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An open letter on E.O. Wilson's legacy

An open letter on E.O. Wilson's legacy

163 comments

·January 19, 2022

mudil

I came from the Soviet Union and these kinds of debates smell like 1937, like Lysenkoism, like Soviet doctors trials, etc etc. On one hand we have scientists that are probing the nature of reality and on the other we have politically opportune believers slash do-gooders, ready to paint the science on a political canvas, hurting the science, the scientists, and the progress itself.

mannerheim

It is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution.

Liu Cixin lived through that period, which inspired one of the scenes he wrote in the Three Body Problem. In it, a physics professor is submitted to a struggle session by his students for teaching counter-revolutionary science (relativity and quantum mechanics) and beaten to death.

While this story is fictionalised, it certainly was no exaggeration of the climate at the time.

no_butterscotch

That scene really stuck out to me when I read it. It enraged me. It reminds me of some of the "softer" floggings going on today when Professors won't adhere to the new collectivism of our University system.

jahnu

I find these comparisons unhelpful.

What happened in China during the Cultural Revolution is on such a different level of awfulness it just isn't even the tiniest bit comparable to anything controversial or problematic happening in West right now. Even today what is happening in China, and even the freer parts like Hong Kong, is still far removed from issues in the West. Even as a "thin end of the wedge" argument it's just weak.

It hurts legitimate and necessary criticism of actual authoritarian countries and it hurts legitimate and necessary criticism of real issues (such as that raised in the article above) in free, Western countries.

PaulDavisThe1st

> It is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution.

That's right. People are being beaten to death, locked up in labor camps, mysteriously vanished and worse, all because they don't bow down to people who think there are different metrics worth using at least some of the time when judging science (or anything else). It's absolutely terrifying!

etangent

You make an excellent point. Let's wait until people are actually beaten to death and imprisoned (and not just one, like a good few thousands of them!), and only then start complaining.

tablespoon

>> It is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution.

> That's right. People are being beaten to death, locked up in labor camps, mysteriously vanished and worse, all because they don't bow down to people who think there are different metrics worth using at least some of the time when judging science (or anything else). It's absolutely terrifying!

FYI, "reminiscent" does not mean "exactly identical in all respects."

"Rebuttals" like yours are obnoxious, because you can always find some difference in a comparison. If there's some merit to the comparison, you shouldn't try to knock it down as you did. You've accurately noted that the current social justice movement lacks the violence of the Cultural Revolution, but that does not mean it doesn't have other similarities. IIRC, it was far more common for the Red Guards to harass their opponents than it was for them to beat and kill them.

mannerheim

It is reminiscent in the sense that it represents the subordination of reason to ideology in a broad social movement, and one that comes from the bottom up, rather than top down, as the case of Lysenkoism may be (or at least seem).

The activists have not taken to beating to death landlords, but that is only a function of their not possessing the same level of social support as Red Guards did, but even without that they are capable of some level of harm. Don't mistake the lack of violence from a wolf in a cage as evidence of its benignity.

zozbot234

> It is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution.

It's quite literally a mindless zombie remnant of the actual Cultural Revolution ideology of Lin Biao and the criminal Gang Of Four. That whole ideological memeplex was taken up by young radical leftists throughout the West in the late 1960s and 1970s. A generation has passed, and now those leftist students have grown up and become respected "liberal" and "progressive" leaders. Do the math, it's not rocket science.

publicola1990

Not just that, see how Louis Aggasiz's reputation is being hounded down in recent years. Renaming schools and pulling down statues of him.

throwoutway

If you’re going to mention that then Id also have to mention these “do-gooders” renaming Abraham Lincoln schools… of all the presidents to cancel..

hownottowrite

The end of that chapter had me in tears.

fastball

> It is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution.

Which is not at all surprising given how many young people in the West like to style themselves as Marxists.

scroot

Is your position that the adopting of a Marxist analytical framework necessarily leads to phenomena like the Cultural Revolution?

hilbert42

"I came from the Soviet Union and these kinds of debates smell like 1937, like Lysenkoism, like Soviet doctors trials, etc etc."

I reckon you're correct. Unfortunately, it seems we are again entering an age when opponents of those with views or ideas attack the actual person rather than debate the ideas themselves.

