts for the whole of minority underrepresentation in academia is probably unjustified. First, as the Science article notes, cluster hiring may be the wrong tool:

The scientific literature on cluster hiring is very thin. Freeman and administrators at a handful of other institutions provide anecdotal evidence of its value in fostering diversity, but there are no rigorous studies of how it compares to other approaches. Steven Brint, a sociologist at the University of California, Riverside, is looking at its impact on interdisciplinary collaborations, the most common goal for institutions that have tried it. And his preliminary findings on research productivity suggest cluster hiring may actually impede efforts to foster diversity.

“Overall, output increases for all researchers,” Blint says. “But the benefits are not evenly distributed. When we analyze the results by race and gender, our results suggest that senior scientists tend to benefit more from such hirings.” Not surprisingly, he adds, those senior scientists tend to be white men.

And this statement in the Science piece implicitly assumes that bias is the cause:

FIRST is the latest in a series of programs NIH has launched since 2014 following a 2011 study that showed black scientists are less likely to receive an NIH award than their white or Asian counterparts. NIH has set itself the goal of eliminating that disparity, and Valantine hopes FIRST will take an important step in that direction by using an unorthodox approach to recruiting academic researchers.

But a study published last year, which was highly anticipated, found—and, I’m sad to say, to some people’s disappointment—that there wasn’t any evidence for either race or gender bias in a detailed study of “mock evaluation” of NIH proposals. (The study isn’t perfect, but if it had shown such bias, nobody would discuss its weaknesses!) And the Science article doesn’t even mention this followup!(Click on screenshot):

But the 2011 study cited above also showed that the funding gap remained after controlling for investigators’ “educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics”. After removing these factors, African-Americans still were 10% less likely to get an NIH award than whites. Does this prove bigotry in the process? Not necessarily, because the study below was also published last year:

It shows that a substantial amount of the NIH award disparity was due not to bigotry, but to choice of topics: black scientists were more prone to apply for funding in fields less likely to receive funding: fields involving “research at the community and population level, as opposed to more fundamental and mechanistic investigations”. It’s thus a fallacy to assume, at the outset, that a disparity in outcomes automatically reflects bigotry rather than other factors like preference.

But regardless of that, for the funding-rate disparity isn’t the main subject of this post, we still need to study racial and sex disparities, and, if they reflect factors that narrow opportunities, we need to fix those things. Since any fixes will take decades, I favor affirmative action in hiring as well as in accepting students. But I adamantly reject the use of mandatory diversity statements as a tool for promoting academic diversity. It’s the wrong fix. And now not only the University of California uses it, but at least ten other universities are poised to join in—at the behest of the federal government, of which the NIH is part.


FFRF places full-page ad in the New York Times attacking the theocracy of the Trump administration

December 5, 2019 • 12:30 pm

I don’t have a paper copy of the New York Times (I’m an e-subscriber, and unsure whether I’ll renew), but, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), their organization ran a full-page ad in today’s paper attacking the pervasive theocracy of the Trump administration. (They weren’t 100% sure it would run today.) The FFRF also put the ad on their own website, so I’ll reproduce it below along with an excerpt from their description.

I’m not sure what full-page ads cost in the New York Times, but they’re not cheap; you can see some of the rates here, though they’re hard to decipher. Given that this ad is in color, I’d say it cost in the ballpark of $200,000. But the FFRF isn’t poor—it’s one of the best-funded of all secular organizations, and on top of these ads they give out lots of cash awards and scholarships.

Here’s a bit of the FFRF’s explanation of the ad, along with the name of the artist:

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is running a dramatic full-page ad this week in The New York Times warning that a theocratic deluge could drown us. The ad will likely appear on Thursday, Dec. 4.

The striking ad has a stark depiction of the Statue of Liberty holding a cross while large waves labeled “Theocracy” surround her and overwhelm buildings. The image is drawn by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson. “Help stem the theocratic tidal wave,” FFRF’s ad urges.

. . . “Our constitutional right to a secular government has never before been in danger of being so engulfed,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “We will fight to the utmost to ensure that reason and our secular Constitution endure.”

The ad includes a coupon at the bottom enabling people to become members or supporters of the state/church watchdog organization. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nontheistic group with more than 30,000 members and several chapters all over the country, has received a four-star rating plus a “perfect score” this year from Charity Navigator as a carefully run nonprofit.

Yes, the organization is run as a tight ship. You should consider joining it (I’m a member as well as on the honorary board of directors); it’s only $40 per year and you get a fat monthly newsletter with all kinds of good stuff in it. And of course you’re helping a secular group that really fights hard to keep the church-state wall in place, and has had numerous legal successes. To join, go here.

Do we need Nobel Prizes in science?

August 15, 2019 • 9:20 am

This article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic is almost two years old, but I hadn’t seen it before—or at least I don’t remember reading it. Reader Bryan, who sent me the link (click on screenshot for a free read), says it’s “pretty good”, and, indeed, it’s about the best critique of Nobel Prizes I can think of. None of Ed’s criticisms are new, but it’s good to collect them all in one place, if for no other reason that we can evaluate the best case for eliminating Nobels.

Do I agree with Ed’s claim that the Nobels are “absurd”, that, like “every other prize”, they are “flawed and subjective” and that (this is implicit in Yong’s piece) they should be abolished? Not really.

