Big Brother is coming: machines to catch implicit bias in the workplace

March 20, 2023 • 1:15 pm

What if you had an Alexa-like device around to monitor your behavior, especially your “implicit biases”? Would that bother you?  And if you knew you were being monitored, would it affect your behavior? And if it did affect your behavior, would it do so permanently, or only so long as you knew you were being monitored?

Well, first we have to know if the concept of “implicit bias” is meaningful. People may be biased, but it may be something that they recognize: explicit bias that’s kept largely private. In fact, that’s what seems to be the case: data show that not only is there no commonly accepted definition of “implicit bias”, but ways to measure it, most notably the “implicit association test” (IAT) are dubious and give widely varying results for single individuals. Further, ways to rectify it don’t seem to work.

In a post from earlier this month, I reprise psychologist Lee Jussim’s many criticisms of implicit bias. Even if you take the most generous view of the topic, you have to admit that we know little about it, very little about how to measure it if it’s real, and nothing about how to rectify what the tests say is “implicit bias.”. In other word, it’s way too early to start ferreting it out, much less asserting that it’s ubiquitous. Implicit bias (henceforth “IB”) is one of those concepts that we can’t get a handle on, has been largely rejected by psychologists and sociologists, but is nevertheless taken for granted by the woke. Who needs stinking data when a concept meets your needs? The first paragraph of the piece below shows that a highly controversial topic is just accepted as true when it’s ideologically convenient.

The piece below, from Northeastern University in Boston, outlines the proposals of two researchers to measure “implicit bias” remotely, with the aim of eliminating it. Click to read:

The article assumes from the outset, without any justification, that the bias is there and is also ubiquitous. It further claims that implicit bias is costly because (again assuming again that it’s real), it demoralizes workers who are its targets—and that costs money:

Studies have shown that implicit bias—the automatic, and often unintentional, associations people have in their minds about groups of people—is ubiquitous in the workplace, and can hurt not just employees, but also a company’s bottom line.

For example, employees who perceive bias are nearly three times as likely to be disengaged at work, and the cost of disengagement to employers isn’t cheap—to the tune of $450 billion to $550 billion a year. Despite the growing adoption of implicit bias training, some in the field of human resources have raised doubts about its effectiveness in improving diversity and inclusion within organizations.

I reject the assertion of the first paragraph entirely, for the data (while sometimes conflicting) do not show that this kind of bias is ubiquitous—or even exists.  Note as well that in the second paragraph “implicit bias” has now become “bias”, yet they are two different things.  One is a subconscious form of bias, the other more explicit and recognized by its proponent. And, of course, the paragraph assumes that employees who perceive bias are actually receiving bias rather than acting out a victim mentality, and we just don’t know that.  (I’m not denying that racism and sexism exist; just that it’s subconscious, ubiquitous, and has the financial effects noted above.) This being America, of course, the goal is not a more moral business, but a more lucrative one.

But technology is here to fix the problem! All we have to do is eavesdrop on people interacting, analyze what you find, and then use it to “rectify” the behavior of the transgressors. Problem solved!

But what if a smart device, similar to the Amazon Alexa, could tell when your boss inadvertently left a female colleague out of an important decision, or made her feel that her perspective wasn’t valued?

. . .This device doesn’t yet exist, but Northeastern associate professors Christoph Riedl and Brooke Foucault Welles are preparing to embark on a three-year project that could yield such a gadget. The researchers will be studying from a social science perspective how teams communicate with each other as well as with smart devices while solving problems together.

“The vision that we have [for this project] is that you would have a device, maybe something like Amazon Alexa, that sits on the table and observes the human team members while they are working on a problem, and supports them in various ways,” says Riedl, an associate professor who studies crowdsourcing, open innovation, and network science. “One of the ways in which we think we can support that team is by ensuring equal inclusion of all team members.”

The pair have received a $1.5 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to study teams using a combination of social science theories, machine learning, and audio-visual and physiological sensors.

Welles says the grant—which she and Riedl will undertake in collaboration with research colleagues from Columbia University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the Army Research Lab—will allow her and her colleagues to program a sensor-equipped, smart device to pick up on both verbal and nonverbal cues, and eventually physiological signals, shared between members of a team. The device would keep track of their interactions over time, and then based on those interactions, make recommendations for improving the team’s productivity.

. . .As a woman, Welles says she knows all too well how it feels to be excluded in a professional setting.

“When you’re having this experience, it’s really hard as the woman in the room to intervene and be like, ‘you’re not listening to me,’ or ‘I said that and he repeated it and now suddenly we believe it,’” she says. “I really love the idea of building a system that both empowers women with evidence that this is happening so that we can feel validated and also helps us point out opportunities for intervention.”

Addressing these issues as soon as they occur could help cultivate a culture where all employees feel included, suggests Riedl.

A device on the table watching and filming everyone! Now THAT will lead to a freewheeling discussion, right?

But the problem Welles addresses is real. As I’ve said before, when I started teaching graduate seminars, one of the first things I noticed, since these were mostly discussion of readings, was that the men tended not only to talk more than the women, but tended to talk over the women. Not only that, but many times I’ve seen a woman student make a good comment, followed up by a comment from a man, only to have the good comment attributed to the man. Since then, discussions with other women have convinced me that this problem is widespread. It doesn’t make for a good learning environment, and it saps the confidence of women.

Now I’m not sure if the male behavior I saw reflects bias, much less implicit bias: it could just be the tendency of men, especially young ones, to be more aggressive and domineering. But it still needed fixing.

The way I fixed this was simple. At the beginning of the quarter I laid out discussion rules including these: everybody gets to finish what they’re saying, and every comment must either address the previous comment or say something like, “I’d like to switch gears now.” If a woman wasn’t participating enough, I would call on her more often to summarize papers, and myself follow up on her comments.

In my mind, at least, this solved the problem, so that by seminar’s end both men and women students were pretty much equal in participation. I did NOT have to take the most vociferous men aside and tell them that they were being domineering and bossy.  That might have solved the problem, but at the expense of hurt feelings and divisiveness, as well as resentment.

So would it improve matters to have an Alexa and a camera on the table, some kind of “implicit bias” or “body language” analyst to go through the data, and then rectify the problem: presumably by calling out the offender? This not only smacks of Big Brotherhood, but is confrontational, divisive, likely to breed resentment, and, most of all, not a fix of the problem. I’m not saying that my own rules fixed the problem permanently, either, but I am not a machine but a human being who could act on the spot, and my job was to promote learning for everyone by giving everyone equal opportunity to participate.  In contrast, the goal of an Alexa Bias Controller seems to be not the promotion of learning, but social engineering based on post facto analysis.

Just sayin’.

Iranian schoolgirl reportedly killed by regime for refusing to sing the national anthem

October 19, 2022 • 12:30 pm

We already know about Masah Amini, a 22-year-old woman beaten to death by Iranian authorities after the “morality police” arrested her for an improperly worn hijab. That itself has ignited protests throughout Iran— protests not just against the mandatory headscarf, but against oppression and Iranian theocracy in general. Women and girls, risking arrest (and even physical injury), openly walk with their hair free, and demonstrations against the regime, sparked largely by women and young people, have spread throughout the country.

The government knows the danger of popular rebellion, and some people, like journalist Masih Alinejad, think that the line has already been crossed—that the regime is doomed. But the mullahs will not go gentle, and are cracking down hard on demonstrators, shooting at unarmed protestors. According to the Iran Human Rights group, at least 215 people have been killed, including 27 children.

Here I, or rather the Guardian, reports on an especially odious act: a schoolgirl beaten to death (and her classmates injured) for refusing to sing the Iranian national anthem. Click on the headline to read the article.

