Response to Scientific American's "The Complicated Legacy..."
As an outsider, I'm just baffled that this could even happen at Scientific American... isn't there a board of advisors or something that Laura Hellmuth answers to? How does publishing something that is such an obvious object of ridicule in the interest of the magazine? I have to assume there are waves of cancelled subscriptions every time they publish something like this, and it's not as if social justice types are making up the losses. Are they looking for hate-clicks? What are the economics of this?
Well done, Razib. The Fall of Scientific American over several decades has been sad to watch. Glad to see you and others standing up for Wilson and scientific truth.
Dr. Monica McLemore's obit on E.O. Wilson was an unintentionally hilarious display of ignorance mixed with woke sanctimony, which will resound through the ages, earning its place alongside other daft Critical Theory scholarship from the "Science Wars", such as Luce Irigaray's infamous assertion that E=mc2 is a "sexed" equation [because it "privileges the speed of light" over other equally worthy speeds], and Sandra Harding's claim that Newton's Principia is a "rape manual".
The idea that scientific knowledge is "socially constructed", in the manner claimed by academics such as Bruno Latour, Michel Foucault & David Bloor, is categorically and demonstrably false.
Pinker's books "Enlightenment Now" and "The Blank Slate" neatly summarise the insanity and intellectual corruption with which ideas about Social Construction have infected the humanities in the 20th Century. He indicts Nietzsche and Heidegger as the initial culprits, but then does not spare the entire cabal of French postmodernists/poststructuralists/deconstructionists: Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, Lacan etc and their adherents. Pinker correctly accuses them of being anti-Enlightenment, anti-reason & anti-science.
Foucault does not come in for attack in Sokal's "Fashionable Nonsense", because he managed to avoid saying anything which was obviously stupid about science [unlike, say, Lacan, Irigaray & Kristeva] but one of his core ideas is that Knowledge & Power are the same thing: he even came up with a pompous new term for this wonky idea: "Power/Knowledge". An idea which works quite well in the humanities [eg Churchill saying "History will be kind to me - because I intend to write it!"] but which of course instantly falls apart into hopeless confusion & unintended comedy if applied to scientific knowledge. [Remember the attempt by 6 radical feminists in the 1980s to come up with a "Feminist Algebra"?]
Foucault's "Power/Knowledge" idea, which is widely accepted in many fields in the humanities [especially those with "Studies" in their title] is essentially an open invitaiton to ignore rational debate, and go straight to ad hominen attacks. Foucault's followers insist that anyone who asserts that scientific knowledge is objective is actually making a disguised power-grab on behalf of the oppressor classes. It is pernicious ideas like this, which have been quietly percolating and gaining acceptance in academia for half a century, which underlie Monica McLemore's nonsensical hit-piece.
A valuable statement in any case. It should be distributed to the max. They were cowards not to publish it.
"To be candid, I felt their approach, probably perfectly standard in past decades, was wholly out of step with today’s dispensation, when attacks on science are legion, genuine fear of the social-media mob is rampant in academia and whole careers are “canceled” on a specious basis. Ignored long enough, the lie becomes canon."
Amen. Good people cannot stand idly by while this farce is perpetuated.
Signatories be like:…Harvard… London School of Economics… Razib Khan, Unsupervised Learning, Substack… Yale… UCLA…
If nonmathematicians don't like the term "Normal Distribution", they could also just refer to it as "Gaussian". As Razib notes, it necessarily occurs throughout nature due to Central Limit Theorem. Large sums of random variables tend to normally distributed.
Been lurking around as free subscriber to this amazing substack for months now. Subscribed after reading this. For a layman like me, great to see someone do hard science. Great rebuttal. Worth printing and framing it for generations to come.
Scientific American used to be the gateway publication for those interested in scientific research and rigorous scientific writing...
Thank you for a clear, calm and civilised response to the poorly researched piece in Scientific American. In today's world of supposed virtue-signalling and uniformed opinions too-often expressed with anger and vitriol more than ever we need open discussion and a healthy exchange of ideas. Difference of ideas is vital for progress but assertions need to be supported by solid reasearch and a clear understanding of the material in question. Please keep up the good work and thank you to all those signatories who understand the importance of E.O. Wilson's not-so-complicated legacy.
