The Skeptic magazine is skeptical about two sexes in humans; a clear thinker sets them straight

April 11, 2021 • 1:15 pm

It seems to be a dirty little secret in biology that most animals, including humans, have two and only two biological sexes. Gender (one’s assumed identity) may fall along a spectrum, but not sex. There are two. Only two. In animals, males make little wriggly little gametes—the sperm. Females make the large immobile gametes—the eggs. It is the capacity to produce one type of gamete or the other that is the biological definition of sex.

But this is a “dirty little secret” because is seems to contravene the view that if gender can take many forms, so can biological sex. In other words, denying the reality of what’s real is seen as politically expedient. And so we see scientific journals, science writers, and scientists themselves deny that there are just two sexes in humans—denying that sex is bimodal. (Yes, there are developmental aberrations and intermediate conditions, but they are vanishingly rare and are not “sexes” in the biological sense: they are the developmental derailing of the two sexes that have been favored by evolution.)

The denial of discrete sexes in humans is an ideological rather than a scientific position. It’s an embarrassment that the Society for the Study of Evolution took this position in an official statement, an embarrassment I highlighted in 2018. Conflating gender and sex, their statement said this:

We, the Council of the Society for the Study of Evolution, strongly oppose attempts by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to claim that there is a biological basis to defining gender as a strictly binary trait (male/female) determined by genitalia at birth. Variation in biological sex and in gendered expression has been well documented in many species, including humans, through hundreds of scientific articles. Such variation is observed at both the genetic level and at the individual level (including hormone levels, secondary sexual characteristics, as well as genital morphology). Moreover, models predict that variation should exist within the categories that HHS proposes as “male” and “female”, indicating that sex should be more accurately viewed as a continuum. Indeed, experiments in other organisms have confirmed that variation in traits associated with sex is more extensive than for many other traits. Beyond the false claim that science backs up a simple binary definition of sex or gender, the lived experience of people clearly demonstrates that the genitalia one is born with do not define one’s identity. Diversity is a hallmark of biological species, including humans.  As a Society, we welcome this diversity and commit to serving and protecting members regardless of their biological sex, gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation.

Notice the conflation of “sex” with “gendered expression of sex”, the claim that “sex should be more accurately viewed as a continuum”, and the “false claim that science backs up a simple binary definition of sex”. To a sentient biologist, that statement is “not even wrong” except in a very few species of animal.  The ideological motivation for the statement becomes clear in the last sentence above.

Another scientist, Sarah Hearne, writing in the British magazine The Skeptic (motto: “reason with compassion”), makes the same conflation, and also for ideological rather than scientific reasons. You can read her piece by clicking on the screnshot below.  Fortunately, Hearne’s errors about sex have been corrected by a piece at The Quackometer (see further down).


Hearne, a graduate student in marine ecology, writes popular science well, and she gets off to a good start by showing that the concept of “species” is a bit slippery. There are intermediate cases, cases where we can’t determine whether two populations are species, and asexual groups in which determining “species” is pretty much subjective. (Allen Orr and I discuss this in our technical book Speciation.)

Hearne then goes on to show that the concept of an “individual” also breaks down in some groups, though is pretty easily definable in humans (of course there are rare exceptions, like conjoined twins). But these two episodes are just the prelude for her big point: that biological sex, like species, is an indefinable concept. Her main point is although we can define sex by gamete type, recognizing sex by other characteristics, like presence of breasts, hairiness, and on so, is much more difficult.  Ergo “nature abhors the clean division” of two sexes.

That her argument is political becomes clear at the end of her piece: one’s sex is a social construct, ergo can be declared at will by anyone. And women are oppressed:

One thing nobody is disputing is that recognising women as a group is important. Women face problems that men do not, and men face problems that women do not. Identifying these problems, identifying their causes, and fixing them is key to making the world a better place.

But we should also bear in mind that women aren’t discriminated against because they have vaginas, or breasts, or even because they have babies. Having babies makes it easier to discriminate against us, but the pay gap still exists for childfree women. It goes back to gender – the “socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities” that have led women to be less valued than men in society.

Those social constructions may have had biological roots long ago, but that’s no reason to continue perpetuating them unquestioningly. If someone says they are a woman and are seen by society as a woman then they experience the same socially constructed barriers and stigmas that all women experience to varying degrees.

Yes, but biological males declaring themselves as women become “trans” in the gender sense but not in the biological sense. (I always wonder, if sexes are not discrete, why there are “trans males” and “trans females.”  What is being transited?) A transgender woman is a “gender woman” but not a “biological woman”. This is clarified by Andy Lewis in the Quackometer piece below, which pinpoints Hearne’s fundamental error (the title gives a clue). Click on the screenshot to read it:

Hearne’s mistake, in Lewis’s words:

But Hearne is making a fundamental error here: she is conflating the ontology and epistemology of sex. That is, she is confusing two different sets of questions…

  1. What is a sex? How many sexes are there? And how do we characterise a sex? (the ontology of sex – what exists?)
  2. How do we recognise the sex of an individual? What features indicate sex? (the epistemology of sex – what can we know?)

Hearne starts off well by explaining the universally accepted biological definition of a female as the sex that produces ova. This is where she could have stopped. There is no disagreement here in the peer reviewed biology. But that would have meant her article failed, as unlike the terms “species” and “individual” in biology, the definition of what a sex is is clear cut and defined by reproductive role associated with a gamete type. The sexes are not like species where evolution has produced a myriad of variants over millions of years. The sexes of male and female appear to be a well conserved and stable reproductive strategy that has existed unchanged for between about 500 million and 1.3 billion years. Sex is a stable biological phenomenon, across vast evolutionary time, that we can easily define.

So, to give the impression that “female” is not clear-cut, Hearne switches from ontology to epistemology. We are not supposed to notice this switch. And to be fair, I doubt she realises she is doing it.

Hearne is trying to convince us that although biologists might have a definition of each sex, our knowledge of an individual’s sex may well be unknown because we cannot use the biologists definition in any practicable way in ordinary circumstance. Therefore – tada – “woman” is an unreliable concept.

That’s really all you need to say to refute her claim (remember, we’re dealing with biological sex, not gender). But Lewis has a few more points to make as well. First, what about the “intermediate” conditions that supposedly efface the binary nature of biological sex in humans? Lewis:

A common objection that crops up here are congenital development conditions. The existence of so-called intersex conditions is often seen as an ontological threat to our understanding of sex rather than an epistemological problem. That is, there is a claim that such congenital conditions lead to a need to redefine what a sex is and its characterisation (often expressed as “sex is a spectrum”). Instead it is a medical/biological problem of knowing what sex someone (or a butterfly) is when the usual secondary sex characteristics may be ambiguously formed. No peer reviewed biology paper has ever attempted to characterise sex as some sort of spectrum of possibilities despite absolute convictions about the matter from ideological positions.

