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The Demise of Scientific American (scottaaronson.blog)
563 points by KKKKkkkk1 4 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 413 comments



From the op-ed in question:

> And the descriptions and importance of ant societies existing as colonies is a component of Wilson’s work that should have been critiqued

Is she... drawing a connection between the term "ant colony" and human colonialism?


I saw only this quote on Twitter the other day

> The so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against.

Which was, frankly, shocking to see coming from Scientific American, something I had assumed was a respectable scholarly publication, if not an actual academic journal, per se. It's an absolutely mind-boggling mistake to publish in something that claims itself to be about science. That is not at all what a normal distribution is, and the normal distribution makes no such assumption. Anyone who passed a basic Intro to Statistics course should be able to explain why this is wrong.

To open with such a profoundly wrong assertion, and then publish an article built on this flawed assumption just beggars belief. I feel like I've wandered into some kind of Twilight Zone that there are apparently serious people, charged with informing the public about science, who are publishing obvious falsehoods and expecting us to go along with them.

I cannot understand how an editor of a scientific publication read that sentence and did not immediately send the piece back to the author with a note reading "No thank you. You clearly have no idea what you're talking about".


The thing that strikes me is how obviously nonsensical that is. It's not only a lie, it's someone straight up insisting that 2+2=5.

I'm frankly stumped by claims like those, I feel it's pointless to even debunk them (what is there to debunk? If you're willing to listen anybody qualified at all, you wouldn't believe it in the first place.)

Reminds me of this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firehose_of_falsehood

HN post, just 14 hours ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=29773082


>> The thing that strikes me is how obviously nonsensical that is. It's not only a lie, it's someone straight up insisting that 2+2=5.

As Pauli said "It's not even wrong."


The article where they endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in their history was pretty atrocious too - just based on out and out lying about what the US coronavirus response involved and how it compared to the rest of the world. It turns out that when you mix science and politics, all you're left with is politics that calls itself science and accuses its political opponents of attacking science.


I respected SA for that. And I think it was on topic for them given the anti-science sentiment transpired from one of the sides. And science will always be political.


> I respected SA for that. And I think it was on topic for them given the anti-science sentiment transpired from one of the sides.

One of the sides? Like Biden and Kamala saying they wouldn't trust the Trump vaccine?


The notion is that it was extremely fast delivery of a complex solution by an administration known to regularly stretch the truth when politically convenient (if not outright lie, c.f. inauguration crowd size and, now, response to the legitimate 2020 election).

The reality is that the mRNA vaccines were basically ready to go within a few weeks, and political dregs kept it from being approved even faster. But its inadvisable to change the bureaucratic infrastructure for disasters during disasters, and so here we are.

But yes, the crowd that Trump tends to seek support from is anti-science.


At risk of feeding the troll, but the vast majority of the US population are incompetent at science. There is a reason that science is the domain of people who are not only fairly smart but also carefully trained in how to make decisions based on evidence rather than social dynamics. While Trump's appeal is targeting people who are clearly scientifically-illiterate ... all politicians have messages crafted to appeal to scientific illiterates. There aren't enough scientifically competent people to even be a meaningful swing vote.

Every partisan is perfectly happy to claim that they are following science and usually fail to modify their behavior when confronted with actual science. That holds across the political spectrum. The Trump crowd aren't anti-science, they simply tend to anti-authority. I guarantee you that they're highly pro-science on the issues where the science agrees with them.


I’m baffled even pop pulp rag “editorial” leadership wouldn’t be familiar with the famous “stats don’t mean normal exists” examples dating back to the 1950s:

No “normal” man:

“Out of 4,063 pilots, not a single airman fit within the average range on all 10 dimensions. One pilot might have a longer-than-average arm length, but a shorter-than-average leg length. Another pilot might have a big chest but small hips. Even more astonishing, Daniels discovered that if you picked out just three of the ten dimensions of size — say, neck circumference, thigh circumference and wrist circumference — less than 3.5 per cent of pilots would be average sized on all three dimensions. Daniels’s findings were clear and incontrovertible. There was no such thing as an average pilot. If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually designed it to fit no one.“

And no “normal” woman:

“Before the competition, the judges assumed most entrants’ measurements would be pretty close to the average, and that the contest would come down to a question of millimetres. The reality turned out to be nothing of the sort. Less than 40 of the 3,864 contestants were average size on just five of the nine dimensions and none of the contestants — not even Martha Skidmore — came close on all nine dimensions. Just as Daniels’ study revealed there was no such thing as an average-size pilot, the Norma Look-Alike contest demonstrated that average-size women did not exist either.”

https://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2016/01/16/when-us-air-...

On the other hand, maybe the editor of Scientific American being unaware of this is why there’s room for a not so new book, “The End of Average”:

”Yet, as Rose, Ed.M.’01, Ed.D.’07, a lecturer at the Ed School and director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program, writes in his forthcoming book, The End of Average, from the moment we’re born to the moment we die, we are measured against a mythical yardstick — the average human — and it’s hurting everyone. That’s why with this book and through his nonprofit, the Center for Individual Opportunity, Rose is on a mission to dismantle this myth of the average and instead help the public understand the importance of the individual.”

https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/15/08/beyond-average

http://www.toddrose.com/endofaverage


Note the difference here is that your examples use multiple dimensions at once. Assuming Gaussian distributions are a good fit, most of the population will look relatively normal on a single variable measurement. It’s only on multivariate measurements where this stops being true. Though this is exactly what the mode expects. Plot a 2D cross section of a 9 dimensional Gaussian curve and you’ll see the center lose its density very quickly.


I'll add a fast guess from some earlier, solid experiences: Let R be the set of real numbers and n a positive integer. Consider R^n, the common n-dimensional space. Assume this Rn is Euclidean, that is, has the usual inner product, norm, metric, topology, and measure (area, volume, e.g., in the sense of classic Lebesgue measure* theory). With this overly detailed description of context (WHEW!), we move on to the main point:

In the R^n, consider a sphere. To be more clear, for some positive real number r, consider the set of all points in R^n with distance <= r from the the origin, that is, the point in R^n with zeros in all its coordinates.

Now for the big point: Consider the volume of that sphere and let n grow. Will discover that very soon nearly all the volume of the sphere is in a thin shell just inside the surface of the sphere. Or to be more explicit, for positive real number s a little less than r, nearly all the volume is in the set of points x where the distance from the origin d(x) is

s <= d(x) <= r

I encountered this in some analysis, I have forgotten, maybe generation of random points in the sphere independent and uniformly distributed in the sphere.

So, for the 10 or so body measurements of the pilots and the women, it's going to be tough (small probability for nearly any reasonable, non-pathological probability distribution on the sphere) to expect all 10 measurements to be close to the expectations, i.e., the center of the sphere (for people, the center will not be at the origin, that is, all n coordinates zero).

There is a counterexample: The girl I dated in high school, the most beautiful female I ever saw, in person or otherwise, was essentially perfect on all dimensions!


I agree. More details that may be helpful for the GP.

One trick to compare dimensions is to assume each one is somewhat a normal distribution, but each one has a different mean and variance. It makes no sense to add the difference from the average height in inches and the difference from the average weight in pounds.

It's better to divide each difference by the variance, to remove the problems with choosing the scale. Also, it's better to sum the squares of them, for technical reasons. Pulling numbers out of the air, it's something like

Points = ((height-60inches)/8inches)^2 + ((weigh-120pounds)/7pounds)^2 + ...

[I just invented some numbers. I'm too lazy to lookup some realistic numbers. I live in a metric country, so I may even had a bad conversion.]

And in the contest, they had 9 variables, so it's a long ...

What is the expected distribution of something like this?

If you have only one variable, then you expect that most people will get near 0 points. But each variable you add, the distribution changes, and most people will be further away from 0. There are some graphics of this in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chi-squared_distribution and get even more technical details. With 3 variables, most people will be close to 1 point, but with 9 variables most people will be close to 7 points.

With real data is more complicated, because the distributions are not normal. Also, there is correlation, and this model assumes no correlation. (For example tall people use to weight more.) So it's a very simplified model, but it's useful in some cases.

This is a standard part of any statistic course, perhaps the first or second course, but it's not cutting edge math.

>>> Before the competition, the judges assumed most entrants’ measurements would be pretty close to the average, and that the contest would come down to a question of millimetres. The reality turned out to be nothing of the sort.

Going from ideal mathematical models to real cases it's always difficult. In the contest the variables have correlation, and it's not a random sampling because the selection process have strong bias. But with 9 variables anyone that took a statistics course will expect a result like this, where nobody is too close to the average in all measurements.


> Which was, frankly, shocking to see coming from Scientific American, something I had assumed was a respectable scholarly publication

TBF SciAm has been popsci since the 50s (before that it was mostly about new patents apparently, the original styling was "The Advocate of Industry and Enterprise" and the "Journal of Mechanical and other Improvements").

It's never been a scholarly publication per se, though it used to be pretty respectable in the sense that reading sciam is what you'd do if you were well-read middle-class and weren't going to read the papers and reports straight but wanted to keep abreast of the major stuff. The "level of depth" so to speak has varied a lot since it switched to popsci. But the recent years are some pretty damn shallow levels.


The problem with the cult of The Science is that like all religions it needs outs when the actual data and science contradicts the faith. This is where the "math is racist" type of craziness comes from.


I think most of the problem with the statement is that it is ambiguous. If she is saying that the Gaussian distribution is used because it assumes there exists people who are the mean average representatives of humanity; then she is just failing to understand what the law of large numbers implies about the distribution of sample mean(X) regardless of the distribution of X.

If on the other hand she is saying that a problem in healthcare is that significantly different sub-populations are lumped together resulting in inappropriate benchmarks for some sub-populations, that is more palatable. Even if this latter interpretation is not true, at least it isn't false by definition.


it's like reading something from Derrida.. you have to abandon all assumption that technical terms mean what they're supposed to


When you sample a population you infer the type of distribution and try to sample it in a way that respects the distribution properties, because that can have a great impact on the results.

I'm afraid most people here criticizing her normal distribution remarks are oversimplifying it much more than her.


The author’s word salad honestly doesn’t qualify as ‘remarks about the normal distribution.’ The author is wildly flinging random technical terms around. Try substituting ‘normal distribution’ with ‘exponential distribution’ or simply with ‘collecting data’. You can draw two possible conclusions from that sentence: either the author believes that observing data or —- horror —- drawing it is racist, a violently anti-knowledge stance, or the author is stringing words together like GPT-3 in hopes of sounding woke. This kind of discourse is an insult to science and an embarrassment to the journal.


I think most of the problem with the statement is that it is ambiguous. If she is saying that the Gaussian distribution is used because it assumes there exists people who are the mean average representatives of humanity; then she is just failing to understand what the law of large numbers implies about the distribution of sample mean(X) regardless of the distribution of X.

If on the other hand she is saying that a problem in healthcare is that significantly different sub-populations are lumped together resulting in inappropriate benchmarks for some sub-populations, that is more palatable. Even if this latter interpretation is not true, at least it isn't false by definition.


Very funny how you are doing more of that Derrida thing yourself.