We could been forgiven for thinking that this was just a passing phase when such attacks ocured in social media, Facebook etc., but when an associate professor who holds a very prominent and responsible position in public life and who uses the pages of Scientific American to attack an eminent person who is now dead and who can no longer defend himself, then I'd say such attacks are here to stay.

Most thinking people would find such attacks abhorrent. How we change the public discourse back to a more even keel is an unanswered question.

YeBanKo

The political opportune believer is this case is Associate Professor of Family Health Nursing at the University of California, San Francisco. UCSF is one of the top ranked in medical field. It does not merely smell like the Soviet Union, when ideology can be successfully used to attack scientific opponents and, maybe, even within top scientific institution, it is the Soviet Union.

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.

When she so casually misinterprets normal distribution in medical application in SciAm, what stop her from brining this notion into the classroom. And this is how we end up with Lysenkovschina, but in medicine instead of agriculture.

pron

The debate around Wilson's ideas is not new, nor is it one of scientists on one side vs "do-gooders" on the other. E.O. Wilson was accused of lending support to scientific racism since the seventies, including by fellow distinguished scientists and Wilson't colleagues at Harvard, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/12/06/s...

slibhb

Gould and Lewontin weren't debating. They were engaging in academic politics.

Arguing that an idea is wrong because it "lends support to scientific racism" is unscientific. To argue against an idea, demonstrate why it's wrong or offer a better alternative. "That's racist" is neither a scientific argument nor a serious one.

PaulDavisThe1st

> Arguing that an idea is wrong because it "lends support to scientific racism" is unscientific.

Since racism is itself not a scientific concept, arguments about this sort of thing are inherently never going to be scientific, but rather always political/philosophical. There's absolutely nothing wrong with Gould, Lewontin (or Wilson) engaging in such debates, which are as at least as important (and possibly more directly impactful) than the scientific ones.

Political/philosophical debates do not involve questions of demonstrable "right" or "wrong", but rather are a stage for beliefs about the world and different notions of utility. You don't settle them by "demonstrating why it's wrong", or by "offering a better idea".

pron

That's not quite right. The problem with sociobiology or evolutionary psychology etc. is that it's either barely scientific to begin with, or has a scientific basis that is then prone to very unscientific extrapolations. I.e. some stages in the argument and or presentation are not scientifically established, and because they might lend support to scientific racism, people must be careful in presenting them or be partly responsible for how what they're saying is used. The criticism was levelled at Wilson's popular books, that made, according to other scientists, various leaps that weren't quite scientifically established.

VictorPath

> academic politics

You see, Wilson, like Gallant in Highlights magazine cartoons, was someone who looked at the evidence, and used logic and the scientific method to lead him to his conclusions. He only sought the truth. Which in his case, was that the white race is superior to the black race.

Gould and Lewontin were like Goofus. They were just engaging in academic politics.

Easy case to win when one side is all science and logic and the other is "political". Not sure why everyone hasn't come around.

nkurz

If anyone is interested in a book length treatment covering the controversy surrounding Wilson's Sociobiology, I can highly recommend a book that came out in 2000: "Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond", by Ullica Segerstrale. It's out-of-print, and never was very popular, but it's one of my favorite things to have ever read. Here's an overview:

When Edward O. Wilson published Sociobiology, it generated a firestorm of criticism, mostly focused on the book's final chapter, in which Wilson applied lessons learned from animal behavior to human society. In Defenders of the Truth, Ullica Segerstrale takes a hard look at the sociobiology controversy, sorting through a hornet's nest of claims and counterclaims, moral concerns, metaphysical beliefs, political convictions, strawmen, red herrings, and much juicy gossip. The result is a fascinating look at the world of modern science.

Segerstrale has interviewed all the major participants, including such eminent scientists as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard C. Lewontin, Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, Nobel Laureates Peter Medawar and Salvador Luria, and of course Edward Wilson. She reveals that most of the criticism of Wilson was unfair, but argues that it was not politically motivated. Instead, she sees the conflict over sociobiology as a drawn-out battle about the nature of "good science" and the social responsibility of the scientist. Behind the often nasty attacks were the very different approaches to science taken by naturalists (such as Wilson) and experimentalists (such as Lewontin), between the "planters" and the "weeders." The protagonists were all defenders of the truth, Segerstrale concludes, it was just that everyone's truth was different.