That’s true. The non-binary nature of sex in humans appears only in ideological arguments, like that of the Society for the Study of Evolution. The ideological arguments are, as Lewis notes, the main point of Hearne’s piece:

The purpose of such arguments presented here in The Skeptic magazine is for us to be convinced that sex is arbitrary and not objectively knowable and to abandon objective attempts to define terms like male, female, man and woman. It is a textbook example of postmodernist denialism of science, reason and objectivity, using sleight of hand to undermine understanding. Such arguments are now so common and fashionable, even among those educated in medicine and biology, that recently the Endocrine Society in the US felt it needed to publish a position statement on the fact that sex is real, binary and immutable, and that recording sex accurately was vital in healthcare and research as we should not conflate sex and gender.

The rest of the argument presented in the Skeptic article then goes off on the predictable route of defending gender ideology that the only meaningful expression of sex (or gender) is through self-declaration – that you can be a man or woman only meaningfully though “identifying” as either. We are supposed to ignore the inherent incoherence and circularity here as otherwise we would would not be “kind” or, even worse, horrible bigots. We just have to accept that one can be a woman when the word “woman” has been denied any sort of objective meaning.

The denial of binary sex in humans (and many other animals, like my beloved Drosophila), is as irksome to me as it would be for a chemist to hear that the chemical elements are not discrete but form a continuum from hydrogen up to heavy elements: a continuum between copper, silver, and gold so that you can’t identify an atom as one or the other. That’s nonsense, of course, but no more nonsensical than denying the discreteness of biological males and females. The only difference is that there are no ideological implications of recognizing discrete chemical elements.

McWhorter: Excerpt 6 from “The Elect”

March 31, 2021 • 12:30 pm

John McWhorter’s published the sixth installment of his upcoming book, The Elect, and you can read it free on Substack by clicking on the link below. But do consider subscribing.

This section is about the recent saturation of America with the history of slavery and its sequelae, which, McWhorter maintains, is just an intensification of what most people knew for several decades. He cites the popular t.v. series “Roots”, the movies “Django Unchained,” “12 Years a Slave,” and various books and museum exchibitions, though it’s clear that the pressing of slavery upon us has been intensified since the death of George Floyd. But the existence and horrors of slavery are not a secret, nor was the slaveholding of people like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

A couple of excerpts:

Ta-Nehisi Coates urges “the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage.” But this is the divorcé who can’t stand seeing his ex have a good time. To tar today’s America as insufficiently aware of slavery is more about smugness and noble victimhood than forging something new and needed.

To wit: is there any degree of saturation that slavery could reach into the American consciousness that would satisfy The Elect, such that they would allow that a battle had been won?

Yes, a degree of saturation that would mandate reparations for African-Americans, like the ones just enacted in Evanston, Illinois. But we’ll talk about that on another day.

To hope that every American – white everyman in South Dakota, Indian-American Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Korean immigrant grandma, American-born Latina hospice care supervisor, daughter of Bosnian immigrants working on her social work degree, Republican councilwoman in Texas – will be wincing thinking about plantations while biting into their Independence Day weenie, even in a metaphorical sense, is utterly pointless. Pointless in that it will never happen, and pointless in that it doesn’t need to.

I can guarantee that psychologically, black America does not need their fellow countrymen to be quite that sensitized. A poll would reveal it instantly, as would just asking some black people other than the Elect ones, and the reader likely readily senses that. I can also guarantee that profound social change can happen without the entire populace being junior scholars about racist injustice. Such change has been happening worldwide for several centuries.

But Elect ideology requires you to classify what I just wrote as blasphemy, and claim endlessly that slavery is a big secret in America. . .To be Elect is to insist that America hushes up slavery. This is a falsehood. It endlessly distracts minds that would be better put to addressing real problems.

McWhorter goes on to say that he has no objection to removing statues and honorifics from Confederates or even from racist notables like Woodrow Wilson, but he draws the line at people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He highlights the problems, which many of us have pondered, with damning figures of the past by the moral standards of the present, and gives two examples:

In the future, being pro-choice may be deemed immoral. The celebration of any conglomeration of cells chemically set to become a Homo sapiens as “a person” may spread to intellectuals of influence and become as intelligentsia-chic as Electness is now. How do we feel about people of 2100 advocating that educators not celebrate the achievements of people in 2020 because they were not opposed to abortion?

Or, why are today’s Elect not roasting Barack Obama for his only having espoused gay marriage via “evolving”? Note that we are only to pretend not to understand history and circumstance when the figures are white.

. . . Obama was dissimulating as a thoroughly sensible political feint, and The Elect pardon Obama for it, allowing an “evolution” of a kind that could never rehabilitate other figures in their minds – i.e. Washington freeing his slaves. Apparently Obama’s (supposed) homophobia was okay because he is “intersectional” – as in, because his brown skin placed him under the thumb of white hegemony, it’s okay that he was homopho … but see? There is no logic here.

I’ll give one more excerpt and then pass on; there’s a lot more to read in the piece, including a thoughtful discussion of how Critical Race Theory and anti-racism affects people’s view of their “identity”, and why there are so few books by black writers that aren’t about race.  But I have tacos to eat, and miles to go before I scarf.

To be Elect is to insist that figures in the past might as well be living now, and that they thus merit the judgments we level upon present-day people, who inhabit a context unknown to those who lived before. As many kids would spontaneously understand, this is false. As to whether adults know something they don’t, I suggest trying to explain to a fifth-grader the case for yanking down the Lincoln Memorial.

To the extent that no one would look forward to having to kabuki their way through that, we know that this witch-hunting against long-dead persons is a distraction from doing real things for people who need help here in the present.

McWhorter’s new excerpt from “The Elect”

March 23, 2021 • 1:30 pm

It’s good of John McWhorter to make almost all of his upcoming book The Elect available for free on his website, though if you read him a lot you should subscribe, and I expect I will. His book, as you probably know, takes the view that anti-racism, as practiced according to the tenets of Critical Race Theory (CRT) is in effect a religion, with all the accoutrements thereof.

This excerpt is one of his best, and he says things about black people that only a black person could, for while he can be accused of being a “self-hating black”, that charge won’t stick very well. This chapter is on how black culture has damaged black success, and how white people—either through patronizing blacks or having pushed them politically in various directions—are complicit in having contributed to such a black culture.

It’s a provocative argument, and I’ve read some of it before in Thomas Sowell’s books, but some of it I have to take on “faith”, as it were: particularly the stuff about how white Marxists were urging blacks to behave in various ways some decades ago. I’ll give a few quotes. The issue is the black-white achievement gap in schools, which McWhorter doesn’t blame on immediate and current structural racism (the Ibram Kendi view), but on black culture: specifically, a culture in which opprobrium attaches to “acting white” (i.e, striving, studying, and achieving). That culture, says McWhorter, may have been caused by racism, but is now self-perpetuating, and crying “racism” is not the way to eliminate disparities.