Another schoolgirl has reportedly been killed by the Iranian security services after she was beaten in her classroom for refusing to sing a pro-regime song when her school was raided last week, sparking further protests across the country this weekend.

According to the Coordinating Council of Iranian Teachers’ Trade Associations, 16-year-old Asra Panahi died after security forces raided the Shahed girls high school in Ardabil on 13 October and demanded a group of girls sing an anthem that praises Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

When they refused, security forces beat the pupils, leading to a number of girls being taken to hospital and others arrested. On Friday, Panahi reportedly died in hospital of injuries sustained at the school.

Iranian officials denied that its security forces were responsible and, after her death sparked outrage across the country, a man identified as her uncle appeared on state TV channels claiming she had died from a congenital heart condition.

That’s what they said about Amini, too: she had a “heart condition”, and that, not the beating, killed her. This seems to be the boilerplate language used to save relatives or authorities from having to face up to the fact that a woman was murdered. I don’t believe the “congenital heart condition” explanation for a second.

It’s a revolution led largely by women. How deliciously ironic in a country that barely sees women as humans, but rather as temptresses (ergo the mandatory veiling) and, when married, as breeders. The article goes on:

Schoolgirls have emerged as a powerful force after videos went viral of classrooms of pupils waving their hijabs in the air, taking down pictures of Iran’s supreme leaders and shouting anti-regime slogans in support of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old woman who died after being detained by Iran’s morality police for not wearing her hijab correctly in August.

The Iranian authorities responded by launching a series of raids on schools across the country last week, with reports of officers forcing their way into classrooms, violently arresting schoolgirls and pushing them into waiting cars, and firing teargas into school buildings.

In a statement posted on Sunday, Iran’s teachers’ union condemned the “brutal and inhumane” raids and called for the resignation of the education minister, Yousef Nouri.

This again confirms Alinejad’s predictions. When the teachers’ union of Iran condemns a government official publicly, you know that the whole government is in trouble.

The rest of the article quotes schoolgirls who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more. Here’s one:

News of Panahi’s death has further mobilised schoolgirls across the country to organise and join protests over the weekend.

mong them was 16-year-old Naznin*, whose parents had kept her at home for fear that she would be arrested for protesting at her school.

“I haven’t been allowed to go to the school because my parents fear for my life. But what has it changed? The regime continues to kill and arrest schoolgirls,” says Naznin.

“What good am I if I simply sit outraged at home? Myself and fellow students across Iran have decided to stand in protest on the streets this week. I’ll do it even if I have to now hide it from my parents.”

Other teens are quoted as well.

And yet, as this brutal oppression is going on, and has been going on since 1979, the U.S. still wants to cozy up to Iran, hoping to strike some kind of deal in which Iran, in return for perks, will give up its ambition to build a nuclear weapon. Anybody with two neurons to rub together knows that Iran cannot be trusted to keep its promises, but apparently some American officials lack that second neuron.

If you want to protest the actions of the Iranian government, the email address of its embassy in Washington is here.  I have done so, which of course means I can’t go to Iran until the government topples.

Look at these photos:

Mahsa Amini, beaten to death for a headscarf that was askew:

Asra Panahi,beaten to death for refusing to sing Iran’s national anthem:

And here’s a video about 33-year-old Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi, who competed officially for Iran in an international climbing competition in Seoul, Korea, and not wearing a hijab (Iranian women athletes are required to cover their heads when competing internationally).  They confiscated Rekabi’s phone and passport, and her friends and family have been unable to contact her now that she’s back in the country.  One can guess what has happened. Rekabi claimed that she “forgot” to put on her hijab, but I don’t believe that for a minute, either. I think she was protesting and made an excuse to save her skin. I will report if we find out she’s okay.

Finally, here’s a news video showing women protesting the hijab; one variant is cutting off one’s hair in protest:

A NYT columnist accuses extremists on both Left and Right of erasing women

July 4, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Glory be! Here we have Pamela Paul, a new opinion columnist for the New York Times (she was editor of the NYT book reviews for nine years and has written eight books), actually criticizing the extreme Left—the part of the Left that won’t use the word “woman” unless it includes transsexual women. (She also criticizes the Right, too, because, after all, this is the NYT.) But to see a NYT bigwig like Paul go after the “progressive” Left for their language policing, and what she calls their “erasure of women” does my heart good.

Just look at the title of this piece! Click to read (and thanks to the many readers who sent me this link). What Paul writes about the bad behavior of the progressive Left toward women, and their “making nice” to extreme trans activists instead of debating them, instantiates what I’ve called “MacPherson’s” rule, after reader Diana. It goes like this (I believe she suggested a version of this in a comment):

“Whenever the Left is caught between two conflicting ideological positions, and one of them involves women, the women always lose.”

That holds for the treatment of women under Islam, it holds for transwomen’s desire to compete with cis-women in athletics, and it holds, as Paul shows, in the craven acceptance—and avoidance of debate—of extreme claims of trans activists, including their denial of biological women as a real category.

The denigration of women, or their reduction to their reproductive organs, is a well known tendency of the Right; that’s what the “pro life” Republicans and their new laws are about. But Paul sees the Left as aping that behavior, too: “women” are now defined by their bodily functions, and biological women must immediately accept the claims of that group of women born as biological men.

But let me quote Paul instead of paraphrasing her:

The right’s position here is the better known, the movement having aggressively dedicated itself to stripping women of fundamental rights for decades. Thanks in part to two Supreme Court justices who have been credibly accused of abusive behavior toward women, Roe v. Wade, nearly 50 years a target, has been ruthlessly overturned.

Far more bewildering has been the fringe left jumping in with its own perhaps unintentionally but effectively misogynist agenda. There was a time when campus groups and activist organizations advocated strenuously on behalf of women. Women’s rights were human rights and something to fight for. Though the Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified, legal scholars and advocacy groups spent years working to otherwise establish women as a protected class.

But today, a number of academics, uber-progressives, transgender activists, civil liberties organizations and medical organizations are working toward an opposite end: to deny women their humanity, reducing them to a mix of body parts and gender stereotypes.

As reported by my colleague Michael Powell, even the word “women” has become verboten. Previously a commonly understood term for half the world’s population, the word had a specific meaning tied to genetics, biology, history, politics and culture. No longer. In its place are unwieldy terms like “pregnant people,” “menstruators” and “bodies with vaginas.”

Planned Parenthood, once a stalwart defender of women’s rights, omits the word “women” from its home page. NARAL Pro-Choice America has used “birthing people” in lieu of “women.” The American Civil Liberties Union, a longtime defender of women’s rights, last month tweeted its outrage over the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade as a threat to several groups: “Black, Indigenous and other people of color, the L.G.B.T.Q. community, immigrants, young people.”

It left out those threatened most of all: women. Talk about a bitter way to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

And don’t forget when the ACLU put out a pro-choice tweet with the words of RBG, but with the word “women” and “her” actually omitted! Remember this?

Paul is of course no transphobe, but she’ll be called one for saying stuff like this:

Women didn’t fight this long and this hard only to be told we couldn’t call ourselves women anymore. This isn’t just a semantic issue; it’s also a question of moral harm, an affront to our very sense of ourselves.

It wasn’t so long ago — and in some places the belief persists — that women were considered a mere rib to Adam’s whole. Seeing women as their own complete entities, not just a collection of derivative parts, was an important part of the struggle for sexual equality.

But here we go again, parsing women into organs. Last year the British medical journal The Lancet patted itself on the back for a cover article on menstruation. Yet instead of mentioning the human beings who get to enjoy this monthly biological activity, the cover referred to “bodies with vaginas.” It’s almost as if the other bits and bobs — uteruses, ovaries or even something relatively gender-neutral like brains — were inconsequential. That such things tend to be wrapped together in a human package with two X sex chromosomes is apparently unmentionable.