When I was younger I wasn’t that keen on the existence of the Nobels, seeing all awards in science as a corruption of the scientific enterprise. We were supposed to be in the game for curiosity alone, I thought, and the existence of Nobel Prizes corrupted that curiosity, leading to unseemly ambition and, for the winners, arrogance.  I no longer feel so strongly—certainly not as strongly as Yong—as the prizes do have one salubrious effect. And I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s part of human nature to want to be admired for one’s achievements.

Have a read: the piece is short.

Here’s a list of Ed’s criticisms of the Nobels ( #3 is mine). Quotes from his article are indented:

1.) The awards are limited to three people, yet modern science often involves huge teams of people, and often it’s not clear who should get the credit. Those who were part of a team and were spurned feel aggrieved. This is true: the numbers of authors on scientific papers is increasing exponentially. In fact, it’s rare to see a single-authored paper, even in my own field of evolutionary biology. As Yong notes, the authors of the team that found gravity waves, for which a Nobel was awarded to three physicists, runs for three pages. A paper estimating the mass of the Higgs boson (for which two physicists won a Nobel in 2013) has 5,154 authors!

How do you apportion credit for such an effort? Well, in many cases, three or fewer people can be seen as the prime movers of the work, so that’s not a problem. And, to my mind, those not awarded a prize shouldn’t really beef about it, because I still feel that the real prize in science is getting to do science—to get paid for satisfying your curiosity. But yes, it is a problem, and sometimes it’s not so easy.

Sometimes the solution is to split the prize among fields, as Matthew Cobb suggested might have been done for the discovery of DNA’s structure had Rosalind Franklin lived (prizes aren’t awarded posthumously). As he wrote in the Guardian:

It is clear that, had Franklin lived, the Nobel prize committee ought to have awarded her a Nobel prize, too – her conceptual understanding of the structure of the DNA molecule and its significance was on a par with that of Watson and Crick, while her crystallographic data were as good as, if not better, than those of Wilkins. The simple expedient would have been to award Watson and Crick the prize for Physiology or Medicine while Franklin and Watkins received the prize for Chemistry.

Ed also mentions a 2012 suggestion by the editors of Scientific American: when there are large teams and no clear standout recipients, the prize could be awarded to a “team”, just as Peace Prizes are sometimes awarded to organizations. While that sounds good, I don’t think it would work, for every scientist would want to call themselves a “Nobel Laureate”, unlike members of, say, Doctors Without Borders.

Finally, I have my own beef—many cases of multiple authorships are gratuitous. Authorship is very often given to people who made little or no contribution to the research (sometimes the head of the lab, who all too often puts his/her name on all papers done by subordinates), or to people whose contributions were trivial: donating a reagent or doing a small calculation. As competition for jobs in science heats up, more and more people want their names on papers, for that swells their c.v. and helps them advance. This is a practice I decry and haven’t engaged in, and I’ve told my students to avoid it, too. But the growth of authorship lists seems inevitable, and not all of it is attributable to the changing nature of research, which now is said to require “teams.” Not all research does. Every scientist knows cases of authors on papers who didn’t really deserve their authorship, but we discuss it sotto voce.

2.) A related issue: important contributors have been overlooked. 

The very first prize in medicine was awarded to Emil von Behring in 1901 for the discovery of antitoxins, but not to his close collaborator Shibasaburo Kitasato. The 1952 medicine and physiology prize went to Selman Waksman for the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin, and ignored Waksman’s graduate student Albert Schatz, who actually found the chemical. The chemistry prize in 2008 went to three researchers for discovering green fluorescent protein (GFP)—a molecule that other scientists commonly use to visualize the goings-on within our cells. Douglas Prasher, the man who first cloned the gene for GFP, was not among them.

I’d add Jocelyn Bell, who first observed pulsars, but was not given the physics prize in 1974 along with two male authors of the paper, despite Bell being the second author.  This is related to problem #1.  One could, I suppose expand the list of recipients to more than three; after all, Alfred Nobel specified only one recipient per field, but it’s been expanded by custom to a maximum of three. Why not four or five?

Sometimes people beef in public:

In some cases, people have protested their own omission. In 2003, one Ray Damadian took out a series of full-page ads in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times to protest that he had been wrongfully denied a Nobel Prize in Medicine for his role in inventing magnetic resonance imaging. The Nobel committee only recognized Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield for that feat—an omission that Damadian billed as a “shameful wrong that must be righted.” “To wake up on Monday morning and see that I had been written out of history is an agony I cannot live with,” he told theTimes.

Well, Damadian is being a weenie here. Once a Prize is awarded it’s too late. Perhaps Damadian was overlooked, but he should have taken the slight gracefully.  His statement that he’s in “an agony I cannot live with” is shamefully self-aggrandizing and embarrassing. And the ads, well, they’re beyond shameful. What do they accomplish except make one look like a big sour grape?

3.) Important contributions have been overlooked. This is my own plaint, though I can’t think of many major contributions that have really been ignored, except in literature. The development of polio vaccine by Salk and Sabin, I suppose, was one of the overlooked science prizes (there was an award to others in 1954 for culturing the virus), though some disagree (see here). But at any rate, people will always differ in what discoveries they consider prize-worthy. I expect one will be given for CRISPR technology, but here again there is a controversy about which of the several developers deserve a prize.