. . . I taught at Berkeley back then, and must note a black undergraduate after the ban was legalized who told me, outright, that she and others working at the minority recruitment office were afraid that black students admitted without racial preferences would not be interested in being part of a black community at the school. It was the baldest affirmation of the idea that being a nerd isn’t authentically black that I have ever heard: May, 1998, circa 4 PM on a weekday afternoon.

It is sentiments of that kind, as well as self-involved white guilt and its lack of genuine concern with black people’s fate, that conditions the fierce allegiance to exempting black students from the level of competition other kids have to deal with regardless of their background. The data on the calamities the mismatch policy creates are now overwhelming, and yet are indignantly swatted away or swept under the rug because they are inconsonant with announcing one’s awareness that racism exists. The result: black undergraduates and law students in over their heads nationwide as an influential cadre of people intone lines about “dismantling structures.”

McWhorter also claims that both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones have said either wrong or despicable things and haven’t been called out for it, which McWhorter sees as patronizing. In Coates’s case it’s that the first responders at the World Trade Center on 9/ll  were just ‘menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification—shatter my body.” Opprobrium? None.

For Hannah-Jones, McWhorter says this:

Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones insists that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. She got a Pulitzer for it. The 1619 Project included more, indeed, but the claim about the Revolutionary War, and the resultant redating of America’s birth to 1619, was the main thing that attracted so much attention to it. Hannah-Jones would have won no prize for a series without that central claim.

An enlightened America is supposed to hold a public figure accountable for her ideas. On the issue of the Revolutionary War, Hannah-Jones’ claim is quite simply false, but our current cultural etiquette requires pretending that isn’t true — because she is black. Someone has received a Pulitzer Prize for a mistaken interpretation of historical documents upon which legions of actual scholars are expert. Meanwhile, the claim is being broadcast unquestioned in educational materials being distributed across the nation.

Few things suggest the encroaching permutation of The Elect into the gray matter of this country than how few see the utter diminishment of Hannah-Jones that this entails. White people patting her on the head for being “brave” or “getting her views out there,” rather than regretting that she slipped up and wishing her better luck next time, are bigots of a kind. They are condescending to a black woman who deserves better, even if the Zeitgeist she has been minted in prevents her from knowing it herself.

And a bit on a culture that McWhorter sees as damaged.

The story of how black inner cities got to the state they were in by the 1980s is complex and has nothing to do with blame. As I have not argued but frankly shown, a lot of it came from what genuinely concerned whites made poor black people do, during a period now forgotten and underdocumented, that ended up decisively grounding what it was to be black during the 1970s and 1980s, in ways those happy white Marxists never anticipated, as they were hoping the muh-fuckah was about to just burn down.

However, to simply term the issue as a “racism” that requires “elimination” now, simply solves no problems. For example, one might say that one cause of the problems was that the War on Drugs sent so many men to prison and left boys growing up in poverty without fathers. But to call the War on Drugs racist ignores that the laws it has been based on had hearty support from serious black people, including legislators as well as people living in poor communities. This time read Michael Fortner’s Black Silent Majority (Fortner is black). Are we really going to say that those black people were too dumb to see the “racism” in the laws they supported as helping make them safer in their daily lives?

The failure of so many thinkers to understand the difference between the effects of racism in the past and racism in the present has strangled discussions about race for decades.

I think the last sentence is pretty accurate, for you can see this conflation occurring constantly. I see it in those, for example, who claim that current structural racism in the sciences is why we have so few black scientists, as opposed to a “pipeline problem” that traces back to racism in the past. Although I’m not black, what I see in my branch of science is a constant striving and struggle to identify and admit or hire minority graduate students and professors. There is active anti-racism in this process, and thus the paucity of black scientists doesn’t seem to be due to present racism. (In fact, as far as NIH grants are concerned, the evidence is against that hypothesis.)

This is one of McWhorter’s best chapters and you should read the whole thing. If you keep doing so, subscribe.


Bret Stephens in the toaster

March 23, 2021 • 9:30 am

For a while, NYT columnist Bret Stephens has had, as the saying goes, “One foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave.” The banana peel is his columns, which are not only semi-conservative in politics, but also against the policies of the paper itself. (For example, Stephens wrote a column criticizing Dean Baquet’s views on the n-word, with Baquet arguing that uttering the word in any circumstance was a grave journalistic misstep, and “intent didn’t matter”.  Stephens’s column got spiked and then was published in The New York Post.) At the time I wrote that Stephens was “bucking for a pink slip” from his newspaper. The pink slip (or a resignation) is the grave.

That pink slip is closer to arrival now that Stephens has published another contrarian column in his paper.  In this case he will anger his editors in three ways:

a. Stephens calls out the ideological bias of casting the Atlanta spa murders as Asian “hate crimes,” saying that there’s no evidence for that. While that’s true, and while federal prosecutors have so far seen no evidence for a “hate” charge, this doesn’t matter. All the protestors seem to already know the motive. It’s a sign of the times that saying we need more evidence for such a motivation, especially when there is none, is regarded as a racist view.

b. Stephens goes against the way his own paper, as well as others, have reported on the crime, emphasizing over and over again its roots in hatred of Asians. While this is likely true for other attacks on Asians, it may well not be true for the mass shooting in Atlanta. As Andrew Sullivan wrote of the NYT last Friday,

Accompanying one original piece on the known facts, the NYT ran nine — nine! — separate stories about the incident as part of the narrative that this was an anti-Asian hate crime, fueled by white supremacy and/or misogyny.

I believe the count is now closer to a dozen. Stephens, of course, won’t mention this, as they’d either spike the column or make him leave that out.

c. Stephens notes that many (I estimate at least half, though the media tends to hide this fact) of the recent assaults on Asians were done by people of color, mostly African-Americans (see some data below). This goes against the Critical Race Theory view that now dominates the New York Times.

How long will Stephens be allowed to stay on? (I suspect he’s already a pariah in the newsroom.) And will he move to Substack, the refuge for journalists expelled by the Woke? We shall see. It would be odd of the paper didn’t have any  conservative columnists, though!

Click on the screenshot to read the piece; it’s not long.

And here’s what he says about a) and c), though he doesn’t go after his paper explicitly:

The ideological bias:

And the motive, while still requiring scrutiny, is confessed: The killer claims to have been struggling with a sex addiction at odds with his evangelical beliefs. According to The Associated Press, “All three businesses where people were fatally shot Tuesday have detailed recent reviews on an online site that leads users to places that provide sexual services.”

So how do we get headlines like “The Atlanta Spa Shootings and the Year of Hatred Against Asian Americans” on a news story from U.S. News & World Report? And why has reporting of the incident by so many news outlets emphasized the race of six of the victims when there is, as yet, only one rumored bit of evidence (in a South Korean newspaper) that the victims were attacked on account of their race?

