The Magellanic Clouds (Magellanic system or Nubeculae Magellani) are two irregular dwarf galaxies in the southern celestial hemisphere. Orbiting the Milky Way galaxy, these satellite galaxies are members of the Local Group. Because both show signs of a bar structure, they are often reclassified as Magellanic spiral galaxies.
The Magellanic clouds are visible to the unaided eye from the Southern Hemisphere, but cannot be observed from the most northern latitudes.
The Large and Small ones:
They’ve been called the Magellanic Clouds by most astronomers since 1847, that is, for about 175 years. Before that they had other “indigenous” names, and that is one of the two reasons the author calls for renaming them:
Yet Magellan was no astronomer, and he was not the first to document these galaxies. Indigenous peoples across the Southern Hemisphere have names and legends for these systems that predate Magellan by thousands of years. For example, the Mapuche of modern-day Chile and Argentina call them Rvganko, or water ponds, which they think are in the process of drying out; the Kamilaroi of modern-day Australia regard the galaxies as places where people go after death; and the Arimi of modern-day Tanzania see the clouds as a man and a woman who help the Pleiades bring heavy rains during the rainy season. Magellan’s crew was also not the first Western team to write about the two galaxies; Arabic and Italian explorers are known to have described the galaxies at least a decade before Magellan embarked on his journey.
But this holds true for nearly all visible astronomical features, surely including the Sun, the Moon, and Halley’s comet. Each language of an indigenous people who observed these features would give them a different name. Names get changed, and there’s no reason why the earliest names should get precedence. As for the superstitions associated with these clouds, well, that’s even less reason to revert to “divine” or numinous names.
No, the real reason Mia de los Reyes wants these clouds renamed is because Magellan did bad things:
Furthermore, Magellan committed horrific acts. A first-hand account of Magellan’s expedition describes how, in what is now known as Argentina, Magellan enslaved the native Tehuelche people. He placed iron manacles on the “youngest and best proportioned” men, telling them that the manacles were gifts. In what became Guam and the Philippines, Magellan and his men burned villages and killed their inhabitants.
Despite his actions, Magellan has been—and continues to be—widely honored by the field of astronomy. Magellan’s name currently appears in over 17,000 peer-reviewed academic articles. His name is attached to astronomical objects such as a lunar crater and a Martian crater, both of which are named Magalhaens; the NASA Magellan spacecraft; the twin 6.5-m Magellan telescopes; and most recently, an under construction, next-generation extremely large telescope called the Giant Magellan Telescope. The Magellan telescopes are all located in Chile, a country with a history of violent Spanish conquest. Indeed, Magellan’s “discovery” of the Strait of Magellan allowed Spanish conquistadors to explore Chile’s coast and led to genocidal campaigns against the native Mapuche people.
I and many other astronomers believe that astronomical objects and facilities should not be named after Magellan, or after anyone else with a violent colonialist legacy. We would like the International Astronomical Union—the body in charge of naming astronomical objects—to rename the Magellanic Clouds. We hope other astronomical institutions, particularly the consortia that manage the 6.5-m Magellan telescopes and the upcoming Giant Magellan Telescope, will also revisit the use of Magellan’s name.
As usual, I decide that names should be changed if both of these questions can be answered “no”:
a. Is the name be used to honor the good things the person did rather than the bad?
b. Was the person’s existence a net good for the world as opposed to a net bad?
The answer to (a) is clearly “yes”: Magellan is being honored for organizing and leading the first voyage circumnavigate the planet (he died halfway through), and the clouds were noted by, among other people, Antonio Pigafetta, a scholar who went on Magellan’s sail around the world in 1519–1522.
(b) is harder, but it’s not cut and dried. Some of Magellan’s warfare was due to misinterpreting the local behavior, and, indeed, he was more concerned with converting the locals to Christianity than with killing them. Indeed, that’s how he died on his voyage: he was attacked in the Philippines by a local ruler who resented Magellan’s efforts to convert the locals. Given that Magellan’s voyage “planned and led the 1519 Spanish expedition to the East Indies across the Pacific Ocean to open a maritime trade route, during which he discovered the interoceanic passage thereafter bearing his name and achieved the first European navigation to Asia via the Pacific” (Wikipedia), he had good accomplishments as well as bad.
Given this, I don’t vote for a name change. But there are Wokesters who apparently think that unless someone is nearly perfect, we shouldn’t honor them. There goes most of our Presidents, including Washington, Madison, and Jefferson: all slaveholders. JFK was a serial adulterer, as was Martin Luther King, who’s also been accused of looking on and laughing as “a fellow Baptist minister ‘forcibly raped; a woman just a few minutes walk from The White House in Washington DC.” (The evidence for this is not dispositive!)
The fact is that nobody is perfect, and who among us can afford to have all our deeds made public, for many of us have done some pretty bad stuff? But perfection appears to be the gold standard for naming things, including birds and galaxies. In fact, physisicsts are still going after the James Webb Space Telescope, a pet project of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and a deeply misguided one (bolding is mine):
Magellan is not the first person with a questionable history that astronomy has glorified, and he will likely not be the last. As physicists Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Lucianne Walkowicz, and Brian Nord wrote in a 2021 essay on the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope: “There will always be complications in naming monuments or facilities after individuals. No hero is perfect.” But as they also point out, we can and should choose names of people that represent our highest ideals.
Ummm. . . . who might that be? Surely not George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, JFK, or Martin Luther King, Jr! Even King cannot be said to “represent our highest ideals.” He represented many of them, and deserves all the honors that have accrued to him, but he also did bad things, like cheating on his wife. If the rape story is true, it’s even worse.
But why was the name “James Webb Space Telescope” attacked by Prescod-Weinstein and others? Because of the accusation that, as head of NASA, Webb allowed the demonization of gay employees and oversaw a purge of them from the agency. But as even the NYT reported (October 2022), those accusations are completely false. Will the Offended Woke Physicists give up in light of the evidence and shut their pie-holes about Webb? No, they will not. They still want the name “Webb” effaced. It’s insane.
The main reason I think this is a tempest in a teapot is because this renaming accomplishes nothing: it is purely performative, which is why it’s woke, and ludicrously so. The author says this:
When we uphold the names of people, such as Magellan, whose lives and legacies have actively caused harm, we alienate the communities who have been harmed. The communities that suffered because of Magellan have rich astronomical traditions that are often less valued than Western ones.
My response to the first sentence is simply, “no it doesn’t.” If we rename the Magellanic clouds, will dozens of Filipinos or Latinos, previously alienated, suddenly flock into astronomy? If you think so, you don’t know how the world works.
Instead, the author raises a completely different point that has absolutely nothing to do with names:
Even within the field of professional astronomy, the repercussions of Spanish colonization continue to this day. For example, I am the first woman of primarily Filipino descent to become an astronomy professor in the United States, in part because lack of access to resources has historically prevented Filipinos from participating in astronomy research.
Well good for her, but Dr. de los Reyes doesn’t seem to know the difference between resources and nomenclature.
This first link below was sent by my partner in crime Luana, and is from John Lucas’s Substack site “Bravo Blue”. (Lucas was any Army ranger who became an attorney.)
Lucas is decrying the “woke propaganda” to which he was exposed when he checked into the hospital for cancer care. Click below to read, and subscribe if you read often:
I recently experienced my own personal encounter with this propaganda when filling out a pre-surgery questionnaire at my hospital. This is the story.
I am a cancer patient. Since last January I have been diagnosed with two types of cancer that have necessitated three surgeries so far. For my most recent surgery, I was referred to an oncological surgeon at the VCU Medical Center, which is associated with Virginia Commonwealth University.
At this point, I must add a personal advisory note: The VCU Medical Center enjoys a superb national reputation. Other members of my family have been treated there and have received superb care. Nothing I say here is intended to disparage any of the individual care-givers at the hospital in any way. All, from my surgeon to the kind lady who escorted me to my car after my overnight stay, were uniformly kind and professional. Any criticism I may have is directed at the government-sponsored infection of the medical system with the WOKE virus, not at any individual physician or other medical or support staff.
When I checked in at the hospital for my pre-surgery consultation, because I was a new patient for them, they gave me the usual medical history form to complete. After completing it, I turned to a second two-page form. I printed my name at the top and, rather unthinkingly, began to fill it out. I was in a bit of a hurry to complete it before I was called back to see my surgeon, so at first I did not pay a great deal of attention to it. So, I dutifully answered the first question, which asked, “What is your “Sexual Orientation?” That should, however, have been an immediate red flag, causing me to wonder, “What on earth does this have to do with cancer surgery?” But out of habit and without thinking, I checked the block for “Straight (Not lesbian or gay).” Had I read it closer and given it a moment’s thought, I would have been nonplussed by the other answers on the menu: “Lesbian,” “Gay,” “Bisexual,” “Something else,” or “Don’t know.”