The problem with the claim lies in the attempt to associate a strictly technical concept (the normal distribution) to $GENERIC_BAD_STUFF with nothing more than vague wordplay.

Also, just FYI, you have it the other way around. When you sample from a population, you (usually) assume a certain distribution (at most you infer parameters). For example, if you're sampling for opinion polls, you would actually want to oversample minorities and then correct back.


Sorry, I meant assume instead of infer. *not english native.


When did SA change? In the 1970s-80s, its articles were quite technical, for scientifically literate readers to understand something outside their field. When I looked at SA again after a long absence, around 20 years ago, it had already been dumbed down to about what Popular Science was many years ago.

SA had another era, in my dad's day, when its aim was less academic and more for the home enthusiast and hobbyist. I wonder when it became more of a forum for academic researchers to popularize their work.


> When did SA change?

Around 2000, when the cover design changed, and they stopped running classic columns like "Mathematical Games" and "Amateur Scientist".


When they switched to the glue binding.


Interesting correlation. I guess that is indicative of new management.


Scott Aaronson has always been like that.


I think the "SA" in this context referred to Scientific American, not Scott Aaronson.


he had the temerity to suggest that maybe, just maybe, human beings operate with the same mix of genes that other creatures do, the book was met by a disgraceful, below-the-belt, ideological response

This is wild to me. Isn't the whole point of philosophy, or even of the concept of introspection, that our instincts are no longer suited to the existence in which we find ourselves? Isn't all of moral learning directed solely at the struggle against the ways in which our instincts fail to correctly guide us in the modern world? Correct instincts don't need commentary. We don't have to teach someone to run when a predator chases them, or not to walk off of cliffs. Human beings can't not have counterproductive instincts and still need the concept of law.


The true power of markets is that these sorts of editorial mismanagement only mean one thing: people stop purchasing an increasingly subpar print.

I used to read SciAm regularly. But this type of Wokeism into everything and calling great people horrible things after they die is so disgraceful.

How can anyone take the magazine with an ounce of seriousness anymore?


As much as I love markets in a libertarian sort of way, they are not perfect. Markets can be slow, and there are many different types of customers.

Fox News and CNN still "sell" decently well. CNN used to be the "real news" some years ago. Not any more. The product has changed. They still try to claim to be the "real news". They are really not. They are, for the most part, an opinion outlet with narrow agenda. Fox News is, more or less, exactly the same but pointed almost perfectly in the opposite direction.

It's not unthinkable for Scientific American to "transform" itself in a similar way and find customers while claiming to be about "science" while it can be mostly about "agenda".


I wouldn't say CNN is perfectly in the opposite direction; rather, they're on nearly opposite ends of the Overton window.


Just read about the Overton window. Curious & neat concept, thank you. I agree.


I notice over the years SA has become more and more influenced by fashion. The pressures to appeal to the popular crowd have only intensified over the years.

Why would you subscribe to SA when the internet has more good material than you can possibly digest? That is their problem in a nutshell.

Another once mightly magazine The Economist, whose founder was praised by Nietzsche as "an objective journalist", has also gone downhill IMHO.

I cancelled my subscriptions to both a while back.


I stopped my subscription for The Economist when in the electronic format it forced advertisements on me on a more intrusive way than the full page ads in printed edition which was easier to jump over. I did not want paper format (I already had a big pile, also why to waste paper when I have an iPad) and I got no response on requesting a (even) more expensive subscription without the watch and other useless adverts wasted on me anyway.

I buy it only occasionally now therefore cannot agree or disagree if it went downhill from before, looking at single issues from time to time look alright. I always liked its balanced but analytic style, helped to learn the events and mechanisms of the world.


I've completely lost faith in Scientific American after they tried to "cancel" James Webb (yes, JWST telescope name) for complicitness against LGBTQ people some 70 fricking years ago, more details here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=29690749

I consider Washington Post quite left-leaning and the comments were resoundingly going 'WTF!': https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/10/13/nasa-james-...


> Wilson’s far left colleagues Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould was a great man, a great scientist, a great writer, and my personal hero. He wasn't from the "far left"; he was intellectually honest and consistent. He spent an inordinate amount of time fighting the teaching of Creationism in US schools.

He also wrote The Mismeasure of Man which rubbed proponents of IQ measurement the wrong way (the Wikipedia article covers the debate quite well: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mismeasure_of_Man) and which I think was and still is an important critique of biological determinism.

I don't know much about E. O. Wilson or his life or politics (I will try to learn more), but if you're prepared to dismiss Gould in a side note like this, it probably means you're on a mission and not very honest yourself.


You left some important details in the quote:

> response from Wilson’s far left colleagues Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould who hysterically compared his arguments to thinking that was well on its way down the slippery slope to that dark world where lay the Nazi gas chambers.

Anyone comparing their fellow scientists with Nazis is pretty uncharitable and very unscientific, unprofessional and unethical way to criticize someone.


1. Quote required. Gould was the opposite of "hysterical" so if one wants to accuse him of such they need to quote what he said exactly.

2. You yourself are misquoting and misinterpreting. Even the OP, for all its excess, doesn't accuse Gould of "comparing scientists to Nazis"; all it's saying is that Gould may have questioned some theories and pointed that they were on a "slippery slope". Being on a slippery slope means being somewhere on the slope, not (yet) at the bottom of it.

Incidentally, in the 40-50 years since the controversy, it has been demonstrated [0] that Nazi racist theories took much of their inspiration from American segregation laws, which were themselves backed up by pseudo-science every step of the way. So saying that there are ways of thinking about man and biology that can lead to gas chambers is not "hysterical", it's an observation of reality and history.

[0] See for instance https://aeon.co/ideas/why-the-nazis-studied-american-race-la...


Gould's guilty of fraud as far as I know.


Why workstuff broken? Politics. Sad. :(

One definition of politics is the point at which meta takes over. Why doesn't ManagerX just cancel projectY even though everyone knows it will fail? Politics. Reasons unrelated to the task at hand.

60% of an assembly agrees with Law X, but it can't pass. Why? Coalition dynamics, party politics, presumed impacts on the next election, promises, deals, precedents, etc. Politics.

When my work often put me in a boardroom, I developed a concept of "boardroom logic." The type of argument, suggestion and such that gets easy groans of approval from various managers on unrelated departments and generalist executive advisors. There are also committee facts, corporate truths and more.

It can get recursive. Attempting to bypass, or highroad the politicalnsess is itself political. Standing outside of a courtroom and presenting court-inadmissible evidence to the press. Politics

Here we have the word "science," which also comes with rights over "unscientific," "expert" and a bunch of legitimacy stuff. That's politics. We've got literal, current US politics. Both are big money fields, with careers, donations, grants, magazine subscriptions. Social Sciences in general are mixed in with all of this. It'll take decades to settle.


Life in a society is political. There’s no way around that.


Aye sure. There are different things that we call "political" though.

Also there's a subtle but important difference between "politics is everywhere" and "everything is politics." The former leaves room for coexistence with other things.


This co-opting of previously reputable domain-specific publications by radicals with only an interest in pushing their political agenda and no interest in the supposed topic of the publication, has happened to a lot of publications in the last few years -- Wired, MIT Technology Review, Vanity Fair, and many others.


I think we need to "Make Science boring again". No ideological drama, no cancel culture, no bigotry and no one should feel threatened by anyone for contrarian opinions. Otherwise, Science ceases to be. We need to get back together and discover how nature works, quoting Feynman "For nature cannot be fooled".


In this definition was science ever boring? Science has always had ideological drama and cancel culture and feeing threatened by contrarian opinions. Look at germ theory, hand washing, the earth revolving around the sun, Alzheimer’s and plaque theory, and the fight around AIDS discovery.


I find Quanta Magazine to be a pretty good replacement to SA.


When I saw that editor-in-chief Laura Helmuth is from UC Berkeley, everything made sense.

Edit: I'm not trolling. The people I know from UC Berkeley are much more primed to see racism (including where it doesn't exist) than the people I know from other Universities. Certainly, this is anecdotal and I could be wrong, but I would put money on this being a real pattern (if there was such a place to put money it).


Mention of SciAm always brings back memories. It was one of the few western scientific magazines available in former Soviet Union in 80s and was issued in translated and probably censored version, but still. My father figured that it was somehow possible to get a subscription for it and we received our monthly copy for several years. That is where a learned about things like Mandelbrot fractals and Conways Game of Life and wrote my own implementations in BASIC later when I got hold of my first computer. Sad to see things coming down so badly since then.


The editorials are getting problematic, it was hurtful. I grew up reading SA as a kid, never really grasping the material, but it was hugely inspiring to me, the legitimacy and depth of it all.

I feel as though this problem represents a form of corruption, and that it's in SA, such an ostensibly 'Scientific' and not 'Populist' institution implies that it's effectively 'existential' and will have corrupted large swaths of people with power.

I feel this demonstrated the inability of some leaders to separate their political or personal views from 'Science', or at least to contextualize them and that they've jumped onto the postmodern bandwagon in which their cancelling of others is justified 'in the name of' whatever.

That said, I wonder if it has mostly to do with some research in some curious, sensitive corners, and some of the broader and obviously political editorials in which case, maybe once the management team moves on, it'll get back to 'normal'.


When I read Scientific American when I was in High School in the 90’s it was a very challenging read. I don’t think any publication outside of a scientific journal is that rigorous anymore.


I read a good article some time ago that explained the different 'levels' of scientific writing. Level 1 was the actual papers. Level 2 is the press releases of the university or research institute in question. And level 3 and beyond are the pop sci websites, magazines, social media channels etc picking up on it - and it becomes muddled after that, because they will often pick up and rewrite from each other instead of referencing the source.

The most grieving of that one, I find, is about things like exoplanets. The publications will mention some numbers showing evidence of an exoplanet that may be at a certain distance from its star to have reasonable temperatures or traces of oxygen and water. The pop sci drivel sites and some newspapers even will publish screaming headlines with great-but-completely-fantastical artists' renderings of verdant planets, basically claiming that life has been found and we'll be shaking tentacles with our new overlords soon.


Even the press releases from the universities can often be really low-quality - written for easy regurgitation by the press to ensure maximum virality.

Actual decent articles that put the research into context for the layman and are honest about the findings and consequences of those findings is increasingly rate. Scientific American used to be very good for it but has declined. New Scientist declined even before SciAm did.

Then there's all the pop-sci websites that are a rung below even those.


When growing up, my dad had a subscription to Scientific American. I learnt a lot from it, even English language. First the easy parts (50 years ago, letters to the editor), and then more advanced columns (Metamathematical Themes, Amateur Scientist), and finally some of the articles.

When I moved on my own in the late 80's, I naturally got my own subscription too. But I was already feeling that the level was dropping. They introduced Science in Pictures, and stuff like that. The day when I felt I could read and understand every article, I decided not to renew my subscription. Must have been early 90's.


I still like the IEEE and ACM magazines.

It’s sad IBM ceased publication of their journals, which were themselves wonderful.



I was a subscriber of Scientific American many many years ago while being adolescent and young adult. I liked to read about (to me) new knowledge in an easy to digest form. To me it was The Popular Science Magazine.