The reason is that we have two things that, separately, are important and true, but that are being dubiously conjoined for reasons of ideological convenience.

The two things are:

1.) Hate crimes against Asian-Americans are on the rise, at least in 16 U.S. cities, and have risen by 149% in 2020 over previous years, while hate crimes in general have decreased 7%. This clearly shows (given that the sample size isn’t terribly small) that there’s a significantly disproportionate increase in hate crimes against Asians during the pandemic.

2.) Donald Trump “stoked anti-immgrant hatreds that very likely contributed to the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the 2019 massacre at a Walmart in El Paso.” And don’t forget his incessant references to the “China virus” and the “Kung Flu.”

And Stephen’s lesson, which will irritate his editors most:

But if the news media should have learned one thing over the past 20 years, it’s to be exceptionally wary of trying to map one truth onto another for the sake of a compelling narrative.

. . . Now we have a rising rate of anti-Asian hate crimes, and a horrific crime in which the perpetrator is white and most of his victims were of Asian descent (although two were white). The powerful ideological temptation is to treat this as yet another shooting in the vein of Pittsburgh and El Paso — or, as one CNN headline put it, “White Supremacy and Hate Are Haunting Asian-Americans.”

Tempting — but mostly baseless. The same study that found last year’s rise in anti-Asian hate crimes also notes that the overall incidence of these crimes is relatively small, both in absolute numbers (122 incidents in 2020, out of a total of 1,717 hate crimes), and compared with other victimized groups. It should go without saying that one hate crime is one too many, but even though reports of these incidents may be a small fraction of the overall crimes, proportions matter.

And while data about the identity of perpetrators is hard to come by, the New York Police Department did keep tabs last year. It found that out of the 20 anti-Asian hate crimes in which arrests were made, two arrestees were white, five were white Hispanic, two were Black Hispanic, and the rest were Black.

Well, had I been Stephens, I would have left out the argument that the overall incidence of crimes is small, as it looks like an attempt to minimize something that angers a lot of people. Yes, it’s true that hate crimes occur less often than most people think, but that’s not all that relevant here. What is relevant is that more blacks than whites committed hate crimes against Asians, and that the proportion of blacks who commit hate crimes on Asians is twice their proportion in the population. This definitely contradicts the white supremacy trope wielded by CRT, and explains, I think, why it’s hard to find from news reports the ethnicity of those committing hate crimes on Asians.

As I wrote a few days ago:

Here’s some data from 2018 on the proportion of different groups who were subject to violent crime, and the ethnicities of the criminal. These were tweeted by Wilfred Reilly. Now the data are three years old, and don’t reflect the uptick in crimes on Asians that’s said to have occurred. At least back then, Asians were not predominantly assaulted by Whites, but Whites, Blacks, and other Asians assaulted Asians with roughly equal frequency.

In 2019, the total population percentage of these groups from Census statistics were:

White: 76.3%
Black: 13.4%
Hispanic: 18.5%
Asian:  5.9%

Stephens does refer to hate crimes from 2020, but only in New York City:

And while data about the identity of perpetrators is hard to come by, the New York Police Department did keep tabs last year. It found that out of the 20 anti-Asian hate crimes in which arrests were made, two arrestees were white, five were white Hispanic, two were Black Hispanic, and the rest were Black.

What can one conclude from this limited data? Not a lot, except that the idea that white supremacy is what haunts Asian-Americans rests on empirically thin ice. Like so much else in public discourse today, it’s another capital-T ideological Truth in search of lower-case-t factual truths to validate its predetermined, overstretched hypotheses. That it has the laudable goal of “raising awareness” and “combating hate” does not relieve journalists of the responsibility to report facts scrupulously, not play to fears in the service of a higher good.

His indictment of journalism is, of course, an indictment of the New York Times as well, as is his last sentence, which he adds after saying that people also want to know how the perp was able to buy his gun on the day of the killing, how religious fanaticism can lead to such a killing, and why local authorities overlook the sex trade that goes on in spas.

All of this would be journalism in which the public could have confidence. Instead we have morality plays.

The toast is burning. . .

Here: we’ll have a poll.

Is Bret Stephens going to be fired or resign from the NYT this year?

View Results

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h/t: Carl

McWhorter on Amanda Gorman’s translators

March 21, 2021 • 12:30 pm

In recent years there’s been lots of discussion about whether an author is “entitled” to write about genders or ethnicities to which they don’t belong, and it’s getting harder and harder to do that all the time. However, literature hasn’t yet discarded the idea that someone can enter into the imagination of a very different person and present their thoughts in a stimulating and imaginative way. If that weren’t the case, I as a reader wouldn’t be able to resonate with ethnic characters written by same-ethnicity authors, like Bigger Thomas in Native Son, nor would a black reader be able to resonate with James Joyce. To think otherwise presumes that people of a different group from you, say blacks, Hispanics, or women, are so homogeneous that only a writer from the same group can create such characters, or only a reader from the same group can understand them. In other words, it presumes a homogeneity of thought and imagination that people in any group deny—as they well should.

On the other hand, there are some experiences based on group membership that would be difficult to present unless you’d experienced them. Difficult, but not impossible.

And on this presumption is based a lot of cancelation. Now, however, it’s the translators as well as authors who are getting it in the neck. I’ve written previously (here and here) about how black poet Amanda Gorman was having her Inaugural poem translated into Dutch and Catalan, but the Dutch translator quit in the face of opprobrium while the Catalan translator was deemed unsuitable because he was neither young, black, or female.  In both cases case, a white translator, even if bisexual, was deemed genetically unsuitable to do the translation.

To nix translators on the same basis that you try to cancel authors is even dicier, as translation—and this is true of Gorman’s poem—requires more a sensitivity to language and rhythm than the need to have shared the poet’s experiences. Read Gorman’s poem and judge for yourself.

John McWhorter has a similar but far more thorough take on the kerfuffle than do I; as usual, he squeezes much more out of these situations than I can. And, as usual, I agree with him.  His analysis is free on Substack (but consider subscribing), and you can access it by clicking below:

As he so often does, McWhorter shows that the “Elect” (the name he’s given to the quasi-religious Pecksniffs who monitor this kind of stuff) are actually infantilizing Blacks, and he also shows how this behavior aligns with Critical Race Theory.

I’ll give just a few quotes. First he notes that Shakespeare has been translated into a gazillion languages, as has the Japanese novel The Tale of Genji, and even Alice Walker’s The Color Purple has been rendered into 25 different languages—all without any kvetching.

But now with the kerfuffle about translating Gorman, McWhorter senses a change in attitude: American black writers are now especially untranslatable by whites:

The idea is that American blackness is a special case here. The legacy of white racism, and manifestations of white supremacy still present, mean that the rules are different when it comes to who should translate a black person’s artistic statements. Our oppression at the hands of whites is something so unique, something so all-pervasive, something so all-defining of our souls and experience, that no white person could possibly render it in another language.