4.) Awarding prizes distorts the nature of science, feeding into a Tolstoy-ian “great person” myth in which progress depends more on individuals than on a history of work building on itself. Ed says this:

The price of reform is low, and the cost of avoiding it is high. As biologists Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang wrote in 2013, the Nobels promulgate the idea of the lone genius—the idea, summarized by philosopher Thomas Carlyle, that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Not so in science, and yet the Nobels feed this pernicious myth. And in doing so, say Casadavell and Fang, they “reinforce a flawed reward system in science in which the winner takes all, and the contributions of the many are neglected by disproportionate attention to the contributions of a few.” In some ways, the prizes are not about who has made the most important contributions, but who has best survived the hazardous labyrinth of academia.

Well, perhaps the public needs to learn more about the cumulative and group-ish nature of the scientific enterprise, but I don’t think the awarding of prizes feeds a “pernicious myth.” And the winner doesn’t take all: everyone gets the satisfaction of knowing their work contributed to the award, and, more important, you’re a winner simply by being a scientist who’s contributed to important work. The “pernicious myth” idea is, I think, a bit of histrionics.

5.) Dead people can’t get prizes.

And in many cases, the prizes are about who has survived, full stop. Nobel Prizes cannot be awarded posthumously. So Rosalind Franklin was not recognized for her pivotal role in discovering the double-helical structure of DNA because she died four years before the Nobel was awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. Astronomer Vera Rubin provided evidence for the existence of dark matter by studying the way in which galaxies rotate—a feat that revolutionized our understanding of the universe. “Vera Rubin deserves a Nobel,” said science writer Rachel Feltman in October 2016. “She probably won’t get one in time.” Rubin died two months later.

I don’t see this as a major problem. There are many prizes awarded only to living people.

6.) Minorities, particularly women scientists, have been overlooked.

Rubin and Franklin point to another longstanding issue with the Nobels. In as much as they propagate the myth of the lone genius, that lone genius is almost always white and male. Women have won just 12 of the 214 prizes in physiology or medicine, just 4 of the 175 prizes in chemistry, and just 2 of the 204 prizes in physics. The most recent female physics laureate, Maria Goeppert Mayer, won her prize 54 years ago. It’s not for lack of potential honorees, either. Rubin inarguably deserved one, as did Lise Meitner who contributed to the discovery of nuclear fission alongside laureate Otto Hahn. Between 1937 and 1965, Meitner was nominated 48 times by different people, and never won. “There are great things about the Nobel Prize but we should keep in mind that demographics of the winners reflect and amplify structural biases,” said astrophysicist Katie Mack on Twitter last year.

This accusation seems true, although, to be fair, science was until recently almost completely dominated by men, and men, like women, have been overlooked. (Should we strive for a proportionality of women laureates equal to 50% when in some fields women are far fewer than 50% of the scientists? This reflects the problem of equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome.) But there has been sexism in who has been considered for prizes, and I hope (and am pretty confident) that that bias, and other biases, will be rectified. As women make up an increasing proportion of biologists, the disparity will (or so I hope) be rectified.

7.) Laureates are overly lionized, to the point that their flaws are overlooked.

Perhaps none of this would matter if the Nobels weren’t such a massive deal. Beyond the monetary value of the prize, laureates are virtually guaranteed a stream of lucrative speaking gigs. Their papers garner more citations. They tend to live for a year or two longer than people who were nominated but never actually won. And the award imprints them with a permanent imprimatur of greatness. The Nobel Prize is not, say, a MacArthur genius grant, which is awarded to people “who show exceptional creativity in their work.” It recognizes a particular discovery. And yet the discoverer is forever billed as an intellectual force in their own right—creating an equivalence between one historical contribution and their entire portfolio of ideas forevermore.

Is this really a problem with the Prizes, or with how people react to them? And I’m not sure that a discoverer is forever billed “as an intellectual force in their own right”. Some of them are, for sure, but many are not, and continue on with their work without becoming a national icon. I don’t think Wally Gilbert, for one, has had a “string of lucrative speaking gigs”, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want one. Paul Dirac was content to continue to do science and avoid lionization.

An even less serious criticism by Ed is that some Laureates go off the rails after they get their prizes. Yong mentions William Shockley, who became a racist, James Watson, who has espoused racism and sexism, and Kary Mullis, who was a bull-goose looney. But so what? This can happen to anyone who gets an award. We can’t guarantee that Nobel Laureates will be exemplars of morality and dignity for the rest of their lives.

So we have a number of criticisms of science prizes, some of which, I suppose, could apply to Peace, Literature, and Economics Prizes as well. Are these issues so serious that they warrant the elimination of the Nobel awards? Well, we know that’s not going to happen: it’s the only scientific “event” that the whole world notices: a ritual of the fall and winter.

And that’s why, I think, we should keep them, for Nobels educate people about what the big scientific advances have been. How many people knew about gravity waves before the Nobels were awarded? If you’re a science geek, you’ll have known, and a few newspapers (but not many) have a decent science section; but the awarding of the Nobels, with some descriptions of what they were given for, goes a substantial way towards informing the public about new knowledge of the Universe.  Doesn’t conveying that information, which goes around the world, outweigh all the ambition, careerism, and hurt feelings within the scientific community at Nobel time? I think so.