Some years ago, driven by nostalgia, I bought single issues occasionally but was very disappointed. Its tone did not remind me of the old years. To me it feels like it tries to use tabloid style to approach ever broader part of the public in delivering knowledge and it is just not a combination that works for me. Tabloid is not about comprehensiveness and balanced factual view that I expect from a text in science. To me it seemed like it tries to pick and magnify spectacular details on the expense of important others. True for the selection of topics as well. Using an analogy, my feeling is when someone is making a very tasty cake but uses too much sugar in it, put lots of neon food colouring into and serves it poring huge amount of honey on top on a plate that flashes like a Japanese game hall. Not for me anymore I'm afraid.


This seems so on the nose for a magazine called Scientific American based on the anti-science sentiments in America we have been seeing for the last 5 years or so.


It's a disgrace really.A top-down command (not even trend, because that would assume this thing is organic and authors are not pressured or influenced) for accepting certain political ideology without any room for discussion,debate, and aim towards the truth.

If one wants some other good reads from another ex-SA person i recommend Michael Shermer.And people who scream homophobes/racists/sexists should take a good look in the mirror at the start of the day and ask themselves if they're afraid or they like what they see.Most often than not, the people who accuse others of something are the ones doing that thing themselves, it's a tale as old as time.


I always found the New Scientist a much better publication and never understood the obsession with Scientific American. I assume it's because SA is based in the US, so Americans have been exposed to it much more.


The "so-called" normal distribution of "statistics"

One of the least scientific things I've ever read


I really liked the Powers of Ten article / film / book originated within SA which certainly doesn't justify any current editorial choices, but is I hope a fun video for anyone who hasn't seen it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fKBhvDjuy0


I used to enjoy the NOVA TV show, but it has steadily gotten dumbed down over the years. An example:

"Somewhere there was a first planet that formed in the entire universe. We'll never know about it. We'll never know when it formed or what its fate was. But it formed somewhere!"

-- NOVA Universe Revealed: Big Bang


Reading Rose and Leowentin's "Not in our Genes" was formative for me. I read it when I was 17 or 18 and very political. Even then, though the book was clearly anti-sociobiology (as it defined it) it had nuance and drew a distinction between genetics and biology that left little doubt that the slate was not entirely blank - but that looking for individual genes to explain complex human behaviour was unlikely to be fruitful.

Although when I read it I came away thinking "the sociobiologists are baddies", the discussion of reductionist thinking and distinctions between genetics and biology that ran through the book, ended up priming me to be much more open minded about the subject that perhaps the authors intended. It also gave me a skepticism of psychology that turned out to be well founded as the replication crisis hit. It really set me up to be excited by systems and complexity. It certainly led to me taking classes in the philosophy of science at University and probably caused exhaustion on the part of my sociology teacher as I spent my time poking holes in methodology discussions.

I might re-read the book and Wilson's Sociobiology side by side. I remember it being very readable and less doctrinaire than a book whose introduction calls out the authors' Marxism could be expected to be. And there's clearly a lot more to Wilson than the book made out.


The SA article reminds me of Liu Cixin's depiction of science and the "struggle sessions" of the cultural revolution:

> Einstein is a reactionary academic authority. He would serve any master who dangled money in front of him. He even went to the American Imperialists and helped them build the atom bomb! To develop a revolutionary science, we must overthrow the black banner of capitalism represented by the theory of relativity!

From the fictional "three body problem", though these sessions were a real phenomena: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Struggle_session


I haven't really had any respect for SA since their terrible anti-Bjorn Lomborg. Goodness knows he was totally wrong about global warming but he was also totally right about the effectiveness of the EPA and Clean Air act in reducing pollution. That issue had the person criticizing the forward questioning how he could prove that the mainstream media was being too pessimistic and the person criticizing the bibliography complaining that there were a lot of mainstream media citations.


How is he wrong about global warming? As far as I know he doesn't say it doesn't exist, just that compared to other issues facing humanity, the data doesn't actually indicate global warming is the biggest threat to our future.

Other than going against the current unchallengeable orthodoxy, I think that is a valid hypothesis that is almost impossible to disprove, but is certainly worth debating.


He spent a lot of the chapter pointing out that the IPCC climate models have problems and could potentially be inaccurate. But his takeaway seems to be that global warming might be mild and so we don't have to worry that much while my takeaway is that most of the reason to be afraid of global warming is in the tail risks for things getting much worse than IPCC projections.


Are you worried about the tail risk of an asteroid hitting the earth, or a super volcano explosion? Or a pandemic for that matter? Does humanity do enough about those? How do you resource allocate between all these tail risks?


I can understand their dismay at the hit piece on EO Wilson, and other editorial stances that they disagree with.

But the editorial section is about 3% of the magazine. It seems hysterical to say that SciAm is "utterly destroyed" because of their resentment of "woke" editorials. Really, the 100 or so in depth pieces written every year, the "things in the news" sections are now just part of a "zombie clickbait rag"?


> the editorial section is about 3% of the magazine

While you have a good point, it says a lot about SciAm that they ran such a piece:

- that was so shamefully anti-intellectual

- so soon after Wilson's death

- with a special mention about it as "insightful" from the editor on her Twitter account

It's a sloppy hit piece for no good reason. Monica McLemore and Laura Helmuth deserve considerable shame.


Well, I agree with two of those.. but it makes total sense to run it soon after their death. When else would you run it? Probably when they were in the news again.


I wouldn't eat a salad with 3 per cent of cyanide in it.

If the editorial section was just boring and unoriginal, I could live with it. But cowardly hit jobs on recently deceased people, that goes too far.

The woke are happy to destroy lives of people for saying one 'wrong' sentence or word. Maybe they should be treated in an identical way for their own transgressions. It could make them rediscover the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


Not a convincing counter to the OPs argument. You can be as hyperbolic as you want but the fact remains that even well known publications will post questionable content. The comparison to eating cyanide is totally inaccurate.


Trying to smear genetic research with the R-word is fairly close to poison in my view. If such sentiments grow and take hold, it will be next to impossible to research controversial topics in human genetics with an open mind, or receive funding for such research unless you stay within a narrow acceptable corridor of allowed explanations. Which sounds more like religion than science.

This is a good article covering the problem from last year's New Yorker:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/09/13/can-progressiv...

We are already perilously close to regarding any genetic research into human cognitive (dis)abilities or psychological traits as taboo. That would be a self-inflicted wound, because

a) it is hard to remedy anything that you refuse to study;

b) if countries such as China take the advantage, the democratic West will develop a strategic weakness in vitally important science.


Editorial stances are one thing, but publishing articles maligning the "so-called normal distribution of statistics" (!) as racist (!!) is another.


For many decades now, but particularly strongly in past 6 years or so, being perceived as racist against so-called “marginalized groups” equates to career death in the professional world. This is true even if you are perceived to be racist only 3% time. For this reason, false accusation of racism is an abhorrent crime. If 3% racists aren’t given a pass, why should we give a pass 3% garbage dump rags?


I don’t know, I would personally consider an outlet publishing such rubbish as not deserving of my attention and money. Just because it’s an editorial does not absolve the magazine of its mistakes.


> But the editorial section is about 3% of the magazine

You do realize that this is exactly what woke cancel culture does right? It cherry picks something offensive that someone said and then cancels the entire person.


I don’t think they can be so cleanly separated. If you see a newspaper that publishes just complete nonsense in its editorial section, arguing that up is down and vaccines cause autism and reptilians rule the world, should you trust that their hard news is accurate?


in summary: after E.O. Wilson died this December 2021 SciAm published a piece which was a reality-detached "PC/Wokeness scold" hit piece on the man

shame on SciAm. I subscribed decades ago -- but never again


So, it's been a while since I've read the opinion section of Scientific American (for reasons that will shortly become obvious), so I'm going to ask the broader audience here this question:

Is it really that unusual (certainly not unprecedented) to come across a poor opinion piece in Scientific American?

If this was an indicator of the demise of SA, I should think it would have folded decades ago.


There is something devastatingly depressing when you realize that widely acclaimed people, who are obviously vastly smarter than you, by literal orders of magnitude, are still absolutely and fundamentally clueless, yet our fucked up society treat these people as something between a demigod and an oracle..

My question in WHY? (The answer is markets..)


Yeesh. The tone of the blogpost is quite extreme honestly. I read the SA article and the tone felt like it was dealing with what they saw as a complicated topic while the blogpost's language seemed to paint it as more extreme than it actually was.

That said, the tone aside, I agree with the blogpost that I can't really gather what the issue is with the late Wilson specifically. I do agree with the SA author that people like Charles Murray exist and various people misunderstand genetics and psychometrics (and honestly, psychometrics has its issues) and use statistics misleadingly to demagogue or spread racist propaganda, such things were rife on 4chan et al. a few years back. I don't see how that fact squares with Wilson though, at least from the article.


> Yeesh. The tone of the blogpost is quite extreme honestly. I read the SA article and the tone felt like it was dealing with what they saw as a complicated topic while the blogpost's language seemed to paint it as more extreme than it actually was.

I mean, regardless of the politics of it, the quote about the normal distribution was completely inexcusable for a supposedly scientific publication. The fact that that got by their editors, and afaik they have not corrected it or changed it, is a pretty harsh indictment. And I think that's true even if you agree with their take on EO Wilson and his legacy (which I don't, for the record).


> I read the SA article and the tone felt like it was dealing with what they saw as a complicated topic

I read the criticism as saying that this shouldn't be a "complicated topic" for a publication like SA. I agree with that assessment.


Scientific American started its decline in the 1990s. It became a "rag" in the 2000s. It's 100% worthless now.


This post feels too much like an unsubstantiated rant to belong on this site. It doesn’t give much textual evidence and feels highly emotionally charged.

That said, I do agree that SA has gone downhill in the last 5 years. I canceled my subscription last year because the science was becoming too pop-sci-ish.

Here’s the offending article the author was referring to: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-complicated-l...


From the Scientific American article, emphasis mine:

> Wilson was hardly alone in his problematic beliefs. His predecessors—mathematician Karl Pearson, anthropologist Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and others—also published works and spoke of theories fraught with racist ideas about distributions of health and illness in populations without any attention to the context in which these distributions occur.

I am ignorant about the work of Karl Pearson, but I can see how certain attitudes or expressions of Galton and Darwin could be understood as morally "racist" in our modern understanding and values—not that I believe that detracts from their legacy in any way whatsoever. However, I find the mention of Gregor Mendel truly disconcerting.

As far as I am aware, Mendel's work was absolutely restricted to his research on peas and a strictly mathematical interpretation of the results, and at no point did he extrapolate to anything regarding human inheritance in any way. What's more, I would be extremely surprised if the thought of so-called human "races" was even relevant to the thoughts of a Central European friar of the 19th century who never left the area. In a translated copy of Mendel's Versuche über Plflanzenhybriden (Experiments on Plant Hybridization) [0] I find not a single use of the word "human", "mankind" or "race", and the only use of the word "man" refers to the act of cultivation. Where on Earth is the "racist idea"?

If the author of this SA article happened to be a historian of science, or even a geneticist or an evolutionary biologist, I might still be surprised but give her the benefit of the doubt and think she might know something I don't. However, to have "an associate professor in the Family Health Care Nursing Department and a clinician-scientist at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health" make such an astounding clichéd name drop is clear evidence that she is speaking out of ignorance and prejudiced "guilt-by-association" of the whole area of the Modern Synthesis of evolution and genetics.