The first page:
The next question roused me out of my inattentiveness: “How do you describe your gender?” It then gave a menu of six possible answers: “Male,” “Female,” “Transgender male,” “Transgender female,” “Other” and – again – “Unknown.” Like the other questions it also included an option “not to disclose.” My surgeon’s notes from our consult include the notation that I was a “79 year old male.” In view of that rather obvious observation, how or why I was given an option to refuse to disclose my gender is unclear.
At that point I knew something was very wrong.
For me, the final straw was the third question: “What was your sex assigned at birth?” The options were “Male,” “Female,” “Unknown” (again), or “X. I was left to guess what “X” is; it was not defined.
The woke questions, avers Lucas, are irrelevant to cancer care, though they could have been relevant if, say, he was there for treatment in urology or gynecology. “Sex assigned at birth”, of course, is a phrase that really angers me, because it’s not accurate. Even if doctors use secondary sexual characteristics like genitalia to diagnose sex, sex is not “assigned at birth”, as if it were something arbitrary that doctors decide. It is observed at birth, even if what you really want to observe is whether a newborn has the biological equipment that evolved to make either small and mobile or large and immobile gametes. But genitalia show an almost perfect correlation with biological sex, so they’re a useful surrogate way to determine it.
But “sex assigned at birth” is becoming more frequent despite its inaccuracy. Why? Because it plays right into gender activism. One’s gender is, of course, often self-assigned, though the vast majority of people bear a social role of gender that corresponds to their biological sex. But you don’t have to distort the biological definition of sex to placate gender activists. And it also misleads people about science. The gender activists answer: “Forget the science; we’re making sex conform to gender.”
But I digress; here’s page 1 of the form:
But wait! There’s more!
The questions continued on a second page with more inanities.
It asked, for example, what pronouns I use, and – again – the option to say that I what pronouns I use is “unknown.” It occurred to me that a person who is unaware of what pronouns they use may belong in a hospital ward other than the cancer ward. A separate question inquired whether I “presently have” breasts, a vagina, a penis and “prostate/testes,” (They apparently think a man cannot have one without the other.) with instructions to check off all that you have. The most unintentionally hilarious part of the form was the instruction to “write in the space beside the organs listed if there is another word you would like your healthcare provider to use to refer to that body part.” Had I been thinking more clearly at the time, I could have had a lot of fun with that one.
I answered all the questions after the first one by only a single printed “I am a man.” Enough said.
Lucas found that these forms are widespread, and are apparently pushed by the government: the Centers for Disease Control:
Later when I had returned home to complete my recovery, I began to investigate the origins of this form. I quickly found that a very large number of hospitals and medical schools use this or a similar form. For example, the University of Utah health care system has a similar set of questions that it says it will ask each patient every six months.
After all, you may be genderfluid and your pronouns could change.
I discovered that this agenda is being pushed by the federal government. The CDC’s web site lists the questions that medical providers should ask. Its recommended questions are substantially the same as those on the VCU Medical’s questionnaire. However, there are some differences. In addition to the options provided by VCU Medical for “Gender identity,” the CDC recommends an option to specify “Genderqueer/gender nonconforming neither exclusively male nor female.” For “Sexual orientation” it adds, “Queer, pansexual, and/or questioning.” The CDC also suggests other possible pronouns such as “Ze,” “Zim,” and “Zirs.”
Here’s another view. These look just like the work boots that were de rigueur when I was in college, along with Army fatigue jackets and jeans. (It was the proletarian look.)
Although to me this looks like a conventional work boot, Eddie Bauer claims that it incorporates features of the moccasin, a form of Native American footwear. I swear I can’t see any resemblance (see below to compare) but Eddie Bauer apparently feels it has to acknowledge it to show its commitment to social justice.
The blue link in the box goes to this site, where Eddie Bauer promises to investigate which products have features that have been appropriated from indigenous peoples.
Here, however, are three pair of genuine Native American moccasins shown on Wikipedia. (They were often beaded.) They bear NO resemblance to the Eddie Bauer “Moc Toe boots,” even in the toes:
But why stop at Native Americans? I’m sure there are many products with features adopted from cultures throughout the world. Below is an Eddie Bauer woman’s dress that is clearly culturally appropriated from the culture of Rajasthan in India, known for its block prints very similar to the ones on this dress. This is blatant and unacknowledged appropriation from people of color:.
To be fair, the Eddie Bauer site also notes they’re starting a partnership with a Native American collective, which is great, but do they have to flaunt this? Of course they do, or they’ll get slammed on social media: the kiss of death for a company.
That said, at least the partnership accomplishes something.
Here’s what appears to be a genuine job ad at Williams College, which has for a long while been swirling around the event horizon bordering an academic black hole (no knowledge can be emitted). The ad is genuine because it’s on the site of The Chronicles of Higher Education.
Click on the screenshot below to see the full ad, including what you have to submit when you apply.. The job begins on July 1 of next year, and it’s the most intersectional ad I’ve ever seen.
I’ll leave for readers to react and comment on their own, as it’s almost a parody of the times. The bolded first paragraph is from the original.
Rank open professor in Queer of Color Critique, additional interest in Disability Studies/Crip Theory, and/or Feminist Technoscience Studies, and/or Migration
The Program in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies seeks a professor of Queer of Color Critique, field open, ideally with interdisciplinary scholarship. We also especially welcome those with additional interests in Disability Studies/Crip Theory, Feminist Technoscience Studies, and/or Migration Studies. Preference will be given to candidates at the level of associate or full professor, but candidates with PhDs in hand by August 2024 will be given full consideration.
Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) is an interdisciplinary program designed to encourage students to focus critically on gender and sexuality. Many of our courses investigate how assumptions about gender and/or sexuality operate in society, shaping feminine, masculine, transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer identities, and how they influence social and political structures. Integral to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies is the idea of intersectionality – that (amongst other axes of identification) race, ethnicity, class, ability, nationality, and religion are important factors in any critical understanding of gender and sexuality.
WGSS has existed in some form at Williams for over 30 years. Women’s Studies was formalized into a program in 1983, and name changes over the years have reflected increasing attention in the interdisciplinary field to issues of gender and sexuality studies. We have offered a major since 2002, and have graduated over 300 majors and concentrators since the program was established.
The candidate should be able to teach introductory courses, including WGSS 101 and a Foundations in Sexuality Studies seminar in addition to electives. The teaching load is two courses per semester (2-2) plus a January winter term course every other year. We are especially interested in candidates from historically underrepresented groups whose scholarship and teaching contribute to the breadth and excellence of our academic community. In addition, Williams offers faculty participation in the college’s professional development program First3 and in the NCFDD Faculty Success Program, and support through the newly established Rice Center for Teaching. Information about the department and current curriculum can be found at: https://wgss.williams.edu
That’s what it says, though I didn’t know that “Crip Theory” was a thing, nor do I know what “Feminist Technostudies” or “Migration Studies” entail. It just goes to show how far behind the times I am.
Here’s what’s at the bottom of the ad:
We acknowledge that Williams College stands on the ancestral homelands of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans. We pay honor and respect to their ancestors past and present.
Whenever I see something like this—and it’s de rigueur at Williams College—my impulse is to shout (or write in capslock): IF YOU REALLY HONOR AND RESPECT THE NATIVE AMERICANS WHOSE LAND YOU’VE STOLEN, EITHER GIVE IT BACK OR PAY FOR IT! If all that’s forthcoming are land acknowledgments and not a penny of compensation or a square inch of returned land, then what we have here is hypocritical flaunting of virtue.
If there’s one medical-journal doyen who stands out as a parrot of the ideology of the Authoritarian Left (also called “wokeism”), it’s Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet. Time after time he’s jumped the medical shark and simply published pure ideology in what was once Britain’s premier medical journal (see my posts here and here, for instance), with the second one the subject of a new response by a reader that I’ll put below.
And don’t forget that Horton is responsible for perhaps the most cringeworthy cover of any medical journal in the last three decades:
Below is Horton’s money quote which is disputed further down. Horton uses the example of Antonio Gramsci to assert that revolutionary change didn’t come about in Europe because the “dominant group uses culture to exert its controlling influence.”
Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) was arrested by Mussolini’s police in 1926. Imprisoned, he used his time to fill the pages of 33 notebooks. Gramsci sought to make sense of his experience in the vanguard of Italian politics. One question in particular occupied his thoughts. Why did every effort to bring about revolutionary change in Europe fail? His great insight, one largely forgotten today, was to recognise the way in which the dominant group uses culture to exert its controlling influence. If the ruling power can persuade people to share its social, cultural, and moral values, the motivation for radical political change will wither. The culture wars suggest that it is not the economy, stupid. If populist governments can win over the public to their beliefs, progressives have little chance of electoral success. It was this cultural hegemony, according to Gramsci, that explained the resistance to progressive political change in the aftermath of World War 1. And it is the modern struggle for cultural hegemony that explains today’s bitter disputes over race, sex, and gender. For those who wish to advance a more hopeful, compassionate, and liberal vision of the future, we must recognise that the culture wars are not peripheral matters. They are the ground populists have chosen to fight to protect their power and interests. Gramsci, using the military metaphors of his time, called this struggle a “war of position”. It is a war we must not be afraid to engage in.
Here Horton apparently sees the “populists” (read: Tories and Trumpites) as holding back the “progressives”, causing revolutionary change to inevitably fail. He includes the U.S. in his list of places holding down progressivism, apparently forgetting not just the American Revolution, but also revolutions in Europe, like the rise of democracy in eastern Europe in the late 1980s. As I wrote at the time:
So here we have the editor of The Lancet advocating “radical political change” and demonizing “populists” (he’s not specific about who they are, but apparently sees the ruling powers in Britain as members). At the same time, he proclaims his virtue, for he takes pains to assure readers that he is on the side that wants a “more hopeful, compassionate, and liberal vision of the future,” while his populist enemies apparently want the opposite.
Lordy be, the journal just published a response from a reader and colleague, and it’s rational!
Click to read:
A few excerpts:
The culture war is not a Manichean object; it needs a highly differentiated analysis. People with left-wing beliefs can be critical of both right-wing and left-wing identitarians. Susan Neiman defends this position (from the left) vigorously, and her recent book should be obliged reading for all. Furthermore, [Horton’s] fragmented and ill-structured piece contained a multitude of mixed-up topics, such as immigration, Sinophobia, and the identitarian movement.
. . . .I am aware that right-wing radicals try to capture the anti-woke movement. These people are alien to enlightened, rational individuals—as is the woke, regressive, capitalist, authoritarian left wing—and must be vigorously opposed. My advice is to focus on publishing first-class medical research, which would do much more to serve the common good. A 2023 article echoes this sentiment, reporting that the general public is losing trust in science when too much politicising and ideologising is published in scientific and biomedical science journals.
Leading medical and scientific journals should focus on what they do best—publishing first-rate, high-quality research. They should deal with political issues only when such issues directly affect medicine and science. They should not express unrelated political opinions and beliefs.
Were I editor of The Lancet, or other science magazines or journals captured by “progressives” (I’m talking to you Scientific American), I’d see my brief as publishing science or medicine, not emitting gusts of hot air about my personal politics. What puzzles me most is that Horton has been editor of The Lancet for a long time, and nobody can apparently stop this Hindenburg from leaking toxic gas. Since when did medical journals turn into venues for reforming society along the lines of the editors’ own ideologies?
Horton is an embarrassment to both his journal and to medicine.
According to this post on Richard Dawkins’s Substack site, Jordan Peterson challenged him on Twitter to answer two questions. Dawkins decided to answer both because, as he said below, he respects Peterson:
A colleague sent two challenges to me, posted by Jordan Peterson, suggesting I should respond. I’m happy to do so because I greatly respect Dr Peterson’s courageous stance against a bossy, intolerant thought-police whose Orwellian newspeak threatens enlightened rationalism. The hero of 1984, Winston Smith, was eventually persuaded by O’Brien that, if the Party wills it, 2+2 = 5. Winston had earlier found it necessary to stake out his credo. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows”.
Yes, Peterson is gutsy enough to say what isn’t popular but often worth saying, though he’s also vociferous about some stuff that isn’t admirable—like his admiration of religion. But you have to give him credit for not really caring whether his beliefs make him demonized. Click below to Read Richard’s answers.
The first question:
Richard begins his answer with a caveat:
My answer to the question is no if you include supernaturalism in your definition of a religion, and a dear colleague takes her stand on this distinction. But the following three similarities are enough for me to justify a yes answer to Jordan’s question. The first of the three is characteristic of religions in general. The other two are kin to Christianity in particular.
The similarities are Heresy Hunting, Hereditary Guilt, and Transubstantiation. This is his example of the last one:
Similarly, in the cult of woke, a man speaks the magic incantation, “I am a woman”, and thereby becomes a woman in true substance, while “her” intact penis and hairy chest are mere Aristotelian accidentals. Transsexuals have transubstantiated genitals. One thing to be said in favour of (today’s) Catholics: at least they don’t (nowadays) insist that everybody else must go along with their beliefs.
Hemant Mehta, who has long gone down the Woke Rabbit Hole, will be sharpening his knives when he reads that.
And the second question:
Part of Dawkins’s answer:
I see this accusation again and again in graffiti scribbled on the lavatory wall that is Twitter. Peterson’s tone is more civilised, of course, but the message is the same. We who have spoken out against the irrationality of religion are to blame for the rise of the irrationality of woke.
. . . I get the point, but I love truth too much to go along with it. I, along with Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Lawrence Krauss, Michael Shermer, and others, are against all religions without exception. And that includes the cult of woke. To oppose one irrational dogma by promoting another irrational dogma would be a betrayal of everything I love and stand for.
Whatever else there is to admire about Peterson, his affection for religion, which may be of the “Little People” variety (e.g., “I am no believer, but religion is essential for everyone else as a social glue”), is not only an acceptance of the unevidenced, but a false belief that superstition is necessary for a good society (viz. Scandinavia). It’s also patronizing.
But it may be that Peterson really believes in, say, Christianity. I’d love to sit him down and ask him questions about whether he believes in the Resurrection, heaven, and so on, but I’m 100% sure that his answers would be so tortuous that you wouldn’t get an intelligible answer.
Andrew Doyle, the creator of Titania McGrath (who hasn’t posted in ages), has a column in Unherd about the oft-heard claim that the “culture war” is a manufactured conflict that highlights only trivial excesses of wokeness. Those like me who write about the “wars” are often accused of “whatboutery”, like “why don’t you write about real problems, like climate change or the persistent popularity of Trump?”
I’ve already explained why I don’t do this, the two main reasons being that there are plenty of people calling out the Right and because I see my brief as calling out the excesses of the Left, which could catapult someone like Trump into office. Plus wokeness interests me as a psychological phenomenon: how can people get worked up, for instance, by “Kimono Wednesdays” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, or pile on a white artist just because she made a painting of Emmett Till?
Doyle supplies part of the answer in this column (click to read):
He first asserts not just the reality of the culture wars, but their importance, and also their danger as an “anti-liberal” force:
. . . these kinds of trivialities are often symptomatic of a much deeper cultural malaise. We may laugh at the university that appended a trigger warning to Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, informing students that it contains scenes of “graphic fishing”, but the proliferation of such measures is an authentic concern. It points to an increasingly infantilising tendency in higher education, one that accepts the dubious premise that words can be a form of violence and that adults require protection from ugly ideas. Worse still, it is related to growing demands that certain forms of speech must be curtailed by the state. Only this month, a poll by Newsweek found that 44% of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 believe that “misgendering” should result in criminal prosecution.
1.)We young people are fragile (“What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”)
2.) We are prone to emotional reasoning and confirmation bias (“Always trust your feelings.”)
3.)We are prone to “dichotomous thinking and tribalism” (“Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”)
Put these together and you automatically get a culture war. Doyle also connects it with postmodern ideas of “different truths”:
Such developments are anything but a distraction. What has become known colloquially as the “woke” movement is rooted in the postmodernist belief that our understanding of reality is entirely constructed through language, and therefore censorship by the state, big tech or mob pressure is fully justified. In addition, this group maintains that society operates according to invisible power structures that perpetuate inequality, and that these can only be redressed through an obsessive focus on group identity and the implementation of present discrimination to resolve past discrimination. This is why the most accurate synonym for woke is “anti-liberal”.
Yes, I could use “anti-liberal” instead of “woke” (readers are always chewing my tuchas for using a word that was once laudatory but is now pejorative), but “anti-liberal” could also mean “politically conservative”—not a good description of wokeness. I sometimes call woke people members of ” The Authoritarian Left,” a more accurate characterization, and one that Doyle notes in his article:
But our present culture war is not so simple. The goals are certainly oppositional, but the terms are vaguely defined and often muddied further through obfuscation. Rather than a reflection of antipathies between Right and Left, today’s culture war is a continuation of the age-old conflict between liberty and authoritarianism. John Stuart Mill opened On Liberty (1859) with an account of the “struggle between Liberty and Authority”; the only difference today is that the authoritarian impulse has been repackaged as “progressive”. This would help explain why a YouGov poll last week found that 24% of Labour voters believe that banks ought to be allowed to remove customers for their political views.