Michael Shermer is a well known science writer. He had a long running column is Scientific American, but he got pushed off the track by the Woke train. Like the other refugees from the Cultural Revolution, he is now on substack. Here he explains what happened:
"In April of 2001 I began my monthly Skeptic column at Scientific American, the longest continuously published magazine in the country dating back to 1845. With Stephen Jay Gould as my role model (and subsequent friend), it was my dream to match his 300 consecutive columns that he achieved at Natural History magazine, which would have taken me to April, 2026. Alas, my streak ended in January of 2019 after a run of 214 essays."
"Scientific American Goes Woke: A case study in how identity politics poisons science" by Michael Shermer • Nov 17, 2021
"What is Woke, Anyway?: A coda to my column on Scientific American Goes Woke" by Michael Shermer • Nov 18, 2021
And discusses the whole affair on Quillette Podcast #178: "Michael Shermer on Watching ‘Scientific American’ Go Woke"
Jerry Coyne who is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the Weltberühmt University of Chicago, and who signed the above open letter, supported Shermer:
"I’ve written about a dozen posts calling out Scientific American for its fulminating wokeness (give me another word if you don’t like that one), in particular its use of op-eds to discuss and promote woke ideological views that have little or nothing to do with science. A lot of readers here have canceled their subscriptions, but that hasn’t stopped Editor-in-Chief Laura Helmuth from subverting what was once the premier popular science magazine in America, turning it into a “progressive” political mouthpiece whose “real science” articles get lamer and lamer."
Thank you all for this.
Scientific American, like perhaps most print publications now, is selling an ego boost rather than an education. "You bought this magazine, which shows that you are one of the superior people." Easier to write those kind of articles anyway.
How about the fact that Wilson was a big supporter of Philippe Rushton, and argued that Rushton was being persecuted for promoting studies that showed Blacks are inferior to Whites? How does that fit your narrative?
Specifically, Rushton (if you don't know who he was, just google him) was trying to get a paper published arguing that r/k selection differences apply to human "races," ultimately trying to prove that Blacks care less for their offspring and have more babies. This was not a subtle argument. Wilson championed the paper, and after it was (correctly) rejected for publication, commiserated with Rushton by observing that he (Wilson) would like to be outspoken like Rushton (a Canadian), but would be "attacked" if he did.
And Wilson wrote a letter of support for Rushton when Rushton's university was attempting to discipline him for, among other things, publishing a paper that argued that IQ is inversely correlated with penis size (again attributing these differences to "racial" populations).
I knew Wilson and I don't think he was intentionally racist. But science--and biology, particularly--has a lot to answer for in the way it has turned a blind eye to enabling racism, sexism, and other forms of bias. This kind of sneering dismissal doesn't help the cause of reckoning with bias in our society, nor does it "set the record straight."
I agree that the essay in question could have had more detail and nuance, but the basic points it raises are worth engaging with, not dismissing. Nobody is immune from examination, and the constant stream of outrage every time someone critiques Wilson is disingenuous. Wilson campaigned for and engineered a lot of this outrage, from the moment the critiques of Sociobiology appeared, privately referring to his colleague Dick Lewontin as a "psychopath," dismissing all criticism of his ideas as "Marxist," and generally acting as if it was impossible to criticize his ideas on anything other than biased, ideological grounds.
Anticipating that the immediate response to this will be "what's your evidence," I can tell you that I have copies of the letters in question that I obtained at several openly accessible archives. I have an established track record as a historian of biology and am not making this shit up. Dismiss me if you want, but don't pretend that nobody's offered any substance.
Hopi Hoekstra on Wednesday: I strongly, strongly believe we need to decouple ideas from the people who purvey them. Put my name on the letter.
Hopi Hoekstra on Thursday: So, I found out a few of my acquaintances might hold me in slightly lower esteem me if I publicly agree with this idea - solely because someone they don't like also agrees with it. So remove my name from the letter. I beg your forgiveness. Please, I beg you - please like me!
Does Hopi sound like someone the public can trust to be doing honest, straightforward scientific research regardless of social consequences stemming from her findings?
Her career is impressive, her credentials impeccable, her research highly influential. Yet she so strongly desires affirmation from people she barely knows that she will twist herself into a pretzel in front of everyone.