A visit with Dick Lewontin

July 19, 2019 • 2:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

While on the East Coast to attend the Evolution 2019 meetings in Providence, Rhode Island, I also stopped for a few days at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (Jerry’s and my alma mater), and got a chance to visit with Dick Lewontin, Jerry’s Ph.D. advisor, and my de jure Ph.D. advisor (my actual advisor, E. E. Williams, was retired, and so could not officially be my advisor). WEIT readers may recall that Jerry posted greetings for Dick’s 90th birthday earlier this year. I went to see Dick with Steve Orzack, another one of Dick’s Ph.D. students, who took the two pictures below.

Visiting with Dick Lewontin, Cambridge, Mass., 21 June 2019. Picture by Steve Orzack.

We chatted for an hour or two about various things. Steve and I both had some things we wanted to ask Dick about, one of mine being whether Dick’s advisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky, was Russian or Ukrainian. (Wikipedia claims he’s Ukrainian, and I once had a Ukrainian complain to me about an exhibit about Dobzhansky that I curated that referred to him as Russian.) Dick was adamant that Dobzhansky was Russian, noting that he spoke Russian at home with his wife, thought of himself as Russian, and had Russians as his lab assistants and technicians. Historians, friends, and colleagues of “Dodik/Doby” have always called him Russian, so I was not surprised by Dick’s response.

Dick hams it up for the camera. Picture by Steve Orzack.

Dick also regaled us with stories of when he worked with Buckminster Fuller on geodesic domes back in the ’50s, when Dick was at North Carolina State. Bucky, he assured us, did not understand the geometry of solids! Dick mentioned that he considered leaving academia to work full time with Fuller, but was now glad he hadn’t, as Fuller’s company went under a few years later. Steve replied that if Dick had joined the company full time, Dick could have saved the company!

Dick has given up essentially all his space at the Museum, and most of his papers (correspondence, etc.) have been taken by the American Philosophical Society, (which also has a considerable trove of Dobzhansky material), and Dick has given his books to the Ernst Mayr Library– the library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. This is appropriate, as Ernst Mayr, while Director of the MCZ from 1961-1970, engaged in correspondence with Dick on “genetical problems” (Haffer , 2007:265), and pushed for the building of the Museum of Comparative Zoology Laboratories, the MCZ’s lab wing, completed in 1973 (Mayr, 1973), of which Dick’s fly lab was one of the first inhabitants, arriving at Harvard in that opening year. (Dick mentioned that the proximity of the MCZ to his summer place in Vermont, which he’d had to travel to by train from Chicago, was a consideration in moving from the University of Chicago to Harvard.)

Dick’s books are being sorted, and I looked though several of them, finding a number of interesting inscriptions. First, a set of inscriptions from Mayr himself. These show that Mayr was presenting Dick with his books as early as March 1969, prior to Dick’s arrival at Harvard. I’m not sure if discussions involving Dick’s movement to the MCZ had begun this early.

To Dick Lewontin, | evolutionary geneticist, |who appreciates the importance of systematics, | in friendship | Ernst | March 1969

The ISBN stamp on the following cover page (and some further below) are from a cataloging effort in Dick’s personal library, not from the MCZ Library.

To Dick Lewontin | fellow worker in the evol. vineyard, | in the hope that he will crack | some of the nuts that were too hard for me! | With best wishes | Ernst | Christmas 1976


To Dick Lewontin | to whom I owe so much intellectual | stimulation | in friendship and admiration | Ernst


For Dick Lewontin | whose deep understanding of genetics | I admire beyond words (and song!) | in friendship | Ernst Mayr

[I am unsure of my transcription of the final word of the third line, “song”.]


For Dick Lewontin | in friendship and admiration | from the non-Marxist dialectic materialist | Ernst Mayr

The following is Dick’s MCZ bookstamp, which appears in many, though not all, of his books from his MCZ years.

The following is of interest, coming from Tom Schopf, one of the “young Turks” of paleontology in the early 1970’s, whom I mentioned in my tribute to David Raup.

To Dick Lewontin | I hope you will enjoy this effort to make invertebrate paleontology a “creative, chancy young man’s game” | As you will see from citations to your | work, you have had a large influence. | And I look forward to your continuing | analysis of problems critical to paleontologists. | Tom | December 2, 1972

The following is an inscription to Dick from a younger colleague, Jonathan Losos, on his book Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree. Note that Dick had been Jonathan’s intro bio professor!

Dick, | With great appreciation for the influence you have had on my | career through your writings, your teaching | of my introductory biology class) of which | I have vivid recollections) and your | helpful conversations with specific | reference to points herein. | Jonathan

And finally, some inscriptions from Dick’s Ph.D. advisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky. These I got from Dick several years ago, when I visited him while preparing my exhibit on Dobzhansky. I used all three inscriptions in the exhibit. The first is on a copy of the third edition of Dobzhansky’s classic Genetics and the Origin of Species. It was published in 1951, which is about the time Dick went to Columbia to work with Dodik. (Dick was in the Harvard class of 1950, but since he had been “rusticated” for a year, he actually graduated in 1951.) The inscription isn’t dated, but it seems to be earlier than the other two, referring to Dick’s “scientific youth”, and his “coming” eminence. According to Dick, Dodik referred to finishing graduate students as “soon to be professor” (as did Dick himself), so this inscription is probably early in Dick’s grad school days.