It's available in some university libraries, used from Amazon for about $60, or as a PDF from here: https://b-ok.cc/book/2325442/6946b3.

l-_l-_l-_lo_ol

Let it be known Lewontin was a Marxist and as such abhorred nature over nurture. A blank slate is essential to Marxist philosophy.

afpx

Luckily, in the US, we have constitutional rights and a long history of open debate.

But, I'm curious. What would have helped the Soviet Union from forming? Was there a solution?

HideousKojima

>But, I'm curious. What would have helped the Soviet Union from forming? Was there a solution?

Large-scale invasion by the rest of Europe in support of the White Army, potentially. Hard to imagine Europe having the stomach for it after WW1 though.

acdha

> On one hand we have scientists that are probing the nature of reality and on the other we have politically opportune believers slash do-gooders,

This false dichotomy is key to the false comparisons with Lysenkoism, etc. E. O. Wilson did not represent all scientists even during his working career and many of the people criticizing him are also scientists using their scientific expertise. The author of the Scientific American piece 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.” — hardly a political apparatchik. Some of the most outspoken criticisms of his work came from Richard C. Lewontin (a population geneticist) and Stephen Jay Gould (a paleontologist).

Similarly, Razib Khan is someone who is at least comfortable using his expertise in forums which do not shy away from race politics — for example, he lost a contract writing for The New York Times when his regular contributions to Taki's Magazine, a very conservative venue which was at least neo-Nazi-adjacent (Richard Spencer was the managing editor). That doesn't mean that we should dismiss Khan's writing entirely but we should recognize that he's a human rather than the objective voice of science and his work also needs to be read with an understanding of how his political positions influence it.

naasking

> The author of the Scientific American piece 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.” — hardly a political apparatchik.

Hardly Wilson's peer either, and the article shows this quite clearly.

> Some of the most outspoken criticisms of his work came from Richard C. Lewontin (a population geneticist) and Stephen Jay Gould (a paleontologist).

Yes, criticisms of the substance and inferences like any good scientist would focus on, not thinly veiled accusations of racism.

VictorPath

> Hardly Wilson's peer either

Wilson's peers were people who studied ants and other insects, or maybe people who write popular science.

If he wants to jump into his views of the human brain, she is as much a peer as he is.

acdha

> Hardly Wilson's peer either, and the article shows this quite clearly.

Whether you find her politically correct isn’t relevant to the topic at hand: she’s clearly qualified to participate in a scientific discussion.

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atdrummond

I fear articles like this rarely serve their purpose and sadly not due to any inherent weaknesses in the presentation or arguments. Rather, they rarely land in front of the people who disagree with the contention held within. Instead, they tend to be nearly exclusively read by those who agree. When said pieces do land in front of those holding alternate views, invariably it is by the propagandists and those whose views are forged in iron. The individuals who might be convinced inevitably avoid such articles thanks to the filtering power of today's social media platforms and the dogged pursuit and (not always successful, I'll admit) elimination of such essays from news feeds and sometimes even search engines and their hosting platforms themselves.

I have been very lucky that the majority of my friends and acquaintances hold diametrically opposed political views from me, as this has allowed me to watch this very phenomenon unfold on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, etc. The most incredible platform to watch this on is TikTok - if one doesn't purposely engage with opposing viewpoints, one's "For You Page" will be nearly entirely filled with shorts confirming your existing ideological biases. The only remaining few percentage points of content will be extremely popular Toks, which are almost always non-political trending memes, such as dances.

ralfd

> Rather, they rarely land in front of the people who disagree with the contention held within.

The open letter wasn't penned to end up on a blog post. The goal was to be printed in Scientific American: But the editor-in-chief was a coward:

> Today, after sitting on our rebuttal to Scientific American’s prominent reappraisal of Wilson for eight days (curious given that the original article was rushed out within three days of his death) editor-in-chief Laura Helmuth wrote to officially reject it.

hilbert42

"Rather, they rarely land in front of the people who disagree with the contention held within."

You are likely right as those involved will probably dismiss any criticism. However, I believe the authors of this open letter probably want their position put on the record for posteriorly.

However, such is the outrage against Scientific American and Associate Professor McLemore that this open letter may have a life of its own.

The outrage was palpable 14 days ago with the HN story The Demise of Scientific American and many of those who posted shared the same discust. The public release of this open letter signed by many prominent people will probably reinforce this view and give the matter a continued existence in the public domain.