“What are we, chopped liver?” a woman might be tempted to joke, but in this organ-centric and largely humorless atmosphere, perhaps she would be wiser not to.

That last sentence is excellent!

Paul then turns the language of the Purity Patrol back on them:

But in a world of chosen gender identities, women as a biological category don’t exist. Some might even call this kind of thing erasure.

For that she well could have been kicked off Twitter. But she removed herself this April (see her explanation here).

It’s heartening to see someone of Paul’s stature at a paper as influential as the NYT pushing back on irrational wokeness. Is this a trend now? Will it go away? I doubt it, but voices of dissent from Leftists themselves are beginning to be heard, and this article—I’ve quoted only a bit of it—is one. I’ll just add her ending:

Tolerance for one group need not mean intolerance for another. We can respect transgender women without castigating females who point out that biological women still constitute a category of their own — with their own specific needs and prerogatives.

If only women’s voices were routinely welcomed and respected on these issues. But whether Trumpist or traditionalist, fringe left activist or academic ideologue, misogynists from both extremes of the political spectrum relish equally the power to shut women up.

I expect that Ms. Paul knows what she’s in for, but she gets only kudos from me.

h/t: Carl

Toronto woman pushed onto subway tracks, survives and sues, but Toronto Transportation Commission blames the victim

June 12, 2022 • 9:15 am

This is the subway equivalent of blaming a woman for getting raped because she wore “provocative” clothing. According to VICE and The Toronto Star, a young woman named Shamsa Al-Balishi was waiting for the subway at the Yonge-Bloor stop in Toronto when she was pushed onto the tracks by another woman, identified as 45-year-old Edith Frayne.

As you can see in the video below (50 seconds in), as the train approached the station, Al-Balishi was standing safely behind the yellow line. Then, as the train approaches, Frayne clearly shoves Al-Balishi onto the tracks (the women didn’t know each other). Fortunately, Al-Balishi rolled to the side of the tracks, so she wasn’t killed. She was, however, injured (from VICE):

According to court documents, Al-Balushi fell several feet off the platform and onto the tracks, before she rolled over until she wasn’t on the tracks themselves. She screamed, as did onlookers, while they could hear the subway travelling in the distance, the documents say, and the train slowly pulled into the station and Al-Balushi was stuck beside the train as it rolled in. According to the documents, she had to wait 30 minutes before she received help.

Al-Balushi suffered multiple injuries from the incident, including a broken rib, neck and back pain, bruising and contusions throughout her body, and trauma, anxiety, and depression. She’s currently unable to work.

Here’s a news report.

Frayne was arrested for attempted murder. Al-Balishi, however, is suing the Toronto Transportation Commission (TTC) for $1 million for multiple cases of negligence, “including the failure to implement adequate safety measures, respond to the emergency promptly,  stop the subway train from driving onto the platform, and give emergency services access to the tracks to save her.”

Now I don’t know if Al-Balishi has a case here. You can’t stop a subway train on a dime, very few subways have any barriers beyond the yellow line, and I’m not sure what “emergency services access” means.  And surely the TTC has a right to defend itself, as it did against some of the charges above.

Unfortunately, it chose another way to defend itself, involving, shall we say, “bad optics”:

In its statement of defence, the TTC maintains that Al-Balushi is herself responsible, at least in part, in addition to the assailant.

According to the TTC’s statement, Al-Balushi “failed to take reasonable steps and precautions for her own safety and protection.” The statement says “she chose to stand close to the edge of the platform,” “failed to pay due care and attention to her surroundings,” and “was travelling alone and unassisted on public transit when she knew or ought to have known that it was unsafe for her to do so.”

WHAT?  Traveling alone and unassisted? A young vigorous woman should know that that was “unsafe”? At 9 p.m., when the accident occurred? Is the TTC suggesting that, as in some Muslim countries, women can go out only when accompanied by a male relative?

The Star adds this:

In its defence, the TTC says Al-Balushi failed to take reasonable steps and precautions for her own safety, including by standing on the yellow tiles at the edge of the platform and failing to pay attention to her surroundings.

Here’s a screenshot; Al-Balushi is clearly not standing on the yellow tiles the attack begins, but is shoved onto the yellow area and then down onto the tracks.

If I were a Canadian judge or jury, I’d have to go by Canadian law, but I have to say that blaming the victim for traveling alone and not taking proper precautions would anger me.  Is there a way to get damages simply because the prosecution makes stupid statements? I don’t think so.

For some reason this bothered me more than the usual blame-the-victim scenario because of its arrant stupidity and, indeed, lies, so I tweeted at the TTC (below). I doubt I’ll get a reply.  If you want to, the handle for TTC customer service is @TTChelps.

h/t: Ginger K.


Head of Swedish Academy announces that Nobel Prizes will be awarded solely for merit, without gender or ethnicity quotas

December 20, 2021 • 10:00 am
I can’t say I disagree with this announcement, by Goran Hansson, that the Nobel Prizes will continue to be awarded for merit alone and not for fulfilling quotas involving gender and ethnicity. Click on the article from BBC News to see the story, below which we’ll look at another piece on “quotas.”

For some time there have been complaints that there has not been “equity” in Nobel Prizes: that too few women and people of color have won them. These inequities could result from several causes, or a combination of causes, but the one that’s always touted by those who complain is existing structural bias and discrimination. (See this article in Nature for such indictments by two powerful women in science, though it doesn’t mention the Nobels.) The equation of inequities in representation with ongoing bias is a pillar of Ibram Kendi’s ideas on anti-racism.

But there are two other reasons besides structural bias in science.  One is that the dearth of women and people of color reflects past discrimination, so that only now, with biases diminishing towards zero, women and people are color are entering the pipeline to achievement—but haven’t yet reached the stage of professional accomplishment that would garner a Nobel.

The last explanation is a difference in preference coupled with comparative advantage.  It’s well known that, at least in some Western countries, women score as well as men on science achievement tests, and score better than men in reading. That is, women are better overall than men. This means that any lack of achievement of women scientists cannot be due to a comparative lack of scientific ability. Rather, researchers have suggested that women prefer going into the humanities because they are better at it, and want to do what they’re better at (“comparative advantage”). Alternatively it may be that STEM fields simply aren’t as attractive to women as to men. All of these are suggested in the BBC article. (I don’t know any such data on people of color, but of course in the U.S. black and Hispanics score lower than whites and Asians on tests of reading, math, and science.)

But let me quote from the BBC piece:

The head of the academy that awards the Nobel Prizes in science has said it will not introduce gender quotas.

Goran Hansson, head of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said they want people to win “because they made the most important discovery”.

Since its inception in 1901, 59 Nobel Prizes have gone to women. [JAC: There have been 975 prizes total. The 59 Prizes to women involve 58 women as Marie Curie won twice.]

Maria Ressa was the only woman honoured this year. Marie Curie was the first woman to get the prize – and remains the only woman to get it twice.

“It’s sad that there are so few women Nobel laureates and it reflects the unfair conditions in society, particularly in years past, but still existing. And there’s so much more to do,” Mr Hansson told the AFP news agency.

“We have decided we will not have quotas for gender or ethnicity,” he said, adding that the decision was “in line with the spirit of Alfred Nobel’s last will”.

“In the end, we will give the prize to those who are found the most worthy, those who have made the most important contributions,” he said.

I think that’s a fair decision. If they had decided to fulfill quotas, that would mean giving prizes not to those who make the most important contributions, but to help even out a disparity in sexes and races. So, for example, the 2020 Medicine and Physiology prize shared by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna was an excellent choice (and one that cut out male competitors), for their work was highly important by anyone’s standards. Nobody can say that these women were chosen to achieve gender parity!