To Dick Lewontin, the coming | eminent geneticist, in his scientific | youth, with best wishes of continued | success | Th Dobzhansky

The next inscription is on a bound set of numbers I to XX of Dobzhansky’s monumental series of paper on “The Genetics of Natural Populations”. These 20 papers were published from 1938 through 1952. It is interesting that Dodik refers to the greater success of succeeding generations; the inscription was made only 5 years before Dick published his groundbreaking papers with Jack Hubby on allozyme polymorphism, confirming Dodik’s long-argued view that genetic variation was abundant and “normal” in natural populations.

Progress of science means that | succeeding generations do better than | preceding generations— and this | is what is to happen when the | genetics of natural populations | is investigated by my old | friend and spiritual son, | Prof. R. Lewontin! | Th Dobzhansky | New York, February 4, 1961

The final inscription is on a bound set of numbers XXI-XL of “The Genetics of Natural Populations”, published from 1953 through 1968. This inscription is undated but necessarily postdates initial Dick’s work on allozymes. There were three more papers in the series to come, published from 1969 through 1976; for the last, Dobzhansky was a posthumous coauthor, having died in December,1975. (The notation “GNP | XXI-XL” was made by me on the copy I made, and is not on the original.)

These lucubrations of the | old age of Th. Dobzhansky | dedicated to the super-star | R.C. Lewontin

You can see in these inscriptions the development of Dobzhansky’s appreciation of Dick as a scientist, from promising “youth”, to “old friend and spiritual son” (Dobzahnsky had one child, a daughter), and finally to “super-star”. You can also see Dodik’s colloquial phrasing and sense of humor, also evident in his  aphorism, “Heaven is where, when the experiment is over, you don’t need statistics to figure out what happened.” (Which Dick reconfirmed, on my latest visit, was indeed Dodik’s.)

Haffer, J. 2007. Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy: The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr 1904-2005. Springer, Berlin

Hubby, J. L., and R. C. Lewontin. 1966. A molecular approach to the study of genic heterozygosity in natural populations. I. The number of alleles at different loci in Drosophila pseudoobscura. Genetics 54:577-594.

Lewontin, R. C., and J. L. Hubby. 1966. A molecular approach to the study of genic heterozygosity in natural populations. II. Amount of variation and degree of heterozygosity in natural populations of Drosophila pseudoobscura. Genetics 54:595-609.

Losos, J.B. 2009. Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Mayr, E. 1969. Principles of Systematic Zoology. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Mayr, E. 1973. Museums and biological laboratories. Breviora 416, 7pp. BHL

Mayr, E. 1976. Evolution and the Diversity of Life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Mayr, E. 1988. Toward a New Philosophy of Biology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Mayr, E. 1991. One Long Argument. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Mayr, E. 1997. This is Biology: the Science of the Living World. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Schopf, T.J.M., ed. 1972. Models in Paleobiology. Freeman Cooper, San Francisco.

Dick Lewontin at 90

March 30, 2019 • 12:00 pm

My Ph.D. adviser, Dick Lewontin, turned 90 yesterday, as Grania noted in the Hili Dialogue. I couldn’t be there to fete him, but my friend Andrew Berry at Harvard went over to the facility in Cambridge where Dick lives with his beloved wife Mary Jane. Andrew carried some written wishes from Dick’s students and postdocs, and I reminded him to take a picture (below). Andrew’s report.

Dick was in a happily self-deprecating state of denial about turning 90, and appreciated receiving your messages (which I printed out to give him hard copy). It’s alway great to see them.

And here is the man we always called “The Boss”. He’s the smartest scientist I’ve ever met (yes, I know I haven’t met everyone), and the one who gets my All Around Excellence award for the high quality of his written prose, his talks, and his work. I don’t have many heroes in science, but he’s one.

Long may he run.

Addendum by Greg Mayer. My Ph.D. adviser was E.E. Williams, but because EEW was retired, my official Ph.D. adviser was Dick.  On a trip to Cambridge in January, 2017, Steve Orzack (another of Dick’s students) and I had lunch with Dick at the Town Diner in Watertown, Mass.; Steve took a picture of me and Dick outside the diner.
I’ve said before here at WEIT that Dick is the smartest guy I have ever met; I’ve also noted that Dick is very consistent in what he wears. It is not uncommon for scientists to limit their clothing choices, as a way of eliminating distraction– they’re dedicated to what’s truly important. Take a careful look at the two photos– Dick is wearing a blue work shirt, and the same red plaid lumberman’s jacket, in both! Happy Birthday, Dick!

Cox interviews Attenborough on Darwin (and other interviews)

February 19, 2018 • 7:45 am

by Matthew Cobb

My friend and colleague Professor Brian Cox is not only a Professor of Physics at the University of Manchester, he is also Professor for Public Engagement in Science at the Royal Society in London. As part of this, he decided to interview a number of Fellows of the Royal Society about their scientific heroes, in a series called People of Science. These brief interviews are informal,  insightful and fascinating. The one that will probably interest readers most is the one with David Attenborough, on Darwin. Here it is, it’s only 5 minutes long:


[Gratuitous comment by JAC: I have one beef with what Sir David says about The Origin at 3:50:

“What is marvelous about it is that anybody can read any page and it makes absolute sense. It’s not full of jargon; it’s full of argument and observation.”