[0] - http://www.esp.org/foundations/genetics/classical/gm-65.pdf


I think the big problem with Mendel is that the odds of him obtaining the results he reported are vanishingly low and, therefore, it’s reasonable to assume he forged the results.

Luckily, his model was correct.


If so, how would that forgery substantiate a claim that he was racist?


> I think the big problem with Mendel is that the odds of him obtaining the results he reported are vanishingly low

Why do you think so?


Why do you think his odds at obtaining those results were vanishingly low?


It is a quite old and often repeated claim, first made by Ronald Fisher in 1936.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregor_Mendel#Mendelian_parado...


Thank you for your reference to that link. Having now seen it I do recall that controversy albeit not in that level of detail (such work isn't my profession).

I know from practical experience that most of the points Fischer et al have made are often valid or the case including those about producing 'tailored' results for a specific target audience. Often one comes across most of them in one's own work and it's usually when one is tying to figure out whether one's actually deluding oneself given, say, that a set of results looks too good. Alternatively, one may have a dataset that's full of garbage and not yet realized it.

Then there are always those cases where most of the data fits within the expected distribution except for some wayward measurement or two, which if included, would throw the stats and make the overall experiential results look less precise. What does one do, ditch out the odd/atypical results or rerun the whole experiment again in the hope that those large wayward deviations don't reappear? Anyone who has done experiments is overly familiar with the problems of processing experiential data—as they say, they're just part of the territory.

Clearly, I've no hands-on expertise in Mendel's work so I can only make general comment which is that as Mendel is no longer around to defend himself or his work, as such we must be particularly careful about accusing him of doing something of which he may not have done. From that Wiki, despite the controversy, it seems that the passage of time has meant that Mendel's work seems to have been examined with reasonable rigor and care given that it's been re-examined and reanalyzed on multiple occasions by different personnel. In the absence of better and more accurate data there's little more we could reasonably do.

I suppose I'm overly sensitive to accusations of fraud because of an incident that happened eons ago back in my student days. This was when a chemistry tutor blatantly accused me of cheating in my write-up of an experiment and he did so in the presence of other students. What he objected to was that my experimental results (dataset) of a titration were too good to be true and that I'd worked back and substituted data from the theoretical/ideal model.

This wasn't the case at all as I had recorded the titration's dataset exactly as I'd measured it. Needless to say, I was furious at his unfounded accusation and I demanded that he say back over lunchtime and watch me whilst I reran the experiment, this he did. The results I obtained on the rerun were just marginally better than my first attempt.

I lay no claim to being an experiential genius—absolutely far from it. I'll just say this: some people are intrinsically much better at experimental work than are others and those who doubt their results are perhaps basing their doubt on their own less-than-optimal performance. That said, one's always right to doubt any claim or sets of results until they're independently verified.


I actually read the Scientific American article because I have previously read Scott Aaronson's blog and he doesn't looks to me like someone who would write anything before thinking about it.

The SA article is a complete piece of crap. I just hope this doesn't goes the same way it did when RMS asked to give Marvin Minsky the benefit of doubt.


"The SA article is a complete piece of crap."

Whether everyone agrees with you to the same degree is comparatively unimportant. However, there are several issues that arise from the SciAm article that are of key importance, these are:

1. From what the author, Monica R. McLemore, says in the article it's very clear that she has a political agenda and that by stating it in a forum such as SciAm, then she is acting in a very divisive manner.

2. McLemore is being extremely unfair by deliberately targeting a person's character. 'Shooting the messenger' for espousing or publishing information that has arisen from a person's research has to be about as low as an attack on a person's character can get. Moreover there's intellectual dishonesty in the attack: by assigning a person's character to a person's research work presupposes that one's moral philosophy always goes hand-in-hand with data that's arisen from one's research. This implies that a person's research cannot be separated from one's moral views, which, of course, is nonsense. It's about as stupid as saying that a person has to be a Republican to actually write about Republican philosophy when in fact anyone can do so.

3. An attack on a person's character by equating their moral position with the work that they do without definitive proof is woolly thinking, if this were in fact true then every defense lawyer would actually have to believe his or her client's statement in respect of their innocence.

4. The most disconcerting aspect of this story is the fact that the author is a person who holds a high and responsible position in society. To quote the SciAm article:

"Monica R. McLemore is an associate professor in the Family Health Care Nursing Department and a clinician-scientist at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco."

As such, the holder of any such a position has a duty of care to ensure that the views that he or she espouses are not only both fair and equitable in respect of all citizens but also they need to ensure that what's said adds to the cohesiveness of society and not the division thereof.


You should try reading the self-authored "paper" the author of that op-ed linked to from said op-ed.

It's...not great.


The issue with RMS is not that he wanted Minsky to be given the benefit of doubt but numerous other issues and instances where his own behaviour was reprehensible. As a figurehead of an important movement he should think of what effect his personal reputation has on the overall movement.


Those issues reported about RMS turned out to be falsehoods, miss-quotes and exaggerations (apparently, the bed he kept in his office was for pulling all-nighters at work, not for raping people.). They never survived the fact check, and Stallman is back at the FSF.

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26780192

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26558348

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26535224


The accusation was that the bed made people uncomfortable, which is reasonable reaction when coupled with various other kinds of things he did to make people uncomfortable. As far as I know, the original allegation was not that he was raping anyone, though given the overall idiocy of mankind I'm not surprised it mutated this way.

And not everyone was aware that he was living in that office, apparently.

Personally, I think cleaning up one's act in ways that in no way compromise one's (public) stances would have been a low cost for keeping the most cushy academic job I ever heard of.


"And not everyone was aware that he was living in that office, apparently."

I never met him and yet I knew. He is notorious for doing that.

I lived in my office for a few months, too, and the fact that you live there is pretty hard to hide from visitors. Starting with various small objects that do not fit into a normal office, ending with the fact that even with reasonable levels of hygiene the room tends to acquire a certain "human" smell, especially in the winter months when you can't just have the window open for most of the time.

RMS is a worldwide known weirdo. I can understand that his behavior in general might make people uncomfortable, but trying to label him as a rapist was way off.


> I never met him and yet I knew. He is notorious for doing that.

Met him once and that wouldn’t surprise me at all. He made a huge number of mistakes over his career and those eventually came back to haunt him. I’m not judging whether it’s fair or not, just acknowledging such things happen when you are a public figure.


"Came back to haunt him" is probably a good summary.

It's also much easier to believe bad things about someone if one has a foundation of lesser issues to build upon, and undeniably a lot of people had negative stories to say (and I'm not even going about the infamous foot episode)


You do, otherwise you would not have mentioned it. You are just perpetuating a childish rumor mill in my opinion.


It's way more known among people who were involved when FSF was a bigger force than it is now, but not anymore.


The privileged (finally I can use that word!) set of people having access to Stallman's office in MIT does not represent the free software movement in any way. The people who complained have most likely not contributed anything to free software.

Stallman's five stupid statements haven't impeded the free software movement in any way for decades. What actually harms the movement is corporate involvement by parasites and hypocrites, who are using social justice as a wedge to either take credit for projects they didn't write or to destroy the movement.


The complaints involving the office were mostly related to his job at MIT, which I referred to as the most cushy academic job I ever heard of for a good reason.

It was not really connected to his position in FSF (which I consider problematic on completely different, and irrelevant to this discussion, reasons), but for foundations PR is an important tool.


Yeah, people that have a problem with that make me more uncomfortable than a bed. I know RMS is a character, but if we have to exclude anyone, it has to be the person that made the complaint. I don't advocate for that, but it would be just as reasonable.

It astounds me that such arbitrary expectations are even considered. Should we invade Africa because some people don't cover up to our demands of decency?

I don't think doing something for others is a justification to behave badly, but this is out of line.


"...though given the overall idiocy of mankind I'm not surprised it mutated this way."

It seems to me that one of the most negative outcomes of modern communications is the leveling of the ability to be heard. These days, a person who would have normally earned respect through work and ability doesn't necessarily get heard or listened to, or commands more respect than any of the many empty vessels that frequent the internet and contribute to its cacophony of noise, and it's been especially so since the advent of social media.

It's this inability of many to differentiate between quality and junk that's largely at the heart of the Internet's problems. From my observation, it seems that rational logical thought has fallen to an all-time low and that misinformation, deliberate or otherwise, has reached such proportions in the online world that we're now seeing actual disruption to society in ways that we once would have thought impossible.

I'm of the opinion that one of the most important and central issues of recent times is the loss of factual accuracy along with the widespread lack of concern among many over integrity of information and that the consequential increase in entropy and disorder it's brought has been such that it has disrupted the normal discourse between humans to the extent that much of it has now become dysfunctional. We're now witnessing its effects: society has become so increasingly polarized over so many issues that we're starting to see the beginnings of societal breakdown and that this ought to be of great concern and thus a wakeup call.

What's at stake is nothing less than the cohesiveness of our society and that we humans need to tackle these undermining negative forces much more seriously than we have done previously by devoting considerably more time and effort into addressing them. Moreover, that will necessitate us doing so in smart and nuanced ways with degrees of sophistication that we've never previously applied to the problem.

The core issue is that modern communications and the internet have given many millions a voice that they would otherwise never have had - and that's a good thing, but unlike the media of yesteryear, that voice is largely unmoderated. Whilst the historical situation was far from perfect, at least in the past editors, et al, usually filtered out much of the dross.

Now that we've lost that first-line ability to filter we're left with the serious and difficult problem of having to filter out the 'idiocy' factor without disrupting or stopping the citizenry at large from having its say. Citizens still need to be able to put forward their ideas and points of view even if many are inaccurate or wacky. Any system that fails to let populace do so will be derided and marked with 'elitist' and 'censorship' flags, and thus it's ultimately doomed to failure.

Two key issues arise and need to be addressed:

1. We somwhow need to hold people responsible for statements they make online in that they need to be able to justify what they have said. Furthermore, the degree of accountability to which they should be subject should be commensurate with the scale and importance of their statements.

For example, someone who has made statements that defy all logic and sense or that are inconsistent with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and if widely believed could cause social disruption, would have to justify his/her position with solid evidence to the effect, and if unable to do so then he/she should be subject to sanctions. In essence, we need to foster a culture of accuracy and truthfulness and we need ways of enforcing them. For instance, someone who denies the holocaust would need overwhelmingly evidence to the effect and when [obviously] it wasn't forthcoming then he/she would be sanctioned accordingly.

That said, implementing any such scheme would be far from being simple and straightforward. For a myriad of reasons, many people genuinely hold whacky way-out ideas that are easily proven wrong by any reasonable analysis and simply sanctioning them from holding those beliefs isn't necessarily the best solution. Moreover, how we would go about differentiating between, say, a political activist who doesn't believe what he's saying but says it for political motives poses very significant problems.Thus, I'm under no illusion that by far the most difficult part of implementing any of these ideas will be in dealing with the fine minutiae.