We’ll focus on gender, as we have more data on that, and this is the focus of the BBC article and most complaints about disparity in Nobels.  It’s true that women haven’t received half of the Nobel Prizes over time, and this can be explained by all three factors above, but largely because, due to bias or oppression in the past, there simply weren’t that many women in science (or in literature). I think most of us recognize that this gender bias is disappearing rapidly; indeed, universities throughout the West are trying very hard to recruit women professor and students. But there’s still a disparity in STEM participation. This may or may not  change much in the future (though it’s certainly changed during my lifetime!), but whether we’ll ever achieve gender parity in academic representation—or Nobel Prizes—is something I don’t know. All we can do, and must do, is offer everyone equal opportunity to enter the scientific pipeline, and avoid gender or racial discrimination within the pipe.

More from the BBC and Hansson:

And while more women are being recognised now compared to previous decades, Mr Hansson said, that number was increasing “from a very low level”.

“Keep in mind that only about 10% of the professors in natural sciences in western Europe or North America are women, and even lower if you go to East Asia,” he said.

However, the scientist said they would “make sure that we have an increasing portion of women scientists being invited to nominate, and we will continue to make sure we have women on our committees – but we need help, and society needs to help here”.

“We need different attitudes to women going into sciences… so that they get a chance to make these discoveries that are being awarded,” he added.

Again, the last statement implies structural bias against women, but where are the data that there are “different attitudes to women”? There is no consistent data showing discrimination against women in STEM hiring or grant-getting; in fact, one can cite research showing both sides.  In the absence of consistent evidence, all we can do is avoid personal bias and offer equal opportunities. Note that Hansson also mentions the severe dearth of women in the natural sciences in Asia, Europe, and North America.

When Charpentier got her Prize, she hoped the award would encourage women to go into STEM, but she also noted a comparative lack of interest of women in going into STEM.

From the BBC again:

Last year, scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna became the first two women to share the honour when they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing the tools to edit DNA.

It was the first time any of the science prizes had been awarded to two women without a male collaborator also listed on the award.

At the time, Prof Charpentier said: “I wish that this will provide a positive message specifically for young girls who would like to follow the path of science… and to show them that women in science can also have an impact with the research they are performing.”

She added that there was “a clear lack of interest in following a scientific path, which is very worrying”.

I’ve given my position many times on this site. I favor some forms of affirmative action in academia for minorities, including women (they’re actually more numerous than men), though settling on how to structure that affirmative action is tricky. The affirmative action I have in mind involves accepting students in colleges and universities, and in hiring faculty.  But these preferences should, I think, stop once someone is hired, and they should certainly not apply to awards and prizes. Thus I think the Nobel Committee’s statement is appropriate, though I’m not sure why they made it. Could it be that public pressure was bearing down on the Academy?

Again, all one can do in the face of the latter is to be sure that everyone is made aware of the excitement of science and then to avoid bias. As the following article states, we need to ensure equal opportunity, not equal outcome, for equal outcomes assumes that all groups have identical preferences or interests.

I love this photo of Doudna and Charpentier. I think this is in Stockholm when they got their prizes, but I can’t be sure. It does show some joint award, though, and the affection between the two women, who weren’t really collaborators but independent researchers.

There are those who think that there should be no affirmative action in any aspect of science—that hiring, promotion, funding, and awards in STEM be solely on the basis of merit. One of these is Lawrence Krauss, who wrote the following piece in a recent Quillette (click on screenshot to read):


Now Lawrence is talking about disparities between men and women in funding by NSERC in Canada and other countries, not in hiring or awards, but the principle he sets forth is one I agree with:

The standard of “fair access” that NSERC planners set out here implies a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between mandating equality of opportunity—which is desirable—and mandating equality of outcome. The latter would lead to overt identity-based discrimination against members of groups whose applications, in some cases, would otherwise be successful under a purely merit-based approach. That a major research-funding agency is promoting such a misunderstanding in regard to policy formulation is an issue of some concern.

Where I differ from Krauss is that I favor equality of opportunity above the college-admissions or academic-hiring level, but also some tweaking of outcomes (a bit of equity) to bump up minorities at both levels. Once people are hired, again, the affirmative action should stop. (It goes without saying that I don’t think grossly unqualified people should be admitted to college or hired for professor jobs, as that does nobody any favors.)

Krauss notes that the funding disparity between men and women in Canada (and Australia) is immediately imputed to systemic sexist bias at the present time, but gives data showing that the difference is explained completely by different career stages of grant applicants. At early stages, funding is roughly equal between men and women, but at senior stages men get more funding. But that’s solely because there are simply more men at senior stages of their careers. Here are the data of grants given in Australia and what Krauss says about them:

A bar chart included in a previous Nature article on this subject shows the total value of grants awarded to men and women in 2019, categorized by seniority quintile. In the first (most junior) quintile, women actually were awarded more grant money than men got. In the second quintile, men had a slight edge. This edge grew substantially in the third and fourth quintiles, leading up to a massive difference in the fifth (i.e., most senior) quintile, which shows the most senior male scientists being awarded $81 million, compared to just $21 million for the most senior female scientists. This means that, of the money going to senior scientists, women got just over 20 percent.

The caption: “Male (red) vs. Female (green) Investigator Grant recipients in 2019, by applicant seniority.”

Krauss’s analysis:

The latest Nature article concludes with a quote from Teresa Woodruff, an obstetrician and advocate for women in science at Northwestern University. She describes the data as a wake-up call to funders, who now should “address the issues.” But the Nature analysis glides over one of the more obvious issues lying in plain sight: As the 2019 article showed, there tends to be fewer senior women (just 17 in 2019) applying for grants, as compared to senior men (75). In 2021, the numbers were similar: According to Nature, “at the most senior level … there were about four times more male than female applicants”—an 80/20 male-female applicant split that corresponds almost exactly to the $81 million/$21 million split in awarded 2021 grants.

This pattern has an obvious explanation: There are simply more men than women in the senior ranks of Australia’s health and medical researchers—a fact that shouldn’t surprise anyone, since most scientific fields were, until just a few decades ago, almost entirely dominated by men. Thankfully, this era is over, and Australia’s medical schools achieved gender parity in admissions a long time ago. Thus, one might expect that the funding of male and female medical researchers at the junior level would be roughly even, while being progressively more skewed toward men among older generations—which is exactly what the data reported by Nature shows to be the case.

While this is the kind of data regularly adduced to show structural sexism in STEM, the explanation is not nearly as insidious.

Finally, Krauss makes a more general statement that goes beyond funding:

We have gone down this road before, when strict quotas were placed on Jewish scientists within my own academic sphere, physics, as a means of excluding Jews (including very nearly, future Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman) from US graduate schools. Today, we properly regard such policies as shameful, both for discriminating against individual human beings and for misdirecting society’s scientific resources. Medical science is a life-and-death endeavor, and decisions about how that science should be funded must be based on the quality of research proposals, not the skin color or sex of those submitting them.

The comparison with Jews isn’t really apposite, however, as Jews were discriminated against: the quotas were the maximum number of Jews allowed to be admitted.  The minority group, in other words, was discriminated against. What Krauss is attacking here are quotas against the majority group that favor minority groups. (I suppose you could see this as a “male quota”).

And I still favor preferential admission and hiring of minorities (but not grossly preferential, is as happening in California) as a form of reparations for past discrimination and, as Charpentier noted, to provide some role models. Again, we should accept only qualified applicants, and any deficit in training can be addressed with mentoring or tutoring.

All applicants for jobs or admissions, however, should exceed some bar decided as “qualified for the slot”. What that means is above my pay grade, but surely far more qualified people apply to America’s best colleges than get into them.

I know the arguments against affirmative action, but I won’t try to counter them now.

h/t: Anna

Are your letters of recommendation gender-biased?