That’s another scary figure! Doyle notes that Mill could also have been accused of “whataboutery,” as there were more pressing issues at the time (e.g., the Franco-Austrian war), but of course it turns out that his short book has become a classic. Why? Because it makes a fantastic case for free speech, including speech we find odious. And free speech is precisely what is under attack from the Left side of the culture wars.
However, Doyle does admit that we should be addressing some of these issues, but not exclusively:
That is not to suggest that there are not important issues that are being neglected. Matthew Syed has observed the curious lack of interest in the possibility that we are facing self-annihilation due to our rapidly advancing technology. As he points out, in an age when the full sequence of the Spanish flu can be uploaded online and reconstructed in a laboratory, “how long before it is possible for a solitary fanatic to design and release a pathogen capable of killing millions, perhaps billions?” And why, Syed asks, aren’t world leaders devoting time and money to confront these existential threats?
Syed writes persuasively, and I certainly share his concerns. But I part company when it comes to his diagnosis of our culture war as “a form of Freudian displacement”, that “the woke and anti-woke need each other to engage in their piffling spats as a diversion from realities they both find too psychologically threatening to confront”. Syed is right that there are some who specialise in the trivial, but there are many more who are undertaking in earnest the crucial task of halting the ongoing erosion of our freedoms.
. . . The liberal approach to redressing injustices, one now routinely dismissed as “anti-woke”, has a long and illustrious history. We might look to Mary Wollstonecraft, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and many others who understood that freedom of speech and individual liberties were fundamental to human progress. Identity politics in its current form is directly opposed to the ideals of these great civil rights luminaries. While many of today’s culture warriors promote polarising narratives of distinct and incompatible group identities, the proponents of universal liberalism — as embodied in the movements for black emancipation, second-wave feminism and gay rights — have always advanced individual rights in the context of our shared humanity.
It is this authoritarianism that we must combat. It’s the authoritarianism that chills or bans speech, that creates a homogeneity of thought with “wrongthinkers” being ostracized, that has nearly ruined young adult literature by forcing it to conform to a Leftist ideological narrative, that rides herd on “cultural appropriation”, that bowdlerizes books, that makes nearly half of Americans think that misgendering should be a criminal offense, and, as Luana and I pointed out, has infected academic science, trying to turn it into an arm of Social Justice while downplaying merit.
Yes, postmodernism plays a role, but the censoriousness that we see on the Left comes from authoritarianism: a desire for power coupled with a deep-seated assurance that the activists are right. That is why Kimono Wednesdays were ended (only Japanese have the right to wear kimonos) and why a white woman can’t paint a picture of Emmett Till (only black people have a right to depict or analyze their culture). This authoritarianism has bred tribalism (point 3 in Lukianoff and Haidt’s book), a tribalism not seen in people like Douglass or Martin Luther King.
By now we’ve all read a gazillion papers like the one below: an indictment of a field of science for structural racism and a call for equity. This one, though, is slightly different in two ways. First, it’s by an educational psychologist. Terrell Morton is described as an Assistant Professor of Identity and Justice in STEM Education and a specialist in educational Psychology at the College of Education at the University of Illinois in Chicago. (He did get his “B.S. in Chemistry from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a M.S. in Neuroscience from the University of Miami, and a Ph.D. in Education concentration Learning Sciences and Psychological Studies from UNC Chapel-Hill.”)
So he does have some slight expertise in chemistry, but it’s not on view in this short article (below) published in Nature Chemistry. Although the aim seems to be to improve chemistry, this bring us to its second novel aspect: there’s nothing in the article about improving chemistry itself. Rather, it’s all about the unashamed infusion of Critical Race Theory, in its full incarnation, into chemistry as a way to achieve equity. To some extent (see below), that will involve changes in chemistry education to effect that kind of equity. But why was the paper published in a chemistry journal? The only explanation is that the journal’s editors wanted to show off their virtue: “We’re antiracist, too!” But in fact a paper like this could be written for virtually every area of human endeavor in which there is not equity by race and gender—not just science, but academia as a whole. Indeed, not just academia as a whole, but nearly all fields of business and commerce. The article could serve as a boilerplate for any academic field: all you do is substitute another area of endeavor for “chemistry”.
I should add that, like most papers of this ilk, Morton equates inequity in chemistry (a deficit of minority students or professors compared to the proportions of minorities in the population) with ongoing structural racism in the field. Of course there are racists in chemistry, as in every field, but I deny that they’re ubiquitous, nor do I accept that chemistry is full of rules and practices designed to keep minorities out of the field.
Otherwise, I’ve read similar papers many times in chemistry, physics, math, and especially biology. Every paper makes the “inequity = structural racism” mistake (these are scientists!) and also assert the undemonstrated claim that science would be much improved with ethnic equity. None of them examine whether equal opportunity for all groups would lead to equity in representation, and in fact we know that that’s not true for women in STEM: the more equality women have, the fewer choose STEM careers. (That’s presumably because of a difference in priorities.)
Click to read (and weep); the pdf is here. Both are free.
It begins, as usual, with the ritualistic invocation of George Floyd, and immediately says that the way to achieve social justice is to infuse Critical Race Theory (CRT) into chemistry:
In this Comment, I provide a brief overview of CRT and discuss how it can be used as a lens to critically examine the culture and practices of postsecondary chemistry education (learning, research and engagement) in the USA and beyond, as well as identify tangible strategies for redressing and mitigating structural racism in chemistry.
Studies on the experiences of Black students outline the stereotypes and biases they face within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) spaces. Chemistry students describe their postsecondary environments as spaces where they must alter their presentation of themselves to be seen as someone capable of succeeding — including abandoning aspects of their home and cultural identities, having to go above and beyond to demonstrate their intellectual capabilities.
Black students disclose feeling both invisible and hypervisible within science classrooms: they are often overlooked by their instructors or peers when it comes to classroom engagement — unless the conversations feature race or ethnicity, in which they become hypervisible. They also reported feeling hypervisible when it comes to performance indicators, as if they have to represent their entire race or ethnic group, proving that their people are capable of success. Students who maintain multiple targeted identities experience unique challenges — Black women report experiences that are different from those of Black men or white women.
(Note the intersectionality described in the last statement, an essential part of CRT.)
Morton then uses as evidence for that structural racism the observed deficiency of proportional representation of black individuals in chemistry in the U.S. and other Western countries (“inequities”), combined with self-reports of racism from various studies. As I said, it would be foolish to say that no racism exists among chemists, but neither can we take inequities and complaints about racist behavior as evidence of structural racism in the field. And where are the reports of the strides that chemistry departments (along with many other science departments) have made in trying to recruit minority students and professors? They aren’t mentioned. If there were pervasive structural racism, departments wouldn’t be falling over each other to secure talented minority students and faculty.
Now it is true that in STEM, many minorities recruited to elite universities tend to leave their STEM majors for ones that aren’t as rigorous, but that says nothing about structural racism. Rather, it speaks to the amply documented poorer qualifications and preparation (on average) of minorities recruited to STEM through forms of affirmative action. But from all this Morton concludes that chemistry is more or less a version of white-robed Klan members holding test tubes:
Research demonstrates, as seen from resources listed in the Supplementary Information, that chemistry (and science in general) has maintained a culture that typically favours white, cisgender, middle-to-high socioeconomic status, heterosexual, non-disabled men.
No it doesn’t. There may well be inequities in the direction indicated, but to say that the field is deliberately maintaining a culture that keeps out minorities, LGBTQ people, poor people, gay people, women, and disabled people is neither correct nor demonstrated. Again, the author is c0nflating inequities and structural bigotry/racism.
The author then defines CRT and goes into its aspects that he wants inserted in chemistry. As this is a short (four-page) paper, I’ll just give his definition, and the bits of CRT that he demands be put into chemistry.
CRT is a framework that identifies and challenges the presence and impact of structural racism and intersectional oppression embedded within policies, procedures, practices and sociocultural norms across various institutions, organizations, fields of study and communities. CRT has primarily been applied to Western societies such as the USA and UK. It positions racism and intersectional oppression (which arises for people who identify with more than one minoritized group; for example, gendered racism) as structural over interpersonal. This means that racism occurs through the subjective interpretations of presumably ‘neutral’ policies and procedures from well-intentioned people, and not just through acts of violence and hate committed by presumably lone and ‘irrational’ individuals.