I've posted a link to the earlier HN story below.

tasha0663

There's something terribly jarring about the phrase:

> Associate Professor McLemore

It's embarrassing that someone with the special kind of bold stupidity that Monica McLemore displays is credentialed in anything. It certainly does no favors to the credibility of Nursing as a field.

hilbert42

Precisely. My thoughts exactly.

evrydayhustling

As someone who believes structural racism and sexism in science are real problems, but also highly values EO Wilson's work and intellectual freedom in general, this rebuttal did me a great service by bringing some history of the controversy into one place. It may not shape discourse today, but statements like this serve a purpose in maintaining a record that people can be thoughtful about on their own pace. EO Wilson's own 1981 defense, cited in the article, serves the same purpose: we don't have to wonder how he interpreted his own findings.

https://www.nature.com/articles/289627b0.pdf

Mezzie

> The most incredible platform to watch this on is TikTok - if one doesn't purposely engage with opposing viewpoints, one's "For You Page" will be nearly entirely filled with shorts confirming your existing ideological biases. The only remaining few percentage points of content will be extremely popular Toks, which are almost always non-political trending memes, such as dances.

I'll also add that it tries very hard to pin you to a 'side'. I work in politics and am thoroughly disgusted by every major political faction right now, so the only political TikToks I like watching are shitposts or political humor. TikTok doesn't understand this, and I've noticed that whenever I dislike something political and serious, TT very quickly tries to serve me up political and serious videos from the opposite side of the aisle.

ImaCake

I’ve recently taken up twitter for my birdwatching hobby and professional science interests. It constantly tries to show me political commentary. I ruthlessly block any account posting political stuff even if I emotionally agree with it. The point is that twitter is just not verbose enough to have a considered political argument so the whole thing is a shitstorm.

What I’ve notice is that twitter definitely seems to think I support a particular side of Australian politics. But it has it slightly wrong (I dislike both major parties and their policies) and so it’s attempts are all the more grating.

aprinsen

Is it better to say nothing, or to meet each other -- those with differing views -- at the margins? Certainly some of the staff at SA seem to have read it.

josh2600

For what it's worth, my Tiktok feed has 0 political content. It's all dancing, contortionists, singers, and magicians.

I think the algorithms serve their masters.

atdrummond

I have very little political content on my main FYP these days, instead purposely confining it to the puppet accounts I set up just for that purpose. That said, it is very easy to fall into one of the political TikTok streams with just a few inadvertent likes or shares.

sol_invictus

I increasingly worry this division will end in widespread violence in some form of civil war(s). Please change my opinion about this.

inglor_cz

Division is with us since forever, but societies in the developed world are aging and thus lack the necessary "cannon fodder" of enough fit young men for a civil war. Civil wars are very often associated with youth bulges [0] and our days of having a youth bulge are over in the West.

(There is a possibility of massive influx of young men from Africa and Asia into Europe, which would replenish the potential, but that does not concern the USA.)

[0] https://blogs.worldbank.org/developmenttalk/youth-bulge-a-de...

40-y.o. somethings are less militarily capable and, these days, usually fat. They will stick to their keyboards.

But yeah, all that hate worries me as well.

sol_invictus

Great answer, especially [0]

> (There is a possibility of massive influx of young men from Africa and Asia into Europe, which would replenish the potential, but that does not concern the USA.)

Didnt this basically happen in 2015

pjc50

Having just seen MLK day go by, I think the situation in the US is considerably better than it was back then, when despite campus cultural policing being enforced by actual shootings and both dissidents and presidents were being murdered, the country did not have a full civil war.

You can't really have a civil war without an economic crisis, and the one thing all the helicopter COVID money guaranteed was not having a massive economic crisis. See Kazakhstan; it's been somewhat unfree for years, but the thing that triggered fighting in the streets was a spike in energy prices.

However I do think there's a risk of more political violence around elections. Eventually some group is going to bring guns to a government building and refuse to leave.

danbmil99

So sad... My grand-dad (a mostly self-educated inventor with 200 patents to his name) turned me on to SciAm in the late 1960's. I immersed myself in the world of Martin Gardner, Douglas Hofstadter, and A. K. Dewdney.

It may be difficult for the younger generation to really grasp how important a single magazine or newspaper could be back then, with today's overabundance of information channels. Most of them, if they exist at all, are now a pathetic shell of their former selves.

hilbert42

"So sad... <...> I immersed myself in the world of Martin Gardner, Douglas Hofstadter, and A. K. Dewdney."