2. You have a very relevant point about the 'idiocy of mankind'. Whilst I'd suggest some would use a milder description, we've very real problems whenever people launch wayward, inaccurate and or dangerous memes in that counteracting or neutralizing them once they're on the loose and in the wild usually proves nigh on impossible - witness the many problems experienced counteracting wacky ideas re vaccines/COVID, faked moon landings, etc., etc.

I'm not a behavioral scientist but it's clear to me that there's a very undesirable aspect of human nature which is that it's very easy for rumors and false ideas to take hold and spread like wildfire even when there's little or no justification or foundation for them, and when they do then it's essentially impossible to extinguish them. We see similar behavior in crowds going wild and with the decisions of lynch mobs who collectively, like lemmings, make terrible decisions that, upon reflection, very few individuals would ever make in isolation.

It seems that when certain ideas get on the loose that the crowd - that is the herd's collective IQ drops to well below that of individual cognition and it begins to act irrationality. Perhaps such behavior once conveyed an evolutionary advantage in say the way wildebeest are spooked and flee on mass upon seeing a lion. Clearly, nowadays such behavior in humans is very counterproductive. Given that we're not going to change human behavior anytime soon then this has to be factored into any solution. No doubt, how we'd go about 'engineering' such a solution to this human behavioral problem would be open to much debate and argument. For starters, the very notion that behavioral change is necessary would immediately raise the ire of many.

Quo vadis! The current laissez faire situation where fake news, false and dangerous ideas are spreading like wildfire across the internet is now so out of control that it has so polarized and endangered society that we've no longer the luxury of sitting back doing nothing and just accepting the status quo. Like it or not, unfortunate events and circumstances have forced us to act.

By now, you're probably thinking that my suggestions of trying to achieve behavioral change are so unrealistic that I must be living in cloud cuckoo land. Perhaps so, but let me finish. Granted, this would be no easy task but given that the most common medium for most people is social media then this is the place where we should begin, and we should attempt to use a carrot-and-stick approach to achieve it.

It's obvious that those running social media would never introduce the many extensive changes necessary to effectively implement such policies as there's little doubt that they would have a negative impact on the financial bottom line. This means that if we're ever to achieve any worthwhile change then governments would have to intervene and mandate them. Getting this to happen is also likely to be a very major challenge.

Finally, if you think my views are authoritarian, radically paternalistic, elitist or even Orwellian then I tend to agree, but I've certainly no intrinsic desire to hold such views. In essence, they've been forced on me though circumstance. The fact is I'm most uneasy about having arrived at such views as my natural worldview tends to fall into the libertarian camp albeit the libertarian left (which is very different to the libertarian right). Thus it's with reluctance I've adopted such radical views but as I've said they are born out of the need to act. And I believe that it's only when we actually achieve a cultural consensus - one wherein people feel embarrassed and ashamed after they've been caught and exposed spreading misinformation - that we'll then have regained any semblance order.

These are my first-pass ideas and I claim no monopoly on them. I only wish that many more of those who are worried would - to use that now antiquated phrase - commit pen to paper and contribute towards developing a solution. However, let's not fool ourselves in that none of these solutions will come easy, and it's likely they will be a longtime coming.


The issue was that RMS did not conform to some ideology and so he was bullied. The fact that he is wrong or right about his opinions it's not even relevant. We have normalized ad hominem attacks, amplified through social networks. Reputation was everything in medieval science and we are moving in that direction.


Ad hominem would be using his misbehavior to attack, say, the FSF. Noting the fact he regularly made his female coworkers (and not only coworkers) uncomfortable is not an ad hominem - it's a direct criticism of his attitudes.


Spreading falsehoods about a person is also called 'libel'.


Scott Aaronson is featured quite frequently on Hackernews. I feel like many will trust him even if he speaks in an emotionally charged way. But that being said, the article contains one concrete example in the foreword by Scott and another Post by someone who was fired from SA.


I'm pretty close to re-calibrating my trust levels to 'untrustworthy'.


For what? Do you too, find, the editorial framing E.O.Wilson as racist, 'insightful'?

Because that is the topic of his last blog entry.


The post linked to other critiques of the article in question (https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2021/12/30/scientific-america...), but seemed to be focused more on larger concerns about SA and a refusal to contribute to it any longer.

Might well be ranty and emotionally charged, but seems relevant enough to be of concern for this site.


The decline of Scientific American into pop science started much earlier than that. I'd peg it around 2000, when they changed the cover design and stopped running classic columns like "Mathematical Games" and "Amateur Scientist". The pop-science articles started ramping up around the same time.


Same thing with Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, science reporting was the first to go in the death of journalism. They were terrible 15 years ago, maybe people didn't notice until recently when they started bizarrely endorsing politicians like Biden and running CRT articles.


While I agree that the shared text is more on the "angry rant" side of things, the offending article does a more than sufficient job at discrediting itself without any external help.

With wonderfully absurd sentences like "the notion that differences among humans could be explained by genetics, inheritance *and other biological mechanisms* [emphasis added]", this article should not need any explaining as to why it should never have been published.


Agreed.

This seems to be a better reasoned critique:

https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2021/12/30/scientific-america...


Yes very eloquently put thanks for sharing!


Hmm..I didn't find it eloquent or better in any way than Scott's post. The only difference is quotations of the original article followed by "No, that's wrong" or "Are you serious!?".


I initially mis(?)read this post with SA = Scott Aaronson—I was mildly surprised at the implication that SA had a subscription service now, but it didn't seem too outlandish.

Turns out there two SAs to this story...


SA will always be Something Awful for me.


It's emotionally charged because the author is Ashutosh Jogalekar, who in the mid 2010's got himself fired from Scientific American as a blogger by praising the theories of a scientific-racism book:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/whats-going-o...

> Jogalekar praised the book, saying it confirms the need to “recognize a strong genetic component to [social and cognitive] differences” among racial groups.

It should be noted that Jogalekar is a chemist.

What did the people whose work Wade cited for his book say?

> "Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions and economic development. We reject Wade's implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not. We are in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade's conjectures."

Instead of keeping his head down, Ashutosh followed up shortly thereafter with a blog falling over himself to find reasons to excuse or explain Feynman's rampant history of womanizing and general asshole-ism:

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunctio...

...and then we have Jogalekar defending EO Wilson, whose book Sociology, proposed (in 1975) that human behavior was determined by genetics, was widely criticized as sympathetic to eugenics. Sound familiar?

Ask yourself this: why does Jogalekar keep defending authors of works that tread around scientific racism and eugenics?


Just because you call it "scientific racism" and "eugenics", doesn't mean it's wrong or untrue, just that you don't like it.


It absolutely is wrong and untrue, though, in addition to being racist. There being significant IQ differences between ethnicities/"races" that are caused by genetics is a long debunked theory; just look at the scientific discourse around something like "The Bell Curve".


It's very politicized, that makes it hard to judge who is doing real science and who is advancing a political agenda.

One thing I wonder is what makes intelligence "special" so that there are no differences, as compared to other physical traits where you do see differences between ethnicities?


> It's very politicized, that makes it hard to judge who is doing real science and who is advancing a political agenda.

The science is clear on this question, and has been for decades; there never has been any scientifically well-supported theory showing genetic causes for observable differences of IQ between ethnicities.

> One thing I wonder is what makes intelligence "special" so that there are no differences, as compared to other physical traits where you do see differences between ethnicities?

The position isn't even that there are no differences in IQ between populations; the well-supported scientific consensus is

a) IQ differences between individuals of a population are larger than between populations in the first place, and

b) IQ differences between populations are largely not caused by genetics.

Note that neither of these statements contradict the heritability of IQ, which a statistical effect.


> a) IQ differences between individuals of a population are larger than between populations in the first place, and

What does this mean? I assume I am interpreting it wrong, because it just seems like nonsense.

The fact that IQ differences between individuals in a population is larger than the alleged IQ differences between populations seems totally obvious. Any given population probably contains some disabled people and also some geniuses, for, let's say, a 50-point spread. But it would be a meaningful population-level difference if the average Finn was 100 but the average Swede was 110. Or are there people out there seriously arguing that there are peoples out there totally consisting of super geniuses or extremely disabled people?

If you mean that there’s no evidence of a difference in iq distribution in different populations, I think it’s clearer just to say that.


One particular (I think well founded) worry about the hereditarian position is that if genetic differences between ethnicities are admitted, people start thinking about stuff like, say, an active "blackness" that drags people down, and that they'd start insisting that every black person has to be dumb or something like that. That people would stop really meeting people as individuals (woke blank slatism, of course, has that exact effect already, which is partly why it sucks).

It's somewhat hard to get people to dispassionatedly understand that all the hereditarian position being true would mean that what differed between populations would be the counts of people with a certain levels of ability, and that's it. Dunk a smart black man, a smart white man, a smart East Asian and a smart Ashkenazi in green paint and you have four smart green men unburdened with any mystical force acting on their mental faculties.

Another possibility would be fears of things like "eh, they're dumb anyway" to justify giving up on people with a certain skin color because they won't achieve highly anyway, which would be heinous.


"Well-supported scientific consensus" and "scientifically well-supported theory" are doing a lot of work when the loudest enforcers of the "consensus" consistently operate in dishonesty for strategic reasons, see e.g. the 2019 Cofnas paper: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09515089.2019.16...


> there never has been any scientifically well-supported theory showing genetic causes for observable differences of IQ between ethnicities

I feel like this is the key to your argument, but I'm having a hard time understanding what you're trying to say. Theories don't show causes, they attempt to fit data into a mental model that can then be falsified or fail to be falsified.

Are you saying we should reject data because a satisfying theory hasn't been found yet? I don't agree with that principle. In my view, that seems analogous to rejecting the idea of gravity because we don't have a good theory of how it works, or that the data leading to the string theory hypothesis should be discarded because we can't test and falsify string theory.


And yet a recent study showed at least some is heritable. And this whole “between” populations nonsense doesn’t mean different populations have the same mean.


So some variation in IQ is caused by genetics, but to a very small degree compared to other factors. Am I interpreting (a) and (b) correctly?


Intelligence is very highly heritable, at least within populations.


Apparently yes, sound like the wage gap

  - differences between individuals of a population are larger than between populations in the first place
  - differences between populations are largely not caused by *sexism*


It makes no sense to posit that IQ differences between population have a different cause than IQ differences between individuals. Adoption raises the IQ by at most 5 points ! What environmental difference could have a much more dramatic effect than that (between population IQ difference are up to 15 pts) ?


> One thing I wonder is what makes intelligence "special" so that there are no differences, as compared to other physical traits where you do see differences between ethnicities?

IQ theory has the following problems:

1. Intelligence is not the same as height, as one of these is low-dimensional and mechanical, and the other is high-dimensional and very complex.

2. There are problems defining what intelligence is.

3. The "intelligence" as measured by IQ is problematic because it's engineered to follow a normal distribution. This then contradicts claims by IQ-ists that IQ predicts things which are very much non-normally distributed.

4. Many of the apparent successes of IQ theory can be explained by saying that low IQ relative to a surrounding population is indicative of a learning disability. This doesn't make higher-than-average IQ useful though.

5. People who score highly in IQ tests are interested in puzzles and seeing patterns in things. This is not necessarily a useful skill in real life, and may even be detrimental sometimes.