This is a fair evocation of what our modern paradigm on blackness teaches us. Power differentials, and especially ones based on race, are all and everything, justifying draconian alterations of basic procedure and, if necessary, even common sense.

However, note how much this portrait diminishes, say, Gorman. To her credit, she was not the one who suggested the Dutch translator be canned. After all, are we really to say that this intelligent young human being’s entirety is the degree to which she may experience white “supremacy”?

Watch out for the “Nobody said that” game. No, no one states that experience of white supremacy is all she is, but if we insist that her poetry can only be translated by someone who has experienced it, this means that the experience of white supremacy is paramount in our estimation of her. Example: we presumably don’t care if a white translator might be better at evoking other aspects of her such as her youth, her sense of scansion – what matters most is her oppression.

McWhorter goes on to discuss why blackness should “trump all questions as to artistic rank”, and finds it a rejection of “the intelligence inherent to art and its evaluation”.

And here’s an issue I raised earlier when I suggested doing blind translations of Gorman by a variety of translators and have a woke person conversant in the translated languages judge the renderings. You know that they’re not going to always pick out the black translator, much less the young black translator, much less the young, black, female translator!:

And finally, exactly what might a white translator get wrong? Where are the demonstrations of where a white translator of a black poet or novelist’s work slipped? And as to those who might dredge some up in response to my asking, what’s important is that in this controversy no one is bringing them up (at least to prominent view) and no commentators have seemed especially likely to have any examples on the tips of their tongues or iPhones. We are dealing in a hypothetical.

McWhorter winds up showing, as you’ve probably guessed, that this behavior of “The Elect” aligns with critical race theory:

This is how we are to process blackness according to the tenets of Critical Race Theory. A fashionable current among its adherents is to claim that their critics are merely misinformed churls seeking Twitter hits. But if CRT adherents cheer this decision about Gorman’s translators, they are showing that misinformation is not the only reason so many are devoting themselves to reining in CRT’s excesses. The grounds for firing these translators – and we can be sure, others over the next few weeks – are thoroughly contestable by thoroughly unchurlish people including ones who care naught about Twitter.

The grounds for these dismissals are a posture, handy for those with a need to show that they understand what white supremacy is, while turning a blind eye to their reduction of Gorman to a thin, pitiable abstraction. Onward indeed.

I still think that you can address this problem scientifically, using a variety of translators of different races, ages, ethnicities, and so on, and then have a Wokey person judge the translations for their conformity to what they see as Oppression Poetry.  Would a failure to pick out the “right” translators shut them up? I don’t think so, for Wokeness is immune to reason.

Bari Weiss on the toxicity of American private schools (and her readers’ pushback)

March 17, 2021 • 11:00 am

It’s gotten to the point that I can’t bear to keep describing the wokeness metastasizing through the body of American’s public and private schools, and I’m not even referring to colleges. Since I’ve described this in extenso, I’ll just point you to this free article by Bari Weiss, who interviewed over two dozen parents, students, and teachers at private prep schools—schools that charge up to $50,000 a year in tuition, which is Ivy League money. Click on the screenshot to read her piece, which was first published in the City Journal:

Why worry about this? Because these affluent and well-educated students, once dosed up with propaganda, will of course go on to become America’s leaders.

I’ll give just two quotes relevant to STEM.

“I am in a cult. Well, that’s not exactly right. It’s that the cult is all around me and I am trying to save kids from becoming members.” He sounds like a Scientology defector, but he is a math teacher at one of the most elite high schools in New York City. He is not politically conservative. “I studied critical theory; I saw Derrida speak when I was in college,” he says, “so when this ideology arrived at our school over the past few years, I recognized the language and I knew what it was. But it was in a mutated form.”

This teacher is talking with me because he is alarmed by the toll this ideology is taking on his students. “I started seeing what was happening to the kids. And that’s what I couldn’t take. They are being educated in resentment and fear. It’s extremely dangerous.”

. . . and this:

The science program at Fieldston would make any parent swoon. The electives for 11th- and 12th-graders, according to the school’s website, include immunology, astronomy, neuroscience, and pharmacology.

But physics looks different these days. “We don’t call them Newton’s laws anymore,” an upperclassman at the school informs me. “We call them the three fundamental laws of physics. They say we need to ‘decenter whiteness,’ and we need to acknowledge that there’s more than just Newton in physics.”

One of her classmates says that he tries to take “the fact classes, not the identity classes.” But it’s gotten harder to distinguish between the two. “I took U.S. history and I figured when you learn about U.S. history maybe you structure it by time period or what happened under each presidency. We traced different marginalized groups. That was how it was structured. I only heard a handful of the presidents’ names in class.”

It goes on, and it’s pretty depressing.

Now, like Andrew Sullivan, Weiss is publishing her readers’ reactions to her column. This one, which just came out, has both positive and negative views of the situation. Click on the screenshot:

One objection, as you can gather from the title, is this:  why should we bother with how these fancy private schools operate? I gave one response above. Weiss gives another: public schools (Los Angeles is a good example) are going the exact same route.

Another query was why these rich and powerful parents don’t put their foot down about their children’s education. There’s no clear answer, but I suspect that it’s easier to get along if you go along, and these schools are often gateways for admission to America’s best colleges.  Some readers thought Weiss exaggerated the problem, others worried about how biracial children would fare in such schools, and one raised the issue that it’s hard to judge a school’s wokeness before you enroll you child.

If you want an example of how one ritzy school has melted down, check out my post on The Dalton School in Manhattan (tuition: $54,000 per year).

U of C students agitate for a Department of Critical Race Studies

March 16, 2021 • 2:45 pm

As we used to say in college in the Sixties, “The students are revolutionizing.” In this case, here at the University of Chicago they are asking for—no, demanding—a department of critical race studies. Here’s the view of one student (shared by many) in this week’s Chicago Maroon (click on screenshot):

A quote:

The University of Chicago is renowned for its support of intellectual curiosity, and yet, somehow, the school lacks a department devoted to critical race and ethnic studies (CRES)—a department that would further investigate race relations during such a pivotal moment in history. In the summer of 2020, a #MoreThanDiversity campaign—launched by faculty affiliates of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture (CSRPC)—demanded that UChicago’s provost, Ka Yee C. Lee, set aside funds for a department dedicated to CRES. In December, Ka Yee C. Lee allocated funding to #MoreThanDiversity so that they could propose a CRES department, but allocating funds for a proposal does not mean that it will be approved or implemented to the extent that it should be. Students of color cannot feel at ease when campus administration tiptoes around the need for a department that would prioritize critical questions regarding race and ethnicity, which has been expressed by students and faculty numerous times. Despite the fact that establishing a critical race and ethnic studies department is crucial to conveying their supposed commitment to diversity and inclusion, the administration has unsurprisingly delayed conversations surrounding its implementation, especially considering UChicago’s role in upholding white supremacy.