So did I, and it is a sad day that it's come to this. SciAm and other technical mags were my lifeblood as a teenager. When the monthlies were due I'd race to the newsagent after school and occasionally when one was late I'd fret in disappointment.

You're right, I reckon it is difficult for younger generations to grasp not only how important magazines were to us but also many other aspects of life back then. Trying to put the zeitgeist of an earlier era on a young head never works thus the younger generation has to work things out for itself. If we could accurately convey a past ethos then we probably wouldn't have any more wars but then we would never develop as a species either - it's the two-edged sword problem.

Back to SciAm. Unfortunately I've had the impression for quite some time that the mag is near its end. I've seen this happen too many times previously with others that have had a long illustrious lineage. For some reason their editorial quality goes down followed by the circulation, they're then sold off and the new owners have no intrinsic interest in their subject matter, they then lose more and spiral further downward until they're soon defunct.

Still, I hope I'm wrong about SciAm.

pdonis

> I immersed myself in the world of Martin Gardner, Douglas Hofstadter, and A. K. Dewdney.

So did I. SciAm today is a travesty, and it has been for years. I canceled my subscription in (IIRC) the late 1990s.

rwnspace

" Genes and racism

S1R- Steven Rose notes in his recent letter (Nature 22 January, p.335) that a National Front journal New Nation has claimed to find support for racism in my writings on sociobiology, as well as in those of Dawkins and Maynard Smith. Rose calls on the latter two authors to dissociate themselves from such misuse, although curiously he does not extend the same invitation to me. To keep the record straight, I am happy to point out that no justification for racism is to be found in the truly scientific study of the biological basis of social behaviour. As I stated in On Human Nature, "I will go further and suggest that hope and pride and not despair are the ultimate legacy of genetic diversity, because we are a single species, not two or more, one great breeding system through which genes flow and mix in each generation. Because of that flux, mankind viewed over many generations shares a single human nature within which relatively minor hereditary influences recycle through ever changing patterns, between the sexes and across families and entire populations" . lf there is a possible hereditary tendency to acquire xenophobia and nationalist feelings, it is a non sequitur to interpret such a hypothesis as an argument in favour of racist ideology. It is more reasonable to assume that a knowledge of such a hereditary basis can lead to the circumvention of destructive behaviour such as racism, just as a knowledge of the hereditary basis of haemoglobin chemistry and insulin production can lead to the amelioration of their pathological variants. l now call on Professor Rose to consider these and similar arguments raised in my writings. It is my hope that he will not confine himself, as he has in the past, to arguments that link sociobiology to racism and thus to continue to abet the very misuse which he piously claims to deplore.

EDWARD0. WILSON Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA"

https://www.nature.com/articles/289627b0.pdf

hilbert42

"lf there is a possible hereditary tendency to acquire xenophobia and nationalist feelings, it is a non sequitur to interpret such a hypothesis as an argument in favour of racist ideology."

Whether they are held in lay or scientific forums, this statement is central to many of the arguments over racism.

The key issue in this sentence is its initial point, which is that we still do not know whether the human race has any hereditary tendency to acquire xenophobia.

We need to determine for certain whether this is in fact true or otherwise. Guessing one way or other not only doesn't help but it also fuels the fires of those on either side of the debate. If we know the answer for certain then it's much easier to set a course to remedy the situation.

If we are to make real progress then I believe it's cucial that we determine the facts and we need to do immediately. In the earlier posts some 14 days ago on SciAm and E.0.Wilson I made the following point:

"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)."

PaulDavisThe1st

> we still do not know whether the human race has any hereditary tendency to acquire xenophobia.

there is also Graeber & Wengrow's recent highlighting of Gregory Bateson's term "schizmogenesis", which is fundamentally a precursor to xenophobia. It refers to the tendency of subsets of human societies above a certain size to find ways to differentiate ("schism") themselves from others. We also have no idea if this is an inbuilt tendency and to what extent it may vary due to genetics.

hilbert42

That's interesting and it's something of which I was unaware. I'l check it out when I've a moment.

Again, it highlights the very 'fragility' and sensitivity of any such discussions, and that we've still no idea of whether humans have this inbuilt tendency or not leaves us with big problems. The fact that the very mention of the word 'race' in many quarters will bring wrath down upon one is, in my opinion, unhealthy for society but that's the world that we live in (and clearly it makes life difficult for researchers).