6. IQ-ists claim to be dispassionately following what the science says, but are generally incompetent at the fundamentals of science. For instance, they use measures of statistical association like Pearson Correlation Coefficient, which have been abandoned in all the hard sciences. These old-fashioned methods of statistical association are very brittle, and are easy to misuse. They appear to be ignorant of more modern and robust statistics. When their data has been checked using more modern methodology, their conclusions don't hold up.

7. IQ-ists claim to be dispassionately following what the science says, but their mistakes have serious consequences for people's lives. It can be used to justify racism and eugenics.


Good lord, listen to yourself.

> People who score highly in IQ tests are interested in puzzles and seeing patterns in things. This is not necessarily a useful skill in real life, and may even be detrimental sometimes.

Have you been outside in the last thirty years? "Real life" has been completely designed by people who are good at puzzles and patterns! Grocery store checkout machines, venture capital, social media, automobiles, the internet--all of these are puzzles and patterns. The better you are at puzzles and patterns, the better you'll be at "real life".

There is a difference between discussing the weaknesses of IQ theory and completely ignoring reality in favor of making sure you can't be accused of "racism or eugenics". You sound like someone in an authoritarian religious state making fervent declarations of whatever the parish is telling people to say. I agree that IQ does not exist, it is an abstract metric invented a while ago--but on the whole, people who score highly on IQ tests are going to have a much, much easier time succeeding in the modern puzzle-and-pattern reality.


Not disputing any of your other point but this one:

> 1. Intelligence is not the same as height, as one of these is low-dimensional and mechanical, and the other is high-dimensional and very complex.

Is way off. Height is influenced by a huge number of factors. It’s not just some simple genetic program.


I think you have their point a bit backwards: they're not saying the causes of height are simple, but rather that the output is simple to measure. If you measure 5 groups and one is 20% taller than the rest, that's pretty clear evidence of something. You get one simple number, one dimension.

Intelligence is much squishier because IQ is a suspect measure at best. If a group scores 20% higher on some intelligence test, is that because of genetics? Cultural focus on learning the specific skills measured by this test? A biased test? Completely different methods of testing being falsely compared? There's no real meterstick for intelligence like there (literally) is for height, so trying to extract a number you can throw into a statistical analysis is a lot more fraught, if it's possible at all.


Intelligence is absolutely trivial to measure. You just make a huge pile of tests of mental ability, the more the merrier. It won't be very sophisticated, but you have an intelligence test. Intelligence is so easy to measure in a rough way that people have accidentally built intelligence tests when they were trying not to.

A lot of the other critiques are at least somewhat suspect: Modern intelligence tests explicitly try to use tasks that you won't train yourself that much in in daily life and that try to eg. stress working memory capacity directly without testing for other skills. There's also evidence that training for some kind of skill like strategies for n-back numbers doesn't improve performance on similar tasks using letters, for example.

Yes, it is not as good of a measure as a tape measure is, everyone knows that. But saying it's suspect and not useful is kind of like saying computer benchmarking is worthless and won't tell a crap machine from a powerful one.


> they're not saying the causes of height are simple, but rather that the output is simple to measure.

By talking about the dimensionality, they are saying both.

I agree that measuring height is easier, but I disagree that it’s causally simpler, and that is frankly what matters.

Is someone taller because of genetics or nutrition? Is there a nutrition difference because of culture, or because of racism, or because of wealth or because of IQ? Etc. Etc.

> … if it's possible at all.

It sounds like you are someone who doesn’t believe intelligence can be measured.


That's fair. I think I actually remember reading somewhere that worldwide height is catching up with European height, and what was posited to be genetic differences was actually due to nutrition. Don't have a source at hand, though.

> It sounds like you are someone who doesn’t believe intelligence can be measured.

I'm certainly skeptical about the utility of IQ or any other test as a general measure of "intelligence", when what intelligence even means is an active matter of debate.


> I'm certainly skeptical about the utility of IQ or any other test as a general measure of "intelligence", when what intelligence even means is an active matter of debate.

That's partly because it's mythologized to hell and back, and people often turn to the lack of a definition given concisely in words as proof that we don't really know it.

But, g exists, we know its nature rather well, and being able to do hang on to that measure has enabled considerable detective work as to the physical underpinnings of it.

Most simply, I think treating it as a brain performance benchmark, just like you would for a computer, doesn't go very far wrong. It's variation in the general monkey brain blueprint we're all built from, and has physical correlates that imply it as a rather general measure of the brain's performance (it's eg. linked to faster average reaction times, which would make no sense for a measure of book-learning aptitude). So, more IQ = monkey with more CPU cycles and RAM, done. Zero mythology, zero romanticism, simple.

As one analogy, you could liken it to gravity: For the longest time we knew things fell down, we could measure that speed, etc. but we didn't know why things fell down. Then we made some theories, and then new ones, and then new ones. But we don't actually know the cause and the mechanism completely. We know mechanisms of how it acts and measures of how strongly, but stuff like a quantum mechanical theory of gravity is anyone's guess at this point.

All along that journey of discovery, we still knew a fundamental fact: Somehow things fell down. That observation is the anchor. In intelligence research, that observation is g.


> when what intelligence even means is an active matter of debate.

Is there anything in social science that isn’t an active matter of debate?


1 & 2 are very intertwined I think. Height just happens to be easily measured.

3. You mean because IQ is assumed to be normally distributed in a population? What are you thinking of when you say "This then contradicts claims by IQ-ists that IQ predicts things which are very much non-normally distributed."? I don't think IQ distributed normally means that you can't have non-normally distributed consequences in other areas?


I disprove you thusly: "IQ-ists"


Yes hmm I wonder what. I wonder if maybe there have been any events in the last century that would make people touchy about this.


> any events in the last century

Not sure which events specifically that you're referring to, but usually when somebody refers abstractly to "events in the last century", they mean the nazis. It's worth noting that the nazis themselves rejected IQ testing and theories as justifying "Jewish supremacy".


Actually I rewrote that comment to not refer to any specific events because I figured whichever one I chose someone would find a way to use it to invalidate the entire concern.

Anyway! The world isn't neatly divided into "pure Truth, delivered to us by Science" and "other things, which can be used to do harm."

This doesn't make potentially dangerous research subjects verboten or banned! But the people doing that research should have a solid understanding of who has an interest in their work, why, and what it may be used for. Having that understanding isn't "advancing a political agenda" I don't think.


> Having that understanding isn't "advancing a political agenda" I don't think.

You're reading a bit too much between the lines here. I didn't mean any specific side, I assume both sides engage in this so it's meant in a general sense.


Do you actually thing that the anti-IQ crowd is mad that the nazis (notoriously anti-IQ) lost WWII and that is the reason they are so touchy about this ?


As a Jew, I will tell you that the Nazis didn’t care about our IQ. Many Jews proudly used their brains to help Germany in WWI (Fritz Haber comes to mind) and yet arguably Germany lost because of the brain drain which led directly to our atomic bomb, among other things, that might have helped them.

They didn’t care about whether we could run a mile or win at athletics. It was ancient ethnic hatred only many centuries earlier based on religion.

Saying that different populations have different IQs could surely be a post how justification for that kind of hatred, but it could also be justification for amelioration of the non-genetic effects through social programs.


Right, and this is exactly my concern. Not that this sort of research will uncover new information that will make people form new prejudices. But that they will use this research to justify acting on the prejudices they already have.

I didn't mention nazis and they are just one example. If you pare away the context then sure, this could go either way, it could be used to reduce these divisions. But the history of scientific racism clearly shows another pattern.


And therefore we are all the same above the neck.


Among “races”? I think that’s debunked, but among populations?


What exactly is wrong and untrue, E. O. Wilson's work?


For me this page is marred by the downvoting. Can't we just be big boys and girls and realize that we won't agree with everyone else, that we don't need to warn others that there's something we don't agree with?


I also find the up/down voting to provide very little value.


You might find this interview with E.O. Wilson from 2004 interesting in connection with the discussion here, especially with respect to Gould and Lewontin. https://quillette.com/2021/12/29/speaking-with-e-o-wilson/


There’s a particular Scientific American article which gets trotted out in a certain popular culture war topic (which I will not name here as that’s not the point), ostensibly to prove that “the science is on my side”, but which is a hopeless pile of not-even-wrong which has clearly been constructed by starting with the conclusion and then cherry picking scientific-sounding parts-of-facts to support that conclusion.

It is science in reverse.

It is literally anti-science.


I read (not extremely closely, but better than skimming) Aaronson's foreword, the guest post, and the article in question; and I still don't know what about Wilson's work was supposedly "problematic". It's apparently something to do with the "nature vs. nurture" question, but I can hardly remember reading so many words with so little substance. For somebody not involved with the field (e.g. me), this omission of substance makes it very difficult to evaluate the merits of either perspective.

It also sets off some alarm bells, since it's difficult for an intellectually honest (edit: and competent) author to write on the order of a thousand words of evasive fluff and deem it suitable for publication.

OP's link aside, I don't think the SA article comes anywhere close to justifying its attack on Wilson ("racist ideas"), and the quoted bit regarding normal distributions is beyond the pale.


For those (like me) who haven't heard of the scientist at the heart of the offending article, have a read of https://www.theguardian.com/science/2001/feb/17/books.guardi...

This goes into some of the original accusations of racism he received in the 70s and the background behind them.

Quote:

They accused Wilson of sending human nature back to the concentration camps. Wilson isn’t a determinist who believes that life is purely mechanistic, and he isn’t right-wing - he remains a Democrat and fears the environmental worst from the George Bush presidency. Although Wilson argued that homosexuality might have a genetic element, he also argued that it was therefore natural and should be tolerated. But Gould was good-humoured and discursive, taking an apparently compassionate view of human nature, and Lewontin, a population geneticist who could show that racial differences are genetically tiny, added credence to charges of racism, even though Wilson hadn’t brought the subject up.

Did he think that his opponents were themselves guilty of prejudice? “They were, although they never admitted it,” Wilson says slowly, reaching for the words. “I came from the Old South, I was raised as a racist. I mean, we all were. It was only in my teens that I began to change. But here, if you were called racist - well, in the 70s it was like a death sentence.”


Lovely article and perhaps the first one that people new to Wilson's work, like me, should read. Having read it, I can't say that I came away thinking Wilson was racist, at all. If anything, it inspires me to try to be less emotionally charged when dealing with emotionally charged issues.


Twitter, nor apparently SciAm, is suited to dealing with nuanced, multifaceted issues.

Because invariably, people in the business of replying to short snippets with short snippets, will summarize someone's lengthy work in a short snippet.

And on the basis of reading that summarization alone, someone will have an opinion (and possibly even a reasonable opinion, with no other context available), and then you're into the problem of (1) convincing someone to change their public opinion & (2) arguing from different viewpoints (if one has read the entire work & the other has not but won't admit to not having done so).


> But here, if you were called racist - well, in the 70s it was like a death sentence.”

I find this argument really hard to buy because at the same time someone like Richard Lynn had a successful career despite being openly racist (talking about “caucasoids” vs “negroids” (or is it “congoids”? I'm not sure)


I would also be interested in hearing more on that. It doesn’t pass the smell test to me. Unless perhaps the bar for being perceived as racist in the 70s meant you were a literal klansman.