You might check out that last link about how we are, even now, upholding white supremacy. When a business-school professor invited Steve Bannon here a while back (he didn’t come), that was upholding white supremacy! We also upheld white supremacy when, in 1856, Stephen Douglas donated 10 acres of land to start the University. No matter that those acres are not part of the present University, nor that President Zimmer ordered the removal of two plaques honoring Douglas, saying this:

“Douglas does not deserve to be honored on our campus” because “Douglas profited from his wife’s ownership of a Mississippi plantation where Black people were enslaved.”

No, no, none of that counts. We’re apparently still upholding white supremacy, therefore we need a department of critical race and ethnic studies.

The article above adds this:

UChicago’s administration needs to reevaluate their commitment to diversity and inclusion, especially considering that their response to #MoreThanDiversity’s demands has merely been to fund a department proposal, refusing to fund the creation of the department itself or acknowledge its importance in dismantling racist systems. Critical race and ethnic studies serve to transform the conventional mode of thought surrounding race and give room for self-reflexive comprehension, so when the University creates obstacles for #MoreThanDiversity, they are also creating another obstacle for students to engage in transformative studies.

“Transformative studies.” You know what that means: it means ensuring that students who take this department’s courses will be turned into epigones of Critical Race theory. It means ensuring that, in the area of ethnic studies, only one point of view will be tolerated, taught, and accepted. You’d be a fool to believe otherwise.

Such a department would, of course, be an organ of propaganda. The University has rightly dragged its heels on this one, and refuses the other student demand to eliminate the campus police. But if such a department were founded here, it would mark the beginning of the end of our reputation for free and open inquiry—the features that still make the University of Chicago unique among American colleges.

Pinker on the Worser Angels of our Nature

March 15, 2021 • 12:15 pm

You needn’t tell me that the title is grammatically incorrect; it’s on purpose.  While Steve Pinker is known for documenting material and moral progress in our species over the last five centuries, and analyzing why it’s happened, there’s one area where he’s not so optimistic. And that’s the increasing “illiberalism” on American college campuses.

Pinker’s pessimism, based on events that you’ve seen documented repeatedly on this site, was expressed in a new interview in the Brown Daily Herald, the student newspaper of Brown University. (Brown is known as a “woke school”.)

Click on the screenshot to read.

Much of this you’ve heard before, like the fracases at The Evergreen State College and Middlebury College, but some stuff is new. For example:

A) Pinker dates the beginning of “political correctness and cancel culture” to the publication of Ed Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975, which inspired a lot of pushback from those who thought Wilson’s views on human behavior (i.e., it has a genetic/evolutionary component) were retrograde and right-wing. I was at Harvard at the time and witnessed some of that, though I wasn’t there when a protestor threw a cup of water on Wilson and shouted, “Wilson, you’re all wet!”

B) The “cancellation” trend is increasing. The article cites data from FIRE’s “disinvitation database” showing that the last five years have witnessed a 36% increase in these disinvitations over the five years before that. I’ve also documented that this increase has been accompanied by an rise in the proportion of disinvitations and shouting-down events coming from the Left.  In the earliest data coming from 1998 and the subsequent ten years, there was a roughly equal number of cancel-culture things from the Right and Left, but now they’re heavily from the Left.

C) Pinker gives two reasons for the increase. First, “a backlash on the left against Donald Trump.” That is, people have supposedly realized that Enlightenment ideals have failed to rescue us from tyrants like Trump and his minions, and so resort to “some fairly radical responses.” I don’t think this is all that plausible, for wokeness has not obviously diminished—indeed, it’s increased—since Biden took office. It’s early days, but I see the storm clouds gathering.

His second explanation is that it comes from “several generations of professors having indoctrinated their students in an ideological mixture of postmodernism and Marxist critical theory”, which has now reached the tipping point into college insanity. This seems more likely to me. And then there’s my own theory, which is probably not mine, that the pandemic got a lot of people restive, and they took this out by policing others, as well as by trying to control their environment by gaining power.

One take by Pinker on this mess:

It’s not that every college administrator or professor shares these views, though, Pinker says. But few are daring enough to express their opposition. When faced with an issue of this sort, colleges too often choose flight over fight. Groveling has become the default setting. “It’s rather disturbing to see the people in charge of our institutions of higher learning repeating clichés and slogans,” Pinker said. “For university administrators, (acquiescence) is often the path of least resistance since a small number of noisy student protestors can make a university president’s life miserable.”

Student activists have learned how to game the system. Claims of mental and physical harm are used to advance political agendas. Statues are taken down. Disfavored speaking events are shut down, and those opposing such moves are treated as though they agree with the content of the speech rather than the principle of free speech itself. But it’s mostly a tactic, Pinker says. “It’s not that we have a generation of snowflakes. Although, there may be some of that. But it’s not so much being wounded but it’s the pretext of being wounded,” which is used as a means to exert power and conscript others into conforming to the ideology.

And, contrary to those who say this is a tempest in a teapot, and that the kids will settle down when they get into the “real world,” well, we already know that’s a bogus claim. Newly hatched Wokies are infesting mainstream media, corporations, and academia itself, and bringing their college views with them.

From the article:

The result is that fringe student activists can and do wield an inordinate amount of power on campus. Universities have become political in the extreme, and we should be worried.

“Contrary to the cliché sometimes attributed to Henry Kissinger that ‘academic disputes are so fierce because so little is at stake,’ I think a lot is at stake,” Pinker says. “Not only (because) it’s college graduates who populate and control all of our institutions … but the entire academic ecosystem is at stake.”

Steve, the eternal optimist, says that there are some solutions. The first one I really like, because it’s the abandonment of my own University’s principles, currently in progress, that will eventually bring us down—maybe to the level of Princeton, but I hope not to the level of Smith:

But there are some slam-dunk moves universities and students can take to improve the culture, Pinker says. The number one priority of each and every campus bureaucracy must be to advance the mission of the university. Administrators must also continuously reiterate “the principles that underlie the existence of the university, namely acquisition of knowledge where knowledge inherently involves humility and skepticism.”

Part of the mission of the University of Chicago is to foster not just the acquisition of knowledge, but the acquisition of the ability to evaluate knowledge and arrive at positions through free and open inquiry. That too requires humility and skepticism. In this view of life, one must cling tenaciously to the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

While I’m not sure how many students at a place like Smith are “unwoke” and appalled by its balkanization, the last sentence below is vitally important. We have to speak up against the dying of the light, no matter how many people hurl insults like “racist” or “bigot” at us. Saying what you feel might not make you popular, but, like atheism, rationality spreads faster the more people are willing to speak out against irrationality.

On the student side, Pinker is optimistic. “I’ve been surprised by how many students are actually appalled by the stifling of debate and the deplatforming of speakers.” But, by and large, these students have watched the battles on campus from a safe distance. “(They) aren’t bringing in the bureaucrats to shut down those they disagree with, they’re not protesting, they’re not setting off fire alarms during lectures,” so we don’t really know how prevalent these views are. But repairing the culture requires that they be more vocal.