The fact that raceism is still so widespread and pervasive I've a sneaking suspicion that humans may have some inbuilt tendency. My worry is if this turns out to be so then I think that all hell will break loose. I don't reckon the world is ready for such discussion.

Edit: I wonder if others share the same suspicions as me and it's the fear of the fact being verified beyond reasonable doubt that's the underlying reason for why discussions about race have become such a taboo.

hilbert42

Later....

As mentioned, I've since done some checking Graeber & Wengrow and Bateson's 'schizmogenesis'. Downloaded and finished reading one of G & W's papers available online and although not directly relevant it gives me food for thought.

Also, I note their new book The Dawn of Everything which seems relevant. Bit pricey, but probably worth it seeing it's quite a tome at 703 pages.

Again, thanks for the info.

FYI, I note Graeber features again in posts to a current HN story titled "Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan shaped modern politics" - The New Statesman. (That one's no problem, I've still my Leviathan text from my student days.) :-)

ImaCake

Something you could not fault E. O. Wilson for is his beautiful and eloquent writing. I absolutely love this rebuttal even if I hesitate to agree with all of it.

As someone working in population genetics I feel our best argument against “scientific racism” is simply that our social/genetic/environmental diversity is our greatest strength against our future known and unknown challenges. Embracing that diversity is the best chance we have of finding the right tools to succeed.

pwdisswordfish9

The SciAm article blows my mind. Seven occurrences of the word 'problematic' in 11 paragraphs.

Reminded of their reading of a (fiction) Wilson book decades ago, and inspired by something else, the author wrote essentially a three-message Twitter thread, tacked on a few decorative sentences, and was published. Next to no research, no review of the literature, no consultation with relevant scholars. A bit like this comment, but given the blessing of a national science magazine.

Further examination reveals the SciAm article's author had a previous publication in SciAm on a public health topic. Can someone use "nepotism" in a sentence?

low_tech_love

The thing that really bothers me is how little she actually discussed of Wilson's work. It feels like she read a few paragraphs on the more polemical aspects of his work and decided "yep, sounds racist, my chance to shine".

bmitc

I feel that's the most likely case, using his death as a cheap way to advance a pre-existing agenda. It was really weird how the article slams E.O. Wilson but then at the same time, it's basically not even about Wilson.

throwoutway

That’s generally how things go. No debate, just condemnation and repeating the same talking points and labels— “He is a racist!” Or “she uses hate speech!” Without any discussion of the controversy.

Smear campaigns spread as wild as misinformation. Oh yes, that is BECAUSE they’re both misinformation!

kgwgk

Following a link in the comments section to a blog post from Michael Shermer I discovered this jewel titled

"Why the Term ‘JEDI’ Is Problematic for Describing Programs That Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion"

Subtitle: "They’re meant to be heroes within the Star Wars universe, but the Jedi are inappropriate symbols for justice work"

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-the-term-jedi...

(A separate submission has been flagged but I hope this comment is allowed. It's a very funny/depressing piece that deserves to be better known.)

low_tech_love

I can't make my mind about which part of this is the most absurd. The fact that "real" (I suppose) academics are trying to attach themselves to Star Wars characters through an acronym, the crazy allegorical (and anachronic) argumentation of the authors of this article in order to diminish the Jedi themselves, or the fact that such a thing would be published in Scientific American of all places. To be honest I actually agree with them in their premise: people shouldn't be using the JEDI acronym, not because the Jedi are holding phallic swords or "gaslighting" with mind tricks, but simply because it is a childish and self-aggrandizing bull#%&@.

qart

I haven't read the linked article, and I don't like Star Wars. But as for people using JEDI or other Star Wars, Harry Potter, LoTR, GoT acronyms, I'm OK with all that. This is just how culture adopts new mythology, new symbolisms and new customs. Quite a lot of ideas, words and phrases from Orwell's 1984 are an integral part of current English communication.

Of course, when it comes to adoption of Star Wars and Harry Potter expressions, Disney and WB are likely to throw all their might at preventing it.

You mentioned "gaslighting". That's from a movie too.

low_tech_love

I don't mind the use of an acronym if it's harmless, like if JEDI was Java Embedded Device Implementation or something like that. But in this case it's Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, which means these people are trying to attach themselves to the image of fictional paragons of light. This means they have failed to understand their position in a political debate with different sides, instead implying a false dichotomy where those who oppose them are surely the dark side. This kills the debate and makes it a non-discussion; kinda like a scientific work with a non-falsifiable null hypothesis.