September 15, 2021 • 10:45 am

It was pointed out to me that Lehigh University in Pennsylvania has a website from 2016 that discusses the content of letters of recommendation written by academics. Part of our job is to write recommendations for our students or technicians—letters to go to graduate school, to medical school, for industry, for jobs as technicians, and so on. These are quite hard to write, especially if the applicant isn’t a star but is decent.

My policy has been that if a student is hopeless, I tell them that I simply cannot write a letter (without saying, “because I don’t want to ruin your career if others feel differently”). For borderline students who have both virtues and problems, I will agree to write a letter, and try to be as honest as possible. For uniformly excellent people who I really want to get the position, I’m famous for my long letters of recommendation that go into great detail about the person’s accomplishments, figuring that the length demonstrates how well I know the person. (It’s not unusual for such a letter to run six single-spaced pages, and of course nobody reads them in their entirety because there are always many applicants.) I think many faculty have a policy like mine.

Until now, I never worried about the specific words I used in my letters, but then I saw this website (click on it):

It says, and there’s research to show this, that some adjectives are associated with letters written females, and others for males. As you’ll see, adjectives about “competence” or “diligence” are female-associated words, while indications of “excellence” or “intelligence” are associated with letters for male applicants. This much we know. The Lehigh site says this:

Have you wondered if the letter you are READING- or the letters you are WRITING – are inadvertently perpetuating implicit biases that could reduce the likelihood of the candidate getting a fair chance at the new opportunity?  This one pager summarizes some facts and ideas about letters of recommendation. You can also put your own letters through this online gender bias calculator.The calculator was inspired by presentations on research organized by AWIS; several articles and blog posts share personal reactions to learning of this phenomenon as well as the tool.

It’s worth taking this into account, with three caveats. But it does helps to know what words are perceived in what way by recipients, so the “one pager” is useful to read.

The problems are these. First, given that academia is now preferentially looking for female applicants (this will change as the proportion of male students in college keeps shrinking), a letter with female-biased words may not “perpetuate implicit bias”.  More important, suppose you run one of your letters thorough the linked “gender bias calculator”,  which you can find at the link above or by clicking on the screenshot below. It was made by Tom Force:

As a test, I ran through it a long letter I wrote a while back for one of my female undergraduate research assistants, who wanted to go to medical school. I got this result:

Here you can see the kind of words associated with female letters of recommendation (left column), emphasizing diligence and reliability. On the right are the words associated with letters for male applicants, and they’re about smarts and curiosity and high ranking. This bespeaks sexism, as far as I’m concerned. But I was happy to see that in this letter, for a women, I had roughly equal numbers in each column, with slightly more of the male words. (They don’t say whether letters with more female-associated words reduce the applicant’s chance of getting the position.)

And here’s from a letter in which I recommended a female technician for medical school (again an acceptance); most of the words are male-associated.

Again, what is the recommendation? Is this what you want for a letter for a female, or should I have added some more words about diligence which, after all, is an important characteristic for a future doctor? I don’t know, but she’s now an excellent doctor as well.

The second caveat is this: What are you supposed to do if the letter is imbalanced? For example, in the above letter, should I have cut out some of the female-associated words? (It turns out that the undergrad did get into medical school and is now a fine oncologist.) Are you supposed to ensure that the male-associated words are the predominant ones for either sex?  They don’t tell you.

That leads to the third issue: what if you’re writing for a male whose prime virtues are diligence, reliability, and responsibility. There are some science jobs, like a technician, where some of the most important qualities are showing up, following orders properly, and doing the job diligently and well. Initiative is desirable, too, but that’s a bonus. In fact, one of my colleagues wrote a letter for a guy applying for a technician position, ran the letter through the calculator, and found out that it was imbalanced in favor of female-associated words. (This was after the fact, just like my letter.) What was my colleagues supposed to do: insert more “male associated” words? At any rate, this guy got the job, turned out to be a great technician, and improved in the “male associated” traits.

The main issue is this: what are we supposed to do about “balance” in such a letter? Is imbalance bad? Are “male-associated” words good? That’s the implication. But here we have a woman applicant with male-associated words.

I realize that these lists are based on data, and that one has to be cognizant of how adjectives are perceived with respect to sex. But I think there are some problems with this method that weren’t explicated.

If you write letters of recommendation yourself, you may try running one of them through the calculator, and letting us know how the result came out (the letters of course should not be shown).

Should we replace the traditional ways of evaluating scientific quality with indices of mentorship?

July 8, 2021 • 12:30 pm

A new paper in PLoS Biology (click on screenshot below) calls for a thorough revamping of the way scientists are evaluated for the quality of their work, replacing traditional methods of assessment (research productivity and quality) with evaluations of “mentorship”. The reason the authors want to dismantle the traditional “meritocratic” methods of evaluation (based, they say, but erroneously, on citation rates) is that these methods are biased against women and minorities. But their evidence for that is almost nonexistent, and, in the end, what they are doing is replacing the traditional empirical purpose of science—to understand the universe—with a social purpose: to increase social justice.

I want to emphasize at the outset that insofar as science is racist, with the racism built into the system, that needs to be changed. The authors feel that science is deeply racist, with the result that women and minorities don’t get cited, don’t get grants, don’t get tenure, and in general achieve less than white people or men. If that is due to current practices in science, or current biases of scientists, then this must change. But the evidence that structural racism is pervasive in science today is nonexistent. (Some scientists, of course, are racists, but the system itself, I claim, is now set up to favor women and minorities, not hold them down.)

Further, as I’ve said before, we do need a form of affirmative action in education and in science. It simply won’t do if the present system somehow results in a glaring deficit of women and people of color in science. I think more equitable representation (though not necessarily proportional representation) is a moral imperative, if for no other reason than to provide a form of reparations for groups who were held back years ago and haven’t yet caught up. What I do claim is that, at present, science is not nearly as racist as the authors represent.

In fact, if you’re involved in American academic science, you know that departments are scrambling hard to get minority and women faculty and graduate students. The reason we have trouble getting minorities, however, is the “pipeline problem”, based on a system of oppression and cultural differences that traces back centuries, and must be rectified not by changing the criteria for advancing in science, or sniffing out a “systemic racism” in science doesn’t exist, but by allowing everyone to have an equal opportunity to become a scientist. And that involves big societal changes that afford equal opportunity from birth.

I’ve said all this before, so let me present the authors’ abstract, which pretty much tells their tale:

Success and impact metrics in science are based on a system that perpetuates sexist and racist “rewards” by prioritizing citations and impact factors. These metrics are flawed and biased against already marginalized groups and fail to accurately capture the breadth of individuals’ meaningful scientific impacts. We advocate shifting this outdated value system to advance science through principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. We outline pathways for a paradigm shift in scientific values based on multidimensional mentorship and promoting mentee well-being. These actions will require collective efforts supported by academic leaders and administrators to drive essential systemic change.

In short, the authors want to replace citations (who cites your papers in their papers, and how often) and “impact factors” (the quality of the journals in which you publish) with “multidimensional” and “holistic” mentorship—a mentorship not designed to produce scientists who find out things, but who are healthy, happy, mentally stable, dedicated to equity, and representing all ethnic groups. This is a proposal to make science into a vehicle for social engineering.

Here’s a figure in which the authors purport to show the problem.

Note that their characterization of how science is done now is said to focus exclusively on “citations” as a measure of one’s impact on the field (encompassed by the “H index“, which didn’t exist for most of my career), while the “inclusive view” focuses on basically everything.

Much of the PLOS paper focuses on the inequalities said to be faced by both women and minorities: fewer citations, fewer awards, less grant funding, greater difficulties in publication, and so on. If one evaluates people based on these factors, especially citations, one is said to be exercising biases that hold down women and minority representations.