Whether these kinds of changes are coming anytime soon, Pinker is unsure. But he rejects the notion that the pendulum will swing back from gravity alone.

“I think it could happen and will happen but only if we make it happen. It won’t happen by itself.”

h/t: Rick


A brain dump from Richard Dawkins

March 12, 2021 • 11:30 am

UPDATE: My friend Andrew says that this book, by paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, was pretty good (click on screenshot to buy):

I’m pretty puzzled by this short Spectator piece by Richard Dawkins, as the pudding has no theme.

Click on the screenshot to read it:

A summary of the contents:

a.) A claim that science is not a social construct, though of course it is in an important sense: The profession of science was constructed by humans, and its “rules,” such as they are, were also formulated by humans, though this was through trial-and-error rather than an a priori Diktat. Even Richard corrects himself here:

Science is not a patriarchal instrument of colonial oppression. Nor is it a social construct. It’s simply true. Or at least truth is real and science is the best way we have of finding it. ‘Alternative ways of knowing’ may be consoling, they may be sincere, they may be quaint, they may have a poetic or mythic beauty, but the one thing they are not is true.

The second and third sentences contradict each other. Science cannot be “true”, just like plumbing or dentistry can’t be “true.” What is considered “true” is what science finds out using empirical methods, and those truths are provisional (though some are nearly certain).  I do appreciate, though, that there are no other credible ways of knowing, for I’m arguing with Adam Gopnik at the moment (he thinks there are).

b.) Richard is baffled by Wokeness.

Strangely, when I have expressed hostility to woke nonsense, a significant reaction from American readers has been: ‘Well, people like you brought it on yourselves.’ Mystified, I dug deeper. Apparently the permissible spectrum of opinion is so all-or-none, so left-or-right, so yes-or-no that you can’t oppose both Trump and the loony left simultaneously. I’m now nursing an urgent worry: President Joe Biden needs to go out of his way to distance himself from this mental virus or he’ll play into the hands of the Trumpers in the 2022 and 2024 elections.

I agree with the last sentence. Biden has done some great stuff, and will do more, but he’s going to make some missteps in the direction of Wokeville. That doesn’t detract for a second from the vast improvement we have in him over Trump, but I anticipate that I’ll have to kvetch about some of his policies in the near future. Right now, though, I’m immensely pleased with our new administration.

Richard also gives a mixed review to Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book Cynical Theories, liking it in general but also finding it “obscurantist.”

c.) Richard has some new books coming out, including a novel. 

This week I find myself in the unusual position of putting to bed two new books at the same time, plus the audio reading of an earlier book, Unweaving the Rainbow. Of the new books, Flights of Fancy is about how animals and humans defy gravity and get off the ground. The second, Books Do Furnish a Life, is a collection of book reviews, forewords, afterwords, book-related writings in general. Some editorial voices were raised against the Powellian title, on the grounds that it sounds retrospective. Fair point, but if you can’t be retrospective when you’re rising 80, when can you?

Happily, there’s no rule against being prospective at the same time. Accordingly I’ve just started work on my first novel. Provisionally called The Genetic Book of the Dead, its scientist heroine reconstructs the genome of australopithecines. Will she actually bring a new Lucy to life after three million years? The bulk of the novel, of course, will explore the social, political, ethical, theological etc implications of such a resurrection.

Ummm. . . novels differ from popular science, and I’m worried that this one will be overly didactic. What made me even more worried was Richard’s statement after it: “This fiction business, it’s harder than I thought. How do you write convincing dialogue?”  That is something that one can improve at, but my view is that you’re either a born novelist or you’re not one. In fact, I know of no good fiction by scientists, though I’m told that J. B. S. Haldane wrote a good sci fi book.

At any rate, I’ve never seen Richard write an essay that didn’t have a theme that was coherent and eloquently espoused. In contrast, thie piece seems like a collection of random thoughts. But Flights of Fancy is the book I most look forward to, though the essay collection should also be good.

Donald McNeil, fired from the New York Times, finally defends himself

March 3, 2021 • 10:45 am

After leaving the New York Times for, among other things, uttering the full n-word while accompanying a group of students on a 2019 junket to Peru, Donald McNeil has finally told his part of the story—on the day after he left the paper. The story, in four parts on Medium, was vetted by two lawyers.  And it’s long. Printed out in 9-point type, single spaced, it still occupies 43 pages, and took me 70 minutes to read.

However, if you want to see how toxic things are at the Times, and read McNeil’s defense, you might want to take an hour to read it.  Here are the links to the four parts:

Part 1. “The Introduction

Part 2. “What happened on January 28?

Part 3. “What happened during the investigation?

Part 4. “What happened in Peru?

Now the n-word accusations, and several others by 13 students, had already been investigated by the NYT in 2019; McNeil was reprimanded, and a letter put in his folder, solely for using that n-word, but he wasn’t penalized beyond that. But when The Daily Beast published a story on the accusations on January 28 of this year, the merde hit the fan. The Times staffers, largely the black ones, met with executive editor Dean Baquet, and, well, there was a complicated process of negotiation, with Baquet finally telling McNeil that he should “consider” resigning. Somehow—and this part isn’t clear in the account—McNeil, who didn’t want to resign, finally wound up leaving the paper. I suspect a lawsuit is in the offing.

Here are McNeil’s defenses, written this year, against three of the most serious accusations against him. The first is that he used the n-word in a discussion with a student, the second that he supposedly said that there was no such thing as “white privilege” and also denied the existence of systemic racism, and the third that he suposedly justified the use of blackface. None of the students’ accusations hold water, save that he did use the n-word, but just in a question about whether the student had indeed used that specific word.

McNeil’s partial defense (he goes on at length later in the series):

1. Yes, I did use the word, in this context: A student asked me if I thought her high school’s administration was right to suspend a classmate of hers for using the word in a video she’d made in eighth grade. I said “Did she actually call someone a “(offending word”? Or was she singing a rap song or quoting a book title or something?” When the student explained that it was the student, who was white and Jewish, sitting with a black friend and the two were jokingly insulting each other by calling each other offensive names for a black person and a Jew, I said “She was suspended for that? Two years later? No, I don’t think suspension was warranted. Somebody should have talked to her, but any school administrator should know that 12-year-olds say dumb things. It’s part of growing up.”

2. I was never asked if I believed in white privilege. As someone who lived in South Africa in the 1990’s and has reported in Africa almost every year since, I have a clearer idea than most Americans of white privilege. I was asked if I believed in systemic racism. I answered words to the effect of: “Yeah, of course, but tell me which system we’re talking about. The U.S. military? The L.A.P.D.? The New York Times? They’re all different.”