True, it’s full of argument and observation, and Darwin generally avoids jargon. But it’s simply not true that anybody can read any page and make sense of it. Sometimes it’s hard going, even for a biologist. For those who believe Sir David’s words, I challenge you to read the chapter on “Hybridism”. My students often objected to my requiring them to read it because they weren’t used to the dense Victorian prose. (Eventually I gave up and went to the “abridged” Origin. That, too, was a failure.)  I should know, because I’ve read the book a gazillion times and the margins are full of question marks. Here’s my copy of the first edition, dog-eared, taped together, and covered with scrawls. Now that the pages have started falling out, I’ll have to retire it.  If you haven’t read this book, you can’t consider yourself educated!]

Back to Matthew:

Readers might also like this interview with Sir David Spiegelhalter about the work of amateur mathematician Thomas Bayes and of statistician Ronald Fisher (includes some practical experimentation!):

This one is about Alexander Fleming, and is with Brian’s fellow Manchester graduate, Dame Sally Davies, England’s Chief Medical Officer (to do with public health):

The other three interviews are developmental psychologist Uta Frith discussing Alice Lee (no, you haven’t heard of Lee), author Bill Bryson (yes, he is an FRS, or an honorary one, anyway) on Benjamin Franklin and President of the Institute of Physics Professor Julia Higgins on Michael Faraday.

The interviews all take place in the library in the Royal Society’s home on Carlton House Terrace in London (you’ll notice a bust of Darwin in the background). Until 1939, the building was the German Embassy, before being closed for obvious reasons. In a nice twist, when General de Gaulle came to London in June 1940 following the fall of France, the Free French, as they became known, had their headquarters at the other end of the terrace. The Royal Society moved in there after the end of the war.

Bill Nye excoriated for attending State of the Union address with Trump’s proposed NASA chief

February 1, 2018 • 10:15 am

I’ve made no secret about my lack of affection for Bill “The Science Guy” Nye.  Although at one time he may have been a great promoter of science for kids, he seems unable to survive out of the limelight. The result is that he’s engaging in all sorts of activities to keep himself in the public eye: debating Ken Ham about evolution, popping up at events like the Reason Rally (where he refused to sign my book for charity), and starring in his misnamed television show, “Bill Nye Saves the World.” It also rankles me that he pretends to be a scientist but he’s really not: he was an engineer at one time, but he hasn’t even done that for 32 years.  I don’t care if science popularizers have science degrees so long as they can present the material cogently and engagingly, but I do mind when they pretend to be scientists.

The last straw was the incursion of politics into his science show, which proved horribly cringeworthy. Behold “My vagina has its own voice”, followed by “Ice cream sexuality”:


I can’t imagine Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Richard Dawkins presenting any of those videos, which aren’t even science but ideology.

There are many other reasons I dislike Nye, but this will suffice. Others, of course, disagree, and love the laterally compressed man with the bow tie. Many of them were turned on to science by Nye when they were kids, and I can’t fault that. All I know is the man I see today, and he makes the soles of my shoes curl up.

This week, however, Nye decided to attend Trump’s State of the Union Address, which was fine, but what rankled people is that he went with Republican congressman Jim Bridenstine. Trump proposed Bridenstine as the new director of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), but the nomination has been held up because Bridensteine is unqualified, not having a science degree (though he’s a pilot and was director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum), and, most important, he won’t say openly that human activity is the major cause of global warming. When examined in a confirmation hearing, Bridenstine admitted that global warming was in part anthropogenic, but wouldn’t say that human activity is the main cause.

To many that is heresy, but I think that a partial admission is a step in the right direction for the man, though of course he may have been lying. I don’t think he should be confirmed, for he’s simply unqualified, but in the end his failure to fully sign on to what is seen as settled science will probably be the main factor blocking his nomination. After all, most of Trump’s nominees are unqualified!

What bothered people a lot was that Nye went to the State of the Union as Bridenstine’s guest, which apparently they saw as Nye’s endorsement not only of Bridenstine’s views and Trump’s policies, but also, by proxy, of xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, racism, ableism, and yes, anti-science. No matter that Nye accepts and speaks about the dangers of anthropogenic global warming, or that he dissociated himself from Bridenstine’s and Trump’s political views. As the New York Post reports:

“I will attend the State of the Union as a guest of Congressman Jim Bridenstine — nominee for NASA Administrator — who extended me an invitation in my role as CEO of The Planetary Society,” the science educator and engineer tweeted Monday night.

“While the Congressman and I disagree on a great many issues — we share a deep respect for NASA and its achievements and a strong interest in the future of space exploration,” he wrote.

“My attendance tomorrow should not be interpreted as an endorsement of this administration, or of Congressman Bridenstine’s nomination, or seen as an acceptance of the recent attacks on science and the scientific community,” he continued.

I don’t have a beef with Nye going to the speech with Bridenstine; I have a beef with him constantly pushing himself into the limelight, and he’ll do it in any way he can. I object to Nye’s rampant careerism, not to his politics. In this case, though, his self-promotion required him to go with a Republican.

Many others took issue with that, though, and pushback against Nye’s attendance was reported and/or promulgated by many places, including Salon, Geekwire, and CNN. The only temperate voice was reported at Geekwire:

The Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier volleyed back, saying that it’s important to acknowledge Bridenstine’s shift toward the mainstream on climate science.

“If pro-science activists want to see their policies succeed, by definition they will have to gain new supporters, and in so doing they will have to change people’s minds — and embrace it when it happens,” he wrote.

Nye is the CEO of The Planetary Society: one of the reasons he’s associating himself with the NASA mission.