This, of course, is debatable, especially the assertion of structural racism presumably enacted by well-meaning people with “unconscious bias” who make rules that are racist. The centrality of this theory in creating inequities is also under debate. We could stop right here, but the author continues to dissimulate:
. . . . however, CRT is not divisive, it is not designed to shame, demonize or encourage hate, and it does not inherently produce feelings of guilt or blame. Rather, CRT calls for a critical examination of the existing systems and structures and how they perpetuate a social stratification of people and their cultural values. It is also worth noting that CRT is not currently being taught in primary and secondary schools in the USA, and it is also rarely taught at the undergraduate (postsecondary) level.
It is certainly divisive, and it’s contestable whether the guilt and “original sin” instilled in white people is in there by design or accident.
Here are the aspects of CRT that, says Morton, should be acknowledged and adopted by chemistry departments (quotes are indented):
Racial realism. This tenet purports that racism is endemic, permanent, systemic and integral to all social institutions3.
Racial realism applied to chemistry acknowledges that the field, and science generally, exists as a microcosm of the broader society and thereby perpetuates structural racism or gendered racism. . . .
Whiteness as property. Whiteness is sociopolitical capital maintained by white people that can be used to regulate access to and full engagement with resources, spaces and ideas3. This capital is a product of the social, cultural and legal establishment of the USA coinciding with the enslavement and dehumanization of people of African descent and the attempted extermination of Indigenous peopl3 — presenting ‘whiteness’ as the default standard.
Critique of liberalism (myth of meritocracy). The belief in individualism and the bootstrap mentality communicated through US laws and social norms is a false reality given racism and its de facto outcomes. [JAC: the author says this is a “myth” because minorities lack access to the resources to demonstrate their merit, including well known academics for writing letters of recommendation.]
Interest convergence. This tenet conveys that efforts towards racial progress only occur at the juncture where those in power benefit from investing in the interests of those racially minoritized.
Here’s how this power struggle is supposed to work in chemistry:
Applied to postsecondary chemistry, this tenet would imply that investments to make chemistry inclusive (such as inclusive teaching or diversity scholarships, fellowships and programmes) occur in ways that ensure institutions gain notoriety and maintain power.
Intersectionality. Structural oppression operates on those of multiple marginalized identities uniquely.
Counter-story. The dominant narrative is recognized and challenged by elevating, embracing and empowering the stories and voices of marginalized people.
This is a bit complicated, but maintains that remedial practices or ways to bring underprepared minorities into the field are actually racist activities.
Existing equity and inclusion practices implemented within postsecondary chemistry often focus on the absence of Black people and on ways to include them. Practices adopted typically involve rehabilitation (such as tutoring, additional training, summer programmes), the development of coping mechanisms (for example, mentoring, teaching navigational skills), or training for faculty on inclusive teaching — these endeavours all stem from the perspective of the dominant group.
In contrast, rather than engaging in practices that ‘help minority students’, counter-stories position students as bold, capable individuals, and point to the flawed environment (the lake) as the space that needs change.
But how do you help the students given that the “flawed environment” will take decades to repair? I would favor tutoring and additional training, and if you don’t use them, you’re putting underprepared students at a disadvantage.
Now I’m certainly not maintaining that there are academics in chemistry who hold onto these practices because they’re bigots. I’m denying that these are pervasive and endemic racist practices in chemistry; indeed, in any STEM field. Yes, at one time there were. But times have changed.
And I deny that “counter stories” are racist. How can tutoring or additional training, which should be applied not just to minority students, but to all underprepared students, be a way to hinder minority students?
At any rate, after enumerating the aspects of CRT that need to be absorbed and enacted by chemistry faculties, Morton tells us how to do it—or rather, demands that we do it. One way, he says, is to hire a bunch of black scholars at the same to form a “critical mass.” Unfortunately, this race-based hiring is illegal:
Strategies to foster structural change include generating a critical mass of people who share similar ideologies regarding the liberation of Black people. [JAC: Note that there’s either an assumption here that all black people have the same “ideology”, or that you hire looking not just for uniform ethnicity but uniform ideology. Is that “diversity”?] This critical mass should reflect a diversity of Black social identities but also include non-Black scholars. This diversity must be established in chemistry departments and professional structures across all ranks (from junior faculty to senior faculty to administrators) — not just among those with the least power to effect structural change (junior faculty or professional staff).
This can be achieved through intentional recruitment and retention practices that build communities (mixed-rank cluster hires in which several scholars across ranks are hired at the same time in a department) and transform policies and practices around power (such as revising tenure and promotion) to account for structural racism and gendered racism. Hiring and promotion criteria should be adjusted to specifically value and reward scholarship, teaching and service activities (such as informal mentoring of Black students) that intentionally advance the needs of Black communities. Institutions should also put in place accountability structures to ensure that scholars do not in any way perpetuate discrimination or bias against Black people.
This may improve racial justice, but is that the purpose of chemistry? And will this practice improve chemistry? No, it’s not designed to. The implicit assumption is that the discipline itself will be improved with equity, but that’s not been demonstrated. Ergo, Morton’s goal is not to improve the field, but to create equity, which may or may not improve the field.
And although CRT is said by Morton not to create guilt, he recommends that non-minority chemists reflect on their complicity in this white supremacy. We are urged to pay special attention to the work of Black scholars. To the extent that they’re ignored because of bigotry, I agree. But to the extent that they’re not, and differential attention may result from differences in achievement or representation, I find this paternalistic:
Mitigating racism and gendered racism. Inequities in the field of chemistry can also be mitigated as the field collectively validates the systemic presence and continuous influence of racism and gendered racism on scientific inquiry and education. Each person should evaluate their position and actions towards social justice — with respect to their identity, privilege, exposure, awareness and commitment. High-quality research and literature that outline the lived experiences of Black people across the globe exists; I have shared some of those resources in the Supplementary Information. Access that scholarship and read. Attend meetings, professional lectures, and conference presentations by Black scholars. Watch documentaries and other forms of media that discuss Black experiences from their vantage points. Each person can leverage their power and privilege to fight for racial and gendered racial justice through the various constructs and spaces that they can control or influence, directly and indirectly (pictured).
We are also supposed to infuse chemistry classes and syllabi with CRT principles. I would argue again that this is paternalistic; a form of intellectual affirmative action:
Collins and Olesik outline how chemistry department chairs can act, through: disaggregating data to paint a more accurate picture of the current racial inequalities; listening to Black students; systematically assessing course syllabi; reviewing teaching practices; and engaging with chemistry education researchers, in particular Scholars of Colour. These recommendations can be extended to universities and/or other organizations.
Similarly, faculty members are responsible for ensuring that inclusion and social justice principles are integrated into their courses or lab spaces. This means featuring work from Black scientists and discussing problems and solutions that specifically attend to Black experiences.
With all this, how much time would be left to teach chemistry as opposed to Social Justice? Shouldn’t CRT, if it is to be taught at all, be taught in classes about race relations or sociology?
We must also use class time to educate students about racists of the past:
Additionally, learning that many scientists supported racist, sexist and other oppressive ideologies about people and their capabilities— eugenicists Francis Galton and Ronald Fisher being two of the most notorious examples — would encourage students to critically assess the relationship between a person, their scientific contributions and their ethics. This would foster critical thinking skills as well as opportunities for learners to envision scientific innovation that speaks directly to their cultural and community needs.
Unfortunately, neither Galton nor Fisher were chemists. They were biologists. (And many argue that they weren’t racists.) At any rate, you don’t drag them into a chemistry course to make a CRT point.
Further, the curriculum must change to cater to black students, for we must assume that they have a different “learning style” and thus have to learn chemistry in new ways. Do we have evidence for this?
A variety of different communication styles and teaching strategies also exist that should be incorporated into science education to allow students to bridge their cultural worlds and scientific knowledge. Examples are the use of project-based learning — a practice where teaching occurs through solving real-world problems that are based in different cultural communities — or creative types of assessments, such as asking students to write an Afrofuturistic children’s science book over taking a standard cumulative multiple-choice exam.
Afrofuturistic children’s science books? Is writing one of those going to teach chemistry?
And here’s the kicker, one that reminds me of the “other ways of knowing” gambit as practiced in New Zealand. Get a load of this:
This should be part of a wider change to revisit what counts as knowledge and how it can be displayed, obtained or gained. This can be achieved by departing from a Eurocentric model to one that embraces all perspectives as valid and appropriate. Engaging in this process would also require making amends for the generations of systemic and epistemic oppression against Black people.