But I know of no academic vetting process that just counts citations and ignores mentorship as a way of evaluating quality. What is important is not just impact measured by citations, but by the quality of one’s work, assessed in many different ways. The most important is reading your papers, seeing what you’ve found out, and learning whether other scientists express interest in your work. Have you pushed the field forward with interesting findings? Have you produced some accomplished students (which, by the way, is mentorship)? In the promotion and tenure committees I’ve been on, citation counts have not ever been mentioned. Rather, a candidate’s papers are read and discussed, letters solicited from people in the field are considered, production of graduate students is noted, teaching is assessed (not so heavily at a research school), and—in some places, but not Chicago—outside research support is assessed. Citation numbers are only a small part of this process, and at Chicago weren’t even considered when I was on the promotion and tenure committee in biology.

Are women and minorities really held down by the sexism and structural racism of academic science, though? The evidence is thin.  The authors cite older papers in support of this thesis, but completely ignore newer papers  showing that virtually every metric of women’s advancement in science is now on par with men, that there is no perceptible bias against either women or minorities in assessing grant proposals (nobody ever cites this important paper because it doesn’t meet what people expected to find), that the lower rate of funding by black scientists isn’t due to biases against them, but to differential choice of fields having different amounts of funding, and a survey of faculty and student hiring preferences showed that minority candidates and women are preferred above white candidates and males, especially by faculty. None of these papers are cited by Davies et al.

Removing not just citations but other ways of evaluating scientific productivity—all aimed at answering the question, “Has this person pushed our knowledge forward?”—is a surefire way to erode the quality of science. As I said, our main aim is to find out stuff, not act as a vehicle for social justice, though we should of course behave towards our students and colleagues in an unbiased fashion.

What about replacing the traditional criteria with measures of mentorship? This itself involved problems, because, at least for academic mentorship, exposure to science means exposure to research. One of the signs of a good mentor, like Dick Lewontin, is that they produce lots of students who themselves produce lots of research, so their reach is extended.  You could use grand-citations to do this, but traditionally a “holistic” metric is used: how much knowledge has come, directly or indirectly, from this person?

But what if your goal is to produce teachers or workers in industry rather than researchers?  First, having research experience always helps you get a job in industry. As for teaching, I would argue that exposure to research, even if it isn’t published, is an essential part of producing someone who’s a good teacher of science. Good teachers understand how research is done, and you need to learn to do that by doing it, not by reading about it. In the end, research should always be part of any scientific training. And if you’re at a teaching school, or teaching science in secondary school, citations and research are of minor or no importance.

But Davies et al. aren’t interested in this kind of mentorship. They want a “holistic” mentorship in which research is downplayed in favor of producing students who conform to social-justice expectations. These students are mentally healthy as well as having “bystander intervention training” and “anti-bullying and antiracist mentoring and teaching practices”. One’s mentorship must “promote justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in science.”  Other practices of good mentors include these:

To ensure that training opportunities become valued by participants, institutions may consider implementing mandatory participation by requiring training for career advancement or as prerequisites for recruiting mentees. However, training programs should be mindfully designed to engage those who may complete training for inauthentic reasons. [JAC: What???] Discussions of topics covered in training should become standard practice at regular events including faculty meetings and retreats and graduate student association meetings. Undergraduate programs can include discussions of unconscious bias and how such biases influence classroom dynamics.

And we must become experts in mental health as well:

While good mentorship can foster a sense of belonging in science for the mentee, relationships of many mentees from marginalized groups with their mentors—who are often from the majority group—are not always positive, leading to health issues, such as insomnia and anxiety, and lower retention of these groups in science (reviewed in [93,104]). In order to effectively mentor, all mentors—particularly those who are not familiar with the experiences and perspectives of systemically marginalized scholars—should engage with cultures, communities, and perspectives that differ from their own, connect with communities that are working toward creating justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, and support institutional change already underway. In addition, increasing representation from marginalized communities throughout institutional hierarchies provides greater opportunities for mentees to find mentors with which to build meaningful relationships.

Of particular concern is the recently highlighted decline in mental health of many academics and a growing crisis at the graduate level. Graduate students are at least twice as likely to experience mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression, compared to the general population with equivalent education. This trend is even more striking for women of color in STEMM, who are facing systemic sexism and racism, along with daily microaggressions and safety concerns. Sexual minorities and LGBTQ+-identifying people are also subject to discrimination that adversely affects their well-being, mental health and, ultimately, retention in STEMM fields. Laboratory work, field work, and simple existence in the academy can often place marginalized groups, including those with disabilities, at risk of injury, harassment, bullying, and assault). To combat these challenges, specific strategies for safety and well-being must be supported at the research group, departmental, institutional, and funding organization levels.

Multidimensional mentorship clearly requires expertise in psychotherapy.

While good mentors are sensitive to their student’s psychological needs, there are other groups within universities designed deal with these issues. And emphasis on all of them dilutes the very purpose why one does science, turning it into a vehicle for promoting “social justice” in the community. But that’s exactly what the authors want.

I am drawing to a close, for I’ve seen paper after paper like this in the last few weeks, all suggesting that we ditch traditional ways of assessing scientific merit, because those ways give a disadvantage to minorities and diminish social justice.

I would suggest, though, that there are better vehicles than science for promoting social justice, and that we shouldn’t turn our field into an ideological juggernaut. Of course we must provide equal opportunities for all, but I think academic science is doing a pretty good job at that. There will surely be dissenters touting their own lived experience of oppression, but the data we have now suggests that science is doing a pretty good job at promoting equal opportunity. And I have not yet heard a way to improve the mission of science—to find out truth—than the ways we’re doing it now. We’re casting wider nets for talent, and fighting hard to eliminate any biases that we can find.  All I can say is that I disagree with the idea of replacing the criteria currently used to evaluate someone as a scientist with criteria mainly concerned with mentoring people in a social-justice-y way.

Andrés Roemer, Mexican intellectual and founder of “Ciudad de Las Ideas” meeting, issued arrest warrants for sexual harassment, rape, and abuse

June 1, 2021 • 1:15 pm

I attended the Ciudad de Las Ideas conference twice in Puebla, Mexico (see here here, and here), which approximates a Mexican TED conference except that there is a lot more stuff besides talks, including entertainment, discussions, and, for the lucky participants, some nice tourism, food, the hospitality of wonderful locals, and the chance to rub elbows with an international lineup of notables.

The conference is run by Andrés Roemer, writer, entrepreneur, public intellectual, and former UNESCO ambassador. Actually, I should say “was” run, because I doubt it will ever be held again. The ugly facts are that Roemer has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by over sixty women. Before resigning from the honorary board of advisors, I read every bit of testimony I could, and the common elements of the accusations of the various women was so striking that I had no choice but to sever my ties with Roemer. Several other prominent people have also resigned, but they can speak for themselves. (My photo is gone now, but photos remain of people who have also resigned, so do not assume that a presence there reflects an unwillingness to resign.)

The story started on February 15 when a professional ballet dancer, Itzel Schnass, put her accusations in public—on YouTube. I don’t have a Spanish translation here, but I did at one time, and perhaps you can understand this:

The accusations of rape, sexual harassment and abuse against Roemer are now detailed in this Time Magazine article (click on screenshot below). I was told at the beginning of these accusations that, in Mexico, the cult of machismo is so strong that Roemer would never face jail, much less a trial or even public opprobrium, for what he allegedly did to these women. Thankfully, this has now changed. As Time reports (click on screenshot):

A brief summary of what’s transpired as one woman after another came forward:

Since [February 15], 36 women have publicly accused Andrés Roemer, leveling charges of sexual harassment, abuse and rape on social media and in the press. At least six have formally accused the 57-year-old before the Mexico City prosecutor’s office, Mexico City’s attorney general confirmed on May 24. In February, UNESCO stripped him of his Goodwill Ambassador title, and Columbia University, where he was a visiting scholar, cut ties with him. On May 5, amid reports that Roemer was in Israel, a Mexico City judge issued a warrant for his arrest for rape. His assets were frozen the same day. On May 21, Mexico City’s attorney general announced that a second warrant for Roemer’s arrest had been issued and that her office was preparing an extradition request from Israel. Roemer has denied the accusations. “I have never raped, assaulted, threatened or used any type of violence against any woman,” he said in a statement to Radio Formula on May 6. Roemer’s assistant did not make him available for comment for this story.