Edit: the "gaslighting" comes from their article, too.

gigama

That's about what I thought too. That SA devoted so many words to decry the use of a silly acronym seems equally absurd. As if intelligent minds are too apt to conflate a Hollywood creation with real-world scientific pursuits. Their opinion piece also employs a consistent "we vs. they" language which strikes me as a kind of "woke saviorism" in itself. [Mirror, mirror...]

sol_invictus

Thanks for highlighting, personally blacklisting Scientific American as a phony pseudoscience magazine. Truly a shame

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ng12

> It wasn’t difficult to find signatories to the rebuttal, and we could have collected hundreds. I stopped seeking names after a few dozen, because the message is abundantly clear when you see who signed. Dr. David C. Queller is one of the most prominent critics of Wilson’s late foray against Hamiltonianism. Dr. David Sloan Wilson and Dr. Jerry Coyne both signed without hesitation.

Well, clearly these men are horrible racists as well.

Obviously I kid but it is truly frustrating how immune to logic or deeper analysis the current social justice movement is.

bryanrasmussen

I think reading it, the people who devote so much of their time to ethical and moral purity, and searching out failings in others, probably do not have the time to develop the technical competence required to comment on the underlying data and science used to draw the immoral conclusions.

Maybe I just feel this because I hate moralizers, even if I agree mainly with the moral views they espouse. (though not agreeing with the moral attacks on Wilson, it seems a real perfect being the enemy of the good type attack - spearheaded by the self-righteous and opportunistic)

hilbert42

"the people who devote so much of their time to ethical and moral purity, and searching out failings in others, probably do not have the time to develop the technical competence required to comment on the underlying data and science used to draw the immoral conclusions."

I'm not sure what you're trying to say here but I can assure you that ethics and morals underpin societies, without them they would fall apart.

It's hard to see how you can come to the conclusion that one cannot hold both moral views and still be a good scientist or technical person.

Some of the greatest scientists have held extremely moral values and they've commented on them widely in public. Take Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard for instace. They were great scientists and they held very strong moral principles - specially over the Atom bomb.

On the other hand, one of their colleagues, an equally brilliant scientist, Edward Teller, one of the developers of the hydrogen bomb, thought little of morals and by many accounts was a rather despicable person. (BTW, he also shafted his equally famous colleague Robert Oppenheimer who never fully recovered from Teller's slander.)

Another despicable bastard was the brilliant chemists, Fritz Haber. He got the Nobel prize for the fixation of nitrogen (production of ammonia) for fertilizer which went on to provide food for millions. However, Haber had SFA morals, he went on to develop chemical weapons in WWI and the day after his wife, also a chemist, shot herself out of desperation for what he had done, he went off to the Western Front to install those diabolical weapons.

Lesson: don't generalize.

bryanrasmussen

>I'm not sure what you're trying to say here

but nonetheless you decided to write at length about it ending with a >Lesson: don't generalize.

Ok then.

>It's hard to see how you can come to the conclusion that one cannot hold both moral views and still be a good scientist or technical person.

It's hard to see how you cannot be sure what I was trying to say AND reach such a definite and wrong conclusion as to what it was nonetheless.

when I said >>the people who devote so much of their time to ethical and moral purity, and searching out failings in others

I have to admit that I probably put too much work on that ', and searching' and I did use the word moralizer later which, I think in usage generally emphasizes the especially in the first entry here https://www.dictionary.com/browse/moralizer "to reflect on or express opinions about something in terms of right and wrong, especially in a self-righteous or tiresome way." but which obviously can also be used without the reference to self-righteousness.

That is to say that people who expend a lot of effort not just in being morally correct, which I suppose everyone should give some consideration to, but also hunting out the flaws in other people are probably too busy to do much good in other things.

I submit that Einstein was not a moralizer in the common understanding of that term, although he was concerned with morality, and he did not hunt out other people to spend his time correcting their morality, especially not in the years when he did his most important work.

Lesson: only end with a lesson if you feel that you understand what is being communicated, and if you do feel that you understand it don't say otherwise as that is likely to create misunderstandings for others.

hilbert42

"...people who devote so much of their time to ethical and moral purity, and searching out failings in others, probably do not have the time to develop the technical competence..."