I read big portions of Sociobiology while taking a lot of evolutionary biology coursework in college. As stated in the guest post, the book primarily focuses on non-human animals so it's bizarre to me that McLemore is trying to make this about racism in humans without any quotes or anything to tie him to that. It's just an astoundingly poorly written article that SA shouldn't have published for that reason alone.

But I suspect they're employing the same strategy that The Washington Post and others use - post intentionally inflammatory guest op-eds and profit from the influx of clicks.


Your characterization of the book does not square, even remotely, with Wikipedia's.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._O._Wilson#Sociobiology:_The...

Or that of EO Wilson himself: "the hypothesis that human nature has a genetic foundation"

https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/12/06/s...


he just say human are not differ to animals, but usually department of biology will not concern social biology of human


Here is a publication of the SA article's author in which she and her co-author explain their "default human" critique in more detail (linked in the SA article).

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2021.6757...

I only skimmed the text. The normal distribution isn't mentioned, but if you combine the SA article with this text (which is linked in the SA article as a reference for her normal distribution critique), it gives the impression that the author somehow thinks that the normal distribution is intentionally "engineered" / "used" as a tool of suppression.


Wait what the hell?

Someone should tell the author that normal distribution is a property of the central limit theorem: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_limit_theorem

Take 10, 6-sided dice. Roll them all and sum the total. Do it many times and you’ll see a normal distribution magically emerge out of nothingness.


That article seems like a cobbled together thesis based on radical Marxism and Tweets from random people.

And this author is a Professor of Nursing at UCSF?

This is a person teaching our next generation of healthcare workers?


"That article seems like a cobbled together thesis based on radical Marxism and Tweets from random people."

Pretty much describes journalism profession today. A jumble of fallacies suspended in a soiled tissue of pseudo-consensus.

I'm sure conditions will improve as a new batch of journalists re-aligns the profession with reality.


Are nurses known for being scientifically literate? My daughter has a friend who is a nurse that worked at a hospital throughout the pandemic. She is convinced that Covid is a hoax and has thrown anti-mask parties at her house.


My understanding is that Florence Nightingale was a solid statistician, of course that's just one data point

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Nightingale#Statistic...


If this was a random nurse I might agree. But this person is a professor at UCSF.


There's a "References" section where the authors list numerous things having nothing to do with radical Marxism and tweets.

You're crusading real hard in this thread, maybe take it down a notch.


> I still don't know what about Wilson's work was supposedly "problematic".

To oversimplify slightly, his detractors have a deep ideological commitment to the blank slate theory of human development, largely because it implies human behaviour is socially determined and not biologically determined. They believe that if we accept that human behviour is influenced by our genes, it follows that that certain negative human behaviours like racism and sexism will be excused as natural and therefore permissible. Most people can agree that those behaviours are undesirable, but instead of arguing that we can overcome our genetic heritage, blank slate adherents argue that biology has no significant impact on human behaviour and anyone who thinks it does is a racist and a step away from being a Nazi-style eugenicist.


Behavioral geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden receives similar criticism for having the temerity to suggest that genes play some statistically significant role in individual behavior. I don't understand why it has to be all or nothing. Surely the reasonable position is that both genes and environment have an intertwining role to play, and we can measure some of that across various psychological studies combined with genetic profiles, on a statistical basis. Paige was on Julia Galef's Rationally Speaking podcast, and her work sounds completely reasonable and hardly controversial.

Unless one is ideologically committed to an all or nothing view on genes.


So, I'll bite. Maybe this is a poor decision given the tenor of the comments here but I'll try to give a contrasting view.

Notwithstanding her personal experiences, the position that Harden adopts is somewhat of a strawman, and a favorite of those in the behavior genetics community as it allows them to sidestep problems in the field and draw attention to their own research. I think there's some overlap between the blind spots this entails and what the SA article is pointing to. I say this as someone who studied behavioral ecology (basically sociobiology) in college, and has done research in this area as well as behavior genetics.

Before you proceed to comment on Harden, or Wilson, or the SA piece, ask yourself this question: what experimental evidence is there that some gene-based approach to a given sociobehavioral problem in humans in general provides a powerful, rigorous solution to that problem?

The answer is pretty obvious.

I'm not raising this question to play some methodological "gotcha" card. I think this is a case where the lack not only of experimental evidence, but of a scientific culture that avoids the pursuit of such evidence, says as much about the evidentiary basis of the claims, but also the motives and general orientation toward the problems being discussed.

That is, not only is there a lack of experimental evidence regarding sociobiological claim X, Y, or Z in humans as a scientific matter, but the field and its explanations have a paradigm that avoids manipulation or changes of these things as an implicit ideal. The problem that critics have with Harden isn't the focus on genes as explanatory mechanisms, it's the lack of experimental evidence for her claims, and a perspective that sees genes as fixed and as something to be "worked around". Typically in such research you have a model that asserts some "general genetic background" in an individual that has longstanding effects, without specifying such effects or doing any research to mitigate such effects biologically.

Take research on educational achievement for example. In Harden's paradigm, the point is to identify individuals based on generic "black box" genetic risk (yes, polymarker risk is black box), and to tailor their educational curriculum and vocational planning around this, to better match their identity. However, if you really truly believed some genetic risk factors were in play, wouldn't you work to mitigate those genetic factors biologically? Via drugs, attempting to outline neurobiological pathways, or whatnot? What about the risk of labeling such individuals incorrectly? Is there any benefit in using "genetics" as an explanatory perspective for an individual, beyond historical status? Research suggests you get the same outcomes if you just use past performance instead, without any assumptions about causality. And there are individuals whose trajectories are anomalous with regard to genetic explanation. Shouldn't we be focused on understanding that?

Where this dovetails with criticisms of Wilson is a similar kind of genetic predestination paradigm. Maybe Wilson wasn't deterministic per se, but that's strongly implied by his theories. Even within the field of behavioral ecology, there was a sort of shift toward more cognitive and general-function models that allowed for greater flexibility in behavior.

By the point Wilson published his Sociobiology text, it should have been apparent to anyone wading into the literature on human behavior that there were certain sandpits to avoid. Not just politically, but theoretically as well. And this is the racism being referred to. It's an insensitivity to sociocognitive-cultural factors that are paramount in understanding human behavior, at a time when this should have been abundantly clear to anyone studying behavior.

It's telling that the responses to claims of racism made in the SA piece are along the lines of "but Wilson was such a kind person" and "such an environmentalist" as if it's not possible to be a strong environmental advocate and racist at the same time. In fact, this is a classic rhetorical device in defenses of racism, regardless of the truth of any claims about Wilson per se.

I have respect for Wilson, and think there's a lot about his career to learn from in our current age (note his Wikipedia page says nothing about grant dollars, only his ideas and writings). I do not want to say that Wilson as a person was racist, as I that's a dangerous game to play. I also don't want to defend the SA piece as some pinnacle of writing. But I also don't think the SA piece is entirely unreasonable, and regardless of how one characterizes Wilson as a person, I think there's a fair argument that sociobiology as a paradigm as applied to humans is racist, if for no other reason that it explicitly ignores the sociocultural context critical to understanding human experience. You can handwave about this and say "well sociobiology isn't meant to explain everything" but aren't cognitive-cultural phenomena the crux of its limitations? Would that have really been nonobvious in 1975?


> what experimental evidence is there that some gene-based approach to a given sociobehavioral problem in humans in general provides a powerful, rigorous solution to that problem?

The same empirical issues come up with cultural causes. If I recall correctly, Harden says that family income has a 15-20% impact on educational achievement, which is about the same range for genes responsible for intelligence. Or something along those lines. Basically, there are both cultural and genetic factors that can be measured has having some percentage likelihood of influence. To the extent we can rely on such studies. Which again is an empirical issue with reliably understanding something as complex and hard to control for as human behavior. So if one says we can't empirically do that for genes, I don't know why the cultural factors would fare much better.

> I think there's a fair argument that sociobiology as a paradigm as applied to humans is racist, if for no other reason that it explicitly ignores the sociocultural context critical to understanding human experience.

What makes humans so special that genes wouldn't have an influence on behavior? I also don't understand why that position is racist. Genes clearly have an influence on other biological traits. Are we treating the brain as a non-biological entity? Is human culture so different from anything other animals do, that it makes genetic factors obsolete?

> You can handwave about this and say "well sociobiology isn't meant to explain everything" but aren't cognitive-cultural phenomena the crux of its limitations?

It should explain what it can and no more. Same with culture influences. The problem is thinking that it can only be one or the other, otherwise <insert bad thing that happened in the past>.


> what experimental evidence is there that some gene-based approach to a given sociobehavioral problem in humans in general provides a powerful, rigorous solution to that problem?

So Down’s Syndrome is socially constructed?

As for it being a straw man, you’re literally writing that in a thread about someone taking a maximalist position like that.


… but also, at the same time, sexual orientation is predetermined genetically (“born this way”) and isn’t socially influenced in any way at all.


I think you forgot the nine months spent in the pre-natal environment.


The pre-natal environment isn't socially determined. It's part of the organism's biological development.


It's partially environmental, and therefore can be socially correlated. We know of many conditions that are caused by changes in pre-natal environment (e.g. folic acid deficiency in the mother causes neural tube defects). Genes you don't get to pick, but everything that happens after fertilization is absolutely impacted by the external environment in many ways.


The ongoing debate is culture versus biology, with genes being the focus on the biological side. The prenatal environment isn't cultural, although some cultural factors can play a role in the mother's health. Biological factors are always mixed in with the environment, but that doesn't mean the environment in terms of human culture is 100% the determining factor for behavior.


But it accounts for things that seem to be there from birth yet cannot be explained purely by genetics.


Good summary. It seems to me that from a scientific perspective that having a deep ideological commitment to a given position - no matter what that position is - isn't desirable for all the obvious reasons: bias, negative impacts on truth, accuracy, etc. With ideology having now entered the debate, any chance reaching a common consensus will be greatly prolonged.

As discussion and debate over gene expression has been in the high-stakes category both in the scientific community and across much of humanity for decades it would ultimately make sense to get to the scientific truth of the matter. If it eventuates and we learn for certain that human genes are in fact able to express themselves in ways that the vast majority of us humans now find morally repugnant and that such expression manifests in actual behaviour then as a species we'd be forced to deal with the problem head-on rather than sweep it under the carpet (as we now seem to be doing).

I've little doubt that those who 'believe that if we accept that human behviour is influenced by our genes, it follows that that certain negative human behaviours like racism and sexism will be excused' are acting from the highest moral motives but to personally denigrate and malign the character of researchers who genuinely report scientific research that purportedly shows negative or undesirable gene expression is, in my opinion, extremely counterproductive.

For starters, character assassinations of the type we're now seeing are very likely to deter scientists from entering this field of research or that they ignore researching the field altogether—or perhaps worse—researchers out of fear of being vilified then fail to report the actual findings of their research. I've little doubt that such events have happened in recent decades. Moreover, it's very likely that the character assassinations that have occurred in recent years have been deliberately targeted to deter researchers from pursuing such research and also to persuade funding bodies to deny funding of any such research. After all, a researcher would have to have considerable fortitude and resilience to continue in the light of such attacks on his/her character.