“Itzel Schnaas’ video changed everything,” says María Scherer, a journalist who started investigating rumors about abuse by Roemer years ago when, she says, it was still an open secret. Roemer’s alleged crimes are comparable in scope and style to those of Harvey Weinstein. Like the former film producer, Roemer’s power and status—cemented by friendships with the likes of former Mexican President Vicente Fox and billionaire Ricardo Salinas Pliego, both witnesses at his 2018 wedding—helped ensure his alleged victims’ silence. He also benefited from a legal system that practically guarantees impunity: according to one study, only 5% of sexual abuse or rape cases in Mexico end in a sentence. “It’s very hard to get proof like a video, medical evidence or something that proves the aggression,” says Viridiana Valgañón, a lawyer with Mexican women’s-rights organization Equis. “You come face to face with the machinery of patriarchal justice, because your word, as a female victim, is doubted at every turn.”

You can read about Roemer’s alleged modus operandi in the article, which, as I read one bit of testimony after another, showed that he’d hatched a nefarious plan for attacking these women. And although the accusers initially lacked hope given Mexican culture, the tide turned when a feminist group, the United Mexican Journalists, started naming Roemer on their tweets.

Roemer denied the allegations, but there were so many that appeared, including allegations of misconduct in the U.S., that neither the press nor the Mexican government could ignore it:

On Feb. 23, 2021, in an extremely rare move, the Mexico City prosecutor’s office opened an investigation ex officio into Roemer, based on the news reports of his alleged crimes. Finally, a legal path was open for the women to pursue Roemer. The next day, he deleted his Twitter account.

Romer went to Israel (I think “fled” is the appropriate word), where he faces an extradition request.  I can hardly think that Israel won’t grant it. What happens when he returns to Mexico for trial will show how seriously the government takes multiple accusations of sexual misconduct.  I cannot imagine he will not be tried.

I met Roemer several times, and of course there was no sign of his perfidy, but such things are not displayed publicly. Nor did I hear any rumors, but they were already circulating in samizdat.

I thank the brave women who came forward in a culture not friendly to such accusations, and to those women who allowed me to read their statements, as well as to the woman (you know who you are) who translated them into English for me and brought this matter to my attention.

Andres Roemer

Horrors! Darwin discovered to be a sexist!

February 7, 2021 • 1:45 pm

I predicted a while back that the fall of Darwin due to his Unwokeness was imminent, and for that I was criticized by some who said such a notion was ludicrous. But it was inevitable, for Darwin was a wealthy white male who lived in mid-19th-century Britain, when the normal attitude of men of his class—or of any class—was sexism and racism.

If you know anything about Darwin, though, you’ll know that he was also an ardent abolitionist, along with members of his family and his wife’s family—the Wedgewoods. Nevertheless, he was also a racist, believing that black people were inferior to whites. You can see this in his Voyage of the Beagle and in the Descent of Man. What this demonstrates is that in that era you could be both an abolitionist and a racist. In fact, Abraham Lincoln, also an abolitionist, just had his name removed from a San Francisco public school for supposed racism, though it was racism against Native Americans.

Nevertheless, you could take nearly any male Briton from the mid-19th century and, if you could suss out his views, discover that he was a sexist and a racist. That makes Darwin simply one of many. But it’s good clickbait to indict Darwin because he’s the most famous scientist of his time—perhaps of any time. And it’s no surprise that the New York Times, mired as it is in identity politics and ideological purity, decided that it needed the clicks of calling out Darwin for sexism.

The essay below (click on screenshot) was written by Michael Sims, a nonfiction writer specializing in science. Click on the screenshot to read it.

The tedious part of this essay is that most of it isn’t about Darwin’s sexism at all: it’s about Darwin’s having met the well known “social theorist” Harriet Martineau at a party held at his brother’s house. Martineau (1802-1876) was indeed a remarkable woman, fiercely smart and independent, and a polymath often considered to be the first sociologist. She was also a tireless advocate of women’s rights. And, as Sims recounts, Darwin was much taken with her, finding her “invincible” and “a wonderful woman”.

In fact, three-quarters of Sims’s article is about Martineau, with a bit about her meeting with Darwin and more about how many people admired her while others took issue with her views and her feminism. So why Sims’s title? Because the last quarter of the piece is about Darwin’s views—expressed mainly in the 1871 book The Descent of Man—that women were intellectually inferior (but morally superior) to men. And that claim is pure clickbait.

An excerpt from Sims’s piece:

Decades [after having met Martineau in 1837], despite many respectful and admiring interactions with Martineau and other female writers and thinkers, as well as with his intelligent and well-read sisters, wife, cousins and colleagues’ wives, Darwin comprehensively dismissed women’s intellectual potential. “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes,” he stated in “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” (1871), “is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman — whether requiring deep thought, reason or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.”

In 1881 the American educator and social reformer Caroline Augusta Kennard wrote to ask Darwin if she correctly understood him on the inferiority of women. Missing the irony, he responded by saying, “I certainly think that women though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities are inferior intellectually.”

He conceded that there was “some reason to believe that aboriginally (& to the present day in the case of Savages)” men and women demonstrated comparable intelligence, thus implying the possibility of regaining such equality in the modern world. “But to do this, as I believe,” he added, “women must become as regular ‘bread-winners’ as are men; & we may suspect that the early education of our children, not to mention the happiness of our homes, would in this case greatly suffer.”

Now here his view of women’s inferiority is clear. As I said, he was a sexist. But it’s not clear—and isn’t clear from what I remember of The Descent of Man—whether Darwin thought this intellectual inferiority was an evolved trait or a cultural one. Parsing what’s above, you could say that Darwin either thought that women had lost their intellectual ability through evolutionary disuse after “savages” evolved into modern humans in which women became maids and breeders, or, alternatively, that women were forced into those roles, but, given equal opportunities and rights, would become the intellectual equals of men. In other words, if one were one charitable, one could say that Darwin attributed women’s so-called intellectual interiority to the actions of The Patriarchy: culture rather than nature.

Still, it doesn’t really matter. Darwin was a sexist, and that’s true regardless of the origin of the inferiority he ascribed to women.

But Sims isn’t the first to detect this. Just Google “Darwin sexist” and you’ll find that this indictment has been leveled by many, and for years. And it would be true of Huxley, Lyell, and nearly every other famous or non-famous British male of that era —if they expressed their opinion.

Darwin was a man of his time. Were he raised in a milieu that was more like our time, he would certainly not have been a sexist or a racist, for his views, and that of his family, were generally liberal. Why, then, does Sims take the trouble to write a longish essay about something that everybody already knew? I can’t get inside Sims’s head, but certainly the New York Times would welcome any piece calling out the racism and sexism of a hugely famous white man.

But there’s no racism mentioned in Sim’s article. Stay tuned for that, because I can guarantee you it will come before long.