What on earth is the “Eurocentric model?” Is Morton talking about “modern science in general”? And no, all perspectives are not “valid and appropriate”. It is here where the teaching of chemistry is actually degraded by the author’s suggestions.
Oh, and let’s not forget the author’s suggestion that we treat marginalized people who have been traumatized the same way we treat people exposed to dangers in the chemistry lab (acids, explosions, and so on):
The same suggestions for mitigating racism and gendered racism in the classroom apply to the research and teaching lab environments. Kimble-Hill describes an interesting approach: risks associated with marginalized social identities — for example, isolation, anxiety, discrimination, harassment and even assault — represent safety threats that can be assessed and addressed in a similar way to other hazards present in a chemical lab. As with chemical risks, proactive approaches in research and teaching labs would therefore work to eliminate risks related to identity threats, establish learning norms that build on students’ cultural identities, communicate trust and confidence in their ability to take intellectual risk and to make discoveries, and provide them with the right support to explore their ideas and feel validated within their research.
I’ve already spent too much time on this paper, but it’s an extreme example of how Social Justice ideology is worming its way into science classes, to the extent of suggesting that we adopt “other ways of knowing” and abandoning the “Eurocentric model”. The paper is designed not to improve the teaching of chemistry but to improve equity, and doesn’t belong in a chemistry journal. But of course how could Nature Chemistry refuse it? As one colleague wrote, “I wonder what would happen if chemists started writing papers about the need to use the scientific method in education, and published them in top educational journals.”
I will quote two other colleagues’ reactions to this paper. The first one is terse:
“They are relentless. They just won’t stop till there is nothing left. And when we speak up about the invasion of ideology into science, some people say that we are exaggerating.”
The second is more analytical:
“To me, the core of the issue is this statement:
‘[Black students] also reported feeling hypervisible when it comes to performance indicators, as if they have to represent their entire race or ethnic group, proving that their people are capable of success.’
The solution to this problem is simple: judge everyone by the same standard. The reason that some minorities feel as if they have to prove their ability is that, in many cases, members of the minority group are often given a “boost” in qualifications. Justice Thomas made this point in the recent case, and Thomas Sowell stated that his qualifications were questioned more after Bakke than before it. In fact, many people are now asking whether Justice Thomas received a boost from affirmative action in his admission to Yale Law, despite his finishing in the top 2% of his undergraduate class at Holy Cross.
The problem can’t be solved by piling on more affirmative action, but rather by judging everyone on their own merits, as many have argued persuasively. We can (and should) help the problem by broadening recruiting and improving the preparation level of underrepresented groups, but everyone has to be judged by the same standards, or those who benefit will feel the need to prove that they didn’t need the judgement boost.
This article from The Liberal Patriot Substack has been making the rounds, perhaps because it argues, using data, that—regardless of efforts from both the Right and Left to quash free speech and academic freedom— higher education “seems to have turned a corner” on wokeness. (If you don’t like the word, suggest another.) The university culture, says Musa Al-Gharbi, is getting less woke.
Click to read:
As for whether it’s “too late”—that is, have universities and their bureaucracies established wokeness so entrenched that it can’t be reversed, Al-Gharbi thinks not: it’s “not too little, not too late.” (He is, by the way, a graduate student and Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University.) Note that he blames both the GOP and Democrats (or leftists) for the problem, but also worries that if it’s fixed from within, the GOP will get unearned credit.
First, some of the unwelcome developments Al-Gharbi limns:
Rather than serving as bastions of free exchange of ideas or rollicking debate, most campuses remain significantly more inhibited expressive environments than most other places in society—and have only grown less free in recent decades.
Work that diverges from institutionally-dominant views can be published. It often faces bigger hurdles with respect to institutional review boards, peer review, and garnering citations from other academics, while work that is useful for advancing the preferred narrative often faces insufficient scrutiny. What’s more, there are sometimes politicized calls for retraction when inconvenient findings are published. Meanwhile, there are demonstrable systematic biases published social scientific research analyzing the types of people who are less present in colleges and universities—i.e., the poor and working class, devoutly religious people, rural folks, and Trump voters, among others.
. . .It wasn’t just students who grew more radical, though. Faculty and administrators got in on the action, too.
Alongside the student unrest came significant changes in institutional structure and culture. There was a rapid growth in university administrators who often sought to justify their roles by meddling in research and teaching, imposing and enforcing myriad new restrictions on what people could do and say on campus, and significantly undermining academic freedom and faculty governance in the process.
So what are the data showing that wokeness has peaking and is heading down? Here are a few graphs.
However, a range of empirical data suggest that the post-2010 “Great Awokening” may be winding down. For instance, Heterodox Academy recently released the results of its 2022 Campus Expression Survey. It shows that students today feel more comfortable sharing their perspectives across a range of topics than they did in previous years.
But look at the data above (there are no error bars or indications of statistical significance. Between 2021 and 2022, reluctance to discuss has dropped only 0.8% for gender (and is higher than in 2019), has risen 1.2% for politics, dropped 4.9% for race, dropped 3.2% for religion, dropped 1.4% for sexual orientation, and dropped 1.6% for “non-controversial topics”. These are small changes, though they may reflect the beginning of a trend. But beyond the one year, no general trend is evident over time except that general reluctance to discuss controversial topics is higher since 2019. There is a general trend to be more willing to discuss “non-controversial topics,” so any decreases in the other areas might reflect a more general trend, perhaps a willingness to discuss anything.
Nevertheless, the chilling of speech is obvious, as the bars are much higher for the five topics on the left than for “non-controversial topics.” This reflects a general reluctance to speak freely on touchy subjects, something that we should surely be worried about. It will take a few more years, though, to see if this reluctance is really dropping rather than the 2021-2022 data being a fluke.
The data below on sanctions imposed on academics is a bit more convincing, as several forms of professorial sanctions have dropped over the last two years, and all dropped in between 2021 and 2022. But they’re still a LOT higher than in 2000.
It may be that contemporary students feel less need to self-censor because the objective conditions have changed at colleges and universities. You can see this, for instance, in data on “cancel culture” events. Incident trackers compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) show marked declines in attempts to punish scholars for their speech or views across all measures (the drop in “targeting incidents” is particularly large—over 30%.
Below are data from three sources on cancel culture incidents. The sources differ considerably in what they count as such an incident, but two of the three sources show a fairly large drop over the two years (2020-2022), though the National Association of Scholars (NAS) show a drop lasting only one year, with incidents rising between 2020 and 2021.
FIRE’s data is not an outlier. We see apparent declines in attempts to censor uncomfortable speech on campus across a range of datasets.
Finally “woke scholarship” is shown below.
And professors, too, seem like they’ve calmed down a bit. The intense scholarly focus on identity-based bias and discrimination seems to have cooled, for instance.
The drop, however, has only occurred over a year in two of the four areas. Again, we see something that is suggestive, but the data aren’t taken over a long enough period to see if we’re on a long-term downhill (i.e. ideologically “uphill”) slide.
Al-Gharbi concludes first that there’s a big ideological gulf between academics and “the rest of America”:
The sociological and ideological distance between academics and the rest of America has always been wide. Since 2010, however, the gulf between highly-educated Americans and everyone else grew much larger—primarily due to asymmetric polarization within the educated class itself. These differences also grew more salient as radicalized professors, students, and college-educated Americans aggressively sought to impose their values and priorities on everyone else and confront, denigrate, marginalize, or sanction those who refused to get with the program.
One core consequence of this radicalization has been reduced public trust in higher ed. Most Republicans today believe that universities, on balance, do more harm than good. A majority of Americans across partisan lines believe higher ed is moving in the wrong direction, and most believe that what they get from attending colleges and universities may not be worth the cost. This is not idle sentiment: enrollment in colleges and universities dropped precipitously during COVID and has not recovered.
Thus the authoritarian Left has, says Al-Gharbi, given Republicans some big impetus to raise funding and win elections (e.g. the governorship of Virginia) by summoning the specter of rising wokeness”. And even if academic is reforming itself, as Al-Gharbi thinks we are (I don’t really see it), Republicans will take credit for any changes like those described above. This worries him (he seems to be a Leftist), but the first thing to do is admit that a problem exists. Those of us who call attention to it, however, are described as “alt-righters”, racists, or other unsavory names. There are reasons why academics keep their heads down about this. Al-Gharbi:
Colleges and universities are not just capable of reforming themselves; they are already reforming themselves. Positive trends should be recognized, and ongoing efforts should be encouraged and supported.