Tragically, in the current political climate, it is just not possible to have a sensible nuanced discussion about race, human intelligence, etc. without one's opponents immediately raising the 'racist' moniker and this has been the situation for many decades. Whilst it was very necessary to debunk the dangerous racist propaganda from the 1930s and earlier, stifling discussion on these matters altogether in the sense that it's now politically incorrect to even raise or discuss them will eventually likely lead to dangerous outcomes—outcomes that could come with nasty unintended consequences.

Moreover, the reticence to discuss matters of race openly and honestly, the repression of gene research information and the vilification of researchers who report or discuss findings contrary to acceptable political orthodoxy is not unique to this field of endeavour. We are not only witnessing similar repression of ideas across many endeavours but especially so in other areas of science—for instance 'facts' concerning COVID-19 and climate change no longer need be based on scientific truth but 'adjusted' to suit the prevailing politic.

I have a foreboding feeling that we seem to be returning to a time not dissimilar that of Galileo's when the Inquisition would send one to prison for possessing or espousing view outside the accepted orthodoxy. The fact that one's views were factually correct being both irrelevant and immaterial in the decision to impose sentence.


Never mind "returning", I think we have returned to a time when unorthodox views are actively suppressed.


Unfortunately, I think you are correct. If I had to pick a time when this became obvious to me it was between one and two decades ago when both university establishments and students started ostracizing and even removing lecturers and professors from their positions for their political or unorthodox views.

When I was at university which was quite some decades before that time it was almost the norm for students to have different political and social views to many of the teaching staff - for that was one of the unstated parts of a student's development.

However, these differences never descended into the depths of personal animosity that we're seeing today. Instead, constant tension been youthful student culture and establishment norms resulted in a cross fertilization of ideas and it formed a substantial part of how students developed into mature individuals. Traditionally, one of the most valuable aspects of students' lives was that they were constantly saturated with many differing and challenging ideas that were outside their core curricula. Debates often followed that further forced students to think in rigorous ways if for no other reason than one had to analyze the diversity of ideas to arrive at a sensible or logical conclusion.

(I'd go as far as saying that what I learned outside the curriculum largely formed me into the person I am today, especially so my worldview, for without this constant interaction with others that view would now be much narrower.)

Back then, it would have been almost unthinkable that teaching staff would have been dismissed for having or stating political or unorthodox views, as there was a well accepted and longstanding understanding that a university was a place where ideas had 'universality' - hence the very term university. Universities were places where we not only cultivated both traditional and new ideas but also where we examined them and argued over their importance. Arguing over ideas honed one's cognitive ability and thus was encouraged. These days, if one puts an 'alterative' view or one that's deemed unacceptable to mention - even if mentioned in quotes or just as a hypothetical - then one is suspect or automatically comes under suspicion and is thus subject to criticism and attack even to the extent that one's career can be seriously damaged or put into jeopardy. Again, once not that many decades ago such unacceptable behavior was almost unheard of.

Nevertheless, universities are just a microcosm of the broader culture and the breakdown in their culture and social fabric that we're now seeing is also occurring across society at large. Nowadays we're witnessing not only a loss of tolerance for alternative views and ideas but also that this intolerance often develops into outright hostility towards those who entertain or espouse alternative ideas even if they deviate only marginally from the accepted orthodoxy. It's as if we're entering an age not unlike those nasty times of heightened religious sectarianism where each orthodoxy was utterly immutable and set in stone.

One doesn't have to be a genius to realize that if one doesn't want to be on the receiving end of hostilities then one should keep one's views to oneself. No further extrapolation is needed to see that such pressures lead to an overall narrowing of ideas together with a reduction in their diversity.

What I've learned from this is how quickly things can go bad or change for the worse. That the Enlightenment took over from the Middle Ages and that it led to the betterment of millions of lives over the next few centuries is no guarantee that humankind will continue to improve this way into the future.

Intolerance towards alternative ideas and lack of concern for facts and the truth ought to be a wake-up call to every thinking individual. That said, what I remain most perplexed about is why philosophers and the best thinkers of our time remain so mute about these issues especially so the reasons for why we arrived in this deplorable situation at all. It seems to me they should be shouting loudly about them at every possible opportunity.


Aren't most of those things testable?

No scientist can choose to believe something is true because it favors the left-wing agenda. Or the right wing for that matter. It's the definition of un-scientific thinking.

Now, some topics are extremely charged and one has to be extremely careful on how to present the data not to stir the nest of hornets in either direction.


People do what they have to do to preserve themselves, their minds and world views. This includes allowing themselves to be brainwashed into believing nonsense if it's necessary to survive.

Scientists are no different. If falsifying results or avoiding certain research areas is what is needed to keep your career - and stay alive - then that's what they will do.

It's not a new phenomena, see e.g. Galileo. Arguably the most extreme case of this was in Stalin's Soviet Union, hence the term Lysenkoism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysenkoism) for "deliberate distortion of scientific facts or theories for purposes that are deemed politically, religiously or socially desirable."

We are thankfully nowhere near the extremes of Stalin's murderous regime. No one is going to put a bullet in anyones skull if they publish anything saying men are better than women, or anything about "race". But, if they do, regardless of if the research is absolutely perfect, there is still a definite risk to employment. How many institutions or companies would employ someone controversial? How many people would self-censor to avoid the controversial? Water down what they found etc? In general risk what puts bread on their table? For my money, if that doesn't limit the spread of ideas and search for truth what does?


The long answer to your question can be found in Pinker's "Blank Slate". In a nutshell: the nature/nurture discussion went off the rails after WWII. 'Scientific' racism and eugenics had culminated in the Holocaust. One generation later (i.e. 60s and 70s), a strand called "radical science" had emerged (in the US) that was into deconstruction of ideas. They creatively came up with the assertion than any notion of human nature was the bedrock of racism and eugenics.

When Wilson published "Sociobiology" and mainly talked about non-human animals, they lost their shit completely. All of research, science, and academia, they asserted, was more a negotiation of power distributions than an honest attempt to make sense of the universe. The most aggressive tactic in that sphere was research on the nature of humans. Another generation later (90s), some of those "radical scientists" had secured tenure and made it their gig to teach creative deconstruction and cancel culture to students (yes, for real in the 90s). Pinker's book is from 2002, but you know the rest of the story.


All of research, science, and academia, they asserted, was more a negotiation of power distributions than an honest attempt to make sense of the universe.

Precisely. The approach seems more “ends justifies the means”. If your entire political theory depends on outcomes being socially determined, not genetically, then any science counter that must be attacked by whatever means necessary.


I was in college in the 90s and we called it PC. It was a thing, but it was mostly confined to campuses and adjacent places.


Like you, I was confused by this whole thing. In my mind Wilson is slotted next to Attenborough as a kind and knowledgeable naturalist environmentalist. The only controversy I knew associated with him was his claim that skill with math is not necessary to be a great scientist.

What I could piece together:

People didn't like that he supported the idea that genetics has a large influence on personality, behavior or intellect, a genetic leash as he called it (he also argued against free will). I suppose the fact that Evolutionary Psychology (which is susceptible to just-so stories) derives from Sociobiology is also enough for current people to unfairly accuse him of promoting racism.

Something surprising I learned from all this is cancellations, de-platforming and campus protests of certain ideas already existed way back in the 60s and 70s! The only difference with today is increased connectivity and mass.

> In the ’60s and ’70s it became almost dogma — it was a dogma — to believe that the human brain was a tabula rasa, a blank slate. I don’t think scholars in this generation, even those of middle age, can appreciate how stern was the prohibition against believing that human behavior was influenced by genes in any manner whatsoever.

> But I really was upset at being called a racist, promoting racism and sexism. I was accused of trying to reintroduce a retrograde, outmoded, dangerous philosophy. There was nothing in “Sociobiology” to suggest such a thing. The words had to be taken out of context and tweaked.

> On one occasion, I had a little mob in Harvard Square parading and protesting and holding placards demanding that Harvard dismiss me. On another occasion, when I was to give a lecture at the Science Center, a crowd of protesters gathered at the entrance with signs and shouts and chants and so on. I was ushered in through the rear by University police. My class was disrupted at least once.

---

The SciAm article spent only a few words on Wilson. It instead seemed to really want to air disagreements on how health studies are carried out and IMO, was sloppy in its attempt to shoehorn Wilson in. It would probably have worked better as a stand alone piece on how poverty impacts on health outcomes are ignored.

---

Sources:

https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2014/04/search-until-...

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sociobiology

https://old.reddit.com/r/math/comments/1bwoeg/e_o_wilson_vs_...


Another article posted here, defending Wilson, states that he himself later agreed his work was sexist.

So we may need to add specific dates to quotes about him being hounded for "nothing" or it'll not make much sense.

> He acknowledges one charge as having validity, the accusation from more thoughtful feminists that he had over-simplified the role of women. “As time has gone on two things have happened,” he says. “One is that we are vastly better informed about gender differences, their genetic and physiological bases, right down to fine- tuning of hormonal regulation of behaviour. Another thing is that scientists like Sarah Hardy have been able to demonstrate a far greater richness of female flexibility in reproductive strategies. It’s far more subtle and sophisticated than we anticipated. The theory in the 70s was that women were more passive, judging between male capacities, but now we know that women are vastly more powerful than that in establishing relationships

So that's a 2001 quote from a positive article interviewing 71 year old Wilson.

Presumably we've not learned anything about the genetics or other aspects of race since the 70s and so all his theories on that are still valid and anyone who disagreed was totally unreasonable, like the less thoughtful feminists.

Oh and your article, is 3 years later, and in which he returns to it all being a big misunderstanding, that he was technically right and invented "evolutionary psychology" but he just needed to add a disclaimer that although he said that women were genetically designed to act the way his society wanted them to, and not like some of them claimed they wanted to behave, that didn't mean his society was right and they were wrong. But he won a Pulitzer, so he was right and they were wrong.

Glad we cleared this up.


So on the one side, we have an article where a (then still alive) scientists admit that their initial hypotheses were incomplete and possibly influenced by social factors.

On the other, we have an article attacking a (now dead) scientist for endorsing fundamental concepts that not even the article itself dares to call incorrect.

If anything, the first situation displays strength of character that should be taken as proof that he is capable of introspection where needed, which would make him more trustworthy as a scientist.

The latter shows nothing more than the bad attempt of a racist individual to rewrite science to better suit their hateful world-view wherein people of one skin-colour could never see the whole picture due to their inherent cognitive characteristics and fundamental concepts of mathematics are still subjective.


The issue is most people coming to this are lacking in context, on whose details it seems all sides are not willing to be forthcoming.

When I searched I could not find anything that could be pointed at to justify his being labelled racist. The example you point out is an instance of the just-so type stories I mentioned. It would have been more helpful if the SciAm article had gone into detail with examples like that, pointing out relevant and topical flaws and gaps in his reasoning.

The criticism section of the plato page I linked to goes into some detail and ideas of his relying on group selection can be instantly marked as suspect. It's a shame because if the article had been more on-topic, resulting conversation could have been more substantial.


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