3. The question about blackface was part of a discussion of cultural appropriation. The students felt that it was never, ever appropriate for any white person to adopt anything from another culture — not clothes, not music, not anything. I counter-argued that all cultures grow by adopting from others. I gave examples — gunpowder and paper. I said I was a San Franciscan, and we invented blue jeans. Did that mean they — East Coast private school students — couldn’t wear blue jeans? I said we were in Peru, and the tomato came from Peru. Did that mean that Italians had to stop using tomatoes? That they had to stop eating pizza? Then one of the students said: “Does that mean that blackface is OK?” I said “No, not normally — but is it OK for black people to wear blackface?” “The student, sounding outraged, said “Black people don’t wear blackface!” I said “In South Africa, they absolutely do. The so-called colored people in Cape Town have a festival every year called the Coon Carnival* where they wear blackface, play Dixieland music and wear striped jackets. It started when a minstrel show came to South Africa in the early 1900’s. Americans who visit South Africa tell them they’re offended they shouldn’t do it, and they answer ‘Buzz off. This is our culture now. Don’t come here from America and tell us what to do.’ So what do you say to them? Is it up to you, a white American, to tell black South Africans what is and isn’t their culture?”

He expands on these explanations in detail, but it’s pretty convincing that, although he is a bit of a curmudgeon (and admits it), he wasn’t guilty of the offenses of which the paper accused him. The n-word was used more or less didactically—certainly not as a racial slur—and the paper itself has used the word (printed in full) several times. Their claim, then that “intent is irrelevant” when you use the word also holds no water.
If you want the short version, the NYT itself has published a pretty straightforward summary of the story and McNeil’s defense. But you won’t get the full flavor of this incident unless you have a look at McNeil’s side. Why is this important? Because the New York Times is America’s best newspaper—or at least used to be. Right now it looks to be a slave to Wokeness and a paper run not by the editors, but by an easily outraged staff in combination with social media.

There are indications of how toxic the NYT atmosphere is throughout the long series, but I’ll let Greg Mayer put this in an addendum to this post, so come back here in a day or so. Of course McNeil’s defense is just that: his defense, and you can say that he’s covering up things or putting a favorable spin on what happened. But it doesn’t seem like that, and we already know about the toxicity of the New York Times from its treatment of other staffers like Bari Weiss and James Bennet.

What offends me most is that the paper already fully investigated the accusations detailed in the Daily Beast article two years ago, and nothing new arose since. But it was the publicity, and the new outrage of the staff in the newsroom, that made the paper revisit the accusations and finally decide to dump one of its best science reporters. 

Watch this space for the addendum by Greg. I’ve concentrated briefly on the accusations against McNeil, while Greg is outraged at how the whole incident bespeaks a ham-handedness and unfairness in how the paper deals with its employees.

Addendum by Greg Mayer; as promised, here are some further thoughts on the McNeil matter.

When I first spoke to Jerry about McNeil’s account, I referred to the New York Times as a “hellhole” for the people who work there. Jerry, who focused his attention on the veracity of the allegations against McNeil, later asked me what made me characterize it in that way, and I responded with an unrehearsed litany of woe, as recounted by McNeil. When Jerry suggested I add something here about this, I at first hesitated to use that word, but, reflecting on what I had just told him, hellhole it is.

McNeil had a decades-long career at the Times, and had long been stationed overseas. Returning from overseas, he became a union leader, negotiating with Times management over contracts. The Times, however much it professes to be so on its editorial page, is not a champion of workers’ rights when it comes to its own workers, either in their compensation or their workplace rights. McNeil engaged in some tough negotiations, and the Times‘ eagerness to squeeze its workers is unedifying.

In 2019, some prep school students, who participated in a Times-sponsored trip to South America, complained about McNeil. He was called before a veritable star chamber, where he was peppered with questions, given no opportunity to examine or even learn what ‘evidence’ was being used against him, and– the pièce de résistance— his interrogators were the very management negotiators with whom he had already tangled on behalf of his fellow workers. Surprisingly, his union gave him little or no assistance. Times editors and managers, including those who asked McNeil to go on the trip, proved to be either ineffectual or unwilling to aid in his time of need. This ended, as one might expect, badly and unfairly– McNeil was officially disciplined.

Earlier this year, an article in the Daily Beast publicized the 2019 event, and the Times came back at him for a second round of punishment. Once again, Times editors were helpless, hostile, or both, and the union did little or nothing. The added element now was that McNeil’s fate was also put to a sort of plebiscite of his fellow workers– or some selected set of them, anyway– and they don’t like him. Displaying their weakness as a badge of honor, they called for management to get rid of him. Whatever happened to worker solidarity! As Marx didn’t write,

Workers of the world divide! You have nothing to lose but your institutional safeguards against arbitrary dismissal!

McNeil was forced to resign. (This may be construed as constructive dismissal, and it might also violate the union contract to be disciplined twice for the same ‘offense’, so McNeil may have grounds to sue. However, he has indicated a disinclination to do so. I’d like to see him write for the NY Daily News!)

Executive editor Dean Baquet comes off especially badly in the whole affair. Appearing weak and ineffectual in 2019, in 2021 he feigns sympathy, and then stabs McNeil publicly in the back, issuing his transparently mendacious and now infamous “regardless of intent” statement. If Dean Baquet likes you (as McNeil thinks–or thought– he did), you’d better run!

What McNeil– and the Times— needed were discerning adults who knew what was going on, and had some sense of judgment; who knew how to weigh a few teenagers’ complaints against a decades-long career, which was just, in many ways, peaking, with much lauded coverage of the COVID pandemic. Instead, he got inquisitors who combined personal animus, management vendetta, ideological axe-grinding, and corporate CYA into a witches brew of poison, which has now ended his career, and further degraded the now sagging reputation of the Times.

McNeil expresses some fondness and respect for the Times— who wouldn’t, after having given more than 40 years of his life to it. And any institution as large as the NY Times must have good and bad aspects. But it’s beginning to seem a bit like East Germany– sure, you could live a decent life there if you kept your head down and went about your business, but woe betide he who runs afoul of the system.

(I’ll mention two things parenthetically here. First, I met McNeil several years ago when he visited UW-Parkside as part of a program the Times was running to encourage subscriptions and the use of newspapers at college campuses. I went to his presentation, and asked him a few questions afterward. I mention this not because I have any relationship to him, but because it shows that, good Timesman that he is– or was– he was out on the hustings, hustling for the Times– much as he was in Peru.

Second, disrespect for a shaman? You gotta be kidding me. Having taught a course called “Science and Pseudoscience” for many years, this really riled me. In a trip designed to educate students about rural public health, the teachers damn well better be able to distinguish between medicine and quackery, and to develop that skill in their students. While the distinction between cranks and charlatans is a useful one (the former to be granted some leeway for their sincerity), disdain and even ridicule is sometimes called for. As H.L. Mencken said, and Martin Gardner endorsed, “One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.”)

h/t: William, Greg