And yes, Darwin was a racist. But neither his racism nor his sexism do anything to devalue his enormous scientific contribution to humanity: the theory of evolution—not to mention the other work he did on plants, animal behavior, earthworms, domestication of animals and plants, and so on. If they start tearing down statues of Darwin, or renaming buildings that bear his name, I’ll be plenty mad. But I’m not sanguine. If they can cancel Lincoln, they can cancel Darwin. After all, they were born on the very same day, and were both men of their time.

That troubles our monkey again’ caricature of Charles Darwin from Fun, 16 November 1872. Source: The Darwin Correspondence Project.


Are “mononyms” in classical music racist and sexist?

October 25, 2020 • 1:00 pm

Although all liberal media sites are getting woke, sites like Salon and HuffPost have gone beyond the pale, while Slate always seemed to retain more sanity. After all, that was where Hitchens often wrote—though I’m not sure he’d be welcome there now were he still alive.  At any rate, there’s a new Slate piece that not only indicts classical music and its pedagogy as racist and sexist, but argues that this bigotry is instantiated in using “mononyms”—last names only—for famous classical white male composers (“Mozart,” “Beethoven,” etc.), but demeans female and nonwhite composers by using both first and last names.

The author, Chris White (an assistant professor of music theory at the University of Massachusetts Amherst), suggests that to rectify this disparity, we “fullname” all composers, putting them on a level playing field of respect. What I’m trying to figure out is how much of what he says carries some truth.

You can read the article below by clicking on the screenshot.


The indictment is given without question, and perhaps there’s some truth to it. I don’t know enough about classical music to judge—it’s one of my glaring areas of cultural ignorance.

The past several decades have seen the world of American classical music reckoning with its racist and sexist history; as it has with many other areas of culture, that process has greatly accelerated over the past year. In my own corner of academia, the previous several months have seen an explosive focus on the inherent white supremacy and male-centrism within academic music research. This explosion was sparked by a lecture and an ensuing article by Philip Ewell, published in September, in which he calls out mainstream American music theory for its institutional racism. This flashpoint was preceded by work in similar veins by scholars like Ellie Hisama and Robin Attas, and subsequently brought into mainstream musical conservations by YouTuber Adam Neely and New Yorker writer Alex Ross.

White goes on to cite various attempts to rectify the overlooking of composers with “marginalized identities”, but is mostly concerned with how this “erasure” proceeds via mononyms.

The habitual, two-tiered way we talk about classical composers is ubiquitous. For instance, coverage of an early October livestream by the Louisville Orchestra praised the ensemble’s performance of a “Beethoven” symphony, and the debut of a composition memorializing Breonna Taylor by “Davóne Tines” and “Igee Dieudonné.” But ubiquity doesn’t make something right. It’s time we paid attention to the inequity inherent in how we talk about composers, and it’s time for the divided naming convention to change.

. . . For a lot of intersecting reasons, music critics, academics, consumers, and performers in the mid-19th through early 20th centuries thought about music history as the story of a few great men producing great works of art. (Of course, this tactic is very common in how we tell our histories in many domains.) Tied up in the respect and ubiquity afforded to these men is the mononym, or a single word sufficing for a person’s whole name. These canonized demigods became so ensconced in elite musical society’s collective consciousness that only one word was needed to evoke their awesome specter. Mouthfuls of full names became truncated to terse sets of universally recognized syllables: Mozart. Beethoven. Bach.

On the one hand, then, initiatives toward diversity and inclusion are placing new names on concert programs, syllabi, and research papers, names that might not have been there 10 or 20 years ago—or even last year. But these names are appearing next to those that have been drilled deep into our brains by the forces of the inherited canon. This collision between increasing diversity and the mononyms of music history has created a hierarchical system that, whether or not you find it useful, can now only be seen as outdated and harmful.

. . .As we usher wider arrays of composers into our concerts and classrooms, this dual approach only exacerbates the exclusionary practices that suppressed nonwhite and nonmale composers in the first place. When we say, “Tonight, you’ll be hearing symphonies by Brahms and Edmond Dédé,” we’re linguistically treating the former as being on a different plane than the latter, a difference originally created by centuries of systematic prejudice, exclusion, sexism, and racism. (Dédé was a freeborn Creole composer whose music packed concert halls in Europe and America in the mid-19th century.)

Going forward, we need to “fullname” all composers when we write, talk, and teach about music. If mononyms linguistically place composers in a canonical pantheon, fullnaming never places them there to begin with. When we say, “Tonight, you’ll be hearing symphonies by Johannes Brahms and Edmond Dédé,” we’re linguistically treating both composers as being equally worthy of attention. And while fullnaming might seem like a small act in the face of centuries of harm and injustice, by adopting a stance of referential egalitarianism, fullnaming at least does no more harm.

The last sentence is a bit weird, as why change a practice if there’s no advantage to doing so? But what I’m concerned with is whether fullnaming is demeaning. Now I can’t speak to classical music, except that I know that “Mahler” is more famous than “Alma Mahler”, but perhaps using the single name for Gustav refers not to sexism, but to how often the music of the two is played—that is, familiarity. (Of course, the relative frequency of performance could itself reflect sexism rather than quality.)

So I thought about painting instead, trying to see if famous white male painters, like Picasso and Rembrandt, are referred to in mononyms more often than famous nonwhite painters or women painters. I failed in this endeavor because I couldn’t think of many famous female or nonwhite painters (their relative paucity, again, likely reflects historical oppression). The first woman I thought of was Mary Cassatt, whom I always call “Cassatt”, but then there’s also one of my favorites, Frida Kahlo, whom I call “Frida Kahlo.” So that didn’t settle it. Then there’s “Grandma Moses”, but I’m not sure if that counts as the sexist use of two names. And I can analyze only my own usage here, as I haven’t paid attention to how society uses names.

As for nonwhite painters, I was at a loss for blacks, but the first two Asian artists who came to mind—Hiroshige and Hokusai—came to me as mononyms.

What about authors? Here there might be some sexism, as I refer to “Hemingway”, “Fitzgerald” and “Joyce”, but also to “Flannery O’Conner,” “Carson McCullers,” “Emily Dickinson”, and “George Eliot” (not her real name, of course, but the double name avoids confusion with T. S. Eliot). It may well be the case that, in general, famous women writers are more often discussed using both names, and if that’s the case, then sexism is a possible cause. After all, “George Eliot” is at least as famous as “T. S. Eliot”.

What about my own field—genetics and evolutionary biology? Here, at least, I always use single names, like “Fisher, Wright, Kimura, Haldane, Mayr, and Dobzhansky” for the men, and “Ohta, Franklin, and McClintock” for the women. I also speak of “Hershey and Chase” (one male, one female), as well as the married couple “Lederberg and Lederberg” (to be sure, her nonmarried name was Zimmer). The Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology was given to Doudna and Charpentier, and might have gone to Franklin along with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins (they could have split the DNA-structure prize between Chemistry and Medicine and Physiology). I can’t speak of how others refer to scientists, as I haven’t paid attention to the issue. But now I will.

For all fields, though, an alternative hypothesis to racism and sexism is one of familiarity and fame.  It’s undeniable that women artists, writers, and composers were subject to discrimination— why else would George Eliot and George Sand be the pen names of women writers?—and that this surely explains at least some of the relative paucity of famous women artists. That is, there aren’t as many famous women composers because there weren’t as many women composers, period. And if you’re less famous, using two names is a better identifier.

I’m convinced that there may be some truth in White’s indictment, but the composers he mentions with two names are also less famous than Beethoven and Bach. To find out if discrimination is the reason for “duonyms” for women and nonwhite composers, we have to compare name usage for groups of people of equal fame but of different race or sex. Given the paucity of famous nonwhite or women composers and painters, that’s a hard experiment to do.

As I said, in science I don’t think I discriminate.

Well, those of you with musical knowledge can weigh in below, but really, this issue holds for almost every field of endeavor.