But doing so would require more in academia and on the left to explicitly admit that there are real problems of bias and parochialism in institutions of higher learning. It undermines our own credibility to dismiss concerns about the culture and operations of educational institutions as an empty moral panic. Ordinary people can see with their own eyes that that’s not the case, and no one will trust us to effectively fix a problem if we won’t even acknowledge it exists. We can’t talk about progress while insisting there’s nothing wrong.
“Nothing to see here” is a non-starter. “There’s something to see here, and it’s a positive trend” is much more promising. Let’s run with that.
Yes, I see the “this is an empty moral panic” stuff constantly coming from those who are woke, but if you look at what’s happened in the last 20 years, and if you value free expression and academic freedom, it’s not in the least “empty”. Something bad has happened to the atmosphere in colleges and universities, something inimical to the very purpose of those institutions.
All it will take to reverse any trends that do exist, however, is one triggering incident—something like the murder of George Floyd. Right now, I’m not that optimistic that we’ve reached “peak woke”, but I generally go by the principle, “a pessimist is never disappointed.” Stay tuned.
If you’re going to use the adjective “Orwellian” to refer to authoritarianism and unsavory manipulation of people’s thoughts, you must have read at least two of his pieces: the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), free online from The Orwell Foundation. They are of course connected; both involve the psychological manipulation of people for bad political ends, the former by government actions and the latter by manipulation of words. Here are two bits from his essay:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
. . . Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
I’m sure that investigative journalist Gerald Posner didn’t write this piece out of right-winged animus or transphobia (he used to be the investigative reporter for The Daily Beast), but rather out of outrage about how other people are trying to change language to achieve political ends. And, at any rate, what matters is not his politics, but the veracity of his reports, which you can check for yourself. His issue is the language around coverage of transgender politics, and his object is the Associated Press Style Guide, which, as he notes, is
. . . . the leading style and usage guide for many newspapers, magazines, newsrooms, and public relations offices. Journalists and editors largely abide by its grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules and specific styles for everything from numbers to acronyms. AP editors are supposed to regularly update the Stylebook in order to keep up with changes in language and societal norms.
Modern woke political language however, doesn’t undergo a natural evolution over time; rather, it is imposed from above, and here it’s imposed by the AP Style Guide.
Click to read the piece on his “Just the Facts” Substack site:
Posner is approaching the 3,000 word (!) article on “Transgender Coverage” as an investigative journalist, giving examples of recommended and un-recommended usages. But he does come to a conclusion: it’s ideological and inaccurate. You can see the data at the “Transgender Coverage Topical Guide” entry at the AP Stylebook.
And here’s Posner’s take on it all. Most of it I agree with, but one or two of his criticisms seems to me not wrong, but a tad exaggerated.
The revised Transgender entry runs 3,000 words, setting forth what it says is the acceptable standard for journalists when “writ[ing] about and interview[ing] transgender people.” It starts with what seems like a good rule, that reporters must use “accurate, sensitive and unbiased language.”
The editors then proceed to trash the concepts of accuracy and “no bias.” The guide dictates the use of language that in some cases is factually incorrect. Or, as Orwell might have said, the AP editors did their best “to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Language matters. Unfortunately, those in charge of setting the rules for the use of it are titling the standards to affect the coverage.
Sometimes, the AP Stylebook contradicts established science, other times ignore inconvenient evidence to the contrary, and repeatedly adopts rules that endorse only one side of what is a vigorous ongoing controversy.
Here are two examples of bad recommendations and one that I think doesn’t matter all that much. Posner’s words are indented, and the AP Stylebook recommendations in bold, italic type. My words are flush left.
“Use the term sex assigned at birth instead of biological sex, birth gender, was identified at birth as, born a girl and the like…. Avoid terms like biological sex, along with biological male and biological female.”
On the issue of biology being so passé, the AP is insistent. A dozen times the style guide reinforces that a person’s gender is “assigned” at birth. Richard Ostling, a former AP national reporter (now a GetReligion contributor), notes that, “That’s central to LGBTQ+ insistence that each infant’s gender is arbitrarily imposed from outside and subject to change, so this word allies the news media with one outlook in an intense societal debate.”
Ditching biological sex in one species of animal but not in every other species is unconscionable. Why is human “gender” (they of course mean “biological sex”) assigned at birth instead of recognized at birth? When I divide piles of fruit flies into sexes, I am not “assigning their sex”, but recognizing it based on sexually dimorphic characters that are nearly perfectly correlated with biological sex. (Remember biologists define sex by the nature of the reproductive system that produces either large, immobile gametes [“females’], or small, mobile gametes [“males’]). I’ve dissected gazillions of male and female flies, and I’ve never seen a “normal-appearing” male with ovaries. (We very rarely get gynandromorphs: flies that are part male and part female, produced when an X chromosome gets lost during cell division in an embryo. But these are developmental accidents, not a “third sex”, and gynandromorphs occur in many animal species). It would be strange indeed if sex was defined and recognized in animals and plants—except in H. sapiens!
This wording in bold is, of course, there to reinforce the gender activists’ wrongheaded claim that sex a “spectrum” and not binary. And they claim this because gender (social sex roles) are more of a spectrum—though still bimodal. It’s the reverse naturalistic fallacy: what you want to be true in nature is what you must see in nature. This language is used to reinforce that fallacy.
If children meet guidelines and are showing signs of puberty, they can begin taking puberty blockers — fully reversible prescription medication that pauses sexual maturation, typically given in injections or skin implants.
The AP editors — without any supporting citation or caveat — set the rule that journalists writing transgender stories must remember that puberty blockers are “fully reversible.” Mixing some incorrect science into the style guide might be simple enough but has serious consequences. That is especially true when the science shows there is a litany of serious, long term adverse effects to children who have been on those drugs. I highlighted some of those side effects in my recent WJS piece, “The Truth About Puberty Blockers.”
At least the style guide admits that “the evidence is mixed” about whether hormone treatments and surgery resolve the “stress, depression and suicidal thoughts” to which “transgender youth and adults are prone.”
The effects of puberty blockers, as we are coming to learn, are almost certainly not “fully reversible.” Nor are they without side effects. Nor are they able to “pause” puberty fully and innocuously while a child makes up its mind. This language is straight-out deceptive, and again plays into the agenda of extreme gender activists, who argue that there’s no harm involved in stopping sexual maturation while you decide whether to assume a gender different from the one you have.
NOT HORRIBLE BUT STILL MISLEADING:
“[In reporting on transgender people in sports] Don’t refer to male or female hormones. All people have the same hormones; only their levels vary. If discussion of hormones is needed, name the specific hormone(s)….If transgender players of any gender are banned from playing on teams in line with their gender, say that.”
This is embarrassingly disingenuous. Men and women do indeed produce estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone but the ways their bodies manufacture those hormones means they have completely different blood concentrations and interactions with organs and muscles.
By ignoring the differences between male and female hormones is to ignore the differences that are key to why biological males have a physical advantage over biological females in athletics. Bone size and strength, greater muscle mass, and higher rates of metabolizing and releasing energy cannot be fully reversed after puberty. Males are, among with biological advantages, are more powerful at kicking and hitting; jumping higher; extra endurance; faster swimming and running speeds.
The results of a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2020 showed that different hormones between transmen and transwomen made a significant difference in “body composition and athletic performance.”
I think by now people know this, but the levels of testosterone and estrogen do differ on average between males and premenopausal females, with average testosterone levels very different and the distributions virtually nonoverlapping. Posner is right that hiding hormone names is a way to minimize the profound effects that different levels of testosterone and (to a lesser extent) estrogen have on secondary sex traits, especially those involved in sports like size and musculature. But I don’t really care if they use “testosterone” instead of “male hormone” because, as the AP says, both hormones are found in both sexes. So long as writers emphasize the effect that different levels of these hormones (especially “T”) have on secondary sex traits, I’m satisfied.
There are others recommendations from the A.P. that you can read and assess, and Posner finishes with the AP’s suggestions about how to use phrases that actually “present still contested concepts as settled,” like that it’s fine to use “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women,”
Posner finishes with a two-sentence zinger that sums up his take on these Orwellian attempts to control language. He puts the AP recommendation in bold italics:
Of course, these rules are often more about following an ideology than acting as the premier style guide. If anyone doubts that, “Do not use the term transgenderism, which frames transgender identity as an ideology.”
There have been two new papers, both in once-respectable evolution journals, arguing that species names—both common names (“Bachman’s warbler”) and scientific names, or Latin binomials (“Vermivora bachmanii)”—should be eliminated from scientific discourse on two grounds. First, species are often named after people who did bad stuff (e.g., Bachman, Audubon), and it is not “inclusive” to use their names in scientific discourse. The other is that species are better described by using place names where the first specimen was found or descriptive names (“Drosophila melanogaster“, for instance, translates to “black-bellied dew lover”, as the flies were thought to drink dew). That, they argue, adds more information and eliminates the problem of non-inclusive species names.