But three other groups spoke out loudly against Nye’s actions.  An online petition by Climate Hawks Vote, which says what’s below, has gathered more than 35,000 signatures:

President Donald Trump is a bigoted climate denier. So is Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Trump’s embattled nominee for NASA Administrator. So why is Bill Nye “very pleased” to be Bridenstine’s guest at Trump’s first State of the Union address?

Bill, please be the Science Guy, not the Bigoted Climate Denial Guy. Cancel your plans to attend Trump’s State of the Union as Rep. Bridenstine’s guest.

You can be “very pleased” to be someone’s guest without endorsing Bridenstine’s policies, and Nye explicitly said he didn’t, and has emphasized human-caused global warming constantly.

More pushback at Climate, with an article called “Tell Bill Nye: Don’t provide cover to Trump’s climate denier appointee” (their emphasis):

Bill Nye has been a stalwart voice against the Trump administration’s climate denial in the past year. Meanwhile, Jim Bridenstine is exactly the opposite: a climate denying, fossil fuel-funded politician who has no business running NASA. As a member of Congress from Oklahoma, Bridenstine has already racked up $170,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry. Even though he refutes the science of climate change and has no scientific background, he just moved one step closer to becoming the head of NASA.

NASA performs critical climate science research, and if the Senate confirms Bridenstine’s nomination he could work with Trump to end NASA’s earth science missions, and ground essential research satellites. With his controversial nomination heading soon to the Senate floor, Bill Nye’s tacit endorsement could be just what Bridenstine needs to get enough votes to be confirmed. We have to stop this in its tracks.

Tell Bill Nye today: Don’t support the Trump administration’s disastrous climate denial agenda by attending the State of the Union as Jim Bridenstine’s guest.

And the most vociferous pushback came from a group of 500 women scientists on a Scientific American blog, in a piece called “Bill Nye does not speak for us and he does not speak for science”. Two excerpts:

As scientists, we cannot stand by while Nye lends our community’s credibility to a man who would undermine the United States’ most prominent science agency. And we cannot stand by while Nye uses his public persona as a science entertainer to support an administration that is expressly xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, ableist, and anti-science.

Scientists are people, and in today’s society, it is impossible to separate science at major agencies like NASA from other pressing issues like racism, bigotry, and misogyny. Addressing these issues should be a priority, not only to strengthen our own scientific community, but to better serve the public that often funds our work. Rather than wield his public persona to bring attention to the need for science-informed policy, Bill Nye has chosen to excuse Rep. Bridenstine’s anti-science record and his stance on civil rights, and to implicitly support a stance that would diminish the agency’s work studying our own planet and its changing climate. Exploring other worlds and studying other planets, while dismissing the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change and its damage to our own planet isn’t just dangerous, it’s foolish and self-defeating.

Further, from his position of privilege and public popularity, Bill Nye is acting on the scientific community’s behalf, but without our approval.

That seems over the top to me, for Nye surely doesn’t endorse xenophobia, homophobia, and that whole slate of sins; in fact, he’s disavowed much of this (see above). Even though the videos about are cringeworthy, they nevertheless do attack homophobia and misogyny. So Nye’s supposed “implicit” support for these things has been rejected explicitly. I also question whether science at NASA, or anyplace else, cannot be separated from identity politics. There’s no logical connection between the two, except that most scientists are liberals, and most liberals don’t endorse homophobia, xenophibia, et al. Finally, does Nye need anyone’s approval to appear at the State of the Union message? He was not acting on the scientific community’s behalf, but on his own behalf.

There’s this, too:

The true shame is that Bill Nye remains the popular face of science because he keeps himself in the public eye. To be sure, increasing the visibility of scientists in the popular media is important to strengthening public support for science, but Nye’s TV persona has perpetuated the harmful stereotype that scientists are nerdy, combative white men in lab coats—a stereotype that does not comport with our lived experience as women in STEM. And he continues to wield his power recklessly, even after his recent endeavors in debate and politics have backfired spectacularly.

In 2014, he attempted to debate creationist Ken Ham—against the judgment of evolution experts—which only served to allow Ham to raise the funds needed to build an evangelical theme park that spreads misinformation about human evolution. Similarly, Nye repeatedly agreed to televised debates with non-scientist climate deniers, contributing to the false perception that researchers still disagree about basic climate science. And when Bill Nye went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to “debate” climate change in 2017, his appearance was used to spread misinformation to Fox viewers and fundraise for anti-climate initiatives.

There’s a bit of truth here, because Nye does “keep himself in the public eye”. More important, I too won’t debate creationists because it gives them credibility—but that’s not the only reason. Other reasons include creationists’ “Gish galloping” in these debates, and because rhetoric in a live debate is not, I think, the best way to let the public issues. But I don’t mind if some other folks debate creationists, so long as they’re prepared and know what they’re doing. But surely going on television and pushing for recognition of global warming is a good thing: we can’t always avoid our opponents, and sometimes debates, with the proper science advocates, can be useful.

I’ll leave you to judge for yourself whether Nye perpetuates stereotypes of science. If he does, people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is black and doesn’t wear a lab coat, must dispel them.

In the end, the way to make your point in this case is not to demonize Nye, but to defeat Bridenstine’s nomination. (His nomination seems  a lost cause anyway.) Write to your senators and representatives! Write to the White House! This may seem like bawling up a drainpipe, but if that doesn’t do anything, surely calling out Nye will do even less.

I find myself in a strange position defending Bill Nye, as I don’t like him, don’t admire him, and don’t think he’s doing much for science. But I simply can’t get worked up about him going to the State of the Union address with a Republican nominee, especially when Nye has explicitly disavowed Bridenstine’s views on climate change.

h/t: Tom

The science books that inspired eight science writers (and me)

July 11, 2017 • 11:00 am

Yesterday’s Guardian has nice survey of eight science writers (many of them working scientists): “‘I was hooked for life’: Science writers on the books that inspired them.” They don’t make it clear that they’re really asking about popular books, as some of the books that “fired my imagination”, as the article notes, weren’t science trade books but technical books written for professionals. I suppose they wanted books that the layperson could read with profit.

Nevertheless, I’ll list the writers queried by the Guardian and link each name to the book they found inspiring. (If you don’t recognize someone, the Guardian identifies them.)

Brian Cox
Gaia Vinc
Garry Kasparov
Andrea Wulf
Adam Rutherford
Claudia Hammond
Richard Fortey (and a second book)
Venki Ramakrishnan

Now of course I’m going to ask the readers to name the science book or books that most inspired them, and to be fair I’ll have to give my own list. I’ve divided it up into two parts: trade (popular) books and technical books. I’ll surely forget some of them, but I have a limited time here to remember them! I’m listing only the books that influenced me when I was younger, before I was a professional scientist, but over at Five Books I’ve also listed some books I greatly recommend to the general reader. (The only recommendation I’d change is the Gould book; I’d now recommend reading an early collection of his essays.)

Trade books

The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif. Now almost forgotten, the book, though perhaps a tad overwritten, infected me with a love of research–the thrill of the hunt for facts)–when I was very young.

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis. de Kruif in fact collaborated with Lewis when he wrote Arrowsmith, telling Lewis about science and basing the book’s characters on real scientists he’d known. It’s the only novel on my list and the best science fiction (i.e., fiction book about doing science) I know of. Again, it’s written in Lewis’s sometimes breathy style, but portrays the wonder of science better than any novel I know.

On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. This was, after all, a book written for the public, and it sold very well. I needn’t say why this was influential except that it shows you how to make one long and unanswerable argument, and testifies to the need for anal thoroughness and hard work when you do science

Technical books

Systematic and the Origin of Species (1942) and its updated version Animal Species and Evolution (1963) by Ernst Mayr. These books and the next one were the books that got me interested in speciation, and drove me to the path of studying the evolutionary genetics of speciation.

Genetics and the Origin of Species by Theodosius Dobzhansky (1937). This is generally seen as the book that launched the “modern synthesis” of evolution, in which the observations of natural history and experiments were made consonant with the findings of genetics. Note the similarity of title to Mayr’s books: both saw the “species problem” as paramount in evolution: the observation that nature isn’t a continuum but is divided into discrete and pretty objective units: the populations we call “species”. That in fact was the major problem of evolution that Darwin didn’t solve, despite the title of his most famous book, which turns out to be more about the origin of adaptations within species than about species themselves. Here’s a statement of “the species” problem from the second page of Dobzhansky’s book:

“Organic diversity is an observational fact more or less familiar to everyone.  It is perceived by us as something apart from ourselves, a phenomenon given in experience but independent of the working of our minds. A more intimate acquaintance with the living world discloses another fact almost as striking as the diversity itself. This is the discontinuity of the organic variation.

If we assemble as many individuals living at a given time as we can, we notice at once that the observed variation does not form a single probability distribution or any other kind of continuous distribution.  Instead, a multitude of separate, discrete, distributions are found. In other words. the living world is not a single array of individuals in which any two variants are connected by an unbroken series of intergrades, but an array of more of less distinctly separate arrays, intermediates between which are absent or rare.”

Isn’t that good? It’s a succinct and clear statement of “the species problem.” And it was largely solved by Mayr and Dobzhansky. (Mayr was one of my mentors at Harvard and Dobzhansky was my academic grandfather: the advisor of my own advisor, Dick Lewontin.,

All three of these books are remarkably well written, especially considering that Mayr’s native language was German and Dobzhansky’s Russian. It’s rare to find technical books these days written with such clarity and style. These are the books that, along with The Origin, made me an evolutionary geneticist. And they inspired me by showing me that the problem they raised in the Thirties and Forties had lain fallow for several decades thereafter, with few people that interested in speciation. As a student I saw a vacant niche I could fill, especially doing genetic studies of reproductive isolating barriers, and hence my career. That culminated in the book I’m proudest of having written, Speciation (2004) with H. Allen Orr. It’s a technical book, but rereading it recently I realized that I’ve lost the intellectual acumen I had when Allen and I wrote it. I couldn’t do that now: my mind and ability to synthesize diverse material were keener 13 years ago.

As I said, Speciation is a technical book, so I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who hadn’t studied a lot of evolution. My friends who bought it because they liked me did so against my advice, and found out I was right.  But I hope to write a short popular treatment of speciation for Oxford University Press, and that’s why I’m rereading the earlier book, as well as reviewing the literature on speciation since 2004.

This turned into a bit of an autobiography, and I didn’t mean to do that. At any rate, be you scientist or layperson, put in the comments the science books that most influenced or enthralled you.


h/t: Matthew Cobb