This a strong comprehensible statement which you do not negate. As you've not negated or otherwise qualified it elsewhere, then it's a reasonable assumption that this is an actual affirmation of what you believe. On this alone I'm justifified in making my comments.

"...and science used to draw the immoral conclusions."

This makes little sense to me (thus my 'not sure' point). What immoral conclusions can be drawn from science and how are they directly connected or relevant to the first part of your sentence?

The only way I can read or interpret this is that you are making some general reference to some amorphous group who draws undefined immoral conclusions from science.

In essence, the subject of your sentence has no predicate, instead it has some undefined and unrelated one from somewhere else (perhaps you studied APL and it's beyond my comprehension).

It is not my intension to be confrontationist but my previous reply was based on what I read into (or perceived from) your first post. Sorry about that.

elefanten

In addition to self-righteous and opportunism, for many it seems to be a very mundane case of psychological coping.

I’m always amazed at the depth, intricacy and durability of the worldviews people adopt just so they can tell themselves a pleasant narrative about some unpleasant reality.

cabalamat

> probably do not have the time to develop the technical competence

Or the ability.

Angostura

I used to be a magazine editor (trade press) and I can understand the editor's reticence to publish, because the letter is couched as an attack on the magazine, rather than a letter that framed as setting the record straight about the legacy of EO Wilson.

If you are going to write a letter like this don't put this: "Scientific American published a bewilderingly flimsy opinion piece" in sentence 2. Instead write "we strongly disagree with some of the conclusions of your piece".

The whole letter reads like a polemic attack on the editorial department of Scientific American.

It would have been quite possible to have taken the arguments in this piece and written a firm rebuttal that gave an alternative view and set our the weaknesses in the published op-ed - and I suspect it would have been published in its entirety.

fenomas

> The whole letter reads like a polemic attack on the editorial department of Scientific American.

As I understand it, the furore here is over SciAm having published the article - not just that the article exists or that people disagree with it. If the authors of the open letter felt the article was substantive but wrong, I imagine they'd have written the kind of letter you're suggesting.

pdonis

> The whole letter reads like a polemic attack on the editorial department of Scientific American.

That's because it is. Any magazine that purports to be informing the public about science should never have published the original article. It is in fact an opinion piece, and an ill-informed one at that.

I agree that a magazine is unlikely to publish an article that attacks its own editorial policies, but that doesn't make the magazine right.

biorach

> The whole letter reads like a polemic attack on the editorial department of Scientific American.

It really doesn't. The letter addresses the points raised by the author of the original piece.

Your comment is bizarre because it is so at odds with the actual contents of the letter.

havelhovel

I don’t think their claim is bizarre at all. Almost every other sentence insults Scientific American or McLemore. A lesson for others wanting to get a rebuttal published: You can embarrass someone with facts, but you can’t say they "demonstrate a baffling ignorance of one of the most basic concepts."

hilbert42

I find this open letter on E.O. Wilson's legacy most welcome.

I have already had my say about setting the record straight in the light Monica R. McLemore viscous attack on E.O. Wilson in an earlier HN story so there is no point repeating it here.

For the sake of completeness I'd suggest readers of this page take a look at those posts and consider them an adjunct to these ones:

All HN posts to the story The Demise of Scientific American: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=29778348

My own critical post about Associate Professor McLemore is here:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=29778348#29785417

low_tech_love

Scientific American avoids, she explained, “running direct rebuttals of earlier articles. This is a standard practice in most magazines to avoid being too self-referential, and so each article stands on its own.”

Probably the laziest reject I've ever read. If she wanted him to rework some points, I guess it could be done, but rejecting it really sends a message.

motohagiography

> Ignored long enough, the lie becomes canon.

If you are an articulate original thinker, I think one is morally obligated to respond to rhetorical bullying. The more coarse the ideological reasoning, the greater the obligation. Poppers paraphrase about not tolerating intolerance is nothing but a zero sum first movers advantage game, and it isn't a principle so much as a cheap strategy designed to exploit collegiality and agreeableness.

The strategy of this current crop is incrementalism, where making absurd claims about small or distant things lets people think it doesn't matter because they're small or distant, when in fact, we've tolerated absurdity. It's a distraction theft, where your attention is focused on the small or distant thing, and you ignore that they have stepped into your domain and suddenly you have elevated a bully to an equal by arguing with them.

I'm very glad this article was posted, and I hope the minority of people with the intellectual torque to beat this nonsense are encouraged to lean in to more public discourse.