But suggestion that scientific names of animals be changed is a no-go, since the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) has said, rightly, that it would cause irreparable confusion in the world scientific literature to rename species with long histories of use. (The equivalent botanical commission hasn’t yet weighed in.)
As for common names, well, that doesn’t bother me too much, though it smacks of Pecksniffery, leaves unanswered the question of “who will be the censor?” and doesn’t address the fact that common names vary widely depending on the country involved and on the language used where the species are mentioned. And I really can’t buy the argument that changing names will bring lots more inclusion in the field, so that members of ethnic groups put off by species names will come rushing into biology where they were previously repelled by terminology. This work seems more performative than efficacious.
The arguments for changing both common and scientific names have been advanced in two recent papers. I won’t reprise the arguments as I’ve discussed one of them, and you can read them both by clicking on these screenshots:
From Trends in Ecology and Evolution; I discussed this paper here.
From Nature Ecology & Evolution:
There have been a spate of arguments in the biological literature about eponyms, both pro and con, but I’ll just link to two that caught my eye, and they both raise serious questions about whether getting rid of eponyms is really helpful to indigenous people in the regions where the plants and animals live. They say the authors, by ignoring the real problems on the ground in areas where field work and ecology is done outside the U.S., are causing more problems in those areas when proposing that eponyms be deep sixed. In other words, the Eponym Police are making life tougher for marginalized biologists in other countries. This is called being “hoist with one’s own petard.”
The first article is by reader Lou Jost and a bunch of his Ecuadorian colleagues. Lou has appeared here frequently, and works permanently in Ecuador with the Fundación EcoMinga, studying and saving the rainforest and its species. (He and his colleagues also discovered Atelopus coynei, my EPONYMOUS frog, near his reserve. The name is safe since it’s scientific!)
This short response by Jost et al. to the Guedes et al. paper makes some important points. Click to read:
The piece gives several good reasons for retaining eponyms in both common and scientific names:
Guedes et al.1 argue that eponymous scientific names, despite their long tradition in biology, have no place in the modern world. They want to erase eponyms assigned to species in the past and want scientists to stop naming new species after people. Both of these proposals would hurt science, and disproportionately hurt science in the Global South — the region that is supposed to be the primary beneficiary of their proposal.
As Guedes et al. recognize, naming species after people has always been a powerful tool that biologists have used to thank their patrons, recognize their field assistants and honour their colleagues or loved ones. This is the highest honour that an individual biologist can bestow on a person; we have very little else at our disposal. In recent years some biologists have also used the naming of species to raise funds for research and, especially, for conservation. Guedes et al. mentioned the auctioning of names by the Rainforest Trust. Fundación EcoMinga2 —an Ecuadorian non-governmental organization that is managed by some of us — was the beneficiary of two naming auctions for species new to science3,4. With these funds the foundation was able to pay for journal publication fees so that the resulting articles would be open access as well as pay for some of the logistics of the investigations. Most importantly, we were able to use the funds to help to directly conserve many hundreds of hectares of the habitats of these very same species. In many megadiverse countries of the tropics, funds for these purposes are otherwise scarce or non-existent.
Although it is true that most eponyms assigned have historically honoured Europeans, the pace of species discovery in tropical countries is currently high and in the past few decades local taxonomists (at least in Latin America) are overtaking European scientists in making these discoveries. The power of bestowing eponyms has shifted to these local scientists in the tropical countries where most undiscovered species live. For example, in the Ecuadorian province of Tungurahua (where Fundación EcoMinga began its conservation work) all 15 new frog species that have been discovered there in the past 15 years were described in publications with Ecuadorian lead authors, and in many cases all other co-authors were also Ecuadorian. Eleven of those species descriptions used eponyms. Using eponyms, local scientists can now fund their work, honour local scientists5, recognize Indigenous leaders6 and policy-makers7, and help to save their study organisms from extinction3. It is unfortunate and discriminatory that some members of the scientific community want to take away this tool just at the moment that non-European biologists are becoming its main beneficiaries. Rather than eliminating eponyms, causing chaos in the existing nomenclature and erasing the rich and convoluted personal history of biology, we should instead embrace them enthusiastically and use them to generate and record the next and more-diverse chapters of that history.
It’s hard to argue against that.
The article below, from Megataxa, is by a biologist from Sri Lanka who goes after the renaming arguments hard. Click on the screenshot to read, or go here. Pethiyagoda argues that forcing the elimination of eponyms by privileged American scientists is in fact a form of colonialism that is detrimental to people who work in poorer countries:
I’ll give a few quotes:
Names we inherit from history are often problematic but like history itself, they are not easily or productively erased. Even Indians and Sri Lankans who are aware of the origins of the Alphonso mango, named after the barbaric Portuguese colonizer Afonso de Albuquerque, relish this fruit without protest. Meanwhile, Singaporeans celebrate the name of Stamford Raffles, the city-state’s founder, through numerous place names and even what is arguably its best-known hotel. Yet Raffles not only segregated the city by race, but was also associated with slavery (Wright, 1960; Pearson, 1969; Alatas, 2020). Even in post-handover Hong Kong, despite fierce Chinese nationalism, colonial place names such as Queen Victoria Street, Oxford Road and Baker Street have been retained. The conquered seem not as anxious as their conquerors to erase the odious heritage of colonialism.
Should we choose to mine the scientific lexicon layer by layer in search of words and connotations that are offensive or exclusionary, the list would be endless and, because language evolves, transient. The word gay, for example, went from meaning joyful to meaning homosexual, and even then,evolved in usage first as a euphemism, then a pejoration, and finally a celebration: it illustrates how words and meanings evolve rapidly through time.
Eponyms. Guedes et al. (2023) argue that ‘naming species in honour of [people] is unjustifiable’ and call for all eponyms to be ‘removed’ from biological taxonomy ‘as many of those honoured are strongly associated with the social ills and negative legacy of imperialism, racism and slavery’. They maintain that such ‘name revisions would not alter scientific history, as the historical name would remain as a synonym [correctly, not a synonym but a ‘suppressed name’] and the identity of the individuals who initially described the species would remain unaltered.’
What then is the point? After all, most species—e.g., all birds and butterflies—have unique common names already: there is no impediment to these being revised. But rather than engage in the actual work of doing so, in a flourish of generosity, Guedes et al. (2023) grant that ‘the task of renaming eponyms could be given [my emphasis] to taxonomists from the biogeographical region of the candidate species.’ Who are they to give this demanding and complex task so condescendingly to us who never asked for it? These authors seem oblivious of the Taxonomic Impediment (Engel et al., 2021). ‘Post-colonial’ taxonomists have their hands full as it is, racing to describe their nations’ species before they become extinct, rather than being distracted by a time-wasting mission to investigate hundreds of thousands of eponyms and replace them just to assuage these authors’ new-found guilt.
Ouch! But this does argue that the Eponym Police are not only privileged, but colonialist themselves, fobbing work off on indigenous and oppressed people, and to no useful end,.
. . . and one more. Pethiyagoda makes a lot of other arguments in his paper, so don’t judge its tenor just from what I’ve quoted.
Perhaps understandably given their North American bias, Cheng et al. (2023) see the language of science through the prism of American realities. They seek to redress the problems of marginalized communities within their own society and should be lauded for that. But it is in the Anglosphere—especially the USA—that the semantic problems they highlight need to be addressed, for example by urging the US Government to desist from applying the term alien to migrants and foreign nationals. Almost all the authors I criticize here seek to regulate language in order to control thought, evidently oblivious of the possibility that in seeking redress for their perceived victimhood, they stand to victimize others—the oppressed become the oppressors. Yet there exists a world in which science is framed not in terms of the grievances of groups but in terms of the flourishing of humanity. The concept of ‘suspect classification’ they implicitly apply to defining victimhood may be self-evident to Americans (Pollvogt, 2013), but it is alien to the rest of the world, especially the postcolonial world. Local problems do not demand global solutions.
. . .Western guilt stemming from the expropriation of indigenous knowledge and genetic resources from erstwhile colonies led to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). As well-intentioned as the CBD might have been, it had the unintended consequence of stifling taxonomic research in much of the developing world (Pethiyagoda, 2004; Prathapan et al., 2018). We would do well to consider also the potential for unintended consequences of the English-centric terminological reforms proposed by the authors cited here.
If you want to see more give and take on the Guedes et al, paper, consult these links: